Travelling in country NSW recently I was struck, not for the first time, by the war memorials that sit in each town. There are a few variations in their 1920s architecture: the soldier, the cross, the plain obelisk. To me they seem archaic and pompous. They are always engraved with names, of those who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ or whatever. The dead. Every town, no matter small, has one.
If you linger for a moment and read the names, you will see that often there is repetition. Like, Woolcott, J., Woolcott, M., Woolcott, W. What are the chances that three men named Woolcott were not related? These towns are small now – they would have been tiny then. They must have been brothers, or cousins. What a loss! These little towns - just a handful of families that all knew each other - must have been devastated.
It’s not very fashionable, in the circles that I move in, to write about wars. Unless you’re horrified about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, I suppose. It’s easy to lay blame in these fuck-ups. But remembering is not so easy. ANZAC Day, that annual orgy of remembrance, is soaked in ideological nationalism – thinking people, including me, often find it repulsive.
Nonetheless, I would like to sound a note of remembrance for those who died in a less publicised episode that took place a hundred years ago today, at Fromelles in northern France. This battle – and it was only called that later – was part of the Battle of the Somme. It was someone’s bright idea, to conduct a ‘diversionary action’, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their troops on main Somme front.
This task fell to the Australians and was, in military as well as human terms, an unmitigated disaster. The attack was delayed by two days by the weather, but the artillery bombardment had already started. It was supposed to destroy the barbed wire that lay in front of the German trenches but served only the warn them that the hapless Australians were about to attack. The Germans were well dug in, safe throughout the bombardment in deep trenches. When the Australians did attack, in waves at five minute intervals, they were slaughtered by machine gun fire. Nearly 2,000 Australian soldiers died; another 3,000 were wounded, in a single day. Many of the bodies, left hanging on the barbed wire, were never recovered. News of the debacle was covered up, and only came out much later.
I wondered, as I travelled around northern NSW, what such a disaster must have been like then. A hundred years ago Australia’s population was much smaller, obviously. I try to imagine such a thing happening today. Adjusted for population growth, it might mean perhaps 14,000 people dying, in one day. It’s hard to imagine what that might look like, or what it might be taken to mean if it happened now. And I try to imagine the impossible, and think what it must have meant then, in some little town that was really just a handful of families where everyone knew each other. It’s no wonder they built their obelisks, and I hope it brought those wives and mothers and sisters and fathers and friends some comfort.