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On 21 July 1920 Charles Monaghan, who had served as a stretcher-bearer with the 8th Field Ambulance, wrote to ‘My beloved Em’:
Aye full well this is a week of anniversaries. In addition to the wonderful days of my homecoming, it is also the 4th Anniversary of the days a hundred thousand of us Digger soldiers first smelt war’s gunpowder and received our baptism of fire. Last Monday the 19th was the anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles when the 5th Division got horribly shot up, then tomorrow the 22nd, 4 years ago saw the big stint of Pozières launched. Shall I ever forget this night then, the eve of battle, we were – the stretcher-bearers, mobilised in a village about 7 miles [11 kilometres] behind the line. Darkness fell and each man was ordered to stand by to be ready to move off at a moment’s notice. The preliminary bombardment had already started and we could hear the shattering roar of the big guns posted in the rear not far from where we were (at midnight)…the…order came to move forward…At daybreak we had reached the area immediately behind the front trenches and were immediately in the thick of it. The next few hours I have only a nightmarish remembrance of.
Charles Monaghan would not have been the only person remembering the anniversary of the battle and the nightmarish scenes that had confronted him. Many other survivors would have looked back on the events of four years before, as they would continue to do for the rest of their lives. The survivors of Pozières, in common with others who fought in the war, were marked by an experience that those who had not undergone the trial of blood and fire could never comprehend.
On 31 July 1916, at a time when the men of the 2nd Division, AIF, were recovering from the effects of the ill-fated attacks of 29 July at Pozières and making ready for the next assaults on the German positions, the troop transport Euripides sailed into Fremantle Harbour. The Euripides was bringing home men who had been severely wounded or incapacitated in earlier engagements, but it also carried the Prime Minister of Australia, William Morris Hughes, his wife and infant daughter, who were returning from a visit to Britain.
Hughes had become Prime Minister in October 1915, after being elected unopposed by the Labor Party caucus to replace Andrew Fisher, who had resigned to become Australian High Commissioner to Britain. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Hughes proposed that he travel to Britain to learn more about the conduct of the war and Australia’s role in it. The war had disrupted exports, and Hughes wanted to ensure that Australian produce and minerals continued to be sold to Britain. He also wanted to inspect base camps and hospitals in England to see how the military organisation of the AIF was working. Most of all, he wanted to visit Australian troops in France, to see for himself the conditions under which they would be fighting.
If the First World War was a machine-age war, then Mouquet Farm (which soon became known to the AIF as ‘Mucky Farm’ and ‘Moo Cow Farm’) was the mincing machine into which small parcels of men were fed, to be thoroughly chopped up before the remnants were spat out. Part of the problem facing any attacking force was geographical. The Australians’ approach to the strongpoint lay along the crest of a narrow ridge that was under constant German observation, so that any sign of movement of men and materials would be met with well-aimed artillery and machine-gun fire from virtually every point of the compass. To make matters worse, any advance would act to lengthen a salient that would leave the attackers open to fire ‘from Courcelette on the right, from Thiepval almost directly ahead, from Grandcourt to the north and even from Martinpuich to the South’, with the consequence that ‘of all the tactical nightmares on the Somme, this had some claims to be considered the worst.’ Given these difficulties, the taking of Mouquet Farm would require a carefully planned assault, supported by a heavy artillery bombardment and coordinated attacks on the flanks. The tragedy of Mouquet Farm was that such planning and coordination was totally lacking.
It was now the turn of the 1st Division to return to the front. During its time out of the line the division had rested and received some reinforcements, about enough to bring most of its battalions up to two-thirds of their original strength. Many of the reinforcements were youngsters who had never seen action before, but others were ‘old men’, many of them veterans of Gallipoli who had been recuperating in England from wounds, in some cases for as long as fifteen months. Bean believed that the influx of new, untried troops ‘naturally to some extent’ diminished the efficiency of the division’. Corporal Thomas of the 6th Battalion was probably typical of many experienced soldiers when he commented that ‘to put reinforcements into action so soon is not good…and [is] also by way of a handicap for us more tried chaps, it is however I suppose the only way to win the war’.
