The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
The tedium of the 58-hour journey northwards in the trucks of the French Military train was relieved at the outset by the exquisite scenery of the Rhone Valley. The fresh green of the trees and rich grasser, the early flowers in the meadows, and the sunny woodlands, tricked out with the blossoms and pageantry of Spring, were in striking contrast with the monotony of the parched desert. The troops were in the highest spirits. With lively curiosity they eyed the riverside mansions and trim villages, and exchanged pleasantries with the fisherman on the banks and the cheering girls at the station. A detour was made round Paris. There-after the grey rain-sodden skies, bleak country and bitter winds of the north formed a more appropriate setting for the grim business that lay-in front.
Divisional Headquarters had proceeded by mail train to the concentration area, of which Hazebrouck was the centre, and the advanced party reached the railhead, Steenbecque, on 13th April. The troops began to arrive there on the 15th. Divisional Headquarters and the artillery were at Blaringhem. The 1st Infantry Brigade was concentrated round Morbecque, the Rifle Brigade round Steeubecque, and the 2nd Brigade round Roquetoire. The transport personal, with the horses, had been detrained at Abbeville to be issued with wagons. They trekked the remaining 60 miles in 3 clays. For animals just landed from a 6 days' voyage and a 2 days' train journey this proved a severe trial, even with empty wagons. The transition from the warmth of Egypt also affected them, especially the mules, and one or two animals died. The artillery were in a similar way diverted to IIavre, where, with remarkable expedition, they were equipped with vehicles and guns, and despateched to the concentration area by train.
Brig.-Gen. H. T. Fulton, C.M.G., D.S.O.
The continuously cold wet weather which followed the arrival of the Division necessitated the issue of a second blanket, turned all gun parks and horse lines into quagmires, and interfered gravely with training. Nor had the artillery ground available for field firing. Batteries were sent, however, to Calais for a day in turn for shoots with indirect laying at visible targets. Otherwise artillery training was limited to gun-drill and route-marching. This last formed a standing dish for the infantry, whom it was vital to accustom to the hard-metalled or pavé roads of France after the yielding sand of the desert. Parties of all ranks were sent to the different Army and Corps schools which stimulated so effectively the military education of junior officers, non-commissioned officers and specialists in every ramification of scientific warfare. On their pattern the Division was to found its own schools1 at Armentières, and the principle was later to be extended to brigades and even battalions. Every unit was now put through a gas demonstration, and the issue of the new P.H. gas masks was completed.
1 Grenade School, Gas School, Trench Warfare School, Physical and Bayonet Training School, Machine Gun School.
During the interval which elapsed before the Division moved forward, informal visits were paid to various units by General Haig and General Plumer Now that the New Zealanders were to play a role on the principal stage of operation, under the eye and exposed to the criticism of British and Allied forces and of Generals and war correspondents, it became more than ever desirable that the saluting and general soldierly bearing of the troops should be of the highest standard, and reflect as brightly as possible their proved fighting qualities. A Divisional Order issued at the time dealt with this continually recurring question in terms of candour and common sense:—
“The G.O.C. expects every officer and man to help in making the New Zealand Division a credit to the Dominion.
“Saluting and general bearing are not really matters of discipline to be dealt with as such, but are matters of self-respect, and in so far as they are good or bad reflect credit or discredit on the Division.
“Men who fail to salute when they should, arc untidy in dress, lounge about the streets, and fail to keep their eyes sufficiently open and their wits sufficiently wide awake to see when an officer is passing, may or not be good fighters, but 'they certainly make a bad impression. To be smart and alert isn't servility. It is exactly the opposite. Every officer and man of the Division should walk about as if he had £10,000 a year, and must be as jealous of our reputation as a woman of her honour.”
Various alterations were made at this time in the organisation of the Division. Experience in France had shown that much of the independence of action and movement formerly belonging to a Division had now passed to the Corps. The mounted troops, originally allotted with a view to providing the Divisional Commander with a small mobile force under his immediate control for reconnaissance and protective and escort duty, had become under the prevailing conditions of stationary warfare something of a luxury. So far from a Division moving independently, and with one or more roads allotted for its exclusive use, it seemed at this stage that movement would be by Corps marching and fighting in depth on a comparatively narrow frontage; nor was it till the closing months of the war that the evolution of tactics favoured a reversion to the original conception. General Headquarters therefore decided that the mounted troops of Divisions in a Corps should be assembled under the direct control of the Corps Commander and be organised as a Corps unit. Accordingly, the squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles and the 2 squadrons of light Horse of the Australian Divisions were grouped in a composite regiment which was called the 1st Anzac Light Horse Regiment. The command was given to Lt.-Col. R. R. Grigor.1 On the same principle, pending the arrival of the New Zealand cyclist company,2 a Corps Cyclist Battalion was formed by the expansion of the 2 Australian Companies.
