Friday, 7 February 2014

The Green Fields of Pozieres

AIF 1st Division Memorial, Pozieres

 I like this shot. Linda took it with my little Lumix camera. I think it is postcard quality.

 The memorial obelisk in the shot is dedicated to the men of Australia's 1st Infantry Division of the Great War. The heart of Australia's army.

 It is situated at Pozieres, France and the photo is taken from a dais which looms above the wreckage of a German Blockhouse known as "Gibraltar". A strongpoint captured by the AIF at great cost in July 1916.

Some of the most famous photos of the Great War were taken of this very countryside. It looked vastly different in 1916 when it was scarred and pockmarked by the viciousness of industrialised warfare and stained by the blood of thousands of men.

 In the distance, on the horizon, one can just discern the memorial at Thievpal. It has inscribed upon it's walls the names of every British soldier who was lost on the Somme and never recovered. Bodies that still lie in those green fields pictured. Green fields which were once a slaughterhouse. Look at the picture, then close your eyes and imagine what it was like...........

 Theivpal was once a picturesque little village with a stately manor as it's drawcard but in 1916 the ruins of the aforementioned village and manor were turned into a fortress by the German army. And General Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in France was determined to see it fall. This is where the men of the Australian Imperial Force enter the story.
Linda with the Pozieres Digger
 Pozieres. The name of this non-descript little village in northern France hangs heavy and boldly in Australian history. It's a place where the flower of the youth of a young nation was shredded and bled dry. It was said by historians of the day that Australians fell more thickly on Pozieres Ridge than on any other battlefield. For six weeks in 1916 more Australian blood soaked the ground and sowed those sanguine fields than at any other place on earth, before or since.

60 000 young men from Australia marched up the slope from the shattered town of Albert into the meat grinder that became the Battle of Pozieres. Six weeks later, barely more than half returned.

 Pozieres was but a small part of a much bigger tragedy which was played out on the Somme in the high summer of 1916. But it was my countrymen who fought at Pozieres. My countrymen who gave their all to capture that little spot on a French map. That's why visiting Pozieres was special to me. It's why it should be special to all of us.

 The Australians were to attack Pozieres, capture and hold it which would bring pressure to bare on the German fortress at Thievpal and hopefully, if the plan unfolded as it should, make that bastion untenable for the Kaiser's army.

 I won't bore you with the finer tactical details of the blood-letting and carnage and decimation of human life which occurred at the Battle of Pozieres but I will tell you that the town was captured and held at great cost and the Australians who hung desperately to their little gains were bombarded by the greatest artillery assault in the history of warfare as the Germans desperately tried to shoehorn the Diggers out of their hard-won bolthole.

 There is a small hillock a couple of hundred metres to the east of Pozieres on which once stood a windmill which was destroyed in the early stages of fighting during the Great War. During the Battle of Pozieres, this hillock became a beacon, a pointer for the AIF as it ground it's way, bit by bit through Pozieres. It was finally taken despite horrendous casualties and it is now Australian territory, bought and paid for by the Australian Government after the war and by the blood of the brave men of the Land Down Under who struggled here so valiantly in those desperate weeks in July 1916.
Pozieres Windmill
 The Battle of Pozieres was hailed as a great Australian victory. A victory which contemporary newsmen and Allied Generals believed would live on in the annals of Australian history. Of course it was nothing more than a pointless massacre, talked up to keep the home fires burning and the righteousness of  the Allied cause at the forefront of the people at home in Australia who's sons were doing the fighting and dying in a foreign field. The Battle of Moquet Farm, a stone's throw from Pozieres, on the same ridge in fact, a few weeks later, was an equally savage affair which brought the same results. Carnage on a scale never before seen.

 The myth of the Digger was born in these fields but the truth is that British, Canadian, New Zealand and French armies fought just as hard against the Germans, just as bravely and died in their multitudes just the same.

 But in every myth there is a kernel of truth. The AIF was special. Ordinary men who did extraordinary things. Many of them died and those who were left had their lives changed forever. The casualties of Pozieres continued to mount for many decades after the last bullet had been fired.

 But they did something at Pozieres that many in the British Army thought couldn't be done. Take and hold that little village against the odds. Their memory and their deeds should be cherished.

 Theivpal was eventually taken by Canadian and British soldiers in a re-run of what had happened at Pozieres. But of course, it was all for nought. The war dragged on for another two years and millions more men were lost. 

 The green fields and rolling countryside around Pozieres, Theivpal and Moquet Farm don't give up their secrets easily. The peaceful surrounds mask the horror which occurred here a century ago. 

 But, when the roll of the brave is called in heaven's dormitory the men of Pozieres won't be far from the top of the list. It was an honour to walk in their footsteps. Lest we forget.
Theivpal from Pozieres. 23 000 Australians fell within a mile of where this photo was taken.

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