Fromelles can be found about eight miles west of Lille and five miles south of Armentieres. It can be visited easily by those using Ypres or Arras as a base for battlefield touring (it’s about a 45-minute drive from either). Pheasant Wood Cemetery is probably the most visited site in the area, and a museum next to the cemetery opened in 2014. There are a number of other interesting sites to visit in and around Fromelles. The village is not far from other battlefield areas, such as Cuinchy, Cambrin and Vermelles and Loos, all within 10 miles.
The Australians have a close association with Fromelles, as this is one of the sites where they suffered heavy losses during the Great War. The Australian 5th Division, along with the 61st British (South Midland) Division, attacked here on July the 19th, 1916. At this time, the main Somme battles were raging around 40 miles to the south of Fromelles. The intention was to make a feint here to prevent the Germans from bringing reinforcements to the Somme. The Australian attack at Fromelles was their first significant battle in France and the only one in which they achieved no success.
Pheasant Wood Cemetery
This is probably the most visited site in the area, and with a fascinating history behind it. In 2009, archaeologists excavated several mass burial pits at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. The remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers were recovered from these pits, which were mass burials made by the Germans after the Battle of Fromelles. Considerable efforts were made to identify these men, whose remains had lain where they were buried together for more than 90 years. This involved the authorities and also many dedicated amateurs, working hard to try and make sure that as many graves in the new cemetery as possible bear a name. In turn, this means that many families finally know the exact resting place of their relative.
The number of remains discovered was so high that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) created a new cemetery for their reburial. This was the first new war graves cemetery to be created by the CWGC since the end of the Second World War. Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Cemetery is located at the north-west edge of the village, not far from the church. It is only about a quarter of a mile from Pheasant Wood itself, where the men were buried by the Germans, and from which the cemetery takes its name.
At 11 a.m. on January the 30th 2010, the first of the remains were reburied at this new cemetery. Reburial ceremonies continued at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during February 2010. The cemetery was completed in July 2010 and now contains 250 graves. Efforts to identify these men continued, and at the time of writing (2020), 170 graves are of identified soldiers which represents a majority of the burials.
The new cemetery has a generous parking area, with the recently opened museum located to the left (see below for information on the museum). Outside the cemetery are information boards, giving the background to the cemetery.
Museum of the Battle of Fromelles
Given the interest in Pheasant Wood Cemetery and the story of those who fought here, a new museum was planned by the Weppes commune. This was supported financially by both the French and Australian governments. The Museum of the Battle of Fromelles was opened in 2014. There was a previous smaller museum located in Fromelles town hall before that.
The museum is located right next to the cemetery and contains modern audiovisual presentations. The main one is a presentation showing the build-up to and day of the battle at Fromelles. There is an audio guide available for these presentations. Other displays describe the area before the war, and trench life during the war.
There is also information on the story of how those now buried at the cemetery were found, and the exhumation of their remains. Also, an interesting timelapse video showing the construction of Pheasant Wood Cemetery. In addition, there are more traditional exhibits including artefacts found during the excavations and before, such as munitions, soldier’s personal possessions and there are several dioramas as well.
The museum is well worth a visit; there is a fee of €6.50 for adults and €4.50 for children 8-18 (those younger than 8 enter free). Also, there are hot drinks and snacks vending machines and toilets here.
Fromelles Australian Memorial Park
The Memorial Park marks the site of the action in which those now buried at Pheasant Wood Cemetery lost their lives. It is located about a mile to the north-east of Fromelles and reached by turning left out of the cemetery onto the D22, and then left again after half a kilometre onto the D22C (the memorial park is signposted at this turn). The park is located on the right-hand side of the road as you travel north.
At the front of the Park is an information board giving the story of the attack and also showing a montage of wartime aerial photographs, on which the site of the Park is marked. There is also a Ross Bastiaan bronze relief here. These are found at a number of sites of significance to the Australians, such as Pozieres on the Somme and Passchendaele in Flanders. This gives some information on the actions here, as well as a relief map of the area.
The Park is situated by the German front line position which was attacked by the Australians on July the 19th, 1916. This area was captured and held overnight, but the next day the Australians had to retire. In the end, the whole attack was a failure, with great loss of life.
German newspapers reported the failure here. “Considerable British forces attacked our positions north and west of Fromelles. They were repulsed, and wherever they succeeded in penetrating our trenches they were ejected by counter-attacks, in which we captured over 300 prisoners, among them being some officers“. In fact, the 5th Australian Division suffered casualties of more than five and a half thousand men in the attack.
In the middle of the Park stands a bronze statue of an Australian soldier bringing in a wounded comrade. The statue is entitled “Cobbers” and was sculpted by Peter Corlett and unveiled in 1998. Beneath the statue is a plaque stating that the statue depicts Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 57th Battalion whose company brought in many wounded men from the battlefield here.