1 p. 15.
2 up. 7. 59.
3 p. 140.
4 Lettered respectively XNZ, YNZ. ZNZ.
It was now also that the title of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was altered to 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade, the Brigade itself taking precedence next after instead of before the 2nd Brigade as hitherto. Motor transport was allotted to the Field Ambulance, and in accordance with the orders obtaining in France all transport vehicles of the Division were marked by the fern-leaf as the Divisional identification. Reference should be made also to the appointment of the Divisional Gas Officer and his staff, and to the formation of the Divisional Salvage Company, whose function it; was to check waste by collecting abandoned Government property in billets and areas.
While 'the Division was thus being trained and organised, the first party of Maori bushmen was attached to the Forest Control in the Nieppe Forest. Here their sterling performances speedily won them a widespread reputation. In a contest held at the end of April, they actually beat the French bucherons in their own style, which consisted in felling the tree level with the ground, and trimming the small stump so as to leave a rounded top that would not hold water. In the following month they won 2 first and 2 second places in the 4 events of a competition with Australians and Canadians for which General Birdwood presented the prizes.
On 1st May the Division marched forward into the reserve area of the Corps. Headquarters moved to Estaires, the 2nd Infantry Brigade to the Doulieu area, and the 3rd Brigade to Estaires and its neighbourhood. The 1st Brigade remained for the time at Morbecque. This first move with regimental transport involved for some units a march of over 20 miles, and it was manifest that while benefiting by their recent training, the infantry were not yet adequately hardened. Substantial improvement in this respect was to be effected by the formation in June of a School of Chiropody., at which non-commissioned officers were trained for work in the units. On arrival in the new area, parties of Sappers and Pioneers were at once detached for work on the Lys bridgeheads and rear lines of trenches in the neighbourhood of Sailly, where they remained till the Division went to Armentières.page 25
Detailed information was received on 5th May as to the relief of the 17th Division of the 11. Corps which held the front line to the north of the 2 Australian Divisions of I. Anzac. On 9th May the 1st and 3rd Infantry Brigades exchanged areas, so as to enable the former to take over the line with the 2nd Brigade. Representatives of all arms visited their "opposite numbers" in the line and received unbounded kindness and help. The artillery parties profited by a stay of several days with the British gunners. Commanding officers, company commanders, and specialists, such as intelligence personnel and signallers, remained in the trenches for a period of 24 hours in order to familiarise themselves with the methods of relief and of holding the line, the principles of artillery cooperation, the question of water supply, the location of cemeteries, and all the hundred and one points of their new business.
The infantry relief was commenced on 13th May by the 1st Brigade. Moving with the usual intervals between platoons to minimise the risk of hostile shelling, they took over the l'Epinette subsector on the right. On the following day the 2nd Brigade went into the Houplines subsector, with their left flank on the river Lys. The 3rd Brigade marched up to Armentiéres to be in reserve. By noon on the 16th the relief was complete with the exception of certain artillery units, and the command of the sector passed to the New Zealand Division. Thereupon I. Anzac, having now all its 3 Divisions in the trenches, assumed responsibility for the extended line. The trenches in the reduced II. Corps sector on the north bank of the river were held at the moment by the 9th Division. The New Zealand artillery exchanged their new guns for those of the 17th Division, and had completed their relief by the 19th. Some of the gun positions were in factories on the outskirts of the town behind sliding doors, but most emplacements were hidden away under the cover of hedges walls or artificial camouflage1 The batteries were divided into 3 groups, one of the three 4th Brigade batteries being attached to each group. The 4th Brigade Commander, Lt.-Col. Falla, thus left temporarily unemployed, was appointed Divisional Artillery Intelligence Officer.
1 The outgoing gunners had taken advantage of the quiet period in the spring of 1916 to brighten the vicinity of many of the guns and dugouts with carefully tended flower borders and vegetable gardens These made the battery positions very Conspicuous, and in the active period which began In July were speedily destroyed.
The first trench system occupied by the New Zealanders in France extended for some 4 miles to the east and south-east of Armentières from Pear Tree Farm, just south of the ArmentièrsLille railway, to the river Lys, in front of its suburb Houplines. The whole of this front area was composed of low-lying flats, criss-crossed by canals and railways, in the basin of the muddy, sluggish, canalised Lys. It lay intermediate between the black country to the south and the agricultural district to the north, and reflected characteristics of both regions. In Armentières itself and the villages on the river, Sailly, Bac St. Maur, and Erquinghem, about a third of the civil population remained, and the isolated tree-surrounded brick farms two to three miles behind the trenches were still inhabited. But for the most part the fields on the enemy bank of the Lys, with their pollarded willows, lay unkempt and melancholy, crossed by bands of wire and seamed with trenches. Farm implements rusted where the retreating owner had abandoned them in the German advance. Long scrim barricades hid the exposed parts of the poplar-bordered roads from enemy observation. The German country in front, sparsely wooded and marked by occasional farms, was similarly flat till the ground rose, a mile back, in the Pérenchics ridge behind which lay Lille. The ridge dominated all the low country of the trenches. Very prominent on it was a water tower, used as an observation post. And all along page 27it were set the western forts of Lille, on which was lavished all the strength that German science and industry could contrive.
