Monday, 2 April 2007

Chapter 21: The Somme January 1917

From 11th Battery, 4th F.A.B Brief History

21 Dec 1916
Moved from Billets in Naours to establish wagon lines at Montauban and gunners in action at Ginchy

Photo of Australian wagon transport at Montauban 21 Dec 1916. [
AWM E00627]
Photo of Australian artillery column moving up the line on Mametz-Montauban road , towing 18-pounder field guns and attached ammunition limbers. Dec 1916. [AWM E00054]
Photo of soldiers and artillery pack horses loaded with ammunition for field guns, on Mametz-Montauban Rd. Dec 1916. [AWM E00090]

21 Dec 1916- 19 Jan 1917 Wagon lines at Montauban, guns at Ginchy

19 January To Buire-sur-Ancre

26 January To Rainneville. Joined by part of 19th Battery to form a six gun bty.

From Diary of Gunner Day, 11th Battery

1/1/17 New Years Day. Like last New Years Day, nothing to eat and very cold and muddy. We got a good bit of snow now is not so bad after you get used to it.

18/1/17 I do not write every day as there is nothing to put down. We have a few killed or wounded now and then, but that is nothing to write home about, after you have been in the trenches for a few months you don't take any notice of it. Had a very heavy fall of snow today, it is past your knees, off the beaten track, but not very cold. We came out of action and went to our wagon lines for a couple of days.

[Note: The contrast between the mention of “a few killed and wounded now and then, but that is nothing to write home about…” with the rather more graphic description from July 1916: “On the second day (probably July 5th) I had my first experience with death. There is a 12 " Howitzer Battery each side of us, they roar all night. The germans send back 5.9s trying to hit them. I was standing near the road watching them, when a shell landed 100 yards from me, and went in between some A.C.C. men they can thank their lucky stars that it hit a tree first. It cut the tree into matchwood (a very tree at that). Two men were killed and two were wounded. Two of us carried one of the dead men down to their camp, and I must say I never thought a dead man could be so heavy. All the time they were sending over shells pretty thick, and when you are in the middle of the road, carrying a man that you cannot drop too quickly, you feel just a bit shaky in the knees.”]

20/1/17 Left wagon lines at 11 a.m. and went to Burie for five days, from there we went to Rainville, where we stopped for one week; all these French villages are the same, most of the houses have thatched roofs and they all have sort of dams for watering the horses and cattle. The fields are very nice in the Spring, as amongst the corn and wheat there are a lot of red poppies, which is a fine sight to see.

Photo of Buire-sur-l'Ancre, April 1917. [AWM E02215]

All women work in the fields and can plough very straight, up and around Ypres; they go in for a lot of vineyards, and make some fine wines.

From CEW Bean Vol IV, The AIF in France 1917, Preface.

“…four of the five Australian infantry divisions expect(ed) relief after their most depressing experience, the winter of 1916-17 on the Somme. Before that relief came, the Germans carried out, under the eyes of the two British armies, an evacuation more extensive, if much less dangerous, than that executed by the Australian and other forces in Gallipoli. The Australians were responsible for nearly a month for about half the front affected…There follow(ed) the “pursuit” of the enemy by two small columns and three weeks’ village-fighting under conditions of semi-open warfare; then on arrival at the Hindenburg Line, the two terrible attempts to force that line at Bullecourt, one of these being the first experiment with massed tanks, and each involving a “soldiers’ battle” of extraordinary interest, fought under highly adverse conditions. After this these there comes at last, for most of the Australian infantry, its promised rest, generous beyond all hopes, while the hardest grained of the divisions, the 4th, together with the youngest and least tried, the 3rd, engag(ed) in an offensive very differently conducted from any within previous experience of the Australian infantry in France, the Battle of Messines…ends with the participation of the two Anzac corps as the central striking force in the second battle of the three phases of what is popularly known as the “Battle of Passchendaele”. the story of this phase was for the most part one of unimpeded success…the reason, which is not, it is contended, to be found merely in the fine weather or the effectiveness of the two Anzac corps, although they now formed a highly expert and formidable force.

In all this severe fighting the Australian divisions lost heavily. As only small reinforcements were now arriving from Australia, a serious problem of maintenance lay ahead; …(1917) ends with the necessary withdrawal of the divisions to a quiet front.”

Somme poppies, May 2003

From John Laffin Guide to Australian Battlefields of the Western front 1916-18. Kangaroo Press and Australian War memorial, 1992, p 84:


The AIF 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions were all in the front line south of Gueudecourt in January and February 1917. The weather was often bitterly cold but sometimes not cold enough to freeze the mud, which made operations difficult. The Germans fired a single 5.9 inch shell punctually at the rate of one a minute, night and day, into the ruins of Gueudecourt. This continued throughout the winter of 1916-17. The object was to prevent the British and Dominion troops from using cellars and dugouts in the village, and the tactic succeeded.

Photo of horse transport amongst ice and snow, Somme, January 1917. [AWM E00130]
Photo of horse losing a foothold on icy road, Somme January 1917 [AWM E00132]

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