The Battle of the Somme lasted from the 1st July 1916 until 18th November 1916. To help advance Allied objectives, on the 19th July, having postponed for 24 hours, the Australian 5th Division, under the command of Major General J. W. McCay, began their assault on the ‘Sugerloaf’ at Fromelles, a salient held by German forces. It had been identified as an objective whose capture would divert German attention from Allied troops attacking elsewhere.
Among the soldiers serving in the 5th division was 3047 Private Robert Dewar, my great, great uncle. Assigned to the 55th Battalion, which in turn was assigned to the 14th Brigade, part of the 5th Division, Fromelles was the first engagement of the war for the 55th Battalion and so the first engagement for Robert. When the 14th Brigade attacked at 6pm on the 19th, hundreds of soldiers were mown down by German machine gunners whose commanders had realised the attack was merely intended as a feint. Robert and his comrades in the 55th Batallion were initially held in reserve, but, as the assault began to go horrifically wrong, they were ordered to provide a rearguard for the initial assault troops. The result was a catastrophic failure.
The Battle of Fromelles as been described ‘the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.’ The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, rendering it unable to engage in offensive operations for many months. 1,717 of those casualties were in the 14th Brigade. Robert was among them.
Identifying the remains of soldiers who died at Fromelles has been a priority for the Australian Army in the guise of The Fromelles Project. So far, 144 soldiers have been identified. Robert, in 2010, was one of the first, with my family providing DNA samples. On the 5th October 2014, just before dusk, Robert’s name was the eighth read out at the Tower of London in the moving Roll of Honour.
Tim Lycett’s book Fromelles: The Final Chapter contains a fascinating few paragraphs about Robert, describing how he came to be at Fromelles as well as his last moments. Over sixteen million people perished in World War One. Lycett reminds us that each one of those deaths was a tragedy, a life ripped out of a fabric of family, friends and ambitions:
Robert Dewar was born in London to a family with a long international maritime history. His father, also called Robert, was a very capable ship’s chief engineer of forty years’ experience and had been fortunate to survive the Volturno disaster in 1913, when a ship caught fire in the middle of a storm as it conveyed passengers – mostly immigrants – from Rotterdam to the United States. (Although several ships came to its rescue, the gale was too fierce and they were helpless to reach the stricken vessel until the sea had calmed. By then, approximately 135 people had died.)
The young Robert left England for Australia in 1907 as an unassisted immigrant and upon arrival took up a position as a tramway conductor in Sydney. Enlisting in late 1915, he embarked for Egypt just before Christmas. At the same time, Robert’s father was serving on troop transports in the Mediterranean. In June 1916, a few days before Robert sailed for France, father and son had a chance encounter at Port Said. They had not seen each other for nearly nine years, and the surprise reunion may have seemed like a good omen.
It’s highly likely that Robert Dewar Snr was the last parent of all the Australians killed at Fromelles to see his son alive.
On the night of 19th July, Private Robert Dewar was attached to the 55th Battalion’s prisoner guard, but when the situation became desperate, he was ordered forward to support the weakening Australian line. As reinforcements for the battered 53rd Battalion, Dewar and the 55th fought hard to repel German counter-attacks, even conducting a bayonet charge. Unfortunately, they were not able to restrain the Germans for long.
It was approaching morning when they finally realised their position was untenable and that withdrawal was the only option. As Dewar was returning to the Australian line, a shell burst close to him and, according to a witness, he was ‘knocked about a lot’ and killed.
Identifying Robert’s descendants was astonishingly simple. A Google search of his name yielded a website about the Volturno disaster. At that stage we weren’t sure what we were looking at, but we were delighted to discover it contained a great deal of information about Robert’s father and a relatively detailed biography. All we had to do then was email the website creator, who graciously forwarded our message of introduction, and in no time at all we had made contact with a living descendant in England who was more than happy to help.
It was our first search, but compared to many searches to come it was also, unfortunately, an exception to the rule.