Experience had early demonstrated the power of modern artillery to break a shallow defence position, and the efficacy, as a counter-measure, of a series of trenches in depth. Behind the front system, for the defence and maintenance of which the Division was responsible, stretched several others in a more or less complete state of organisation. The second line, known as the A.B.C. line, ran in a chain of fortified localities from the southern boundary at Charred Post to Bois Grenier, and thence north to the Ferme do la Hallerie. In the rear of its northern sector again were 2 alternative positions, also formed by a series of posts, to meet the pressure on our salient at Armentières; and with the same object an alternative defence position had been constructed from Armentières to Fleurbaix, which pivoting on the latter village joined up with the posts southwards. Behind this system lay the bridge-heads along the river Lys at Nouveau Monde and Sailly and Bac St. Maur, and extending from the Sailly defences a line ran north to Steenwerck. The whole formed the third or X.Y.Z. line.
As compared with the trench warfare at Anzac, though the essentials remained the same-the immemorial ceremony of “stand-to,” the sentry system, the co-ordination of machine gun positions, the fight against vermin, the sleeping in boots and accoutrements, the incessant labour with spade and sandbag—there were, however, many marked differences. After the deep-dug saps on the Gallipoli ridges, the open trenches in these water-sodden flats, protected by breastworks built up above the ground level, seemed perilously insecure. It had yet to be realised that more elaborate trenches were impossible owing to climatic conditions, the low-lying nature of the country, and the infinitely heavier weight of artillery. Nor were they, as on Gallipoli, manned continuously throughout. Even had the supply of troops been adequate, such a policy, in view of the development of artillery, would have been not merely wasteful of man-power from everyday bombardments and exposure to physical and moral strain, but would also have involved sacrifice of life not less futile than costly against modern methods of attack. The odds in favour of an assault delivered with powerful artillery preparation were conceded, and the likelihood of the enemy's winning a temporary footing in our front line was recognised. But it was the general policy in such an eventuality to restore the page 28situation by counter-attack rather than seek to prevent it by an accumulation of troops in the front line. The quicker such a counter-attack could be delivered, before the enemy had time to reorganise and consolidate his gains, the better; and therefore definite plans were drawn up for this action by reserve troops in each and every part of the line. Should this immediate counter-attack fail, and the enemy' succeed in establishing a firm hold on our front line or in penetrating Deeper, it was not the principle to fritter away reserves in a series of weak efforts, but to deliver under Corps arrangements a grand counter-attack after an interval sufficient to allow the employment of adequate artillery and the maximum force of troops available.
In accordance with this policy, it had already become the general practice to divide a sector into garrisoned “localities” separated by so-called “gaps” of about 200 yards or less. These gaps were carefully enfiladed from wing trenches of the localities on either flank and were also capable of being raked by fire from the support trench in rear. To effect this, all the intervening ground and the former parados, or back wall of the trench, were levelled. In order to deceive aeroplane observation, however, a dummy parados was constructed of a wooden framework covered with netting and scrim which would not interfere with the fire of the supporting troops but would at the same time throw the all-important shadow in the eye, so to speak, of the aeroplane can1era.1 Not less importance was laid on the maintenance of the front parapet in these gaps than in the localities, and on patrolling the and sniping from them, Machine guns and Lewis guns fired regularly from them; and from them the infantry encouraged the baleful activity of the trench mortars so as to draw a substantial proportion of hostile artillery fire on to the untenanted portions.
1 At 3000 ft. aeroplane observes could follow an attack see bombing fights, state the general conditions of trenches and note tracks: at 2500 ft. could see men massed in trenches: at 2000 ft. wire in good light, overhead traverses and comparative width of trenches; at 1500 ft. dugout entrances, comparative depth of Trenches and men making signal; at 1000 ft. could distinguish our men from the enemy especially by the British round tin helmets.
Again, the mass of materials, timber, iron, revetments and revetting frames, heavy beams for dugouts, stakes, sandbags, and so forth, was astounding after the poverty of the Peninsula. Unknown at Anzac were the duckwalks at the bottom of the trenches and in the dugouts where, covered with sandbags, they made a rough bunk. There were real tables and chairs in headquarters, borrowed from the deserted houses and even in the front line system there were carefully screened and protected dwelling huts of solid timber. The machine gun dugouts in particular were roofed with massive baulks. The accommodation generally, though not so luxurious as in the German lines, was of an incomparably higher level of civilisation than the primitive stone-age dwellings at Anzac. Much of the heavier material was manufactured in a sawmill on the Lys controlled by the Division, where civilians, especially women, were employed on the day shifts and part of the lighter material in the brigade workshops in Armentières. So, too, the concrete blocks used as bursters on the tops of dugouts, with a 12-inch air space, or "cushion," underneath to give protection against high-explosive, were mostly made in another factory under Divisional management.
