Road to Remembrance: Australians on the Western Front

DESTRUCTION: Australian troops passing the ruins of Ypres on the way to the front line October 25, 1917. PHOTO: AWM E04612
DESTRUCTION: Australian troops passing the ruins of Ypres on the way to the front line October 25, 1917. PHOTO: AWM E04612

Sergeant Simon Fraser, a farmer from Byaduk in Victoria’s Grampians, was rescuing the wounded in no-man’s-land for three days and nights after the Battle of Fromelles when he heard a voice crying out.

“Don’t forget me cobber.”

This moving image is depicted in a sculpture that recognises the bravery of stretcher bearers who risked their own lives to save others after the disastrous Battle of Fromelles—the first battle involving Australians on the Western Front in July 1916.

The bronze statue entitled ‘Cobbers’ stands in a park in northern France, adjacent to the VC Corner Memorial and Australian Cemetery.

The statue lists the names of 1299 Australians missing at Fromelles and contains the remains of 410 of these men.

Nearby is the Battle of Fromelles Museum and Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery where 250 soldiers, including 219 Australians, were reinterred after their remains were recovered from a mass grave in 2009.

The story of Fromelles – and Simon Fraser – is just one of many told at the sites that make up the Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front.

The commemorative trail links new and upgraded museums, battlefield sites, cemeteries and memorials that are important to understanding the Australian experience during the First World War.

An Australian Government initiative established in co-operation with Belgian and French authorities, the 200km trail covers the ground where 295,000 Australians served, 46,000 were killed and 132,000 wounded.

Starting in Belgium’s rebuilt city of Ieper (Ypres) at the trail’s northern end, visitors can trace the route of troops marching past the ruined medieval tower of the Cloth Hall and out through the Menin Gate to battle.

In September 1917, photographer Frank Hurley said the Cloth Hall was “a pitiful apology of a brick dump, scarred and riddled with shell holes. Its beautifully carved facades are small-poxed with shell splinters.”

Today, the In Flanders Field Museum is housed in Ieper’s restored Cloth Hall and a Last Post Ceremony is held every night on the cobblestones of the Menin Gate Memorial.

The names of 6000 missing Australians are engraved on the memorial.

Elsewhere in Belgium at Zonnebeke, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, with its recreated trenches and dugouts, highlights the terrible Australian losses in 1917.

Nearby is Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world.

Beneath the stone pedestal of its Great Cross lies the remains of a German bunker that was captured by Australians.

The Plugstreet 14-18 experience museum tells the story of the Battle of Messines in June 1917 which began with an explosion of underground mines that was reputedly heard in London.

Not far away is Toronto Avenue Cemetery, an exclusively Australian burial ground.

The Australian Infantry Force’s Fifth Division memorial is also in Belgium at Polygon Wood.

Heading south along the Australian Remembrance Trail into France, past Fromelles and Arras, travellers reach Bullecourt where a ‘Digger’ statue, also created by ‘Cobbers’ sculptor Peter Corlett, stands at the Australian Memorial.

The Jean and Denise Letaille Museum illuminates the two 1917 Battles of Bullecourt in which Australia suffered 10,000 casualties.

Further south, the First Division chose Pozières for its memorial, commemorating its first significant action near the town at the Windmill site where Australia suffered 23,000 casualties in just under seven weeks from July 1916.

The newest museum to tell the story of Australians on the Western Front is the Sir John Monash Centre at the southernmost point of the trail.

The centre will open on April 24, 2018, outside Villers-Bretonneux at the Australian National Memorial, which carries the names of more than 10,700 Australians with ‘no known grave’.

The refurbished Franco-Australian Museum in the town’s Victoria School highlights its relationship with Australians who cleared German troops from the town on April 25, 1918.

The school was rebuilt with funds from Victorian schoolchildren and carries the sign ‘Do Not Forget Australia’ above its playground shelter.

North of Villers-Bretonneux is the village of Le Hamel, whose capture by the Allies on July 4, 1918, was vital to protecting the transport hub of Amiens.

