The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter XIV. — The Second Battle of Le Cateau
The Second Battle of Le Cateau
With the shattering of the Hindenburg Line and the corresponding movements southwards, it remained now only to develop and exploit these successes by co-ordinated movements on the part of the Americans French and British, with a view to realising Foch's strategical conception and thrusting the Germans back with deadly losses on the Meuse. Already in the first week of October at the southern end of the line the American and French advance had crossed the Aisne and threatened to turn Laon and the St. Gobain massif. If this right flank in the difficult country about the Meuse highlands could maintain sufficiently rapid progress, a trap was set for the German Army in which its retreat might be expected to degenerate into a rout. In any case, strong pressure applied without delay must shake the crumbling German Army to its foundations. The season, moreover, was now advanced. Some weeks still remained available before winter weather and shortened daylight would impede operations, but already at midnight, 5th/6th October, the approach of winter was heralded by the putting back of the clock an hour in the change from summer to normal time. For these reasons speed was more than ever essential. The combined attack was therefore fixed for 8th October. As it turned out, the Allies' full purpose was not to be immediately realised. The difficulties facing the southern horn of the pincers proved sufficient to retard its advance, and the German forces were saved for the moment from annihilating disaster. But the result was to make the enemy's position desperate. To the British attack carried out as part of these operations by the Fourth and Third Armies on a front of 17 miles, Haig has given the name of the Second Battle of Le Cateau.1
1 As distinguished from the action near Le Cateau by the II. Corps, August 1914.
The New Zealand task was allotted to the 2nd Brigade on the right and the 3rd Brigade on the left, who were already in position in the 2 subsectors of the Division's line. An intermediate objective was selected for each brigade, but these, owing to the north-eastern direction of the whole advance, would not be in a straight line. A sunken road running south from Lesdain offered itself as a suitable intermediate goal for the 2nd Brigade. That of the Rifle Brigade lay further eastward in the Seranvillers trench line from their left boundary down to the precipitous right bank of the little stream which, rising beyond Esnes, flows round the north of that village and of Lesdain to the Scheldt about Crèvecoeur, and is called the Torrent of Esnes. On the first objective a varying pause was arranged in conformity with the general movement. Four tanks would co-operate with the Rifle Brigade in clearing Lesdain and were available, if necessary, to help the 2nd Brigade in clearing Esnes. The 3rd Division were also given 4 tanks to assist in mopping up Seranvillers.
Crèvecoeur was still persistently and violently shelled, so that its garrison was reduced to a minimum and its defence made dependent on machine gun fire from the flanks and a strong artillery barrage. It was discovered later that the enemy was already at work on extensive preparations for page 519studied demolition of the whole area in view of a retreat to a position west of Caudry. In the Beaurevoir-Masnières line, however, every indication pointed to a stand. Patrols continued to test the trenches and continued to encounter undiminished resistance. Aeroplanes also confirmed, the presence of strong garrisons and the expenditure of considerable labour on the trench. The openings of several new dugouts showed up clearly.
In this last organised trench system and the positions connected with it northwards there seemed to be sound reasons for anticipating formidable resistance. Sufficient artillery was therefore arranged to cope with it. Three batteries of 6-in. howitzers were assigned to engage the Beaurevoir-Masnières line and the series of roads eastwards. These roads would receive also the special attention of the light howitzers. The barrage would be provided by 6 brigades of field artillery. The 2nd (Army) Brigade was still detached with the XVII. Corps, but General Napier Johnston had at his disposal 4 British brigades as well as the 1st and 3rd New Zealand Brigades. In the meantime, medium and light mortars were brought into forward positions to co-operate with the artillery in cutting the extensive wire. The field guns too moved to advanced positions. The 1st Brigade guns were in new emplacements on 5th October, 2 sections of the 7th Battery being held ready to support the assaulting battalions of the Rifle Brigade. On the 6th a forward section of the 13th Battery of the 3rd Brigade moved over the Canal on General Young's front, and was followed on the 7th by the remainder of the brigade. All other preparations were pushed on apace. In accordance with the boundaries selected for the attack, the 37th Division on the night 6th/7th October took over the southern extremity of the 2nd Canterbury line opposite Bel Aise Farm. The boundary between the 2 New Zealand infantry brigades was similarly readjusted northwards. The Engineers were engaged in the maintenance of existing bridges over the Canal and the construction, of new pontoon bridges south of Les Hues des Vignes and in bringing up spare bridging material to the western bank. Their work was constantly hampered by shell-fire and called for no less patience than fortitude.
