Pozieres: The Anzac story

Pozieres: The Anzac story

by Scott Bennett

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In 1916, one million men fought in the first battle of the Somme. Victory hinged on their ability to capture a small village called Pozières, perched on the highest ridge of the battlefield. After five attempts to seize it, the British called in the Anzacs to complete this seemingly impossible task.At midnight on 23 July 1916, thousands of Australians stormed


In 1916, one million men fought in the first battle of the Somme. Victory hinged on their ability to capture a small village called Pozières, perched on the highest ridge of the battlefield. After five attempts to seize it, the British called in the Anzacs to complete this seemingly impossible task.At midnight on 23 July 1916, thousands of Australians stormed and took Pozières. Forty-five days later they were relieved, having suffered 23,000 casualties to gain a few miles of barren, lunar landscape. Despite the toll, the capture of Pozières was heralded as a stunning tactical victory. Yet for the exhausted survivors, the war-weary public, and the families of the dead and maimed, victory came at such terrible cost it seemed indistinguishable from defeat.This account tells the stories of those men who fought at Pozières. Drawing on their letters and diaries, it reveals a battlefield drenched in chaos, suffering, and fear. Bennett sheds light on the story behind the official history, showing how commanders struggled with a war conducted on an unprecedented scale and how the survivors witnessed appalling human tragedy to return home as heroes but, too often, shattered men.While Gallipoli has entered the national mythology, Pozières has received less attention. This superb book recreates the experiences of those men who fought in one of the largest and most devastating battles of the Great War.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Scott Bennett's] passion is evident in every page, and his attention to detail is striking . . . . This a book that needed to be written."  —Patrick Lindsay, author, Fromelles

"Scott Bennett’s Pozières gives us a clear, fresh view of an epic battle, presenting conclusions that will challenge many readers."  —Peter Stanley, author, Men of Mont St Quentin

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The Anzac Story

By Scott Bennett

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Scott Bennett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921753-76-3


The Road to Pozières

'The paths of glory lead but to the grave.' — Thomas Gray, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'

In the unseasonably hot days of early August 1914, decades of pent-up nationalist fervour, rampant militarism, frenetic empire-building, petty royal jealousies, industrial rivalries, and colonialist ambition erupted into war upon the European continent. Within weeks, armies of Frenchmen — wearing ceremonial red trousers and blue coats, and blowing bugles — and Britons, dressed in grey-brown tunics and 'flat-top caps' and whistling marching tunes, marched off to war. Many clung to the hope of a speedy victory against the Germans.

By late August, the shattered British and French armies were retreating in the wake of the Germans' pre-emptive and rapid advance through Belgium and France. In September, as the Germans pushed toward Paris, the French fought desperately, managing to check their enemy's advance near the river Marne. By late December 1914, the brief war of mobility had petered out into a stalemate, but not before the French had suffered almost one million casualties and the British Expeditionary Force had been largely destroyed. The illusion of a quick victory had evaporated, replaced by the bleak reality of a long and grinding struggle.

The draining stalemate persisted throughout 1915. The British and French armies' limited attempts to break through the solidified 500-mile front line, running from the North Sea to the Swiss border, failed miserably. But 1916 appeared to offer renewed hope: Italy entered the war on the Allies' side; Russia replenished its shattered army with new conscripts; France's wrecked army had been partially repaired; and Britain had recruited and trained the New Army, composed of citizen–soldiers. The enlivened Allies, according to Australia's official war correspondent, Charles Bean, were intent upon delivering 'an overwhelming concerted blow against Germany'.

In December 1915, the Allies had met at the French headquarters at Chantilly, agreeing to launch a simultaneous offensive against the Germans on three fronts in mid-1916. The French and British selected the region astride the Somme river as the location for their joint Western Front offensive, mainly because their armies, which each controlled discrete sectors — the British held the front line from Ypres in the far north to the Somme river in the south, while the French held from the Somme river to the Swiss border — intersected there.

In the same month that the Allies had met at Chantilly, the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force had abandoned Gallipoli, admitting defeat in their unsuccessful nine-month attempt to break the deadlock of the war by striking at Germany's supposedly unreliable ally, Turkey. The evacuating force included thousands of Anzacs who had been bloodied on the cragged slopes of what became known as Anzac Cove.

