The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916

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“Gibraltar” blockhouse in Pozieres on 28 August 1916

From 17 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916), the village of Pozières on the main road running north from Albert to Bapaume, was on the front line. It was attacked on 23 July by 1st Australian Division, supported by the British Territorial battalions of the 145th Infantry Brigade. The position was taken, but with heavy losses.

From early 1916, with the German effort ‘to bleed France white’ at Verdun consuming French reserves, it fell mainly to British and Commonwealth forces to hold the Western Front. On 24 June British artillery launched a week-long intensive bombardment of the German lines north of the river Somme, in preparation for a big infantry attack on 1 July. However, when the attack was duly launched, it was found that the shelling had been largely ineffective. Twenty thousand British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed, the greatest loss of troops ever suffered on one day.

Although the British Army hierarchy had the ultimate decision of who would attack where and when in the battle of the Somme, they nonetheless did consult with Australian commanders when Australian forces were to be used in attacks on German positions.

This was the case when Field Marshal Douglas Haig decided to attack the town of Pozieres because he assigned the initial attack to a 45-year-old general by the name of Hubert de la Gough. It was General Gough who would go on to become known for the inordinate Australian losses the year after at the disastrous Battle of Bullecourt.

The attack by the Australian 1st Division came in three stages. It was originally intended to have each stage at 30-minute intervals. On July 22, the Australian 9th Battalion advanced toward Pozieres village. It was repulsed and had to fall back.

Then, on July 23, the Australian 1st and 3rd Brigades (upwards of 5,000 men) went over the top of their trenches, across no man’s land and, and took the outer German trenches that ringed what was left of Pozieres.

The Australians then went through the ruins of Pozieres and intended to seize the trenches behind the ruins. It was here that the Australians were forced to retreat because of the strong resistance of the entrenched Germans who had machine guns trained on them. However, on their way back to their lines, the Australians did capture a number of Germans in a heavily defended bunker that the Australians called “Gibraltar.” They also captured some German stragglers. It was a small compensation.

Meanwhile, the British Fourth Army was attempting to defeat the Germans with the aid of the French Sixth Army at a village called Guillemont. It was a costly mistake for a number of reasons, not least the being that the British commander Sir Douglas Haig and the French commander Joseph Joffe could not agree on tactics. Consequently, the Germans were able to hold their positions, and the British and French troops were forced to retreat.

Pozieres was in some ways a success for the Australians who had advanced so far and taken German prisoners. But this success came at a huge cost. The Australian 1st Division suffered 5,285 casualties — an inordinate number given a division normally consists of around 10,000 men.

The Battle of Pozieres is remembered for what it may have achieved if the Australians had had just had a little more luck. However, the two-day battle did see the awarding of five Victoria Crosses (VC) to Australia troops.

Prior to this attack by the Australians, British and Australian artillery fire kept up a ceaseless pounding of Pozieres village and the surrounding German defences. Although it completely destroyed the village, the German defences held up.

Gough was, even then, known for making rash and, at times, uncalculated decisions. However, he did consult with the Australian 1st Division’s commander, Major General Harold Walker, but insisted the Australians should attack Pozieres on the 19th of July — three days before the main British forces were scheduled to attack the Pozieres-Guillemont area.

Despite the appalling casualties and traumatic experiences of his troops, the British commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, continued his tactic of bombardment against the Germans. The campaign deteriorated into a series of minor but very costly actions. In September tanks were employed for the first time to cross trenches and destroy machine guns, but they were unreliable and too few to help secure outright victory. The Somme offensive cost the Allies some 420,000 casualties: the Germans had even greater losses. During these months the Allies advanced barely eight miles.

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General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough GCB, GCMG, KCVO was a senior officer in the British Army in the First World War. A controversial figure, he was a favourite of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

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