In the afternoon of 7th October General Young's Headquarters occupied a dugout in one of the quarries on the hillside across the river. It was found prepared for demolition, but the charges and fuses were removed without page 520accident. General Hart, too, moved in the evening to a battle headquarters in a quarry on the Rumilly track. In the late afternoon 1st Otago crossed the canal and river by the newly erected bridges and took over from 2nd Canterbury the right part of their line on the slopes north of Bel Aise Farm. The boundary of the 3rd Division was also shifted southwards to enable them satisfactorily to overlap Seranvillers. The 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade garrisoning the left of the northern brigade subsector were not attacking. They withdrew 3 companies into reserve at 3 a.m., 8th October, and held the line with 1 company, thus facilitating the assembly of the assaulting troops of their own brigade and of the 3rd Division.
During the night 7th/8th October the enemy's artillery on the 2nd Brigade front was somewhat above normal. Whether by chance, or because some evidence pointed to our purpose, he shelled the assembly area intermittently. Crèvecoeur also received attention. The night was at first wet and dark. In the small hours, however, it brightened into unusual clearness, most helpful to the 2nd Rifles who moved up after midnight to the shallow sunken roads which formed their position of assembly. The few "cubby" holes available gave inadequate shelter, 1 company being practically in an open field and not a little troubled by the enemy machine gun fire. Fortunately, however, on this part of the front shelling had died down.
For the opening assault, in addition to the artillery, extensive use was made of machine guns and mortars. Two companies of machine guns were placed at the disposal of the Rific Brigade for the purpose of the initial barrage, one company lifting forward steadily eastwards to extreme range—during the day it was to expend 80,000 rounds—the other sweeping the northern and southern outskirts of Lesdain. Two companies were earmarked to supply forward guns to the assaulting brigades. In the zero bombardment, mortars would prove valuable against the Old Mill of Lesdain and against a Factory which the Germans held in strength just west of Lesdain, opposite the junction of the 2 brigades. Mortars also as well as machine guns and forward sections of artillery were allotted to the assaulting battalions, to accompany them in their advance.
The attack was launched at 4.30 a.m., 8th October. The enemy's artillery response was immediate and fairly heavy, and the machine guns in Bel Aise Farm in particular swept the open page 521slopes falling towards the Lesdain valley. From the outset the attack moved forward with rapidity and certainty. It is sufficient to deal briefly with each unit in turn, beginning at the right where 1st Otago lay on the northern slopes of the plateau commanded from Bel Aise. Over a large part of their front they were faced by the unbroken wire of the Beaurevoir-Masnières line, wholly impenetrable, had German nerves been steady. As it was, neither infantry nor machine guns put up a stern resistance, and while Lewis guns and bombs held the enemy down, the infantry hacked their way through the entanglements and cleared the trench. Only 1 post on their right near the farm provided a brief check. It contained 4 machine guns and a garrison of 40, but after some trouble was surrounded and captured by 2 platoons under 2nd Lt. W. McKean, D.C.M., M.M. The barrage lifted 100 yards every 4 minutes, and by 5.40 a.m. the leading company were on the first objective (the Red Line) on the sunken road south of Lesdain. From this line on, it had been arranged that after the appointed pause the barrage should move forward in the open country at a faster rate of 100 yards every 3 minutes. It was to include a proportion of smoke, most serviceable in blinding and bluffing disorganised resistance, and on the final trench was to pause for 10 minutes. On the Red Line a second 1st Otago company passed through. Skirting the north of Pelu Wood, they covered the intervening ground and crossed the surprisingly well-wired final trench with little opposition. From there it was but a step to the sunken road and the hedgerow which was their final objective. They were on it well up to time and with light casualties. Behind them the remaining companies consolidated in readiness to move forward later in the morning, should conditions favour, to the capture of Esnes.
2nd Canterbury had arranged for a medium trench mortar bombardment of the wire in their sector on the 6th. It had been extremely successful. Broad gaps and lanes were distinctly visible from our trenches. Through these openings the 2nd Canterbury assaulting waves poured into the Beaurevoir-Masnières line. Here the enemy machine guns were handled more stoutly than in the vicinity of Bel Aise, and there were a few minutes of fierce resistance. Two machine guns particularly in the centre of the line, where the wire chanced to be intact, proved a serious obstacle. They wiped out the sections of the first wave that charged them. page 522Sergt. R. C. Ecclesfield, however, with a couple of men outmanoeuvred them. Ecclesfield himself drew their fire and engaged their attention in front, and the 2 men, though fired on by rifles, worked round the flank and liberally bombed the post. They then rushed it, captured the 2 machine guns and took the crews prisoners.
