On the Somme, the village of Pozières, which lies on the straight Roman road to Bapaume, is about four miles from the centre of Albert. To the left and right of the road, in an arc around the town, are several other villages from which, in July 1916, the Germans had largely been beaten back. In a bitterly defended action, they had retrenched themselves on a high point of that rolling chalk downland, from where they commanded views north to the ridge at Thiepval and south towards the valley of the Somme.
In this extract from a 1916 diary, the battle for the high point at Pozières is just about to begin. Of the Australian 1st Division, the 1st and 3rd Brigades were going in first, with the 2nd, the Victoria Brigade, being held in reserve. Our diarist, Will, is serving with a machine gun company of the 2nd Brigade:
Friday July 21st: Rise at 7 and get breakfast, go for a wash to the town of Albert and see several 12inch Howitzers, later I see the wrecked town all deserted. There is a fine crucifix, a gold colour, badly knocked and leaning over, held in place by many stays. We are expecting to move into the firing line and get all packed up, but told later we are not moving so I turn in in dugouts in reserve trenches in the rear, beds with wire netting bottoms. Later we are awakened by the gas alarm, Fritz is using gas shells. We go into the creek for a swim. [The ‘creek’ could be the River Ancre which runs through Albert – a tributary of the River Somme.]
NB: Written large, diagonally across this page: WE ASSIST IN THE ATTACK ON POZIERES AND TAKE UP POSITION NEAR POZIERES CEMETERY. By ‘we’, clearly he means the Australians, rather than his section.
Saturday July 22nd: I am on fatigues in morning, digging a hole to put the refuse in from the incinerator. Heavy bombardments around us. A very dull day. In afternoon we have a church parade, later we are issued with sandbags each, and move off at 9.0pm. We go through Albert where many 12inch Howitzers are firing, a heavy bomb is in progress. We camp in a wood, the 1st and 3rd Brigade are attacking at 12.30, and the sky is one mass of flame, the noise as we pass the guns is deafening. I turn in in a paddock and try to get to sleep. The name of the village which the 1st and 3rd Brigade captured, Pozerieres. [Pozières]
Sunday July 23rd: After a very cold night I get up and walk about, and go and see the stream of our wounded coming in, mostly slight wounds in legs and arms. Later I view the late German trenches. We have to do our own cooking, we move out and take up a position in a German communication trench, in front of a field of heavy guns, the noise is deafening. I also see many German prisoners go by, some have to carry our wounded. I get a few old German overcoats to keep me warm, as having to move at a moment’s notice I do not take my pack to pieces. A battery of 60lb gun and of 18 pounders are constantly firing. We get a gas alarm.
Monday July 24th: I get up and have a wash, get breakfast and later on explore the German dugouts in the town and wood, which once was. After going down many flights of stairs, there are beds and dressing tables and spring beds, all being lit up by electric light, and in some, women have been working as telephone operators. The ground round is one huge shell hole, many trenches filled in, and our chaps have dug fresh ones for safety communication trenches. I see about 60 prisoners come in last night and many this morning. We a warned to go up to the trenches tonight. The town and wood I visited is called La Bossel. (La Boisselle]
The Roman road, bearing its evidence of craters, was too exposed for these latter-day legions; all approaches to the ridge were made by two shallow valleys, ‘Sausage’ to the south of the road, and ‘Mash’ to the north. The Division moved in stages to the southerly approach, through the ragged remains of Bécourt Wood and along tracks which led to the shallow dip of ‘Sausage Gully’.
High on the ridge beside the Roman road was the chalky detritus of a massive crater, blasted by mines on July 1st; below it, criss-crossing the vale like the string of a cat’s cradle, stretched dozens of white lines. The whole area was scarred by shell-holes and trench-systems; by a chaos of men and horses and transports, field ambulances and guns. Amidst the intermittent blast of their own artillery, came the distant crump of other guns. At the head of the valley, where the stumps of Bailiff Wood stabbed the skyline, great gouts of smoke regularly obscured the cloudless blue beyond.
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Photo: Howitzer – Australian War Memorial