The 20th century was characterized by major military confrontations between nations. The first significant military conflict during this century was the First World War. This war, which took place between 1914 and 1918, was different from previous wars in that it involved almost all nations in the world. The two main sides in the war carried out unrestricted attacks on each other in various fronts.
The Australian military was heavily involved in the various battles of the First World War. Due to its close relationship with Britain, Australia was fighting on the side of the British led Triple Entente against the German led Triple Alliance. One of the fiercest battles carried out by the Australian Army was on the Western Front against German positions at the village of Pozieres.
This Battle for Pozieres attracted great interest from contemporary observers and WWI historians. This paper will review different accounts of the battle in order to highlight the similarities and differences between the primary accounts by contemporary observers of the war and the secondary accounts given by historians.
A common assessment of the Battle of Pozieres is that the Australians were facing a formidable enemy in the form of the Germans. The firsthand and secondary accounts of the battle recognize the military might of the German forces. Before engaging the Germans in the Western Front, the Australians had carried out successful military operations in Egypt. These campaigns had given the Australian soldiers moral and experience.
However, the top commanders admitted that the Germans were a different enemy. Blair notes that the Australians were aware that they were engaging a competent enemy who was capable of waging a serious scientific war.1 Firsthand accounts of the war reveal that the German army was not only well armed but also very strategic.
The Germans were able to defend their positions and supply fresh troops to counter the Australian attacks.2 The various records acknowledge that the Germans were a skilful and deadly opponent who made use of great defensive belts of barbed wire, batteries of machine guns, and incredible concentrations of artillery and shell fire.3
There is a similarity in the assessment that the Australian forces focussed on attacking the German trenches and were successful in their efforts. Trench warfare was one of the techniques used by the Germans to defend their positions. All accounts of the Battle for Pozieres acknowledge the extensive use of the trench system by the Germans.
Contemporary observers and historians note that the Germans trench system was very effective in maintaining defensive positions even when under intense attacks. A primary objective in the battle was therefore to destroy or take over the trenches.
The Australian War correspondent reveals that after intense attacks against the Germans, the Australian forces were able to take over a small portion of the German trench.4 The Australians concentrated their attacks on the trenches and by the end of the battle most of the trenches had been destroyed by artillery fire.5
Accounts of the carnage wrecked by heavy German machines during the battle are consistent. The German troops made use of light and heavy weaponry to stop the Australian forces from advancing. First hand accounts state that German shells were bursting in one continuous and constant line across certain positions.6 This made it impossible for Australians to advance without incurring significant casualties.
All accounts make note of the devastating effects of the 5.9 inch German howitzer. These machines were used to carry out ferocious bombardments against Australian positions.7 The massive shells fired exploded leaving many soldiers shell shocked and pulverizing others.
A significant difference in the accounts is with regard to the reaction of soldiers in the face of heavy attacks by the Germans. The first account presented in the newspaper reports by war correspondents declared that the Australian solders were fearless and unnerved by the war.
In one report by Bean, who viewed the battle from the front, states that the Australian soldiers walked through paths that were under shellfire exactly as if they were going home for tea.8 The report praises the bravery of the soldiers who appeared to be indifferent to the heavy shelling being carried out by the Germans. This record of confidence by the Australian soldiers in the face of aggressive attacks by the Germans is disputed.
Historians record that the first experience of war on the Western Front was unnerving to many Australian soldiers who were devastated by the amount of heavy fire from the Germans. Blair documents that the German bombardment of Australia troops had an unhinging effect on the infantry.9 According to this account, many Australian soldiers lost their nerves in the face of the frightful bombardments.
There are reports of Australian solders being so dazed by the attacks that they were incapable of working or fighting. Charlton documents that many soldiers experienced significant anxiety and tension in the battlefield.10
Many of them crept together for protection instead of maintaining uniform space between them as they had been instructed. From these records, it is clear that the courageous conduct of soldiers documented in first accounts was not the norm during the battle.
While the first accounts by the war correspondents viewed the Battle for Pozieres as a success for the AIF, Historians regard the battle as a catastrophic failure for the Australians. Contemporary observers emphasize on the gains made by the Australians. Every trench position taken over from the Germans is viewed as a victory. The advances made by the troops on the battlefield are regarded as victories for the Australians.
Reports by war correspondents documented that many German troops on the frontline were being killed or captured by Australian soldiers.11 This accounts failed to consider the massive casualties being suffered by the Australians. Historians reveal that over 50% of the Australian troops were killed in the Battle of Pozieres.12 Such a high casualty rate leads the historians to regard this battle as a failure for the Australians.
The assessment of the level of efficiency demonstrated by the Australians differs. Firsthand observers commend the actions of the soldiers and their officers. The effectiveness of the tactics used by the Australians is highlighted.
