Major Charles Holdorf at Fromelles
It is a cold, windy summer day in Dalarna, Sweden as I write, 19 July 2013. I have been reading a little about my great grandfather, Charles John Holdorf, born 1869 in Sydney. His parents were German migrants to Australia and he grew up in Goulburn, where he met his future wife, Florence Stacey, the daughter of English migrants.
Ninety seven years ago today the horrendous Battle of Fromelles began in northern France, one of Australia’s greatest military disasters. Charles was there, in the trenches, fighting in the Australian Imperial Forces for the Franco-British alliance against the German army. He could have been potentially fighting his cousins. Charles was in Europe for just over a year. When he returned to Australia he changed his name to Holford, a good English name. I wonder what he felt as he reflected on his army service in northern France, fighting the descendants of his forefathers.
Here is my father’s description of his grandfather’s involvement in the Great War:
Early in 1916, the Battalion, which was part of the 8th Brigade of the AIF 5th Division, travelled by sea to northern France and the Western Front. Their first major engagement was in the infamous Battle of Fromelles near the Belgian border. The main battle was from 19th to 22nd July, and they suffered the heaviest casualties ever recorded by the Australian forces. This was caused by the poor planning of the British generals who unrealistically ordered the Australian troops to charge over 350 metres of no-mans land in the face of deadly German machine gun fire. The British also failed to provide covering artillery fire. There were a total of 519 deaths from the 8th Brigade of which 338 bodies were never recovered. The opposing German force included Corporal Adolf Hitler.
During the battle, the Commanding Officer of the 54th Battalion (14th Brigade) became a casualty, and Major Holdorf was appointed to command this Battalion on 1st September, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. However his command only lasted until 6th November, when he was evacuated out on medical grounds.
In a few weeks we are going to France on holidays. The world has come a long way since WW1, when Europe was gripped by that cataclysmic conflict. It is hard to imagine the horror of those days in July 1916 as I look out on the cloudy skies over a peaceful landscape of forest, mountain and lake.