At the outset of the attack 2nd Canterbury's left company already held the northern end of the Beaurevoir-Masnières line won on the 5th, and their first obstacle was the Factory. The prearranged mortar bombardment at zero proved effective, and in co-operation with the 4th Rifles the company cleared the Factory without undue difficulty. Several prisoners were taken. After overcoming these initial centres of resistance both Canterbury companies moved on rapidly towards their first objective in the sunken road on the outskirts of Lesdain. The advance dipped down into a deep valley and then mounted the other side where a single field separated them from the road. Little resistance was shown. A chance bullet shot Pte. J. Ward's rifle out of his hand. He could find no other to replace it, but picking up a shovel continued on with his comrades, and with this unorthodox weapon hammered in the heads of 3 Germans and killed them. Only a few machine guns were in action, and these were silenced by our machine and Lewis guns and rifle grenades. Crossing the field the Lewis gunners dashed forward to the road. Under the near bank were deep and extensive dugouts, and the road itself was packed with a mass of irresolute disorganised Germans. Canterbury's Lewis gunners, Cpl. J. A. Auld, L./Cpl. H. Day, and others enfiladed it from each flank, causing immediate surrender, and the 2 companies secured between them over 200 prisoners.
Only a small proportion of the enemy preferred flight to surrender. These were now hurriedly running without arms towards Esnes. On them Pte. R. C. Butler and other Lewis gunners, mounting the far bank and dashing forward, inflicted severe casualties. The Lewis gun fire assisted also to cover the advance of the fresh company which here, simultaneously with the 1st Otago company, "leapfrogged" through. Almost all semblance of opposition had disappeared. The 2nd Canterbury company carried their second objective easily, capturing 7 machine guns and 130 prisoners and pushed on to a further short section of isolated trench south of Esnes itself. According to plan the fourth page 523Canterbury company followed up close behind, cleared Le Grand Pont village, still shelled by our heavies, and reached the high ground commanding Esnes from the north, where touch was established with the Rifle Brigade. It then crossed over the Cambrai Road and occupied a trench system on the north edge of Esnes. The right was for the moment refused on the north-western outskirts of the village till the time set for the 1st Otago exploitation troops to come forward. This company captured 5 machine guns, 3 mortars, and some 80 prisoners. Company Headquarters consumed with satisfaction an excellent breakfast prepared for the German officers. All through the morning invaluable service had been given on this flank by a boldly handled section of machine guns under Lt. A. R. Curtis. On repeated occasions they had engaged enemy machine gunners and infantry, whose bodies were passed in the subsequent course of the advance. Pushing his section well forward, this officer was now the first to locate a number of abandoned German field guns in a hollow north-east of Esnes. 3 of these the Canterbury company thereupon took over, 1 falling later to 1st Otago.
The Rifle Brigade attack was carried out with 3 battalions. The 4th1 on the right was detailed first to capture Lesdain by an enveloping movement, and then to mop up the dugouts along the steep bank of the Torrent of Esnes up to a point some 1000 yards eastward, where the sharp north-easterly trend of the 2nd Brigade advance towards Le Grand Pont would then shut them out. In the centre of the line, the 1st Battalion would carry the Old Mill of Lesdain and push forward over the high ground north of the Torrent, in touch on the right, first with the 4th Battalion, and later, as the 2nd Brigade came up, with 2nd Canterbury. On the left the 2nd Rifles would with the 3rd Division on the north pass through the 3rd Battalion garrison of our present front line, and then advance towards the Cambrai Road south of Seranvillers.
