Camp that evening was in the open, in a field outside the town of Albert, beside the shell-pocked ribbon of the Bapaume Road. It was a broad path first built by Romans, not curving around hills but tackling them head-on. Now it climbed the long slope like a smudged white line, disappearing over the crest to rise again – beyond their sight – to a point some four and a half miles away.
To left and right of the road, in an arc around the town, stood several villages from which the Germans had largely been beaten back. They had retrenched themselves at the highest point of that rolling chalk downland – at the village of Pozieres – commanding views north to the ridge at Thiepval and south towards the valley of the Somme.
The aim of this push, their officer told them, was to make a break in the line – that never-ending line which ran from the Channel port of Ostend all the way to the Swiss border – so that the enemy forces could be outflanked at last, rolled up like a human carpet. The Australians’ task, he revealed with awe and pride in his voice, was to dislodge the enemy from Pozières.
The 1st and 3rd Brigades would be going in first, with the 2nd, the Victoria Brigade, held in reserve. The young officer, who had joined them in Egypt, sounded regretful as he imparted the information; hearing it, Liam groaned with the rest. Like everyone else he was keen to get in there, keen to deal the swiftest, most lethal blow; to finish the war quickly and go home. But for the time being it seemed they were destined to wait, dodging shells, chewing their fingernails, wondering when and if they would be needed.
The Roman road was too exposed for these latter-day legions. All approaches to the ridge were made via two shallow valleys, one to the south of the road, the other to the north. As part of the Victoria Brigade, Liam’s machine gun unit was detailed to move up from the south.
High on the ridge they could see the chalky detritus of a massive crater, blasted by mines on 1stJuly; somewhere beyond it, they were told, stood the fortified village of Pozieres. But three weeks later, there was little sign of a village, and the German lines were still untaken.
Below the crater, criss-crossing the vale like the string of a cat’s cradle, Liam could see dozens of white lines, the whole area scarred by shell-holes and trench-systems: by a chaos of men and horses and transports, field ambulances, mobile kitchens and guns. Amidst the intermittent blast of their own artillery came the distant crump of other guns. From time to time, where the stumps of Bailiff Wood stabbed the skyline, great gouts of smoke obscured the cloudless blue beyond.
Warned to be ready on several occasions, on 22ndJuly Liam’s machine-gun unit moved from field to wood to old German trenches overlooking the crater.
The British bombardment began, Liam noted, at seven in the evening. It went on for five agonising hours.
In the old, well-dug trench he curled himself against the crushing reverberations, stuffing lint in his ears to block the din. The roars and the shocks were continuous, like being bowled along in a steel drum, hour after hour with no escape.
For a while, before his ability to think was eradicated, his pity went out to the attacking battalions, waiting close to those landing shells. They must be going mad with the noise. How would they gather themselves to attack when the barrage lifted? And what about the Germans? Were they safe in their deep chalk dugouts, as they had been on 1stJuly? Or were they being slowly pulverized to oblivion, dying, one by one, from concussion? Eventually his pity extended even to them.
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 star 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 men were alive but stunned. Mouths open, eyes flickering, no words. The sharp ripping of machine-guns, the thudding of mortars, were crackling insect noises. At last it came to him that the battle had begun….
Photo shows Australian machine gunners on the Somme 1916 – courtesy of the Australian War Memorial