Similarly the unfailing quantity and variety of rations revealed in the strongest possible light the British capacity for organisation. These were delivered by the Train to the quartermasters' stores in Armentières where they were made up for the different company and specialist messes in the line. After dark the transport, with the quartermaster-sergeants in attendance, took them along the exposed roads to the mouths of the saps, whence carrying parties man-hauled them or pushed them up the narrow tramways to the kitchens in the trenches. Thus, as far as hardships and privations were concerned, the balance was all in favour of France. On the other hand, there was the added and ever-dreaded danger of gas, which involved the most elaborate page 30precautions in the way of drill, precautionary measures and warning arrangements. Nor did life at Anzac afford preparatory warning of the weight of artillery fire oil the Western front.
A very remarkable contrast arose from, the continuous development of military technique and the intensive application of science to the military art. This feature made the Gallipoli campaign appear a century behind the warfare in France. It embraced every phase of activity, whether the, meticulous care to restrict the use of telephones in the forward area to tittles of emergency and active operations, or the extensive buried cable systems, or the arrangements for storing water rations and ammunition or the wireless communication between aeroplanes and batteries, or the log-books kept for recording the progress of work, or the organisation of the battalion snipers with their telescopic rifles and amour-piercing bullets to penetrate the enemy's loopholed plates, or the trench code books, whose numbers represented particular messages, and whose key-number was periodically changed. As a particular instance, we may take that of the organisation of intelligence, as being in addition illustrative of the life in the line. Systematic and detailed reports were collated daily by all formations, ensuring continuity of observation from different parts of our positions. This information showing enemy movement, position of active batteries, and so on, was circularised to all concerned and enabled trench intelligence maps to be brought up to date. The following infantry report has been selected as typical of an ordinary quit day in the trenches. The letters and numbers refer to certain sections and subsections of subjects, thus defined for facility of collation by the staffs of higher formations:—
Unit—3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Time—Twenty-four hours ending 6 a.m., 18/7/16
Place—Brigade sector, Bois Grenier
Map Ref.—Sheet 36, 1/10,000
Our machine guns were less active than usual. An enemy working party reported by our patrol was fired upon. Ammunition expended, 1500 rounds.page breakpage 31page break
General Godley inspects Troops
Our patrols operated as usual in No Man's Land. (Report on enemy's wire. See below,)
A. (2) Identification
A man wearing brown cap was seen in front line at I.26.d.0.2.1
(Identification from bomb—see 6.46 below.)
B.(4) Enemy Front and Support Lines
(a) Wire.—Our patrols examined German wire from I.31.d.3.5 to I.31.e.7.0 and report that it is continuous and generally good. Two parties were seen at work strengthening it at I.31.c.9.2 and I.31.c.8.1. Another patrol attempted to carry out similar work from I.26.c.9.4 to I.32.a.3.4, but was unable to proceed owing to the number of enemy working and covering parties.
The enemy parties signalled to each other by a low whistle that our patrol was in the vicinity.
Five enemy parties were heard working on this front.
Fewer flares than usual were used, some of which rose from No Man's Land.
Covering parties appeared to be extended for fifteen or twenty paces.
(b) Movement and Work.—New work is visible at I.21.c.6.1/2. Gap made in parapet here by our artillery two days ago has been filled and covered up.
New work visible at I.21.c.8.4. A concrete work knocked down by our artillery has been replaced.
Very little movement visible in enemy's front line, though working parties were seen at work in rear making a new trench.
They appear to be digging very deep, as the soil is not being built up lo form a breastwork, but is being spread out.
B.(6) Snipers' Posts
Station Building I.27.b.2.4 is suspected of being a snipers' post. This building enables the enemy to dominate Rue du Bois Salient.
B.(18) Enemy Activity
Activity below normal.page 32
1 The large lettered squares of maps were divided into numbered squares, each of which was in turn subdivided into 4 smaller squares, a, b, c, d. The sides of these smaller, squares again were "ticked" on the decimal system. Pinpoint references were obtained by reading from the lower left-hand corner of the smaller square, first along the bottom side, and then up the left side.
C.(24) Movement Behind Enemy's Lines
Haymaking is proceeding as usual at about 1.28.a.0.6. At 4 p.m the usual party, consisting of 25 men, passed this point.
Enemy searchlight was again in operation on Brigade front.
F.(36) Enemy Shelling
Enemy shells fired into our sector amounted to about 70 during the day.
One shell demolished a snipers post in our lines, other-wise slight damage.
A patrol brought in a German stick bomb marked as follows:—
On body L Vor Gebrauch Spreng Kapsol Cinsetzent On handle Carl Spacter (burnt on) 35 (in ink pencil) 5 ½ Sek. (burnt on) 10/3/16 (stamped on)1
M.(88) Enemy Ruses
A periscope was seen to be thrust up inside a box which shows prominently above the parapet at 1.21.c.7.2.
Enemy are using dummy heads opposite Rue du Bois Salient.
M. (98) Miscellaneous
At 6.45 a.m two pigeons were seen to fly from behind our lines across to German lines opposite Brigade sector.2
K. G. S. Caldwell, Lieut.,
For Brigadier-General Commanding 3rd N.Z. (R.)B.
1 “Before use, insert detonator.” Specter was the maker's name, and the time of the fuse: was 51/2 seconds. The importance here attached to an ordinary stick bomb indicates recent arrival in France and ignorance of German on the part of the compiler of the report.
2 An ever-recurring Item in “intelligence” at this time. The majority of the birds seen it may he surmised, were not in German service.
“J'ai bien reeu votre estimée lettre date du 8 courant m'informant du nombre de malades et blessés civils de notre ville soignés dans les hôpitaux britanniques.
“J'ai l'honneur de vous addresser I'expression de ma plus sincère gratitude, ainsi qu'au personnel médical sous vos orders, pour les soins devoués que vous avez bien voulu prodiguer à la population civile éprouveé de notre ville.
“Au nom dc la population d'Armentières je vous prie d'agréer, Monsieur Ie Colonel, avee mes meilleurs remereiment I'assurance de ma considération la plus distinguée.”
Very rarely an aeroplane would drop bombs or a gas cloud would drift through the outskirts. Shelling was rather more frequent. The first heavy bombardment was at the end of May, when a 5.9-in. howitzer, firing 130 rounds with aeroplane observation, demolished the spire of Sacre Cocur church in Houplines, and other batteries put temporarily out of working order the power-plant which supplied current to the pumping-station. Many civilians, especially among the poorer classes, still remained, and there were open all kind of shops estaminets and restaurants. The separate, rooms set page 34aside in the "Au Boeuf" in the Rue de Lille were a favourite gathering place for officers and non-commissioned officers. Even in Houplines some comfortable billets existed, as at Lock House and the Chateau Rose, whose tower, overhanging the inky waters of the Lys, formed an admirable vantage point from which to observe at night the inferno of a bombardment, with gas or smoke waves billowing over the enemy trenches against the lurid glare of the German rockets.
At Pont de Nieppe, the north-western suburb, on the high road to Bailleul, the Divisional baths were located in buildings that once formed part of a textile factor and had been used for bleaching and dyeing. These the Division rented at 1,000 francs per month, and here 1,500 men were bathed a day. Here too 40,000 garments were washed and mended a week by 200 women employed by the Division for this purpose. Practically this was the only source used for issuing underclothing, and while the men bathed, their tunics and trousers were cleaned of vermin. These baths were of inestimable value at all times, and were not least appreciated by the little parties which were sent in turn from the trenches during the activity which was to characterise July. In Armentières itself good swimming baths were installed in the Place Victor. Hugo, which 2,000 men visited a day, and in which subsequently the Division held aquatic sports.
Thus there existed a variety of interests, an intermingling with civilians, and a. fair share of the amenities if not of the luxuries of peace. Some billets near gun positions came in for spasmodic shelling, but the infantryman, after his period of duty in the trenches, trudging back past Shrapnel Corner to, say, the Breuvert Factory in Barbed Wire Square felt, whether fatalist or cheery optimist, that he had for the time left the war behind him, a mental atmosphere which was unknown and impossible in the safest and most seeluded gullies of Anzac.
At the outset, in holding the line the Division followed the method which they had found practiced by the previous garrison. The right brigade subsector, about 2,000 yads in length, was held by the 1st Brigade with 2 battalions in the trenches and 2 in reserve in Armentières. The left subsector, about 4,000 yards in extent, was occupied by the 2nd Brigade with 4 battalions in the line. Its reserve was furnished by a battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. The remainder of the Rifle Brigade and the 3 engineer companies constituted Divisional reserve. This inconvenient page 35arrangement was altered in the first week in June. The front was then divided into 2 equal brigade subsectors, each held by 2 battalions. The third battalion of each brigade was in immediate reserve in the subsidiary line., and the fourth battalion in billets in Armentières.