1 Major Barrowclough, p. 513.
The 1st Battalion in the centre stormed the Mill, still smoking with the dust of the mortars' bombardment, and dealt in succession with a series of open and sunken roads crossing the line of advance. In the darkness the forward waves overlooked a pillbox from which the enemy, after they passed, directed a heavy fire on the supporting troops. Sergt. R. J. Sinclair without the slightest hesitation rushed the pillbox single-handed, killed the machine gun crew and captured the gun. On the left, both the leading company of the 2nd Rifles and a company detailed to follow it along the left flank appear to have pressed forward too impetuously into our barrage. They suffered somewhat heavy casualties. Both battalions, and in particular the 2nd Battalion on the left, were faced by German garrisons in the sunken roads. At one check on the left flank Cpl. S. J. Sapsford of the 2nd Rifles ran up a spur northwards with his Lewis gun, calling on 2 other crews to follow him with their guns. Standing up under heavy fire he located the enemy posts. He at once directed the fire of the other 2 guns and then himself fired his own gun with such good effect that the enfiladed Germans were routed, many being shot down as they ran away. Generally the powerful barrage and the dash of the riflemen were too much for the disheartened defence. On 2 successive roads before the Seranvillers trench, parties of 60 and 40, with numerous machine guns, surrendered practically without fighting to the left company of the 2nd Rifles.
1 They appear to have been occupied later by the 2nd Rifles.
Distant field and machine guns maintained a harassing fire, but were silenced by active sniping on the part of the Rifles' scouts and especially by forward sections of artillery now in position only half a mile behind the Cambrai Road. A daring and successful reconnaissance was made into Seranvillers by Cpl. J. C. Dibble, of the 2nd Rifles, with 3 men. He located enemy posts in various buildings and secured touch with the 3rd Division. The companies, somewhat mixed, were reorganised before noon. During the early afternoon they moved forward to their exploitation objective, 1000 yards further east, as far north as a mill near Wambaix, and took possession of abandoned German guns. On reaching this line it was found that opposite the 1st Rifles a party of the enemy, about 50 strong, were holding a well-wired isolated trench with 3 machine guns. As a frontal assault was impossible, Cpl. M. J. Mulvaney, D.C.M., a Lewis gunner, opened fire to cover a flank attack. He was immediately singled out by a German machine gun, hut with his second burst of fire he killed the enemy Nos. 1 and 2 gunners. A moment later he disposed of the second machine gun in the same way. Thereupon the crew of the third gun took shelter. Mulvaney seized one of his men's rifles and with his No. 2 rushed the trench with fixed swords and forced the occupants to surrender.
No counter-attack developed against the Rifles themselves. About 5 p.m., however, a strong thrust was made from Wambaix against the VI. Corps front. A forward section of the 1st Artillery Brigade and the machine guns accompanying the Rifles did great execution in the enemy's ranks. But for the moment the Germans recovered part of Seranvillers. The Rifles' left flank, already much in advance, was accordingly withdrawn some 500 yards and refused thence back northwards along the Cambrai Road. At 7 p.m. under a barrage the VI. Corps again advanced on to the road.
In the enemy's shelling and machine gun fire and in our own barrage the 2 Rifle battalions attacking the final objective had lost fairly heavily. In the 1st Battalion an officer and 29 men had been killed and 8 officers and 227 men wounded. The 2nd Battalion casualties were 2 officers and 30 men killed or died of wounds, and 2 officers and 130 men wounded, and 4 wounded men also appear to have fallen into page 528the enemy's hands south of Wambaix. During the operation the Rifle Brigade had captured seven 77-mm. guns, a howitzer, several mortars and 89 machine guns, and by the close of the day their prisoners numbered over 800.
On the 2nd Brigade's front also the easy capture of the final objective had left the way obviously clear for exploitation. At 9.30 a.m. the barrage reopened in front of 1st Otago, and the 2 fresh companies passing through our new outpost line by the hedgerow advanced on Esnes. A certain amount of machine gun fire came from the south from Guillemin Farm and the Sargrenon Valley and from the high ground overlooking it which was not yet cleared. There was a handful of snipers in Esnes. The village was, however, taken without trouble, and posts were established in a wide-flung line round it. The 2nd Canterbury company north of Esnes, harassed during the interval by our own and the enemy's artillery and by the machine guns of German aeroplanes, swung up their right flank in conformity. Machine guns secured splendid targets in retreating enemy transport. Special measures were taken to protect Otago's right flank, and in order to strengthen it further, the Canterbury company extended their right, now on the northeastern outskirts of the village, down to the banks of the Torrent of Esnes.
Thus the 2nd Brigade's exploitation objectives were attained up to time, and the companies began to consolidate. When the enemy saw that the advance was stayed, he began to filter back. The villages of Longsart and Haucourt further east were held in strength, and presently considerable machine gun fire and sniping developed from the high ground south of Longsart. At 3.30 p.m. some 50 Germans advanced, possibly for a counter-attack, down the deep broken bed of the Torrent of Esnes, but were dispersed by our fire. Another smaller party approaching the advanced 2nd Canterbury company from the cemetery north-east of Esnes was beaten off by a patrol. This little action gave a last fillip to the satisfaction inspired in this company by their long advance and the day's successes, and in closing a brief report the company commander (Capt. T. S. Gillies, M.C.) could not forbear adding: "Men in good heart, ready for anything."
