On War with Dr Meleah Hampton
The Battle of Pozières
Talks / Lecture
Dr Meleah Hampton, Australian War Memorial historian, explores the allied efforts to capture the OG (Old German) trench line near Pozières, France, in 1916. This was among the most costly battles for Australians during the First World War.
In association with the Canberra Great War Study Group, the Estaminet.
Transcript of On War – The Battle of Pozières
Speakers: Peter Stanley (P), Meleah Hampton (M)
Location: National Library of Australia
P: Well good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the next meeting, this meeting of the Estaminet, The Canberra Great War Study Group which is a branch of the Western Front Association. My name’s Peter Stanley and I’m your MC this evening. We’re here to mark the centenary of the Battle of Pozières with a talk. Can I ... by Meleah Hampton and we’ll get to that in a minute. I have two things to do before we get to Meleah. The first thing is to thank you for attending and thank the National Library of Australia for hosting the Estaminet’s meetings, for publicising them and for supporting them as they do with all the technology that’s available to us so thank you, National Library, and Stuart Baines at the back there, thanks for the work that you and your staff have put in to make this happen.
That was a pleasant duty. I now have a sad duty, I’m afraid. Regular participants in the Estaminet’s functions will be very familiar with the work of Professor Geoffrey Gray. Geoff was one of the founders of the Estaminet. We ... the Estaminet is a very informal group, it’s run by a soviet of four of us, myself, Aaron Pegram from the War Memorial, Roger Lee who was the army historian but is now an official historian at the War Memorial and Professor Geoffrey Gray who taught at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, the Australian Defence Force Academy. And I’m very sorry for those of you who haven’t heard this news already but Geoff died suddenly at the age of 57 last week. Geoff had taught for 30 years at UNSW Canberra, he was the author of 26 books and edited collections. He was influential around the world, in fact his reputation as an historian was if anything greater in the United States and Britain than it is here. He taught thousands of cadets and midshipmen at the Defence Force Academy and he supervised many PhDs and those people will go on to be the historians of the future.
For those of you who knew Geoff and, like us, esteemed his work, the memorial service for Geoff will be tomorrow at the chapel at RMC Duntroon starting at 2pm. And my advice is to get there early because I think that small chapel will be absolutely packed with friends and colleagues and admirers of Geoff’s. Can I ask ... I won’t ask you to stand up but what I would ask to acknowledge the passing of one of the preeminent military historians in this country, if we could acknowledge it just by bowing our heads for a few moments to remember Geoff.
Thanks ladies and gentlemen.
Well, if I could change emotional gear and go to the substance of this evening’s talk. It is, of course, the centenary of the Battle of Pozières, and we’re fortunate to have one of the world’s experts on the Battle of Pozières this evenin,g and that is Dr Meleah Hampton, who I just discovered this evening is a fellow former resident of the city of Whyalla in South Australia. So my esteem for her goes up even more than it did when we invited her to speak.
Meleah is a native South Australian, she studied at the University of Adelaide and did her PhD there under Robyn Prior, another great war historian, great, great war historian in this country. She’s been working as an historian at the Australian War Memorial for about three years and she’s just published a book called Attack on the Somme, which will be the basis of her talk this evening.
Now I can claim no credit whatsoever for Meleah being here this evening because about 10 years ago I got a phone call late one afternoon when I was working at the War Memorial, and this young woman said she was calling from Wales and I assumed she was Welsh ... with a name like Meleah why wouldn’t you? And she said how do I get to be an historian at the Australian War Memorial? And I took about 20 minutes basically to disabuse her of the notion that it was ever likely that she could ever be an historian at the Australian War Memorial, it was a very small institution, it only employed half a dozen historians, she didn’t have a PhD, why would she think she could get a job at the War Memorial? And much more discouraging than that, well here she is, an historian at the Australian War Memorial. So ... but the moral I suggest is don’t take my advice.
Another procedural matter, the book. Who’s got the attendance book? Ah yes, good, wave it up. Al Pilazzo’s got it. Al's going to send it around ... just pass it on, Al, you don’t have to carry it ‘round. But please sign the attendance book because that tells the National Library, and indeed the Estaminet soviet, that we are well attended. It also gives us your email addresses so we can send you notices of future meetings and at the end of the session today I’ll tell you about the next meeting of the Estaminet. But I won't tell you that now because I really want to hear from Meleah Hampton now. So I’ve introduced Meleah and she’s now about to talk about the capture of the OG lines a hundred years ago today. Thank you. Meleah.