During June, the II. Anzac Corps, comprising the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, was transferred from Egypt to France, and on the 20th General Godley established his headquarters at Bailleul. The New Zealand Division was at once transferred to his command,1 the 4th Australian Division replacing it in I. Anzac. For the present, however, the Division remained for both tactical and administrative purposes under General Birdwood's control till the first week in Ju1y, when I. Anzac, consisting of the 1st 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions, set out for the battlefield on the Somme. General Godley then took command of the sector. Prior to his departure General Birdwood paid a farewell visit to the New Zealand trenches, as hr had made a final tour of their positions on Gallipoli after the commencement of the evacuation. This move of the Australian troops affected the New Zealand Division in another way, as its front was now extended southwards to include the adjoining Bois Grenier subsector. Here, during a heavy hostile bombardment, a brigade of the 2nd Australian Division was relieved on 4th July; by the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade. The Divisional artillery at the same time took over the battery positions supporting the new subsector.
All 3 infantry brigades were now in the line, and no formed Divisional reserve was available. The Pioneers were earmarked for the inner Armentières defences, and arrangements were made to form a. composite reserve of the Engineer companies and the battalion of each brigade in the town billets. On alarm these would assemble at their respective alarm posts and report to Divisional Headquarters by telephone, or., if the wire were cut, by an officer. During the following week the front was again extended south by the inclusion of the Rue du Bois subsector, held by another Australian brigade. The Rifle Brigade side-stepped south and retaining half of the Bois Grenier subsector took over the whole of the new subsector. The northern half of the Bois Grenier subsector was added to the 1st Brigade area. At the same time the 5th Australian relieved the 4th Australian Division in the southern half of the Corps sector.
1 p. 11.
This extension to a long front of 8½ miles, normally occupied by 2 Divisions, threw a considerable strain both on the fighting troops and on administrative services. Thus the Field Ambulances now manned 5 advanced and 3 main dressing stations, in addition to the Divisional rest station. Each infantry brigade had now 3 battalions in the trenches and 1 in the subsidiary line. The Division was left without infantry reserves, and reliefs in the line were confined for the most part to internal battalions arrangements, companies taking turn in the front and support trenches. This unusually long period of duty in the line without a rest spell in Armentières added to the trying conditions during July, led to a rather high rate of sickness, which was further aggravated by a measles epidemic. Not least affected by the arduous nature of their duties were the machine gun companies.
The Battle of the Somme commenced on 1st July. With a view to distracting the enemy.'s attention and retaining his troops in their areas, active minor operations were undertaken along the whole northern front, both previous to and after the outbreak of the storm. In this liveliness the New Zealanders played their full part. Gas and smoke were repeatedly discharged over the German positions with at least occasionally happy results, as on the night 13th/J4th August, when it was established that the enemy had manned his parapet in strength and suffered heavy casualties from the gas and the artillery bombardment which accompanied it. The 24th June dates the inception of a marked increase in artillery expenditure, which was maintained thence onwards for 18 days. During this period the expenditure of ammunition by the Divisional batteries rarely fell under 1,500 and frequently exceeded 3,000 shells a day. Not merely the battery positions and observation posts, but also the "tender spots" behind the German line, the large dumps also, as at La Crois au Bois, and the battalion or regimental headquarters as at the Ferme du Chastel and Ferme des Deux Treilles were subjected to systematic bombardment. Billets were treated with sudden short salvoes. Every night the Divisional Ammunition Column wagons, in addition to the battery wagons, went to the gunpits. Their work was heavy, as after the expansion of the Divisional sector they supplied no less than 11 miles of front. In the air, activity similarly increased. On 26th June, in the pellucid clearness of the summer evening, 4 German balloons above Quesnoy hung page 37in the sky looking over our area. Above the New Zealand trenches 3 British aeroplanes circled; and hovered slowly; and then at a given signal from their leader suddenly darted off in a straight line across the sky toward they enemy balloons. Like lightning, each aeroplane dived at a balloon, and in 2 minutes 3 of these were falling in a mass of red flames, and the fourth was being lowered with frenzied haste. At the sight of the flames and the cigar-shaped streamers of smoke which hung for long in the windless air, the New Zealand sentries, not yet sophisticated, broke into exultant cheers, feeling dimly the incident to he an auspicious omen for those great operations which they knew were on foot somewhere in the near future.
The instructions for activity of all arms were repeated on 9th July. The Corps Commander then laid it down "that it must be clearly understood that greater risk must be incurred and heavier casualties faced than would be profitable under conditions of trench-warfare." He desired that "all ranks should understand that they had an opportunity of materially assisting the action of our armies in the south, and that special efforts were required of them." Wire-cutting, demolition of parapets, bursts of fire on enemy billets, and raids or gas discharges or dummy raids were to take place nightly. This programme was rigidly adhered to.