In the evening the 37th Division attacked the high ground south-east of Esnes and relieved anxiety about the right flank. During the day 1st Otago, losing 5 officers and 140 men, had captured over 100 prisoners, a field gun, and 8 page 529machine guns; 2nd Canterbury had 4 officers, including Major D. A. Dron, M.C., and 32 men killed or died of wounds, and 4 officers and 110 men wounded. Having the good fortune to find in their area the Lesdain Road dugouts, they had secured a bag of nearly 500 prisoners, with 3 mortars and 24 machine guns, and the field guns discovered by Curtis.
The artillery had early moved well forward, and active preparations were in progress for bringing up ammunition to support the continuance of the attack on the following day. On the cessation of the morning's barrage for the Rifle Brigade, the 1st Artillery Brigade batteries moved to the valley north-east of Crèvecoeur. One of the English brigades attached to the Division simultaneously crossed the Canal, and by 9 a.m. was in action north and south of Pelu Wood. Shortly after midday both New Zealand brigades and 3 of the 4 English brigades were in position cast of the Canal and on a corresponding line north of the Torrent of Esnes, the remaining English brigade being temporarily retained by Corps orders west of the Canal.
The night 8th/9th October was clear and the enemy's bombing aeroplanes active. He shelled heavily his abandoned dumps on the railway at Esnes and drenched our rear areas with gas. Deep into the night patrols found his posts still holding the sunken roads from Wambaix southwards. A German machine gunner, carrying his gun, walked inadvertently into one of the 2nd Rifles' posts and was made prisoner. The two 2nd Brigade support battalions and the 1 Rifle battalion, which would now adequately cover the left brigade's shortening front, fully expected that their advance would be contested.
The early hours of the morning were intensely cold with the first frosts of autumn, and the troops waiting to continue the attack had to stamp vigorously to quicken circulation. At 5.20 a.m. the barrage started, lifting 100 yards every 3 minutes and preceded by a machine gun barrage 300 yards in advance of and conforming with its lifts. The light mortars bombarded the Torrent of Esnes. 2nd Otago on the right and 1st Canterbury on the left passed through the 2nd Brigade line and continued the advance, accompanied by machine guns and attached sections from the 11th and 13th Batteries. A squadron of 3rd Hussars was held in readiness to follow the enemy and push out patrols if the situation permitted. On the Rifle Brigade subsector the 3rd Battalion, brought up from reserve and supported by a forward section page 530of artillery and a section of machine guns, similarly passed through the 1st and 2nd Battalions. On their left the Guards had relieved the 3rd Division. Of the anticipated enemy resistance not a sign was forthcoming. It became early apparent that the enemy had stolen away before dawn. Owing to a shortage of reserves and the low strength of his Divisions he was by this time experiencing the utmost difficulty in relieving or reinforcing his disorganised troops. At the moment he was in no position to withstand an attack. No rearguards remained to dispute progress, very slight artillery fire was encountered, and the 38,000 shells of our barrage were wasted. Speedily overrunning Longsart, by 9 a.m. the 2nd Brigade troops had reached the final objective allotted, the Le Cateau-Cambrai railway. Under the bridge on the Fontaine-au-Pire road 1st Canterbury found 4 artillerymen who claimed to have been on their way to rescue their guns at Esnes, but were believed to have been a party left for demolition. In close touch with the 2nd Brigade and the Guards on either flank, the 3rd Rifles, suffering some casualties from our barrage,1 reached their objective on the railway south of Cattenières.
Our goal thus achieved, responsibility for the whole New Zealand front was given to the 2nd Brigade, which taking command of the 3rd Rifles became the advanced guard of the Division. The 3rd N.Z.F.A. and an English artillery brigade, both under Lt.-Col. McQuarrie, were made advanced guard artillery, and during the day moved to Esnes and Longsart. A line was roughly consolidated half a mile beyond the railway, and patrols moved forward all along the front towards Fontaine-au-Pire. On the high ground west of it they began to encounter the first evidence of the German rearguards. There were many machine guns in Fontaine-au-Pire and Caudry, one of them firing from the steeple of the Fontaine church. A patrol of the 3rd Hussars had already galloped forward from the railway line, when our barrage ceased. Disdaining to use low ground, they presented an excellent target to the Fontaine machine guns, and an active field gun followed their retirement, causing very severe losses. It became necessary for the moment to suspend progress. Towards dusk, however, a 1st Canterbury patrol succeeded in penetrating the southern outskirts of Fontaine.
