The battle of Pozieres
August 7th 1916 - 102 years ago today
One of the more successful small battles under the umbrella of the Somme offensive, at Pozieres the British and Commonwealth soldiers showed that planning and determination could lead to success on the Western Front.
The Somme dragged on inflicting massive casualties on both sides in 1916, but the Germans held the defensive advantage. Knowing that the enemy had to come to them, the Germans had dug deep and well fortifying the entire line of battle. One of the strongholds and a key strategic point was the village of Pozieres. The village was surrounded by high ground and if taken would give the Allied forces an oppurtunity to roll up the German line. The decision to take the village was made by General Haig (the British commander on the Somme) and orders were given to start the attack on July 23.
Having seen the pitfalls of poor planning, Major General Harold Walker of the 1st Australian Division was determined to be meticulous and creative when preparing his attack. One of the failures of the Somme attack had been its weak and ineffective preliminary bombardment which had suffered from inaccurate gunnery, misfiring duds, and a preponderance of anti personal shells. These shells would explode above the ground, creating a wall of fiery hot pieces of metal that worked great against masses of men but did little to damage structures or dugouts. Walker instead used a mixture of high explosive shells and gas with the former working well on defensive emplacements and the later being highly effective on the German soldiers (both physically and mentally).
While the bombardment was ongoing Walker had his men inch there way up through No-Man’s Land, this was so that when the bombardment was over his Australians would have only a short distance to scamper across to reach the German trench line. Hard fighting and costly trench battles eventually went to the Aussies who were able to capture a large amount of the village. The Germans still held a small patch of territory that represented a threat to the Australian position. Should the Germans counterattack, the Australians would be forced to fight on multiple sides.
The new German method of giving ground in the face of attack and then tiring the enemy out and bombing the hell out of them so they could never get comfortable in their newly captured trenches was used to great effect at Pozieres. For days the German artillery pounded the village but the Australians stuck and when the 1st Division was replaced by the 2nd Division, the order to take the rest of the town was given. Gruesome fighting led to the failure of the first attempt but by August 4th the town was fully in Allied hands. The 4th Division, fresh and spoiling for a fight, took over for the exhausted 2nd and was immediately in the fire. On the 6th, seeing their strategic leverage disappear, the Germans slammed into Pozieres with some of the fiercest counterattacks the Somme would see.
On the morning of the 7th the Germans over ran the unprepared defensive Australian trenches and seemed to be making great progress towards retaking the town. That is until one of Gallipoli’s Victoria Cross recipients, a Lt. Albert Jacka, who had been with his men in a dugout underground and so passed over by the initial German attack, led a small band of men in a charge against the rear of the German line. This act of courage and fearlessness inspired others to do the same and soon the whole German attack was foundering. By the end of day on the 7th the Allied retained possession of Pozieres and would continue to do so, but the cost was high with the Commonwealth and British losses around 23k. The particularly high casualty rate of the Australian forces would prompt the official Australian historian, Charles Bean, to write that Pozières ridge "is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth."