The mechanistic aspects of process of initiation of a mode-I fatigue crack in an aluminium alloy (AA 2219-T87) are studied in detail, both computationally as well as experimentally. Simulations are carried out under plane strain conditions with fatigue process zone modelled as stress-state–dependent cohesive elements along the expected mode-I failure path. An irreversible damage parameter that accounts for the progressive microstructural damage due to fatigue is employed to degrade cohesive properties. The simulations predict the location of initiation of the fatigue crack to be subsurface where the triaxiality and the opening tensile stresses are higher in comparison with that at the notch surface. Examination of the fracture surface profile of fracture test specimens near notch tip reveals a few types of regions and existence of a mesoscopic length scale that is the distance of the location of highest roughness from the notch root. A discussion is developed on the physical significance of the experimentally observed length scale. © 2019 Wiley Publishing Ltd.