1 2 men killed, and 40 wounded. The infantry complained of its erratic nature.
At 3.30 a.m. (10th October) the advance was continued in "bounds" without a barrage. 2nd Otago crossed the Le Cateau Road between Caudry and Beauvois and, without opposition, reached the road running just west of Bethencourt northwards towards Quiévy. Here, however, the screen came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire from the direction of Quiévy and from rearguards in old "practice trenches" immediately in front. The forward artillery section rapidly came into action, and 4 Vickers guns also were hurried forward. Under this covering fire the trenches were cleared, and the troops swept down into the valley and up on the ridge north of Bethencourt. After a chilly morning the day had turned out beautifully fine.
In front of the same road where Otago had been momentarily arrested, 1st Canterbury met determined resistance at Herpigny Farm, which they carried at 10.20 a.m., several machine guns being captured and 1 man of the crews taken prisoner. On the road also 2 hostile posts were held strongly, but with the co-operation of Vickers and Lewis guns they were ultimately overpowered, and the road was in our hands at 2 p.m.
The 2 supporting battalions were by this time following up ready to move through when required, and before noon 1st Otago were passing through the right battalion on the railway north of Bethencourt. Skirting the village itself and Clermont Wood, they reached Clermont Valley. Here they took an abandoned field gun. Enemy artillery firing from the direction of Solesmes put a considerable barrage on this valley, but brushing all resistance out of their way, Otago advanced with exceptional rapidity and occupied Viesly. On page 532attempting to deploy from Viesly the right met heavy fire from a cemetery on its southern outskirts. This was eventually mastered, and the line was established round the eastern edge of Viesly from the cemetery to a large sandpit on the north-east, whence it swung back to the north-west.
2nd Canterbury passed through the 1st Battalion after the capture of Herpigny Farm and the road. The Guards were experiencing stubborn resistance at Quiévy, and 2nd Canterbury were similarly exposed to heavy fire from Quiévy itself and from about the neighbourhood of Fontaine-au-Tertre Farm, now a mass of flames. Owing to their later start and to this opposition they were unable to catch up Otago, who therefore strengthened their long exposed left with 8 machine guns, and specially directed their mobile section of artillery to look after this flank. On Otago's right the 37th Division had at an early hour enveloped Caudry, and making fine progress were abreast with them on the western slopes overlooking the Selle. In the afternoon the 37th Division announced their intention of establishing bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the river. To protect their flank, 1st Otago moved forward in the evening to within 400 yards of Briastre and consolidated a fresh line there without opposition.
Throughout the day the advancing infantry had been closely supported by the 13th Battery, which had made opportunities and used them for observed shooting. The rest of the advanced guard artillery followed up early to the vicinity of the Cambrai railway and later to Beauvois. At 2 p.m. the 1st Brigade batteries, too, had moved from their position of assembly north-cast of Crèvecoeur into action east of Beauvois. The 1st Infantry Brigade, marching up from the reserve area, had reached Fontaine-au-Pire in the early afternoon, in preparation for passing through the South Island battalions. About noon General Young had guaranteed to be by the evening on the railway south of Quiévy. On that line it was expected that the 1st Brigade would take up the advance. But both front line battalions of the 2nd Brigade were now considerably beyond this. 2nd Canterbury held the Viesly-Quiévy spur, and 1st Otago were astride the southern part of the Viesly—Fontaine-au-Tertre Farm spur which had been decided on as General Melvill's first objective. It had been originally proposed that the final objective of the North Island battalions should be the line of the Selle River. In view of the progress made on our own front and page 533by the 37th Division, this was now extended eastwards. General Melvill was instructed to cross the river, secure bridgeheads by daylight and be ready, if called upon, to carry the high crests south-east of Solesmes. If conditions warranted, cavalry might be pushed through to carry the town from that direction. The Engineers were ordered to repair at the earliest possible moment all bridges and communications and to arrange extra crossings over the Selle for infantry and guns.
