Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing articles from The Interpreter weekly.
Fromelles, fought one hundred years ago this week, is now one of the most famous battles in which Australians fought during World War I. It is routinely remembered as the greatest disaster in Australian military history: 5533 casualties in 24 hours, all for an operation that manifestly had no strategic value.
But Fromelles was not always central to Australian memory of war. In the inter-war years, the battleground became the site of one of the thousands of cemeteries created by the Imperial War Graves Commission. Here, at VC Corner, the remains of 410 unidentified Australian dead were interred and the names of the 1299 Australian missing from Fromelles inscribed on the memorial walls. In Australia, meanwhile, survivors of Fromelles would gather every year on July 19, while families who had lost men in what they called Fleurbaix would also insert “In Memoriam” notices in newspapers.
However, Fromelles was not then a “national memory,” in the sense of being a battle that was honored in prominent national rituals of commemoration. Perhaps this was because it was soon eclipsed by other costlier battles on the Western Front, such as Pozieres on the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres in Flanders in 1917. Perhaps it was because survivors of World War I preferred to see themselves as heroes, not victims, as is the vogue in war commemoration of the early 21st century. The 5th Division, for instance, when asked in 1919 where it wanted to install the memorial celebrating its wartime achievements chose not Fromelles but Polygon Wood, the site of one of the more successful actions during the Third Battle of Ypres.
All of this changed in the 1990s. As the extraordinary resurgence of interest in war memory occurred not only in Australia but around the globe, Fromelles was rediscovered. This was the result of both government intervention and individual initiatives. In 1998, the Australian government opened a memorial park at Fromelles on the 80th anniversary of the end of World War I. At its heart was a statue of a man staggering under the weight of a wounded soldier draped across his shoulders. Called Cobbers, it immortalizes a Victorian farmer, Sergeant Simon Fraser of 57th Battalion, who in the days after the Fromelles battle joined small groups scouring the battlefield for the wounded. It was a story of compassion and mateship waiting to join other icons of Australian war memory:Simpson and his Donkey, and “Weary” Dunlop. Indeed, the sculptor of Cobbers, Peter Corlett, had already created the statues of these two iconic figures that stand now outside the Australian War Memorial.
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