M: Thank you very much. That story is absolutely true except that he told me what I needed to do for my degree and everything and I went away and did it, even to doing linguistics, which was the worst idea ever but it ... he said do as many different subjects as I could, I did everything and then I think he was hoping I’d go off and be a linguist or something but I ... it just made me more single-minded and here I am.
What I wanted to do today is talk to you about the process of capturing the OG lines for a couple of reasons. The one obvious one is that today marks the 100th anniversary of the important landmark of the Battle of Pozières Ridge, the capture of the OG lines. The other is that this is actually a battle of operations, so let’s talk about operations, what they were trying to do, how they were trying to do it. We spend so much time talking about casualties and loss and the sheer horror and the experience of this battle but very little time talking about how and why these battles came about and so I just wanted to just tease apart a small part of a six-week operation in a small, small area of the world just to have a look at explaining battles and understanding what’s going on.
The Battle of Pozières Ridge is the formal, if somewhat unused, name for a series of operations conducted by first ANZAC corps from the 23rd of July 1916 to the 3rd of September, The battles we’ve lapsed into calling Pozières and Mouquet Farm. And I’ve given papers recently on why Mouquet Farm is not a battle at all, it’s an accident, and some of this stuff I’m sure people in this room will have heard me say before as well.
The formal name Pozières Ridge is much more descriptive of what was going on in this sector of the line in the middle of 1916. The village of Pozières sat on the highest ground in the area. It’s not that high if you’ve been there, but it affords the all important view either into the German lines or backwards into the allied lines. The high ground continued around to the village of Thiepval so we have Pozières on through Mouquet Farm and to Thiepval . Controlling this ridge, that sort of rough curve, becomes an important objective of the fighting in this area. On the 23rd of July 1916 the first Australian division attacked and captured the strategically significant French village of Pozières. That’s it, roughly. It did so through a set piece attack that captured a series of objectives under cover of a lifting artillery barrage. They attacked from this direction, 90 degrees to all previous British attacks from the village which came along the Albert–Bapaume road. While the plan worked it left the new Australian position in danger from the OG lines from which the Germans could fire directly into the village. So the next step was to secure these lines by turning to attack from the southwest again.
The Second Australian Division fails at doing this on the 29th of July but with enough time to prepare for the next attack managed to capture both lines on the 4th of August. All of the operations along this ridge follow similar principles in that they are limited set piece objectives, attacks that are designed to capture that line and no more, they’re not trying to force a breakthrough, they are bite and hold, if you want to use a term that is more commonly applied to later years in the war. The infantry plans are based around a lifting artillery barrage at the most successful of which was actually integral to the successful capture of Pozières village. From that point on they become quite problematic.
I’m going to use my most amazing slide I’ve ever created and I use in every talk just to describe lifting barrages and how they work because I talk about them a lot. The basic plan was that waves of infantry would follow a lifting curtain of shells as it moved across the battlefield. The infantry would start from a position of depth so for example in this case three lines like this and then after the artillery fires a preliminary barrage to soften up the defences it drops a line on the first objective like this and then it lifts onto the second. As it does this the infantry moves through and attacks and captures the first objective with the Germans, have been pounded by artillery fire, they are under cover, they’re not manning their machine guns, they’re not alert and ready.
While these guys then consolidate their gains the artillery barrage moves on to the third objective and the second line of infantry leapfrogs through the first who stay where they are. These guys then attack and capture the second objective and remain there to consolidate their gains. The artillery lifts off to a standing position, some distance from the third objective and the third line moves through, attacks the third objective and stays and consolidates. What happens with this is you take defence in depth, you turn it inside out and make an advance in depth so the important part is always to maintain your position and defend any gains.
