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What is the significance of Mouquet Farm, France to the Australian Imperial Forces in 1916?

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Mouquet Farm was the scene of intensive fighting during the First World War, from July through to early September 1916. A German stronghold, just 1000 yards to the west of Pozières, the capture of this site was seen as a prelude to the Allies' objective of capturing Thiepval. Mouquet Farm, otherwise known to the Aussie troops as 'Moo Cow Farm', protected the rear of Thiepval. The well-held belief was if the farm was seized, then the capture of Thiepval would ensue.

For just over six weeks, as part of the Battle of the Somme, between 23 July and 4 September 1916 three Australian divisions – the First, Second and Fourth, including 36 individual infantry battalions, fought the Germans at Pozières, on the Pozières heights and then along the ridge towards Mouquet Farm.

But as the First World War history books now tell us, in this six-week period, the Australians Divisions mounted 19 attacks on the German positions that surrounded Mouquet Farm, none of which resulted in capturing this position.

On 23rd of July, Pozières fell to the First Australian Division, then on 4th August, the Windmill site was captured. The fighting continued, and attack after attack, small gains were sometimes made, but the advance north towards Mouquet Farm and Thiepval was frustratingly slow, often a mere crawling pace.

The German troops, realising they could attack on three sides, were able to concentrate their fire on the narrow front that the Australian troops were operating on. Each approach that was made on the farm was visible to the German artillery observers. The Australians were perilously exposed to enemy fire, and the shelling they received was brutal.

Tactically, Mouquet Farm was a significant location. Beneath the farm were a series of cellars, and by incorporating these cellars into their trench system the German forces were able to establish a full underground network of interconnecting rooms. Above the ground was an impressive vantage point and below the ground was the ideal protection from the shelling ripping through the air above.

The Germans were so heavily bombarding the area that Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Murray Ross (16 August 1867 – 15 November 1933), commanding officer of the 51st Australian Infantry Battalion, wrote to his Brigadier that "it is my genuine (not depressed) opinion that it would be a mistake to further press the offensive in this salient until communications and supplies of food and ammunition could be improved."

The Australian troops attacked again on the 12th and 13th of August, and the Fourth Australian Division mounted an ambitious plan to take the farm on 14th August. Three battalions were to be involved, and although already so depleted in numbers and exhausted, they advanced, but to no avail and by early September, Mouquet Farm was still under a German stronghold.

Through the series of operations to capture Mouquet Farm, the Australian Divisions kept rotating around, and in the end, more than 50,000 men were involved in the assaults on the farm.

In just over 40 days of fighting around Pozières and Mouquet farm, the Australian casualties registered a shocking number: 23,000. Of these, 11,000 casualties were suffered by the First, Second and Fourth Australian Divisions in the series of attacks mounted on Mouquet Farm alone.

It was not until the end of September, that Mouquet Farm was secured by the British troops, when their advance bypassed the farm, capturing Thiepval and leaving it as an isolated outpost.

The horrific loss of life and what ended up as a mostly futile attack on Mouquet Farm, is perhaps best articulated in the official 21st Australian Infantry Battalion history:

"We have been in hotter holes since then but never has the Battalion suffered under intense shellfire for such long periods and with such little movement. The casualty lists bear this out. The conditions were vile. The weather being hot and everyone fully occupied on other tasks, the dead lay unburied for weeks and the stench was frightful. To come through a period such as this and then go on fighting is evidence of the temper of the British armies in general and of our unit in particular … under the heading of the First Battle of the Somme is told the story of our first and heaviest try out. The time which is vividly imprinted in the memories of those who saw the whole show through."

Little remains of the old farmhouse. The Australian Imperial Force Memorial, Mouquet Farm plaque, unveiled in 1997, commemorates the Australian Infantry Forces' effort and its 6,300 casualties.

On this day, we commemorate the 105th anniversary of the launch of one of the major attacks of the Fourth Australian Division, to capture Mouquet Farm, as part of a series of fierce and bloody attacks, and pause to remember the loss of lives during the Somme offensive.

Rebecca Doyle

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