War of attrition involves a form of Devil’s accounting. The dead of each side are weighed in the balance and that with the least dead is deemed the winner. By late 1916, when Haig’s dream of a decisive breakthrough had been shown to be a mirage, he used comparative casualty rates as the measurement of success, arguing that the troops fighting on the Somme could see that ‘they are slowly but surely destroying the German armies on their front’. What Haig ignored was that the British forces were facing far more rapid destruction. During the Battle of the Somme the British suffered 432 000 casualties of whom some 150 000 were killed, while the Germans lost a total of about 230 000 men, a little more than half the British casualties.
In the fighting at Pozières I Anzac Corps lost 23 000 officers and men, killed or died of wounds, wounded and missing. Of these, the 1st Division lost 7700, the 2nd Division 8100 and the 4th 7100. Bean observed that these casualties, in proportion to the numbers engaged, were the greatest ever suffered by I Anzac Corps. He calculated that the rate of casualties in each Australian division was roughly equivalent to the casualties sustained by each of the forty-one British divisions engaged in the Somme fighting. The difference was that for the AIF the losses bit deeper as practically the whole of the Australian Army in France was affected. In addition to the four divisions engaged at Pozières, the 5th Division had lost 5500 men in battle at Fromelles in Flanders on the night of 19/20 July 1916. Only the Australian 3rd Division, which was training in Britain, escaped, but it was soon being plundered of men to make up for losses in the other divisions.
Clearing the wounded from the battlefield was always a problem, especially for the wounded themselves, for whom delay often meant death. When the AIF arrived on the Somme, the British Army already had ‘a highly organised and stable system of clearance and evacuation [of the wounded] in place’. The Australian medical units were obliged to fit themselves into the established British system, something that was difficult as all the prime locations for casualty clearing stations and hospitals had been commandeered by the British Army. Despite these difficulties, by 20 July 1916 Colonel A.H. Sturdee, Assistant Director of Medical Services with the 1st Division, had in place a series of regimental aid posts in the area behind the front line. Three field ambulance collecting points were set up, with the main one located at Casualty Corner at the end of Sausage Valley. Men would be carried from these points to the advanced dressing stations by horse-drawn wagons. From the dressing stations they would be cleared by horse-powered lorries or, for the less severely wounded, by motor bus.
The arrangements appeared sound, but when the 1st Division launched its attack on Pozières on the night of 23 July 1916, the realities of battle soon revealed weaknesses. The regimental aid posts were found to have been sited too far back, and new ones had to be set up nearer the front lines. The heavy artillery barrage falling on and behind the front caused severe casualties not just among the attackers but also among the stretcher-bearers. Those who survived were rapidly worn out by the physical and emotional stresses of the work.
On 23 August 1916, a month into the fighting at Pozières, Will Dyson, an Australian artist residing in Britain, wrote to Andrew Fisher, the Australian High Commissioner, suggesting:
It would be of interest to the people of today and in the future to see sketches illustrating the relationship of Australians to the war and interpreting the feelings and character of the Australian troops in France, and the feelings of the French towards them. As this could only be fittingly done by an Australian artist I wish to express my willingness to go to France with this end in view, my work while there to be the property of the Australian Government.
At the time he wrote this letter Dyson was 36 years old and working as cartoonist-in-chief with the Daily Herald, a labour newspaper. Dyson was a socialist with humanist and anti-militarist beliefs and his cartoons reflected his convictions but, like many supporters of the labour movements in Britain, France and Germany, Dyson believed that the war was just and necessary. In 1915 he had published Kultur Cartoons, a book of drawings lampooning German militarism, with a foreword written by H.G. Wells. Although Dyson had lived in Britain since 1909, he retained strong nationalistic feelings towards Australia, and he wanted to depict the Australian soldiers fighting in France, as he made clear in correspondence with Fisher: ‘The precise nature of my work in France would be to interpret in a series of drawings for national preservation, the sentiments and special Australian characteristics of our Army…my drawings would be such studies of Australian soldiers and their neighbours as would be suggested to me by personal contact with our men in their European surroundings.’
Not everyone who reads this book would be familiar with the structure of the First AIF in 1916, when the Battle of Pozières commenced. These notes are intended to provide a basic understanding of that military structure.
