The attack on Fromelles on 19 July 1916 was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. It was a feint designed to prevent the Germans reinforcing their troops on the Somme, where the Allies had launched a major offensive on 1 July. The ruse, however, was unsuccessful.
Towards the evening of 19 July 1916, the Australian 5th and British 61st Divisions attempted to seize 4000 yards of front line centred on the ‘Sugar Loaf’. However, the British bombardment, which commenced on 16 July, had warned the Germans that an attack was likely. As the troops moved into position on 19 July, they were unaware that they were being watched by German observers a mile away. The Germans heavily shelled the assembly area and communications trenches, causing hundreds of Australian and British casualties before the attack even started.
The assault began at 6 pm with three and a half hours of daylight remaining. The front line to the north of the ‘Sugar Loaf’ was on average 200 metres wide and the Australians quickly crossed no-man’s-land, seized the German front line, and then pushed on for 140 metres in search of a supposed third and last line of the German trench system. No such line existed and the Australians began forming a thin disjointed series of posts in the intended position.
Other Australians attacked opposite the ‘Sugar Loaf’ where no-man’s-land was 400 metres wide. The Germans had survived the British shelling and quickly manned their machine guns. Within 15 minutes they had decimated the attacking waves of Australians, forcing the survivors to find shelter. British troops attacking south of the ‘Sugar Loaf’ suffered a similar fate and made no progress. The British planned a second attempt to capture the ‘Sugar Loaf’ salient and asked the Australians for help. This plan was cancelled but the news arrived too late to stop the Australians mounting another attack with equally disastrous results
The next morning the Australians that had breached the enemy’s lines were forced to withdraw to their own lines. The Australians suffered 5,533 casualties in one night, the worst 24 hours in Australia’s military history. Many fell victim to German machine-guns. The Australian toll at Fromelles was equivalent to the total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together. It was a staggering disaster that had no redeeming tactical justification whatsoever. It was, in the words of a senior participant, Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, a “tactical abortion”.