The battle of Fromelles, 19-20 July 1916, was a minor British attack launched close to Aubers Ridge in order to prevent the Germans moving troops from their quiet sectors to the battle of the Somme. The attack at Fromelles was first considered when it was believed that the fighting on the Somme was about to produce a breakthrough. The commanders of the armies not directly involved were asked to plan their own offensives in order to put extra pressure on the Germans when that breakthrough occurred.
General Plumer, commanding the Second Army, reported that the only suitable place for an attack would be on his extreme right, opposite Fromelles. General Monro, commanding the First Army, agreed to attack on the same front, and asked Lieutenant-General R.C.B. Haking, commander of XI corps, to plan an attack using two of his divisions and one division from the Second Army. Haking began by planning for a general assault on Aubers Ridge, but as it became obvious that the predicted breakthrough on the Somme was not going to happen, was ordered to scale down his attack.
The eventual plan was for two divisions to attack the German front line and dig in. Its purpose was to prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements from the Sixth Army to the Somme. The divisions to be used were the 5th Australian Division (Lieutenant-General J.W. McCay) and the 61st Division. Each would use all three of their brigades, but only half of their battalions, leaving half of the infantry in reserve. The 5th Australian Division was close to full strength, so its six battalions contained around 6,000 men, while the 61st Division provided 3,300 men for the assault.
The plan was badly flawed. British maps of the German trenches showed an elaborate network of front line and supporting trenches, but most of these had been abandoned due to flooding, and the German line was actually a few hundred yards to the rear. Even if the plan had succeeded, all it would have achieved would have been to move the British front line closer to the German guns on Aubers Ridge, making it increasingly vulnerable to German attack. The sector had been quiet for 14 months, and during that time the Germans had constructed a number of hidden concrete machine gun emplacements.
The artillery bombardment was carefully planned. Over 200,000 artillery rounds were provided, and it was planned to include a series of fake “ends” to the bombardment, as if the infantry were about to advance. It was hoped that these feints would trick the German infantry into exposing themselves on the parapets, but the tactic failed.
The bombardment began at 11 a.m. on 19 July, with the infantry attack timetabled for 6 p.m. A German counter-bombardment inflicted heavy losses before the attack began. The attack by the 61st Division was a total failure. German machinegun fire forced them to retreat without occupying any of the German front line. The Australians did rather better. On their left the 14th (New South Wales) Brigade and 8th Brigade captured the German front lines and began to consolidate their positions.
The new Australian line was indefensible. By the morning of 20 July the 8th Brigade had been forced to retreat back to its starting point, and the 14th Brigade was ordered to fall back in turn. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, over 90% of the infantry involved in the attack. The 61st Division suffered 1,547 casualties, some 50% of their attacking strength, the early failure of their attack saving them from heavier losses. In the words of the official Australian history of the war, “it is difficult to conceive that the operation as planned was ever likely to succeed”. On 20 July, the Germans ordered the Guard Reserve Corps to be moved from the Sixth Army to Cambrai, to provide a reserve on the Somme.