23 July 1916

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The Battle of Pozieres

The village of Pozieres, France, 1913. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

The village of Pozieres, France, 1913. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

 

The Battle of Pozieres was a phase of the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front in France. It commenced on 23 July 1916 and finished on 3 September 1916 and was the first protracted battle for Australian troops on the Western Front.

By mid July 1916 British attacks on the Somme had brought the front line close to the German occupied village of Pozieres high on the crest of Thiepval Ridge. For the British to advance Pozieres had to be captured. Three Australian divisions of the First Anzac Corps were assigned to the Western Front to help achieve this objective. Less than one third of the Australian reinforcements had fought at Gallipoli; they were largely inexperienced and ill-prepared to deal with the deadly onslaught of the battle-hardened machine that was the German Imperial Army.

It was at Pozieres that Australian soldiers were exposed to the full horrors of the Western Front. They were subjected to incessant German artillery attacks and devastating machine-gun fire, plus intense frontal assaults, all of which took an overwhelming physical and mental toll.

The Australian 1st Division was assigned the task of capturing Pozieres village and moving the Allied line north towards Mouquet Farm. At 12.28am on 23 July, the 1st Division made an assault supported by heavy artillery fire from the British 48th Division. They met with intense fighting and fierce German counter attacks but succeeded in taking the village and capturing the German stronghold of “Gibraltar”, considered by the British to be impregnable.

Sergeant Archie Barwick of the 1st Battalion recorded on 24 July:

All day long the ground rocked and swayed backwards and forwards from the concussion . . . men were driven stark staring mad and more than one of them rushed out of the trench over towards the Germans, any amount of them could be seen crying and sobbing like children their nerves completely gone . . . we were nearly all in a state of silliness and half dazed but still the Australians refused to give ground.

On 27 July, the 1st Division was relieved by the Australian 2nd Division. After just three days of battle the 1st Division had sustained 5,285 casualties. The capture of Pozieres had been a significant achievement, but a very costly one.

The 2nd Division consolidated the Australian position, but also at a cost. When they were relieved by the Australian 4th Division on 6 August they had suffered 6,848 casualties in ten days of fighting. (The 28th Battalion of the 8th Brigade had been reduced to 130 men out of 800; the 27th Battalion had just 100 survivors.)

Alec Raws of the Victorian 23rd Battalion later described the battle:

One feels on a battlefield such as this that one can never survive, or that if the body lives the brain must go forever. For the horrors one sees and the never-ending shock of the shells is more than can be borne. Hell must be a home to it. The Gallipoli veterans here say that the peninsula was a happy picnic to this push … We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless … My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains … Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils! … The sad part is that one can see no end of this. If we live tonight we have to go through tomorrow night and next week and next month.

The Australian 4th Division was ordered to proceed north along the Pozieres ridge and capture Mouquet Farm. Despite several attempts the 4th Division was not able to achieve their objective. When they were relieved by the Australian 1st Division on 21 August they had sustained 4,649 casualties.

The diminished Australian 1st Division returned to the front line to continue the attack on Mouquet Farm. They made some ground but suffered 2,650 casualties in the process. The Australian 2nd Division returned to replace the remnants of the 1st Division, but did not fair any better, with 1,268 casualties in four days. They were relieved by the Australian 4th Division which continued the attacks on Mouquet Farm on August 27 and 29, but failed to take the position from the German defenders.

The last Australian attack on Pozieres was on 3 September, 1916. Troops of the Australian 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions had made 19 attacks in 42 days but had sustained a total of 23,000 casualties, including 6,800 dead. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Battle of Pozieres.

On 29 July 1916 official Australian war correspondent CEW (Charles) Bean recorded in his diary:

Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them … each shrieking tearing crash bringing a promise to each man – instantaneous – I will tear you into ghastly wounds – I will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg – fling you half a gaping quivering man (like those that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening like all the things you saw by the awful roadside, or in that sickening dusty crater.

Bean concluded:

Pozieres Ridge is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth

At least 18 men from the Orange district died in the Battle of Pozieres. They include:
Charles Henry Wilfred Holland
Bertram Henry Frank Collier
Valentine Edward Lohan
Lionel Brizzolara
Mervyn George Hawkins
John Harvey
Herbert Rockliff
Arthur William Snook
James Elliot Bell
William James (‘Bill’) Johnson
Thomas Meynell Curtayne
Eric Brodie McKay
William Thomas Moore
Walter Joseph Stokes
William Isaac Woodbridge
Charles Henry Jude
William George Chrystall
Charles Miller

 

Australian troops celebrate the capture of Pozieres, July 1916, posing as surrendering German soldiers and shouting “mercy, kamerad”. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Australian troops celebrate the capture of Pozieres, July 1916, posing as surrendering German soldiers and shouting “mercy, kamerad”. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Anzacs in France, 1916

With the Australians in France 1916

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22 July 1916

Gotha IV bomber in flight. Image in public domain.

Gotha IV bomber in flight. Image in public domain.

Boris Vladimirovich Stürmer, 1913. Image in public domain.

Boris Vladimirovich Stürmer, 1913. Image in public domain.

