A new generation of remembrance

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It's 9pm but the setting sun shows no sign of repose as it beams down across the vast wheat fields of Fromelles. The line between land and sky blurs as yellowing crops align with the sun's reach. On the other side of no man's land, a pale moon is just visible. Straight ahead a rough path through the wheat leads to the German lines.

Group crossing no-man's landIt's down this path to the once formidable German strongpoint of the Sugarloaf that I file with the Friends of the 15th Brigade, descendants of the soldiers who fought here 100 years ago in the 59th and 60th AIF battalions.  

This pocket of Northern France on the World War I Western Front is a place of stories, both old and new.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission's newest cemetery, Pheasant Wood, holds the graves of 250 soldiers, some identified and others 'known unto God'. All were considered missing until 2008 when Melburnian and amateur historian Lambis Englezos discovered a German mass grave of Allied soldiers and fought for its large-scale exhumation.

Since then, soldiers continue to be identified through DNA testing and are given proper military burials, with six new headstones unveiled during the July 2016 centenary commemorations of the Battle of Fromelles.

Friends of the 15th member and Melburnian Marilyn Fordred, with her brother Graeme, is 'on a quest' to locate the spot where her great-uncle, Fred Steward, was killed. She's confronting an unresolved question that haunts her in the same way it haunted her grandmother nearly 100 years ago.

Steward was a member of the 60th Battalion after enlisting with seven mates from Fitzroy, Vic., in August 1915. He arrived in France in June 1916 before being killed weeks later at Fromelles.

'When I was 13 my mum told me [Steward] went down in a bog in the Layes Brook canal and his whole battalion died. Mum and Granny never wavered,' Fordred says. 'But we started researching and found out that the night was dry, that the canal was small and his battalion didn't have to cross it. Everything pointed to their story being wrong.'

 

"As a 20 year old with no personal connection to war, the broad brushstroke of losing 'a generation of men' is hard to comprehend. But walking the battlefield with Fordred and absorbing just one family's pain makes me realise how loss transcends generations."

 

Visiting Fromelles allowed Fordred, with the help of the Friends of the 15th tour leader Englezos, to determine how and where Steward died and discover that his 60th battalion did in fact cross the canal. 'Lambis told us that if soldiers crossed the Layes Brook it was a death sentence, they were cut down by machine gunfire and left to drown,' she says.

Sharing in memories like Fordred's is a reminder that the 5500 Australian casualties from the first 24 hours of the Battle of Fromelles all have a unique story. More than just our 'war dead', they become fathers, sons, great-uncles and friends.

As a 20 year old with no personal connection to war, the broad brushstroke of losing 'a generation of men' is hard to comprehend. But walking the battlefield with Fordred and absorbing just one family's pain makes me realise how loss transcends generations. Her quest reduces the anonymity of one of those endless Australian names etched into the sprawling marble memorials of the Western Front.

The sun starts to set as Fordred and the Friends of the 15th Brigade trudge back across no man's land to the Allied line. 'The family was very bitter after the war,' she says. 'Finding out what really happened allows questions to be answered. Lambis gave us a simple answer that solves a 100 year old question.'

Witnessing Fordred inject contemporary emotion into such an old story, how could remembrance not feel meaningful and relevant?

 


Kate ManiKate Mani is a freelance writer with published pieces in The Age, The Australian, Mojo News, Lot's Wife and Viewpoint literary journal.

Friday 11 November 2016 is Remembrance Day.

Topic tags: Kate Mani, Remembrance Day


 

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historians estimate that "5,500 Australians and 2,000 British troops were killed or wounded. The Australian losses were equivalent to the combined total Australian losses in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War: although later World War I actions would be more deadly for the AIF, Fromelles was the only one to achieve no success.[Wikipedia] Interestingly Adolf Hitler is believed to have served as a messenger on the German side with the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division."
Father John George | 10 November 2016


Sad chapter! GENERAL REMARKS— 30th April 1920 The Australian Graves Services were primarily instituted by the Australian Government for the purpose of honouring the memory of those members of the A.I.F. whose lives had been sacrificed in the Great War. It is the undoubted wish of the Australian Government that this work be carried out. The fields of operation covered by the Australian Forces are very extensive and cemeteries must necessarily be scattered over a large area. That the work may be properly accomplished requires detached parties detailed to great distances. Supervision of these parties is difficult and no definite record of the work is readily obtained beyond the report of the party itself. Opportunity for abuse is great and unless the most rigid discipline is maintained this work intended to sanctify and hallow the memory of the dead must develop into a serious scandal bringing humiliation and disgrace upon the Australian Forces. Up to the date of investigation by this Court of Enquiry no reasonable or definite plan of carrying out the work seems to have been formed, and many of the officers and men selected did not realise the dignity and importance of their position. The appalling condition apparent in March 1920 must come as a warning for the future generations of those in charge, that unless immediate and drastic action is taken for proper control, this effort to honour the dead shall only be the means of bringing shame and disgrace upon the good name, fame and reputation of Australia. Signed, W. Meikle, Capt. P. Fenelly, Capt. Chairman Barton, Peter. The Lost Legions of Fromelles: The true story of the most dramatic battle in Australia's history (Kindle Locations 6322-6326). Allen & Unwin. Kindle Edition.
Father John George | 10 November 2016


