The battle of Pozieres: Remembering a fallen Burnett Veteran
Sent in by Richard and David Kerr.
IN JULY 1916, as the battle of the Somme raged, the British were in front of Pozieres in northeastern France as the Australians arrived having left Gallipoli in December 1915.
Coming just days after the disaster of Fromelles, the plan was for the Australians to spearhead the attack on Pozieres.
It was decided that the attack would be made with two brigades with a third in reserve.
The commanders of the AIF forces believed the most difficult part of the operation should be entrusted to country troops, those from the less settled of the Australian States who were considered the most hardened.
Accordingly, the 3rd Brigade (Queensland, South and Western Australia, and Tasmania) were ordered to the right of the line with the 1st Brigade (New South Wales) to attack on the left. The 2nd Brigade (Victoria) was retained in reserve.
On their arrival, the Australians found the trenches offered few comforts.
Describing the position taken over by his company, Captain Harris of the 3rd Battalion afterwards wrote:
We found the trench to be deep and strong and well traversed, but there was no shelter of any kind there except holes scraped in the forward face just deep enough to allow a man to sit up and rest in a rather cramped position. At company headquarters, which was a slightly deeper scrape than usual, rather like a niche in a cathedral for the accommodation of a saint's statue, I found the company commander, an Oxford don, and formally took over the trench and trench stores. The latter consisted of a few picks and shovels and about an eighth of a jar of rum.
After some late changes, the assault on Pozieres was set to begin half an hour after midnight on the morning of Sunday, July 23rd 1916.
The ferocity of the bombardment with which the battle of July 23rd began was famous even among the many famous bombardments on the Western Front however, even after the barrage lifted, the officers' whistles could not be heard.
The Australian Diggers saw their officers scrambling to their feet, and, rising with them, rushed into battle.
At the southwestern end of the village and in the middle of the attack the Pozieres trench was quickly taken.
To the right, in front of the Old German Lines, where the 3rd Brigade stumbled forward over the shell holes, Pozieres Trench was in places hardly recognisable among the craters.
There was little resistance.
Only on the extreme right, in the Old German Trenches did the first attack meet with heavy resistance.
As the Queenslanders of the 9th Battalion advanced, they were fired at from ahead, and the line split into two parties.
One party were fired on by two machineguns and were forced to take cover and the attack was held up.
Before a plan could be devised to deal with the situation, Private John Leak of the 9th Battalion acting without orders jumped out of the trench, ran forward, and bombed the German positions.
He was found by his commanding officer shortly after, sitting in a trench, wiping the blood off his bayonet with his felt hat. It was 12:59am.
The action earned Private John Leak the Victoria Cross for his valour.
Separately, a good part of the 3rd Brigade was diverted by the sight of about thirty Germans who had been startled by the advance and could be seen by the light of shells and flares running back towards the village and beyond.
To the men of the 11th and 9th Battalions nearest to the Germans, this spectacle was too tempting and despite the pleads of their officers about 140 men followed the fleeing enemy right through the Australian barrage.
The Germans were gradually overtaken and were shot or bayoneted.
Company Sergeant- Major Graham and Sergeant Baggs both of the 11th Battalion and a sergeant of the 9th Battalion overtook their men who were hunting for any German who broke cover.
The soldiers were eventually brought under control after they reached the summit, or beyond, near the Pozieres windmill.
Once stopped, the men needed to find their way back.
The road, a cross hedge, and the railway afforded a safe guide; but the barrage of the Australian field-guns and howitzers was now heavy, but there was no option but to face the challenge and try for safety.
Around 2.15am some ninety of these men returned to the position which they should have occupied, forming a most welcome addition to the scanty line there.
Over the coming 6 or so weeks, three Australian divisions fought and eventually took the now destroyed town of Pozieres.
Australian World War I war correspondent and historian Charles Bean would later write: on that crowded mile of summit the three Australian divisions engaged lost 23,000 officers and men in less than seven weeks.
The Windmill site marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.
One of those to fall was Archibald Fisher of Blackbutt.
The reinforcements arrived at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli on 4th August 1915 and remained there until Fisher was sent to hospital in Lemnos on 28th November 1916 with Paratyphoid fever, just prior to the final withdrawal from Anzac Cove.
After two months, he was to be transferred back to Australia but was disembarked to be readmitted to hospital.
After recovering, he rejoined his unit in March 1916 prior to their sailing for France.
On 14th Jul 1916, Archie was appointed Lance Sergeant, shortly before Pozieres.
Archie was recorded as having been killed in action on the 23rd July 1916, with his family receiving notification on 15th August 1916.