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21 July 1916

Mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts, when you see Percival Coldfoot stop at the Sunday night gate to put on his pince-nez before entering your house, after giving him loud and explicit instructions as to the whereabouts of the Drill Hall, sool the dog on him. If you have no dog, throw tea-leaves over him.

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Charles William Murray

Murray Charles William’s war medals. Image courtesy Image courtesy WE Agland RSL MBE Memorial Museum Orange.

Murray Charles William’s war medals. Image courtesy Image courtesy WE Agland RSL MBE Memorial Museum Orange.

Charles William Murray was born in Orange in 1891; the second of five children of William Joseph Murray and his wife Emily (nee Freer). He attended Orange Superior Public School, where he served in the School Cadets.

Following his education Charles served a three year apprenticeship as a stonemason with his father William Joseph Murray.

Charles enlisted on 14 July 1915. He embarked HMAT A72 Beltana in Sydney on 9 November 1915, and arrived in Suez on 11 December 1915. In February the following year he was taken on strength with C Company of the 30th Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir.

On 1 April 1916 Charles was promoted to Corporal, and two months later left Egypt to join the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in France. Less than one month later, on 20 July 1916, Corporal Murray was reported missing in action during the Battle of Fromelles.

The Red Cross File Wounded and Missing Bureau investigated Charles’ fate. According to two other soldiers he was shot in the thigh as he approached the German trenches on the night of 19 July 1916. His name was later located on a German death list dated 4 November 1916. In March 1917 the AIF declared Charles to have been killed in action; one of the 1,917 Australian men killed during the disastrous Battle of Fromelles.

Charles William Murray is commemorated on St John’s Presbyterian Church Orange Honour Roll, on the World War I Roll of Honour on the southern face of the Orange Cenotaph and on panel number 117 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. His name also appears on a commemorative plaque on his father’s grave in Orange Cemetery, Church of England Section X, Grave 93.

In July 1917 a tree was planted at Orange Public School in Charles’ memory. It was one of 26 trees planted in honour of fallen soldiers who had attended the school.

In 1923 the Anzac Memorial Avenue of trees was planted along Bathurst Road to commemorate fallen WWI soldiers. A tree was planted in honour of “Pte CW Murray”; it was donated by “A Friend”. Very few of the trees are still standing today.

On 20 November 1960 Walter Murray, the last surviving male member of the family, presented Charles’ war medals to the Shrine of Remembrance at the Soldiers’ Memorial Hall in Anson Street. At 3pm the president of the Orange sub-branch of the RSL, Claude Spencer, made a short speech and placed the medals beneath a photograph of Charles. Corporal Murray’s British War Medal, 1914-15 Star and Victory Medal were encased in a frame alongside his father William’s medals from the Sudan War and London Campaign. Thirty members of the public attended the ceremony.

For more than 80 years Charles William Murray had no known grave. In 2011 his remains were identified and re-interred at the newly created Fromelles Military Cemetery at Pheasant Wood in France.

Leader, 25 September 1916, p. 1
Sergeant Charlie Murray – A Mate’s Letter

Charles William Murray commemorative plaque, Orange Cemetery. Image courtesy Orange Cemetery.

Charles William Murray commemorative plaque, Orange Cemetery. Image courtesy Orange Cemetery.

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20 July 1916

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George Alfred Blunt

George Alfred Blunt was born in Lucknow in 1891, the fifth of ten children born to Charles Blunt and his wife Fanny (nee Agland). The Blunt family has enjoyed a long association with the village of Lucknow: George’s grandfather, Charles snr, was the licensee of the Victoria Hotel during the 1860s, and later the Commercial Hotel; in 1898 George’s father, Charles jnr, opened a butcher’s shop on the corner of Newman Street and Main Road. Charles jnr was a councillor on Canobolas Shire Council, and its president for many years. He was also a long-time warden at St John’s Anglican Church, a member of the Oddfellows and the Society of Foresters, and a shareholder in the New Reform Gold Mining Company.

George and his siblings were educated at Lucknow Public School and, as a youth, George served in the 9th Light Horse Orange Troop.

On Wednesday, 18 August 1915, Captain Eade of the Defence Department opened a new recruiting depot at the Drill Hall in Lords Place. George was among the 42 men who presented themselves to Dr Freyer for medical examination, and was one of only 14 who were declared fit for service.

At 10am on Monday, 30 August 1915, a large crowd gathered at the Drill Hall to join George and 23 other locals as they left for Lithgow training camp. The Orange Town Band led the procession to the railway station where the Mayor, Ald. McNeilly addressed the crowd and the men were presented with cigarettes and pocket testaments.

George embarked for overseas service on 8 March 1916 and was taken on strength with the 55th Battalion at Ferry Post in Egypt on 20 April 1916.

On 2 May 1916 Private Blunt was promoted to Corporal; he was appointed Lance Sergeant before promotion to the rank of Sergeant on 31 May 1916. On 19 June 1916 he embarked from Alexandria on HT Caledonian to join the British Expeditionary Force in France.