The main component of any army is the infantryman, the soldier who, with rifle and bayonet, or, in some cases, with a machine gun or grenade, has the task of seeking out and killing the enemy. Without the infantryman wars cannot be fought. But to carry out his role the infantryman needs support from other arms: artillery, engineers, armoured units (although these were not engaged during the Australian attacks at Pozières), field ambulance and the ordinance units that ensured food, ammunition and supplies reached the front. Specialised units of machine-gunners and mortar crews also provided the infantry with support in the front line while intelligence units and cartographers assessed information in order to understand what was happening on the battle front.
By the time the Battle of Pozi`eres commenced, on 23 July 1916, the AIF consisted of five infantry divisions, together with supporting units. Three of those divisions, the 1st, 2nd and 4th, took part in the fighting at Pozières. The 3rd Division under Major-General John Monash was undergoing training in Britain, and the 5th Division, commanded by Major-General James Whiteside McCay, had been devastated by the fighting at Fromelles on the night of 19/20 July and took no part in the action at Pozi`eres.
William Philpott has argued that, by the time the last survivors of those who fought at Pozières and Mouquet Farm marched away, they were shattered men, who had ‘endured rather than conquered’. Yet, he argued,
…paradoxically they were emerging heroes, the Dominion’s worthy sons. Thereafter myth would do duty for experience as the Battle of the Somme started to reshape, and be remade by, those who passed through it. Pozières would become the sacred ground where Australian divergence from her English heritage took root; the Somme’s all smothering clay would cement the colony’s developing sense of national identity.
For experience to be turned into history, or mythology, it needs to be recorded. In the modern world the experience of battle has to become a part of the written story that can be told and retold, with each retelling becoming more encrusted with mythology, so that lived experience becomes yet another story in a search for national identity. In that way the death of each soldier, which had meaning only to those he left behind to mourn, becomes ennobled and part of an overarching story that those remote from the event can use to create a sense of unity in adversity that can be called upon in times of national commemoration.
But first, words are needed to describe experiences and events before any national mythology can be created. The first writings about Pozières often came from the men who took part in the battle. Sergeant Joseph Trotman believed that the men who fought at Pozières would experience ‘life long memories indelibly permeating their very being’. Many of those men sought to express the memories in diary entries and letters to family and friends but, in doing so, they faced a fundamental difficulty. How can any person explain what it is like to engage in battle to another who has not undergone that experience?
In 1927 Charles Bean sent a copy of the draft of Volume III of his Official History to his British counterpart, Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds, for his comments. This was the first volume to deal with the AIF in action on the Western Front. One of the passages in the draft that caught Edmond’s attention was Bean’s comment on the effect of the sustained artillery fire at Pozières, which:
ripped away in a few moments all those conventions behind which civilised men shelter their true souls even from the milder breezes of life, and left men facing the storm with no other protection than the naked framework of their character. The strain eventually became so great that what is rightly known as courage – the will to persist – would not suffice, since, however keen his will, the machinery of a man’s self-control might become deranged…The shelling at Pozières did not merely probe character and nerve; it laid them stark naked as no other experience of the AIF ever did.
Edmonds’ indignation was roused by these comments, leading him to assert: ‘This is all imagination as medical returns show. The report of the commission on shell shock found that shell shock did not occur in good units. Both madness and shell shock were unheard of at Ypres 1914 when we had no guns or ammunition to reply with, the appearance or sign of them is due to lack of discipline.’
Bean’s response, inscribed on the letter, was dismissive. ‘This is rather the G[eneral] S[taff] attitude – exactly as it was in the war. It is almost too laughably misconceived to be worth a reply.’ Bean’s passage in Volume III remained unchanged. Bean knew what he was writing about. He had personally experienced the bombardment at Pozières and had witnessed the effect that it had on men who had been through the ordeal. He was also correct in asserting that Edmond’s views replicated those held by the British General Staff, particularly during the first years of the war.