Of greatest importance was the series of raids now delivered on the enemy trenches in rapid succession. This species of military enterprise had originated out of the lessons taught by renewed and expensive experience., that no permanent lodgment on a small scale in an enemy's fortified system is, even if possible, worth the inevitable cost. Participants in small raids seldom stayed beyond 15 minutes in the German trenches. The objects of the raids were, while maintaining and developing the offensive spirit in one's own forces, primarily to secure identification from the enemy, to kill or capture the garrisons assaulted, destroy or bring back machine guns and mortars, and weaken his morale. Now there was the added object of retaining his troops. In the stagnant trench warfare, unproductive indeed of large movement but offering extensive scope for resourcefulness' and ingenuity, these operations were on both sides conducted with a very high degree of scientific skill and elaborate preparation.
The length of trench to he assaulted was carefully selected and reconnoitered from the ground and the air, and page 38when opportunity permitted an exact replica was constructed well in rear for practice by the raiding party. The artillery plans for careful registration so as to avoid suspicion, for diversions, such as wire-cutting elsewhere, to detract attention from the real objective, and for protection to the raiders in the actual attack were worked out with minute thoroughness. All marks of identification were taken off the raiders, and hands and faces were blackened so as not to show in the darkness. Bayonets were specially sharpened and dulled. To light up dugouts, electric torches were often attached to the rifles, bound on with insulated tape just below the lower band. Next to the revolver, a favourite weapon was the knobkerry, carried suspended from the wrist by a stout thong running through the hole in the handle. Special signals were used to recall the raiders, and white tapes to guide them back to the gap in our own wire. To ensure success all arrangements were completed days previously; but sometimes, as also in the case of gas, when discharge depended on the direction and strength of the wind, it was not possible or desirable to settle the exact zero hour till comparatively shortly beforehand. In that case notification of the time selected would be sent over the telephone in such a form as to rouse no suspicion in the German operators sitting at their listening apparatus, and occasionally with felicitous irony, such as in the case of a raid accompanied by bombardment, “Iron rations will be delivered at…..”
To meet similar action on the part of the enemy, elaborate measures were taken. Plans of our counter-action at salients and other vulnerable points were formed after careful study of maps and photographs from the enemy's point of view. Good wire entanglements, the command of No Man's Land by patrols, and a sound system of listening posts made a silent raid in the nature of a surprise all but impracticable. Wire, above all, was necessary, and wiring was one of the infantryman's most important and dangerous duties. The risks may be illustrated by a 2nd Wellington experience at the beginning' of July. Sergt. J. Courtney was in command of a wiring party when hostile machine gun fire was directed at them. Two men were killed and two wounded. Courtney ordered the remainder of the party back, he himself carrying one of the wounded men. The other walked in by himself, but in ignorance of this Courtney went out again with the stretcher-bearers to find him. He found the body of one of the dead men and brought it in. Then finally he went out page 39to search the ground to ensure that no one was left in No Man's Land. All this was done under continuous heavy machine gun fire, which greatly increased the difficulties of negotiating our own entanglements.
Of hardly less importance was thorough and systematic patrolling. Every night the front was covered by little groups in No Man's Land, and many and diverse were their experiences amid the ditches shcllholes ruins and hedges. It was now that Pte. Richard Clark Travis, of 2nd Otago, began to win a name for marked resourcefulness and initiative. Not satisfied with night work, he repeatedly led daylight patrols close up to the enemy's wire. For 40 nights in succession, from dusk to daylight, he spent the whole time in No Man's Land. One of his characteristic actions may be briefly related. One evening, just before he moved out on his nightly mission, an enemy patrol was reported near our wire. Our sentries chanced to be raw recruits. Relieved that no worse befell them, they were allowing the Germans to withdraw undisturbed. Wrathfully Travis picked up the nearest rifle. He went unhesitatingly over the parapet through our wire (not necessarily a difficult feat at that time) and emptied his magazine into the dimly discerned forms of the retreating patrol, one of whom fell.
Where our wire was good, bombardment was necessary to break it and so afforded warning. In the case of an obvious "box" barrage at any point in our trenches, unnecessary loss and demoralisation could be avoided and our infantry could escape destruction by going out into No Man's Land, where also they might be expected to deal more effectively with an attack, or by slipping to a flank. No retrograde movement was allowable, and the garrison detailed to hold the line had to fight it out to the last. The hostile bombarding guns, whose exact positions were generally known by aeroplane photographs, flash-spotting towers, sound-ranging instruments, and other technical inventions, were themselves engaged with high-explosive from the "heavies" or seige howitzers of the Army and Corps artillery set aside for counter-battery work, which was as a rule undertaken by guns employed on this purpose practically exclusively.
