The Capture of Pozieres
Randwick to Hargicourt, pp. 180-185
The northward thrust behind the Mouquet Farm was now planned for the late evening of August 18th, and when, on the 17th, the artillery liaison officer gave notice that preliminary demolition fire would at 6 p.m. that day be opened by “heavies” on a line corresponding to points R.34, a.3.8 and 9.9 on the maps, an urgent warning was immediately dispatched by runner to brigade headquarters that the line indicated was actually a part of the 3rd Battalion’s front line! Telephone communication was out of the question; so furious was the enemy’s fire on every communication trench and track, that the signalers, toil as they might over their severed wires, were unable for nearly three whole days to get a line in working order. However, brave men – although they took two hours – ran the gauntlet with messages in an attempt to stay the artillery’s fire. Unfortunately they were too late, and at 6 o’clock the British heavy guns opened fire and a proportion of their shells duly exploded in the 3rd Battalion’s position with disastrous effect. Lieut R.F. [Richard Farley] BULKELEY was killed almost in the act of delivering a confirmation of his previous surveying observations.
While blame for this calamitous occurrence was hardly attachable to anyone, feeling in the battalion at the time was bitter. Only the skillful survey of Lieut BULKELEY, in an area from which every natural feature had been blasted, had detected the error in the accepted plan of the line, and, had telephone communication been possible, the disaster might not have occurred. As it was, the divisional staff only reluctantly accepted the correction after an aerial reconnaissance of the line, in which flares were lighted by the troops. Even so, there can be no doubt that, when the bombardment opened again on the evening of the 18th, there were still some British guns laid on to the line of the battalion’s trenches. It might be here noted that, as several British divisions also took part in the attack, the strength of the supporting artillery employed was really enormous. Consequently the rechecking of its detail orders was probably a task of some difficulty.
The preparations for the attack were completed on the afternoon of the 18th, when the 1st Battalion relived the three right companies of the 3rd and thus allowed them to concentrate further to the left front. This movement carried out in broad daylight over open ground, was undoubtedly observed by the enemy, for much sniping and low shrapnel-fire gave on indication of his ready alertness and boded ill for the success of the attack.
At 8 p.m. our bombardment opened, and the enemy guns at once countered heavily from the front and either side of the narrow salient. This shelling contained until 10 p.m. – the hour fixed for the ‘hop-over”. The assembly positions being badly wrecked, Lieut-Col [Owen Glendower] HOWELL-PRICE ordered the attacking lines to stand fast, and pushed forward strong fighting-patrols to test the activity of the enemy, at the same time supporting the 4th Battalion with a bombing dive on the left flank. His caution proved to be most wise. As soon as contact was made with the German listening-posts, the whole enemy front directed a heavy cross-fire with rifles and machine-guns on taped rages along the line of the objective.
The point of junction between the 16th and 24th German Divisions was directly opposite the 3rd Battalion’s right front, but the enemy commanders acted in close harmony in their plan of defence. They had strict orders to prevent any further penetration in this area towards the “Fabeck Graben” – the line which guarded the Thiepval fortress – and their machine-guns were massed so as to bring intense enfilade fire to bear upon this already critical salient point. The 33 yards of extra ground which was inside the battalion’s new objective was, therefore, absolutely untenable for trench-digging troops, although the plan of infiltration into shell-hole posts was possible. This plan was followed with a ready initiative which might well have been copied elsewhere on the front at this time. A couple of old German gun-pits were seized and occupied on the right front of the new line. This gave adequate flank protection on the left to the 4th Battalion’s objectives, which were much deeper owing to its need to confirm with the 3rd Battalion’s already advanced line. But the 4th, meeting opposition similar to that experienced by the 3rd, could only filter forward into a line of shell-hole posts, most of which proved quite untenable in daylight hours. Further to the left, the British attacks were equally abortive.
On August 19th the troops were mostly concerned with an intolerable sleeplessness and fatigue and with the ceaseless scream and crash of German shells from all sides. There was little laughter anywhere. The labour conditions, too, were almost intolerable. Communication avenues were repeatedly blown in, and frequent calls had to be made for more and yet more men to volunteer to keep them open. The front lines were little more than wide shallow ditches strewn with the sad, still bodies of comrades newly slain. But worse than all this was the rankling sense of bitterness engendered by the short shooting of some of our supporting artillery. The men were ready and willing to assault, but, because their faith in the trustworthiness of their own artillery had been shaken, there was in the mind of every one of them a depressing doubt as to the final outcome of the struggle.