So while the infantry ... when they’ve captured their objective, their first and most critical task is to consolidate it which means constructing defences, turning parapets around, blocking doors, opening new entrances on the other side, establishing machine gun posts, digging communication trenches all to make sure it can withstand any counterattack. And if a counterattack does break in they’ve got another two lines to contend with. But not all barrages were the same and not all operations were the same. Each divisional commander structured their own approach to the application of artillery, to the deployment of infantry and in response to broad plans that were handed down by the army commander.
There are a couple of characters in this story that are quite important in the middle, on the way through, and for conclusions in the end, and the first is Lieutenant General Sir Hubert Gough. He’s the commanding officer of Reserve Army, a newly formed army which has just gained the services of First ANZAC Corps. He’s an impatient and impetuous man. Even British historians who defend all things British don’t like him. It’s all okay, you can slag this guy off, no problems. He’s a protégé of Sir Douglas Hague, and very much appreciated for his impatient, impetuous nature, he just wants to get on with the business and push attacks through. And so he’d seen a really meteoric rise to army commander, quite, you know, he’s a young man and by the standard of army commanders of the day he’s particularly young, and Pozières Ridge is his first major campaign.
The other is Major General James Gordon Legge, Gordon Legge, the Commander of the Second Australian Division. He was a professional soldier with a distinguished career but limited combat experience. He had briefly commanded the First Australian Division on Gallipoli and also the Second Division on Gallipoli for both very short periods before being evacuated. Pozières was his first major campaign as a divisional commander as well. Legge took over command of the line at 9am on the 27th of July 1916. Village of Pozières was under control and so he was quickly given the task of capturing the OG lines which are now threatening everything.
Gough allowed the Second Australian Division less than two days to plan, prepare for and execute this assault. This is a really short amount of time to prepare for what was actually an operation against the strongest German defences in the area. They’re actually even more determined to hold these trench lines than they are to hold the village of Pozières. The problem is that Gough is in a rush to carry on and the successful capture of Pozières just gave him the credit he needed to start working to his own tactical ends. He was originally supposed to just work very closely with Fourth Army, he’s on the border of Fourth Army, which has conducted the majority of the Somme campaign, and he had to stick with them, but this has sort of given him leeway to start looking towards his own area, perhaps trying to break through in his own area in the best case scenario. So he’s in a hurry to rush and two days is not enough and he doesn’t particularly care.
Pozières at this time was the centre of an artillery duel that rained shellfire on the village and its immediate vicinity almost constantly. This accurate German fire was probably guided from observation posts in the OG lines and the nearby windmill, Fortified Post, which made the capture of these positons all the more important. However in the meantime this same fire was continuing to hamper preparations for the coming battle, Australian fire, British fire was falling short onto their own lines, the German fire is falling quite accurately onto the Australian positions. This constant fire meant that the Australian artillery found it difficult to establish observation posts in or near the village as a result so they couldn’t see whether artillery fire was actually landing. Shellfire also prevented communication to artillery batteries backwards, behind the front line almost entirely, offering little hope of a speedy response from the big guns to specific threats and problems. The gunners far behind the lines had literally no way of knowing whether the rounds they were firing were hitting the target or having any kind of effect at all.
Patrols constantly sent out to try to give divisional headquarters an idea of the condition of the enemy’s wire and the extent to which the bombardment had been effective were not particularly successful. These reports returned with mixed messages, in some cases giving information that parts of the wire had been effectively destroyed and in other cases indicating that equally large tracts of wire remained untouched. Most concluded that the wire though had ... although it had been knocked about, was still an obstacle. However the fact that some wire had been destroyed seems to have resulted in an unwarranted sense of optimism at Divisional headquarters. There were certainly no plans to try and delay that two-day period. Legge simply continued on his plan ... as planned in the hope that further artillery and I quote, would have increased the gaps and made new ones by the time the operation was to begin but without artillery observation officers in established ... without artillery observation officers in established forward posts there was always ongoing official uncertainty as to whether the wire had been cut further.
The artillery plan for the first attack wasn’t particularly good either. It was to fall on OG1, the first objective, for a single minute before moving away to the second objective for a massive 10 minutes before doing some complicated moving away that made very little difference and I haven’t represented there. In comparison each artillery lift at Pozières fell on the objective for a full half an hour before moving away allowing the infantry time to get ready in place and move forward, spend some time the barrage on the next objective doing their own work before the next lot came through. Worse, the plan called for the infantry to leave their trench and lie out in the open in anticipation of the barrage beginning. They weren’t starting from a trench, they were starting from lying in no man’s land without covering fire and just in order to be close enough when things began to take advantage of that whole minute.
