Narrywoolan*

Private Charles Benjamin Hall, 887. D Company, 24th Battalion AIF.

1889 - 1916

PART THREE

POZIÈRES. Charley’s final three days.


There are many books on the history of the Somme battles before this date so I won’t go into any details. A general description of the Battle of Pozières can be found on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Pozi%C3%A8res

The following WW1 trench maps have been sourced from National Library of Scotland. Clicking on the maps with the blue outline will take you to the map on their website. There you can compare them to a present day map and zoom to other areas.

Map of the Somme front line July - December 1916. Shows the situation around Pozières at the time the 24th Battalion arrived there in July.

The British offensive, known as “the big push of 1916,” had been launched in the vicinity of Albert on the 1st of July, and when the Australian Corps entered the field here about three weeks later the Boche had been driven back to Pozières, a distance of about four miles from the starting point. When it is considered that the hammering had been practically incessant, the severity of the struggle and the stubborn resistance of the enemy can be gauged to some extent by the comparatively small area of country regained.


WEDNESDAY JULY 26TH.

The 24th Battalion moved off from Varennes on the 26th at about 5 a.m., and marched to the brickfields on the outskirts of Albert.


Map location of the ‘Brickfields’

Albert 1914, prior to the war.

Prior to the 1st July the opposing lines skirted Albert on the north, the town being within the territory held by the British forces. It had received more than a fair share of attention from the enemy gunners, and we found it in ruins and deserted as far as the civilian population was concerned. The chief feature was its battered cathedral with the famed statue of the Virgin and child hanging from the ruined tower. The current superstition was that when the statue fell to the ground hostilities would cease, and on that account expectant eyes were often turned in its direction. However, it transpired that nothing short of a direct hit by the artillery would bring about its downfall, British engineers having firmly secured the statue to what was left of the tower.

Albert Cathedral.

The regimental “cookers”, near Albert.

While we awaited orders to move into action, our surplus kit was handed over to the quartermaster, letters and messages entrusted to the padre, and final touches made to our fighting outfit, leaving us in battle array.

The First Division had attacked the village of Pozieres on the night of 23rd - 24th July, and after stubborn fighting had ousted the enemy from well-fortified positions. The Second Division was now relieving the First, and the broken units which had been through the first Australian engagement on this front were dribbling back past our rendezvous. First - hand information was eagerly sought by our men as to how things were going at the front. There was little need for questioning, however, as the worn out appearance of the men and their reduced numbers supplied sufficient evidence of the nature of the battle.

For the full account of the taking of Pozières see the Official History Of Australia In The War of 1914 - 1918, Vol III “The AIF in France 1916” Chapter XV. During that battle the 1st division lost 5,285 officers and men.

On the afternoon of the 26th the Battalion left the brickfield and started for the line. The route lay through the deserted town and over the chalk ridges beyond. A short distance out of Albert we passed the crater formed by the mine exploded under the enemy’s line on 1st July. This had been the signal for the commencement of the first attack in the offensive. The crater was about 80 yards in diameter and 50 feet deep, and on this summer day gave forth unpleasant evidence of the number of Germans caught in the eruption. Smashed trenches and defences ran in all directions, but the fact that the Boche had recently been ejected from them was a source of much satisfaction. On all sides the ground was littered with the refuse of a modern battlefield and torn by shells, while numerous wooden crosses bore mute testimony to the struggles and sacrifices of the preceding days.

The crater mentioned is today know as the Lochnagar Crater, it is clearly visible on the current Google Earth image.

A dedicated website can be found here - http://www.lochnagarcrater.org/index.html

At dusk we reached Sausage Gully, a valley about 400 yards wide and half a mile long, on the rise at the head of which ran the Contalmaison road. The gully, in addition to being the main avenue for traffic to and from the battle zone at this part of the front, was packed with artillery of every calibre, which kept up a continuous fire on the enemy. It was to this busy spot that the wounded were borne from the front line by the stretcher bearers and transferred to horse and motor ambulances. The movement of men and transport gave the gully a scene of indescribable activity, and the German artillery fire made it as unhealthy as it was busy.

