Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, August 8, 2016

100 Years Ago: Pozières — The Australian Corps' Gethsemane

A Garden Called Gethsemane, in Picardy It Was

A century ago the Somme Battlefield had been fragmented, the area north of the Albert-Bapaume Road left quiet while the main British effort was focused – with mixed success – to the south, primarily against the horseshoe of woods surrounding Caterpillar Valley.  However, what progress was made exposed  the left flank of the attacking British units and a push was needed, directed down either side (through Mash Valley to the north and Sausage Valley to the south) of the old Roman road. This in-turn necessitated a concurrent attack on the high ground to the north of the Albert-Bapaume Road from which German observers could watch and call in artillery strikes.  

Australian Veteran's Department Map

The first objective, was to take  the village of Pozières located on the road about four miles from the outskirts of Albert.   The First Australian Division captured most of the town quite handily on 23 July.  Then their agony began.  The Diggers were completely in the open and were an easy target for the German artillerymen, who took an awful toll.  In the next four days the Germans also mounted three major efforts to take the village.  The Aussies beat them all off, but took over 5,000 casualties.  By the 27th the First Division needed to be relieved.

The Windmill Before the Battle
The high command felt the push needed to continue down the road and that job was given to the 2nd Australian Division. They had two key positions to take. (See Map.)  Down the road past the village was the local mill, placed on high point.  On either side of the mill was a double trench, the assembly area for all the German counterattacks. This had to be secured first. North on the ridge, commanding Pozières, was the innocuous sounding, but highly fortified, Mouquet Farm.  It's elimination was needed to secure the Australian flank, but also offered promise of turning the German position on Thiepval Ridge further north if the Australians could take the position.

In a well-executed attack on 4 August, the division captured most of the mill site and the trenches. But it was incredibly costly.  The Australian 4th Division had to relieve the 2nd, which had lost 7,000 men in twelve days. From 8 August to 5 September the Australians, with all three of the Corps divisions taking turns, advanced on Mouquet Farm, getting close three times. The Aussies would never secure the farm, though, .  

Aerial View of Mouquet Farm

By 5 September, when 1st Australian Corps was withdrawn and replaced by Canadian troops, the Corps had lost 23,000 men in six weeks. The Canadians would finally take the farm on 26 September, but another tough German defensive line, the Regina Trench, was sitting in readiness. There the Canadian Corps would experience their own Gethsemane.

Historian Charles Bean later wrote that the Pozières ridge "is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth."

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