The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919
Chapter XIV. — The Battle of Bapaume
The Battle of Bapaume.
The opening of the final Allied offensive had taken place on August 8th, when General Rawlinson's Fourth Army (on a fifteen mile front) and the First French Army (on a five mile front) had attacked east of Amiens. By the 13th that advance had penetrated the enemy lines to a depth of twelve miles, and the attacking troops were temporarily held up by the old Somme defences, on the general line Roye-Chaulnes-Bray. The immediate object of the attack, the freeing of the Paris-Amiens railway from enemy artillery fire, had been attained; and the Commander-in-Chief decided to turn the Somme defences from the north [where the Third (British) Army was already partially across them], rather than make a frontal attack east of Amiens.
The following summary of the strategy of the final British offensive is extracted from Sir Douglas Haig's Despatch of December 21st, 1918:—
"The brilliant success of the Amiens attack was the prelude to a great series of battles, in which, throughout three months of continued fighting, the British Armies advanced without a check from one victory to another. The progress of this mighty conflict divides itself into certain stages, which themselves are grouped into two well-defined phases.
"(a) During the first part of the struggle the enemy sought to defend himself in the deep belt of prepared positions and successive trench systems which extended from the springtide of the German advance, about Albert and Villers-Bretonneux to the Hindenburg Line between St. Quentin and the Scarpe. From these positions, scene of the stubborn battles of the two preceding years, the German Armies were forced back step by step by a succession of methodical attacks which culminated in the breaking through of the Hindenburg Line defences.
"(b) Thereafter, during the second period of the struggle our troops were operating in practically open country against page 247an enemy who endeavoured to stand, on such semi-prepared or natural defensive positions as remained to him, for a period long enough to enable him to organise his retreat and avoid over-whelming disaster. The final stages of our operations, therefore, are concerned with the breaking of the enemy's resistance on these lines.
"Throughout this latter period, the violence of our assaults and the rapidity of our advance towards the enemy's vital centres of communication about Maubeuge threatened to cut the main avenue of.escape from the German forces opposite the French and American Armies. The position of the German Armies in Flanders, themselves unable to withstand the attacks of the Allied forces operating under the King of the Belgians, was equally endangered by our progress behind their left flank. To the south and north of the area in which our victorious Armies were driving forward through his weakening defences, the enemy was compelled to execute hasty withdrawals from wide tracts of territory.
"The second phase had already reached its legitimate conclusion when the signing of the Armistice put an end to hostilities. Finally defeated in the great battles of the 1st and 4th November and utterly without reserves, the enemy at that date was falling back without coherent plan in wide-spread disorder and confusion."
Later on in the same despatch, Sir Douglas Haig continues:
"In deciding to extend the attack northwards to the area between the rivers Somme and Scarpe I was influenced by the following considerations.
"The enemy did not seem prepared to meet an attack in this direction, and, owing to the success of the Fourth Army, he occupied a salient the left flank of which was already threatened from the south. A further reason for my decision was that the ground north of the Ancre River was not greatly damaged by shell-fire, and was suitable for the use of tanks. A successful attack between Albert and Arras in a south-easterly direction would turn the line of the Somme south of Peronne, and gave every promise of producing far-reaching results. It would be a step forward towards the strategic objective St. Quentin-Cambrai.page 248
"This attack, moreover, would be rendered easier by the fact that we now held the commanding plateau south of Arras about Bucquoy and Ablainzevelle, which in the days of the old Somme fighting had lain well behind the enemy's lines. In consequence we were here either astride or to the east of the intricate systems of trench lines, which, in 1916, we had no choice but to attack frontally, and enjoyed advantages of observation which at that date had been denied us.
"It was arranged that on the morning of the 21st August a limited attack should be launched north of the Ancre to gain the general line of the Arras-Albert railway, on which it was correctly assumed that the enemy's main line of resistance was sited. The day of the 22nd August would then be used to get troops and guns into position on this front and to bring forward the left of the Fourth Army between the Somme and the Ancre. The principal attack would be delivered on the 23rd August by the Third Army and the Divisions of the Fourth Army north of the Somme, the remainder of the Fourth Army assisting by pushing forward south of the river to cover the flank of the main operation. Thereafter, if success attended our efforts, the whole of both Armies were to press forward with the greatest vigour and exploit to the full any advantage we might have gained."
