THE VINCENTS





LAURENCE STANLEY VINCENT (11/1894-19/07/1916)

Presentation by David Hornby to Wellington Historical Society


This is the story of Laurence Stanley Vincent born in November 1894 in Narrabri. Laurie was the eldest son of Charles Vintzentz (Anglized to

Vincent) & Isabella Caraline Magann. Charles owned a store at Narrabri West which was burnt down in the big fire of 28/12/1911. Rita (my mother) wasn't there at that time but with

Grandma Roser at Duncans Creek. She was with Grandma until she was 7 years old. Fortunately, the shop was insured and Charles was able to rent a new shop in Balmain the same year. After Laurie's death in 1916 the family

moved to their own shop in Lewisham.


Laurie enlisted on 5/7/1915 at 21 years of age . Private #777 in the 30 th Battalion. After enlisting Laurie trained with the battalion in Egypt withtheremnants of the Gallipoli campaign. They trained under General McCay and included a particularly strenuous desert march. They hadhe irksome and tiresome duty of guarding the Suez Canal and the monotony made the trainees look forward to some action excitement in France.









Looking at army records at the Oxley Museum (Wellington's Finest) it is surprising how many Australian recruits were reprimanded and punished for insubordination and larrikinism. This caused the dismay of British high command and disciplinarians such as McCay. It has been attributed to both the Australian psyche and the fact that they were volunteers.










From the picturesque villages of France the battalion was transported to the front at Fromelles. The postcard was sent on 2 July 1916, 17 days later he was dead. They barely had time to dig in and no time to reconnoitre the surroundings. The artillery, depleted of those experienced menwho joined the Middle East campaign, where unable to develop into an effective unit. This was to have dire consequences.







Field Marshall Haig looking at his map back at headquarters decided that Fromelles would be a good place for a feint attack to confuse the
enemy before the Somme campaign. Their ill preparedness was of no consequence.

They were ordered “over the top” on 19 July 1916. Only half the Australian troops had actually seen the front line and they had only been therefor 5 days!


Lauries' last letter:

France

14 th July 1916

My dear Mother and Father


Just a line or two to let see I am still going strong and in the best of health.

This is the first time we have been able to write for some days but I hope you will not worry about any delays in my letters;

put it down to military reasons.

Well Dear Parents we are now in the trenches and not having a bad time but it gets a bit warm when old “Fritz” gets “strafing” us

with shrapnel etc.

It is a case of hands down and under the “funk” boards then, but he makes more row than he does damage. There is not much to be

frightened of here, though the snipers are a bit busy and you do not waste much time getting past their spots.

I felt a bit scared for the first day but we are getting used to it now. It is like home (I don’t think).

The weather has been fairly good and it is not cold at all. The only thing I would like is a good bath. We have not had our clothes off yet.

There is not much to tell about the life here unless one told some of the impossible yarns some of the chaps do when writing home.

The tucker is good. Our cooks seem to be improving; perhaps they think we will lob a bomb on the cookhouse if they displease our

fastidious tastes.


We have a good little dugout pretty “comfy” there are two of us in it. We do most of our work at night and sleep during the daytime like night owls.

We had a paper mail some days ago, I also received your pack of cards; they came in very handy as our other pack was very dilapidated

looking, I have not received any parcels for a while but I think they must be delayed on account of our shifting about so much lately.


I had a card from Alf Wright the other day. He is over here somewhere and has had a turn in the front line. I have not heard from Ernie Benjosic

for a good while but suppose that a letterwill turn up sometime or other. I suppose Cec Pitoher has left by this I wrote him last mail.

I have not heard of any more of the boys enlisting yet; “coldiers” still seem to be very prevalent overthere.


Well dear Mum and Dad there is no more news to tell you at present so I must close this letter. Give my best love to all at home

and may God bless and keep you all is the earnest prayer of loving son


Laurie


THE BATTLE


It was common in correspondence for soldiers to wonder where their mates and relatives were and when found there was quite some

correspondence between them at the front. The term “coldiers” would appear to be a derogative term for those back home who were not

prepared to enlist.

The inexperienced artillery were unable to take out the concrete bunkers, the source of deadly machine gun cross fire or the watchtower in

which German observers were able to see well behind Australian lines. It has been reported that the artillery did not even possess a map!

On the other hand the German artillery were already proving to be deadly accurate aided by the lookouts in the high tower.


The Australian engineers trying to plant a torpedo device to make a pathway for the

impending attack where seen by the lookout who then guided the German artillery wiping out a unit of engineers. Before they even

went over the top, Australian causalities were high.


