With not much room to write, Will, our Australian diarist, restricts himself to the facts, rarely using adjectives to describe events. He comes across as a master of understatement in his accounts of the bombardments in his small sector of the Somme, simply describing the noise as ‘deafening’. According to CEW Bean, the Australian war correspondent – and Peter Charlton, military historian – the bombardments at Pozières were truly horrific, the worst of the war.
Men are reported to have gone mad with the noise. Others suffered concussion, while a less obvious effect was a weakening of the heart. Most were deaf for months afterwards.
Meanwhile, during these terrific bombardments – which went on for weeks – the village of Pozières, including its church and windmill, was reduced to grit and ashes.
This extract from my novel, Liam’s Story, sets the scene:
Hour after hour, through the long summer twilight the bombardment went on, great pink clouds of dust erupting over the horizon. When darkness came, the night was lit by a continuous flickering band, with start shells bursting and shrapnel twinkling, and red and green rockets curving away into hell. And always the noise, the everlasting noise…
When it stopped, the silence was palpable, eerie, the only sound inside Liam’s head, a dreadful, continuous ringing. For a while he thought he must be dead. As sensation returned he jerked into life. His mates were alive but stunned. Mouths open, eyes flickering, no words. The sharp ripping of machine guns, the crack of mortars, were crackling insect noises. At last it came to him that the battle had begun.
Our diarist, Will, had yet to be directly involved. For the time being, with his section, he was being held in reserve. Meanwhile, for those in the front line, the casualties were enormous:
Tuesday July 25th: All through the early hours of the morning a terrific bomb both by us and the Germans, many red and green flares going up, a great number of prisoners come in. I spend most of my time looking at our guns, many of which are just in the open. We are camped just about 40 yards in front of a battery of 60 pounders. Many of our wounded come down, the 8th Batt [his old infantry battalion from Gallipoli] is reduced to 300 while the 5th can only muster 150 men. [Full complement would have been 800-1000 men.] We are again warned to move up, we have to carry all our gun stores, we camp just behind the supports and get a few shells over.
Wednesday July 26th: I did an hour on guard (gas guard) and spent the time watching red hot shells pass over; we have to hold ourselves in readiness to move to front line if needed. 2 sections go in, we cook our own breakfast, and then I visit the town [village] of Contalmaison [a mile or so to the west of La Boisselle] all one huge wreck, with many of the German dead, also ours of the Yorkshire regiments, unburied, and they do smell. Rifles and equipment lying all over the ground. We again get a few shells round us. Towards evening Fritz starts a heavy bomb of our positions, to which we reply. We get a gas alarm, there are over 30 of our planes up in evening, and many of our heavy shells pass overhead. We again pack up, ready to be relieved.
Thursday July 27th: About 2am the 2nd Division M.G.Coy relieves us, and we move off carrying our guns, etc, arriving at our old billet about 3am. Get a drink of tea and our overcoats again and try to get a little sleep which is difficult as we are camped between batteries of 60 pounders. Breakfast at 7.30, consisting of tea, cold boiled meat and new potatoes, which we enjoy, and later move off after seeing several German captured machine guns which are very like our old [illegible few words]… old position near a wood about two miles in front of Albert. I get a wash and turn in for a sleep, a heavy bomb is going on all day. Get orders to move off by 8.30pm, [and] after the usual messing about we start for Albert and pass town and camp in old place for night.
NB: Written large, diagonally across this page: WE GET RELIEVED AND MOVE TO SAUSAGE GULLY FOR A SLEEP, UNDER THE MOUTHS OF 60 POUNDER GUNS.
The 1916 diary from which these extracts are taken inspired my bestselling novel, Liam’s Story, originally published in 1991, and now available in both eBook and paperback from Amazon and other online bookstores.