The men who had been in the line two days or less were completely unfamiliar with the ground. They lacked large-scale maps of the new trenches and frequently became lost before reaching the right position, just to hold the line without conducting any operations. So we have hurried plans for an entirely inadequate artillery barrage to attack strongly fortified trenches with barbed wire defences that maybe had, maybe hadn’t been destroyed. Into all for this were put four waves of infantry but there are only two objectives for this attack so the original four waves were squashed together into two. Waves one and two were assigned to take the first objective, OG1 together, and then waves three and four were assigned together to go through and capture the second. All four of these waves had to do the creeping out and lying on jumping off tapes in the open together and then stagger their departure. There were as many as four times the men in each attacking wave that ... as had been in the waves that had attacked Pozières village just a few days earlier. They suffered massively heavy casualties from being caught in artillery fire while lying out in the open.
The Second Australian Division’s attack plans demonstrate that Legge was relying on manpower to conduct the advance. A quick light barrage, with two thickly populated infantry lines making the main thrust of the assault, not two very strong artillery barrage lines with a light, quick follow-up with infantry. This is a really important distinction. The operation of the Second Australian Division to take the Windmill and the OG lines is an infantry assault, it’s bludgeoning the line with men. It is not a coordinated combined arms attack reliant on fire power to advance in a technologically dominated battlefield. No matter how much more time they’d had to allow for preparation this plan in any form if fundamentally unchanged would have gone on to disaster anyway. In fact I’ve already told you it had. This operation failed and it failed badly. Everything launched okay, the infantry successfully crawled out into position, the artillery started up on time and on target and enough men were available to launch the attack but it was soon apparent that things were not going well.
One of the first indications of trouble came from the Germans. Their ongoing fire soon made it clear that most of the Australian forces formed up in the forward lines had been discovered by German observers in advanced listening posts. These Germans aren’t in advanced listening posts but they are observing and that’s very important for illustrating my talk. This was evident all along the line from the far left where the six brigade headquarters reported that, and I quote from this report, our first wave in leaving as position under cover came under machine gun, rifle and shrapnel fire whilst a number of flares and alarm signals were sent up by the enemy. The enemy were well aware of our attack from the first. To the centre where the Germans opposite the seventh brigade sent up a number of green flares and began firing machine guns from 11:42pm to the far right. There is good ... this is a good indication that the artillery barrage is just entirely inadequate so not only was the role of the artillery here to cut defensive wire and placements but the barrage was also intended to keep the German defenders sheltering in dugouts and trenches rather than locating attackers and firing machine guns at them.
I haven’t gone too much into the actual objective for the attack yet. This is the line here. On the left of the attack there was some success but the infantry got lost in this complicated right angle turn of the objective here. They tended to creep to the left where the German fire was weaker and soon there were huge gaps in the line here. But if the situation was bad on the left it was catastrophic on the right. Here German fire caused large numbers of casualties before the attack even began and when the assault was launched the men found completely intact barbed wire. Those men were forced to stand in no man’s land trying to cut or force a path through the wire and met with many casualties from the heavy rifle machine gun and artillery fire. And these were solid defences, wire was staked up to a height of three feet in some places and so as each wave advanced they sort of all washed up on it causing crowding and confusion all amongst heavy machine gun fire with men sort of hunched over the wire not knowing if they’re dead or alive or just caught up needing help. There is no recorded instance of any opening being found in that wire and on the right no troops made it even into the first objective.
There’s sometimes a sense that this attack on the OG lines sort of shocked the Australians, and that after it they pulled themselves together, turned around, Australian Tarda, and successfully captured the OG lines. If Australianing means individual initiative and taking remarkably brave steps to facilitate an advance it’s actually totally parent in this first operation. Even an examination of a single battalion gives examples of men like Lieutenant Victor Thomas Symes Warry, a company commander of the 25th Battalion who was commended for bravery in leading his men through a gap in the wire and then standing in the open to direct more through. There were others like his fellow company commander, Lieutenant John Lyle Smith, who had managed to find one of the two narrow gaps in the wire on the left before pausing to direct his men into it. Platoon commanders Second Lieutenants Louis Walter Teatsle, Thomas Joseph Cary, Robert Stuart O’Hey, Aaron McIntyre and James Monteagle Brown were all mentioned in dispatches for and I quote, their great gallantry in leading their platoons on the night of the 28–29 July in the attack on Pozières Ridge, with particular mention of the fact that they were seen organising the men as much as possible and urging them on.
