Almanac History: VFL Footballers at the Battle of Fromelles July 19 1916


Image:Australian 53rd Bn Fromelles 19 July 1916
Wiki Commons



On July 19, we reach the 104th anniversary of the Battle at Fromelles in which so many Australians were casualties. VFL Footballers played a significant role.  Allan Grant presents a new article he has completed to mark this occasion for publishing in the Footy Almanac on the anniversary. He has been researching this battle for over 20 years and is proud to have worked with Lambis Englesos more recently on significant projects in relation to recovering our war dead at Krithia in Gallipoli. Lambis of course played a significant role in identifying the resting place of the lost Australians at Pheasant Wood Fromelles and they are still being identified and re interred in a new military cemetery in the village of Fromelles.



VFL Footballers – Fromelles July 19 1916



On the 19 July 1916 7000 Australian soldiers attacked entrenched German positions at Fromelles in France. This was the first major action of the AIF on the Western Front.


The Australian 5th Division took part in the battle at Fromelles. It was made up of the following Battalions.


: 29th, 30th, 31st and 32nd Battalions . 8th Brigade


: 53rd, 54th, 55th and 56th Battalions. 14th Brigade


: 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions. 15th Brigade



On 19 July 1916 in Flanders in the North of France Australia suffered its worst ever Military defeat when our diggers were ordered to go over the top and attack the German lines.


The Australian 5th and British 61st Division tried to seize 3.7kms of German front lines. The German position centred on the “Sugar loaf” a heavily fortified strongpoint bristling with machine guns with clear fields of fire over most of the ground.


The assault began at 5.30pm so there were several hours of daylight available while the battle raged.


In overall command of Australian forces were Generals White and Birdwood. General McCay was to play a prominent if not controversial part.


Lt General Richard Haking Commander of the 11th British Corps had put a plan in place to attack the German trenches at Fromelles. Despite failing with a similar plan at the same location resulting in great loss of British lives some months before he had convinced the higher echelon to try again using Australian forces in support.



Australian General “Pompey” Elliott in charge of the 15th Brigade believed the attack was at grave risk of disaster and although Generals White and Birdwood shared his view, they were unable to countermand the British General. They were not supported by Australian General McCay who seemed eager to support Haking’s plan. Despite those misgivings the attack was to go ahead.


After two days of delay the Australians and British attacked the Salient at Fromelles manned by the well- entrenched and heavily armed 6th Bavarian reserve.


Eight hours later more than 5500 Australians lay dead or wounded (1917 were killed in action) the equivalent of all Australian casualties from the Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars combined. Additionally, over 400 were taken prisoner.


In the 5th Division 35 officers were hit, half mortally. The British losses were significant but not to the extent of Australian losses.



Of the Australians lost at Fromelles several were VFL footballers.


Hugh Mc Donald Plowman. Captain 60th Battalion AIF

26 Games for St Kilda 1910-1912.


Hugh died in no-mans land. He has no known grave like so many of his comrades.

He is remembered at VC Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial just outside the village of Fromelles.



Thornton Gainsborough “Tom” Clarke. Corporal 60th Battalion AIF

4 games with Fitzroy and was playing with Essendon in the VFA just prior to enlistment.


He was reported to have been shot through the head while attacking a German trench.

Of the 887 in Tom and Hugh’s battalion only 106 survived the slaughter of 19 July 1916.

Tom is remembered at VC Corner Australian Military Cemetery Fromelles France.



Richard Horace Maconochie Gibbs (MC). Lieutenant 59th Battalion AIF

35 Games with University Football Club.


A medical student prior to war he was second in command of ‘A’ Company 59th battalion.

Red Cross reports say he was hit about 80 metres from German trenches and not seen again. Two months later he was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

Like the others he has no known grave and is remembered at the VC Corner Australian Military cemetery at Fromelles.



William Joseph (Plugger) Landy. Private 58th Battalion AIF

2 Games Geelong 1915


Red Cross records assert he was part of the ‘Geelong company’ which was completely wiped out in a trench by German bombs.

He has no known Grave and is remembered at VC Corner Fromelles.



William ‘Bill’ Nolan. Sergeant 58th Battalion AIF

30 Games Richmond. 1914-1915.


Bill died of wounds on 23 July 1916 after being wounded at Fromelles.

He is buried at Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, Pas de Calais France.