In the preliminary attacks made on August 21st and 22nd, in order to gain the general line of the Arras-Albert railway, from which the big attack was to be launched, the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade, which was in the front line, took part. It also took part in the main attack on the 23rd; but the remainder of the Division did not go into action till the morning of the 24th. In the meantime, the 2nd Brigade, which was in reserve to the Division, had moved forward at daybreak on the 21st and bivouacked in the neighbourhood of Sailly-au-Bois. The 1st Canterbury Battalion's bivouacs were in the Chateau de la Haie Switch, near the Chateau itself, and the 2nd Battalion's in a small valley, on the north-western outskirts of Sailly. Here the brigade remained till the 23rd, when it moved forward, and bivouacked for the night just to the south of the village of Bucquoy. Orders for next day's operations were received by the brigadier at midnight.page break page 249
The 1st and 2nd Brigades were ordered to make the attack on the New Zealand Division's frontage on the 24th. The 1st Brigade's task was to advance as far as a line from the southern corner of Loupart Wood to a quarry on the Bapaume-Achiet le Grand railway between Grévillers and Biefvillers; and included the capture of Loupart Wood and the village of Grévillers. On the left of the 1st Brigade, the 37th Division was to capture Biefvillers. The 2nd Brigade was to pass through the 1st Brigade and the 37th Division, and capture Bapaume and the high ground to the east of that town. Tanks were to take part in the attack; and as, owing to the distance of the advance, no creeping barrage could be provided for the 2nd Brigade, the majority of the tanks were allotted to this brigade.
The 1st Brigade attacked at 4.30 a.m., and by 8 a.m. the 2nd Brigade headquarters received information that Grévillers had been captured. Biefvillers, however, was still in the enemy's hands, and the 2nd Brigade was ordered to capture the village. By 5.30 a.m. the battalions had arrived at their assembly areas, the 1st Canterbury Battalion (on the right) and the 2nd Canterbury Battalion (on the left) astride the Grévillers-Achiet le Petit road, south-east of the Albert-Arras railway, the 2nd Otago Battalion between the railway and Achiet IE Petit, and the 1st Otago Battalion to the north-west of that village. In the 2nd Brigade's attack, the 2nd Otago Battalion replaced the 1st Canterbury Battalion, which remained in its assembly area all day.
The country which now lay in front of the New Zealand Division was part of the area which lay between the British front line of 1916 and the famous Hindenburg Line, to which the Germans had withdrawn in 1917. There had been no heavy fighting on this ground at any time, and consequently it was very little cut up by shell-fire. Before the German offensive of 1918, this part of the country had been used as a British rest and training area: hutted camps abounded, but the villages had been destroyed by the enemy on his retirement in 1917. For many miles in front of the Division the country was open and gently rolling, with small woods here and there.
At 8.30 am. the 2nd Otago and 2nd Canterbury Battalions moved forward in lines of sections in file behind a screen of light page 250and heavy tanks. The order of battle of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, from right to left, was 12th, 13th, and 1st Companies, with the 2nd Company in reserve. The first opposition was encountered on the high ground between Grévillers and Biefvillers, where the enemy put down a very heavy artillery barrage, and the advancing troops came under heavy machine-gun fire from the Bapaume-Albert road, from Avesnes, and from Biefvillers and the high ground east of that village. The 1st Company was not able to enter Biefvillers, and attempted to work round it from the south, but was held up by machine-gun fire from the trenches east of the village. One platoon, however, succeeded in establishing itself in a trench to the north-east of Biefvillers. The 13th Company had worked further forward almost into Avesnes, while the 12th Company was mixed up with the 2nd Otago Battalion, halfway between Avesnes and Grévillers.
The enemy still held Sapignies (to the north) and the high ground between that village and Biefvillers, and were in the sunken road north-east of the latter village. The 2nd Company was therefore ordered to take up a position north-west of the village, to protect the left flank. By noon this company had driven the enemy from the sunken road and a trench to the north-east of it. The German machine-gunners in Biefvillers were now almost cut off, but succeeded in escaping down the trenches to the north-east of the village.
