Thursday, 8 March 2018

Travel, Books

Note the comma!

I have a couple of books recently on the Battle of Fromelles during the Great Unpleasantness in 1916.  I will get to them in a while, but it caused me to reflect on a fairly long drive we did in 1997 from Froslev in Denmark to Aubers in France.  This is about 870km and included 5 countries: Denmark (first 10km); Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France (last 35km).


By way on contrast from Wentworth (SW NSW) to Murwillumbah (NE NSW) is 1630kms  and Eden (SE NSW) to Murwillumbah is 1300 km.

We stopped in Aubers because it had a campground and we were knackered.  We went for a walk around the village noticing a large water feature next to the campground.
The next morning I went for a run, more or less backtracking the way we drove in.  This went past a war cemetery so I dropped in to pay my respects.  (I realised we were in the area of trench warfare so such memorials were to be expected.)  I now know that was the Aubers Ridge British Cemetery.
What I hadn't realised is that this was the area where the battle of Fromelles was fought.  Had I known this we'd have visited Fromelles and VC corner.
 If we are ever back in the area we would now also visit Pheasant Wood ..
.. but that memorial didn't exist until very recently.

I think I realised a few years ago, in the noughties when the grave at Pheasant Coming had been rediscovered and was being excavated,  the importance of Aubers and Fromelles in Australian Military history.  Coming further forward to early this year (2018) as we rolled in to the Kingston Library I noticed a copy of "Fromelles: the final chapter" by Tim Lycett and Sandra Playle and borrowed it.  That is the first of my reviews.

Fromelles: the final chapter

I didn't scan the book before borrowing and was a tad surprised to find it was written by a pair of genealogists.  As anyone that worked with me in the 1990s will know I do not have much time for genealogists, due to the rubbish they talked about the need to retain Census records.  However I thought that they might have something interesting to say.  And indeed they did.

The book has been returned to the Library so what follows is my memory.   The book makes considerable, and justified, mention of Lambis Englezos who appears to have driven the search for the missing Diggers.  It then falls into two parts: the story of the battle; and the story of the work to locate and identify the bodies of the missing soldiers.  Both are tales of incompetence by the 'high and mighty'.

In terms of the battle the major recipient of  blame is General Haking who planned the battle, based on very outmoded thinking.  General Haig also gets a well merited serve.

After the coverage the battle got during the discovery of the mass grave, and knowing how the battle of the Somme went on 'forever' I was astonished to find that this battle of Fromelles was in effect only 2 days.  (There had been fighting in the area well before, attempting to capture Aubers Ridge, and I think it continued on afterwards, but without significant Australian involvement.)  I was also astonished to find out how much the Germans should be praised for passing back information about the dead they recovered.

Moving on to the discovery and identification phase the major acts of bastardry seem to come from people in the War Graves 'business' who seem to be mainly interested in covering the arse of the post-war recovery teams.  The crucial bit of information came in a German order to bury the dead in mass graves, located in the War Archives in Munich, together with analysis of aerial photographs in the Imperial War Museum in England.

So where does genealogy fit into this?  Simply, genealogical techniques are used to identify and locate the descendants of the Diggers who are thought likely to in the mass graves.  This then allowed the corpses to be identified.  Well done those genealogists.  The author is only slightly ticked off that their research was basically grabbed and used with little acknowledgement.

Basically a very interesting and well written book.  I'm tempted to re-read having read the second tome.

Fromelles and Poizieres In the Trenches of Hell

This is written by Peter Fitzsimons, a journalist for the Fairfax empire, whose journalism I quite enjoy.

Fitzsimons wrath is mainly directed at the British Generals Haig and Haking.  For the first of these Fitzsimons quotes a historian B H Liddell-Hart who says in part"[Haig}was a man of superme egoism and utter lack of scruple.....A man who gained his ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal."  Fitzsimons comment about Haking concludes ".. died from colon cancer in his bed seemingly untroubled to the end by the tens of thousands of needless deaths he had caused."

The third in this rogues gallery is an Australian General James McCay.  He gets a brickbat for refusing an offer of a truce to allow for the wounded to be recovered.  I got a feeling this was because he was sucking upwards and thought that Haig and Haking would see a truce as, at best, weakness.

Many people -usually lower in rank - are mentioned for acts of heroism.  I can't remember all the names so won't single out any individual.

One of the Germans who gets a few mentions (and indeed a couple of photos) is the artist Schicklegruber  who served as a message runner at Fromelles and whose views of how badly Germany was treated were thought to be formed there.

This book gives a lot more detail than the first discussed. This includes the background to the Australian troops serving at Gallipolli (some) and raw recruits (many).  Their training in Egypt seems rather ordinary (well done, General McCay).  The alleged strategy behind the battles at Fromelles and - a little later - Poizieres is given but it all seems very pointless.

Fitzsimons quotes E L Dctorow as saying "The historian will tell you what happened.  The novelist will tell you what it felt like."  He then goes on to say ".. but I strain to do both."  My view is that he largely succeeds.  If you don't like the way he writes in the press you may not not appreciate this book (it is hard to like a book that is a tale of mass slaughter) but if, like me, you enjoy his style it is a ripper of a read.  It seemed a bit daunting at 793 pages, but 100 of them are references and index!

I may well buy this one to re-read.

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