By January 1916, the Gallipoli Anzacs, along with other redirected troops, had arrived in Egypt, where Britain's secretary of state for war, Lord Horatio Kitchener, expected the Turkish forces 'to set the East in a blaze'. As well as defending Egypt, the Anzac Corps would act as an 'Empire reserve', ready to assist in other operations, such as those planned for the Western Front.

According to Bean, tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders had also been inspired to enlist by the Gallipoli campaign, the first casualty lists, the sinking of the crowded passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, and the realisation that the war hung in the balance. The fresh troops flooded into Egypt in late 1915 and early 1916, providing British Lieutenant-General Sir William ('Birdie') Birdwood, who had temporary control of the Anzac Corps, and his Australian chief-of-staff, Brigadier-General Cyril Brudenell White, the opportunity to reorganise and expand from three Anzac divisions to six, and from one corps to two. Arthur Foxcroft was one of those fresh troops who arrived in Egypt in early 1916. Upon landing, he marvelled at the great mass of Anzacs already there: 'One would wonder where all the Australians came from; fine body of men,' he wrote in his diary.

As the threat of the Turks attacking in the east gradually diminished, the likelihood of the Anzacs transferring to the Western Front increased. On 16 February 1916, the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Murray, told Birdie that I Anzac Corps (at that stage comprising the 1st and 2nd Australian divisions and a New Zealand division) had to be ready to sail within two weeks, while II Anzac Corps, under British commander General Sir Alexander Godley and comprising the 4th and 5th Australian divisions, would remain in Egypt until further notice. According to Foxcroft, by the time the 1st and 2nd Australian divisions began sailing for France on 13 March 1916, preparations down to the finest detail — including teaching Anzacs the importance of saluting French and British officers — had largely been completed.

Charles Bean had shadowed the Australian soldiers since September 1914, when he accepted the position of being the country's sole war correspondent, and he accompanied I Anzac Corps on their voyage to France. Bean recognised that the Great War had the potential to reshape the world and, in the process, the young Australian nation, and that his official account would document this transformation. 'I want it to be the truest history that ever was written,' he stated in a letter to his parents.

Bean knew that, as the chronicler of the truth, he had to be clean-living, conscientious, disciplined, above reproach, and scrupulously honest. A 36-year-old bachelor, he adhered to these values as a priest would to the vow of poverty. Yet, even though Bean searched for some form of 'absolute' truth, he still interpreted events rather subjectively. His main bias was toward the men he was chronicling: he believed that Australians represented the best of the British race and had inherent qualities, such as bravery and natural fighting instincts, which had been honed by their bush lifestyle and made them natural soldiers. Bean believed these men had learnt something of the art of soldiering by the time they were ten years old — how to sleep comfortably in any shelter, how to cook meat or bake flour, how to catch a horse, how to find their way across country by day or night, and how to persevere in tough conditions. He thought that the Great War would provide the opportunity for Australians to prove the virtues of their unique bush ethos.

Bean's love affair with the Australian Outback had ignited when he visited the remote regions of western New South Wales in 1909 to write about the wool industry for The Sydney Morning Herald. He was impressed by the quiet determination of the stockmen, the boundary riders, and the station hands. Their adventurous spirit was a contrast to the Englishmen he had seen, who lived in industrialised cities and toiled away mindlessly in bleak factories. For Bean, Australia represented a new and exciting frontier, while Britain symbolised yesterday's world. In his mind, the hard men of Bourke, Broken Hill, and Gundagai would forge the new empire.

Bean's first flirtation with reporting the Australians' exploits had proven painful. His despatches had detailed their poor behaviour — such as drunkenness and indulging in practices that resulted in many contracting disease (Bean refused to mention 'venereal disease' by name in his despatches or diary) — when they first landed in Egypt in 1914, and had drawn a savage response. Soldiers and their families demanded to know why he had publicised the indiscretions of a few among many. Bean quickly found himself an outcast of the Australian Imperial Force, and he felt the estrangement deeply. In the early months of 1915, he often unfolded the offending article and reread it, dwelling on each word; he sought reassurance from officer friends that he had done the right thing in publishing it. 'My job is to tell the people of Australia the truth,' he continually reminded himself.