At 2.30 p.m. parties of the enemy were seen assembling in the valley between Biefvillers and the Bapaume-Arras road, but their attempt to work forward was stopped by Lewis-gun and rifle fire, and by the help of the artillery. Further enemy concentration at Sapignies was reported by aeroplane at 4.30 p.m., but prompt artillery action prevented a counter-attack being delivered from there. During the afternoon the 13th Company was withdrawn from the posts it had established near Avesnes: this step was taken because the posts formed a dangerous salient in our line, and their garrisons were exposed to deadly enfilade rifle and machine-gun fire from close range. The new line ran east of Grévillers and Biefvillers, with the 12th Company south of the Bapaume-Achiet le Grand railway, the 13th Company between the railway and Biefvillers, and the 1st Company east of that village. The 2nd Company remained in its previous position on the left flank.page 251
The advance of the 2nd Brigade was now to be continued by the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago Battaiions. The former left its bivouac area, near the Albert-Arras railway, at 2 a.m. on August 25th, and was assembled in front of Grévillers and Biefvillers by 4.30 a.m. The order of the battle, from right to left, was 1st, 12th, and 13th Companies, with the 2nd Company in reserve. The advance began at 5 a.m., and was helped by sixteen tanks and a creeping barrage. The enemy resisted stubbornly but a heavy ground mist hid the attackers' movements, and the cover it gave them more than counter-balanced the difficulty it caused them in recognising the lie of the country. The battalion had taken all its objectives by 7 a.m., and had established a line of posts from a point on the Bapaume-Arras road, two hundred yards south of its intersection of the Bapaume-Achiet le Grand railway, to the cemetery on the Bapaume-Arras road.
The 1st Otago Battalion, on the left, had been held up by machine-gun fire after crossing the last-named road, and could not reach its objectives—the south-eastern edge of Monument Wood and the northern edge of the wood lying to the north of Monument Wood. This battalion requested to be allowed to make a further attempt on these objectives and on the enemy trenches south-east of Favreuil. The 2nd Canterbury Battalion was ordered to move up behind the 1st Otago Battalion, and to exploit any success gained by the latter.
The 1st Otago Battalion attacked under a barrage at 6.30 p.m. (August 25th) and gained its objectives. The 1st, 12th, and 13th Companies of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion pushed forward by means of fighting patrols, and gained possession of the high ground to the west of the Bapaume-Beugnâtre road, with some forward posts east of the road. The 2nd Company was employed to protect the right flank of the two attacking battalions, and formed a defensive line facing St. Aubin, and the large dump of timber north of it, both of which were held by the enemy in some force. This company was in touch with the 1st Canterbury Battalion at the cemetery mentioned above.
The 2nd Battalion remained in these positions till the after-noon of the following day. Meanwhile, at dawn on the 26th, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had passed through the 2nd Brigade, and had crossed the Bapaume-Beugnâtre road, but had made little page 252progress in front of St. Aubin and beyond Avesnes. That after-noon the 2nd Canterbury Battalion was sent back into bivouacs in and round Biefvillers, where it was engaged on digging trenches for the defence of the village. The 1st Battalion remained in the line till the following night (27th/28th) when it was relieved by the 2nd Wellington Battalion and moved back to trenches south of Bihucourt.
The General Officer commanding the Division had decided to capture Bapaume by enveloping movements from both flanks, but the town was evacuated by the enemy on the night of the 28th/29th. Bancourt, a mile and a half east of Bapaume, fell to the 1st Brigade on the 30th, and on the left of the 1st Brigade the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade was even further to the east. A heavy enemy counter-attack against the whole Divisional front was made at dawn on the following morning; but though it was assisted by tanks it failed at every point, and two tanks were abandoned by the enemy in front of our positions.
In the Despatch already quoted, Sir Douglas Haig states that September 1st marked the close of the second stage of the British offensive, during which the Third and Fourth Armies had driven thirty-five German Divisions from one side of the old Somme battlefield to the other. The disorganisation caused by the British attacks of August 8th and 21st, increasing as the advance was pressed, had resulted in a steady deterioration in the morale of the enemy's troops.
