The Western Front 1916
Andy’s battalion sailed for France on the RMS Saxonia, the men disembarking in Marseilles on 3 April 1916. They quickly entrained for Strazeele, not far from Dunkirk. The three-day train journey across the lush French countryside must have been a welcome change from the scrubby gorse of Gallipoli and the sands of Egypt.
The next six weeks were spent training for the conditions of the Western Front, including drills for gas attacks. On 6 June the battalion went into the line for the first time at Fleurbaix, an hour’s march from Fromelles.
Soon they marched to join the ‘Big Push’ and the attack on Pozieres on 22 July. The 3rd Brigade was heavily shelled with poison gas and high explosive shells, but took Pozieres before dawn the next morning.
Andy was wounded in action. It was 24 July, the start of a fierce and relentless German artillery bombardment that continued for days. Suffering from shell shock and a leg injury from an exploding shell he was sent to the 10th General Hospital in Rouen, then to England. He was admitted to the 3rd London General Hospital in Wandsworth on 2 August 1916, then moved to the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Southall.
Despite having a long recovery ahead of him, Andy was fortunate to have been hospitalized before the intense fighting to hold Pozieres and take Mouquet Farm. By the time the AIF was relieved at Pozieres in early September they had suffered more than 23,000 casualties; almost 7,000 dead or missing, 17,000 wounded.
On 23 August Andy wrote from Wandsworth to a friend in Broken Hill
I would have written before, but our outward mail was stopped for some weeks owing to us proceeding from Flanders to the Somme to take part in the big push.
Our first job was the taking of Pozieres, which we took on Sunday morning, July 23. The same brigade was allotted that task as was in the original landing at Anzac. We took the village with only few casualties, but as soon as it came daylight on Sunday morning the Huns started counter-attacks, and when we beat them back they started shelling.
They kept on with counter-attacks and shelling up till Monday night, when I had an argument with one of their shells, and the shell won, as I remember no more until I was well away from the firing line on my way to a clearing station.
No doubt you have seen the big casualty lists, and it was mostly through the shells that we had so many killed and wounded. Of course, our own guns were going as well. We got so badly knocked about on the Sunday that we had to have the remainder of the division sent up to help us. On Monday morning they had to send the second division in to give us a hand. But we hung on to the village, or what was left of it, as it was a most important position, especially to the Huns.
No doubt the Huns are good fighters when they are in a good trench, but when it comes to close quarters then up go their hands, and they shout for mercy. I might say that they did not get much mercy at Pozieres, as all the prisoners taken there could be counted on your fingers and toes, and all wounded at that. But there were heaps of dead. Well, I have seen quite enough, and this is my second time wounded, and the only time I have been away from my battalion since I first joined it at Morphettville over two years ago.
I am hoping this may be a trip back to Australia for me. I arrived here from France on August 2. I am still in bed. but I am hoping to be out very soon.
NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.
Limb, A. 1919. History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F. 1st ed. London; Melbourne: Cassell and Co.
1916 AWM4, 23/27/6 – April 1916. First World War Diaries – AWM4, Sub-class 23/27, 10th Infantry Battalion.
‘Pozières, First Australian Division Memorial – Bombardment 24-26 July 1916’. Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918: The Australian remembrance trail in France and Belgium.
‘Pozieres, The Windmill’. Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918: The Australian remembrance trail in France and Belgium.
1916 ‘Sergeant-Major A. S. Duncan’. Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), 15 October, p.2.
Featured image: Postcard – Private Albert Edward Kemp to Annie Kemp, ‘Australians Parading for the Trenches’, circa 1916. The postcard depicts the ‘men who shortly after midnight of Sunday, July 23, 1916, took Pozieres by a splendidly dashing advance through shrapnel, shell, and machine-gun fire.’ Museum Victoria collection MM 90948