The ability of the soldiers to overrun German positions by attacking in waves is commended by the war reporter.13 Positive assessments are given of the Australian’s moves to form flanks from which to attack the Germans. However, historians give a negative review of the efficiency of the Australian army.
According to the historians, the Australians did not engage in careful preparations before the attack. Instead, the Australian Army was only concerned with achieving its objectives of seizing Pozieres from the Germans. Due to the poor planning, Australians were subjected to heavy losses by the disciplined German troops. The soldiers did not take heed of German strategies to prevent unnecessary loses.
Charlton reports that the German’s had a policy of engaging in vigorous counter-attacks after an assault from the Australians.14 Some of the counter-attacks carried out at Pozieres were serious and they led to great casualties among the Australians.
The willingness of the soldiers to continue waging war is also disputed by the various accounts. According to firsthand accounts, there was a great desire by the Australian troops to compete their mission. Even under the heavy bombardment, the soldiers did not wish to withdraw from their lines. The Australian War correspondent, Bean, documented that during the entire fighting around Pozieres, not a single soldier deserted his post.15
Instead, soldiers were anxious to get to the battle front and carry out offensive action against the Germans. These accounts by the contemporary observers differ significantly from those of subsequent historians.
Contrary to the reports that soldiers were reluctant to get out of battle, historians record that many soldiers cherished the opportunity of a withdrawal. The men were desperate to leave Pozieres and they expressed huge relief when they were asked to retreat or when other troops came to relieve them.16
Discussion and Conclusion
The Battle of Pozieres ended with victory for the Australians as they were able to secure good positions in the North and East of Pozieres. However, the victory came at a huge cost for the Australians and as such; historians consider it a major military failure for the Australians. However, this paper has shown that the assessment of the performance of Australians during the battle is not consistent.
A number of plausible explanations can be offered for the significant differences in the assessment of Australian performance between contemporary observers and historians. The reports given by the firsthand observers were being read by the general population as the war took place. Instead of strict unbiased reporting, the observers sought to east the fears and worries of the Australian population.
These accounts therefore concealed some of the facts about the war and focused on extolling the virtues of the nation’s soldiers. Another reason for the difference in assessment is that the historians had the benefit of reviewing many accounts of the battle.
From this analysis, a more complete picture of the battle could be made. Therefore, while the firsthand correspondent might have viewed the battle as a success, a review of the casualty numbers would show that the war was a catastrophe.
This paper set out to review different accounts of the battle of Pozieres in order to highlight the similarities and differences between the firsthand accounts and those of later historians. The paper has shown that the various records of the war acknowledge the proficiency of the German forces and the devastative nature of German weaponry.
However, there are various differences in the assessment of the war with contemporary observers focusing on the bravery of the Australian soldiers and their success in the battle.
On the other hand, historians acknowledge the fright experienced by the soldiers and the heavy casualties suffered. From the analysis carried out in this paper, it can be concluded that in general, contemporary observers had a positive assessment while historians had a negative assessment of Australian performance.
Bean, Charles, ‘The Australians: Battlefield Pictures’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1916, p.7.
Bean, Charles, ‘The Australians: Fighting at Pozieres’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1916, p.13.
Bean, Charles, ‘The Australians: Pozieres Battle: Bitter Night Attack’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 1916, p.11.
Blair, Dale, Dinkum Diggers: an Australian battalion at war, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2001, pp. 100-2, 108-18.
Charlton, Peter, Pozieres 1916: Australians on the Somme, Sydney, Methuen Haynes, 1986, pp. 132-8, 148-50.
Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, 3rd edition, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 101-111.
1 D Blair, Dinkum Diggers: an Australian battalion at war, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2001, p. 100.
2 C Bean, ‘The Australians: Battlefield Pictures’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1916, p.7.
3 J Grey, A Military History of Australia, 3rd edn, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 101.
4 Bean, The Australians: Battlefield Pictures, p.7.
5 P Charlton, Pozieres 1916: Australians on the Somme, Sydney, Methuen Haynes, 1986, p.148.
6 C Bean, ‘The Australians: Pozieres Battle: Bitter Night Attack’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 1916, p.11.
7 Charlton, p.149.
8 Bean, The Australians: Battlefield Pictures, p.7.
9 Blair, p.111.
10 Charlton, p.134.
11 Bean, The Australians: Battlefield Pictures, p.7.
12 Blair, p.114.
13 C Bean, ‘The Australians: Fighting at Pozieres’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1916, p.13.
14 Charlton, p.138.
15 Bean, The Australians: Fighting at Pozieres, p.13.
16 Blair, p.115.