You are here

4. Mouquet Farm

The Australians now thrust north along the ridge on which the OG trenches continued, while on the left the British kept pace by seizing, one after another, the old communication trenches running between the old German front and second lines. The first step was taken on the night of 8 August and on the night of 10 August, patrols pushed out and established posts in the valley south of the mound of rubble which appeared to be all that remained of Mouquet Farm. On the night of 11 August, after preparations of dreadful difficulty, a formal attack was made, bringing the Australians and the British on their left to a line directly facing the German position running through Mouquet Farm. An attack on the farm itself was planned for 13 August. A quarry near the farm was captured and a company under Capt. Harry Murray seized part of the German Fabeck trench, north-east of the farm. Here Murray and his men were outflanked by the Germans, C E W Bean wrote `this former miner, who was to become known as a most famous fighting leader, fought his way back with his men in one of the most ably conducted actions in Australian experience'. The attempt to drive the salient deeper was continued in attack after attack for another month, but its ultimate achievement was to secure no more than part of the Fabeck trench reached by Murray's company that night. The 4th Division was now relieved after a loss of 4649 men.

The 1st Australian Division, with its battalions brought up to two-thirds strength by reinforcements, was put in again. After another 2650 casualties, the 2nd Division took up the task and tried with larger forces to seize Mouquet Farm, which was by then realised to contain very large and deep dug-outs. The 4th Australian Division was brought back and delivered attacks on the nights of 27 and 28 August. The strategy of slowly pushing a salient behind an enemy salient had come to a halt. At the cost of another 2409 casualties, the 4th Division had driven the salient as far as it ever went. In early September, the Australians moved to a quiet area at Ypres. Between July and September Pozieres ridge was the only sector on the Somme in which the British forces had steadily pushed ahead. The German artillery was free to concentrate as it wished and although the Australians suffered other intense bombardments in France, there was never anything comparable in duration or effect to that suffered on the Somme. In seven weeks, the Australians launched 19 attacks, all except two on narrow fronts. 23,000 Australian officers and men were killed or wounded at Pozieres, a place C E W Bean said was `more densely sown with Australian sacrifice that any other place on earth.'

The fighting on the Somme highlighted the essential problem of the 1914-18 War. Modern technology had brought mass armies to the battlefield and was able to supply and maintain those armies in the field for an indefinite period but the technology to move the armies on the battlefield and to break though the trench lines still awaited development. The horse was still invaluable in moving supplies up to the front lines but was obsolete on the battlefield. On 15 September, the replacement for the horse on the battlefield, the tank was first used by the British. From Pozieres and other points along the line, tanks heaved their monstrous shapes forward among British, Canadian and New Zealand infantry, and succeeded in driving the enemy almost to the bottom of the valley on which the Australians had looked out. Mouquet Farm finally fell on 28 September.

On 9 October the Australians were ordered to return to the Somme but by the time they arrived the autumn rains had turned the fields ploughed up by the massed artillery into a sea of mud. The broken ground was passable in dry weather, but with the rains it became a bog. Preparations had not been made for these conditions and both the trenches and the tracks leading to them became impassable. It took five or six relays of stretcher-bearers, each team, six or eight strong, many hours to get a wounded man from the front line to an ambulance, a few miles back. The roads leading to the front gave way under the heavy traffic. In these conditions, the worst experienced by the First AIF, two attempts were made to carry the line forward. On 5 and 14 November, portion of the attacking troops entered the German trenches which were held for some hours until the impossibility of keeping the partial gains were realised. The mud of the Somme meant that major offensive action would have to wait until the spring

Winter on the Somme was a battle against mud, rain, and frost-bite. Road repairs commenced miles behind the front lines and slowly inched forward until material finally reached the trenches and the dreadful conditions at that front began to slowly improve. Thousands of duckboards were laid to enable supplies and material to be moved forward. In January and February 1917, four weeks of cold weather froze the mud and water and covered the trenches with snow.

The Germans were hard tried but not broken by the Battle of the Somme. The losses on all sides were heavy. For the Germans, it was the beginning of the end. The Chantilly conference in November 1916 had already decided to strike at the Germans from all directions in the spring of 1917. The Germans realising that another offensive was in the offering when the weather improved, played out the last act of the battle when, in March 1917, they withdrew to the Hindenburg. line giving up more territory than they had lost during all of the 1916 fighting.