It began as battles have done from time immemorial. Men, trained to seek out and kill their enemy, marched along the sun-soaked roads of Picardy. It was high summer, and the columns of men marched along roads lined with colourful poppies and sunflowers. The marching columns tramped on, past fields of ripening wheat, heavily cultivated farms, tightly planted gardens and orchards, through villages ‘whose streets were bordered by barns with rough timber roof-beams and cracked walls of whitewashed mud and straw’. Clouds of dust marked the passage of the ranks of marching men. As it settled, the dust stained their khaki woollen uniforms, lightly coated their packs and rifles and stuck to the sweat-stained, fur felt ‘slouch’ hats that most of them wore.
In the early stages of the march men whose feet had been softened by months of static trench warfare fell out; others, suffering from the after-effects of too much beer or cheap French wine in their billets the night before, struggled to keep up. But in time, as their feet toughened and hangovers wore off, the troops became more animated as they tramped under the summer sun, singing old marching songs or whistling the latest popular tunes. They struck those who saw them as being physically imposing men of high morale.
Shortly after midnight on 23 July 1916, those men of the 1st Division AIF who were to form the first wave in the assault on Pozières crept from their trenches into no man’s land, and formed up in readiness for the attack. They lay in silent rows, as close as possible to the line on which the artillery barrage would fall, waiting for the order to advance. At thirty minutes after midnight the barrage crashed down onto the first line of German trenches, with the flashes of the shellfire lighting up the night sky for some 30 kilometres around the target area.
C.E.W. Bean later described the artillery bombardment as ‘famous even among the many famous bombardments on the Western Front’. To Major John Harris, waiting with his men of the 3rd Battalion in the second wave, the German front line was marked by ‘an almost continuous wall of fire, with shrapnel bursting overhead and H[igh] E[xplosive] along the line of the trench’. Lieutenant Ben Champion, waiting with his men in no man’s land, watched as ‘mortars and large shells glowed red as they fell’ while the ground beneath them ‘shook under the force of the barrage, [and] the concussion from the shellfire made men’s ears ring’. In the reserve line, Lieutenant John Bourke of the 8th Battalion believed that no description of the bombardment, however realistic, could give any idea of what it was like. Nevertheless, he tried, recording that he could feel the ground shake with the thunder of the guns, ‘while the whole battle line was lit up as bright as day with the thousands of rockets, flares, and flashlights of every colour’. It was hardly surprising that the waiting men, instead of remaining spaced apart, began to bunch together in groups, and ‘no motioning from the officers and NCOs could keep them apart’.
It was now the turn of the Australian 2nd Division to enter the fiery crucible that was Pozières. The first intimation of what lay ahead had come when they detrained at a railhead outside Albert and ‘were perplexed by a peculiar odour in the air’. On asking locals what the smell was, they ‘were morbidly informed “Boo coo Australiè, fini Pozières”’. As the men of the 2nd Division approached the front they made their way through what had been no man’s land, ‘dotted with little wooden crosses’ marking where men had fallen, passing across what remained of the former German lines, although the trenches had been blown in, and ‘ammunition of all kinds, bombs equipment and clothing were scattered everywhere waiting to be gathered by the Salvage Corps’. Pushing on, they reached the outer edge of Pozières, where the new Australian trenches, in places little more than shell scrapes a few feet deep, lay within 800 metres of the new German front line. Years later Private Vic Graham remembered his introduction to the battlefield: ‘So this is the Somme!…Pozières that was, is no longer. Rubble desolates its site, trenches and the remains of their trenches and defences are littered as far as the eye can see. The rolling rises of the area only accentuate the fearful carnage of artillery and infantry attacks.’
The Australian positions now looked across open ground to a brown line of earth on the horizon line, some 500 to 700 metres distant, that marked a ridge, known as Pozières Heights, and which could be ‘identified by the pall of smoke and dust of the intense bombardment by the artillery of both sides’. The OG1 Line formed the first line of defence, while beyond, and just north of the main road, a pile of rubble marked the remains of the German strongpoint known as the Windmill. The OG Lines ran north-west from the Windmill, with a sharp dog-leg turn where the Ovilliers–Courcelette road crossed the OG Lines, known as the Elbow, and the southern section had been turned into a defensive trench line known to the Germans as Neuer Ganter Weg. Behind that, the OG1 Line followed the ridge to the north-west past the strongpoint at Mouquet Farm, to the Fest Zollern.