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Dan Tehan’s speech at VC Corner Cemetery for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles

Wednesday 20 July, 2016

“In places the parapet was repaired with bodies – bodies that but yesterday had housed the personality of a friend by whom we had warmed ourselves. If you had gathered the stock of a thousand butcher shops, cut it into small pieces and strewn it about, it would give you a faint conception of the shambles those trenches were.”

This is how an Australian soldier described the land we stand on today — one hundred years ago.

The stock of a thousand butcher shops.

The darkest 24 hours in Australia’s history.

Here, a world away from a newly federated nation, over 1,900 of our nation’s sons charged out of trenches to their death.

They would become the butchered meat.

They would be part of the over 5,500 Australian casualties that day, all in the end, for not a single inch of ground.

As a nation we have never seen a battle, a natural disaster or a catastrophe take so many Australian lives in a single day.

It had been meant as a distraction from the main offensive across the Somme, an attempt to put fresh Australian recruits to use by pinning down the German reinforcements.

Many of the men here, they would become known as the “fair dinkums”, had never experienced war, having enlisted too late to experience Gallipoli.

But here, as one soldier bluntly put it, “they received their full education in one day.”

Industrial warfare on a scale unimaginable, an enemy well entrenched and seasoned by two years of fighting on this very ground, and orders that simply ignored the facts.

The commander of the 15th Brigade, Brigadier General Harold Elliot, was known for his plain speaking. He did not hold back in his confronting language, describing the event as a “tactical abortion”.

He had advocated that the operation be abandoned.

Taking one member of the General Staff out in to no man’s land, he showed him part of the German defences – an emplacement called Sugar Loaf.

A fortified concrete structure that rose out of the open terrain.

If his men were to reach Sugar Loaf, they would have to cross 400 yards without cover and in full view of the German machine guns.

The officer admitted to Elliot that if the attack went as planned it would be “a bloody holocaust”. Elliot pleaded for him to have the plans changed. They were merely delayed.

On the 19th of July, it began with the shelling of the German lines. They pounded them for seven hours, hoping forlornly to weaken the enemy for the Australian attack.

Putting on a brave face, Elliot told his men, “Boys, you won’t find a German when you get there.”

At around 5:30 the shelling stopped. In the evening summer light the Australians rose out of the trenches. They charged without flinching, resolved in their duty and died.

Private Walter Downing described the carnage: “The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat lattice of death … The bullets skimmed low, from knee to groin, riddling tumbling bodies before they touched the ground.”

The Australians did not turn back. Downing wrote: “The survivors spread across the front kept the line straight. There was no hesitation, no recoil, no dropping of the unwounded into shell holes … still the line kept on.”

The day after, many fought bravely to make it back to safety. Many were surrounded in pockets of resistance and captured.

The dead were so many that recovering them was a monumental task, which took three days and as we learn again today was never completed.

Elliot stood to watch his returned brigade as they came back through the lines. Tears in his eyes, he yelled to one Captain: “Good God Bill, what’s happened to my brigade?”

Elliot’s Brigade would account for one third of the Australian dead.

He took the loss hard. He would later become another casualty — taking his own life after struggling to adapt to his return to Australia.

A generation of men from many nations were destroyed by the Western Front. For Australia it destroyed many here in an instant.

Given the butchery, it would be easy to push the tragedy out of our memories, to put it behind us and forget.

But Fromelles must be remembered. Not just as a tragedy but as an example of bravery and resolve that we cannot possibly imagine today.

The men who fought and died here came half way across the world to this place without any hope of knowing what awaited them.

On the command of their country and for their love of it, they fought and died without recoil.

The men who Australia lost on its darkest day; fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins who never came home.

Though time may have dimmed the memories of these men, we rightly recognise and remember today their duty.

Amidst the tragedy of Fromelles we commemorate their actions.

They did not grow old due to the human butchery that occurred here 100 years ago today.

But we who are left rightly remember them, their unbridled courage, their resolve, their sacrifice.

Lest we forget.

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