Fromelles is now one of the most famous battles in which Australians fought during World War I, 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 on the anniversaries of 19 July, 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 honoured 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 twenty-first 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 eightieth 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. 

Fromelles was soon positioned even more firmly within national remembrance by a small group of Australians, headed by a retired school teacher Lambis Englezos. Convinced that they could locate the burial site of the Fromelles missing who were not interred at VC Corner, they initially fought some official scepticism. But in 2008 a geophysical survey commissioned by the Australian government identified a mass grave at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. On excavation it was found to contain the remains of 203 Australians, 3 British and 44 soldiers of indeterminate nationality buried by the Germans in 1916.

There the remains might have lain undisturbed, with a new memorial erected to mark the location and the presumed dates of death. However, to leave the dead of Fromelles in a mass grave was unacceptable in early 21st century Australia.

The remains found at Pheasant Wood were reburied with great official ceremony in 2010 in a newly created cemetery, the first to be built by the Commonwealth (formerly Imperial) War Graves Commission in fifty years. Even more unusually, a search was launched to identify the missing individually. Where possible, DNA samples taken from Pheasant Wood remains were matched with those of the living descendants of missing soldiers in Australia and the United Kingdom.

No one questioned why many millions of dollars was spent on this exercise. No one, at least publicly, debated the precedent of using DNA to identify the missing. Nor did any one query whether ‘closure’ was needed for relatives who had never known the missing of Fromelles, nor truly experienced grief. 

The missing of Fromelles, it seems, spoke to phenomena that have fuelled the growth of war memory globally in recent decades: the explosion of genealogy and the desire to locate family stories in bigger, more universal narratives of the past. The new rituals of Fromelles also testified to the continuing salience of the implied contract between citizen and state that underpins a voluntary system of enlistment for military service. In a liberal democracy, where the rights of the individual are a core value, those who choose or are required to die in the defence of the state are considered entitled to be honoured individually. This was the ideal that informed the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission in the years after World War I, one of the first mass conflicts in which rank-and-file soldiers were granted their own grave and headstone carrying their name, age and date of death. 

It is a message that still resonates in a society that, for all its individualism and intolerance for the death of the young, requires some individuals at least to be willing to die for the collective good in defence of the nation. Be that service in Afghanistan, Iraq or United Nations humanitarian interventions, these men and women must be assured that their deaths will be honoured, as were those of the men who served before them. Hence, press accounts of the reburials at Fromelles invoked the high diction of war (‘devotion’ and ‘honour’) and spoke to the need for ‘a proper send-off’ and ‘a fitting farewell at last’ for the ‘fallen sons’ who ‘can finally be laid to rest with honour’. 

At the same time the Battle of Fromelles itself was reclaimed from its relative obscurity. It is no longer a ‘raid’ or even an ‘attack’ but ‘the bloodiest twenty-four hours in Australia’s military history before or since’.

Photo: Getty Images/Dan Kitwood

Together with Professors Hew Strachan from the University of St Andrews and Jeffrey Grey from UNSW Canberra, Joan Beaumont is speaking at a Lowy Institute event today to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles.