While the Battle of Fromelles was declared as the worst single day of fighting in Australian military history another battle in a different part of the Somme was about to become the worst battle in history over an extended period.
As the news of the disaster at Fromelles was probably making its way to Pozieres, there were six Gordon cricketers waiting their turn to experience the horrors of fighting against the German juggernaut. The Gordon cricketers were part of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions, and had been sent to the area around the village of Pozières in the southern region of the Somme.
Captain Claude Tozer
Two of them, George Swan and Dr Claude Tozer, had fought near the end of the Gallipoli campaign and were joined by four new recruits: Henry Dilling, George Wheatley, Alban George (Johnny) Moyes and Alister Maclean.
The village of Pozières, on the Albert–Bapaume road, was an important German defensive position. The fortified village was an outpost to the German second line which extended from beyond Mouquet Farm in the north, ran behind Pozières to the east, then south towards the Bazentin ridge and the villages of Bazentin le Petit and Longueval.
While this area had a long history of British involvement going back to the start of the war, the Australian 1st, 2nd and 4th divisions had been brought in to reinforce the efforts of the Allied forces in this region. The plan called for the Australian 1st Division to attack Pozières from the south, advancing in three stages half an hour apart, with support from a British division west of the village. The Australian 1st and 3rd Brigades, which included the 12th Battalion, began their offensive at 12.30am on 23 July with their goal being the German trenches to the south of the village. The second stage, later that day, was to advance to the edge of the village and then to bring the Australian line to the main road of the town.
An advanced dressing station at Pozieres
After Gallipoli, Captain Dr Claude Tozer had been transferred to the 12th Battalion as the Chief Medical Officer, and while the field ambulance tents were intended to be mainly behind the line, the reality was that there was no definitive line in these massive battles and the medical officers often found themselves in the heart of the fighting.
On 24 July, while the battalion was trying to hold the village, Claude was seriously wounded. While tending to his men, he was hit in the head and leg by gunshot and fell unconscious. Fortunately being close to other medical staff, he was removed quickly to the nearest field hospital. Claude remained unconscious for two days before being transported first to Étaples for further treatment and then in mid-August to the 3rd London General Hospital. The gunshot fragment had entered just above his left eye, passed into the right temporal lobe of the brain and lodged near the skin. His leg wound was in the popliteal space behind his right knee where another fragment had lodged. Somehow Claude survived the ordeal, and remained in hospital until December.
While a lot has been written about the untimely death of Claude, shot by a distressed Dorothy Mort in December 1920, not enough is acknowledged about his role as a doctor, surgeon and soldier throughout the war. Claude served from the Gallipoli campaign through to the end of the war receiving several commendations including a ‘Distinguished Service Order’ for his bravery and medical service in some of the worst conditions imaginable.
After three days of counter attacks by the Germans, the 1st Division was relieved by the 2nd division on 27 July, but not before suffering 5,285 casualties. It was now the 2nd Division’s task to continue to hold the positions gained and then to advance further into German territory.
Henry Ayres Dilling was a twenty-five year old theatrical treasurer who lived with his parents at Kialama in Mowbray Road, Chatswood, and had played for the Gordon Third Grade team in the 1913-14 season. Henry’s role was to provide support for the engineers building the trenches and while making his way into the middle of No Man’s Land that night, Henry was hit in the back leaving him with shrapnel wounds. Bravely, he continued to provide support for his fellow diggers but on his return to the main battalion, while obviously in pain, was removed and transported to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen.
George Wheatley, a bricklayer by trade who lived in Fitzroy Street, Milson’s Point, had enlisted in the 7th Field Company Engineers. He had joined the cricket club for the 1913-14 season and played eleven games in First Grade scoring 252 runs. In the 1914-15 season, he played sixteen games in First Grade and scored 357 runs including a score of 106. In addition to his cricket, George also played First Grade Rugby League with Balmain and North Sydney in the 1913 and 1914 seasons. Like so many others, his sporting endeavours were curtailed when he sailed for England in December 1915.
Like his fellow soldiers in the 2nd Division, the Battle of Pozières was his first major action of the war. George was part of the No.4 section of his company and, as a sapper, was designated to designing and building the trenches within the lines of the 2nd division as close as he could to the German lines.
His company diary notes indicate that George and his group were responsible for a range of trenches in the vicinity of the village of Pozières. They started digging trenches and communication lines on 27 July while under constant fire which continued for a further ten days. While George survived Pozieres he fell very ill during the freezing winter a few months later in Flers and was sent to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen where he met his wife to be, Germaine Hertel. George and Germaine were married in October 1918 and returned to Sydney in December 1919 with their son Max. George went on to build a fine career with Balmain and after his cricket he worked for a number of years as a groundsman for the club.
The 2nd division remained fighting at Pozières until 6 August, when it was finally relieved by the Australian 4th Division. This included taking further German positions beyond the village. The 2nd division had suffered 6,848 casualties during this nine day period.
It was now the turn of the 4th Division to take over the front line fighting and they included the 47th and 48th Battalions and the 13th Field Company Engineers.