Depicts a view of the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions in Sausage Valley, Pozières, behind the front line on the Western Front, with soldiers, horses, medical supplies and artillery, while explosions can be seen on the horizon. Frank Crozier (1883-1948)

The map show the approximate route D Company took to reach Pozières from Albert on July 26th - 27th.

Here we learned that the Sixth Brigade was to relieve the Second Brigade, the 22nd and 24th Battalions taking over the firing line. The Brigade sector extended for about I000 yards in an irregular north-west line from the Pozieres-Bapaume road. On the right of the road the Fifth Brigade were in position, the South Wales Borderers supporting them on the right, while Warwickshires held the line on the left of the Sixth Brigade.



THURSDAY JULY 27TH.


About midnight guides who had been sent down from the units we were relieving reported to take our companies into position, the route being along the Contalmaison road, then turning to the left along a smaller road past the ChalkPit, across the Pozieres-Bapaume road into Kay trench, then to the allotted positions. The blackness of the night, brightened only by occasional flares over the firing line in the distance, rendered progress over the debris-strewn and shell-pitted roads slow and laborious. Gas shells falling along the route kept the men putting on and taking off their masks during the first stages of the journey, and as we got nearer the fighting area several casualties were sustained by shell and rifle fire. Fortunately, the enemy fire slackened for an hour or two while the relief was in progress. Nevertheless, the utmost difficulty was experienced by the companies in reaching their respective stations.


The disposition of our companies was as follows :—“ A” Coy. (Captain Mcllroy), front line from the cemetery to the orchard, linking up with the 22nd Battalion on the right. “D” Coy. (Captain Trew), front line on the left of “A” Coy., right flank near the village cemetery, left flank on the Courcellete road. A gap between "A”'and “D ” Coy. was covered by Vickers machine guns secreted in the cemetery. “B” Coy. (Captain Nicholas) in supports. “C” Coy. (Captain Godfrey) in reserve. Battalion Headquarters were at “Gibraltar” and the aid-post in a sunken road in rear of the village.


Captain George McIlroy MC

Captain William Trew DSO

Captain George Nicholas DSO

Killed in action, France November 1916

“A” and “D” Coys. struggled forward in the dark, and they completed the relief of the troops in the front line before daybreak. The 8th Battalion, which the 24th relieved, had a half-dug trench close up to the German line, and the men of “A” and “ D” Coys. had to start on its completion immediately. The Battalion had scarcely got into position when the German 5.9 shells began to crash about us with that ear-splitting sound so well known to all men at the front. The call for stretcher-bearers began with the first shell.


It was daylight before “ B ” Coy. was in position in Kay Trench, where “ B ” Coy. of the 22nd Battalion was also posted.

By the morning of July 27th the 24th Battalion was in the locations marked on the map. C Coy was in reserve to the south at the Chalk Pit. The German Lines were located at O.G. 1.

Owing to the nerve—shattered state of the troops going out little information could be gained from them as to the nature of the situation. They had carried out an attack the previous day and had ejected the Hun from the last of his defences in the village. The enemy had retired to a ridge about 350 yards away, and was now occupying a new line of trenches overlooking ours. The only point on which the Second Brigade men laid much emphasis was the probability of strong counter attacks during the day. Daylight revealed a scene of desolation. The village of Pozieres was no longer in existence, churned-up earth heaps of powdered masonry and blasted tree stumps alone marking the site. The only structure which had withstood the bombardment was “ Cement House,” also known as“ Gibraltar,” a former German dugout with a concrete observation post surmounting it, and situated at the entrance to Kay Trench near the Pozieres-Bapaume road. All the surrounding country was in a similar state of upheaval, and was strewn with wreckage, with which was mingled the bodies of many dead.

Locations of the various AIF battalions on July 27th

Pozières main street in 1913.

Pozières main street all that remained after September 1916.

The remains of “Gibraltar”, September 1916

Pozières from the air June 1916

The enemy did not spare us after daylight revealed our whereabouts. His batteries, which were in great strength on that sector, opened a bombardment on the whole of the Australian positions, and maintained a withering fire for 36 hours, Kay Trench, where our “ B ” Coy. and also “ B " Coy. of the 22nd, Battalion were crammed in so tightly that men scarcely had room to move, was in a painfully exposed position. The troops suffered heavily, whole sections being killed, buried or wounded. “A” Coy.’s position was less exposed, and they had the advantage of the newly dug trench, which was narrow and winding, and therefore a more difficult target for the German gunners, though the first shell to fall on this line killed Lieut. A. J. Kerr. “D” Coy. also suffered heavily.


