On the northern wall of St Thomas’ is mounted a sobering reminder of the carnage of Australian youth on the Western Front. This cross was originally driven into the ground in 1916 at Pozieres — a small village in France — halfway between Paris and the French coast to the north.
It was to commemorate the 7,000 Australians who lost their lives there and the 17,000 who were wounded there. The bombing was so fierce that 4,000 were never recovered.
Pozieres is on a high ridge and both the Allies (Great Britain, Australia etc) and the Germans recognised that it was a crucial base to control.
Written by Col Adamson and Simon Manchester for the Anzac Day service at St Thomas’ Church:
To read the history of Pozieres is gruelling but very moving. Young men suffered horrendous wounds and experienced terrifying warfare. Even lying in the trenches a bomb could fall killing or wounding everyone around you. The great devastation of Pozieres took place over the 2 months of July and August 1916. A pretty village was turned into dirt and corpses. The Anzacs were never the same after Pozieres — men who had gone “marching and singing and laughing their way to Pozieres in the middle of a glorious summer were gone forever” (Scott Bennett ‘Pozieres’ p278).
One hundred and one years ago in July, a hellish battle by the Australian 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions commenced at Pozieres, a small village in the Somme valley in France. The battle came on top of the disastrous battle of Fromelles just 4 days earlier, where the Australians suffered a shocking 5,500 casualties – their greatest losses in a single day.
The Australians captured Pozieres, but it was at great cost with the casualty rate reaching 23,000 over the ensuing weeks of the battle. It is best described by Charles Bean in his diary entry of 29 July 1916:
"Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them … each shrieking tearing crash bringing a promise to each man – instantaneous – I will tear you into ghastly wounds – I will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg – fling you half a gaping quivering man (like those that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening like all the things you saw by the awful roadside, or in that sickening dusty crater."
Two churches on Sydney’s north shore, St Thomas North Sydney, and St John’s Garrison Church at Gordon, have crosses installed that were erected on the Pozieres battlefields in 1916 by Australian battalions that were subsequently rescued by surviving men of those battalions and brought back to Sydney. Both churches have significance for my family.
St Thomas’ church in North Sydney was where my family worshipped from 1881, when they first moved to the North Shore, as it was called then. George Whiting and his family moved from Church Hill to Valetta at Gore Hill. His daughter Blanche Hobson and her family moved next door at Ravenswood, where his granddaughter, my grandmother Dorothy Beryl was born.
Their home sites were adjacent to present day Gore Hill Cemetery and Royal North Shore Hospital. Whilst their homes are no longer there, the heritage listed Valetta coach house, still exists in the grounds of the North Sydney TAFE, and a modern day block of flats called Valetta lies opposite. Many members of the Whiting family are buried in St Thomas’ West Street cemetery.
My grandfather, Harold Lilja was born and raised in Gordon, and with the family being protestant, he may very well have worshipped at his local church, St John’s Garrison Church, on what is now the Pacific Highway. Harold had a strong connection to Gordon and played cricket for the Gordon Cricket Club for several years from the young age of fifteen, only stopping to head off to war.
Harold and Dorothy Beryl married at St James Church next to Hyde Park just three weeks before Harold departed for the Western Front.
The French village of Pozieres was the site of a major battle during the First World War which involved the Ku-ring-gai’s 18th Battalion. The historic link between the two localities was officially recognised with a Sister City Agreement in June 2014.
Pozieres is the final resting place for more Australian troops than any other First World War battlefield and the Pozieres Cross – an original carved wooden cross from the battlefield is housed in St John’s Anglican Church in Gordon.
The Pozieres Cross is a battlefield relic from France. It was erected on the battlefield in memory of the fallen of the 18th Battalion. After the official war cemeteries were created, the cross was returned to Australia and placed in the Warrior’s Chapel of the Garrison Church at St John’s Gordon.
This precious relic represents the savage fighting in which the 1st ANZAC Corps - comprising 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions - were engaged from July and throughout August 1916, as part of the First Battle of the Somme.
The three Australian Divisions lost 23,000 officers and men in less than three weeks in the most intensive shelling and bombing experienced by the Australian Imperial Force in the Great War. Over a period of 45 days, 19 major attacks were carried out by the Australians, 16 of which were at night. The noted historian, Dr Charles Bean states that the site “is more densely sown with Australian dead than any other place on earth.”
The Pozieres Cross was dedicated in St John’s Church on Sunday 22 April 1934.