Neil McDonald contributed an Opinion piece Best intentions can dishonour diggers published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2010.
Families and Friends of the First AIF, Vice President, Jim Munro has responded as follows:
In Mr McDonald’s opinion, in relation to the Australian and British soldiers buried by the German Army at Pheasant Wood in France following the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916, “it would have been better to have left the grave as they found it and to have set up some kind of memorial nearby”. We respect his right to his opinion – that’s one of our democratic freedoms worth defending – even if we don’t agree with him.
Unfortunately for Mr McDonald, this argument was run in early 2008 and was lost on Thursday 30 July 2008 when The Hon. Warren Snowdon MP, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, in the presence of the Friends of the Fifteenth Brigade, announced at the ‘Cobbers’ statue in the grounds of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance that:
a new Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery would be created at or near the Pheasant Wood site and the soldiers’ remains would be exhumed and reburied with full military honours beneath individual headstones.
(Refer to the web posting of 1 August 2008 Reaction to decision at http://fffaif.org.au/2008/08/01/reaction-to-decision/)
Mr McDonald’s credentials as a historian are greatly diminished with statements such as:
“Haking, however, believed in all-out attack which, in a war of machine-guns, heavy artillery and barbed wire, was ludicrous.
The British general had already presided over more than 50,000 casualties – 20,000 men dead – on the notorious first day of the Somme.”
To claim that the beliefs of a distinguished British General in 1916 were “ludicrous” would not have been a contemporary judgement, but is a modern view, distant in time and geography from the circumstances. Secondly, General Haking was a Corps commander in the British First Army commanded by General Monro which had no direct involvement in the fighting on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (more than 80 km from Fromelles and separated by the Third Army). The first day of the Battle of the Somme involved the British Fourth Army commanded by General Rawlinson and the Reserve Army commanded by General Gough. Mr McDonald would do well to check his facts by looking at the Background to the Battle of Fromelles at http://fffaif.org.au/research-tools/background-to-the-battle-of-fromelles-part-2-1916-and-the-battle-of-the-somme/.
Mr McDonald’s credentials as a historian are further diminished with statements such as:
“The Australian and British dead were pitched into these mass graves in France and Germany because, in a day and a night of fighting to retake a salient north of the German-occupied village, 1500 British soldiers and 5535 Australian troops were killed on July 19-20, 1916”.
His reference to Australians being buried in mass graves in Germany shows little knowledge of The Great War. As to the numbers of troops killed in the battle, the Australian Army Fromelles web site states:
The Battle of Fromelles cost the following casualties:
5th Australian Division 5,533 casualties, including 1917 killed;
61st British Division 1,547 casualties, including 519 killed.
If Mr McDonald was more familiar with Battle of Fromelles and its aftermath he would know that the soldiers whose remains were recovered from Pheasant Wood were those who had died in or behind the German front line and that the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment issued specific orders for the recovery and burial of both German and “English” bodies. Major General von Braun’s order is reproduced in full in Patrick Lindsay’s book Fromelles. To the credit of the German Army, the identity disks were removed from the Australian and British soldiers’ bodies and returned through the Red Cross to London by November 1916 and Australian families had received these and personal effects by April 1917.
Mr McDonald’s opinion piece states that “The full story of Fromelles was covered up at the time ..”. This is true and contributes to Mr McDonald not having a full understanding of the facts of the Battle and its consequences. It is a sad fact that while the Battle of Fromelles ranks alongside other major battles involving Australian soldiers, the sacrifice of the Australian soldiers is not recognised by inscription on the National and State war memorials in Australia. It is recognised on the 5th Division Memorial at Polygon Wood in Belgium, on the Australian War Memorial in Hyde Park in London, but is not on the ANZAC Memorial Building in Hyde Park Sydney, or The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, or the State memorials in Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart or Perth.
The ceremonies at Fromelles are very moving and the dedication ceremony on 19 July 2010 will provide closure for some of the many families who lost relatives in the Battle of Fromelles. It is hoped that most of the soldiers whose remains have been recovered from the German burial pits at Pheasant Wood can be identified using DNA matching and other archaeological techniques so that their names can be added to their headstones – it is a small form of recognition that means so much to their families and is a very tangible commemoration of an individual life.
No doubt the upgraded Fromelles Museum and interpretive / research centre that is planned will be significant, as it will enable the circumstances of the Battle of Fromelles to be better understood, the impact on Australia and its families to be better appreciated and hopefully the service and sacrifice of the soldiers and their families to be appropriately recognised.
Families and Friends of the First AIF