There are quite a few Great War bunkers found on the battlefields in this area. At the Australian Memorial Park, there are several within a very small area, shown in the pictures below. The importance of concrete fortifications by this stage of the War is underlined by the concentration of bunkers here.
VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial
Just a short distance from the Memorial Park, continuing north on the D22C, is VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial. In between the sites, there is a sign marking the position of the German Front line on the 19th/20th July 1916. This is similar to signs which can be seen showing the front line positions on the Somme.
VC Corner cemetery is an interesting and unusual cemetery, for several reasons. Firstly, it is the only wholly Australian cemetery in France, and the name at the entranceway reflects this (shown below).
The name itself is also interesting – “VC Corner”. There was a spot on the battlefields, about three-quarters of a mile north-east, which was known as VC Corner. Today this can be found where the D175 crosses the D171 – not far from Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery (see later on this page). The origin of the name VC Corner probably dates from May 1915 – with four VCs being won on the 9th of May, 1915, and another on the 16th of May. However, the Cemetery was not made during the War but after the Armistice, and is not located on the site of VC Corner.
Perhaps the most interesting point about this cemetery is that there are no headstones here. The plan of the cemetery on the Commonwealth Wargraves Commission website shows a regular layout of rows of graves in four plots. There are 410 graves here, but when the bodies were recovered from the battlefield at Fromelles, which only happened after the Armistice, none could be identified.
Rather than mark each grave with the usual “Known Unto God” headstones for unidentified soldiers, the names of all the Australian soldiers killed in the Fromelles attack but with no known grave were instead inscribed on the wall at the rear of the cemetery – the memorial to the missing. Over the centre of the plots of graves on each side of the cemetery is a large stone cross inlaid in the lawn, as shown above left.
The structure at the back of the cemetery is the Memorial to the Australian Missing of Fromelles. As at other memorials to the missing, there are stone tablets set in the wall at the rear. Originally there were nearly 1300 names inscribed here. However in the years since, as described earlier, some of the men have been identified and their place of burial is now known. Today, there are around 1100 men still commemorated here.
As might be expected, men whose remains were recovered from the burial pits and have now been identified and buried at Pheasant Wood Cemetery (see earlier on this page) were listed on this memorial at VC corner. Their names are still inscribed here, but at my last visit in December 2019 there were additional pages in the cemetery register (below) showing those who have been identified and stating that their names would be removed from this memorial in due course.
Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery
This beautiful cemetery can be found by continuing to follow the D22C road north-west from VC Corner Cemetery and taking the D175 turn to the right shortly after the road crosses a stream. The cemetery is reached by a path that crosses a moat. The moat runs all around the cemetery, and ducks can sometimes be seen wandering among the graves here.
Started very early in the War, in October 1914, this cemetery was used until July 1915, and at the time of the Armistice contained just 123 burials. After the Armistice, more burials were brought here, from other small cemeteries and the battlefields nearby, including Aubers Ridge, Loos and also Fromelles. There are now 356 burials here, with 207 of these unknown. There are five special memorials to men known or believed to be buried here, located at the rear of the cemetery.
Many of the headstones of unknown soldiers simply state “A Soldier of the Great War: Known Unto God”. Occasionally there was sufficient information to identify the unit the soldier had served with, in which case this was included on his headstone. Sometimes his rank was known, or even just the fact he was an officer (as with the grave at Le Trou, shown above right).
Other Sites nearby
Memorial to Captain Paul Kennedy
On the D22C heading north out of the village is one of many private memorials on the Western Front. Travelling from Fromelles village, this is reached before the Australian Memorial Park. This private memorial was erected to commemorate Captain Paul Adrian Kennedy, of the Rifle Brigade, killed during the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
Captain Kennedy has no known grave and is formally commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, which is located in Belgium but is not far north of here. The memorial here at Fromelles to Captain Kennedy also commemorates three of his fellow officers as well as all the others who fell at Aubers Ridge on the 9th of May 1915 (shown in the inscription below).
The other three officers mentioned on the memorial are Lieutenants Talbot Stanhope and Edward Liegh, and Second Lieutenant The Honourable Henry Hardinge. Like Kennedy, they have no known graves and like him, they are commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.
Memorial to World War Two Pilot Kenneth Bramble
Whilst not from the Great War, just a little further south on the same road is another private memorial. This is to Sergeant Kenneth Bramble, a pilot in the Second World War who was shot down in his Spitfire near here.
The “Hitler” Bunker
From Fromelles, the D141, (Route D’Aubers) runs west, and after about 500 yards there is a large bunker to the north side of the road. This is sometimes known as the ‘Hitler bunker’, as Hitler is supposed to have visited this spot in 1940. He fought in this area in the Great War.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Major & Mrs Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Western Front – North
Commonwealths Wargraves Commission website