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Australians battle Germans at Pozieres

On July 26, 1916, during the epic Battle of the Somme, Australian troops taking part in their first offensive action on the Western Front battle the Germans at Pozieres, near the Somme River in France.

Divisions of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, known as ANZAC, which had previously served on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the ill-fated Allied invasion there in 1915, were given the objective of capturing Pozieres Ridge, an early goal set by the British army’s command for the ambitious Somme Offensive, which began on July 1, 1916. They began their attack late on the night of July 22, just two days after their arrival in the Somme region. The ANZAC divisions were aided in their advance by the British 48th Division, which launched a simultaneous attack to the west of Pozieres, towards the Germans’ left flank.

After the initial Allied bombardment, Australian troops moved forward under heavy fire, but were able to press ahead and capture the village of Pozieres itself within an hour. The attack’s main objective, Pozieres Ridge, was heavily defended by the Germans, who had used the week preceding the attack to reinforce their positions with a network of machine guns placed in shell holes in front of their lines.

The night of July 26-27 saw a 12-and-a-half-hour-long grenade battle between the Australians, with British support, and the Germans at Pozieres Ridge. The German army had produced multiple types of grenades by that point in World War I—including the Stielhandgranate (stick bomb), the Diskushandgranate (disc grenade), Eierhandgranate (hand grenade) and Kugelhandgranate (ball grenade, a popular type that could be thrown a great distance and that included a grenade dubbed the pineapple grenade by the British for its distinctive shape). For their part, the Allies launched some 15,000 Mills bombs—a weapon designed by William Mills and introduced in May 1915. A 1.25-pound grenade with a serrated exterior, the Mills bombs were designed to break into fragments upon detonation, inflicting the maximum amount of damage. Improved throughout the war, they quickly became the leading British grenade.

Pozieres Ridge finally fell to the Allies on August 4, 1916, after two weeks of exhausting and costly fighting, but the Germans remained in control elsewhere in the region. The Allied command—particularly British commander Sir Hubert Gough—came under heavy Australian criticism for continuing the offensive for such a long time at a high casualty rate, especially when combined with an earlier failed operation, based near Fromelles to the north of the Somme. Though brief, the attack at Fromelles resulted in 5,708 Australian casualties, including 4,000 dead, and an additional 400 prisoners taken by the Germans.

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