Australian War Memorial historian Meleah Hampton spoke at the National Library in Canberra on August 4 about how the old German lines on the Pozieres Ridge were captured on August 4, 1916, by the Australian 2nd Division, 1st ANZAC Corps, after an unsuccessful attempt on July 29.
This came after the capture, on July 23, of the town of Pozieres by the Australian 1st Division, 1st ANZAC Corps. The capture of Pozieres by the Allies was strategically important as it was the highest point of the area.
The old German lines, of which there were two (OG1 and OG2), were located on Pozieres Ridge. These lines were being used to pour constant, heavy artillery barrages on the Allied positions at Pozieres; thus the need to capture them.
Lieutenant General Hubert Gough was commander of the British Reserve Army of which the 1st ANZAC Corps was a part. The Australian 2nd Division, commanded by Major General Gordon Legge, was the main Australian unit involved. Neither Gough nor Legge had commanded forces in battle previously.
General Gough was a very impatient man, so planning for operations tended to be rushed. Legge, who had taken over command of the Pozieres line on July 27, was given less than 48 hours “to plan, prepare for and execute” the operation.
As a result of the rushed planning, artillery fire that would enable the attacking forces to get through to the German lines relatively unhindered by barbed wire was inadequate. The artillery barrage on the first objective – OG1 – was for a duration of only one minute, after which the artillery shifted fire to the second target – OG2 – for 10 minutes. In comparison, each barrage at Pozieres was of a half-hour duration. Also, there was insufficient intelligence on how much of the wire had been destroyed before the attack started.
Accompanying this was unfamiliarity with the area, compounded by a lack of adequate maps and the fact that the attack occurred in the dark.
The Germans were also prepared for the attack because of information provided by observers in listening posts close to the Australian lines.
Ultimately, the attack was unsuccessful and the Australians suffered heavy casualties because Major General Legge depended on manpower rather than technology – that is, artillery – to carry the day.
Before the next attack three problems had to be fixed. These were: not to rush the planning; to make greater and more efficient use of artillery to clear the barbed wire standing between the Australians and the Germans; and to try to prevent the Germans from finding out about the attack before it came.
Improvements were made in these areas; and even though the command structure from Commander-in-Chief
Douglas Haig down was more involved, General Gough still tended to rush and pressure the Australians. In the end, despite the improvements, the operation was still dependent on manpower rather than technology. Therefore, although successful, there were still heavy casualties.
Moquet Farm is a couple of kilometres to the north of Pozieres.
After the August 4 attack, commanders returned to their old ways of rushing and inadequate planning; they also moved away from major assaults to small engagements, such as that on Moquet Farm. This was because General Gough issued a memorandum during the period of preparation for the second attack on the OG lines in which he said that preparation was fine so long as it didn’t cause delay. Time was of the essence and the enemy should be constantly pressured; every yard of ground gained was of the utmost importance.
Commanders were encouraged to act without waiting for orders from above. General Gough may have been encouraged in this by the fact that, as Hampton pointed out, General Haig was a hands-off commander. He expected his subordinate commanders to work out their own plans.
Hampton made the comment: “It is remarkable that an army commander doesn’t want to command anymore, just do your own thing.” In this she was referring primarily to General Gough, but it also applied to General Haig.
The attack of August 4 was the last major successful operation by 1st ANZAC Corps in 1916. Over the 12 days in the line the 2nd Division took 6,848 casualties; the extent of these casualties was not to be matched by another Australian division, in a stretch in the front line, for the remainder of the war.
If readers wish to hear the whole lecture or read a transcript, they can go to the National Library website; although, I warn that the transcript needs some editing.