One man who survived the Battle of Fromelles and indeed the whole war, returning to Australia in 1919, was Herbert Henry Harris, another private in the 55th Battalion. I wonder if Henry and Robert knew each other, perhaps sharing stories of back home, wondering what on earth they were doing in the mud and horror of France. Henry’s diary has been transcribed. His entries for the 17th to 21st July 1916 make for particularly poignant reading for me, knowing that it was when Robert died (the text is as written, the layout edited to make it easier to read and to remove non-chronological entries):
off to night to big battle Trust to God that I come through all right.
have not been paid since last entry so amount owing to me now is £2-9-1 to date with defferred pay 10.7-0. making £12-16.1 all told so I hope the wife gets it if I pass out. It promises to be worse than the other night.
was out there this morning carrying ammunitions. 5 miles out & 5 back & about 1 mile to Trenches did two trips
feel tired & hardly fit for what is in front of us, but its no use not being fit you have just got to do it
Good Bye Nell & Boys, Viv, Jean Syd Arthur Mary & Walter & Kate & all Friends hope it is only Au revoir.
A lot of the Boys have promised to send this diary on if I get knocked, am sure you will get something interesting out of it besides knowing that my thoughts have been with You & the Boys in every situation I have found myself. Write or get Tony to do so to Auntie Lucy & give her a summary of my adventures as well as Vivs, who bye the way has not joined us yet
9. p.m. Flaubeux is the name of the place where we were bombarded.
am writing this not 100 yds from our guns which are shelling the germs. & they are sending them in wholesale, its wonderful how any thing can live under them when the burst.
am on munition carrying again & it is a dangerous game, not knowing any minute when a shell will burst here.
The big thing did not come off last night as expected & dont know when it will.
Got letter from Willie Stewart last night
was out carrying munitions all day 60 lb Bombs etc am now out here again & the shells are flying round like ants its awful this is the big day & God knows how many of us will come out of it alive.
Thank god I am still alive and not wounded except for slight Bang on the finger from splinter of shell. My Steel Helmet saved me five times & how many escapes I had could not be counted
& if any man was thankful for his safety from such a hell I am he.
Nearly all our officers are dead or wounded & the Batallion is about half a company Batallion now.
the sights I saw will never be forgotten it was like a butchers shop the 53rd lost their Colonel, Major & Adjutant nearly all our Lieutenants are gone also our Sergeants & corporals
could you see the remnants of the Brigade eating Bread & cheese etc on the road side it would make you cry
of the 54th Batallion about 200 are left & they died like heroes every one of them. There are some Prisoners but we took about 200 germans so equalised that way.
We look a sorry crowd covered with mud from head to foot arms, legs, eyes, noses, fingers bound up. Yes by hell we caught it & those who think this war is nearly over are in for some surprises I give it another 2 years at the least.
One narrow escape I had. 3 of us were taking shelter from shells with our backs against a Trench island when a shell plumped right into the island shoving the dirt up against our backs but did not explode, if that was not Providence I dont know what is for had it exploded the 3 of us would be just about ready for cemertry by now.
It was a ghastly night stepping over the dead men in the trenches some of them being only half there a lot of my chums are gone & I can only account for 3 out of my section of 12.
We were highly complimented on the way in which we charged & fought & the Colonel said we were magnificent
the General was awfully pleased & said that the attack was done just as it was desired & that it was a feint to draw the Germans from the Somme front.
it succeeded alright & we took 200 Prisoners, some of the Boys got helmets & all sorts of things
We are away from the firing line & all done up & going to bed I dont want such an awful experience again & dread another battle, all our nerves are unstrung & the roar of the guns has deafened a lot of us, again Thanks to God for bringing me threw such a shambles.
We have hardly any officers left so have to be reorganised. I cant help the feeling that mother is interseeding for me, when the shells are bursting all around me & over me I get this thought into my brain, how I wish I could be the man she wanted me to be.
have not been paid yet so they owe me £2-12-1. & the amount to date now with deferred pay is £13-2-1.
7. am. all around me sleeping exhausted men, some moaning & others talking, the events of the last two days seem like some bad nightmare, if it hadn’t been for their marvellous Artillery we would have gone through the huns like a dose of salts when we got amongst them with the Bayonette they threw up their hands & howled for mercy or cleared for their lives & its certain that if we could only get them on the run it would soon be over they had with them 3 regiments of the Prussian guards but that made no difference to us. Our fellows went right through them & had they been supported would now hold their trenches & have taken thousands of prisoners. This is the third time these Trenches have been assaulted. The Tommies & Indians, & the Canadians & New Zers tried to take them but could do nothing
we took them but could not hold them a great feather in our cap.
now that I can calmly look back on the affair it seems simply a miracle that any of us came out of it unwounded.
