Article: was the Australian Official History more truthful than the British? An essay by Chris Baker
The report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee, published in May 1921, gave title to an inglorious episode that took place south of Armentières on 19 July 1916: the Attack at Fromelles. This essay examines the treatment of this event by the Australian and British official historians. 
The attack at Fromelles was, for the British, a relatively minor action involving two Divisions at a time when very much greater attention was being paid to the offensive recently opened on the Somme where much larger forces were deployed and upon which hung genuine hopes of victory. Expectations for the Fromelles operation were not high. In consequence the lack of any major or lasting achievement became perhaps not immaterial but also not particularly noteworthy. The British formation involved, 61 (2nd South Midland) Division, going into action for the first time, suffered 1547 casualties – tragic under most circumstances: comparatively light in July 1916. The British Official History, the relevant volume being written by Captain Wilfrid Miles with a preface by Brigadier-General James Edmonds, covers the attack in a single chapter of just 17 pages.
For the Australians, Fromelles assumed a very much greater significance. The Australian Imperial Force [AIF] had moved to France as recently as June 1916 and while it had undertaken a number of trench raids after moving into the front line, Fromelles was its first large scale action since Gallipoli. In addition, the formation that took part - 5 Australian Division under the command of Major-General the Hon. James Whiteside McCay - was the newest element, having been created in Egypt in February 1916 and yet to enter a fight. The Divisional casualty return at the conclusion of the attack at midday on 20 July totalled 5355 lost, of whom 506 were known to be dead and a further 1700 missing. Given its relative importance to the Australians, it is perhaps understandable that official historian Charles Bean’s chapter on Fromelles would be rather more extensive than Miles’ version, but at 119 pages long (admittedly including a number of sketch maps) it is seven times longer, reflecting a very different degree of detail.
Bean relates fragments of the story down to platoon, section or individual level and assesses the decisions and effects of the attack in considerably greater depth than does the British version. The sheer effort to collect and make sense of such detail is impressive.
The two versions agree on the essential points. On 5 July 1916, British General Headquarters [GHQ] informed the commanders of First, Second and Third Armies that prospects for Fourth Army on the Somme were encouraging. Consequently, on 8 July General Sir Charles Monro (General Officer Commanding [GOC] First Army) ordered Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Haking (GOC XI Corps) to prepare a scheme with two Divisions to pierce the enemy line, assuming that things continued to go well and the enemy probably contemplating a widespread retreat. Haking – ever an ambitious ‘thruster’ - proposed the capture of the Aubers Ridge, including the villages of Aubers and Fromelles. But as preparations began at Fromelles, things were not progressing as well on the Somme as GHQ had hoped.
The general staff, now looking into the several operations recently suggested, concluded that the attack on Aubers-Fromelles, undertaken as an artillery demonstration,” would “form a useful diversion and help the southern operations.” … The action could, “for the present, be purely one of artillery,” combined perhaps with a few raids, but designed to force the enemy to believe that an important offensive was contemplated.
There was much delay and uncertainty, Zero hour being moved on several occasions due to poor weather and uncertain results of the bombardment. There were at GHQ deep misgivings that the artillery demonstration they thought was being prepared was still taking the form of a considerable infantry assault. Both Monro and Haking gave assurances that all was well and they were against cancellation or postponement. 
|This is one of the excellent sketch maps contained in the Australian Official History, showing the front selected for the attack. 5th Australian and 61st (2nd South Midland) Division made the attack, faced by the same 6th Bavarian Reserve Division that had inflicted such a comparatively easy defeat on 8th Division in 1915.|
The attacking infantry were cut down by unsuppressed machine guns and artillery, and although at the extremes small numbers of men broke into the German front trench and a few went beyond into a confusing series of ditches that made up the support line, in the centre failure to capture the strongly held Sugar Loaf salient proved critical. The attack dwindled and was halted after consideration of a renewal of the assault.
Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, born in November 1879 of middle class parentage in Australia but educated in England – Clifton College and Hertford College, Oxford – was a professional journalist, appointed as an official correspondent with the AIF after a ballot of members of the Australian Journalists Association in 1914. He was appointed Official Historian in 1919 and spent most of the rest of his life dedicated to the production of the twelve volumes that made up the history, together with his many other written works and the establishment of the Australian War Memorial.
A theme that runs through Bean’s work is a dedication to relating the ‘truth’ and expressing historical events in a frank manner, with public interest in mind. As early as 1901 and while still in England, reacting to press coverage of the rate of sickness among civilians in the concentration camps in South Africa, he said: I do not think that any good cause can be harmed by the publication of the truth, though only harm can come from its suppression. 
Much later, in his own diary when reflecting on his role as an historian: And if the historian cannot write that drama in its full truth, with the interplay of good and evil, wisdom and folly, of all parties working to its complex conclusion, then so much less the historian he.
Bean makes the point too in the eventual Official History. In this quotation, the ‘editor’ and ‘writer’ is Bean himself: While the author of the volume upon the War Effort in Australia was selected by the Government, the choice of writers for the other portions, which deal with the actual fighting, was left to their editor. For this privilege; for the absolute freedom (except in the case of the naval volume) from all censorship ; for every possible assistance towards elucidating the truth, both as editor and writer, he is indebted to the Government of Australia, and especially to the Prime Minister, the Right Honorable W. M. Hughes;… He is also deeply grateful to the British censors, and particularly to Colonel J. C. Faunthorpe and Major Neville Lytton, of whom the former fought so vigorously for the correspondents and the policy of publicity that he was transferred to a less controversial position…
In his search for rigid accuracy the writer was guided by one deliberate and settled principle. The more he saw and knew of the men and officers of the Australian Imperial Force the more fully did the writer become convinced that the only memorial which could be worthy of them was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war. From the moment when, early in the war, he realised this, his duty became strangely simple---to record the plain and absolute truth so far as it was within his limited power to compass it. To the men and officers of the Australian Forces, both those who live and those who fell, whose comradeship is his proudest and dearest memory, he dedicates this effort to produce a history in which he has striven to attain a truthfulness worthy of them and of their nation.
Bean conceived the Official History to be not only factually accurate but readable by the layman and military expert alike. This no doubt stemmed from his early days as a press correspondent, and his work remains easy and engaging to the modern reader.
Bean accompanied the AIF to Gallipoli, Egypt and France and was personally acquainted with all the key individuals involved in the planning and execution of the Fromelles operation. He travelled up from the Somme and arrived on the Fromelles front the day after the attack, there witnessing terrible scenes, the trenches and no man’s land still being littered with dead and wounded men. At no time at Gallipoli had the Australians suffered losses of this scale: Fromelles was “unexampled in the history of the AIF” according to his diary, and – soon to be reinforced by a similar experience at Pozières – left a considerable impression on him. He was angered too by what appeared to him to be a whitewash, when the official communiqués covering the attack were released. He went to some length in the Official History to draw attention to this.
In accordance with the policy at this time adopted
by GHQ, the severity of this reverse, though of course well known to
the German Army and people, was concealed from the British public in the
Yesterday evening, south of Armentieres, we carried out some important
raids on a front of two miles in which Australian troops took part. About
14 German prisoners were captured.
The communiqué issued by the German headquarters was - as usual when German troops were successful, but not otherwise - fairly accurate. … The main facts soon became known in Australia, and went far to shake the confidence of part of the public in the British official statements, which at first had been accepted as invariably true.
Whether Australian public confidence in British news headlines was really shaken is perhaps less certain than that Bean would have regarded this as yet another example of exasperating British staff incompetence and haughty attitude to the Australians. His views on both factors formed at Gallipoli and were reinforced while in Egypt:…there seems to be the same general muddle which is the one thing that impresses you with almost everything this British staff has done as far as we have seen it.