The inaccurate artillery bombardment also signalled to the Germans that an attack was imminent so that there was no element of surprise

- “the supreme element in war” - Elliot. Further, the German lookouts knew precisely what the Australians were doing. It's inconceivable that

theAustralian did not know about the lookout (in a church tower) and not make it the main target of their artillary.


To make matters worse, the artillery had only half the shells that High Command thought they had.


The Commander of the Australian 5 th Division, was General Sir James Whiteside McCay. He was 51 at the time of the battle of Fromelles.

While undoubtedly a brave soldier he led by fear and bluster rather than inspiration. The Bulletin wrote of his obituary in 1930 that while he

was a“bold soldier and a brave man” he was “about the most detested officer in the AIF" at an early age of the war and remained so to the

end”.











The German observers ensconced in the tower had clearly seen the massive troop movement and observed parties carrying ammunition and additional materials to the front line. It is incredible to think that no action was taken to take the watchtower out or that the assault still went ahead when none of the concrete blockhouses with their deadly crossfire machine guns had not been silenced.

The 5th Division was led by Brigadier General Elliott and he was profoundly concerned. The operation seemed inadvisable for a host of

reasons:

preparations would be rushed, the artillery wasinexperienced, and no man's land was too wide (400 metres in places). Elliott's men would

alsohave to advance opposite the formidable German strongpoint known as the Sugarloaf, anelevated concrete bastion bristling with

machine-guns.

McCay's orders were to show bayonets, the Germans would then show themselves and be shot down. This was to be repeated 3 times.

If this seems bizarre, it was. The Germans did not show themselves so that all the show of bayonets did was to warn them of an imminent

attack.

On 19/7/1916 the 5th Division went over the top to a “third” line. However, there was no third line and they had to dig in and seek shelter

best they could. The "charge" was further hindered by Haig's stupid order that soldiers were to walk slowly to the enemy line where

(accordingto Haig) the Germans would run away in fear! The idiocy of this order is breathtaking.


The unsubdued Sugarloaf machine guns inflicted calamitous casualties on the 15th Brigade. Its attacking battalions, the 59th and

60th, were practically wiped out. On the scene was WH "Jimmy" Downing, who served in Elliott's brigade during the war and became his

legal partner after it. He recorded his impressions:


Stammering scores of German machine-guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade. The air was thick with bullets,

swishing in a flat criss-crossed lattice of death ... Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked

from acomb ... Men were cut in two by streams of bullets [that] swept like whirling knives ... It was the charge of the Light Brigade once

more,but more terrible, more hopeless.


Running out of ammunition and all their officers killed or wounded. All they could do was charge back through the Germans to their own

line. Even so, Colonel Cass' party, although reduced to 7 unwounded men, captured 20 Germans.








The Division suffered 5533 causalities in 24 hours. Australia's worst 24 hours in history!

A cover up commenced almost immediately.The debacle was made worse by McCay when he refused a request by the Germans for a
 cease fire to retrieve the dead and wounded. However, the British had agreed leading to a surreal situation of a ceasefire and all quiet on the southern front while it was “business as usual” on the Australian front. For over a fortnight, search parties would go out into no man's land at night and to retrieve as many wounded and dead as they could. Wounded soldiers were still crawling back to the Australian lines a fortnight later having kept themselves alive by drinking water from shellholes.

McCay's disgusting actions meant there were now 2 Generals with the nickname “butcher”; Haig and McCay.


COVERUP AND CENSORSHIP


The coverup began almost immediately with the word Fromelles expunged from Australian history. This was because the Australian

Governmentwas wholly dependent on volunteers and did not want the public to know of another British disaster and massacre hard on the heels of Gallipoli.

The Australian records on Laurie run to about 40 pages.

Nowhere is Fromelles mentioned in the Australian records but it is mentioned by the German doctor's death certificate. The Germans had no

problem with the name "Fromelles"!

Every time my Grandmother and family asked about Laurie's place of death all they got was the standard reply “killed in France”. Yet, the

clerks that answered their queries knew it was Fromelles because of the German death certificate. My grandmother died never knowing

where herbeloved Laurie lay buried.

The War Graves Commission mandated that “Fromelles” cannot appear on any war memorial by excluding it from the list of allowable battles to be recorded.

This has to be the most successful piece of censorship in the Western world - 95 years of which 93 were without reason! The censorship

was not mandated but amazingly, was self imposed! Even the returned soldiers from that battle would for some reason, not refer to

Fromelles. It's beyond the comprehension of my generation.


After the battle the Germans sought permission from the Australian and British Governments to bury the dead soldiers in mass graves and

to their everlasting shame, both governments agreed. This is how the Australian Government would have it with about 160 lost soldiers,

“whereabouts unknown”. The government knew of the mass graves as they had approved them.