Bean had decided that his personal diary, which he had kept since waving his father goodbye at Port Melbourne wharf on 21 October 1914, would become his chief personal record of the war. His diary entries — he filled 286 volumes — were jotted down almost daily, irrespective of whether he was tired or half asleep. He purposefully recorded whatever was on his mind, resulting in prose full of raw and unguarded opinions. As well as jotting diary entries, Bean, in his capacity as official war correspondent, continued to draft regular despatches for newspapers, which became one of Australia's main sources of news about the Anzacs. Bean would chronicle the Anzacs' exploits at Pozières in both his diary and official reports.

After the war, Bean drafted the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, which recorded the efforts and experiences of his own country in the conflict. Scholar Graham Seal correctly noted in Inventing Anzac that 'Bean is everywhere' in the Great War landscape. His writings seemed to touch every part of Anzac, and eventually shaped how Australians perceived their soldiers' role in the conflict. This was especially true of Pozières: Bean filled nine diaries and drafted many despatches chronicling the Anzacs' exploits on the battlefield.

Fourth Battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Iven Mackay was part of the advance party at the port city of Marseilles, preparing for the arrival of the corps in France. The 33-year-old spent two weeks working between the docks and the railway stations, welcoming the troops, marching them through streets lined with French locals throwing rose petals and yelling, 'Vive les Australiens', and quickly pushing them north in cattle trucks marked '40 hommes, 8 chevaux'. Western Australian captain Geoffrey Drake-Brockman of the 2nd Field Company, Engineers, suspected the urgency to shift the troops north was due to the 'thousands of alluring prostitutes parading everywhere, dressed to entice', rather than military imperatives.

The Australians were transferred by rail to Armentières, in French Flanders, about 130 miles north of Paris. Drake-Brockman remembered the journey across the undulating country, through miles of orchards filled with pink blossoms, recording in his autobiography that it was 'a magic carpet contrast to the Sahara'. Armentières, located in the British sector, was considered the 'nursery' section of the Western Front, where new troops could learn the skills of trench warfare in moderate safety, compared to other dangerous sectors such as Ypres in Belgium. Yet Drake-Brockman noted: 'Even in the "nursery" artillery fire was infinitely fiercer than at Gallipoli.'

Armentières was cold, damp, and dreary. 'A fortnight ago we were running around with very little clothing and swimming in the Canal. Now we cannot keep ourselves warm,' 7th Battalion medical orderly Albert Coates recorded in his diary. Armentières was below sea level, so breastworks — above-ground trenches constructed with sandbags — had to be built to avoid the high watertable.

On 13 April, I Anzac Corps, which had been allocated to the Second British Army, took control of the front line, south-east of Armentières. 'Our first time in the trenches,' Arthur Foxcroft recorded in his diary in mid-April. 'Very cold.'

I Anzac Corps' introduction to trench warfare in the nursery sector was relatively civilised. Nightly ration parties brought up food on the tramways, water was delivered by pipe, and London newspapers reached them within 48 hours of being printed. Platoons were provided with box respirators and trained on how to respond to poisonous gas, and they practised with the new, lightweight Lewis guns and trench mortars that were now attached to their battalions. The Anzacs experienced heavy anti-aircraft fire for the first time. They stole their first glimpses of the Germans through their field glasses, and were surprised by the accuracy of the Germans' artillery, which had the knack of landing a shell at a busy intersection or directly on an Australian battery. 'Somebody in the landscape is clearly watching you all the time,' noted Bean. Although the Australians did not realise it, the intermittent shelling they experienced at Armentières would be a precursor to the violent barrages of curtain fire they would constantly be exposed to on the Somme.