All day the men were being buried by shell fire and extricated by their comrades, According to Brigade records, at one period of the day casualties on the field were occurring at the rate of 60 per Battalion per hour. The ordeal of holding those ghastly trenches, which appeared to be merely waiting for death, threw many of the men into a shell-shock stupor, and stretcher-bearers who struggled with the wounded had to kick the dazed men to induce them to move out of the way. Retaliation was given by our artillery on the enemy’s front line, but this did not appear to affect the persistency of the German gunners.

For most of the time our front line was practically isolated, runners and carrying parties finding it extremely difficult to get through, and it was useless to rely on the telephone, for as fast as our gallant signallers repaired the lines they were broken again by shell‘ fire.


The vicinity of “Gibraltar” was a terrible death trap. It lay right on the route of all movement to and from the lines, and as the shells crashed in salvoes around the structure, men fell right and left. Every track over the remains of the village changed shape a dozen times a day under the deluge of shells that fell there, and men went past “ Gibraltar” and down “Death” road at the double. Stretcher-bearers with wounded were swallowed up in the inferno, and fatigue parties sometimes had half their numbers cut down getting through.


As a matter of fact, when allotting fatigue parties, the staff counted upon one-third of the men becoming casualties, so that if two thirds got through, the required quantities of rations and ammunition would be safely delivered at the firing line.

Every foot of the ground was churned over and over by shell fire, and smoke and fumes blurred the field day and night. It was hell in very reality, and men who served there proved that their valour and faithfulness were beyond measure. The Battalion’s A.M.C. section rendered faithful service throughout that trying period. The M.O. (Captain T. H. Plant) worked untiringly for two days attending the wounded. Stretcher cases poured in upon the aid post, and walking wounded painfully made their way to the dressing station in a steady stream. Private Kirby (afterwards promoted A.M.C. sergeant and awarded the D.C.M.) was an inspiration to the troops in the line.


Whenever he could leave the aid-post he was in the trenches cheering the lads and applying dressings. Another man who distinguished himself at that critical period was Private (afterwards lieutenant) E. L. Forbes, of “A” Coy., who was as busy as a General, while the unruffled Sergeant Ball (“Tonto”) kept up his droll jokes and provoked men to smile when the concussion of bursting shells was taking away their breath.


Pozieres provided our regimental stretcher-bearers with a task utterly beyond their powers. Each Battalion went into action with 16 bearers (four per company). On that field a hundred bearers per Battalion would have been more in keeping with requirements. On the second day only four of our I6 bearers remained in action, the others having being killed or wounded. In the forward trenches the wounded waited hours for removal. Many of the company men helped with the work of rescue, and when our transport section heard of the plight of the troops in the line they immediately volunteered for duty as stretcher-bearers. Although some of them were included among the honoured dead before their task was done, the rest never wavered. Every trip to the aid-post left the bearers fewer in numbers, but they carried on their heroic work with coolness and faithfulness, dressing the wounded under hellish fire, and then carrying them away with all possible care. Even when shells fell so close that the debris was thrown over them, they went on calmly, having only one thought, namely, the safety of their wounded patients.


The work of regimental stretcher-bearers is not only dangerous, but also the most strenuous duty on a modern battlefield. Some of the bearers at Pozieres, after many hours of unceasing toil, had the muscles of their hands so strained that they could not grip the stretcher handles. Later in the campaign the bearers worked in parties of four and

six, and carried the stretchers on their shoulders, but at Pozieres they were fortunate if they could maintain two men per stretcher.


Even the ambulance bearers, who took over the wounded after the regimental bearers had brought them back from the forward positions, found their task almost more than they could cope with. One of our transport men who had been killed while stretcher-bearing had been the owner of a mascot monkey, whose antics always drew groups of delighted children around “A” Coy.’s cooker, on which he rode when the Battalion was passing through the towns and villages behind the front. “Jacko” appeared to be painfully conscious that his master was dead. He fretted for many days, and later he, too, was buried on the field.