By the end of the day, however, all of those men were dead and many more. Individual initiative, even good old Australianing up a battle, could not function on the Western Front outside of a framework of carefully applied fire power. Without cut wire and an effective protective barrage all of the bravery and initiative in the world could not protect them from alert defenders and accurate machine gun fire.
Hague famously stated after this unsuccessful attempt that some of the divisional generals in the ANZAC Corps were, and I quote, so ignorant and, like many colonials, so conceited that they cannot be trusted to work out unaided the plans of attack. While the apparent slight on colonials has attracted much debate, there’s actually another point to be had here, which is that Hague clearly expected his divisional generals to be able to work out plans for operations themselves, or at least with the aid of no more than their own staff. Legge had undoubtedly failed at this. In fact Legge’s apparent overconfidence had been identified as the main fault in the Second Division’s disastrous attack and he was to be very closely supervised the next time.
Hague himself became involved in preparations and Gough and Birdwood also began a close supervision of Legge through a series of instructional letters and memoranda that flew back and forth. Gough was also firmly reigned in and the date of the next attack on the OG lines would in fact be determined by the progress of preparation instead of being rushed through as it had been for the last assault but that’s all that he really had to deal with. Legge himself went on to identify three major problems with the operation that would need to be fixed for the next. These were that the assault had been at night with little preparation, that in many places the wire was uncut ... it’s a nice obvious one ... and also that the operation had been discovered by the Germans before it could be launched so these were the three problems to fix.
The first of these was dealt with by simply timing the assault for 9:15 in the evening which in the late French summer was still light enough to see without being in full daylight. To try to resolve the problem of insufficient artillery preparation and uncut enemy wire the infantry would be given much more time to prepare the ground for the next assault both with wire-cutting work and general demolition of enemy positions. Better observation of the wire enabled them to make better judgements of the efforts required to destroy it so they had time to create better observation posts. More than 4,800 rounds of heavy howitzer ammunition was committed to getting this job done. With accurate ranging and period for observation between bombardments the artillery preparations were much more adequate for destroying the wire than they had been before and proved to be quite successful.
The final problem identified by Second Australian Division, the discovery of the operation by the German defenders, was to be dealt with by the construction of a new forward line to facilitate the assault. This was intended to reduce the amount of open ground that the infantry would have to cover between their jumping off point and the first objective instead of having them lie out in the open waiting for the ... in signal to start.
Hague was actually the one that noticed the right angle in the objective and the problems it caused, and he went ahead to interfere and omitted this part of the objective to make the OG lines the main part of the show. That’s a really important point of notice for Hague. And he also had another important influence in he was very concerned about the weakness of the artillery bombardments accompanying the attack, particularly the minute-long preparatory bombardment on the first objective. He made moves to rectify this for future action by visiting Corps Commander Birdwood and pointing out and I quote, that ‘Pozières village had been captured thanks to a very thorough artillery preparation’ and requesting Birdwood to do this the next time. He actually demonstrated a clear understanding of some of the main failures of the operation of the 29th of July and made sensible steps to rectify them with sensible recommendations and open discussions with all of the relevant commanders.
The preparations of Second Division also received a great deal of scrutiny by First ANZAC Corps Headquarters. Most of the early operational arrangements for attacks on the Somme were commonly made in person by generals making rounds of each other’s headquarters. And so in the absence of precise written records of these meetings, just how close the supervision will be ... was will never really be determined but if the number of memos that were flying around are any indication ... these are a very tiny number ... it was quite intense. They even hassled him about his plans for the use of flares, colour it’s going to be, how it’s going to ... the plane will work with it, really low level organisational things that should be even beyond the ... below the level of division.