Meanwhile, the battle area had extended further to the north, where the Canadian Corps, the right flank Corps of the First Army, had on August 26th attacked the German positions east of Arras and astride the Scarpe River. Following up the success of this attack, the same Corps, with the XVII Corps (Third Army) co-operating on its right, on September 2nd broke the Drocourt-Queant Line, and captured the Hindenburg Line at the point of junction of those two lines.
Sir Douglas Haig goes on:—
"The result of the Battles of Amiens, Bapaume, and the Scarpe now declared itself.
"During the night of the 2nd/3rd September the enemy fell back rapidly on the whole front of the Third Army and the right of the First Army. By the end of the day he had taken up page 253positions along the general line of the Canal du Nord from Peronne to Ytres, and thence east of Hermies, Inchy-en-Artois, and Ecourt-St. Quentin to the Sensée east of Lécluse. On the following day he commenced to withdraw also from the east bank of the Somme south of Peronne, and by the night of the 8th September was holding the general line Vermand-Epéhy-Havrin-court, and thence along the east bank of the Canal du Nord.
"The withdrawal was continued on the front of the French forces on our right. On the 6th September French troops occupied Ham and Chauny and by the 8th September had reached the line of the Crozat Canal.
"Throughout this hasty retreat our troops followed up the enemy closely. Many of his rear-guards were cut off and taken prisoner; on numerous occasions our forward guns did great execution among his retiring columns, while our airmen took full advantage of the remarkable targets offered them. Great quantities of material and many guns fell into our hands."
Between September 1st and the night of September 2nd/3rd, however, the New Zealand Division did not relax its efforts to drive the enemy from the defensive positions which he had taken up. On September 1st, the 1st and 3rd Brigades continued the advance to east of Bancourt and of Fremicourt. The 2nd Brigade took over the whole Divisional front the same night, with the 2nd Otago Battalion on the right, and the 1st Canterbury Battalion on the left in and in front of Fremicourt. The 2nd Battalion bivouacked west of the same village, on each side of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. On the left, an attack was made at 5.15 a.m. on September 2nd by the 12th Company of the 1st Canterbury Battalion, and after hard fighting all day its left platoons reached almost to the junction of the Fremicourt-Lebucquiere and Beugny-Haplincourt roads.
Further south it made little progress, owing to the sunken roads running from Fremicourt to Haplincourt being strongly held by enemy machine-gunners. At 6 p.m., however, a fresh barrage was put down, and with the assistance of a platoon of the 13th Company the enemy positions were taken, with one hundred and fifty prisoners, twenty machine-guns, and a derelict tank.
On the right, the 2nd Otago Battalion had been held up, chiefly owing to the 42nd Division being held up further to the page 254right. By the evening this battalion had reached the Villers au Flos-Haplincourt road, and further north was near the eastern outskirts of Haplincourt; and the 1st Canterbury Battalion was an average distance of three hundred yards west of the Beugny-Haplincourt road.
Early next morning (September 3rd) it became evident from the smoke arising from the villages in the enemy's territory that he was making a further withdrawal. The battalions in the line pushed forward, the 1st and 13th Companies leading the advance of the 1st Canterbury Battalion. By 9.30 a.m. patrols had passed through Vélu Wood, and had reached Bertincourt, after encountering very slight opposition. The battalion, under orders from brigade, halted at and garrisoned an existing line of partially dug trenches, just to the east of the Bapaume-Peronne railway; and the 2nd Company was sent through to establish posts between the railway and the Canal du Nord, which here ran through a tunnel under Ruyaulcourt. The latter village was found to be held by the enemy, but he was apparently not in great strength there.
At nightfall the 1st Battalion was holding the general line of the railway, and was in touch with the 2nd Otago Battalion on the right and the 5th Division on the left; and the 1st Otago and 2nd Canterbury Battalions were ordered to advance through their sister battalions at 7 a.m. on the 4th, with final objectives on the eastern edge of Havrincourt Wood.
