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Why is the soil in Pozières, France so important to the Australians?

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On this French soil stands a plaque, permanently etched in stone are the words: "The ruin of Pozières windmill which lies here was the centre of the struggle in this part of the Somme battlefield in July and August 1916. It was captured on August 4th by Australian troops who fell more thickly on this ridge than any other battlefield of the war."

1916 was the mid-point of the war. The months of July, August and September, saw such fierce fighting, constant attacks, and incessant shelling that thousands would die on this land.

On 23 July 1916, the Australian First Division attacked Pozières, taking the village. After Pozières fell, and through until early August 1916, Australian soldiers fought to capture the site of the windmill against strong German opposition.

Capturing this position was one of the many objectives during this period of fighting, and following the windmill site, the Allied troops went onto successfully capture Mouquet Farm and Thiepval. But the losses were immense. So many men fell bravely on this soil.

Today, the Australian Memorial at Pozières Mill marks the spot where a windmill once stood. From September 1914, the German troops held this location, fortifying the remains of the windmill as a field artillery observation and command post. The windmill was the highest point on the Somme battlefield and was a ferociously contested location. The advantage was with those who held this position, with unique views of the surrounding battlefields. One could see for many kilometres, in all directions. From here the ridge stretched northwards towards Mouquet Farm and Thiepval. If the Allies could capture this, they would have a prime observation point over the German rear areas.

After the Australian First Division captured the village of Pozières, the Australian Second Division made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the ridge. To be able to maintain their position and seek this ground, the soldiers had to keep on digging. Digging more trenches, digging to ensure the troops had some protection, digging to create a network of communication trenches.

On the night of 31 July 1916, Lieutenant John Raws (21 September 1883 – 23 August 1916) of the 23rd Australian Infantry Battalion, was in charge of a digging party in No Man's Land. He described in the letters he wrote home to his family that German flares lit up the night, but they continued to dig as a "tornedo of bursting shells, ripping up the earth and burying them. I was buried twice, and thrown down several times – buried with dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies."

During those seven weeks, the Australian Imperial Force suffered 23,000 casualties on this land. More than 6,700 of them were killed in action or died of wounds.

Charles Bean, Australia's official historian marked this period, writing "In those forty-five days Australians had launched nineteen attacks …They knew their constant advance during a time of deadlock would compare with any other achievement on the Somme."

Lieutenant Raws wrote of his experiences at Pozières. "You've read of the wrecked villages. Well some of these about here are not wrecked. They are utterly destroyed, so that they are not even skeletons of buildings left – nothing but a churned mass of debris, with bricks, stones and girders and bodies pounded to nothing. And forests! There are not even tree trunks left, not a leaf or a twig. All is buried, and churned up, and buried again."

Lieutenant Raws never made it home to Australia, and was killed in action at Pozières just weeks later, on 23 August 1916. His body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing, at the Australian National Memorial in nearby Villers-Bretonneux.

It is another of Charles Bean's quotes, carved into the memorial bench on this site that states the ruin of the windmill "marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth."

Such is the significance of this place to Australians that soil from the site was used in the burial of Australia's Unknown Soldier in Canberra on 11 November 1993. Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the body of an unknown Australian solider was recovered from the Adelaide Cemetery in France, and returned home.

Australia's Prime Minister, Paul Keating, delivered the eulogy at the service at the Australian War Memorial, saying "We will never know who this Australian was ... he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front ... one of the 60,000 Australians who died on foreign soil. One of the 100,000 Australians who died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us."

An Australian veteran from the First World War, the late Robert Comb (25 April 1900 – 26 April 1997), who served on the battlefields of the Western Front with the 23rd Battalion, scattered the soil on the tomb, saying "Now you're home, mate."

Remains of the windmill and the German blockhouse remain. Grass has now grown over them, and the undulating ground shows but a small sign of the battlefield that this once was. The Australian Memorial marks this spot, and ensures the land which it marks, will be remembered.

On this day, 4 August 2021, we commemorate the 105th anniversary of Australia's capture of the windmill site in Pozières, France, and we remember the Australian troops who fell more thickly on this ridge than any other battlefield of the war.

Rebecca Doyle

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