Today we take a break from reckoning to do a little remembering. It’s ANZAC Day…a day now commemorated by Australians and others in many parts of the world.
The Dawn service has come a long way since 1927. That was when a few returned soldiers stumbling home via Martin Place in Sydney happened across a widower laying a wreath at the newly built cenotaph. They joined her pre-dawn vigil and vowed to organise a proper ceremony the following year.
Gallipoli may be the centrepiece of Australia’s ANZAC Day commemorations, but it was the Western Front where most of the WWI diggers were involved.
After evacuating from the Gallipoli peninsula in December 1915, the ANZACs retreated to Egypt. Here they were reorganised and the Australians expanded from two to five infantry divisions. The New Zealanders formed their own division.
Beginning in March 1916, the infantry sailed to Marseilles in southern France. From here, they made their way to the front via rail. The Imperial Camel Corp and the ANZAC Mounted Division remained in the Middle East.
By the time the ANZACs arrived on the Western Front, the Battle of Verdun was raging to the south. Verdun was a strategic town vital to both sides. But the Germans knew it was more vital to the French. It was a source of national pride and they knew the French would hold it at any cost.
The war of attrition had started. Verdun became a huge strain on France. 362,000 French soldiers died between February and December 1916. The Battle of the Somme, devised in 1915, changed course, with the British assuming a larger role.
Most people associate the Battle of the Somme with its disastrous first day – 1 July 1916, where 60,000 British troops were killed or wounded. But day one was simply a prelude to the next four and a half months…
Australia’s introduction to the Battle of the Somme was a portent of things to come. About 80km to the north, the Battle of Frommelles was meant to be little more than a feint. It was designed to prevent German troops in the north moving down to the main battlefield.
Whatever the intention, it was a disaster. A daylight attack across open ground resulted in over 5,000 casualties in a 24-hour period. The Australian 5th Division was decimated.
Back down on the Somme, the 1st Division moved into position for its attack on the village of Pozieres. They didn’t know it, but the Australians were about to experience some of the heaviest shelling of the war. Artillery wasn’t a feature of the fighting at Gallipoli. But it accounted for most of the deaths on the Western Front…as the diggers were about to find out.
Pozieres occupied the high ground and was therefore a strategic piece of land for the Germans and Allies. It was a key objective for the planned assault on the German fortress of Thiepval, which actually lay in front of the village. The idea was to go around Thiepval, capture Pozieres and Moquet Farm, and then attack Theipval from in front AND behind.
Like so much WWI planning, it was good in theory.
The British and Australian artillery shelled the village heavily in the lead up to the July 23 attack. The Australians were to approach Pozieres directly, while the British attacked on their flanks.
The initial Australian attack was successful, with most of the objectives taken. The fighting was fiercest on the right of the village, with the Germans putting up strong resistance in a system of old trenches. It was here where the Australians won two Victorian Crosses.
However, the British attacks on the left and right failed. And the Australians didn’t reach the objectives on the right. Both flanks were therefore exposed.
The diggers had captured the village…holding it would be another matter entirely.
The German’s quickly counter-attacked, but haphazardly. The assaults were easily repelled.
So the Germans decided they would counter-attack with artillery, not men. The defence of Pozieres had begun in earnest.
The German artillery knew exactly where the Australians were. They themselves had occupied Pozieres for months. The bombardment began at 7am on the morning of the 24th. It lasted all day.
Philip Howell-Price later wrote…
…the Huns simply poured high explosive shells into our position. Trenches disappeared like paper in a storm. Where there had been trenches, nobody could tell. The place was a series of huge shell holes, some 30-feet wide and 20-feet deep.
Shells were so thick that they obscured the sun, smoke was so intense that one could not see, the row and noise was so terrific that men went mad, men simply stood and shook, their nervous system one entire wreck. Shell after shell planted itself in our lines, man after man was blown to pieces and yet not a man faltered.
Explosions buried all the men at least once. Some were dug out. Some weren’t. A runner who got through the barrage delivered his message to HQ…then went and shot himself rather than go back.
The Australians attacked again on the night of the 24th to secure their tenuous hold on the village. They took a little more ground. But the Germans resumed their bombardment on the 25th – only heavier. It lasted all day. It was so heavy the Australians constantly expected a German counter-attack. But it never came.
Sergeant Archie Barwick wrote:
All day long the ground rocked & swayed backwards & forwards…men were driven stark staring mad & more than one of them rushed out of the trench over towards the Germans. Any amount of them could be seen crying and sobbing like children their nerves completely gone…we were nearly all in a state of silliness & half dazed…men were buried by the dozen, but were frantically dug out again some dead some alive.
The bombardment ceased on the evening of the 25th. Respite was momentary. On the morning of the 26th it started again. The guns of three German divisions concentrated their fire on the salient the Australians occupied. It was easy pickings.
Again, many thought a German counter-attack imminent. But the Germans had no intention of attacking…they simply wanted to bomb the Australians out of the village. It was the worst barrage yet. And it didn’t let up until 11pm that night.
Relief finally came. On the night of 26/27th July, the 1st Division moved out of the line, replaced by the 2nd Division. After four days, it had suffered 5,285 casualties.
But the debacle that was Pozieres wasn’t over. The 2nd Division prepared to attack straight away. German shelling hampered preparations, leading to 1,500 casualties before the attack even started. Planning was poor and the Germans repelled the Australian advance on the 29th easily. This failure led to 2,000 more casualties.
The 2nd Division were ordered to have another go. Better preparation led to a successful assault on the 4th August, pushing the Germans back again. By this time the 2nd Division were exhausted. They were finally relieved on the night of the 5/6th August. Constantly shelled at for over a week, they suffered 6,848 casualties.
Next in line was the 4th Australian Division. And here we come to one of the most extraordinary feats of The Great War.
Sensing they were losing their grip on the important Pozieres ridge, orders came for the Germans to recover it at any price. At 4am on the 7th August, the Germans launched their final counter-attack. It was preceded with another terrible artillery barrage.
Many of the Australians were in dugouts sheltering from the bombardment when German troops came rushing down the trenches, throwing bombs down the dugouts. The Australian position was at risk of being overrun.
Albert Jacka, a 23-year old Lieutenant, was in one of those dugouts. Unhurt by the bomb blast, Jacka emerged to see the Germans getting in behind the Australian position. Seeing the Germans march a bunch of Aussie prisoners off, Jacka and seven of his men charged at them.
All of his party were hit by German fire. But it kicked off a fight. Some Germans dropped their guns to surrender…some shot at the Aussie prisoners. Soon, more joined in the melee. It was hand-to-hand combat. Fists and bayonets. Some shooting. But for the first time, artillery didn’t decide the outcome.
Jacka himself got in the way of seven bullets. And enough Australians got in the way of the German counter-attack to repel it for the final time. Finally, the Australian line linked up with the British to the left and right.
It was now strong enough for the attack to move into the next phase – towards the German Strongpoint of Mouquet Farm. Here, the 4th Division, despite suffering 1,000 casualties repelling the German counter-attack, pressed ahead.
Throughout August and into September, the 1st and 2nd Division went in again, and the 4th came back for a final go. They were bombarded the whole time. Three times they got into Mouquet Farm, and each time the Germans pushed them back.
They withdrew in early September after suffering a further 6,300 casualties. The ANZAC divisions were so depleted they were taken off the front line for two months.
The Battle of the Somme ground on until November.
What was the point?
There was none. Like all the battles and the war itself, it was pointless. The war to end all wars just led to a bigger one 20 years later.
Yet we are compelled to remember such great and terrible deeds almost a century on.
Happy Anzac Day.
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