The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter IV — Winter on the Lys
Winter on the Lys
By 12th October the Division, less its artillery, was concentrated in the rear area of 11. Anzac, Divisional Headquarters at Merris, the 1st Brigade at Estaires, the 2nd at Strazeele, and the 3rd at Outerstcene. Corps Headquarters had mean time shifted from La Motte1 to the town of Bailleul. In the right of the Corps there was now the 5th Australian, and in the centre the 34th Division. The northern sector was no longer held by the 51st Division, which had relieved the New Zealanders in August, for in the following month they had been withdrawn for. a second visit to the Somme. At the moment there had been no fresh troops available to take their place. A composite formation, therefore, had been raised by withdrawing 2 Brigade Groups from the other 2 Divisions that completed the Corps. Command had been given to Major-General Franks, of the Second Army Staff, and the formation itself was designated Franks' Force. To avoid drawing on the resources of the Divisions, the Staff, together with the necessary clerks and office equipment, had been provided by the Army and Corps.
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The Sailly sector extended for 3 miles in flat pleasantly wooded country before the German positions at Fromelles and on the Aubers Ridge, which guarded the south-western approach to Lille and had looked down on the slaughter of Neuve Chapelle and the XI. Corps repulse in Ju1y. 1 The front area was crossed by a network of several sluggish streams and drains running back among the hedge-rows to the Lys. The principal of these was the Laies. All were now considerably swollen by the late antumn rains, and broad tracts along their banks were little better than marshes, in which the movement of our patrols was to be much hampered till the frosts of January.
Across these streams ran the continuous breastworks of the front line and the derelict close support line. This latter, though not manned, was maintained in outward repair, and in it men occasionally showed themselves; and fires were kindled in order to give the enemy the impression of occupation and to attract shelling. The real support line lay somewhat in rear, in a series of small garrison posts connected laterally by a continuous fire trench. Further again in rear were the series of defended localities, Charred, Windy, Winter's Night Posts and others, that formed the third or subsidiary line of the front system. These were joined by a rudimentary trench, which was in a few places fire-stepped and revetted.
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In each brigade sector 2 battalions garrisoned the trenches, and 2 were in suppornt in the farms and villages in rear in accordance with the established principle of defence in depth, and to avoid unnecessary casualties, the front line was held only by, outposts with sufficient support of Lewis guns and a few machine guns to ensure the repulse of a hostile attack delivered without bombardment. Not more than 150 men all told manned 1000 yards. The garrisons of the support line were 3 times; as strong. Here there were some deep dugouts, electrically ventilated and lighted, each capable of holding a company. Several of the subsidiary line garrisons, again, could boast of a habitation in abandoned farmhouses, but generally the accommodation was inadequate The relieved Australian battalions had been of weak strength, and the first urgent task was to provide shelter for all the troops in the line. Trench kitchens too had to be made weather-proof before the winter rains set in. To effect these and similar improvements, as well as to replace by training the specialists lost on the Somme, and to familiarise themselves with their new surroundings in and in front of their trenches, the battalions remained temporarily quicscent. Towards the end of the month they were visited by the Premier of New Zealand and Sir Joseph Ward, who attended the presentation by General Plumer of decorations won on the Somme, and with him inspected the troops in reserve and the Pioneer Battalion.
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By the beginning of November the infantry in the line had constructed tolerable accommodation and could turn undisturbed attention to the markedly inaggressive troops of the II. Bavarian Corps opposite. 1 The first attempt to renew acquaintance was not to be crowned with success. Early in the morning of 6th November a small raiding party of 1st Wellington attempted an entry, without artillery support, into a German post known as the Tadpole. A gap in the wire had been cut on the 5th. Stealing across the 100 yards of No Man's Land, however, the party found 4 rows of knife-rests placed just outside the parapet, effectually preventing an entry. At the same hour, 34th Division troops, further on the left, forcing a way in, killed several Germans but secured no prisoners or identifications. To atone for this lack of success, the artil1ery on all 3 sectors of the Corps front took up the work and pounded the enemy's trenches for 2 half-hour periods, causing satisfactory destruction.
1 The 38th Landwehr Regiment and a portion of the 5th Bavarian Division.
Much the same experience befell a 1st Canterbury party with a small detachment of Engineers on 21st November in the. trenches opposite the south-western face of the Cordon-nerie salient. They attacked also on a very dark evening of a misty day. The artillery bombarded the whole front from the salient known as the Sugar Loaf, opposite our extreme right, northwards to the Tadpole, except the objective itself, which was dealt with by trench mortars. The time laid down for the assault was 7 p.m. At 6.55 p.m. the medium trench mortars twisted and crumpled the wire into heaped-up masses, and at 7 p.m. lifted on to machine gun emplacements in the enemy line. As the raiders went forward, one of them trod on a "blind" mortar bomb, or caught the trip-wire of an enemy mine. In the explosion Capt. E. H. L. Bernau who led the party, and 12 men were wounded. The others scrambled through the wire and entered the 8-feet deep trench. They found it blocked with knife-rests and empty. Flashing their torches into the dugouts, they could discover neither within page 129their sandbagged walls nor elsewhere any sign of recent occupation. Only a pair of rotting human legs in dirty field-grey trousers protruded from underneath a heap of debris. A large concrete block, which appeared to cover a mine-shaft and which was strongly protected by barbed wire, was blown up by the Engineers On the same night a patrol found the area between the enemy position known as the Knucklebone and the Laies unoccupied, except by one of those itinerant German “Flareboys” who were detaild to move along empty trenches, lighting rockets and firing occasional rifle shots.
These enterprises were enough to show that the enemy's line was held even more lightly than our own, From this time on till the Division left the sector, not a single night passed without raiders or patrols-for the functions merged —entering his lines, ransacking his quarters, sometimes kidnapping a sentry, sometimes meeting opposition. Nor was this enough to satisfy, the bold temperament of the snipers, who are long enseonsed themselves in his front line parapet and harassed the sentries of his support line. Not a little information was obtained on the habits and dispositions of the enemy. Following on incursions made by 1st Canterbury and the 2nd Rifles, the Corps Commander forwarded the following message of appreciation from General Plumer: “The Army Commander has read your report on the results of reconnaissances carried out by patrols of the New Zealand Division on the night of 7th/8th December. He considers that very good work was carried out by the units concerned, and that useful information has been obtained.” In this warfare of silent stalking and reconnaissance in the dark mazes of the enemy's flooded trenches the infantry became exceptionally adept, and when the 3rd Australian Division came into the area, suitably selected officers were sent to give the newly-arrived battalions lessons in the art.
To bombard these waterlogged positions would have been a waste of ammunition, which moreover had been drastically curtailed by the requirements of the Somme battle and by the necessity of accumulating reserves for the spring. But trenches, parapets, machine gun emplacements, mortar positions and wire were daily bombarded by our heavy and medium trench mortars, This was indeed their haleyon period. In carrying their weighty projectiles up the muddy duckboards they had infantry assistance, but the work of building positions, moving the mortars, and firing their page 130300 or 400 rounds a day was excessively laborious. Into their task they. threw themselves with an energy and enthusiasm which made it a sport and relaxation. They played havoc with the German trenches. Wire duckboards debris iron timber and on rare occasions a sentry were thrown high into the air. Some projectiles landing in the swamps behind the German line sent up tall tree-shaped geysers of mud and water. The incessant work of Lt. F. J. W. Stallard and the personnel of the medium trench mortars in particular won General Russell's special thanks.
1 When this patrol was ordered to withdraw. Rflmn. N. A. Nicholson did so, but lay on the outer edge of the enemy's wire with another man to cover the movements of his companions. Hearing groans coming from the parapet, he made his way again through the entangletments; and discovered a badly wounded comrade. Having dressed his wounds, he decided that in view of their nature it was not advisable to carry the man. He therefore returned to our lines and reported the case to his company commander, who at once organised a party with a stretcher. Nicholson guided this party back, and the wounded man was safely recovered.
The night was cold and misty when the raiders set out. Of the 1st Brigade parties from 1st Auckland and 1st Wellington, 4 found the positions unoccupied and a stench of fetid water and rotting bodies. In rear. of the front trench was abysmal mud, through which some floundered as far as a shelltorn farm near the. support line. Of the other 2 parties, I was detected in the wire. It was fired on and sustained casualties. The second reached the parapet when they were challenged by a sentry, who called out what seemed to be “New Zealand,” and the sound of hurrying feet along the duckboards was followed by ineffective rifle fire.
The right Rifle Brigade patrol from the 3rd Battalion found entry. barred by a 20-yard broad entanglement. The centre party from this battalion saw a glare of lights and heard a machine gun fire in the support trench 200 yards in rear. The third was checked at the intended point of entry by a 15-feet wide moat, which contained 6 feet of water and was blocked with wire. Bent, however, on introducing some newly-arrived reinforcements in the party to the interior of the Geman lines, their leader made a detour over an awkward icy-cold ditch and brought his party to the parapet at another point. Here too the trench was empty. There was no sound of life save the hammering of wire pickets in the distance. Of the 4th Battalion parties, I saw in No Man's Land an enemy patrol, which frustrated an attempt at its capture by' precipitate withdrawal. The raiders then made for the German lines. They found them occupied. The stretch of intervening trench between communication saps was wired, but at their heads were sentry posts, which were periodically visited by patrols. The centre party found the wire impassable all along its front and the sector strongly manned.
The most interesting adventure befell the left patrol, which reached the enemy's parapet without difficulty. Some 30 yards away a middle-aged German of the 82nd Regiment was keeping an inadequate watch. He was suffering from a cold, and to give himself some protection from the wind he had blocked the trench with a sheet of corrugated iron. His cough betrayed him to the crouching assailants, page 132and they determined to capture him. As the trench in front looked dark and deep, they waited for a German flare to illuminate it before they took the plunge When the flare went up, the trench was seen to be 9-feet deep and blocked with wire. The officer decided then to work along the parapet, but after crawling a few yards found the enemy wire brought right back to the trench's edge. There was nothing left but to throw a couple of bombs at the unsuspecting German ad rush him. The bombs burst suddenly in the silence The raiders picked a hast, way over the wire, tore the sheet down, and behind it found the sentry lying dead. A second German, badly wounded, was crawling down to the communication trench. Chase was at once given by part of the patrol. Hearing the panting pursuers behind him, the German redoubled his efforts. He just managed to half enter, half fall into a deep dugout with steel doors. Inside it were 3 unwounded men. They made frantic efforts to shut the door. Ere it slammed, 2 bombs were thrown in, and the muffled explosion shook the loose earth down by the raiders' feet. Inside the dugout all 4 must have perished. Meanwhile the rest of the patrol were searching, none too gently, the dead sentry. His greatcoat was tightly buttoned against the damp cold of the night, and he wore a belt which it was found difficult to undo. At the first sound of the boumbs 9 party of Germans had moved up at once from the support trench, and their stick grenades were now falling close, but the patrol secured the necessary identifications before it withdrew.
All the parties were back, without casualties, by, 3 a.m. As a result of this highly successful operation the posts held in the enemy's line were largely determined. The 5th Bavarians, opposite the 1st Brigadr, had abandoned their front line with the exception of one or two. posts in the Sugar Loaf. The Landwehr Brigade, opposite the Rifles, still garrisoned their front with sentry posts at certain places. These Strong points at the heads of communication-trenches and elsewhere were maked down for operations in the future.
