Mouquet Farm 8th August 1916 - 5th September 1916
For many of the men who fought on the Western Front, Pozières was just the beginning of a long and bloody series of battles they would fight again and again for whatever remained of their broken lives.
Following the consolidation of Pozières and the Windmill, General Gough began to implement the next phase of his plan, which was to thrust north along the ridge to drive a wedge behind Thiepval about 2 kilometres North West of Pozières. Barring the right approach to Thiepval was a battered and broken complex, which before the war had consisted of a homestead, courtyard, and dairy; this was Mouquet Farm or as the Anzacs called it ‘Moo Cow Farm.’ The Germans had earlier identified the ground the farm sat on as tactically significant and in addition to fortifying it, had built a network of interconnecting rooms and bunkers beneath the farm.
4th Australian Division
Commencing on 8 August the 4th Division was to seize the approaches to the farm and by 14 August capture the Farm itself. The 4th Brigade advanced along the western slope of the ridge on 8 August, after two days of fighting under the most appalling conditions; patrols were pushed out to establish posts in the valley to the south of the farm and at a sunken road to the east of it.
The Germans launched two counter-attacks on 11 August, but withdrew when the Australian battalions cut their attacks to pieces with aggressive and sustained machine gun fire. The following day the Australians advanced to a line along which they were then directly facing the German positions among the rubble of Mouquet Farm.
Preparations were made to attack the farm on 13 August, but when the Germans recaptured the ground they had earlier lost to the British, which was, then on the 4th Division’s flank, the plan was changed. It was during the attack on this modified objective that Captain Henry Murray’s Company seized part of Fabeck Trench northeast of the farm.
By the end of the war Henry William "Mad Harry" Murray was, and still is today, Australia’s most highly decorated soldier. Besides being mentioned in despatches on five occasions he was awarded the VC, CMG, DSO & Bar, DCM, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre. [i]
After almost a week of heavy fighting, the 4th Division’s determined but unsuccessful attempts to capture the Farm had cost them approximately 4,650 casualties; the 1st Division relieved them on 15 August.
1st Australian Division
The 1st Division, which had by then received reinforcements and was up to two thirds of its full strength, was tasked with consolidating the gains made by the 4th before conducting two further attacks. The first was to be against the heavily defended enemy trench system known as the Fabeck Graben and the other against a new line of trench opposite the Windmill.
At 9 p.m. on 18 August the 1st Division launched their attacks with the 2nd Brigade attempting to push northeast along Bapaume Road in order to extend their front past the Windmill and the 1st Brigade moving to capture the Fabeck Graben trench system in order to isolate the Germans in Mouquet Farm from their support at Courcellette.
Unfortunately, the Germans had by then reinforced their line and with the attacks progressing more slowly than anticipated, this plan soon began to go awry. To increase the momentum and relieve the 1st Brigade, which had suffered too many casualties, the 3rd Brigade moved forward.
On 21 August, as the 3rd Brigade moved up to position itself for the attack on Fabeck Graben, it was shelled by the enemy’s heavy artillery. It was decided that since the Germans could see everything across the panorama before them, the attack should be commenced when the Germans least expected it, during daylight. With Zero set for 6 p.m., this was to be the first time on this battlefield that an Australian unit would conduct a daylight attack. At 5 p.m., the Germans commenced to shell the 10th Battalion’s front and support lines heavily causing 120 casualties even before the attack was launched which meant the attack was launched in two waves instead of four, leaving two platoons of Support Coy in the firing line. Of the eight officers involved in the attack, seven were killed or wounded within the first few minutes and the only remaining officer was wounded immediately upon reaching the final objective. [ii]
In the heat of battle with the ground and trenches so badly torn up some of the platoons actually passed over the enemy’s newly dug trench and continued to push forward until halted by their own barrage.
‘… the troops under Lieutenants Hill and Dey, Sergeant Badger, and others – passed, in accordance with their orders over the advanced trench newly dug by the enemy and hurried on toward the Fabeck Graben.’ [iii]
By 6.30 p.m., the left company had occupied their first objective as had part of the right company, but with the remainder held up by heavy machine gun fire the final objective was not taken. The scheme for gaining surprise by conducting a daylight attack, while sound in theory proved otherwise in practice. From the moment the first wave had left the trenches it came under heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire and when the bombers attempts to take an enemy sap running south were foiled, the left company could advance no further. Another platoon from Support Company was sent forward and although it was able to advance a short distance soon found that due to a general thinning in the line through casualties there were huge gaps and were compelled to fall back.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the situation deteriorated when the left company completely lost touch and was enfiladed from both flanks; the survivors quickly withdrew to a new line of trench and dug in.