Re 60th And the 60th Battalion, of the 887 that ventured forth, only 169 would not be slain. In total, over 7,000 men, ANZACS and Brits killed, maimed and lost. Thousands more would die as infirmed, but history would cruelly never add those tragics to the tally. They too, in effect, died on this day. It was an incalculable disaster. The fears of those that knew, McCay, Elliott and others had proven correct. They had warned, protested. But ignored as colonial minions, along with their motley crew. Good for nothing, loud abrasive lot, really. And what of the British command? Haking, Monro et al? Official Communiqué: 20th July 1916: ‘Yesterday evening, south of Armentieres, we carried out some important raids on a front of two miles in which Australian troops took part. The Australian infantry attacked in the most gallant manner and gained some of the enemy’s position but they were not sufficiently trained to consolidate the ground gained. They were eventually compelled to withdraw and lost heavily in doing so. I think the attack, although failed, had done both divisions a great deal of good…’ Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Haking Commander: X1 Corps, British Army O'Reilly, Peter. The Battle of Fromelles - an ANZAC Tragedy (Kindle Locations 5058-5074). Peter O'Reilly. Kindle Edition.
Father John George | 10 November 2016


Inspiring article, written with sensitivy and understanding of a passage of wartime history that is still emerging.
Kevin Sheehan | 10 November 2016


Sobering and thoughtful commentary on our dear dead, and I thank you. The tales of Australian courage and misery always remind me, though, of the deaths of the Timorese people in World War II. The Australians there, who never numbered more than 700, were protected, guided, fed and nursed by the Timorese, and were so successful that the Japanese put a whole division on Timor, which could have been used in New Guinea. The Australians withdrew at the beginning of 1943, leaving the Timorese to Japanese mercy. Japanese reprisals and Allied bombing on Japanese positions cost the Timorese between 40,000 and 60,000 lives, all civilians. British civilian deaths in WWII total about 60,000. For the Timorese sacrifice there has been no reparation, yet Australia paid PNG 7 million pounds in war reparations, (and rightly so), although their dead numbered far less. Yet there is no mention of the World War II connection between Australia and Timor in the 2013 school history curriculum. We should honour our dead while remembering that we do not have a monopoly on loss, grief or courage.
Sister Susan Connelly | 11 November 2016


Dear Kate, Thank you for writing the article that has appeared in Eureka Street on this remembrance day. I resonated with your recount. My wife Liz and I were in Fromelles for the centenary commemorations of the battle on 19 July 1916. It was both a privilege and a surprise to be there. It was only in October 2015 that I received a letter from the ADF asking me to supply a sample of DNA. I had never heard the soldiers name, but I had heard of him. I remembered a very brief story, my grandmother; Marie told me of him accidently chopping off the tip of her finger when they were both children, that a small pocket of facts aligned. Since that time we have discovered much family history that explains much about behaviour and decision making through the generations. Key to this story is my grandmother (whom I love dearly). She rarely spoke about her childhood, suffice to drop small stories into a quiet conversation that described hardship, humiliation and suffering. My great grandfather died before his two children, Thomas and Marie were attending school. Thomas Beston had married in 1915. His wife, Eva gave birth to a baby girl in June 1916. Thomas was twenty two when he died on his second day on his first battlefield. Baby Beston died in a house fire in the same month. (I learned a recently that my grandmother's left arm had been severely disfigured by fire. This was the reason she always wore a long sleeved blouse.) Two months following the death of her son, Mary, my great grandmother was sectioned and dispatched to an asylum for the insane. By the time of her death, my grandmother had three of her five children. She lost my grandfather, Robert when her youngest was three. The rest of her life she took in washing to feed her children and keep the house that Robert had built for his family. What I have discovered is a story of courage, generosity and tenacity.
NameVic O'Callaghan | 11 November 2016


Thanks for this story Kate. It definitely means a lot to my family as we remember today the abomination of war and young Fred. I remember my Pop talking a lot about his lost brother particularly in his older years. I don't think he ever got over it - like so many others of his generation. The impact of war spans many generations and should not be forgotten. We still live in a volatile world and must also not forget the refugees fleeing battle torn areas where war is all they know. After recent political events in the US and the apparent rising up of racist nationalism, I fear for the future of my children. I hope by reminding everyone about the evil of war, on days like today, we can never forget what causes war and how to build societies that abhor it and refuse to let it happen
Heather hickson | 11 November 2016


"The Faith" by Leonard Cohen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCr6wsa3XHk
Stephen de Weger | 11 November 2016


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