Communications between the infantry garrison and the Divisional artillery were vital and were maintained by telephone lamp and rocket, and by close personal touch and mutual understanding between the officers of each arm. Thus, for example, the night lines of the artillery were not necessarily page 40within the zone allotted for day shooting, but depended largely on the representations of the infantry brigadier, who was responsible for determining the question as to which part of his front the Germans could reasonably hope to rush by night without previous bombardment. Behind the front, in suitable places, were the observation posts manned day and night by artillery personnel, whose scrutiny of the line never flagged. These posts were in factory chimneys,1 trees, rising ground, houses, and so on, all as far as practicable made proof against weather and direct hits from field artillery. Beside each was a dugout, proof against direct hits from “five-nines.” Each post was named and marked by a board bearing its name. Telephone lines, moreover, for maintenance of which the infantry was responsible, connected battalions and brigades with supporting artillery. In the same way, each front-line company was connected with its supporting battery, though in this case, owing to the proximity of hostile listening sets, the actual use of the telephone was restricted to test or actual S.O.S. messages. Brigade and battery commanders visited the line so many times weekly, and were directly represented in the trenches by a liaison officer, who acted as observation officer during the day and lived at battalion headquarters at night.
1 Some of these swayed alarmingly in any wind.
To test efficiency of signal communications a battalion or company commander could at any time call for a test round by the message, "Test one round," followed by the number of the trench. The time between the acceptance of the message by the signal operator in the trenches and the arrival of the round in the enemy's position was not expected to exceed 30 seconds.
In addition to the telephone and lamp signals as means of communication were the S.O.S. rockets. These were the same throughout a Corps front, but from time to time their nature and colour changed. They were kept on sticks or stands, ready to be fired, at the headquarters of battalions and companies, at every officer's dugout in the front line, and I convenient, spot at least on each company sector. On an attack they were fired at short intervals till the response of the artillery was unmistakable.
On the appearance of a S.O.S. rocket the gunners at their observation posts would at once clamp a pointer on a graduated and orientated dial in its direction; and thus discovering the position of the locality affected communicate it independently to the batteries. The instant the call for support came to the batteries, whether from their own observers or direct from the infantry, the 18-pounders placed a shrapnel barrage as near our trenches as safety permitted at the rate of 3 rounds per gun per minute, and after 2 minutes crept forward lifting 50 yards at 1-minute intervals at the rate of 2 rounds per gun per minute to the enemy front-line trenches, where the barrage became stationary, and high-explosive was substituted wholly or in part for shrapnel. The howitzers at the same time fired each a round a minute with the object of destroying the enemy's front trench and garrison, or blocking his communications, or bombarding known headquarters. Mortars and machine guns had their action similarly defined.
A like procedure was adopted in cloud gas attacks. The howitzers and trench mortars bombarded the trench from which it was emitted, and the 18-pounders, alert for a possible S.O.S. call, placed a light barrage in front of the enemy's lines to prevent his patrols from crossing No Man's Land. The working of the machine guns was tested by occasional short bursts. "With their respirators adjusted, the troops directly page 42affected fired their rifles at a slow rate, while those on the flanks made ready to enfilade an infantry attack.
Immediately prior and subsequent to the beginning of the Somme battle the number of the British raids was increased, and the scale on which they were delivered was enlarged all along the front of the Northern. Armies. In the last week of June no fewer than 70 were delivered between Ypres and the northern fringe of the battle area. On the Divisional front one raid had already been delivered by the 2nd Brigade at the extreme northern end of the sector, opposite the village of Frelinghien, which lay down the Lys north-east of Houplines. Early in June suspicions had been aroused in the minds of the Army Staff by a new trench which had crept forward at this point some 800 yards across a German re-entrant and thence diagonally over No Man's Land towards the Lys. On an aeroplane photograph this new work looked exactly like a harbour breakwater, the main trench and the saps connecting them appearing like the wharf side and the town streets. It was accordingly called the Breakwater. It was possible that the new works were designed merely to improve the German positions. But certain indications, such as an increase in local wireless communications, appeared suggestive of hostile preparations, and it was thought probable that the enemy would try to follow up a recent success snatched against the Canadians in the Ypres salient1 by a similar attack on other Overseas troops for the identity of the Australians had been discovered—if only to form some estimate of their value. In this neighbourhood there was no specially important tactical feature to attract German attention, but on the other hand the enemy would have an initial advantage from the fact that there was no depth behind our line owing to the proximity of the village of Houplines, and that his right flank was protected by the river. Corps Headquarters considered that the enemy's works might be connected with some plan to capture and include in his line the ruined buildings called Hobbs' Farm, which lay just behind our front trench and which were indeed suspiciously immune from shelling.
1 This attack, 2nd June, was intended to interfere with the arrangements for our Somme offensive. The lost ground was recovered on 13th June.
1 p 136.
It was now the turn of the 1st Brigade, and on 1st July a raid was carried out by 1st Wellington on the trenches opposite Pigot's Farm. These marked the junction of the sectors held by 2 German Divisions.1 The unusually excellent account rendered by the battalion to Brigade Headquarters is reproduced.
1 The 24th and 50th.