At 10 p.m. (10th October) the 1st Infantry Brigade were beginning to pass through. The South Island battalions, though tired and worn after their long marching and stiff fighting moved back in exuberant spirits, singing and whistling, to the houses in Beauvois, left in astonishing filth and disorder by the retreating enemy. Casualties had been extremely light.
The 1st Brigade leading battalions were 1st Wellington on the right and 2nd Auckland on the left. They had no formal barrage, but the former was supported directly by a section of howitzers, the latter by a section of 18-pounders. On the infantry relief the 1st Brigade, N.Z.F.A., and an English brigade became advanced guard artillery. The advance was continued in the darkness with little opposition. Briastre was cleared by Wellington patrols with some elements of the 37th Division, and Fontaine-au-Tertre Farm by Auckland in conjunction with the Guards. Both battalions then moved on to the line of the river. Except for stragglers, no Germans remained on the western bank. In the morning it was found that nearly 200 civilians were in Briastre. A handful of Germans discovered hiding in cellars were taken prisoners.
The river Selle, one of the principal tributaries of the Scheldt, flows northward along a deep valley and forms a naturally strong position on which a retreating army can stand at bay. About Solesmes its width varies from 25 to 35 feet. There is a good flow of water, and the stream is mostly too deep to be fordable. On cither side of the valley the slopes rise up fairly steeply some 120 feet, completely dominating the low ground by the river. Along the lower slopes on the right or eastern bank run the main road and railway from Le Cateau through Solesmes northwards to Valenciennes. On 25th August 1914, during the retreat from Mons, Solesmes had been the scene of a sharp rearguard action by a brigade of the 3rd Division, who chanced now to be in support to the Guards. On this line, which he had page 534then carried in the first flush of easy victories, the sorelytried and disillusioned enemy now hoped to retard pursuit.
During the evening (10th October), despite opposition, Engineers of the 37th Division had thrown a narrow bridge over the river half a mile up-stream from the New Zealand boundary, and 4 of their infantry platoons were early in the night on the eastern bank. The 1st Wellington patrols reached the river about 1 a.m. The bridges opposite Briastre on our own front were down, and it was some little time before reconnaissance discovered the 37th Division's bridge. By 4 a.m., 11th October, however, 2 companies of 1st Wellington were over the river, the 2 leading platoons being commanded by 2nd Lt. S. S. Pennefather, D.C.M.1 This force then procceded to work back along the right bank to their own frontage. The left and leading company had reached the Factory in the low ground opposite Briastre, and both companies were beginning to cover their allotted fronts and deploy for their attack on the railway line, when the dawn disclosed them. At once heavy machine gun fire opened from the Solesmes road and railway. The left company was able to get under cover in and about the Factory and attached buildings, from which good observation and field of fire could be obtained both to the front and flanks. Pennefather held his men together and disposed them to meet counter-attack. The right company in the open suffered severely, and was forced to fall back on a sunken road near the river.
1 p. 245.
Like 2nd Canterbury on the previous afternoon, 2nd Auckland were still delayed by the obstinate resistance offered to their left and to the Guards west of Solesmes. They had accordingly to refuse the left flank, and for the moment relinquish any hope of crossing on their front to the east bank of the Selle.1 Hostile artillery also harassed their left flank south of Solesmes and bombarded Viesly. Companies of both 2nd Auckland and the battalion in support suffered from this fire. The necessity for cover, or at least for concealment, was paramount. Part of 2nd Auckland's supports was therefore withdrawn behind the final ridge.
By 8.30 a.m. (11th October) the 1st Brigade batteries were in position behind Viesly, and the 15th Battery had a forward section just west of the village. They did much execution on the opposite hillside. Two further brigades of field artillery moved forward, and these, with the heavies, engaged the enemy's guns and the positions of his front line troops across the river and his support troops in the deep valleys eastwards. Our machine guns also, well sited on the forward slopes, inflicted several casualties. The German machine guns and snipers, however, were not silenced, and our infantry in the valley spent an unpleasant afternoon. From these commanding positions it was for many reasons most desirable to drive the enemy. At the same time it was impossible to undertake the operation off-hand in daylight.
1 In any case the crossing would have been very difficult, if not impracticable. The railway bridge over the Selle had been blown up, and the river, blocked by the debris, had risen considerably.