Rain, in insidious soaking showers, was a final damper to the spirits of the men. Already the losses of the battalion in this second immersion on the Somme were nine officers and 151 other ranks killed and wounded.
At 6 p.m. on August 19th, with the sun still high in the west, the 10th Battalion began to relieve the 3rd from the trenches opposite Mouquet Farm. At the time the German artillery was laying a shrapnel barrage on all tracks and communication trenches, but the relief was completed by 11 p.m. and the 3rd escaped without a casualty.
A weariness, the inexpressible weariness of body and mind similar to that of an athlete who has run himself to a standstill, was the paramount feeling of every man in the much-battered battalion as it filed out by way of Sausage Valley and other tracks to Albert. At no other time it its history, perhaps, was the 3rd Battalion ever to know such a deep feeling of despondency. Tired and worn, and salient with the memory of comrades who had fallen, there was a decided contracts between the feelings and appearance of these men and the strong companies which had moved forward over the same route four days before.
But this feeling of depression did not linger. Clear at last of the tumbled and chaotic ground of the Pozieres crater-fields, and moving at last with light steps down the broad highway of the old Roman road that led to Albert, some of the old gaiety returned and tired feet picked up the rhythm of the march once more. The Ursna Tara Hill was crossed and soon the light of the gun flashes disclosed spasmodic views in silhouette of the battered streets of Albert, where, after crossing the square that was over-hung by the now familiar golden virgin on the tower of the great basilica, the battalion turned right into the Rue de Aveluy to find bullets for the rest of the night, and an appetizing [sic] meal prepared by the cooks.
The battalion rested all that day in billets while Colonel HOWELL-PRICE and Lieuts [Giles Eyre] BLAKE and [Clifford Lister] STURT attended an inquiry at Divisional Headquarters into the artillery inaccuracies during the recent fighting. at 8.30 a.m. on the 21st we marched out of Albert, via Bouzincourt and Senlis, over the rolling Picardy uplands to Warloy nestling in its green cup in the hills, and took over billets for the night. Next day the march was continued in very hot and oppressive weather via Contay and Herissart to Val-de-Maison, where the battalion went under canvas about noon.
Here energetic plans for re-organization [sic] and recreation weer put in hand. The tented field the battalion now occupied had been Anzac rest camp, and the matter of absorbing 27 old hands (just returned from hospital) and 76 reinforcements, who were waiting there, was done at once. The more vital and delicate task of re-organzing [sic] the ranks of the battalion engaged the attention of the commander.
The men entered into the programme [sic] of sport and recreation with vim and vigour. At the concert held in the camp on that first evening, and at the sports meeting on the following day, the morale of the battalion was never better. To balance the sense of loss for comrades who had “gone west”, there was a strong conviction that the unit had upheld the traditions of Anzac, and [t]he men were able to laugh and sing and yet silently to prize their inner knowledge that all that courage and effort and self-sacrifice could do, had been done, and not in vain.
On the afternoon of August 23rd the whole brigade was reviewed at La Vicogne by General BIRDWOOD, who presented ribbons to those who had been awarded medals for distinguishing themselves during the first tour at Pozieres. The medical officer, Captain S.C. [Samuel Charles] FITZPATRICK, and the late Lieutenant R.F. BULKELEY were honoured with the Military Cross, and Sergeant [Bruce Alexander] DOUGLAS and Stretcher-bearer J.B. SAXBY received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The corps commander acted in sympathy with the general feeling when he cut his usual laudatory peroration short on this occasion. Then the battalion quick-stepped it back to camp to entertain itself with another concert and with the general’s personal assurance that a move to Belbium was immediately imminent.
[In total 139 soldiers have been identified as having died in the fighting at Pozieres (20 July-18 August) who all have no known grave. Thirteen soldiers from the Pozieres fighting are indicated as having died on 17 August 1916, and six on the 18 August 1916, and have no known grave. All of their service records indicate they were buried “3/4 mile N of Pozieres & 4 1/4 Miles N.E. Of Albert (57C S.E.)”.]