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JULY and AUGUST 1916

On a stone memorial at Pozieres in northern France:

"The ruin of Pozieres Windmill which lies here was the centre of the struggle in this part of the Somme battlefield in July and August 1916. It was captured on August 4 by Australian troops who fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war".

During the battle, the nearby village of Pozieres had been all but obliterated. So concentrated were the artillery barrages--hundreds of thousands of shells--that much of the place had been reduced to the finest dust. This was now kicked up in huge clouds by further barrages . . .

The town of Pozieres before it was obliterated
The village of Pozieres before it was obliterated in 1916.
(British Official Photograph)

More than 23,000 officers and men were killed and wounded, halving the 1st ANZAC Corps in less than seven weeks. The battlefield itself was little over a kilometre in size. All that was left was the rubble of Mouquet Farm, churned over trenches, and the horrible remains or parts of unburied comrades strewn over the area.

All that remained of the Pozieres Church after the battle.
All that remained of the Pozieres Church after the shelling.
(British Official Photograph)

Australian battalions moved seamlessly in and out of the killing fields. Victorians were in the thick of it. To minimise casualties, commanders at night put only minimal numbers of men into whatever remained of the trenches. Constant vigilance for inevitable and constant German counter-attacks was always needed. Gradually, the Australians--where British forces had failed elsewhere--captured the high ground, threatening the German stronghold at Thiepval.

Among the Victorians at Pozieres was Albert Jacka, Australia's first VC winner of WW1 at Gallipoli, whose 14th Battalion bore the brunt of a just such a German counter-attack. Leading only a seven-man team, and using rifles, bayonets and fists, Jacka's group managed to release Australian prisoners and was 'completely successful' in repelling the German counter-attack. 42 Germans were captured. Jacka himself had been shot three times at blank range--'each time the the terrific impact of the bullets fired at such close range swung me off my feet'--before he personally dispatched four Germans. Later he explained: 'they would have killed me the moment I turned my back'.

Such was the weird madness of warfare in the trenches of the Western Front. Man-to-man combat was one thing, but the constant artillery barrages were strangely impersonal. They here gained hundreds then thousands of victims with luck or careful registrations. The German shelling drove men mad simply waiting to be killed.

Archie Barwick's diary: 'All day long ground rocked and swayed backwards and forwards from the concussion . . . men were driven stark staring mad and more than one of them rushed out of the trench over towards the Germans, any amount of them could be seen crying and sobbing like children their nerves completely gone . . . we were nearly all in a state of silliness and half dazed but still the Australians refused to give ground. Men were buried by the dozen, but were frantically dug out again some dead and some alive'.

Australian Official Historian C E W Bean's diary on 25 July noted: 'Again the enemy's artillery was turned on. Pozieres was pounded more furiously than before, until by four in the afternoon it seemed to onlookers scarcely possible that humanity could have endured such an ordeal. The place could be picked out for miles by pillars of red and black dust towering over it like a Broken Hill [NSW] dust-storm'.

Stephen Egan
Stephen Ambrose Egan (left ) was killed at Pozieres
aged 18 years and ten months. Unable to get his
mother's permission to enlist, and being under age,
he joined the 15th Battalion using the false name
'J. Young' and making up other details. He went to
St Brendans RC School, Flemington, Victoria. Here
he is shown among young mates prior to departure
for the war. An investigation after the war stated:
'Witness saw soldier killed during a charge over
the Ridge at Pozieres. He had jumped up on the
parapet when a bomb burst, and wounded soldier
badly in the side. He lay in a dugout untill morning,
when he was taken to a dressing station, dying on
the way...After being wounded, soldier spoke to
witness, saying "I am Fininished", but left no
message ... Nicknamed 'Youngey'. Information
provided by Stephen Egan's proud nephew
Kevin Egan.

Victorian Alec Raws of the Victorian 23rd Battalion wrote: 'One feels on a battlefield like this that one can never survive, or that if the body holds, the brain must go forever. For the horrors that one sees and the never-ending shock of the shells is more than can be borne. Hell must be a home to it'.

Canadian battalions were brought up to the front to replace the decimated Australians. The Canadians then pushed forward to consolidate the position.

Recommended reading:

Charlton, Peter: Pozieres: Australians on the Somme 1916: Methuen Haynes (Methuen Australia P/L): 1985

Photo of loco 'Pozieres'  Australian forces took locomotives like these to
service trench warfare needs in France. This one, named 'Pozieres' after the terrible battle,
remained in Australia. It is now preserved in the 'Puffing Billy' Museum in Melbourne.

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