June 22, 2024 3:57 AM

Century Old Pozières Secret Revealed


Studio photo of World War 1 sapper H. P. Cornell in uniform.

By Di Sneddon

When Dr Larry Cornell was handed his great grandfather’s war diary he could not believe what it contained.

H Percy (HP) Cornell was a sapper in World War 1 and helped to build the iconic war monument to the First Australian Division in Pozières but there is a little more to that construction that has laid secret for some 100 years, only revealed by Dr Cornell after he read the historic diary.

Sapper HP Cornell was a member of the 1st Field Company Engineers and he, along with a small group of other Australian engineers, were assigned to construct the war monument. This was the first Australian war monument built following the end of hostilities six months earlier.

Quietly and without any military approval, the group decided to place a time capsule in its base.

The existence of this capsule and its content were penned into this diary, along with sketches and photos of the building of the Pozières monument.

According to Dr Cornell, it is unclear how the decision came about to place a ‘time capsule bottle’ into the foundations of the Pozières monument.  Clearly though, the core members of this construction crew were moved to ‘cement’, through the placement of this bottle, a little of their own history at Pozières, no doubt to honour privately the bravery and deeds of their fellow Anzacs.

Nevertheless, HP so records in his diary, a day that for these engineers would likely live forever in their memories, but for anyone else it may have been a secret for all time had it not been for the existence of this diary.

“After all, who would think in 1919 that someone would bother to read the penned scratchings of an old war digger’s diary,” Dr Cornell said.

HP’s record makes little fuss in its detail of this moment on the morning of 15 September.  Equally, details of the diary sketch of the bottle’s placement are concise and without fuss.  ‘….put bottle in yesterday morning under large stone and exactly centre…’.

‘….in bottle is 10/-Commonwealth note, 50c silver French coin, Aussie ½ penny, English 1d, bottle sealed with wax and set in sand in box…2 Belgium coins on outside of box.  Photos taken by Smith but morning very foggy.’

In addition to the above items, included with the bottle’s contents is a letter and a half sovereign note, which HP had the presence of mind to have Smith take a photograph.  Perhaps most importantly for these soldiers is the handwritten note listing the names and details of the work party who were responsible for the monument’s construction.

The secret bottle may contain other items not recorded by HP because they weren’t worth mentioning; or, dare I say, items that were indeed intended to remain a secret for all time.

For the men of the 1st Australian Division, Pozières held a unique place despite having fought in many other battles during World War 1 including those of the Gallipoli campaign.

Pozières had tactical importance to the German defences.  But, not only was the battle the first large-scale operation undertaken by the 1st Division in France, it was also remembered for the sheer scale of the intensity and losses.

In fighting for this ridge around Pozières, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions lost a total of 22,900 men, not including losses by the British 48th and 12 Divisions at other times around the Pozières in the Battle of the Somme.

So important was Pozières in the minds of the 1st Australian Division that it was the site chosen for building their monument to their fallen and wounded troops.

Significantly, on the bronze plaque listing the Division’s official battle honours, first among them is Pozières.  Primus inter pares: first among equals’.

(Information in the story includes extracts from article written by Dr Cornell that appeared in the Inside History publication in 2016).