July 19th in German History: The Battle of Fromelles

Soldiers form the Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles.

The First World War saw numerous failed offensives which cost thousands of lives and achieved little to no gains. The Allied attack on Fromelles was one of the most costly of these. On July 19th, 1916, Australian and British forces attacked German positions near Lille in order to break through German defenses in order to exploit the perceived weakness created by the Battle of the Somme.

One of the many German strong points on the Fromelles line.

British headquarters received reports on the 13th stating that nine battalions had been transferred away from Lille and so decided to make an attack on the 18th. Weather forced the postponement of the operation until the 19th, although preliminary bombardment had begun earlier. The British plan was to use a massive artillery bombardment to kill most of the German defenders and demoralize those who remained. Then, before the bombardment lifted, British and Australian formations would rush the trenches. Diversionary bombardments were directed at other parts of the line to draw off more defenders. The Germans had constructed an elaborate series of trenches, bunkers, and pillboxes all along their lines. This was meant to allow a numerically inferior force to defend against attacks indefinitely. The elaborate defenses allowed the defending units to maintain cohesion against the bombardment, and the German retaliatory artillery fire inflicted severe casualties against Australia and British batteries. Initial attacks were able to capture a few trenches, but most attempts failed at the cost of hundreds of lives. German barbed wire and wet ground slowed offensive movement, and most units were forced to break off their attacks. The Australian troops generally lacked experience, which contributed to their inability to reach enemy lines. The Germans also had twice as many men in the general area as the British had committed to the attack. Although the attackers would always have numerical superiority in the particular segments of the trenches they targeted, the discrepancy in men was not so great as to make up for the advantages afforded the defender in trench warfare. In the end, little territory was taken and held, and the Allies lost 7,080 men to the German’s 2,000.

The particular foolishness of the attack on Fromelles shows just how horrible a war WWI was. Commanders had little regard for their men, and so threw inexperienced divisions against strong German lines, often on hills or ridges, obstructed by both barbed wire and wet ground. Those in the very highest positions of the British Army lost sight of the importance of their men’s lives in their attempt to achieve that most elusive objectives, a breakthrough.

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