As far as action was concerned the soldiers were introduced to the pummelling artillery barrages, the increased use of aeroplanes and the regular raiding parties launched across no-mans-land. However these actions were all limited in scope and involved no major offensives. The Australian raids were conducted mostly at night and as the men became more used to the conditions in France, they recognised that raids were incidents as inevitable as thunderstorms.
All of this changed 19 July, 1916 with the Australian engagement at Fromelles. This engagement was actually a late add-on to the planning for the Somme offensive which had been hatched by the Allies in February. July had always been the intended date for launching the offensive but things had become more complicated when on 21 February the German’s launched their own offensive in Verdun.
The attack on Verdun was the supreme German effort in 1916 and absorbed the greater part of the troops whom the French had intended to reserve for the offensive on the Somme. This forced them to drag other portions of the Army into the engagement. As a result they felt it was necessary to launch a series of feints around Fromelles soon after the offensive had begun. While this seemed folly to many it was initially given oxygen because the British command originally only planned to use the Australian artillery and not involve the ground troops. In part this was because they felt the infantry forces in this sector were too new to the Western Front and the German entrenchments too strong.
Over June and July the ANZAC’s were augmented by the arrival of the 2 ANZAC Corps which had been training in Egypt and holding the defences east of the Suez Canal. In fact by 8 July, 100,000 of the 385,000 troops in the British Second Army were made up of ANZAC’s from the 1, 2, 4 and 5 Australian Divisions and 1 and 2 ANZAC Corps.
On 1 July the British and French offensive in the Somme began. The terrific bombardment in the lead up had weakened but not demolished the German defences and by the evening of 1 July the French had had some success south of the Somme and around Ancre the British had advanced about a mile but north of Bapaume road they had failed to attain their objectives and advance north of Ancre was abandoned. By July 14 the Germans were still on the defensive across many parts of their front and were forced to bring in reinforcements from some of the other parts of the front, including part of the 6 Bavarian Reserve Division holding the ‘Sugar-Loaf’ salient across from the ANZACs. .
At the beginning of June 1916 the British commanders had discussed a second Army offensive on Messines but there had been concerns about the lack of experience of many of the troops. As a result these plans were shelved but by 7 July General Plumer was contemplating an operation involving a smaller number of troops, near to the ‘Sugar Loaf’ salient.
This operation was originally planned as a purely artillery demonstration at Aubers/Fromelles to divert German troops from reinforcing the Somme. But by 14 July had been extended to include a limited infantry attack with troops from the First Army providing two divisions and the Second Army one. After redeployment of reserves and reinforcements the troops were finally in position and ready by day-break of 17 July. However even at this late stage there General Munro pointed out the the attack was not essential to the overall Somme strategy and could possibly be postponed. This was rejected by the commanders , in particular General Haking. As it turned out heavy rainfall made it difficult to bring the heavy artillery into position and a combination of rain and mist made it impossible to register the guns, and with great reluctance Haking was forced to postpone the attack till later.
On the 19 July, 1916, after an barrage of the German trenches, the assault finally began. In the following 24 hours Australia would experience it’s ‘bloodiest day’ of fighting on record with over 5,500 casuaties, 2000 of whom were killed.
Suggested first by Haking as a feint attack; then by Plumer as a part of a victorious advance; rejected by Munro in favour of an attack elsewhere; put forward again by GHQ as a ‘purely artillery’ demonstration; ordered as a demonstration but with an infantry operation added, according to Haking’s plan and through his emphatic advocacy; almost cancelled – through weather and the doubts of GHQ – and finally reinstated by Haig, apparently as an urgent demonstration – such were the changes of form through which the plans of this ill-fated operation had successively passed – Charles Bean, Official History, 1941.
Charles Bean, Official History of the War 1914-1918 Volume 12, The AIF in France 1916, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941