To the east of the wood there was a maze of trenches, consisting not only of the famous Hindenburg Line, but also of the British trenches opposite that line before the Battle of Cambrai of 1917. During that battle the British forces had entered the Hindenburg system, and had retained part of it, east of Havrincourt Wood, right up to the retreat of March, 1918. The British defences established after the Battle of Cambrai had again added to the complexity of the system of trenches in this locality. It was therefore certain that the enemy would make a stand on the high ground east of the wood, which might be termed the outpost position of the Hindenburg Line.
The 2nd Canterbury Battalion had remained in its bivouacs near Fremicourt during September 2nd, and on the 3rd had moved up to a system of trenches running north from the Haplincourt-Bertincourt road, midway between those villages. By page 2557 a.m. on the 4th the battalion had assembled on the railway east of Bertincourt, and the advance was then continued by the 1st Company on the right and the 2nd Company on the left, with the 13th Company in support and the 12th Company in reserve. As the first sections left the railway line they came under artillery fire from field guns, and shortly afterwards came under machine-gun fire from Ruyaulcourt and the high ground to the north and east of the village. The garrisons of some of the enemy posts were captured, but the majority did not wait for our troops.
The advance was continued down into the valley between the village and Havrincourt Wood, and several parties of the enemy were seen coming from the direction of the wood, with the apparent intention of surrendering. Unfortunately our barrage, which had been arranged to deal with the garrisons of the trenches east of Ruyaulcourt, but which had not come down at the proper time, now came down; and our troops were forced to take shelter in the trenches. The enemy took advantage of this respite to garrison the trenches on his side of the valley, a thousand yards west of the wood.
The battalion was held up on the western side of the valley, but late in the afternoon a flanking party of the 2nd Company worked round from the left, and the trenches were rushed. The enemy still held the edge of the wood, and had posts on the right of the 2nd Company; but on the left this company was in touch with the 37th Division. Early in the day battalion headquarters was established at the rear of Ruyaulcourt, and had to move several times, owing to heavy shelling.
Meanwhile, the 1st Otago Battalion had not been able to get forward further than north of Neuville-Bourjonval, owing to heavy machine-gun fire; and the 1st Company of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion was similarly prevented from getting forward further than the trenches east of Ruyaulcourt. The latter battalion dug in for the night, and a hot meal was brought up from the cookers, which were in the neighbourhood of Bertincourt.*
* There is no doubt that, during the whole of the existence of the New Zealand Division, its high state of efficiency owed much to the skill and courage of its cooks. Contrary to the practice in the majority of other Divisions, the New Zealand cooks were always with their companies in the line and shared their hardships and dangers. Napoleon's famous maxim, "An army marches on its stomach," still holds good; and the good effect of hot food on the morale and powers of endurance of troops cannot be easily over-estimated. In particular, the work of the cooks during the open warfare at the end of 1918 calls for special mention. Frequently the travelling cookers were nearer to the enemy than the forward guns of the field artillery; and it was no rare experience for the cooks to prepare meals under shell-fire. Yet never did they fail their comrades in the line.
At 5.30 p.m. on the 5th, with the help of a barrage, the 1st, Company advanced to the Hermies-Neuville Bourjonval road, on which the 2nd Company was already established. The advance was made in co-operation with the 1st Otago Battalion on the right. During the night the 2nd Canterbury Battalion "side-slipped" to the right, taking over the line as far as a point due west of the southern edge of Havrincourt Wood, and handing over to the 8th Battalion of the Somerset Regiment the left portion of its line, as far south as a point due east of the northern end of Ruyaulcourt. At the same time an inter-company relief took place, the 12th Company on the right and the 13th Company on the left taking over the front line, with the 2nd Company in support to the east of Ruyaulcourt, and the 1st Company in reserve south of that village.
