The Crowded Mile – Pozières and Mouquet Farm

Contributed by Michael Hall

On 1 July 1916 the British and French launched a massive assault to begin the Battle of the Somme. Despite a huge number of casualties the British only achieved a narrow breach in the German line on a low ridge that ran between the village of Thiepval and the Somme River. In between lay the village of Pozières.

Pozières straddles the main road from the city of Amiens to the town of Bapaume. It sits near a low ridge which provided the Germans with an outlook over the British lines. Taking Pozières, the British believed, would make Thiepval vulnerable. The task was first given to the 1st Division of the AIF, but ultimately the 2nd and 4th Divisions would also be sucked into the conflict.

Before the moon rose on the night of 22 July the British began an intense bombardment of the German positions around Pozières. The Germans responded with their own barrage of shells and gas, including targeting the area behind the front line where the 1st Division engineers, whose job was to build communication trenches and other strong points, were moving closer to the trenches. During the attack, Tom Newson, a veteran of Gallipoli, was gassed and suffered shell concussion. Robert Findlater, a bricklayer of the Federal Brickyards at Yarralumla, and plumber David Stewart from Acton were also wounded.

David Stewart

Half an hour after midnight the 1st Division, advancing behind an artillery barrage, attacked, seizing almost all their objectives and reaching the main road through Pozières. In response the Germans relentlessly pounded the village with artillery. A counter attack was repulsed by the Australians and the 1st Division pushed through the village towards the German positions on Pozières ridge. Casualties mounted. William Jeffrey’s war was ended by a severe gun shot wound to the knee. Thomas Moore acquired a fractured skull caused by shell fragments. Harold Gray, an Intelligence Officer of the 5th Battalion who had pegged the tape for an attack on the German lines at the northern end of Pozières, was killed by shell fire.

By 25 July the 1st Division suffered over 5,000 casualties and they were accordingly relieved by the 2nd Division, which was led by General James Legge. Legge later settled at ‘Cranleigh’ in Belconnen. His chief of staff was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Bridges, a cousin of William Throsby Bridges and a former staff member at Duntroon. However, before the 2nd Division could begin their attack the Germans launched one of their own. As the 18th Battalion defended its position, Frank Cornick was shot in the thigh and left leg. He died of his wounds on 29 July 1916.

John Cade MurrayOn 4 August the 2nd Division captured several trench lines on Pozières heights, reaching as far as the remains of a windmill on the road to Bapaume. The Germans responded with an intense bombardment as a prelude to a counter attack. Arthur Gepp was killed by shell fire near the windmill. John Cade Murray, whose parents ran a bakery store in what is now Commonwealth Park, was wounded after leading several charges and being buried by exploding shells. He was shot in the ankle, rendered unconscious by gas and later evacuated to England suffering shell shock. Harold Lanyon was buried alive by a shell fire in the same bombardment. While he was rescued the experience scarred him for the rest of his life. Shell shock was common amongst the men at Pozières and caused the evacuations of Charles Cruickshank, William Kew and Edward Ryan.

Arthur Gepp

After incurring nearly 7,000 casualties the 2nd Division was relieved by the 4th Division over the 5th and 6th of August. Soldiers could not move through the pulverised landscape without being shot at or shelled. The Australians were particularly vulnerable as their advance through the village exposed their position to German artillery firing from three sides. Arthur Fulton, a Company commander in the 47th Battalion, he and a number of men were killed in a German bombardment of their position. His body was not recovered.

Having secured Pozières, the 4th Division were ordered to advance the front line north-westerly towards Thiepval. In between stood Mouquet Farm, a heavily fortified position with an extensive network of tunnels and deep dugouts which provided the Germans with protection from bombardments while allowing their troops to defend against attackers. Between 8 August and 5 September the AIF made seven attempts to secure the farm, their task made difficult by the narrow front on which they operated, exposed, more than ever, to both enemy artillery and their own.

In the official history of the war Charles Bean wrote of the Pozières conflict; “the flayed land, shell-hole bordering shell-hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell-holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured.” He thought about the men, desperately needing sleep in “dangerous places perilously shaken with the crashing thump of each heavy shell whose burst might all too easily shovel them on top of their occupants.”

Into this landscape the 4th Division launched the first of a series of piecemeal attacks to capture Mouquet Farm. On 8th August they established posts near the edge of the farm. They attacked again on the 12th and 13th and planned to take the farm on 14th August, but the Germans so heavily bombarded the area that Arthur Ross, commanding officer of the 51st Battalion, wrote to his brigadier that “it is my genuine (not depressed) opinion that it would be a mistake to further press the offensive in this salient” until communications and supplies of food and ammunition could be improved. The attack continued however, and Arthur Fox, a former Duntroon cadet with the 13th Battalion, was wounded and captured by the Germans.

Arthur Murray Ross

The following day the 1st Division replaced the 4th and was given the task of advancing on the flank of Mouquet Farm to capture the German front line trenches on the road from Pozières to Bapaume. During the advancement, on 18 August, David Brown, who commanded a Company of the 4th Battalion, captured a German strong point near Mouquet Farm. He and his men held the post for several hours despite German counter attacks, earning the Military Cross. Dudley Hardy commanded a Company of the 8th Battalion that was positioned to the right of the main road near the windmill. He led several charges, but on the third attempt Hardy was seriously wounded. As he was being carried back to the lines a bomb burst wounded him in the thigh. Light-headed due to blood loss, Hardy handed his flask to a private and crawled away. He did not return.

On 22 August the 2nd Division entered the line for the second time. As the 24 the Battalion moved towards Mouquet Farm where it was caught in an intense barrage on Pozières ridge, during which William Coward was killed. The 2nd Division reached the farm on 26 August but could not hold it and after five days they were replaced by the 4th Division. The fresh divisions made small gains when they entered the conflict, and by 5 September, when the 4th Division was withdrawn and Canadian forces took over, the salient created by the Australians at Pozières had reached as far as it could. Eventually, on 26 September, Mouquet Farm was secured by the British, but only after they had captured Thiepval and the front line had moved beyond the farm.William CowardOn what Charles Bean called “that crowded mile” at Pozières, the AIF lost 23,000 men; killed, wounded or captured during forty five days of fighting. The casualties suffered at Pozières and Mouquet Farm, and earlier at Fromelles, meant that the four Australian divisions then in France needed to rebuild. The loss of so many men not only highlighted the shortfall of recruits volunteering for the AIF, but also led to the divisive conscription referendum in Australia in October 1916.

Sources

Archives ACT, ‘Repat and Rabbits: WW1 Soldier Settlement in the ACT’, www.archives.act.gov.au/repatandrabbits/james_legge

Charles Bean, ‘Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18’, Vol.III p.728 , 763

Charles Bean, ‘Anzac to Amiens’, p.264