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Photo Essay: Australians at the Somme

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After two years of stalemate and horrifying trench warfare, the Allies attempted to break through the German lines on the Western Front. The ensuing battle, now known as the Battle of the Somme, would last for months and result in more than 1 million casualties, with many Australians among the dead or wounded.

After two years of stalemate and horrifying trench warfare, the Allies attempted to break through the German lines on the Western Front. The ensuing battle, now known as the Battle of the Somme, would last for months and result in more than 1 million casualties, with many Australians among the dead or wounded.

The Battle of the Somme is the term given to series of battles fought between 1 July and 18 November 1916 along the Somme River in France. Hundreds of thousands British, Australian, French and German soldiers were killed in what would be the bloodiest battle of World War One.

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On 19 July 1916 at Fromelles, the 5th Australian Division became the first Australian unit to take part in a major assault on the German trenches. Some of its men had spent only a few days in France. Attacking across a waterlogged no-man's-land against a heavily fortified position, they were unsuccessful. By the next morning, the division suffered over 5,000 casualties.

On the night of 23 July, the 1st Division began its Somme campaign with an attack on the German positions at Pozières. They drove the Germans from the village, but the German response was devastating. The men experienced fierce counterattacks and an artillery barrage more powerful and destructive than anything the AIF had seen in Gallipoli.

Over the weeks that followed, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions rotated through the fighting at Pozières and across the high ground between the village and Mouquet Farm.

In just over a month from the end of July, the Australians launched nine separate attacks. Always under devastating shell and machinegun fire, they could only inch forwards. All units suffered heavy casualties in every action. Some men became ill, unable to bear the strain. Others were buried under soil when artillery fire destroyed trenches and dug-outs. The dead lay on the ground and the wounded counted themselves fortunate to survive.

By the time they withdrew from the line after six weeks of fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm, the AIF had lost some 23,000 men. Almost as many dead and wounded as the force had suffered in the eight months on Gallipoli.

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Apart from its financial and industrial contribution, Australia provided the greatest military contribution of all the British dominions – 331,000 volunteers – but also suffered the greatest losses – 58,500 men, including 16,000 dead.

Despite the horrors of war, it was Australia's participation in World War 1 and its own terrible losses that became a contributing factor in the birth of this new nation and its spirit of determination.

Photo Essay: Australians at the Somme
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