The huns have been here two years & know our trenches as well as they know their own so could shell us when they liked.
I suppose there is some small report in the papers about it this morning it wont be much I’ll bet.
Just got two letters from Nell & Jack they still think am in Egypt wish I was. Shall answer Nells to day may be the last.
had a Roll call just now. I am the only one in 9 section & there are 9 in the Platoon we muster about ½ of a Company all told in A. the others likewise.
All my chums are dead or wounded & the guns are still Booming about 1 ½ miles away.
We are shifting again this morning farther away
should see Viv today or Tomorrow as the reinforcements are coming up.
Our poor Lieutenant Mendleson must have felt some premonition of being killed so he left a case of comforts to us 3 Platoon in case of his death & they are dividing it out now as we are only a handful & are sharing it with the rest
Just having tea & the shells are flying over our heads you dont know when you are out of danger here, the Planes are flying about & the enemy guns are firing at him, how long I wonder will this continue. A Hun Prisoner says the war will be over in August I hope he is not a liar.
We are all scattered about in little groups discussing the event & telling one another about this one gone and that one wounded its almost unbelievable to think of fellows with us a day ago & now, in the cemetry.
Expect to go back into the firing line Tomorrow night.
Below is a picture of Robert Dewar. His parents were Robert and Kate Dewar, who lived in a very ordinary suburban house at 700 Barking Road, Plaistow, London, England. I imagine Robert growing up there, playing in the garden, dreaming of adventures on the other side of the world. I imagine, too, that neither he nor his parents imagined that one day he would die in France in the most terrifying of circumstances.
A triptych is a work of art usually divided into three pieces. Typically, in a painting, the central panel is larger and flanked by two smaller, related panels. I wrote the following three poems inspired by the memory of Robert Dewar, those like him who gave their lives – and those they left behind.
He left her with a kiss,
Whistling Roses of Picardy,
And telling her he would be
Home by Christmas.
Before he climbed aboard
The clanking train, in
Swirls of coal smoke
And hissing steam,
He damped her eyes, his
Hanky soaked with tears,
Not blood, not yet,
And brushed her hair with
Hands that tilled earth,
That tied corn in sheaves,
That loosed rabbits from
Snares and made bread.
Young love, they agreed,
Proud and defiant,
Would win out and, in
Years to come, they would
tell their children the
Old tales of foreign lands,
Recalling the camaraderie
Of war and the ache
They shared in those
Brief months of parting.
They lie entombed in clay, cold and still,
Six feet under Belgian fields or
Broken-limbed beneath French meadows.
They kept no portrait in the attic,
But the years grind on without them,
Their worm-chewed bones tangled in
The roots of snowdrops and celandine.
They fell and not once since have known
That caress of soft sea breezes, nor
The bright slant of morning light that
Cuts its angles in the dust of books,
Nor the chill kiss of November’s dusk.
They were young men, mostly, fine
Sons and brothers ripped from time,
Dropped with holes in their skulls
In the darkest, loneliest hells.
Butchers, bakers, farmers, teachers,
Doctors, farriers, clerks, sweeps,
Blacksmiths, shipwrights, thieves,
Husbands, lovers, all the same,
Levelled by serge wool tunics and
Brass buttons and puttees strapped
To hobnailed ammunition boots procured
By flat-footed clerks in Woolwich.
Now, still rotting in a foreign soil,
Some as yet unknown or lost,
We remember men who laughed
On Sunday afternoons, who drank
Beer with friends and hoped for
Fine things on their wedding day.
And those we knew who loved them
Now rest, too, in gentler graves,
Freed from their empty years,
From that pain born on the day
That love was stolen with bullets
Made in Essen by girls with dreams.
She watched him leave,
Remembering strong arms
That lifted her from
The apple tree and held
Her tight when night
Gnawed her fingers
With cold teeth.
She had never heard of
Picardy, but she knew
Roses and the thorns
Lying hidden beneath
Beauty’s velvet folds,
The prick that draws
A bloody tear and lays
A pain far greater than
Might be thought fair
Or even possible.
The letter came as
He had attested,
Regrets and honour –
The deepest sympathy;
And when his watch and
buttons arrived, she wept,
And left them on the
Mantelpiece: a plain
Memorial to love now lost.