Another tale of Australian courage.
This week we commemorate the Centenary of the Battle at Pozières. Like Gallipoli and Fromelles before it, Pozières was marked by a huge loss of Australian troops. Unlike the previous battles, Pozières represented a victory for the Australian divisions.
Pozières is a small village in the north of France situated in the Somme Valley. It was an important German stronghold. Pozières was an outpost that secured the German secondary trench system.
The war in France had slowed to a crawl. The Allies were realising that the Germans were well entrenched and would be difficult to dislodge. The Germans were under strict instructions not to cede any territory and to counterattack vigorously if any ground was lost to the enemy.
The 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian divisions together with the British 48th division were stationed near Pozières under the command of General Sir Hubert Gough. (Future Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was named after General Gough through his paternal grandfather).
The Australian 1st division captured the German front line on the 23–24 July 1916.
The German retaliation was horrific.
Some commentators have described it as the most concentrated artillery up until that time in history. Australians were surrounded with the German army on three sides and their own artillery firing from the rear.
Private Archie Barwick described the events of 24 July as follows:
“All day long the ground rocked and swayed backwards and forwards from concussion…. men were driven stark staring mad and more than one of them rushed from the trench over towards the Germans. Any amount of them could be seen crying ….. sobbing like children, their nerves completely gone.”
Most of these men had survived Gallipoli.
By 27 July the Australian 2nd division took over. Despite heavy bombardment the 2nd division advanced rather retreated and gained additional ground including the high ground called the Windmill.
The 4th division stepped in and on 6 August was confronted by a desperate final German counterattack. The Australians were caught by surprise. The 4th division was in crisis. At this moment, Albert Jacka who had won the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, emerged from his dugout with seven men and charged the German position from the rear. His actions inspired other Australian troops to leave their trenches and engage the Germans. Intense hand-to-hand combat ensued which the Australians won, forcing the Germans into retreat.
After 19 German attacks over 3 weeks, there were no more.
In a war of inches, the Australians had captured a little under a square mile, and exposed the German trench system.
But they paid a high price. In all, the three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties, which included 6,800 killed or later dead from wounds. This is to be compared with 132,000 Australians wounded and 46,000 dead after 33 months of fighting on the western front.
When the Canadians relieved the Australians on 3 September, more Australian lives were lost in eight weeks of fighting in France than had been lost in eight months at Gallipoli.
As First World War journalist and historian Charles Bean wrote:
“Pozières is more deeply sewn with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”
The First World War was the first industrial war where soldiers confronted artillery of deadly proportions; unknown in human history to that time. There were 4,000. Australian soldiers missing at Pozières. They were missing because their remains were scattered across the battlefield and could not be identified.
But as Dame Mary Gilmore wrote:
“They are not dead; not even broken.
Only their dust has gone back home to earth;
For they, the essential they, shall have rebirth
Whenever a word of them is spoken.”
Lest we forget.
Acknowledgements to Dr Brendan Nelson and his speech at the Australian War Memorial on 20 July 2016.