Pozières – a Debt as yet Unpaid….. by Grant Turrill
The Battle of Pozières was a two-week struggle for the French village of Pozières and the ridge on which it stands, during the middle stages of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Though British divisions were involved in most phases of the fighting, Pozières is primarily remembered as an Australian battle.
The Battle of Pozières saw Australian soldiers enter the battle on the 23rdJuly 1916.
Just after midnight on the 23rd, the 1st and 3rdBrigades of the 1st Australian Division commenced the assault from positions to the south of the village, and captured German positions, including a strong point which became known as the Gibraltar Blockhouse. The Division held their positions throughout three days of intense German bombardment and counterattacks.
The 1st Division suffered its heaviest casualties of the war at the Battle of Pozières, and for this reason, the village was chosen as the site of their memorial, which stands opposite the ruins of the Gibraltar Blockhouse.
The 1st Division was relieved on the 27th July, by which time they had lost 5,285 men killed, wounded or missing. They were to return a few weeks later to fight at Mouquet Farm.
The 2nd Division was ordered to take Pozières heights. The attack commenced on the 29th July, but the attack failed at a cost of 3,500 Australian casualties. The Australian commander of the 2nd Division asked that his men might attack again, rather than be withdrawn after failure. Following an intense bombardment on the 4th August, the Australians seized Pozières heights. The 2nd Division was relieved, and the 4thDivision secured the hard won positions. Attacking north along the ridge, the Australians in ten days of continuous action reached Mouquet Farm.
The Battle of Mouquet Farm, also known as the Fighting for Mouquet Farm, took place as part of the Battle of Pozières.
For four weeks, until relieved by the Canadians on the 5th September 1916, the men of the 1st, 2nd and 4thAustralian Divisions took part in seven major attacks to dislodge the Germans from deep defences at the farm and surrounding trench systems.
One of the last actions before being relieved, the struggle for one German trench, the ‘Fabeck Graben’, between 3rd and 5th September, was described by Charles Bean as ‘one of the bitterest fights in the history of the AIF’.
The Men of Pozières
The Soldiers who fought and died at Pozières were, for the most part, survivors of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign.
Thrown into battle at Pozières, the men of the 1st, 2nd and 4thDivisions suffered what is said to have been the most concentrated artillery barrage of all time.
With German Forces on three sides, and their own artillery firing from the rear, these men lived and fought in a constant rain of shells. At its peak, the German bombardment of Pozières was the equal of anything yet experienced on the Western Front, and far surpassed the worst shelling previously endured by any Australian divisions.
Australian forces suffered intense military bombardment in subsequent battles, but none of them compared to the duration or effect as seen at Pozières.
The scale of the barrage can be noted from the Rolls of Honour, with over 4,000 of the 7,000 killed being listed as missing, and commemorated at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
They lie in the fields to this day, and every so often, the remains of another soldier are recovered, as was the case in 2011 and 2013.
Genesis of the Australian War Memorial
As soon as he was able after the beginning of the Australian actions around Pozières, Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and later official historian, began touring the battlefield.
Despite the constant danger, he visited as much of it as he could. He described the new landscape of Pozières that had been created by modern artillery. His words give meaning to the expression, ‘war torn’,
“Imagine a gigantic ash heap, a place where dust and rubbish have been cast for years outside some dry, derelict, God–forsaken up–country township.
Imagine some broken–down creek bed in the driest of our dry central Australian districts, abandoned for a generation to the goats, in which the hens have been scratching as long as men can remember.
Then take away the hens and the goats and all traces of any living or moving thing. You must not even leave a spider. Put here, in evidence of some old tumbled roof, a few roof beams and tiles sticking edgeways from the ground, and the low faded ochre stump of the windmill peeping over the top of the hill, and there you have Pozières.”
CEW Bean Letters from France Melbourne, 1917, pp.113–4
And it was during these hellish weeks that Bean became convinced of the need to tell people in faraway Australia of the achievements, endurance and suffering of their family members and friends in France.
Bean’s dream eventually resulted in the building of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, a memorial conceived amidst the devastated landscape of the Somme battlefields.
The Windmill Site
The Windmill Site, bought later by the Australian War Memorial Board – with the old mound still there – marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth
CEW Bean Anzac to Amiens, 1961, p 264.
The 2nd Australian Divisional Memorial (foreground) and site of the Pozieres Windmill (background) marked by a small tripod shaped flag pole.
On the 11thNovember 1993, soil from the Windmill site was cast over the coffin of Australia’s Unknown Soldier during his funeral at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
On the Centenary of the day that Australian soldiers commenced their assault, Grant and Pennie attended the inauguration of the Pozières Memorial Park Stage One, and a feature of this event will be 7,000 crosses in place in the formation of “The Rising Sun”, representing a cross for each Australian killed in the battle.
This will be the first time in 100 years that 4,112 of these men, never found, will have a cross to represent their sacrifice in the fields of Pozières, where they rest to this day.
These crosses, each holding a red knitted poppy, were hand crafted in Australia and shipped to France, and is an initiative of Ormiston College in Queensland, and represents over 10,000 hours of volunteer work.
The work of the Pozières Remembrance Association will continue, and I urge everyone to visit their page and contribute to this very worthy project.
Plan of the Pozières Memorial Park
I swiped this picture off Grant’s Facebook page this morning!
And just to prove that we are everywhere!!!
Pennie and Grant bumped into Jacqui L halfway across the world!!! another Aussie Hero Quilter! They had not met before!
Thanks very much Grant and Pennie.
Lest we forget!
Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.
Loved reading this piece about our history. Thankyou for sharing it with us.