The night was quiet. The survivors of the right Wellington company were relieved by 37th Division troops. The left company extended north to cover the allotted front. A company from support was brought over the river to deliver the attack, the left company being given certain tasks in co-operation. At 5 a.m., 12th October, our artillery and machine gun barrages came down on prearranged lines. It was likely that hostile enfilade fire from the road and railway beyond the northern limit of our operation might be troublesome, and special measures were taken to deal with these as far as Solesmes. For 5 minutes after zero, therefore, certain batteries were to bombard this part of the road, and then, lifting in conformity with the infantry advance, engage the railway, also north of the limits of the attack. Howitzers were to bombard the sunken roads in the valley beyond the spur for over 20 minutes.
Belle Vue was a name with sinister associations.1 Now, again, as a year previously, Belle Vue machine guns bade our artillery fire defiance. From the station itself and from buildings on the Solesmes road, occupied in unexpected strength, they swept the low ground with a dense sheet of lead. The defences were held by troops of the German Jager Division, that had contested so stubbornly with us the possession of the Trescault Ridge, and the garrison was at once powerful in numbers and of stout morale. By 8 a.m. the 1st Wellington right had reached buildings on the Briastre road 200 yards east of the river, where with some 37th Division troops a post was established. The left all but reached the road, which at this point bent nearer to the river. Eleven prisoners were captured, but the station at Belle Vue and the copse on the Solesmes road under the station remained in enemy hands. In answer to the attack Briastre was severely shelled all the forenoon, and Viesly intermittently bombarded with heavy guns. Attempts made by the enemy to work round the Wellington flank and attack from the rear were crushed.
1 pp. 280 sqq.
For the moment the defences had triumphed, but their fall was only deferred. A further assault was arranged for 6 p.m. The difficulties were now fully recognised, and the attacking force was strengthened. Both Wellington companies would be used, and in addition 2 platoons of the reserve company were ordered to cross the river on the beginning of the attack and lend assistance if necessary. In the interval, concentrated and violent artillery fire was poured pitilessly on the station and on the enemy's positions about the road and railway. At 6 p.m. Wellington stormed again under barrages provided by the 1st Artillery Brigade and 2 machine gun companies, whose fire advanced at 200 yards' distance in front of the artillery barrage. The attached British batteries, as before, harassed the road and railway northwards. Our artillery fire was generally most effective, and in the 100 yards of railway line north of the level crossing at Belle Vue the foremost troops found on the permanent way itself 38 German dead. But in places the barrage fell somewhat short, or the attackers pushed into it too soon, most of our casualties being caused by our own guns. Despite the continued day's bombardment the Jägers fought with their traditional stubbornness, and lost heavily before they yielded the ground. The right company captured Belle Vue, establishing touch with the 37th Division. The left had more trouble. For some time a well-posted machine gun held up their attack. L.-Cpl. B. Quentin, who commanded a Lewis gun team on the left flank of the right company, held his ground firmly. The German machine gun was smothered with rifle grenades. Four survivors of its crew jumped out of their pit and rushed for their lines, but page 538Quentin shot all 4. The left company then cleared the copse and the buildings on the main road. Near one of these buildings another machine gun crew hung on with great tenacity, but were eventually destroyed by a special party from the 2 platoons of the reserve company. In all 10 prisoners were captured. Our new positions were consolidated by 9 p.m., and the Briastre river crossing thus secured. In the day's attacks 1st Wellington had lost 28 other ranks killed, 76 wounded, and 11 missing.
As the close of the Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line had given us a footing on the east bank of the Scheldt, so now the Second Battle of Le Cateau terminated in the successful establishment on the IV. Corps front of a bridgehead on the Selle. The 2 front Divisions of the Corps could now be relieved and the advance temporarily be discontinued to enable road and railway communications in rear to be re-established.1 Corps Headquarters moved forward to Ligny. In the evening, 12th October, which was again wet, the 42nd Division took over the New Zealanders' line, and 1st Wellington, with the rest of the brigade, marched back to Fon-taine-au-Pire. The New Zealand batteries also withdrew to Beauvois. The D.A.C. came under the 42nd Division for ammunition supply. On the river line the new garrisons on the eastern bank consolidated their position, but the main line of resistance was organised and entrenched on the western bank. During a German counter-attack on the 13th, repulsed at all other points, Belle Vue fell again for the moment into enemy possession.
1 A single instance may illustrate difficulties. The Le Cateau road at Beauvois runs along an artificial embankment across a small valley. In this embankment an immense crater had been blown. On 12th October the whole of the available 2nd Infantry Brigade transport together with G.S. wagons lent by the Corps was used to cart material, and 200 men were employed from 7a.m. to 6 p.m. to fill it in. By that time the road was available for single traffic.