Within the 48th Battalion was a well-known cricketer, Lieutenant Alban George Moyes, known to his mates as Johnnie. Young Alban had a brother and father named John and apparently he disliked his name so much he asked to be called Johnnie.
Johnnie was a batsman who played for South Australia in the 1912-13 and 1913-14 seasons scoring 883 runs with a highest score of 104 against Western Australia. He was considered good enough to be selected for the Australian tour of South Africa in 1914 but the tour was cancelled due to the outbreak of the war.
Johnnie played for a Rest of Australia team in 1914 against NSW and Victor Trumper was so impressed by this young cricketer that he invited him to play for Gordon as a guest in a club match. The spectators didn’t get to see much of their special guest as he was out first ball. He was one of the several cricketers who joined Gordon on a full time basis after the war.
He also went on to become a famous ABC commentator until his death in 1962. Johnnie had enlisted from South Australia in July 1915 and had sailed to Egypt in January 1916. Cricket, however, would have been the furthest thing from his mind, when faced with the job as a second lieutenant to lead his men during this battle.
The trenches at Pozieres
The dairy notes of the 48th Battalion for 7 August read:
We suffered heavy casualties taking over, no trenches were constructed, the place being just one mass of craters. No communication trenches existed and attempts had been made to dig them, but they did not go beyond JUMPING OFF TRENCH in front of TRAMWAY TRENCH. It was about 400 yards over the open to get up rations and water, all wounded had to be carried back in the same way. Communication being kept up with runners. The battalion suffered heavy casualties during the night of August 5th and day of 6th. Although constant efforts were made to dig trenches they were almost immediately blown up by the enemy.
Johnnie, like so many of his fellow soldiers around him, was wounded on 6 August with a gunshot wound to his left knee, making him unable to walk. He was carried back through No Man’s Land by ambulance staff and was admitted to the 4th Australian Field Ambulance station.
At the same time as Johnnie Moyes was fighting with the 48th Battalion, George Swan was nearby within the 47th Battalion. At 2.30pm on 8 August, they commenced a relief operation to replace the 48th Battalion who were occupying the frontline just ahead of the Tramway Trench. The relief was carried out under constant bombardment by the enemy and again there were heavy casualties.
George Swan, after surviving unhurt during his stay at Gallipoli, was wounded with gunshot wounds to his left shoulder during the relief operation and was transported to the ambulance station. George was taken to the 13th Field Station Hospital in Boulogne where he remained until late September before re-joining his unit on 3 October 1916.
The final Gordon cricketer to see action at Pozières was Alister Grant Maclean. Alister was the older brother of Norman Maclean who fought with the Imperial Camel Corps, and was a civil engineer living in Gordon Road, Turramurra. He joined Gordon in its second season in 1906 at the age of twenty, but played only intermittently in First and Second Grade until 1909-10 when he played fifteen matches scoring 458 runs at 30.53, with a highest score of 140. That year the team came last in the premiership. In one of the more startling turn-arounds in Gordon history, he was then part of the 1910-11 First Grade team which won the premiership.
Alister would probably not have claimed an important part in that season’s success as he scored 28 runs at 4.66 in his seven matches. Possibly Victor Trumper and Charlie Macartney, playing together for the first time at Gordon for most of the season, may have had more impact. He was educated initially at Geelong College in Melbourne before moving to Sydney with his family and finished his schooling at Sydney Grammar School. Alister then completed a degree in engineering at the University of Sydney. He enlisted in July 1916 and was posted to France with the 4th Field Company Engineers. Alister was involved in digging out Mortar Battery positions at Pozières on 13 August, when under heavy shelling, he was hit in the right foot by a bomb. He was transported to the 2nd Australian General Hospital at Wimereux and remained there until 16 November when he re-joined his unit.
While Pozières did not equal Fromelles in the number of casualties in one day, it certainly was the most destructive single battle the Australians ever faced. Over a period of forty-two days, the Australians made nineteen attacks with sixteen of them at night, and the casualties in the end reached 23,000 men with 6,800 killed.
For the Gordon cricketers exposed to the fighting at Pozières, the experience was simply horrendous. The battlefield became a roller coaster ride of attacks and counter attacks, all containing shelling which would destroy the landscape as well as the men on it. The fighting was wild and at times uncontrolled. It was almost better to get injured so you could leave the place and get a rest. This seemed to be the only way to avoid being killed. The physical and mental strain on the troops was more than any sane man could take. They were all courageous but courage didn’t help you survive; it was simply luck. Five of the six Gordon cricketers were wounded at Pozieres. They were the lucky ones.
The heart of Australia’s youth was taken on the battlefields of Fromelles and Pozières. It would take generations to replace them. After 100 years we commend the Gordon cricketers who didn’t take a backward step against an overwhelming opponent. While not pretending to compare war and cricket, in their minds they went to Europe to defend the Australian way of life, which included their love of the great game, and they left a legacy of bravery and commitment that today we can only admire and importantly never forget.
I would have liked to have met these men.