Remember the Somme

 On a stained glass window titled “Jesus – Prophet, King, Priest” at St Matthew’s, Manly is the following inscription:

In memory of Lorenzo Dixon Marshall. Died 9 February 1933.

To the glory of God and in memory of Victor and David Dixon Marshall who made the supreme sacrifice at Pozières on 23 and 24 July 1916.

Mrs Alice Selkirk Dixon Marshall. Died 18 September 1949, aged 82 years.

The reference to Pozières and the names of the two brothers who died there in 1916 is an ongoing reminder of the terrible loss of life suffered by the Australian force in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The names of places, such as Pozières, Mouquet Farm and Flers, where Australians fought on the Somme, became well known to that generation at home in Australia.

Anglican churches in older Sydney suburbs testify to the losses by inscriptions and memorials like the one at Manly. When Australians think of World War I there is a tendency to think of Gallipoli rather than the Western Front of Belgium and France. However, the reality is that many more Australians fought in the European theatre than at the Dardanelles.

The Battle of the Somme was an Allied offensive from July to November 1916 in the French department of Picardy that was meant to break the stalemate on the Western Front. Severe losses were suffered by both sides with British Empire forces, including the Australians, sustaining an estimated 420,000 casualties. The net result of this effort and sacrifice over 4 months was an advance of only 12 kilometres in that section of the Front.

The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) had moved to France from Egypt early in 1916 after the withdrawal from Gallipoli. Before the AIF’s involvement in the Somme campaign, its 5th Division went into action at Fromelles in Northern France on July 19. This battle was meant to be a feint to draw German forces away from the Somme battlefield to the south but it was a complete failure with the division suffering 5533 casualties in a 24-hour period. On July 23 the 1st Division attacked on the Somme at Pozières. It gained the village but was withdrawn on July 27 after suffering heavy casualties. The 2nd Division then came into the line and was later replaced by the 4th Division. In the seven weeks from July to September 1916, the Australians suffered more than 28,000 casualties, a figure higher than the eight months on Gallipoli. The Australian war historian Charles Bean described the area around Pozières as “a site more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.

The grim reality of the Australian losses was hard to avoid for those on the home front. As well as their own particular loss, grieving Australian families were also participants in the losses experienced by the wider community. It was the official casualty lists that really brought the war home. These were published in local metropolitan newspapers in all states, and displayed in public places such as post offices, police stations and railway stations.

The lists contained the names of soldiers in one of the following categories: killed, wounded, missing, prisoners-of-war and sick. The sheer number of casualties would have been a shock to everyone in Australia, even though they had been conditioned by the Gallipoli campaign to expect losses. Between August 15 and September 16, 21 lists – sometimes two a day – were published in The Sydney Morning Herald. The four weeks centred on the official notification of Australian casualties in the attacks on Pozières and the first of the actions at Mouquet Farm. The lists contained 2959 killed or died of wounds, 13,617 wounded and 1802 missing in action (most of these were confirmed as dead later by courts of inquiry). The casualty lists published in the weeks following September 16 were equally grim as they accounted for losses suffered as the Australians continued with the attack on Mouquet Farm.

The lists brought home in powerful ways the intensity of loss and the tragedy of distance. In contrast to the articles and stories published by newspapers about the war, which were censored and tried to present the losses as a noble sacrifice, the official casualty lists bore stark witness to the human cost. The Herald’s special correspondent in London believed the casualty rates at Pozières would be a psychological blow to Australians at home. He wrote on August 26 in the paper of the numbness he felt “morning by morning reading lines of crowded and abbreviated names”, adding that “our casualty lists are truly tragic... irreparable loss to bereaved parents... a tremendous price we are paying, this toll of our very best abilities.”

One woman wrote, “How harrowing it is to read daily of the heavy list of casualties... it makes our hearts ache for the many parents whose homes are desolated by the cruel war”. As the casualty lists grew and the awful reality of trench warfare became apparent, there was a growing sense for families and soldiers that death or serious injury was a strong probability. Lieutenant Alec Raws, a journalist before the war, wrote on August 4, 1916: “I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead, and thousands of unburied dead around me... One feels on such a battlefield as this that one can never survive, or that if the body lives the brain must go forever.”

Two brothers, David and Victor Dixon Marshall, had enlisted in September 1915 in answer to the call for reinforcements after the losses on Gallipoli. Both were young men and unmarried. David was 21 and Victor was 24. They joined the 1st Division and were thus involved in the fighting at Pozières in late July. David was killed in action while Victor died of wounds. They died five days apart. Like so many of the Australian dead at Pozières, David has no known grave and is remembered on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial. Victor died at a field hospital at Puchevillers and is buried there. The boys were both separately remembered in Roll of Honour notices in The Sydney Morning Herald in August 1916 by “sorrowing parents and sister”. It seems that Mr and Mrs Lorenzo Dixon Marshall had three children, two of whom were killed at Pozières.

A key way to commemorate this loss for the family was to include the sons’ names in the inscription of the church’s stained glass window at Manly. Interestingly, the names of the brothers are not to be found on the Roll of Honour in that church. The reason for this seems to be that they had enlisted from Bondi, where the family home was located. Their parents moved to Manly and became parishioners at St Matthew’s in 1917, so the sons were not eligible for inclusion on the Roll of Honour.

Another set of brothers, Robert and Stephen Allen, are listed on the Roll of Honour at St Matthew’s. They, too, died in the vicinity of Pozières in August 1916. Both were reported as missing in action, which was later listed “killed in action” by an AIF court of inquiry in January 1917.

There is a family portrait (above) in the Australian War Memorial collection of the Allen brothers, with their mother and two sisters, which was taken just before they sailed away as reinforcements to join the 13th Battalion in September 1915. It is a sad reminder not only of the loss suffered by this Anglican family but it visually represents the grief caused to so many other families by the Somme campaign.

The Australian casualties on the Somme should not only be understood in terms of the large number of those who fell in the fighting. Many of those who survived bore physical and/or psychological wounds for the rest of their lives. This is vividly presented in Vance Palmer’s poem “A Farmer Remembers the Somme”:

Will they never fade or pass! The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming In file through the foul morass,

And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass, And the steel wings drumming.

The hills are bright in the sun: There’s nothing changed or marred in the well-known places;

When work for the day is done There’s talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun On the old folks’ faces.

I have returned to these: The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing;

But all that my mind sees Is a quaking bog in a mist – stark, snapped trees, And the dark Somme flowing.

In this centenary year of the Battle of the Somme, we do well to remember the Australian casualties of that campaign and the grief experienced by families across the nation as a result.

The wider community, including the churches, also shared the sense of loss. During the conflict young men had been urged from the pulpits of many churches in the Diocese of Sydney to join up and “do their bit”.

On the Somme, many of these young people either died or suffered life-changing physical and/or psychological wounds. Thus the impact on churches was profound, not only because of the loss of some of the brightest and best of that young generation but because of the impact it had on those who survived and carried the horror of the Somme with them for the rest of their lives.

The next time you are in an Anglican church which has an honour roll for World War I, take a moment to reflect on those named – many of whom fought on the Somme in 1916. 

Photo: “Densely sown with Australian sacrifice”: soldiers on the road to Pozières, August 1916. (Australian War Memorial)