“On returning to the 11th Battalion’s aid post early in the morning, Albert Coates discovered that a shell had killed all the wounded. ‘What a sight. Mangled remains on the stretchers’
Albert Coates, AIF Medical Orderly, Pozieres
The harrowing event described in this quote is not something that many Australians have experienced. To Albert Coates, the medical orderly and later war intelligence officer and to the men of the Australian 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions, it was a sight that became tragically familiar during a period of just less than seven weeks at Pozieres.
Coates, later Sir Albert Coates, became the renowned surgeon and survivor of the Burma-Thailand railway in which he became saviour and inspiration for the dejected captives of the Japanese in the Second World War.
In July 1916, however, like many other Australians at Pozieres, Albert Coates was trying to survive, as well as helping other Australians survive the fury of the battle.
The British Somme offensive launched on 1 July 1916, included a week long artillery bombardment over a 30 kilometre front, resulting in the staggering figure of 19,000 British killed on the first day and more than 38,000 wounded. The tremendous artillery barrages at Pozieres were routinely blowing men apart, smothering them in their own trenches and creating an almost unbearable nervous impact.
While the attack had achieved some success in the southern part of the British sector and French sectors, British Commander Sir Douglas Haig desperately wanted to seize the high ground at Pozieres and move onto Thiepval.
For the Germans it was equally important not to lose Pozieres—surrendering their high ground advantage and weakening their second line of defence.
As the British had previously attacked Pozieres on four occasions prior to the Australians, there was much satisfaction when the 1st Division attacked and captured the front line and road through Pozieres on 23 July. The Australians attacked with the assistance of elements of the British 48th Division and then repulsed subsequent German counter-attacks.
The Australians had also been confronted with a major German defensive bastion known as ‘Gibraltar’, and like the ‘Sugar Loaf’ at the recent battle of Fromelles this position was bristling with machine guns. On this occasion, the Australians took ‘Gibraltar’ and captured some German defenders.
Over the course of 23 to 25 July Pozieres fell to the Australians, who then held onto their gains despite unprecedented and concentrated bombardment from German artillery. On 27 July the 2nd Division now at Pozieres failed in a valiant attempt to take Pozieres heights, however, following a request by their commander for a second opportunity to seize this position, they succeeded. The 4th Division relieved the 2nd Division and in a sustained action over a ten day period reached positions near the heavily defended Mouquet Farm, prior to being rested. Mouquet Farm was eventually captured on 26 September 1916.
Over the course of the battle five Victoria Crosses and several other awards were won for conspicuous gallantry.
Lieutenant Albert Jacka who had already won a Victoria Cross on Gallipoli now won a Military Cross. Jacka displayed extraordinary bravery in responding to a German counter-attack on 7 August where he led a contingent of men from the 14th battalion to repulse the attacking Germans. Jacka and his digger’s response resulted in rescuing a number of captured Australians and spoiling the German attack in his sector. During the action Jacka was shot three times.
The intense fighting to capture Pozieres and Mouquet Farm took a terrible toll on the three Australian Divisions during the near seven weeks they were in battle. The Australians had made up to 19 attacks against the German positions at a terrible cost of 23,000 casualties that included 6,900 killed in action or dying of their wounds.
Official Australian war correspondent and historian of the First World War, Charles Bean, described Pozieres as being more deeply sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.
Australians can visit these battlefields, pay their respects at monuments such as the 1st Division memorial at Pozieres and visit the graves of Australian soldiers in the many nearby war cemeteries.
Australians can also read more on this battle in celebrated books by Australian authors such as Scott Bennett’s ‘Pozieres the Anzac Story’ and British authors such as Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s opus, ‘Somme into the Breach’ which features extensive coverage of the Australian’s at Pozieres. Both of these works reveal the gritty violent reality of the battle from their reliance on first-hand accounts.