From Bean. “The company of the 22nd in this trench (Kay Trench) lost all its officers and a great part of its men through this bombardment; and so great was the carnage in the 24th that for months afterwards, even when “K” Sap had been almost obliterated, its course could easily be traced by the half-buried bodies with the red and white colours of that battalion still showing on their arms.”



FRIDAY JULY 28TH.

Orders had been issued on the 27th for an attack to be carried out by the 22nd and 24th Battalions on the night of the 28th-29th July in conjunction with the Seventh Brigade. The objectives of the Sixth Brigade units were the enemy positions along the Courcellete road on our left and running almost at right angles to the line we then held, while the Seventh Brigade was to capture the trenches to the right of the point where the Courcellette Road intersected the enemy lines on the ridge.


The hostile artillery fire did not abate until the afternoon of the 28th, and the 22nd and 24th Battalions were then found to be so badly shaken and so depleted in numbers that it was decided to entrust their part of the attack to the 23rd Battalion. Two companies of the 24th Battalion (“C” and “D”) and three companies of the 22nd Battalion were detailed to act as reserves.


From Charles Beans 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."


SATURDAY JULY 29TH.

The attack was timed for midnight, and prior to that hour the 23rd Battalion took over the line, our “A” and ”B” Coys. withdrawing to Sausage Gully. Before dawn “D” Coy. was also ordered to retire, and on the night of the 30th “C” Coy. joined the other companies in the gully. Our Lewis-gunners remained to support the attack.

What exactly happened with the 24th Battalion that morning is difficult to establish. Bean gives no mention of them at all and the battalion war diary entries are simple;


28th     Batt in Poziers. A Co Cemetery Trench. B, D Cos Kays Trench. 23Bn to attack at 12.15am ridge N.W. of Poziers.         

              22Bn in reserve.


29th     9.30pm A Comp relieved by 23 B.

               9 pm    B Comp relieved by 23 B.


30th    4am    D Comp relieved by 23 Bn.


Somewhere in the nightmare of July 29th, most likely early in the morning, Charley was shot.

His record shows he received gunshot wounds to the arms and legs.

He was first taken to the 1/2nd South Midland Field Ambulance (part of the British 48th Division).

Then transferred to the 44th Casualty Clearing Station which was located 14 miles to the west at Puchevillers.

There he died and was buried the same day in the Puchevillers British Cemetery.

He is there with another 417 Australians, 17 of which died on the 29th.


The attack on Pozières Heights was a total failure that day with more than 3000 Australian casualties. The battle continued on until 7th August when the 350 yards and the OG trenches were taken. The cost to the 2nd division was horrendous, a total of 6,848 Australians killed, including 440 from the 24th battalion. The complete figures for the seven week battle around Pozières for the I Anzac Corps was more than 28,000, and the war still had another two years to go.

Puchevillers British Cemetery today

(Photo courtesy The War Graves Photographic Project)

Charley’s grave.

(Photo courtesy The War Graves Photographic Project)

References and Acknowledgments


Books:


Harvey, W.J. The Red and White Diamond. The official history of the 24th Battalion A.I.F.


Bean, C.E.W. Official History of Australia In The War. Vol. III The A.I.F. in France 1916.


Official History of Australia In The War. Vol. XII Photographic Record of the War


Internet sources:


Australian War Memorial

http://www.awm.gov.au/


National Archives of Australia

http://www.naa.gov.au/


National Library of Scotland

http://www.nls.uk/


The War Graves Photographic Project

http://www.twgpp.org/


McMaster University Library

http://library.mcmaster.ca/


Commonwealth War Graves Commission

http://www.cwgc.org/


The Somerset & Dorset Family History Society

http://weymouthanzacs.moonfruit.com/


Google Maps

https://maps.google.com.au/


A special thanks to my late mother, Blanche Hall, for all the work she did on the Hall family history last century.


August 2014

Noel Macwhirter

ngm@narrywoolan.com.au

The Benalla Standard  Tuesday 29 August 1916

The Benalla Standard  Friday 1 September 1916

(The other brother, George, was my Grandfather)