A few enemy were seen On the evening of 7th December by a 2nd Rifles party which penetrated the Angle. In order not to frighten the sentries away, the raiders attacked without any arti1lery or mortar preparation. As they neared, they saw 3 Germans working on the parapet, but these ran away. Somewhere a horn blew an alarm. Our party page 133lobbed a few bombs before them into the trench and made for the parapet. The trench was found much demolished. Bombs were thrown at the intruders from a distance, but no German could be discovered The sappers blew up a stick-grenade store, and the party returned unscathed through slight enemy retaliation, which, on our rear trenches, took the form of lachrymatory gas.
These raids and nightly visitations by patrols at last goaded the Germans out of their torpor. As the light was fading away in the afternoon of 10th December, a heavy burst of machine gun and rifle fire swept the 1st Rifles parapets. At the time our men were “standing-to,” and our own Lewis guns and rifles answered immediately The flashes from the enemy trenches died away, and half an hour later everything was still quiet. The night sentries were posted, and the rest of the time "stood down" to draw their tea.
All at once a heavy bombardment set in of mortar projectiles on the front trench and of shrapnel and high-explosive shells on the support. The garrison dropped their tea and ran back to the fire-bays. Every man was in position three or four minutes after the first shell landed. In No Man's Land a line of pollarded trees ran along a small ditch to our parpet near a “gap.” Alongside the “gap”' was a Lewis gun position manned by 4 private soldiers. A “rumjar” landed in the bay, severely wounding 3 of the men and knocking the No.1 Rflmn. W. H. Butler, off the fire step. The wounded gunners refused to leave their bay, and Butler, though severely shaken, instantly picked up the Lewis gun again and asked them to put up n flare. In this light he saw a party of Germans fumbling with the wire in front of the “gap.” At once he opened fire but after half a minute the gun, with characteristic obduracy, jammed. The gunner cursed it and furiously strove to set it again in action, but the leading Germans were already beginning to number through the wire. A corporal in the next bay shot one through the head. The raiders replied by a shower of bombs. One landed in the corporal's bay, sweeping the men off the fire-step, and another wounded Butler. Then Rflmn. P. H. Gifford, one of the gun team, who had already been severely hit, resumed his place on the fire-step and stood guard over his stricken comrades, continuing to fire at the approaching raiders. The Germans, however, finding their entry was to be opposed, decided that they had had enough, page 134and while their covering bombardment was still falling on each flank and on our support line, they turned and fled. All our machine guns and Lewis guns vindictively swept their retirement, but then ceased to allow the riflemen to pursue. Intent on revenge, these patrols followed the raiders across to their own parapet. In our own wire, opposite Butler's bay, they found a second dead German, riddled by Lewis gun fire, but were unable to capture a live prisoner. The retreat had been too hasty, and all along the trees in the wet grass lay the discarded grenades and dropped helmets of the fleeing raiders. In our own trenches 4 men had been killed and 12 wounded. Gifford, who had been a particularly skilled and fearless Lewis gunner, died of his wounds a few days later.
If the Germans required a lesson in the thorough organisation and daring execution of a raid, it was given to them a week later by the 4th Rifles. Under Capt. W. W. Dove, a large party of 5 officers and 170 men, with a dozen sappers, assembled just before midnight, 17th/18th December, to attack Corner Fort The necessary gap in the wire was cut by trench mortars previously, and these, with artillery, stood by ready to give support if required. The night was peculiarly dark and foggy. At rare intervals an enemy sentry shot a foolish unnamed bullet across No Man's Land or fired a flare. The raiders were divided into 3 parties. All reached their allotted point of entry. Directly they threw their first bombs, flares shot up along the front line at the Fort and in astonishing profusion from the support line. Heavy machine gun fire opened behind the Angle, but was at once stifled by the. watching mortars in our trenches. One party floundered down a commnunication trench, waist-deep in water, amid floating duckboards. They secured no prisoners, but killed 5 Germans.
