(This talk is not available as a podcast)
Today we remembered those who have served our country.
Lynley Keers read from Clarence Maddern’s war diary (her grandfather). He was 20 years old and arrived in France, June 1916. Clarence served as a signalman with the 5th Division 32nd Battalion at the battle of Fromelles.
18 July 1916
Seemed to be kept busy now repairing telephone lines which are continually being broken by shell fire. The artillery on both sides are doing overtime and the place is becoming very unhealthy. It is only between two and three hundred yards to the front line and last night I was up there for a while having a look around. Strong points were being strengthened and certain essential jobs such as cutting through our own barbed wire must be done tonight. The whole area is almost continually illuminated brightly like daylight by Verey lights which hang in the air on parachutes.
19 July 1916
A disastrous day for the 32nd and for the 5th Division generally. The attack is to be made on a front of 1 ¼ miles. The scheme is to draw enemy troops from the Somme area where our side is meeting with considerable opposition.
The heavy bombardment to smash the enemy trench and wire system commenced at 11am and for the rest of the day the noise was deafening. There was a lot of defective ammunition causing a few casualties in our own lines.
The enemy counter – bombardment was very deadly and made our trench system look a bit of a mess. There were heavy casualties during this period. I after wondered what would have happened if even a whizz-bang had hit our signal office where there were often twenty of us crowded in at times.
6.30pm in full daylight the first wave of the attack went over the top, followed by two or three more in intervals but casualties were so heavy through machine gun fire especially that the whole affair became disorganised.
Communication forward was impossible by any means at all. The attacking battalions were the 31st and 32nd with the 30th as reserves and 29th on fatigue work. We were on the extreme left of the attack.
We Sigs found it impossible to maintain a line in our own communication trenches and somebody thought of the idea of running a line around through the Tommy area on our left. By this means we were able to keep up communication between our original front line and Brigade H.Q. There was no possible hope of communications forward of this, although we foolishly did not cease trying. Our companies fought their way splendidly to the enemy’s third line of defence with machine guns and Mills bombs but were gradually being wiped out until there were not enough left to stand up to the enemy resistance.
20 July 1916
In the early hours of the morning it was quite clear that the possibility of holding the enemy trenches was hopeless as our chaps were being forced back, but when it came to getting back across “No Man’s Land” again, a lot got caught by machine gun fire again.
We learnt that the 14th and 15th Brigades had also met with similar fates, and when we considered that all the boys that were alive were back again in our lines we kept up a continuous rifle fire from what was left of our front line, in case Fritz got to know that there was hardly anyone left to man the trenches and decided on a hop over. But I think they had enough to occupy their minds without chasing us.
Towards midday the stragglers went back to billets in Fleubaix. It was very striking that at about 8am this morning the din of battle suddenly ceased and the whole neighbourhood became contrastingly quiet just as though everyone had put down their arms and set to, to clean up the mess. At Fleubaix there was a very sad roll-call of 102 all told, out of what only a day and a half ago was the complete battalion of 1050 men.
21 July 1916
Fatigue parties were sent to the line to clean up the debris and rebuild some of the breastworks. There is a 15 inch gauge light railway running up to the line and we carted truck load upon truck load of our dead pals – chaps that we had lived with for a year – down to a cemetery where they were buried by the hundreds in communal fashion.
A few wounded crawled in over the parapet from “No Man’s Land” today and after dark parties were out looking for wounded. During daylight today I had a look at the mess in “No Man’s Land” through a good periscope.
The boys are now quite convinced that his affair was a shocking waste of good lives and that it was foolishly planned and carried out in a disgusting manner.
From the Australian War Memorial website:
The 32nd Battalion fought its first major battle at Fromelles on 19 July 1916, having only entered the front-line trenches 3 days previously. The attack was a disastrous introduction to battle for the 32nd -‘ it suffered 718 casualties, almost 75 per cent of the battalion’s total strength, but closer to 90 per cent of its actual fighting strength.
From the book – The Great War by Les Carlyon:
The Australian casualties – dead, wounded, missing, prisoners of war – came in at 5533 and the British at 1547. The Germans estimated their casualties at between 1600 and 2000. Four hundred and seventy Australians had become prisoners of war. All this in one night, and for no gain. The Germans weren’t even fooled into thinking a major attack was taking place away from the Somme.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
LEST WE FORGET