British staff here hate the Australians pretty badly – it is the English common people who like us; with the exception of those British officers who have fought with us, the British officer generally does not like us.
His prejudices did not stop at this, for it is his promotion of Australian national pride and the development of the “Digger” or “Anzac” soldier and the mythology surrounding him that permeates the Official History and influences his interpretation far more than any anti-British stance. This idealised Australian viewpoint formed early in him. In 1907, in “The Impressions of a New Chum”, written but not published as a book but taken up in extract form by the Sydney Morning Herald, Bean painted a vivid picture of life in the New South Wales outback as seen by a recently returned son. In “The Ideal Australian”, he said in 1908: The Australian finds his ideal in that strong-hearted and sturdy philosopher who is being at this day turned out by the thousand for him in the bush….he is to be an adventurer with all the adventurer’s frank and generous virility…to own no superior beneath the King…
Fewster makes the point that the genesis of Bean’s Anzac legend began in his travel through New South Wales and the articles he wrote before 1914, but by the time he left Gallipoli his ideas on the Australian vis-à-vis the British character and future prospects for the Empire were set in clear focus. By late November 1915, Bean’s admiration for the Anzac soldier was such that he thought he could spot one in a crowd. He said this after a yarn with Brudenell White: We both notice that the Australians here can be picked out on the instant by their faces – a little hard, but the strong, lined, individual faces which men get who stand and think by themselves.
The implication of this presumably being that the British troops were less distinctive and were as such because they did not “think for themselves”. The idea of Digger mateship transcending authority is explicit in the following paragraph, referring to the aftermath of an order from Major-General Sir James McCay, General Officer Commanding 5 Australian Division, to halt an informal truce that had been arranged for the Australians to collect their wounded: Then was seen, along the whole front of the 5th Division, that magnificent tribute of devotion which the Australian soldier never failed to pay to his mates. For three days and nights, taking the chance of wounds and death, single men and parties continued to go out in answer to the appeal from No-Man’s Land.
One of the five Australian Division brigadiers present at Fromelles, later Major-General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott - who also had a renowned anti-British and pro-Digger stance – described how Bean had assigned most blame for the failed attack: As to the conduct of the battle, Captain Bean, our official historian, who is generally most lenient towards official blundering, found himself forced to condemn it in mild but no uncertain terms. At page 444, Volume 3, of the Official History he states: ‘The reasons for this failure seem to have been loose thinking and somewhat reckless decision on the part of the Higher Staff.
Yet Bean’s actual wording on who and where in the Higher Staff lay responsibility was tame. In reality, while his quest for honesty and truth was laudable, Bean found it difficult to deliver, especially when it came to the sensitivities of describing negative aspects of the performance of senior commanders, both Australian and British, who were still alive.
…as Bean was to find out throughout his tenure as an official historian and writer, the truth is hard to define, reports and reputations conflict, and much evidence lies in grey areas, so that compromises have to be made.
It seems that at the time, it was not Haking, Monro or GHQ but McCay who was widely blamed for the appalling losses to the Division (as he had been for two other costly undertakings – an advance of 2 Brigade at Cape Helles and a desert march by 5 Division in Egypt). Bean however defended him, saying that “the authorities of the AIF were well aware of the truth” of Fromelles. This was despite Bean having no great regard for McCay himself.  Elliott firmly believed that Haking had managed to successfully place blame onto McCay, then “got away with it and retained his command till the end of the war”.  Both Elliott and Bean placed judgement for the failure particularly on Haking for an unrealistic plan but also on 61 Division and its failure to suppress or capture the enemy salient at the Sugar Loaf.
The 5th Australian Division was crippled by the fight at Fromelles, and not until the end of the summer, when it raided the German trenches frequently and successfully, did it regain its full self-confidence. A particularly unfortunate, but almost inevitable, result of the fight was that, having been unwisely combined with a British division whose value for offence, in spite of the devoted gallantry of many of its members, was recognised as doubtful, the Australian soldiers tended to accept the judgment - often unjust, but already deeply impressed by the occurrences at the Suvla landing - that the Tommies could not be relied upon to uphold a flankin a stiff fight.