And all of this activity meant there was quite a considerable delay in executing these plans. The biggest cause of delay was the construction of the new forward line however which was just painfully slow. Each night work parties went forward but the work they were doing was hampered by severe artillery fire and subsequent large numbers of casualties in the working parties both moving forward and labouring on the new position. This wasn’t helped by Second Division again relying heavily on manpower and designating much larger parties to do the work than necessary, attracting enemy shellfire and then subsequent casualties. This shellfire then also destroyed much of the new construction which then had to be done with the same large groups of men under the same very trying conditions. Working parties were sometimes seriously delayed by becoming lost in the featureless landscape. There’s a lot of messages backwards and forwards about finding shovels and picks, they tended to just put them down and come out instead of giving them to the new working party and on occasion they just retired without reaching the right position and beginning work. And I’m pretty sure some of them just reported that they’d done it anyway.
These conditions were not necessarily understood by those at a higher level of command. Legge wrote to Peyton at Seventh Brigade Headquarters to complain about one of the trench ... part of the trench under construction saying ... I think it’s this one here, yeah ... here it is ... ‘this trench to be dug tonight is most important and I do not think your officers quite realised it last night. I would like you to put a senior officer in charge tonight and see the thing through. We may have to put up with some casualties but all ranks should know that the work is to save our men in the attack.’
The unfair idea that the delay was simply the result of forward officers slacking off was widespread at Second Division Headquarters. Messages were sent to the Seventh Brigade to stress that working parties should be commanded by a battalion commander because, and I quote, the work is important and a senior officer is necessary to push it in spite of the obstacles. Try and make it clear to all ranks why this trench is necessary. Battalion commanders struggled to manage with unreasonable orders under difficult situations. Some just ignored the size of working party stipulated in orders and sent sensibly-sized smaller groups forward to limit casualties and this was tolerated as long as the work got done. Under ongoing pressure the new forward line was slowly and inexorably ... in the messages it’s just so painful watching it happen. It’s more less completed by the 2nd of August but continued to require ongoing work under heavy shellfire to repair constant damage while they were waiting for other parts of the proceedings to happen and the operation could go ahead. All the while a heavy artillery duel raged as the Australian Division of Artillery strove to destroy the German barbed wire defences before the attack began.
By the time the jumping off trench was completed on the 2nd some reports from forward ... from airplanes and forward observation officers indicated that the wire cutting work was good, regular low shell bursts in the right area probably doing the trick. They were good to go and accordingly they launched their attack on the 4th of August 1916 at 9:15pm. A hundred years ago. Without exception none of the attacking battalions found wire emplacements strong enough to form an obstacle in front of them. In almost all cases both objectives were taken without a prolonged struggle. Importantly the German soldiers that were encountered were found while they were still in or were just leaving their shelters and dugouts in the trenches. This was another thing that had happened, the artillery had been firing, doing their wire-cutting firing without ... in barrages without attached infantry attacks so they’d fire a beautiful barrage, make it look like something was coming and then just carry on with wire-cutting work. This had been completely successful in creating a false sense of security among the defenders, achieving the goal of ensuring that they were almost completely unprepared.
Despite heavy casualties among the attackers from the relentless artillery fire from both sides by the early hours of the 5th of August the OG lines had been secured. It’s a huge achievement given what had just happened and the work of consolidating the ground was well underway. A German counterattack around 4am on the 5th of August was easily repelled from the newly consolidated positons despite being conducted in force. This operation although extremely costly in lives could be considered a success.
High levels of command had accurately pinpointed some of the biggest problems, lack of time to construct appropriate jumping off places, the discovery of the assault by the enemy, an extremely weak artillery barrage that had been just shored up to strong enough, and an inconsistent line of objective. Hague, Gough and Birdwood had all worked towards ameliorating some or all of these problems. Hague made recommendations as to the front to be attacked and interfered with artillery plans to good effect, Gough also coordinated preliminary artillery barrages and the deception, Birdwood at Corps designed the lifting bombardment, strengthened it up to three minutes, not one, so it was, you know, better. With these changes the assault succeeded.
The preliminary bombardment destroyed a large part of the German defenders, it habituated the defenders, the lifting barrage was accurate enough and just slow enough for the infantry to follow closely, so it was a success but it wasn’t an unmitigated one. For the second time in a week the Second Australian Division had conducted an infantry-heavy assault made by two extremely heavily populated waves of soldiers. There were frequent reports of crowding in the trenches which caused confusion and delay and these delays could be serious, two companies of the 28th Battalion for example couldn’t move forward to form a garrison in the newly captured lines because of a glut of pioneers blocking all the forward saps, and they were held up for two hours.
And even before the assault could go ahead the third and fourth waves of Sixth Brigade were forced out of the trenches just by the sheer number of casualties and had to cross open land under heavy shellfire to reach their assembly lines. They made it, with heavy casualties, and that’s the story, everything that happens has heavy casualties, heavy casualties. It was based ... this success was based on the use of men, not the use of technology and I can’t say it enough, you have to pull it apart and look at numbers and where they’re going and what they’re doing. They overwhelmed their objective but they did so at enormous cost.
This overcrowding and reliance on manpower was not actually the problem for which Legge drew criticism however. Instead the delay in preparation materially responsible for the positive outcome of the operation drew fire from Reserve Army. Before the second operation even began they’d launched an inquiry into the cause of the delay. Birdwood deferred answering Gough’s queries as much as possible in order to you know let Legge plan his second operation and get things done. And despite Legge accurately pinpointing that one of the causes of the delay was the difficulty in constructing this new forward line in the dark under heavy fire Birdwood himself is colluding by hinting that the delay just came because Legge was inexperienced and you know he and his staff were probably directly responsible.
In this letter I quote, in all probability under a more experienced commander the operation would have been expeditiously effected. In stating this, I would like to point out that this is the first operation which as a divisional commander Major General J G Legge has undertaken. Birdwood had identified an accurate source for the problems but an inaccurate reason for them yet Legge’s position was saved not by a defence of his capability. Birdwood, while making it clear it was not his intention and I quote, of retaining any officer in high command who is proved unfitted despite suggestions that Legge was likely to prove exactly so, made it clear that Legge should, and I quote again, be given full opportunity to prove his capability for command. This was solely because he was one of only two Australian senior officers at the time. Birdwood made it very clear to Gough that the Commonwealth Government were very desirous that Australian soldiers should, if they’re found capable, be given the opportunity of filling higher commands and therefore Birdwood insisted that Legge be allowed to keep his job in order to give him a fair trial. Far from being victimised for his Australianness Legge continued on in his command of a Division solely because of it.
The pair of attacks on the OG lines had an effect on other man important to this story, Hubert Gough. The impetuous army commander nearly turned himself inside out with impatience, waiting for that second attack to go ahead. During that period of time he issued this memorandum, which I’ve talked about before but it is so important to understanding what happens on Pozières Ridge. He issues ... this is laying out his principles for future action. So we have a nod to waiting, it is conceded that preparation must be thorough, check, done. But you know at present there’s a tendency ... undue pre ... tendency to undue delay. Gough is telling his corps commanders that they can have enough time for thorough and careful preparation as long as it doesn’t cause delay. The tension Gough is feeling caught between having to allow preparation time and wanting to press on in the attack is perfectly encapsulated in this document. Everything in it is a call to rush.
It is important that corps commanders should impress upon their subordinate leaders the necessity for the energetic measures and offensive action which the present situation requires. It is imperative to press the enemy constantly and to continue to gain ground as rapidly as possible. And while preparation must be thorough and careful once that annoying condition is done it must be impressed on all leaders that rapidity, energy and offensive action are now of the utmost importance to our cause. Every yard of ground gained has great consequences, both material and moral. Every yard.
This perfectly descries the flurry of operations in the general direction of Mouquet Farm that the Fourth Division embarked upon next within hours of arriving in the front line. Permission for this activity comes at the end of the memorandum, which I have bodged together of the two pages, where this says relentless pressure must be exercised everywhere and always subordinate commanders must think out and suggest enterprises instead of waiting for orders from above which is entirely the case at present. I always find it remarkable than an army commander doesn’t want to command anymore, just do your own thing. It’s remarkable. From hereon in there would be no delays in conducting operations, no extended time to prepare and very little supervision from on high. This period of time was simply something Gough could not endure again and the rush to conduct ever limited attacks was born of this document and this precise moment.