The second party, under 2nd Lt. B. Mollison, found the same miserable conditions in Corner Fort, Where dummy works of canvas and wood had been sorely battered by our trench mortars. A sentry group of 4 was "done in." From a maze of trenches in rear, which formed a Strong Point, 2 machine guns opened fire, but these were bombed, and the crews were killed. A strenuous effort was made by Rflmn. J. Keys and E. M. Phelan to bring back the guns, but the entanglements and floods surrounding the position were impassable. One was destroyed. This second party also were unfortunate in not being able to secure prisoners, but page 135they left 20 lifeless Germans prone in the water and mud or stretched across the wire.
The objective of the third party, which was led by Sergt. W. McConachy, was the support line. Unlike the front line, it was found in good condition. The walls were well revetted with birch branches, the duckwalks wired, and every 20 yards was a good 7-feet high dugout with a porch holding rifle-racks. Nearly all the occupants, however, had fled. Some 17 showed fight and paid the penalty. This party secured 9 Landwehr prisoners, some in the communication trench, others in the support line, and 1 in No Man's Land. Meanwhile the Engineers had blown up a long section of the tramway and a large pumping-plant. The half-hour allotted for the enterprise had now expired. Across No Man's Land came the strident blast of a Klaxon horn, blown in our lines as a signal of recall, and a white rocket rising from our parapet and bursting into green stars summoned the raiders home. In addition to the prisoners a mass of papers was brought back. Of the raiders, only I was killed and 4 wounded. The battalion received congratulatory messages from the Army and Corps Commanders.
On 20th December, a 1st Auckland raiding party penetrated far behind the German front line, but found no sign of the enemy. Three nights later the German defence secured a solitary success, and a disastrous enterprise by the 3rd Rifles, in bright starlight, was redeemed only by individual acts of gallantry and self-sacrifice. The enemy allowed the party to get through his entanglements, when he opened up a string fire and threw masses of bombs. 2nd Lt. M. F. Walsh, cheering his men to the attack, fell mortally wounded on the parapet. An enemy machine gun was hoisted on a flank, but Cp1. H. Anderson, a very gallant non-commissioned officer, with another man, rushed at it un-hesitatingly, and flung his bomb so accurately that it killed the crew and blew the gun into the air. His promptness saved many lives. On the raiders' withdrawing, after suffering many casualties, Rflmn. J. Hansen, a stretcher-bearer. tended our wounded for nearly an hour under artillery machine gun and rifle fire, in the shellholes on the enemy parapet and between the parapet and wire, till an opportunity offered and they were brought back to our trenches. There, on its being discovered that I wounded man had been overlooked and was still in the wire, Rflmn. W. D. H. Milne volunteered to return to his rescue. He had reached page 136the wounded man and was bringing him hack through the enemy entanglements when he was mortally wounded.
Meantime, the stay of the detached 2nd Brigade at Houplines had been comparatively uneventful. Just after its arrival, President Poincare motored to Armentieres to present medals; to the Marie and others of the civil population, but his visit was strictly private, and at his express wish no military honours were paid. Brigade headquarters was in the Rue des Jesuits in Armentieres. 2 battalions, relieved every 8 days, held the front line, I occupied the subsidiary line: and I was in billets in the town. For the most part they carried out the normal duties of a trench garrison, harassing the enemy. draining their areas, improving accommodation and trenches, and carrying up the weighty gas cylinders for installation under the front line parapet.1 Once or twice the two opposing trenches broke into rifle fire at the flocks of geese passing overhead from the Lys swamps. On 20th Octobcr, following a dummy raid with heavy-trench mortars and in co-operation with enterprises on our flanks, a 2nd Canterbury patrol endeavoured to enter the Pont Ballot trenches, but found 2 rows of wire out of the 5 uncut. Unable to break through these, the patrol moved along for 100 yards, throwing bombs into the trench. In the right of the sector, Auckland and Canterbury relieved each other, and here, after artil1ery preparation, a raiding part of the 6th (Hauraki) comany of 2nd Auckland, under Lt, C. Hally, in the evening of 3rd November, killed 4 Bavarians and captured 2 prisoners. They stayed but 5 minutes in the enemy trenches and suffered no casualties.
