Pozières / Mouquet Farm, the Somme Valley, France
This series of actions elicited the greatest quantum of Australian sacrifice of any single campaign in our military history. In five weeks of fighting in mid 1916, the Australian First, Second and Fourth Divisions sustained 23,000 casualties, 5,000 of whom were killed.
There were two British Divisions involved in the near vicinity but the task of capturing the village of Pozières itself (or rather its ruins) fell initially to the 1st Division and then in succession, the 2nd and 4th Divisions. This sequence was repeated when the axis of advance shifted north to Mouquet Farm (know to the Diggers as "Moo Cow" Farm), later in August.
- The Australian 1st Division attacked here in the early hours of 23 July 1916.
- The task was difficult - they had to capture (3) three objectives. The first: the Pozières Trenches; the second: the outskirts of the village; the third: the main road which ran straight down the middle of the village.
- Recently arrived at the front, this was the Gallipoli veteran Division’s baptism of fire in France.
- By this stage of the battle, the village had been completely obliterated by shellfire.
- The Germans defended the ruins of Pozières tenaciously, often to the last man. In the face of heavy resistance, the Australians moved through the shattered remnants of the village, overcoming machine-gun posts and wresting trenches and strong points from the Germans in savage close-quarter fighting.
- The 1st Division successfully captured the 'OG" (or 'Old German') line and the "Gibraltar" blockhouse - which these days is the site of the 1st Division Memorial.
- It was during the course of this phase that Lieutenant Arthur Blackburn of the 10th Battalion won his Victoria Cross for leading a relentless series of attacks which eventually resulted in the capture of a large stretch of the OG1 trench.
- Over the next 36 hours, progress would be measured in metres of ground gained and thousands of men would die. Nonetheless, the village was captured.
- The Australians took the first four lines of the trenches and penetrated into the village of Pozières, with some of the advance parties gaining a foothold on the road to Bapaume. It was during this action that the Australians were subject to a large number of gas shells which they nicknamed “Gassy”.
- After 3 days and 5,000 casualties mostly due to enemy bombardment, the 1st Division was exhausted.
- One of the innumerable acts of individual heroism is described in a letter about "the Pozières runner" - see the accompanying slideshow.
- 2 Div relieved the 1st on 29 July, it attacked twice, pushing the Australian line beyond the village.
- In a night attack on 4 August the dominating feature of the windmill was taken; a further grenade attack took Hill 160.
- The Germans counter attacked but the Australians held.
- By 7 August, 2 Div had suffered 6849 casualties, again mostly due to the incessant bombardment by the Germans. It was relieved by the 4th Division.
The immediate vicinity of the Windmill was particularly strewn with South Australian sacrifice. The 27th Battalion actually captured the Windmill due to their position in the 2nd Division attack. They held it in the face of ferocious shelling, and were relieved in place by the 48th Battalion, which reported when they were relieving the 27th that there was no one left alive in the forward positions. They too were subjected to horrendous shelling to the extent that the Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Leane, refused to put two companies forward as directed by the Brigade Commander, believing quite rightly that they would likely all become casualties. Instead he put two platoons forward, and a series of forward posts.
The 48th Battalion's experience at Pozières is described in detail in an excellent narrative HERE (anzacportal.dva.gov.au)
One of the forward posts was held by Sergeant David Twining and nine men. After ferocious shelling and several German counterattacks, and surrounded by his dead and wounded colleagues, Twining sent a walking wounded man back to the battalion command post with a message; "I am the only unwounded man left. I have the Lewis Gun. Do you still want me to hold the position?". He and what was left of his men were retrieved. Twining was wounded in the process. For their action in holding the Post, Sergeant David Twining and Private Hugh Davoren were awarded the Military Medal. The Lewis Gunner, Private Charles Tognini, wounded in both legs and an arm, had beaten off a series of attacks before becoming incapacitated. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Battle of Pozières was the toughest task faced by the AIF in the First World War. The remains of thousands of Australians killed in the fighting were never found and still lie beneath the fields in this tiny corner of France. Today Pozières is a shrine to the bravery of the original Anzacs.
Charles Bean's epitaph to the fallen is inscribed on a stone plinth at the site of the Windmill;
"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"
Steve Larkins 10 July 2013