BATTLE OF MOUQUET FARM
FRANCE 5 AUGUST- 5 SEPTEMBER 1916
|See also: Brief History of 2nd Division; Battle of Pozieres|
The battle of Mouquet
Farm was the last of the battles in the Pozieres area involving the
The intention behind the whole operation at Pozieres was to clear the enemy from the heights running from Thiepval to Ginchy. Having secured Pozieres, the plan was to push north-west along the ridge and render the enemy’s strong position at Thiepval untenable. Mouquet Farm, situated about 1.7 kilometres north-west of Pozieres village, lay directly in the line of advance. The Germans, understanding the importance of the position, had heavily fortified it, including building a labyrinth of interconnecting underground chambers, bunkers and strongpoints.
After consolidating both the remains of Pozieres village and the Windmill, the Commander of the Reserve Army, General Gough, implemented his plan to cut the very strong Thiepval defences off from rear support by advancing to the north west. Mouquet Farm was at the centre of a complex German defensive system barring this approach. Gough’s plan was in two parts. Starting on 8 August, 4th Aust Div was to seize the approaches to Mouquet Farm with the second part, the actual capture of the Farm itself, to occur on 14th August (again by 4th Aust Div.) As all too frequently happened with battles at this time, the plan did not translate into actuality.
On 8th August, 4th Bde launched an attack along the western slope of the ridge towards the Farm. However, the artillery of both sides was so heavy that all landmarks were obliterated and the attackers became disoriented and lost. Those on the right flank successfully took their objectives, those in the centre advanced too far, were exposed on both flanks so had to withdraw while those on the left were unable to make any progress in the face of determined German resistance. This characterised the next six days of fighting. By the due date for the attack on the Farm itself, the Australians were still fighting to capture the trench system around it. The 4th Division had taken 4, 649 casualties and on 15th August was replaced by the 1st Division.
The task given to 1st Division was to consolidate gains and make two attacks: one northwards to the strong German trench system known as the Fabeck Graben (to surround Mouquet Farm) and the second east to capture the new German trench line opposite the Windmill. However, no attack could be contemplated until the communication system was restored. The artillery had in many areas obliterated all trench systems making communications, movement and supply very difficult. Also, much effort had to be put into extending saps to provide jumping-off points for the attack.
A counter attack by the German 16th Division on 16th August failed to dislodge the Australians but did throw into confusion their plans for their own attack. Confusion over the true location of the front line also saw some of the preliminary bombardment for the 18th August attack fall short onto the trenches occupied by 3rd Battalion, with disastrous consequences.
The British launched a major attack all along the Somme front on 18 August, with very mixed results. On the Australians’ right flank, the 15th (Scottish) Division pushed forward to the crest of the Ridge near Martinpuich but this was a rare success.
The 1st Australian Division launched their attack at 2100 hours in two directions. On the right, the 2nd Brigade attempted to push forward NE along the Bapaume Road to extend the front past the Windmill heights. On the left, the 1st Bde had the task of capturing the Fabeck Graben trench system. This would cut Mouquet Farm off from its support in the reinforced position at Courcellette. As the various higher headquarters couldn’t agree on the relative positions of the objective and their own front line, the chances of success for this attack seemed small.
The lack of any landmarks made the whole planning process very difficult. The supporting artillery – notably the Anzac heavy artillery – continued to pound the Australian front line while insisting they were shelling the (German held) objective. Both the gunners and higher headquarters were convinced the front line troops were confusing German artillery for their own. Despite this, the attack went forward. The heavy artillery and unanticipated stronger German resistance (the Germans had reinforced their front line as part of their own earlier counter attack) resulted in little progress. A worrying development was the slowness by the Australians, particularly the 3rd Battalion, to exploit minor successes. New reinforcements, lost, frightened and confused, frequently refused to advance when ordered and missed opportunities to capitalise on small successes. The casualties were so heavy that 3rd Brigade had to relieve the 1st Brigade and take over the attack.
