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France 1916: The Battle of the Somme
Mouquet Farm, AIF Memorial
We took Mouquet Farm
What was it like to fight at Mouquet Farm? Charles Bean, in his official history, devoted three chapters to this four week struggle during which thousands of Australians tried to push the British line forward a few hundred metres to capture the farm. Bean wrote:
The reader must take for granted many of the conditions – the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume III, p. 728
Add to this terrible picture endless weariness, lack of sleep, hours of constant enemy shelling, the exertion of bringing up of food and supplies, the long muscle–wrenching carry involved in bringing out the wounded, and the endless digging to repair blown–in trenches and make new ones. Perhaps the worst job on the battlefield was that of ‘runner’. As telephone lines were destroyed, an ordinary soldier had to take his life in his hands and sprint back over this shell–torn wilderness to his headquarters:
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, emerging from between the shell bursts which shovelled in the trenches, he might, if he lived, tumble exhausted, strained almost to speechlessness, down the stairs … to deliver his message, and then quietly curl himself up in a corner like a dog.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume III, p. 729
One unit which saw the beginning and the end of the action at Mouquet Farm was the 16th Battalion from Western Australia. They had two periods in the line, the first between 8 and 12 August and the second between 29 and 31 August.
For the Western Australians, 8 August 1916 must have come as something of a shock. It was the first time the battalion had been in action since it had been evacuated from Gallipoli on 18–19 December 1915. They had been one of the original Gallipoli battalions, landing on the evening of 25 April, and during their eight months on the peninsula they had suffered 834 casualties, killed and wounded. Now, in as many days at Mouquet Farm, they were to lose 76 percent of that Gallipoli total – 637 killed, wounded or missing (most likely killed), virtually two thirds of the battalion as estimated by the battalion historian.
At midnight on 9 August the 16th made its first attack on the Western Front out in the countryside below Mouquet Farm. Across no–man’s–land they were guided by flash lights embedded by the scouts in earth with a different coloured light for each company. All battalion objectives were successfully seized including a number of German machine–guns and their crews. Next day, German retaliation was swift, a bombardment such as the 16th had never experienced on Gallipoli descending on the captured positions and on the afternoon of 11 August, a German counter attack began. The 16th beat this off but the ensuing enemy bombardment fell heavily on battalion positions. Through this inferno the behaviour of one man, Private Martin O’Meara, stood out. Lieutenant William Lynas wrote:
Private O’Meara is the most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen; besides doing the very arduous duties imposed on him, by reason of his being in the Scouting Section, efficiently and cheerfully, this man used to fill in his time bringing in the wounded under all conditions
Recommendation for Victoria Cross, Private Martin O’Meara,
Not only Lieutenant Lynas but six brother officers, including the commanding officer of the 16th, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Drake–Brockman, reported on O’Meara’s actions. He was credited with repeated forays under heavy fire into no–man’s–land to rescue the wounded, not only of his own battalion, but also those of the 15th Battalion. Lieutenant Frank Wadge estimated that O’Meara had rescued ‘not less than 20’. He plucked two men, who had been lying out wounded for hours, to safety under intense enemy fire which had deterred all other would–be rescuers. O’Meara was also active in bringing up supplies of ammunition and grenades during artillery bombardments which were blowing the trenches and parapets to pieces – ‘I would not detail anyone for this job’, wrote Lieutenant Lynas, ‘O’Meara went on his own initiative’. The seven officers of the 16th Battalion all recommended O’Meara for the Victoria Cross and he became the only Irish–born member of the AIF to be awarded that medal in World War I.
All told, these first Western Front actions cost the 16th Battalion thirty–six dead and 364 wounded and missing. Among the dead was original battalion member Sergeant Charles Jewell who made a will just before he landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 leaving all his back pay to his sister – ‘It would make a man uneasy to think it would be left in the hands of the Government’.
Another Gallipoli veteran to die and on this battlefield was Lance Corporal John Nelson whose brother, Sergeant Major William Nelson, 23rd Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, had been killed in the opening British attack at the Battle of the Somme just six weeks previously. Another sad story is that of saddest of Private Peter Pedretti, a young Swiss immigrant to Western Australia who was naturalised in 1914, joined up in January 1916, travelled to France and was killed in his first action on 10 August 1916 at Mouquet Farm.
Neither Nelson’s nor Pedretti’s remains were ever found and they are commemorated at the Australian National Memorial, Villers–Bretonneux. Jewell died well behind the lines in a military hospital and was buried in Warloy–Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension.
The 16th Battalion returned to Mouquet Farm on 29 August 1916. In the intervening period many battalions had been used up and thousands of casualties suffered in edging the front ever closer to the farm. On the night of 29 August, led by Major Percy Black, one of the legendary leaders of the AIF, the 16th assaulted the ruins of Mouquet Farm and did battle with the Germans in the dugouts and cellars of this fortress:
Its men [Black’s company], Black leading, went right through the rubbish heaps. A German machine gun was already in position as Black reached the mounds at the farthest corner. But the gunner was sheltering, though his hands were on the buttons, and, when he raised his head, Black shot him and put two bullets into the gun. Black was immediately stunned by a bomb
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume III, p. 833
The 16th were unable to hold Mouquet Farm, or other nearby positions they had taken in their first rush. Determined enemy counter–attacks threw them back virtually to their start lines. Heavy rain had also turned the shell–torn earth of Mouquet Farm into a quagmire in which the mud penetrated rifle and machine–gun mechanisms, rendering them useless, and even clogged the firing pins of grenades. The battalion historian described it all as a ‘disastrous fight’ in which losses were ‘considerable’. The Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour records fifty–nine deaths for the 16th Battalion on 30–31 August 1916, most of whom would have died in the failed attack on Mouquet Farm. Of this number forty–two, or 71 percent, were missing and their bodies never recovered for identified burial.
In making enquiries for the families of these ‘missing’ the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau found it difficult to piece together from survivor accounts just what had happened on the night of 29–30 August 1916. It had been a confused action with the battalion having to withdraw from Mouquet Farm in some haste, a sense of uncertainty reflected in Private Alfred Simmons’s account of the fate of Privates John Chisholm, Andrew Mundy and Daniel Sullivan:
We got repulsed and it was proper disorder in getting back. I saw Jack Chisholm and Dan Sullivan and Mundy starting. We took Mouquet Farm but couldn’t hold it, they had a proper Fort there and we lost all our officers. We thought they might be taken prisoners if they weren’t killed.
Private Daniel Sullivan, Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, The War Illustrated,
7 September 1918, internet edition,
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010