One month later, in the afternoon of 19 July 1916, Sergeant Blunt was hit by a shell while in the trenches at Fleurbaix, on the opening day of the Battle of Fromelles. Severely wounded, George was transferred to the 1st Canadian Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul, where he died of his wounds. He was buried in the nearby Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension. George was one of the 1,917 deaths that resulted from the disastrous Battle of Fromelles.

George Alfred Blunt is commemorated on the Holy Trinity Church Honour Roll, the Lucknow Public School Honour Roll, the World War I Roll of Honour on the southern face of the Orange Cenotaph and on panel number 160 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. His name also appears on a commemorative plaque at the Orange Cemetery, Church of England Section A, Grave 369/373.

At Lucknow Hall on Sunday, 5 February 1920, the Reverend EA Homfray, unveiled a memorial tablet in memory of George Alfred Blunt and Arthur Gordon (‘Bun’) Ash. He claimed the oak tablet would remind those in years to come of what the two brave Lucknow boys had done, and the sacrifice they had made in the world’s greatest war.

In 1923 the Anzac Memorial Avenue of trees was planted along Bathurst Road to commemorate fallen WWI soldiers. A tree was planted in honour of Sgt George Alfred Blunt; it was donated by his father, Chas. Blunt. Very few of the trees are still standing today.

In September 1964 a tree was planted in George’s memory in front of Lucknow Public School. It was one of thirteen trees planted to commemorate those ex students and teachers who had died during WWI and WWII.

Leader, 3 September 1915, p. 5.
An Enthusiastic Gathering

George Alfred Blunt commemorative headstone, Orange Cemetery. Image courtesy Orange Cemetery.

George Alfred Blunt commemorative headstone, Orange Cemetery. Image courtesy Orange Cemetery.

 

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19 July 1916

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The Battle of Fromelles

Australian prisoners of war at the German collecting station following the Battle of Fromelles, France, 20 July 1916. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Australian prisoners of war at the German collecting station following the Battle of Fromelles, France, 20 July 1916. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

The Battle of Fromelles was fought on the Western Front in France on 19 and 20 July 1916. It was the first time that Australian troops were engaged in major battle on the Western Front, and the first time that they encountered industrial warfare on an unprecedented scale.

The attack on Fromelles – also known as the Battle of Fleurbaix – was the initiative of the British General Sir Richard Haking. The intention of the attack was two-fold: to capture enemy positions on higher ground surrounding the village, and to draw German reinforcements away from the Battle of the Somme 80km to the south.

The battle began with a British artillery barrage at 11am on Wednesday 19 July 1916. At 6pm soldiers of the Australian 5th Division, under the command of the Australian Major-General James Whiteside McCay, spearheaded the assault, advancing across no-man’s-land towards the German salient of Sugar Loaf.

They met with an intense barrage of German artillery and machine gun fire; easy targets on the flat and open terrain in the summer daylight. Tenuous footholds were made into German territory and a deadly, see-sawing battle that saw vicious hand-to-hand fighting raged throughout the night. By daylight the Australians had been forced back to their original positions and, at 8am, the order to withdraw was given.

After 1½ days fighting almost half of the Australian troops had been killed or wounded. The Australian 5th Division suffered 5,533 casualties, including 1,917 men killed – the worst 24 hours in Australian military history. A further 400 men were taken prisoner of war. By comparison, British casualties numbered 1,547, and German 1,500.

German soldiers buried many of the Australian dead in unmarked pits after the battle. In May 2008 six mass graves were identified on the edge of Pheasant Wood near the village of Fromelles; they contained the remains of 250 British and Australian soldiers. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission re-interred the remains on 19 July 2010 in a solemn ceremony, with full military honours, at the newly created Fromelles Military Cemetery.

The remains of a further 410 Australian soldiers are buried at nearby VC Corner Cemetery. Beyond the cemetery is a memorial wall commemorating by name the 1,299 Australians who died in the Battle of Fromelles and who have no known grave. The inscription reads:

In honour of the 410 unknown Australian soldiers here buried, who were among the 1,299 Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men of the Australian Imperial Force, killed in the Attack on Fromelles, July 19th and 20th, 1916.

The battle at Fromelles was ill-conceived and poorly executed. Almost 2,000 Australians had been sacrificed for no reason. There had been no military gain and the battle had no effect whatsoever on Germany’s ability to send reinforcements to the Somme.

Commander of the Australian 15th Brigade, Brigadier General Harold Edward ‘Pompey’ Elliott, later declared:

Practically all my best officers, the Anzac men who helped to build up my Brigade, are dead. I presume there was some plan at the back of the attack but it is difficult to know what it was.

Five men from the Orange district were killed in action during the Battle of Fromelles: Cecil Parker Ashdown, Charles William Gordon Conroy, Charles William Murray, Arnold Needham and Albert Leslie Singleton.

Two others – George Alfred Blunt and Keith Whitmee (Barney) Davis – later died of wounds received during the battle.

One man, Arthur McKell, was taken prisoner during the battle. He was repatriated to England in November 1918.

Wartime 44 – The Battle of Fromelles

Fromelles Military Cemetery, France. Image courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Fromelles Military Cemetery, France. Image courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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18 July 1916

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