1 The gas was actually emitted by personnel of the Special Brigade, R.E.
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Brig.-Gen. C. H. J. Brown, D. S. O.
Brig.-Gen. H. Hart, C.B., C. M. G., D. S. O.
2nd Otago were holding this line on the evening of 25th October, when a German party was noticed near our wire and dispersed by bombs. Half an hour later, our listening post of 2 men again saw 20 Germans making for the wire. On their being challenged, a muttered order was given, and the enemy deployed, making ready to rush the post. Before these withdrew to give warning, they shot the leader of the hostile party and threw their bombs. Our Lewis guns then opened and dispersed the raiders, and later the dead body was brought in.
Otago was to be less fortunate on 15th November. For 3 days previously a slow continuous trench mortar bombardment had been directed at our wire in front of "88." A mortar bomb fell every 20 minutes, and in the end scareely a vestige of our entanglements remained In the evening of the 15th, our front line garrison heard a loud noise, as of stakes being hammered, in the enemy trenches. It was just the time for our evening meal, and the fire-bays were to some extent depleted. No special attention was paid to the unusual noise. But it was not without purpose. It was designed to drown any sound of movement made by a party of German raiders passing over their parapet and wire, and under its cover the 30 Bavarian "sturm truppen" formed up in No Man's Land undetected. Without warning, an intense and most accurate bombardment was opened by the enemy's "five-nines" and by mortars firing from the Chicken Run and from the 4 Hallots Farm, known also by page 138another name. The whole Otago front was affected, but the shelling on Hobbs' Farm and at the Lys were diversions, and the fire fell with special severity on the ill-fated "88." The trenches at its flanks were demolished by a quite exceptionally heavy box barrage by trench mortars, and the communication trench running forward to it was barraged at the support line. Most unfortunately the garrison of "88" did not put up its S.O.S., while the occupants of the Hobbs' Farm trenches did. Thus our artillery response fell east of Hobbs' Farm, and the "sturm truppen" traversed NO Man's Land against "88" unmoiested. Three parties attacked, the main assault coming down the northern side of the 15-feet bank. About 20 of the garrison had been casualties in the bombardment, and the remainder, caught disorganised, were unable to prevent the raiders' entry or offer effective resistance. They were overwhelmed, and many were killed by revolver shots. Two men had taken refuge, in a small bivouae. The outside one was not completely hidden, and a passing Bavarian blew his brains out over the inside man. On the noise of the revolver shots in "88" our Lewis guns on the flanks and rear opened fire, and a neighbouring section, under Pte. J. W. 0'Brien, made a gallant counter-attack. He had been wounded at the outset in the left shoulder and was unabel to use his rifle. His post on the parpet had been blown in, but till the limits of the raid were defined he had refused to leave it. He now led his comrades down the trench, hurling bombs passed to him from the rear. But it was too late. Five minutes from the moment of entry, a horn-blast signal was given in the German lines. The Bavarian officer blew his whistle, and the raiders disappeared into No Man's Land as suddenly as they had come. The raid had been admirably planned and was a distinct success for the enemy. The Germans left behind one of their number dead. A heap of unexploded mobile charges.; at a dummy entrance to our mine galleries indicated that the destruction of the last had been aimed at but frustrated by reason of the darkness, the shortness of time at the raiders' disposa1, or some other cause. One of our garrison was taken prisoner, and one missing man was buried in the trenches or killed in No Man's Land. Including the losses of a working party in the vicinity, some 20 men were killed and an officer and 30 men wounded. Our trenches suffered almost irreparable damage.