This new line, which was linked to the 11th Battalion on left of Sunken Road, was held from 9 p.m., 21 August, until the 10th Battalion was relieved by the 21st Battalion during the night of 22 August.
After a terrifying week and a further 2,650 casualties, the 1st Division was relieved by the 2nd Division during the night of 22 August.
When the 2nd Division relieved the 1st it had not fully recovered from the losses suffered at Pozières and the Windmill two weeks earlier but on 26 August the 6th Brigade (although very much under strength) launched a dawn attack. Mouquet Farm was by then defended by the German Guard Reserve Corps and although the men of the 6th Brigade actually reached their objective, they were unable to hold it. Of the almost 1270 casualties suffered by the 2nd Division during their second series of attacks here, the 6th Brigade suffered the loss of almost 900 officers and men.
The 4th Division was brought back on 27 August and the fighting around Mouquet Farm continued to rage.
‘The Farm’- Final attempt
By this time, the 1st Division were already in Ypres, the 2nd Division were moving to join them and so only the 4th Division with the 1st Canadian Brigade, and Corps HQ remained on this front.
It was decided that as part of General Gough’s assault on Thiepval, I ANZAC Corps would conduct one final attack on Mouquet Farm on 3 September.
The strongest but least experienced brigade in I ANZAC Corps, the 13th Brigade, was rested in preparation to conduct the attack while the other brigades carried out all preparatory work, such as digging and carrying stores. The attacking battalions from left to right would be the 51st, 52nd and 49th with the 50th, which had suffered so many casualties during its first tour to be the reserve.
The 51st was to attack the Farm, while the 49th was to attack Fabeck Graben (High Trench) with the 52nd Battalion attacking a sector of Fabeck Graben between the 51st and 49th Battalions.
After reaching their assembly areas at around 11 p.m., guides led the attacking battalions forward to their jumping off points where the men lay down in shell-holes and waited 6 hours for the attack to commence at 5.10 a.m.
As soon as the covering barrage lifted, the attacking battalions hurried forward towards their objectives and parts of Fabeck Graben were captured. When the 51st Battalion passed through the Mouquet Farm and on up to the section of Fabeck Graben behind it, Brigade HQ was prematurely advised the Farm with the exception of a few dugouts had been taken. When two platoons of B Company, 52nd Battalion reached the Farm, they suffered heavy casualties.
The enemy machine gunners raked the battalion with heavy machine gun fire from close range, then following a heavy artillery barrage attacked the scattered groups of the 52nd and eventually pushed them back; two of the officers were wounded, and nine killed.
‘…The 52nd lost Capts. Littler, Massey, R.R.R. Ekin-Smith and J. McNamara, and Lieuts. J. B. Wilson, E.C. Main, G.S. Reinecke, J.B.H. Taylor, and L.L. Wadsley killed … ‘ [iv]
On 5 September, the 4th Division after suffering more than 2400 casualties during this their second unsuccessful attempt to take Mouquet Farm were relieved by the Canadians.
Gough’s Reserve Army swept past Mouquet Farm in a wide advance on 26 September and captured Thiepval but even then the stubborn German troops in their bunkers under the Farm held out for a further 24 hours.
When they were finally withdrawn from the slaughter yards of the Somme the weary, mud-covered men of the fourth Division drifted down to the bivouac area on the brickfield north of Albert where totally exhausted they lay down and fell asleep instantly. At around 3 am it began to rain steadily and so at dawn much of the enjoyment was taken out of breakfast. It was still raining an hour later as the men formed up in their companies for roll call before setting off on a three-day march to their rest billets. There was an unusual silence in the ranks that morning and as they marched across the broken roads under the weight of their heavy packs. Almost every man kept his head down.
‘As we pressed out of Albert on the poplar-lined Amiens Road, a big gun (Greedy Gertie was its name) fired through a stable door, and its companion, Hungry Liz, responded from a bedroom window on the other side of the road. Further on still a large hay rick belched forth a sheet of flame with that sharp double report that is peculiar to the long range naval guns. The troops seemed too listless to notice.’ [v]
Looking forward to a well-deserved period of rest, the Australians marched quietly along the road, weighed down only by their packs and thoughts of lost comrades, distant family, and survival.
[i] Franki G & Slayter C, Mad Harry Australia’s Most Decorated Soldier, Kangaroo Press 2003, p. X
[ii] Lock, C B L, The Fighting 10th - A South Australian Centenary Souvenir of the 10th Battalion, AIF 1914-19, Webb & Son, Adelaide 1936, p. 60
[iii] Bean, C E W, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol III, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 797
[iv] ibid., p. 849
[v] St Peter’s School Magazine - W K Thomas & Co, Adelaide, December 1918, p. 18
© Robert Kearney, Fallen Saints, St Marys: Openbook Howden, 2015, pp. 145-158.