It’s 9pm but the setting sun shows no sign of repose as it beams down across the vast wheat fields of Fromelles. The line between land and sky blurs as yellowing crops align with the sun’s reach. On the other side of no man’s land, a pale moon is just visible. Straight ahead a rough path through the wheat leads to the German lines. It’s down this path to the once formidable German strongpoint of the Sugarloaf that I file with the Friends of the 15th Brigade, descendants of the soldiers who fought here 100 years ago in the 59th and 60th AIF battalions. This pocket of Northern France on the World War I Western Front is a place of stories, both old and new.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s newest cemetery, Pheasant Wood, holds the graves of 250 soldiers, some identified and others ‘known unto God’. All were considered missing until 2008 when Melburnian and amateur historian Lambis Englezos discovered a German mass grave of Allied soldiers and fought for its large-scale exhumation.
Since then, soldiers continue to be identified through DNA testing and are given proper military burials, with six new headstones unveiled during the July 2016 centenary commemorations of the Battle of Fromelles Friends of the 15th member and Melburnian Marilyn Fordred, with her brother Graeme, is ‘on a quest’ to locate the spot where her great-uncle, Fred Steward, was killed. She’s confronting an unresolved question that haunts her in the same way it haunted her grandmother nearly 100 years ago.
Steward was a member of the 60th Battalion after enlisting with seven mates from Fitzroy, Vic., in August 1915. He arrived in France in June 1916 before being killed weeks later at Fromelles. ‘When I was 13 my mum told me [Steward] went down in a bog in the Layes Brook canal and his whole battalion died. Mum and Granny never wavered,’ Fordred says. ‘But we started researching and found out that the night was dry, that the canal was small and his battalion didn’t have to cross it. Everything pointed to their story being wrong.
Visiting Fromelles allowed Fordred, with the help of the Friends of the 15th tour leader Englezos, to determine how and where Steward died and discover that his 60th battalion did in fact cross the canal. ‘Lambis told us that if soldiers crossed the Layes Brook it was a death sentence, they were cut down by machine gunfire and left to drown,’ she says.
Sharing in memories like Fordred’s is a reminder that the 5500 Australian casualties from the first 24 hours of the Battle of Fromelles all have a unique story. More than just our ‘war dead’, they become fathers, sons, great-uncles and friends.
As a 20 year old with no personal connection to war, the broad brushstroke of losing ‘a generation of men’ is hard to comprehend. But walking the battlefield with Fordred and absorbing just one family’s pain makes me realise how loss transcends generations. Her quest reduces the anonymity of one of those endless Australian names etched into the sprawling marble memorials of the Western Front.
The sun starts to set as Fordred and the Friends of the 15th Brigade trudge back across no man’s land to the Allied line. ‘The family was very bitter after the war,’ she says. ‘Finding out what really happened allows questions to be answered. Lambis gave us a simple answer that solves a 100 year old question.’
Witnessing Fordred inject contemporary emotion into such an old story, how could remembrance not feel meaningful and relevant?
Kate Mani is a freelance writer with published pieces in The Age, The Australian, Mojo News, Lot’s Wife and Viewpoint literary journal. This piece originally appeared in Eureka St, and was taken from “Friends of the 15th Brigade Newsletter” March 2017
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