On 21st August, the 3rd Brigade attempted to take the Fabeck Graben in a surprise daylight attack behind a surprise bombardment and a ‘creeping’ barrage. Unfortunately, the movement of the previous days necessary to get the brigade into position had alerted the Germans and heavy German artillery on both the forward position and the reserve areas had inflicted such heavy casualties on the Brigade that the attack failed. (Although the senior command was under the mistaken belief that part of the Fabeck Graben had been captured – a belief that was to have serious consequences.) On the 3rd Bde’s centre, the 12th Battalion bombed their way forward and thought they had managed to capture the Farm. Unfortunately, more Germans emerged from their underground defences and the Australians were forced back out. They consolidated and constructed a strong point right on the outer edge of the Farm itself.
The 1st Division was due to be relieved by the 2nd Division on the 22nd of August. Unfortunately, higher command, still believing part of the Fabeck Graben was occupied by the Australians ordered that the position be 'cleaned up'’ before the relief could occur. The scattered outposts, which had given rise to this belief, had, by this time, already surrendered but the 11th battalion mounted one last attack to try and recover them. It failed, fortunately with only moderate losses.
When the 2nd Division relieved the 1st on the 22nd of August, it was still not fully recovered from the effects of the fighting for Pozieres and the Windmill two weeks earlier. Its strongest Brigade, 6th Brigade, with one Battalion at 700, two at 600 and one at 365 rifles (the 1916 establishment for a Battalion was 1023!) was chosen to make the next attempt to seize Mouquet Farm. Its strength was not helped when the movement associated with the relief was seen and the Germans bombarded the whole area from Mouquet Farm to Pozieres with a six-hour barrage from 1800 hrs.
Again, before any attack could be contemplated, the communications between the forward and rear areas had to be improved. As all movement to the front lines around Mouquet Farm could be observed from the German trenches on top of the ridgeline, resupply and reinforcement was inevitably the subject of German artillery retaliation. Even simple communication was difficult and haphazard; telephone wires seldom survived very long and those runners who did survive the journey took a very long time to make the short distance. The 7th Brigade was tasked with improving the communications system but the power of the German artillery was such that even massive and well-dug trench systems seldom survived more than a day.
The attack on the Farm began at 0445 on 26th August. The 21st Battalion approached the objective from the south east with its left flank being guarded by a limited forward attack by the 22nd Battalion. On the 21st Battalion’s right, the 24th Battalion would use bombers (grenadiers) to attack the eastern defences of the Farm. With seven Brigades of artillery – 4 field and 3 heavy – providing the barrage, the initial advance by the 21st was rapid: too rapid in fact as most of the attacking infantry passed the Farm and became entangled in the defences behind it. They were eventually either killed (many by running into their own barrage) or captured. Only a handful of the Victorians returned to their own lines. Those that did occupy their given objectives at once came under heavy attack from the Germans emerging from their deep shelters. Shortages of grenades had made dealing with all the underground shelters difficult.
In this attack, the 6th Brigade lost 896 out of a fighting strength of 2500, with the 21st Battalion losing 13 officers and 444 men. They had encountered a considerably reinforced German defensive position, including many elements of Prussian Guard Reserve Corps.
The 6th Brigade was relieved by the 4th Brigade, which was placed under the operational control of 2nd Division. While the 6th Brigade had failed to take its objectives, it had managed to capture an important trench junction west of Mouquet Farm – known as Point 77 - which linked the German defences back to Thiepval. This position, which was located between the two German held strong points of Mouquet Farm itself and Point 54 to the west of the Farm, was the launch point for yet another attempt to capture the Farm. The 4th Brigade, in an ambitious move, sought permission to attack both strong points but with only half the strength 6th Brigade had employed against Mouquet Farm the previous day. Inevitably, the same result occurred. Small gains, including brief occupancy of parts of the defences of the Farm, were achieved at considerable cost and were soon recovered by the inevitable German counter attack.