Whilst it is apparent that there were genuine errors of judgement and staff work higher up, it was, surely, questionable that the fighting value of the 61 Division was any less than 5 Australian, either before or in the immediate aftermath of Fromelles. Neither had seen any significant action prior to this and neither acquitted itself with notable skill during the battle. 61 Division was certainly under strength and in part composed of men who had initially not wished to submit for overseas service, but otherwise was in no worse condition of preparation than the Kitchener Divisions that had been committed at Loos or on the Somme. The performance of the Division in its first action was not notably worse than most of its fellow second-line Territorial Divisions.  It might even be argued that in taking early action to avoid casualties they had behaved with caution appropriate to the circumstances. The “unwise combination” was not 5 Australian with 61 Division, but that two inexperienced formations made up the entire attacking force.  Bean’s comments may be interpreted as saying that the Australian Division was a good one and everything it did was right, proper and courageous – and that everything the British Division did was incompetent and valueless at any level above the gallant individual. Hardly the ‘truth’ or ‘rigid accuracy’, despite his best intentions.
This is a signal contained within the operational records of 61st Divisional HQ. (National Archives, piece WO95/3033, Crown Copyright). It gives some idea of the delay before the attack and is surely an example of poor staff work that was bound to confuse the attacking units and place men's lives at risk.
To: 182, 183, 184 Infantry Brigades, CRA [Divisional Commander Royal Artillery], CRE [Divisional Commander Royal Engineers], 1/5 Cornwall LI [Divisional Pioneer Battalion] 16 July 10.50pm. From: 61 Divisional HQ.
"It may be necessary to change Zero time and the order changing it may be received after the hour stated in orders AAA Acknowledgement from every Company in the front line and from every battery will be obtained for the message containing this order AAA Acknowledge"
The British version of events was compiled by Captain Wilfrid Miles under the guidance of Brigadier-General James Edmonds, who also wrote the preface to this volume. Both were career soldiers who moved into jobs creating the historical record late in their military careers.
Bean and Edmonds frequently conferred on the histories. The latter was sceptical of the value of Bean’s unmilitary style and disliked the position he had taken with regard to the British – in short, he did not believe Bean was qualified for the task. This statement is typical: I have spent considerable time over the TS. Chapters of the Australian history dealing with the later part of 1917, sent to me for criticism by Dr. Bean – it having been arranged, in view of errors in the early volumes, that the British authorities should have a chance of correcting their many misleading and erroneous statements…. He [Bean] founded his narrative far too much on general gossip without reference to documents and has little idea of how Armies are commanded and Staff work done.
James Edward Edmonds passed into the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in the year that Charles Bean was born and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers two years later at the age of 20. A bright, prize winning, student, he achieved the status of psc (Passed Staff College) in 1895, having been a peer of Douglas Haig and Edmund Allenby. While at Staff College he revealed an early interest in military history and began to write The History of the Civil War in the United States 1861-1865, which was eventually published by Methuen in 1905. Edmonds was at the rank of Colonel and GSO1 of 4 Division when it landed in France in August 1914.  His role with a fighting formation was short lived, for his health deteriorated in the stress of the withdrawal from Mons. He was soon appointed to an engineering staff role at GHQ, where he spent the rest of the war. On 23 November 1918, he was appointed Deputy Engineer-in-Chief and given temporary rank of Brigadier-General. He attained the maximum age limit on 6 February 1919 and was placed on the retired list with the honorary rank of Brigadier-General. Just five days before this he had been appointed to the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence as Director, taking over responsibility for the production of the Official History. This became a life’s work, for he was heavily involved until the last volume was produced in 1949. Edmond’s wrote most of the volumes that covered the events in France and Belgium and oversaw all others. On arrival at the Historical Section, he immediately grasped the situation. The section was undermanned, underpaid, overworked and chaotic. It is to his credit that he took the situation in hand and developed efficient machinery for producing the histories. Among his early acts was a suggestion that the Government should ask his predecessor Sir John Fortescue to return his salary! 