The Third Australian Division’s memorial is at Sailly-le-Sec, north of Le Hamel and the River Somme.

Visitors can go beyond Amiens to Vignacourt to see Thuillier’s Farmouse, where soldiers posed for portraits while on leave, and the British Cemetery where 424 Australians are buried.

Heading east near Peronne, the Second Division’s memorial recalls its biggest victory, the capture of Mont-St-Quentin, while the Fourth Division’s memorial, on the heights above Bellenglise, marks its successful advance shortly before the war ended.

More information on the Australian Remembrance Trail is available  at  

Truth from the front

INSIGHT: Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott outside a German headquarters captured in the 1918 Somme offensive. PHOTO: AWM E02855

INSIGHT: Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott outside a German headquarters captured in the 1918 Somme offensive. PHOTO: AWM E02855

In hundreds of candid letters to his wife Kate from 1914 to 1919, Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott adhered to their pact of ‘no secrets.’

As 1917 ended, lamenting the bitter cold and snow of the Western Front and the delay in letters from home, he told his wife that the past year had held more sadness and disappointment than any other of his life.

In one of five letters to Kate during January 1918, Elliott predicted a terrible fight coming.

“The enemy are sending all the best men from the Russian front, and any prisoners we get are full of tales of the preparations the Bosche are making to settle us for good this time.”

Elliott also wrote frequently to his young children Violet and Neil, and sister-in-law Belle, in the time he led the 7th Battalion on Gallipoli and the 15th Brigade at Fromelles, Polygon Wood.

Devastated by his younger brother George dying at Polygon Wood, he told Kate, “I saw him dead, so white and rigid and still … we have buried him so far from home amongst strangers.”

Historian Ross McMullin, in his new book Pompey Elliott at War In His Own Words, says Elliott could turn the Western Front into a bedtime story.

Of tank warfare, Elliott told his ‘little laddie’ Neil: “We got a lot of big wagons like traction engines and put guns in them and ran them ‘bumpety bump’ up against the old Kaiser’s wall and knocked a great big hole in it.”

McMullin chose 1105 excerpts from Elliott’s letters, diary, speeches and battle reports that reveal the wartime thoughts of the revered, charismatic, controversial and successful soldier.

While Elliott treated censorship regulations seriously about troop locations and future operations, McMullin says “compliance was less likely” when it came to criticism of previous military operations, references to recent casualties or comments prejudicial to harmony with allies.

On sending men into battle, Elliott wrote: “It is always a terrible decision, this launching of magnificent men towards death … each one priceless.”

Despite repeated success in the field, Elliott protested bitterly when he missed promotion to divisional command in May 1918.

Returning home, Elliott served two terms as a Victorian Senator from 1919.

McMullin records that he was “profoundly unsettled by the hardships of returned soldiers” during the Great Depression.

Elliott’s grievance over promotion became an obsession and he admitted “it has actually coloured all my post war life.”

Plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, he suicided on March 23, 1931, aged 52.

Digger research

Australian soldiers Ralph Eldridge and Frank Foster were awarded the Military Medal for their courage when loading artillery onto railway trucks late in 1917 near Ypres in Belgium.

While the other men “ran for cover on four occasions,” the pair at one stage hung onto ropes securing one gun, and prevented it from smashing to the ground.

The story of Eldridge and Foster is recorded in the digitised records of the 1st Australian Infantry Force Division’s recommendation file for honours and awards of January 1918.

It’s never been easier for Australians to discover the stories of Australian service men and women.

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) has millions of items in its collections and a website that can help people research the wartime experiences of relatives.

The AWM and the National Library of Australia are also sources for all the battalion histories and for finding information about the recommendations for military honours and awards.

Extensive personal service records – containing enlistment details, unit attachments and health records – can be accessed through the National Archives of Australia.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists the graves or memorials where 1.7 million men and women are commemorated.

Genealogy website Ancestry helps people to search for First World War ancestors while Fairfax Media’s Best Anzac Tributes web page, supported by, looks at memorable ways people are honouring veterans.

The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

This story Road to remembrance: Trail links war stories first appeared on The Examiner.