The Windmill, Pozières

Running time
4 min 17 sec

At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device

Audio transcript

This is the site of the old Pozières windmill. Perched on this ridge just beyond the village, its sails once caught the winds that sweep in from the Atlantic across these exposed upland stretches of the Somme. Like Pozières itself, the windmill was battered out of existence by artillery bombardment during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Looking from the windmill ruins back to the village and to the right towards Mouquet Farm, about 1.8 kilometres away, the eye takes in a sweep of countryside which, in the words of official historian Charles Bean, 'was more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth'. By that, Bean meant the 23 000 casualties suffered here by the Australian Imperial Force between 23 July and 4 September 1916. More than 6700 of them were killed in action or died of wounds. In 1932 Bean persuaded the Australian War Memorial to buy the windmill ruins, and it was from here that French soil was dug up to scatter on the coffin of Australia's Unknown Soldier when he was laid to rest at the Memorial on 11 November 1993.

Bean was deeply aware of the desperate digging in the shell-shattered country around Pozières and the windmill between 29 July and 3 August 1916. On 28-29 July the Second Australian Division had failed to capture this ridge. To attack it again required the construction of a network of communication trenches along which men could approach assembly trenches protected from enemy machine-gun and sniper fire. The diggers, however, were an easy target for the German artillery and the work was regarded as a battle operation.

On the night of 31 July, Lieutenant John Raws, 23rd Australian Infantry Battalion, was in charge of a party in no-man's-land. German flares lit up the night, but they dug on through what Raws described as a 'tornado of bursting shells' ripping up the earth and burying them. Raws was often knocked down, and twice buried with the dead and dying. He pushed his men to the limit and towards daybreak refused to leave, even when ordered to do so by another officer. 'The trench was not finished', he wrote, 'I took it on myself to insist on the men staying, saying that any man who stopped digging would be shot'. On their way out Raws carried the only unburied wounded man they could find—'The journey down with him was awful. He was delirious. I tied one of his legs to his pack with one of my puttees'. Raws then spent two more hours under the shelling looking for wounded men. On the evening of 4 August 1916, in daylight, the Second Australian Division captured the ridge, including the ruin of the windmill.

On 31 July 1916 Bean visited the front line and was shocked. 'Everywhere', he wrote, 'were blackened men—torn and whole—dead for days'. On 28 August Bean took British official photographer Ernest Brooks out beyond Pozières to where all this furious digging had happened. Brooks' images are now in the Australian War Memorial. Much later, in May 1917, Bean walked the deserted battlefield with English poet and journalist John Masefield. Masefield found, and gave to Bean, an old Australian trench sign from 'Centre Way', one of the key communication trenches dug for the 4 August 1916 attack. It is thought to be the first object collected by Bean in France for what ultimately became the Australian War Memorial.

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