Russian Anzacs at Fromelles

July 20, 2016

At least 35 Russian born Anzacs participated in the attack on the Sugar-loaf salient (near Fromelles) on 19 July 1916. They were mostly Finns and men from the Baltic Provinces. Initially, the Australians were successful in driving the Germans out of their trenches right across the line, but at night the situation changed; finally, lacking in support from their British counterparts and with insufficient artillery support, the Australians had to withdraw, having suffered horrific casualties, amounting to 5533 men. The Russian losses were ten: five wounded; three killed; and two men taken prisoner, Andreas Voitkun from Latvia (also wounded) and Wolf Dorfman, from Rovno in Ukraine. The wounded were Peter Jurgenson, Edward Tomson, and George Reise from Estonia, William Stauwer from Latvia, and George Diaconescu from Romania, who enlisted as a Russian subject.

The three killed were Boris Soans from Estonia and Arthur John Savolainen from Finland, both former seamen, and Gershun Harbert, a Polish Jew. Harbert, a former tailor, had fallen sick on Gallipoli; then in Egypt, when his division made its infamous three-day march across the desert in full kit, he suffered heat-stroke. Despite his poor health he went to the Western Front, where he lasted only a few days. During the attack his 15th Brigade was in the worst position and had to cross the widest part of no-man’s-land under the German tempest of fire. Harbert found his end somewhere there among its ditches and furrows. He was reported ‘missing in action’. We shall never know what made him join the AIF, probably devotion to his new homeland. A human grain of sand, doing his bit …