An assessment of the actions of the Second Australian Division has more often than not been mixed together with allegations of bungled British generalship and discrimination against Australian officers. But this should not be allowed to cloud what’s going on here. Men were being asked to attack heavily fortified positons with a minimal amount of fire power to support their operation. The Second Australian Division suffered an enormous number of casualties. In fact in 12 days in the line they lost 6,848 officers and men. That is a casualty rate that would not be matched by another Australian division in one spell in the front line for the rest of the war.
The narrative says that the Australians turned ‘round and worked harder. That’s not entirely correct either. The Australians were in fact taken by the hand and supervised harder and their fire power was ramped up to the max to destroy the battlefield before they began. The infantry in the field during the battle had to contend with an enormous number of variables many of which were thrust upon them as a consequence of orders given at higher levels of command. So things that happened at army level of command could in fact wipe out the possibility of success for everybody. If they passed on a very good measured level of orders the corps commander could then take those orders, interpret them the way he wanted to and then pass on a flaw that would then destroy any chance of success. If it comes down to probably about brigade level suddenly there’s a chance that individuals can move around and make a difference to what’s going on in the battlefield but all of these things have to line up perfectly before it can work. Perfectly but pretty close. So many good junior officers, non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers were lost simply because of the hazardous situation into which these poorly executed schemes placed them.
The second attack on the OG lines that succeeded a hundred years ago today was certainly an important success. The all important observation afforded by Pozières Ridge was critical to that sector and the OG lines mean that that position could be maintained. That’s important to the success of the battle of the Somme. This is actually the last time First ANZAC Corps would capture a strategically important position in 1916. Gough’s memorandum allows lower level commanders to start thinking out and suggesting enterprises and if you’re a man on the ground the things you’re going to attack are the things that concern you as a man on the ground, that is, the next trench, that next strong point, that machine gun over there. The 12 days of Second Australian Division's tenure in the front lines in late July and early August 1916 paved the way for an extended period of hurried small scale attacks on an ever limited front.
There was no great battle of Mouquet Farm, it was only attacked twice and one of them was because it was causing problems in the middle of an operation to do something else. It was only because it because completely unavoidable. Instead this period taught Gough to fight hard to rush operations on, to hurry his commanders into doing anything, please hurry, get on with it, please, I don’t care what, just do it. Don’t make me decide. And so First ANZAC Corps began attacking the next trench, the next machine gun post or whatever without whatever was bothering them at the time. Reporting that small operation as a success, which pleased everybody, nobody stopped and looked at what they were doing on the map and questioning where they were going. Push, push, push but not too far. And this period seems to have taught the other player I spoke of, Gordon Legge, very little either. The Second Division didn’t distinguish itself particularly in its next tour of the front line and that’s thanks to poor battle plans, that’s thanks to the level of divisional command putting in problems that are insurmountable at lower levels. Legge was eventually sidelined and sent back to Australia with illness although he protested quite a bit that he felt fine, he was very sick.
The Battle of Pozières Ridge is quite a depressing period. There is a constant deterioration in plans and their execution that results in the Ridge being, in the words of Charles Bean, more densely sewn with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth. This period I’ve talked about today, the capture of the OG lines, marks a really important turning point in the deterioration of those plans. They’ve just captured an entire village, a village that’s full of concreted strong points, very well established trenches, heavily wired defences and now we talk about Mouquet Farm, a simple fortified farm compound as being an insurmountable obstacle. Something really is disconnected between those two ideas and where it goes wrong is this point in time in the OG lines where Gough is taught that waiting is horrifically awful for him personally and it’s not going to happen again. And all of the lessons learnt as far as preparation delay, extended artillery destruction, all of those sorts of things aren’t taken as the primary reason for success and for the capture of the OG lines and instead we start looking towards hurry, capture this one thing, let’s talk about the capture of Tom’s Cut, what a success. Nobody’s heard of Tom’s Cut, nobody’s heard of Position BCD, Trench BCD, that was a major operation that it took two battalions and was hugely celebrated. They’re not important. The OG lines are the last important point on the Pozières Ridge that was captured. It is a very dimly bright spot in what was a very dark period indeed. Thank you very much.
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