LAMBIS ENGLEZOS


Enter Lambis Englezos, stage right!

Labis' quest to find the missing diggers of Fromelles began with a simple calculation of the number men missing after the battle compared

to the number of unknown dead registered at the cemeteries in the region.

 

He figured if there are 163 dead unaccounted for and the records show that the Germans had buried 161 (Red Cross records) ; a strong

indication that the dead were buried nearby. But where?


With clever sleuthing using before and after aerial photographs he found what appeared to be new trenches, the size of mass graves at

Pheasant Wood. He and his team of supporters thought they knew where the missing 160 were buried. He made his findings public and

assumed that the bureaucracy would take notice and investigate the matter further.


How wrong he was! The bureaucrats and institutions such as the RSL showed complete disinterest and threw up obstacles to hinder

further investigations. However, he persevered, to the extent that he was considered a nutcase and nuisance by the establishment.





Lambis Englezos

Finally, after newspaper articles and a TV program but particularly questions in Parliament by a determined senator; an Expert Committee

was set up. After presenting arguments  usingaerial photographs and war records he established his case to be true “on the balance

of probabilities. That is, sufficient enough to warrant further investigation.


Not at all deterred by such evidence, the Committee rejected his arguments and told the schoolteacher to prove his case beyond

reasonable doubt! They concluded that there wasinsufficient evidence to carry out a non invasive investigation of the site. One suspects that

they were quite miffed by a non historian finding out so much. After a second hearingthey found the evidence was “insufficient, on

historical grounds, to support any further investigation of the site”.


Not a great day for the experts of the committee which included distinguished historians from the War Memorial and Defence.


Still public pressure continued and in 2006 Chris Bryant, a lawyer, joined the team. He asked pertinent lawyer type questions about who

was responsible for what and why and this worried the bureaucrats. He then obtained financial backing from a wealthy West Australian to

carry out a private dig. When he publicly announced this, the Expert Committee became extremely worried. It would be a bad look if a

private consortium uncovered the remains of Australian soldiers after the Committee had so strenuously denied the possibility.


This led to the Committee employing the GUARD team from Oxford University to carry out an initial non invasive examination using metal

detectors.A number of metal objects were detected and when dug up showed beyond doubt that Australian soldiers were buried on the site.

The results proved that Lambis' theory wascorrect. To give credit where credit is due, the unit set up by the Government, after realising

their massive mistake swung into action in a professional manner.


Firstly, it was necessary to obtain the owners' of Pheasant Wood permission to excavate further. Fortunately they were typical provincial

farmers in their 80s and were only too happy to let the Australian Government exhume the soldiers' remains from the site.


The exhumation was given to a private team who did an excellent job in bad weather. Surviving relatives were asked to provide a DNA

sample which consisted of two cheek swabswhich were sealed and mailed back to London. Myself, my sister and a cousin provided

samples so that Laurie's remains were positively identified.


On 19 July 2002 the anniversary of the battle, a commenration ceremony was held ar Fromelles and the dedication of Laurie's grave.

Unfortunately I was unasble to attend but my sister, cousin and their extended family did. My cousin Paul read out Laurie's last letter.





Hitler on left with dog that strayed from Australian lines


WHY FROMELLES SHOULD BE REMEMBERED


1. It's where about half of Gallipoli's veterans went and Australia is obsessed with Gallipoli

2. They were the first Australian troops to serve in Europe and therefore, the first “diggers”.

3. It was the worst 24 hours in Australia's history: 5533 causalities more than the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars combined

4. Reinforces the role played by inept British generals in both Gallipoli and the western front.

5. The opposing German forces were Bavarian with a certain Lance Corporal; Hitler.After defeating and occupying France Hitler

held a quiet celebrations with his former comrades at Fromelles.



Hitler's experience at Fromelles clearly made a deep impression on him. In 1942 he arranged for a memorial plaque to be erected on the

wall of his 1916 billet in nearby Fournes. The plaque was smashed after WW2 but restored and is now on display at the l'Association pour le

Souvenir de la Batailie de Fromelles museum above the Fromelles Town Hall.


Immediately after his army defeated France on 25 June 1940, Hitler set off on a tour of Fromelles battlefield with his comrades from 1916.

He also visited his old billet, regimental cemetery and the blockhouse where he had taken refuge from the attacking Australians

during the battle.


A photo of Hitler shows him with his comrades and a dog. The dog strayed from Australian lines. Hitler was a dog lover and made the dog

his pet. Eva Braun complained that for the 15 years she knew Hitler, all he could talk about was dogs and vegetarian food!


All Australians deserve to know that a lucky Australian bullet at Fromelles might have meant no World War 2.