Many may not know too much about the history of war stories in Australia, but one particular WWI battle is memorable, especially as depicted in the book by Peter FitzSimons, Fromelles and Pozieres: In the Trenches of Hell.
It took only 14 hours in Fromelles for Australian troops to suffer 5,500 casualties. Three days later an Australian division was tasked with trying to recapture Pozieres, a town 50 miles south of Fromelles.
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.
On July 23, 1916, the Australian troops prepared to take the German trenches under a barrage from the German position. Their heart-stopping wait through the sounds of bullets whizzing overhead and the rattle of machine guns was a nightmare.
Lance-Corporal Preston remembers bits and pieces of what went on during the fog of war. He recalls the Germans yelling, “Feuer!” which means “Fire!” as their bullets closed in on the Australians. Another man writes of how he could not stop himself from urinating during the battle.
A soldier named Champion says that many of the men abandoned their formations and ended up crawling close to each other and staying that way. It wasn’t for protection; it was to comfort each other. Each and every one expected to die at any moment.
This chaos was a calm before the storm compared to what happened next. After the German fire paused one of the Australian soldiers stood up and blew a whistle, indicating it was time for the men to storm the German lines. A corporal recalls that the unprotected men fell like flies once the Germans started opening up for real.
But terror and the need to “get it over with” spurs the men on into the very trenches from which the fire has been erupting. The startled Germans ask for mercy; sometimes it’s given, but not always reports.
The Australians gained and kept the trenches at Pozieres, but would suffer innumerable casualties attempting to hold onto these gains and to move forward.
Success on the Somme came at a cost that at times seemed to surpass the cost of failure, and for the Australians, Pozières was such a case. As a consequence of being the sole British gain on 23 July, Pozières became a focus of attention for the Germans.
Forming as it did a critical element of their defensive system, the German command ordered that it be retaken at all costs. Three attempts were made on 23 July, but each was broken up by the British artillery or swept away by machine gun fire.
On July 26th the Germans began shelling the Australian held trenches. 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 an Australian division. The Australian 1st Division suffered 5,285 casualties on its first tour of Pozières.