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Thursday 3 March, 2016
A century ago the City of Adelaide was the square mile we now associate with the CBD. Surrounding Adelaide were farming lands and small rural villages such as Mitcham, Burnside, and Prospect which stood as self-contained communities only loosely connected to Adelaide. Few people had cars, main roads were compacted dirt, and a couple of trams spurred out to connect these villages.
Before the Great War, the Village of Unley qualified for classification as a City when its population jumped the 20,000 citizens threshold. At the declaration of war in August 1914, Unley was the second most populous place in the state with over 30,000 residents, equalling 10% of the state’s overall population of approximately 300,000 at the time.
Keswick Barracks, located on Unley’s western fringe, along with the 74th Infantry Regiment, called Unley home. The 74th were a volunteer regiment akin to today’s Army Reservists. Major Walter Dollman of the 74th was an incredibly talented and passionate man, who also served as Mayor of Unley from 1913-14.
The 74th Infantry Regiment was transformed into the 27th Infantry Battalion with Walter Dollman promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to become its first Commanding Officer. The Battalion became known as both “Dollman’s Dinkum Diggers” and later “Unley’s Own” due to the fact that all soldiers enlisting had by this stage heard reports from the war and knew there were a high number of soldiers from the local Unley area amongst those recruited. As the Mayor of Unley and a former active Reservist with the 10th/27th Battalion I feel drawn to the story of both Dollman and the battalion.
As the 27th reached Gallipoli most of the fighting had been concluded. In fact they would play a minor role in the evacuation of Gallipoli only with a handful of casualties recorded. But the Great War was so much more than Gallipoli.
It was on the Western Front in France at the battle of Pozieres, that our forebears as members of the 27th, from Unley and other communities across South Australia, would play a significant part in world history. It occurred at a crucial moment in the First World War and is local history on a world scale of which we can all be very proud.
Dollman’s Dinkum Diggers were part of the 2nd Division of the AIF that relieved the 1st Division at Pozieres. On the night of 29 July, 1916, 2nd Division moved out of the trenches and advanced towards the German held lines. The Australian artillery fire had been inadequate and had not supressed the German machine gun posts. As soldiers clambered to breach the barbed wire obstacles they were mown down by accurate German machine gun fire devastating whole battalions. This particular battle is the one credited by many as creating the haunting image of soldiers’ corpses caught on the barbed wire obstacles as they tried to push through. The 27th had been kept in reserve for this advance, and remained relatively unscathed with comparatively few casualties that night.
Just a few nights later, however, on the 4th of August, 1916, the 2nd Division mounted a further offensive. The 27th Battalion was placed at the centre of the assault with the order to capture the Windmill of Pozieres on Hill 160. A small quirk of fate was that on their right flank was a Victorian Battalion, the 23rd, in which my great-grandfather served.
The importance of the task at hand is best described by Australia’s Great War correspondent, Charles Bean. When reflecting on the battle afterwards, he wrote in Australia’s official war record that ‘”the ruin of Pozieres Windmill, which lies here was at the centre of the struggle in this part of the Somme battlefield in July and August 1916. Australian troops fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war.”
The high ground of Hill 160 dominated the surrounding terrain affording a commanding advantage. The 27th Battalion gained control of this most important piece of ground, overrunning the German position that night. But taking the Windmill at Pozieres cost the lives of 132 men of the 27th with another 300 injured. When you put these numbers into perspective in a modern context, this is more than six times the number of those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan since our first involvement more than 10 years ago – all in one night.
As South Australians we make no claim to ‘winning the war’, but as a community it is now time for us to recognise the central role our citizens played in this ‘turning point’ battle. We need to honour their courage and sacrifice, including recalling the sacrifices made by the families of all those involved.
Sadly few Australians know much about, or understand the significance of, the Battle of Pozieres. More artillery was fired in this battle than in any other battle before or since, on any scale, anywhere. And not just in Australia’s history, but in the history of all global conflicts. Not surprisingly too, no other battle in WWI equalled the horror of the Battle of Pozieres, as measured by lives lost and soldiers wounded. In all, 23,000 Australians were killed or wounded, and it is estimated when combining the statistics from both sides, that more than 50,000 were killed and wounded at Pozieres. South Australia’s 27th Battalion were right in the thick of it.
The Battle of Pozieres would be Colonel Dollman’s final campaign as CO of the 27th. He returned home to Unley; a difficult task when you consider how connected he was to the many families whose sons and husbands had experienced the atrocities of war under his command.
I hope you can take the opportunity to visit the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience opening at the Wayville Showground in Adelaide next week. As Mayor I’m proud the City of Unley is hosting this national flagship event for the Anzac Centenary and I look forward to hearing from other South Australians who attend, as we as a community honour all who have served our nation in war and peace over the past 100 years.