Sergeant George Challis. 58th Battalion AIF

70 Games Carlton. 1912-1915


George was killed in action a few days prior to the major attack at Fromelles on 15 July 1916. While preparing for the coming battle a German shell landed in his trench. He is buried at Rue -Pettilon Military Cemetery Fleurbaix France.



While the war raged at Fromelles at the same time the South Africans were involved in heavy fighting in the same theatre.


W.Arthur McKenzie Private 1st Regiment Sth African Infantry.

4 Games with Geelong in 1898.


Arthur as he preferred to be known was killed in action on 18 July 1916 at Delville Wood.

He had given up his football career to fight in the Boer War and remained in Sth Africa after the war.

Arthur is remembered at the Thiepval Memorial between Bapaume and Albert.

Following the battle at Fromelles the Australians moved forward to fight at Pozieres. Just 5 days after Fromelles more Australians were to die in huge numbers. One of those was:


Lewis Blackmore 2nd Lieutenant 1st Battalion AIF

7 games with Essendon 1905-1907.


Lewis was killed in action by machine gun fire at Pozieres on 23 July 1916.

He has no known grave and is remembered at the Villers Bretonneux memorial.





The battle at Fromelles was a monumental blunder. So many Australians died in a futile attempt to gain ground from a well- entrenched well- prepared German army. Many books have dwelt on the failures at Fromelles but interestingly it is only in more recent times that it has become well known to Australians. I remember researching a WW1 soldier for a family in the late 1990s. In the War Memorial honour roll looking at those killed in action on 19 July 1916 I kept coming across names of young men killed at Fleurbaix. By the time I had looked through the rolls I realised there were many hundreds of names so I investigated a little further and discovered the name Fromelles. Many eminent Australian historians were to write about the debacle at Fromelles in future years.




Cobbers is a prominent 1998 sculpture by Peter Corlett of Sergeant Simon Fraser rescuing a wounded compatriot from No Man’s Land after the battle. A replica of the sculpture is at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Victoria.



This statue of Simon Fraser is at VC Corner at Fromelles where the Australians are remembered. Following the battle the Germans had offered a ceasefire to allow the recovery of wounded and the dead but Australian General McCay did not allow this to happen. This was not British approved policy so the offer was refused much to the disgust of many Australian officers and other ranks.


When the battle was over, Fraser and others began the dangerous and difficult task of retrieving the wounded from no man’s land. “I must say Fritz treated us very fairly, though a few were shot at the work,” he wrote. “Some of these wounded were game as lions and got rather roughly handled, but haste was more necessary than gentle handling and we must have brought in over 250 men by our company alone…It was no light work getting in with a heavy weight on your back especially if he had a broken leg or arm and no stretcher bearer was handy. You had to lie down and get him on your back then rise and duck for your life with the chance of getting a bullet in you before you were safe.”


Over three days the men made these missions to no man’s land, looking and listening for those still alive. “One foggy morning in particular I remember, we could hear someone, over towards the German entanglements calling for a stretcher bearer; it was an appeal no man could stand against so some of us rushed out and had a hunt,” Fraser wrote.


“We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in, but it was not where I heard this fellow calling so I had another shot for it and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wiggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh: he was about 14 stone weight [90 kilograms] and I could not lift him on my back, but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards [27 metres] out sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’. I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers and we got both men in safely.”


Fraser was not decorated for his great courage in retrieving the wounded from the battlefield; his efforts were just part of what had to be done. However, his heroism has since been recognised in a sculpture of him by artist Peter Corlett that stands in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles. More recently a copy of the sculpture was unveiled on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road.


The Victorian farmer never returned home: he was killed at the second battle of Bullecourt on 12 May 1917, aged 40. His body was not found.




Australian War Memorial.


Fromelles and Poziers –    Peter Fitzsimmons–  Random House


Don’t forget me Cobber: The battle of Fromelles – Robin S Corfield


DVA 2019. Battle of Fromelles. DVA Anzac Portal


Pompey Elliott – Ross McMullin. Scribe Publications


Fallen: The Ultimate Heroes. Footballers who never returned from war – Jim Main and David Allen. Crown Content


The Great War – Les Carlyon.  Picador


Charles Bean – Ross Coulthart Harper Collins


Harder than Football – Barbara Cullen. Slattery Media Group




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  1. Ta Allan. Such a horrible waste of life.

    The ‘Great Trade War’ saw death on a scale only imaginable in ones worst nightmares, as the new technology killed indiscriminately.

