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In 1998, the Australian Government opened the Australian Memorial Park in Fromelles (France) on a section of the old German Front line, with the 'Cobbers' Memorial taking pride of place on the land that was once a horrendous battlefield, and is a site of great significance to Australians.
The Australian Memorial Park was opened in July 1998 and was part of a collective of commemorative proceedings to mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The Cobbers Memorial was unveiled at the Park's opening, by the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the Honourable Bruce Scott MP, in the presence of the then Australian Minister for Defence, the Honourable Ian McLachlan, AO, MP and guests from France and Australia.
The Cobbers Memorial symbolises the aftermath of the battle, the comradeship, the bravery and the compassion of the troops, to ensure no one was left behind. It commemorates the Australians who fought and died, during Australia's first attack in France during the First World War, at the Battle of Fromelles.
The 5th Australian Division was the first Australian unit to take part in a significant assault on German trenches. Together with the 61st British Division, they attacked a strong German position known as 'Sugar Loaf', on 19 July 1916. This was planned as a diversionary attack on German positions, to stop reinforcement of their unit situated on the Somme.
The initial bombardment by the Allied forces was not effective in suppressing the German defences. Under constant machine-gun fire, the forces attempted their advance, but all ultimately ended up withdrawing to their initial positions.
After two days of heavy bombardment and fierce fighting, the casualties were heavy. Australia suffered over 5,500 dead and wounded. In just one night of battle, the number of Australian deaths came close to equalling the number of troops lost in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. The 61st British Division suffered over 1,500 casualties.
As the fighting ceased, hundreds of Australian wounded lay in 'No-Man's Land' between the lines. For three days and nights, and despite still being under enemy fire, troops went in to carry out the wounded. Hundreds of wounded were carried from the battlefield by stretcher parties, and many were carried on the back of a fellow soldier.
Sergeant Simon Fraser (31 December 1876 – 11 May 1917) of the 57th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, was one such soldier who tirelessly helped with the rescuing of his wounded comrades. When he was out bringing in wounded, he heard a distant call 'Don’t forget me, cobber'. Sergeant Fraser and other Australian troops went back again into danger, to find and rescue this wounded solider.
A ‘cobber’ is a friend, or a mate. It is a colloquial term said with fondness and had particular significance during the First World War, as a common word of the Australian soldiers' vernacular.
The Cobbers Memorial depicts Sergeant Fraser, and represents for those ensuing three days and nights, Australian mateship at its core.
Sergeant Fraser wrote in a letter home to his brothers, on 31 July 1916, shortly after the battle: "It was no light work getting in with a heavy weight on your back … You had to lie down, and get him [a wounded man] on your back; then rise and duck for your life with a chance of getting a bullet in you before you were safe."
Sadly, Sergeant Fraser never made it back to Australia after the War. He was killed in action on 11 May 1917, during an attack on the town of Bullecourt, some 60 kilometres from his feats of bravery during the Battle of Fromelles. Sergeant Fraser's body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing, at the Australian National Memorial in nearby Villers-Bretonneux.
The land on which the Memorial stands represents a place where so many lives were lost. The bronze sculpture, of the brave Australian troops under fire and carrying their mates on their backs, makes this Memorial a reflective, symbolic piece and recognises the comradeship for their 'cobber' mates.
In his dedication speech at the unveiling of the Cobbers Memorial just over 22 years ago, on 5 July 1998, the Hon. Bruce Scott MP spoke of the bravery of the troops, just like Sergeant Fraser, who returned to the battlefield to take the wounded soldiers to safety, and said "like Sergeant Fraser, we have returned to say we haven't forgotten."
On this day, 19 July 2022, we commemorate the 106th anniversary of Australia's first attack in France at Fromelles, during the First World War, and remember those soldiers who fought and died, and those who gallantly risked their lives to make sure no cobber was forgotten.