At noon on August 28th, 4th Australian Division took over control of the front from 2nd Division. The 4th Brigade reverted to under command 4th Division but remained in the front line. By this stage, the staff of I Anzac Corps – especially MAJGEN Sir Brudenall White - became convinced the forces being used against the Farm were too light and that the next attempt should employ the whole of the Brigade. In the end, the next attack was launched with two battalions and half another as reserve – there were simply insufficient troops available to enable a whole Brigade attack. For two days, 28th and 29th August, all available artillery pounded the area around the Farm. On the 29th, 13th and 16th Battalions were due to attack the farm and seize the trench line beyond it, including the still uncaptured Fabek Graben. Despite the fact that heavy rain fell almost continually for the same two days, the attack went in at 11 pm on the 29th. In an ominous prelude to the battles around Passchendaele 18 months later, the mud had a major impact on the operation. Many were unable to keep up with the creeping barrage, weapons clogged with mud and would not operate and trenches and shell holes, filled with water, became major obstacles. Despite this, the Farm and substantial sections of the Fabek Graben were captured. Unfortunately, there were insufficient attackers left to consolidate the gains made and few reinforcements arrived. With ammunition low – shortage of bombs (grenades) was a particular disadvantage in this type of fighting – and the risk of being outflanked increasing as the flanking companies withdrew, both positions had to be evacuated after a few hours. While the rain was a major contributor to the failure of this, the sixth attack on the Farm, it was again recognised that the weakness of the attacking force was the main cause of failure.
By now, all remaining 2nd Division troops were now enroute to Ypres, having been replaced in 4th Division by the 1st Canadian Brigade. I Anzac Corps decided on one more attack – using the strongest Battalions available in 4th Division; the 49th, 51st and 52nd of the 13th Brigade. All the preparatory work, including digging communications trenches and carrying stores, was done by the other Brigades, leaving the 13th as fresh as possible. Unfortunately, while it was the freshest Brigade, it was also the least battle experienced. By comparison with previous attempts, the preparations were undertaken with minimal interference from the enemy. The attack commenced at 5.10 am on 3rd September.
A complex and comprehensive artillery fire plan enabled the attackers to quickly reach their objectives. Parts of the Fabek Graben, especially at the high eastern end, were captured, affording the Australians a view over Courcellette to the distant spires of Miraumont. The 51st Battalion passed through the Mouquet Farm position to the section of the Fabek Graben to the north behind it, with the last three attacking waves stopping to reduce the underground strong points. Brigade headquarters was advised that Mouquet Farm had, finally, been captured. This was premature. The inexperience of the Brigade had seen the 52nd Battalion, on the right flank, loose its cohesion when it came under close range machine gun fire, with many of the men falling back. While the Battalion did reach most of its objectives, it was by then too under strength to form a solid front in the captured trenches. The Germans, under cover of a severe bombardment, attacked the isolated parties of the 52nd, eventually driving the survivors back. This then exposed the right flank of the 51st, which likewise came under intense counter attack. The advance companies of the 51st refused to retire even when the Germans got behind them and were cut off. The rest were again driven out of the Mouquet Farm perimeter. Only the high ground to the east was still held by the 49th Battalion and the rest of the battle was fought to hold onto this. The Australians began to be reinforced by the Canadians and, at dawn on the 5th September, the last Australian unit in the battle, the 49th Battalion, was relieved by the 16th Canadian Battalion. For the Australians, the Battle for Mouquet Farm was over.
The Canadians were driven from these latest gains two days later when, after 48 hours of intense bombardment, the Germans attacked during a Battalion changeover and inflicted heavy casualties. Mouquet Farm was not destined to fall – to the Canadians – until 26th September.
The battle of Mouquet Farm cost the ANZAC Corps the following casualties: