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The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919

Chapter XVI. — The Second Battle of Le Cateau — and the Battle of the Selle

page 269

Chapter XVI.
The Second Battle of Le Cateau
and the Battle of the Selle.

The New Zealand Division was now held up by the rearmost trench of the last strong defensive line in the German back area, and beyond this trench lay open country, with only natural obstacles to assist the enemy.

As Sir Douglas Haig puts it, in the Despatch quoted above:—

"The second and concluding phase of the British offensive now opened, in which the Fourth and Third Armies and the right of the First Army moved forward with their left flank on the canal line which runs from Cambrai to Mons and their right covered by the French First Army. This advance, by the capture of Maubeuge and the disruption of the German main lateral Systems of communications, forced the enemy to fall back upon the line of the Meuse and realised the strategic plan of the Allied operations.

"The fighting which took place during this period, being in effect the development and exploitation of the Hindenburg Line victory, falls into three stages, the breaks between the different battles being due chiefly to the depth of our advances and the difficulties of re-establishing communications.

"In the first of these stages, the battle of Le Cateau. certain incomplete defences still held by the enemy were captured, and his troops compelled to evacuate Cambrai and fall back behind the line of the Selle River. In the second stage, the Selle River was forced, and by a development of this operation our front pushed forward to the general line Sambre Canal-west edge of the Mormal Forest-Valenciennes, where we were in position for the final assault upon Maubeuge."

The positions reached by the New Zealand Division on October 5th were maintained during the whole of the 6th, when the artillery made an unsuccessful attempt to cut the wire in front of the enemy's trenches. Arrangements were made for the wire to be cut the following day by medium trench mortars.

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The Division "side-slipped" to the north again on the 6th, the 2nd Canterbury Battalion's line continuing due north of the front line previously held by the battalion, with the right flank resting on the road from Rues des Vignes to Bel Aise Farm. The left flank platoon of the battalion was in the Masnières line itself, opposite the factory west of Lesdain. This frontage was held by two companies, the 13th on the right and the 1st on the left, each with two platoons in the front line, one platoon in support, and one in reserve. The 12th Company went into reserve on the east bank of the canal, and the 2nd Company remained where it was, but became the support company.

The Third Army was to resume the advance on October 8th. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades were to be the assaulting troops of the New Zealand Division; and the 1st Otago Battalion was ordered to take over the southern half of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion's frontage. As the latter battalion's first objective was now not much wider than five hundred yards, the Commanding Officer decided to use only the 1st Company (with two platoons in the front line) and half of the 13th Company (with one platoon in the front line) to take this objective; the remaining platoons of the 13th Company being retained intact in reserve. The 2nd and 12th Companies remained in support and reserve respectively. Battalion headquarters remained west of the canal till the evening of the 7th, when it moved to a sunken road north of Cheneaux Copse.

The wire in front of the Masnières line was successfully cut by the medium trench mortars on the afternoon of October 7th. This no doubt warned the enemy of the impending attack, as he shelled the assembly areas heavily during the night, and caused numerous casualties. The attack was made at 4.30 a.m. on the 8th, but despite a severe artillery barrage at zero hour, and heavy machine-gun fire from Bel-Aise Farm on the right flank, the attacking troops reached the Masnières line on the right and the factory on the left, in good order. Here they met with considerable resistance, particularly from machine-guns which had been over-run by the first waves.

The first objective, a sunken road running south from the eastern edge of Lesdain, was reached at 6.30 a.m.; but here the resistance was much less vigorous, in spite of the fact that the page 271garrison captured numbered about three hundred. The 2nd Company then passed through, with two platoons covering the whole battalion frontage, and took the sunken road north of Pélu Wood. The remaining platoon of this company at once "leap-frogged" over the leading platoons, and captured the line of trenches west of Le Grand Pont. The 12th Company. coming up close behind, immediately went through the 2nd Company, cleared Le Grand Pont village (which was still being shelled by British "heavies") and Leauette Farm, and passed to the north of the village of Esnes, where touch was gained with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade on the left at about 8 a.m.

The 12th Company was now on the final objective for the capture of which artillery support was available, though the plans for the attack included a further advance without a barrage later in the morning. The final objective of the 1st Otago Battalion, on the right, ran due south from Le Grand Pont; so that it was necessary for the 12th Company to establish a line facing Esnes, which was still occupied by the enemy. In the meantime, battalion headquarters had been moving up, and by 8 a.m. was established in a dug-out south of Lesdain.

At 9.30 a.m. the 1st Otago Battalion advanced again behind a barrage, and captured the village of Esnes. The 12th Company came under this barrage, but fortunately did not suffer many casualties; and on the 1st Otago Battalion coming up, the 12th Company joined up with it on the west of Esnes. This company pushed on again with the Otago Battalion, and by nightfall had established a line with its right resting due north of the eastern end of Esnes and on the ravine down which flows the stream called the "Torrent of Esnes," and with its left at the cemetery six hundred yards north of the village. To the west of the cemetery the company was in touch with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. At the conclusion of the advance the company took possession of three field-guns which had been abandoned by the enemy.

In the course of the afternoon the enemy assembled for a counter-attack in the ravine referred to above, north-east of Esnes; but the Division by then had five brigades of artillery east of the Escaut Canal, and the attack was broken up by artillery page 272fire before it could be launched. Another attempt at a counterattack was repelled by a 12th Company patrol. Shortly after noon, battalion headquarters moved to a position south of Le Grand Pont, and by 4 p.m. the travelling kitchens were south of Lesdain, preparing the evening meal.

The 1st Canterbury Battalion was reserve battalion of the brigade during the first day's attack, and had moved early in the morning to trenches east of the Bonavis-Masnières road. At 4 p.m. it moved again, to the Masnières line, and the Commanding Officer and company commanders went forward to reconnoitre the 2nd Battalion's positions, preparatory to the advance planned for the next day. At midnight the 1st Battalion moved to its assembly positions; the attacking companies, the 2nd on the right and the 13th on the left, being on the Selvigny-Longsart road, north-west of Haucourt, and the 12th (in support) and the 1st (in reserve) north-west of Esnes.

The advance was continued on October 9th at 5.30 a.m. under a barrage. The 3rd Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had been temporarily attached to the 2nd Brigade and advanced on the 3rd Brigade's former frontage; and on the right of the 1st Canterbury Battalion the 2nd Otago Battalion covered the southern half of the 2nd Brigade's frontage. No opposition was encountered at first, and it soon became clear that the enemy had retired during the night. The barrage therefore became rather a hindrance than a help, especially as there were many complaints of short shooting, and as the barrage halted for half an hour a mile short of the first objective—the Ligny-Wambaix road.

The direction of the attack had become slightly more north-ward, and the villages of Fontaine-au-Pire and Beauvois-en-Cambresis were in the direct line of the battalion's advance. The artillery barrage covered the advance only as far as the Cambrai-Caudry railway, which was reached at 9 a.m. without opposition, and without casualties beyond those caused by our own shells. When the barrage died away, two troops of the 3rd Hussars crossed the railway and endeavoured to capture Fontaine, but were driven back by machine-gun fire. During the afternoon, patrols made good the road which ran half a mile beyond and parallel to the railway; but heavy machine-gun fire prevented any further advance till after 4 p.m.

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L/Corpl. M. H. Coppell, D.C.M.

L/Corpl. M. H. Coppell, D.C.M.

Pte. F. White, D.C.M.

Pte. F. White, D.C.M.

Pte. A. J. Findlay, D.C.M

Pte. A. J. Findlay, D.C.M

Pte. D. P. Lloyd, D.C.M.

Pte. D. P. Lloyd, D.C.M.

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The 1st and 12th Companies then moved up to the road, and a patrol of the 1st Company succeeded in entering Fontaine and reaching the Caudry-Cattenières road. On the left, however, the 12th Company patrols, attempting to pass to the west of Fontaine, were held up by machine-gun fire from the large factory on the western edge of Beauvois. It was unfortunate that the forward section of artillery was at this juncture out of touch with the battalion, as its aid would probably have enabled the infantry to advance.

The main outpost line was now in touch on both flanks; but the 1st Company's advanced patrol in Fontaine was "in the air" altogether, and returned to the road during the night to avoid being cut off. The 2nd Brigade was still performing the rôle of the advanced guard of the Division, and on the night of October 9th/10th the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade ceased to be attached to the 2nd Brigade. The 1st Canterbury Battalion, during the night, "side-slipped" to the left, relieved the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, and gained touch with the Guards Division; and the 2nd Otago Battalion took over a portion, on the right, of the 1st Canterbury Battalion's line. Forward battalion headquarters moved up close to the railway.

Next morning (October 10th) the enemy was found to have made a further withdrawal, and the 2nd and 13th Companies continued the advance from the Cambrai-Le Cateau road, meeting little opposition till they reached Herpigny Farm, which the 2nd Company took shortly after 10 a.m. The 13th Company met with resistance from Aulicourt Farm and the road east of it, but captured the farm. Battalion headquarters moved to a house in Beauvois, on the Cambrai-Le Cateau road.

The 1st Battalion had now made good the road between Herpigny and Aulicourt Farms, and from this line the Brigadier had ordered the 2nd Battalion to lead the advance. This battalion had been close on the heels of the 1st Battalion, and had spent the night of the 9th/10th in the ravine south of Longsart. On the morning of the 10th the Commanding Officer rode to Beauvois to get in touch with the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion. The battalion followed, and was assembled in the valley a quarter of a mile north-east of Beauvois by 1 p.m.

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The Guards Division, on the left, had been held up west and south-west of Quievy. The Commanding Officer accordingly decided to advance on a two-company frontage, with the 1st Company on the right and the 13th Company on the left, and made the 2nd Company, in support, especially responsible for the protection of the left flank. The 12th Company was kept in reserve. On the right the 1st Otago Battalion had two hours earlier passed through the 2nd Battalion of the same regiment, and was well forward.

The front line and support companies of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion moved forward at 2 p.m. (10th October), directly information came through that the 1st Canterbury Battalion was on its final objective. The 2nd Battalion crossed the Caudry-Quievy railway and advanced towards Viesly; and was on the approaches of the village by 5.30 p.m. No resistance had been met with, but the enemy was in strength in Fontaine-au-Tertre Farm, two thousand yards north of Viesly. On this account, and as the Guards were still well behind, the battalion could not catch up with the advance of the 1st Otago Battalion, which, with its earlier start, had passed through Viesly and by 9.30 p.m. was only five hundred yards west of Briastre.

The high ground north of Viesly was occupied, however, by the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, and touch had been obtained with the left of the 1st Otago Battalion, when the 2nd Brigade was relieved by the 1st Brigade at 10 p.m. The 2nd Brigade marched back to comfortable and commodious billets in Beauvois. Here the brigade remained till the 22nd, engaged in refitting and training, but having plenty of rest and recreation. Vegetables were plentiful, and were highly appreciated after the scant supply of the past three or four months.

Since going into action on September 29th the Regiment's casualties had been:—
1st Battalion.Officers.Other Ranks.
Killed in Action and Died of Wounds48
Wounded6111
      Total6159
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2nd Battalion.Officers.Other Ranks.
Killed in Action and Died of Wounds4*38
Wounded4121
     Total8159

Total for both battalions: 4 officers and 86 other ranks killed, and 10 officers and 232 other ranks wounded.

The enemy made a stand on the high ground east of the River Selle, so that, in comparison with the extent of the advance of October 8th, 9th, and 10th, little progress was made by the 1st Brigade before it was relieved by the 42nd Division on the night of October 12th/13th. In spite of determined resistance, however, the 1st Brigade crossed the river on the 11th; and the following day crossed the Solesmes-Le Cateau railway. After this brigade had been relieved, there was no further advance till the 20th, when the Third Army crossed the Selle and gained the high ground two thousand yards east of the railway; and further north penetrated the enemy defences to a point a mile east of Solesmes. The village of Romeries, to the north-east of Solesmes, still remained in the enemy's hands.

These operations of October 20th were carried out with the object of obtaining suitable starting points for an attack on a large scale on the 23rd, to be made by the Third and Fourth Armies on a fifteen-mile front from Mazinghien, south-east of Le Cateau, to Maison Bleu just south of the Cambrai-Bavai road. The following day two Corps of the First Army extended the attack for another five miles on the left, to the Scheldt River, south of Valenciennes.

The leading troops of the New Zealand Division in the attack of the 23rd were those of the 2nd Brigade. The brigade accordingly left its billets at Beauvois on the afternoon of October 22nd to march to its concentration area. There were few roads in the district, and they were crammed with traffic; so that the march page 276was very slow and tedious. The 1st Canterbury Battalion (under Major A. D. Stitt, in the absence of Lieutenant-Colonel Row on leave) was settled in its area, midway between Solesmes and Belle Vue, by 7 p.m., with two companies on the railway, battalion headquarters a hundred yards behind, and the remaining companies in a quarry east of the railway. The 2nd Battalion (under Major N. R. Wilson, in the absence of Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart on duty in England) reached its concentration area, immediately to the south of Solesmes, at 5.30 p.m. All the companies bivouacked for the night in the railway triangle south of the town, with battalion headquarters in a house on the northern side of the triangle.

Orders were received early in the evening that at 3.20 a.m. the following day the 42nd Division, with the 5th Division on its right and the 3rd Division on its left, would attack Romeries and the ridge west of Beaurain. An hour later, the 42nd and 5th Divisions would capture Beaurain, and straighten out the line between that village and Romeries. The 37th and New Zealand Divisions were ordered to pass through the 5th and 42nd Divisions respectively at 8.40 a.m.; and at the same time the 3rd Division was to continue its advance on the left.

The advance of the 2nd Brigade was made with the 1st Otago Battalion on the right and the 2nd Canterbury Battalion on the left, with the remaining battalions in support to their sister battalions. The 2nd Canterbury Battalion left its concentration area at dawn, and moved to a ploughed field south of the Solesmes-Vertigneul road. There it remained till 7.15 a.m., when a smoke barrage was brought down to cover the advance of the 2nd Brigade to its starting point for the attack. Meanwhile, the 42nd and flanking Divisions had taken their objectives; and directly the smoke barrage came down the 2nd Brigade moved up to the 42nd Division's front line.

The attacking companies of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion (from right to left) were the 2nd and 12th Companies, with the 13th Company in support and the 1st Company in reserve. Practically no resistance was met in the first stage of the attack, and before 10 a.m. the leading troops had captured the first objective, the Escarmain-Vendegies au Bois road. Here a halt was made while the 1st Canterbury Battalion assembled on the page 277Vertain-Neuville road, and at 12.12 p.m. passed through the 2nd Battalion and continued the advance, with the 2nd Otago Battalion on its right and the 3rd Division on its left. The front line companies of the battalion were the 1st Company (right) and 2nd Company (left), the 12th and 13th Companies being respectively in support and reserve.

Half a mile beyond the starting point the attacking troops passed over the top of the spur which runs from Neuville down to Escarmain, and came under heavy artillery fire. This continued as they advanced down the slope to the St. Georges river; and they also came under machine-gun and rifle fire from the high ground on the north-east of the stream.

Our barrage here was rather a disadvantage to the attackers, as it prevented them from crossing quickly the zone of the enemy's fire. But after our barrage had died away the leading companies pushed on, and captured prisoners, machine-guns, and artillery at the river. The bridge at Pont-à-Pierres had been destroyed by the enemy; but the river was small and presented no formidable obstacle. Little resistance was encountered beyond the river, and the battalion's objectives, on the high ground a thousand yards to the north-east of the river, were taken without difficulty at about 2.30 p.m.

The front line of the battalion was now out of touch on both flanks, and the leading companies therefore consolidated the ground already gained. Battalion headquarters was established on the Beaudignies road, close to Pont-à-Pierres. Patrols were pushed forward by the leading companies, and reached the southern edge of Beaudignies without meeting any of the enemy. The Commanding Officer therefore decided to occupy Beaudignies, to prevent the demolition of the bridges of the River Ecaillon, which flows through the village. The 12th Company was detailed for the operation, and one platoon of the 13th Company was attached to it. These troops moved forward at 5 p.m. from their position near Pont-à-Pierres, the 12th Company working round the south-east side of the village, while the platoon of the 13th Company made its way down the main street.

Though no opposition was met, the greatest caution was necessary, so that it was 9 p.m. before the bridges were safe in our hands. A quarter of an hour later a party of the enemy page 278attacked the 13th Company patrol at the northern bridge-head, but was repulsed. The village was now under heavy machine-gun fire from the high ground east of Le Quesnoy, but later in the evening our patrols worked up the Le Quesnoy road and drove the enemy from his positions. During the fight for the bridge-heads Sergeant J. H. Nicholas, V.C., M.M., was killed.

In the meantime, the 2nd Battalion had concentrated in the neighbourhood of Pout-à-Pierres, and at 9.30 p.m. received orders from the Brigadier that two companies were to establish a line on the Ruesnes-Ghissignies road, north-east of Beaudignies. An hour later the 1st Company (on the right) and the 13th Company (on the left) moved forward. A request had been made for a barrage to be put down on the objectives, and the attacking troops had been instructed to wait for the barrage. The arrangements fell through, and the messages sent to the companies, informing them of this change of plan, did not reach them till 12.30 a.m. By this time the enemy had come back to the objectives; but the attack was pushed home at 1 a.m. and the enemy driven out.

The advanced troops were now in touch with the 1st Otago Battalion on their right, but the Division on the left was not up, and a further advance was thought inadvisable. Patrols sent out by the support company (the 12th) discovered enemy posts to the west of Beaudignies, and a defensive flank facing that direction was formed by this company. Further north the 12th Company of the 1st Battalion had been left to protect the left flank of the front line companies. Headquarters of the 2nd Battalion had meanwhile moved from the farm-house at Pont-à-Pierres to a farm-house a quarter of a mile south of Beaudignies; but the 2nd Company remained at Pont-à-Pierres till next day, when it moved close to battalion headquarters.

At 4 a.m. on October 24th the 3rd Division advanced on the left under a barrage. This barrage came down also on the rear of the sunken road occupied by the 2nd Battalion's front-line companies, and compelled the garrison to fall back to cover. On the barrage moving forward the line was re-established; and by 9 a.m. the left was advanced to the high ground six hundred yards north-east of the road. Throughout the day the line crept gradually forward; until at nightfall it ran parallel to, and page 279twelve hundred yards in advance of, the Ruesnes-Ghissignies road. At 6.45 in the morning advanced battalion headquarters had been established in the north of the village.

The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade relieved the 2nd Brigade before midnight on the 24th, and the 1st Canterbury Battalion moved back into billets at Vertigneul. The 2nd Battalion went back to Le Mesnil and Pont-à-Pierres Farms, battalion headquarters being in the latter. On the afternoon of October 27th, however, the enemy began to shell the bridge and farm buildings at Pont-à-Pierres, with blue-cross gas-shells. No casualties were caused, but it was thought advisable to abandon the farm; and battalion headquarters was moved to near Le Mesnil Farm, while the 2nd Company bivouacked in the open between the two farms. Next day the battalion was ordered back to Romeries, where it was accommodated in tents and a chair factory.

* Major D. A. Dron (killed 8th October), Lieutenant G. B. L. Porter (killed 8th October), 2nd Lieutenant D. M. Moriarty (killed 8th October), 2nd Lieutenant E. A. Price (died of wounds 10th October).