Australians on the Somme 1916 to 1917
Australian troops, including new recruits and men who had served on Gallipoli, began arriving in France from Egypt in March 1916. After the barren Gallipoli peninsula and the desert sands of the Egyptian camps, France seemed to be paradise to many in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). A member of the 24th Battalion, Sid Burvett, wrote:
things could be a lot worse and comparing this place with Anzac it is a heaven and the boys know it too.
In France, there were green fields and picturesque farms. Behind the lines, men could visit villages, buy food and drink and mingle with civilians. Such experiences were unknown to the men who had fought on Gallipoli.
During its first months in France, the AIF were stationed at a ‘nursery’ sector. The relatively quiet trenches near Armentières helped fresh troops to get used to life in the trenches opposite the German Imperial Army. There were raids and casualties, but the Australians had yet to experience a major Western Front battle.
On 19 July 1916 at Fromelles, the 5th Australian Division became the first Australian unit to take part in a major assault on the German trenches. Some of its men had spent only a few days in France. Attacking across a waterlogged no-man's-land against a heavily fortified position, they were unsuccessful. By the next morning, the division suffered over 5000 casualties.
On the night of 23 July, the 1st Division began Australia’s involvement in the Somme campaign, with an attack on the German positions at Pozières. They drove the Germans from the village, but the German response was devastating. The men experienced fierce counterattacks and an artillery barrage more powerful and destructive than anything the AIF had seen on Gallipoli.
Over the weeks that followed, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions rotated through the fighting at Pozières and across the high ground between the village and Mouquet Farm. In just over a month from the end of July, the Australians launched nine separate attacks. Always under devastating shell and machinegun fire, they could only inch forwards. All units suffered heavy casualties in every action. Some men became ill, unable to bear the strain. Others were buried under soil when artillery fire destroyed trenches and dug-outs. The dead lay on the ground and the wounded counted themselves fortunate to survive. By the time they withdrew from the line after 6 weeks of fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm, the AIF had lost some 23,000 men. Almost as many dead and wounded as the force had suffered in the 8 months on Gallipoli.