    For the ‘young’, European nation of Australia the lure of many young men, including members of my family, to go away to fight, and also explore the wider world must have been irresistible.

    I was of the impression the most VFL players killed on a day during the ‘Great Trade War’, was 6, that being on the opening day of the invasion of the Dardanelles:25/4/1916. You name 8 who paid the ultimate price on the fields of Fromelles . They were among the 96 who were killed during this so called, ‘War to end all wars’.

    Like with our current crisis, footy then, remained part of life in Melbourne, providing a respite from the horrors engulfing our world. This current crisis, Covid 19, is again claiming lives. Until we find a vaccine that’s the sad reality. Let’s allow the 2020 AFL season give us some escape, some ‘sanity’ in this trying time.


  2. Allan Grant says

    Glen. Thanks for taking the time to read. While I have named 8. George Challis was killed prior to Fromelles while preparing for the battle. Bill Nolan died of wounds after the battle. Arthur McKenzie was killed at Delville wood and Lewis Blackmore was kia in the first stanza of Australians involved at Pozieres.. Your impression that the most VFL players killed in one day was at the landing at Gallipoli would be correct. I was contemplating adding the number of VFL players killed during the rest of 1916 as war battles raged on the western front. There were several. I decided his story was about Fromelles but maybe another time I will do that.

  3. Thanks Alan for this reminder of the senseless slaughter of WW1 – politically, strategically & operationally. A war that had no need to be fought – unlike WW2.
    My maternal grandfather survived the Western Front as he could ride a motor bike and was used as a despatch rider. He returned physically ok but his youthful prospects were forever diminished by the trauma of war. I searched his records on the War Memorial website a few years ago. They were minimal as was inevitable in the ink and paper age. The startling find was a letter from my great grandmother that confirmed a family legend. To the OIC of the Army at Wayville Barracks to the effect:
    “I am a poor widow woman farming alone at Mount Hope on the west coast of Eyre Peninsula in SA. My eldest son has gone to the Western Front and I don’t know if he is alive or dead. My fool youngest son wants to enlist and I can’t manage the farm alone. Please don’t take him. One son is enough.”
    After a year he went – forging the parental permission to enlist under 21. He got TB on the ship and remained in hospital in Egypt when the armistice was signed.
    I have the hand inked battle map for the Hamel Offensive framed on the wall in my study. Monash’s breakthrough battle combining tanks, aircraft and infantry to break the German line and end the war in 6 months. Grandad must have realised the significance and kept a copy that was passed down through mum.
    The folly of politicians and generals in no way diminishes the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers on all sides. Lest we forget.

  4. Allan Grant says

    Thanks Peter. The battele at Hamel on July 4th 1918 was significant and what you have in that battle map is an amazi ng piece of Australian history. There is not enough space or time here to write at aany length about the significance of Hamel but needless to say it has divided historians, British , American and Australians for the best part of a century..

  5. a few years ago I wrote a poem on the 100th anniversary of that tragic Aussie slaughter of people so young taken from the life they were living here is it is prepare to be moved…

    Fromelles 100 years on 19 20 July 2016
    They ran in four waves to hit hard the strong yet boggy wet German line
    After the whistles blew and they followed obediently their Brave officers’ sign
    Forward they struggled into a formidable deadly hail of solid hot metal and lead
    The mud all around them turning into a shockingly dismal lifeless dull red.
    On a sparkling cloudless beautiful bright blue summer afternoon,
    They became people without form or breath so terrifyingly soon.
    The lines of slouch hatted youth that were strong and free in tan and khaki
    Turning into clumps of grey limp bodies caught on wire as afar as the eye could see.
    So what did those brave diggers achieve on that faraway 19th of July?
    A strong but small feint attack designed to catch the Germans eye
    Away from the horrors of the Somme valley battle some 40 km away
    Oh, what a way to be quickly introduced into the Western Front fray
    So as I watch 100 years on in the comfort of my bed all tucked up and warm
    To watch as headstones are uncovered there are tears forming in my head that begin to swarm
    And my thoughts of everyday life stop and become painfully aware of the total futility of all war
    Surely the to be part of a pointless bloody fight like this long lost battle is the last straw
    Yet I remember young men and women Aussies who went willingly across the sea
    To protect our freedom without fear and favour just especially for you and for me

    Richard Marlow

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