Two of the volumes, on the 1916 battles of the Somme and the 1917 battle of Cambrai, were written by Wilfrid Miles. The Somme volume covering Fromelles was published in 1938, nine years after Bean’s work. Miles’ appointment was not merely to provide additional writing capacity but typical of Edmonds thinking: I consider the work can be done more efficiently and quicker by a partnership than by a single individual and I have generally in my private work (e.g. “History of the American Civil War”) written in partnership. In official work such partnership is particularly necessary as an insurance against error and misjudgements. This is the logic of an engineer: productive and efficient, conscious of risk – but inevitably at the cost of colour and personality.
On taking over responsibility for the history, Edmonds clarified the style and purpose of the work, conceiving it as a military textbook. Consequently it is quite different to the Australian version, notably in avoiding detail – for example, rarely are actions of units smaller than a company discussed and individuals below Lieutenant-Colonel very rarely mentioned unless they had done something particularly noteworthy. The ‘broad brush’ approach is most apparent in the volumes dealing with very large and complex operations such as the Somme or the defence against the German offensives in 1918. Such were these events, it is often difficult to keep up with the story at a unit level, let alone individual, and to indulge in the level of detail that Bean was able to cover would have made these works impractical to produce and quite probably extraordinarily difficult to follow. There is no doubt that there is a loss of human interest as a result, and indeed Edmonds was criticised for producing an unemotional, uninvolving study.
Edmonds has also been accused of bias in favour of the higher command and of being protective to Haig and others among the officer class. The chapter on Fromelles assigns blame to no one. Instead, the reader is asked to believe that The pity of it was that the action need not have been fought. To have delivered battle at all…betrayed a grave under-estimate of the enemy’s powers of resistance.
We are left to guess how such an underestimate came about and why the attack was finally ordered. Miles and Edmonds were not alone in leaving some open questions, and it is the areas that neither Bean nor Miles address that remain of interest and open for research. For example: what motivated Monro and Haking to proceed with the attack, when there was little to gain, the forces at their disposal were untested and the artillery preparation of dubious effect? Why, when Monro had a change of heart and requested cancellation, did Haig insist on carrying on? What aspects of their training caused those men of 5 Australian Division who did reach the enemy front line to vacate it and move forward? Was 61 Division’s lower casualty rate the result of due caution or lack of will?
While the differences between the two histories are striking, it is difficult to say that one is more truthful than the other. While they are both apparently reliable in terms of facts when compared with primary sources and indeed in both cases drew upon them, the two histories are presented in wholly different styles in terms of language, depth and detail, for their authors sought to produce them for quite different purposes. Both are affected by the prejudices of their authors and the sensitivities they felt for open discussion of the less praiseworthy factors of performance of key individuals, many of whom were still alive when the histories were published.
Taken in the round, while Bean’s version and interpretation of Fromelles is undoubtedly more lively and colourful, it is in reality no more truthful than Miles’ rather less ornamented treatment. Both are remarkably readable; both present the essentials of the affair well and are a valuable record – and both suffer from the constraints placed upon them by time, relationships and human nature.
1. For a considerable time, the affair was known to the Australians as The Battle of Fleurbaix. An example of the earlier title is given in Senior Chaplain James Green’s “Fleurbaix – the mystery battle of the AIF”, an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 July 1919. The German official histories refer to the attack as the “Gefecht bei Fromelles”. Fleurbaix was behind the Australian front and Fromelles behind German lines in July 1916.
2. Captain W. Miles, History of the Great War based on official documents – Military Operations – France and Belgium, 1916 – 2nd July 1916 to the end of the Battles of the Somme (London: Macmillan, 1938).
4. The casualty figures quoted are from the operational records: war diary, 5th Australian Division General Staff. National Archives, Kew. Piece WO95/3527. The same figures were used in both histories. Of the total given as missing, P. Regan’s thesis Neglected Australians: Prisoners of War from the Western Front, 1916-1918, University of New South Wales, 2005, suggests that the Division lost some 1600 men as prisoners.
6. This was the very similar to the objective set for 8th Division, when it attacked over the same ground on 9 May 1915. This had been an unmitigated disaster, for the Division lost 4682 men for no gain of ground and indiscernible effect on assisting a much larger French attack taking place north of Arras. The German formation opposite in 1916 was the same 6th Bavarian Reserve Division that had inflicted such a comparatively easy defeat on 8th Division.
8. Bean, Australian Official History, Volume 3, page 347 makes the point that several very senior Australian commanders had taken steps to warn of the risks of the proposed operation. No mention of this is made in the British version. On p.349, Bean suggests that Monro later changed his mind and requested cancellation, but GHQ refused to allow it.
13. C.E.W. Bean, Gallipoli Correspondent: the front line diary of C.E.W. Bean selected and annotated by Kevin Fewster (North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983), p.99, quoting from Bean’s diary entry on 8 May 1915. To be fair to Bean, one should point out that the Dardanelles Royal Commission agreed with him on this matter.
18. Major-General H.E. Elliott, p.1 of lecture notes republished in The Duckboard journal of 1 September 1930, a copy of which is included the war diary, 5th Australian Division General Staff. This is held at the National Archives, Kew, document WO95/3527. The lecture is entitled ‘The battle of Fleurbaix’.
22. The failure of 61 Division at the Sugar Loaf allowed unhindered heavy enfilade fire to be aimed at the Australian units. The tactical problem this caused was admitted by Haking himself, in a report that he sent to GHQ on 26 July, quoted in Ellis, The story of the Fifth Australian Division, page 113.
24. The first major commitment of the second-line Divisions in France can be identified as follows, these facts coming from a variety of sources including Captain C. Falls, History of the Great War based on official documents – Military Operations – France and Belgium, 1917 – The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Battles of Arras (London: Macmillan, 1940) and J. Stirling, The Territorial Divisions 1914-1918 (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1922).:
- 57 (2nd West Lancashire) went into action north of Poelcapelle on 26 October 1917 on a single Brigade front. In appalling ground conditions, they barely moved from their start line and in so doing suffered 1634 casualties.
- 58 (2/1st London) completed the capture of Bullecourt on 17 May 1917. After the village had been the epicentre of great violence over the preceding two weeks, 58 Division caught the enemy preparing to withdraw. Whilst this is far from failure of the scale of Fromelles it hardly qualifies as a great success.
- 59 (2nd North Midland), arriving in France after a role in quelling the Irish rebellion in 1916, had its first major engagement near ‘s Graventafel on 26 September 1917. Attacking on a two-brigade front it met comparatively light opposition and achieved its objectives for moderate cost.
- 62 (2nd West Riding) also had its first serious battle at Bullecourt. It joined the aborted attack there on 11 April 1917 and suffered serious casualties but the larger effort was the renewed assault on Bullecourt made on 3 May. All three brigades made the attack and suffered almost 3000 casualties in failing to reach the objective. Bullecourt was admittedly an extraordinarily tough nut to crack, so the performance of the Division should not necessarily be regarded as poor.
- 60 (2/2nd London) was deployed in Salonika and Palestine.
25. Haking submitted a report on 24 July 1916 to Advanced First Army HQ, saying that the problem was the inexperience of the two Divisions: “with two trained Divisions the position would have been a gift after the artillery bombardment”. One is forced to wonder about his misplaced confidence in two untried formations when he was blithely targeting the Aubers Ridge as the objective of their advance.
This article was originally an essay submitted as part of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the course of British First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham Centre for First World War Studies 2007.
One thing I should have said, and did in an amended version published by the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute of New South Wales in 2008, is that 5th Australian Division did contain a proportion of troops who had seen service at Gallipoli.