On 1 July, while the Anzacs familiarised themselves with life on the Western Front, the French and British launched their summer offensive, with around 18 divisions attacking along a 22-mile front in the Somme region. The objectives of the offensive were three-fold: to break the German line; to grind the Germans down; and to relieve the pressure upon the French, further south at Verdun. On the first day of the offensive, the Allies' casualties were extraordinarily heavy, with little ground gained. The British troops, who had walked into a storm of steel, suffered 57,000 casualties — 19,000 killed outright or mortally wounded, 35,000 wounded, and 2000 taken prisoner. This day, years in the planning and moments in the execution, was the bloodiest in the British Empire's history. What haunted the British survivors most was the sheer hopelessness of their task: 'I could see a wall of German soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder right along the parapet of their front-line trench, waving us to come on,' remembered Private Ramage. Captain Alan Hanbury-Sparrow of the 8th British Division never forgot the sight of Germans standing well atop their trenches, firing and sniping at those men stranded in no-man's-land.

Despite the carnage, the German line collapsed in some places; however, severe casualties and confusion prevented the British from exploiting these fleeting opportunities. It seemed that any hope of 'piercing the line' was evaporating. The British commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, relied on Brigadier-General John Charteris, his chief-of-intelligence, for clues on how far the Germans were from collapse. Charteris, known as the 'principal's boy', told Haig that although the Germans had put up a first-class fight, their morale was low.

It was decided that as long as there was a chance, a possibility, of a German collapse, the offensive would continue. The British had invested too much emotion, effort, and hope for it to be wound down without them having made any considerable gains. In addition, Britain's Allies, France and Russia, had shouldered the burden of the war for two years, and would never have allowed it. Both had chalked up one million dead soldiers by the end of 1915. Casualties like these were simply the price of membership to the Allied cause.

Over the next weeks, the Allies gradually edged forward, securing the first line of German trenches south of the Bapaume road, which bisected the battlefield, as well as the villages of Ovillers, La Boisselle, Fricourt, Mametz, and Montauban.

Before the offensive started, the French commander, General Joseph Joffre, had counselled Haig that he had to have adequate reserves if he was to continue the offensive beyond the initial thrust. On 30 June, Haig notified I Anzac Corps — which now comprised the 1st, 2nd, and the recently arrived 4th Australian divisions — that it had to be ready to transfer south to the Somme at a moment's notice. A week later, on 7 July, Birdie received orders from General Headquarters to shift the corps from Armentières to the Amiens area by 13 July. 'We knew we were for it,' remarked Iven Mackay upon hearing the news.

Transferring the corps from Armentières to the Somme was a huge logistical undertaking that required careful planning and management. The divisions would march from Armentières to the Flemish abbey-town of St Omer, and then travel by train to the Somme region, where they would march, stage by stage, toward the battlefront. Sixty thousand men — the population of a large city such as Ballarat or Toowoomba — had to be shifted 60 miles south in the space of a week. For every infantryman like Foxcroft — there were about 12,000 to a division — there was almost one other man in support: someone to bring ammunition and supplies forward; someone to bombard, machine-gun, and mortar the Germans; someone to dig the trenches they sheltered in; someone to carry and treat the wounded; someone to ferry messages back and forth; and someone to salvage the tons of derelict material left lying on the battlefield. Every possible contingency had to be catered for: people to care for their spiritual needs, arrange their weekly baths, pay their wages in French francs, interpret French, settle compensation claims made against them by the civilian population, entertain them when they were out of the line, and bury them. Billeting officers travelled ahead to arrange the nightly accommodation, farriers attended to the needs of thousands of transport horses, rolling cookers prepared tens of thousands of meals each day, mechanics maintained and repaired the fleet cars, quartermasters fitted the soldiers out, and clerks and orderlies followed in lorries with office furniture and stores for the new headquarters. And when things went wrong, as they inevitably did — such as a cold meal, a late wages payment, or a night without billets — the men complained bitterly about their officers, who they referred to disparagingly as 'brass heads'.


Excerpted from Pozières by Scott Bennett. Copyright © 2011 Scott Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Scott Bennett was born in Bairnsdale, Victoria, in 1966, and holds an Executive Master of Business Administration from the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of Sydney. For the last ten years, he has worked for many of Australia’s most recognised retail companies as a management consultant or an executive manager.

In 2003, he visited the Great War battlefields in France and Belgium to retrace the steps of his great-uncles, who had fought there. The experience led him to question the many ‘truths’ that have developed around the Anzac legend. The result was the writing of Pozières, which re-examines the battle of Pozières and the Anzac legend.

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