Heavy shelling during the night of September 5th/6th, followed by a very quiet morning, indicated that the enemy was making a further withdrawal. At mid-day, patrols from the leading companies of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion were pushed forward to Havrincourt Wood, and reported the enemy was still in the western edge, but that parties were moving back, wearing full packs. By 5 p.m. the western edge of the wood had been made good, and patrols were well in advance. The wood here consisted of very large trees, with thick undergrowth, and great caution had to be exercised by the patrols for fear of ambushes. By 7 p.m., however, the battalion was well into the wood and, in close liaison with the units on its flanks, was working forward. At 10 p.m. the leading companies were in touch with the enemy, whose machine-gunners held a line of trenches inside the eastern edge of the wood and west of the Trescault-Metz road.
Sergt. R. H. Halligan, D.C.M.
Sergt. A. E. De Boo, D.C.M.
Sergt. B. R. Turner, D.C.M.
Sergt. N. B. Thompson, D.C.M.
At daylight on September 7th the 12th Company and the accompanying two platoons of the 13th Company occupied the trenches on the eastern edge of the wood, from which the enemy had withdrawn just before dawn. Shortly afterwards the missing portion of the 13th Company reported to battalion headquarters, but as the troops were very tired no further advance was attempted till noon.
Battalion headquarters was established in a dug-out in the wood. The majority of the dug-outs were mined, and "booby-traps" were everywhere; but no casualties were suffered by reason of any of these devices.
Fighting patrols were pushed forward at noon by the 12th and 13th Companies, and the portion of the wood west of the Trescault-Metz road was secured. During the day the eastern edge of the wood was heavily shelled by big guns, and casualties were numerous. The battalion was relieved by the 4th Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade that night, the relief being complete by 12.30 a.m. on the 8th. The battalion moved back to bivouacs, a few hundred yards from its bivouacs of the night of the 3rd/4th, between Haplincourt and Bertincourt. There was little accommodation, and most of the men slept in the open.
To return to the 1st Canterbury Battalion: this unit had remained in its position in front of Bertincourt during the whole of September 4th and the morning of the 5th. The Corps Commander had now been ordered to re-distribute his Divisions, so as to enable them in turn to rest and prepare for the hard work that was anticipated east of Havrincourt Wood; and accordingly the 42nd Division was withdrawn from the front line. The bulk of that Division's frontage was to be taken over by the 1st Canterbury Battalion, and during the afternoon of the 5th the company commanders reconnoitred the new sector. The actual positions could not be inspected, as they were to be captured by the 7th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers at 5.30 p.m. that day.
The relief was commenced at dusk and completed by 3.30 a.m.: the positions taken over were east of Ytres and south-west of Neuville-Bourjonval, and had a frontage of a thousand yards. page 258The front line was held by the 1st Company on the right and the 2nd Company on the left, with the 13th Company in support and the 12th Company in reserve, and battalion headquarters in Ytres.
At 9 a.m. on September 6th the front line companies, finding no enemy in front of them, moved forward with little opposition, and by nightfall were established in existing trenches on the spur south-east of Metz. The support company (the 13th) was on the Metz-Fins road and in trenches east of that road, and the reserve company (the 12th) was in trenches fifteen hundred yards further to the west. The advance had been rapid, and the 17th Division, on the right, had not kept up with the battalion; the support and reserve companies bad therefore to take up positions to defend the flank of the brigade. Battalion headquarters was established in a brick-yard, five hundred yardas east of Ytres.
Patrols sent out during the night failed to get touch with the enemy, but on the morning of the 7th they reached Gouzeau-court Wood, and reported that the southern part of the wood was strongly held. Battalion headquarters was now advanced to the Metz-Equancourt road. In the afternoon the wood was shelled by our artillery, and towards evening the posts of the right company had been moved up to the high ground, close to the western edge of the wood, and patrols had gone through the wood. At 7p.m. the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade arrived to take over the line, and the relief was complete by 10.20 p.m. On relief, the battalion bivouacked in and around the village of Ytres.
|1st Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||4*||73|
* Captain F. N. Johns, M.C. (Medical officer: killed 25th August), 2nd Lieutenant J. J. L. Pearce (died of wounds 25th August), 2nd Lieutenant A. J. Arnold (died of wounds 27th August), Lieutenant A. T. E. Burnard (killed 2nd September).
|2nd Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||4*||78|
Total for both battalions: 8 officers and 151 other ranks killed, and 17 officers and 429 other ranks wounded.