In retaliation, on the following afternoon, 16th November, our heary howitzers and guns bombarded Frèlinghien and page 139the enemy trenches and rest billets, the German batteries answering by a desultory shelling of Armentièrcs in the evening. Our infantry too sought revenge. At dusk a small Otago raiding party reconnoitred the strong German entanglements, but were unable to discover a gap for entry. For the same reason, success was not vouchsafed to a raid maid on 18th November by the Australian company of the II. Anzae Cyclist Battalion, which was attached to the British brigade on the right sector of the Franks' Force area.
On the arrival of the New Zea1and artillery from the Somme, the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade had relieved the Australian gunners that supported General Braithwaite's infantry. Shortly afterwards, in accordance with a principle now introduced prescribing a 3 months' tour of duty at Sling for the infantry brigadiers in rotation, General Braith-waite went to England. In command of the 2nd Infantry Brigade he was succeeded by. Col. V.S. Smyth. N.Z.S.C. Towards the end of November, the 3rd Australian Division, under Major-General J. Monash, who had been so long and intimately. associated with the New Zealanders on the Peninusula, arrived from its base in England and bgan to relieve Franks' Force. The new Division was, even for Australians, magnificent in physique-and morale, but this was their first experience of the trenches, and the line was handed over gradually, half-battalions moving in at a time. On completion of relief, in the first week of December, Franks' Force was broken up. The Corps front was now held by 3 Divisions, the New Zealand on the right, the 34th in the centre, and the 3rd Australian on the left, each with 2 Brigades in the line and 1 in reserve. The 2nd Infantry Brigade group rejoined the Division and acted for a month as brigade in reserve. Two battalions went to Estaires, one to Sailly, and 1 to Bac St. Maur. The 2nd Field Artillery Brigade passed under the command of the Australians, whose artillery had not yet arrived. It rejoined the Division towards the end of January.
On 22nd December the Commander-in-Chief inspected the reserve troops of the, Corps. Units of the Division, now brought up to and above strength by the continual arrival of reinforcements, were drawn up on the road near Saily and Sir Douglas Haig, accompanied by the Corps Commander, rod slowly down the line, After the inspection the troops marched past. Subsequently General Godley issued the following order:—page 140
“The Corps Commander is directed by the Commander-in-Chief to convey to all ranks of the Corps his high apreciation of the appearance and turn-out of the troops that paraded for his inspection today. In conveying this message, the Corps Commander wishes to congratulate all concerned on the excellence of the Staff arrangements and to thank officers, n.c.o.s and men for the special effort they had evidently made to show up so favourably under such adverse weather conditions.”
After 3 weeks' rest the 2nd Infantry Brigade left their comfortable quarters at Estaires and the other villages on 23rd December and relieved the 1st Brigade in the Cordonnerie subsector on the right. Christmas was spent as a holiday so far as the duties of the various units permitted. Cordial messages from the King and the New Zealand Ministers were. communicated, and every effort was made to give the troops whether in the trenches or in the rear the good cheer associated with this season. Towards the enemy it was not yet a time for peace and goodwill. The artillery undertook a comprehensive and unusually active programme, and were favoured by. comparatively good observation. The howitzers fired at selected targets at a slow rate, each shot being carefully observed, while from 7 p.m. till midnight, at regular intervals, the 18-pounders, firing altogether with single salvoes, swept tramways and transport routes. The Germans reserved their retaliation for New Year's Day.
During the month of January the 4th Artillery Brigade was completed by the arrival of the 16th (Howitzer) Battery from England. Shortly afterwards, however, in accordance with instructions which affected the whole British Army, a very drastic change was made in the organisation of the artillery. Experience on the Somme had shown the necessity of massing on an offensive front a much greater proportion of field artillery than that which actually formed part of the Divisions engaged Thus Divisional Artilleries had frequently been divorced from their Divisions. The reorganisation now brought into effect aimed at preserving a permanent relation between a Divisional commander and his own artillery, and at the same time establishing a pool of artillery at the disposal of the higher command by the formation from the Divisional artillery of independent brigades. The scheme also involved the universal adoption of the 6-gun battery. The number of the brigades was reduced to 3. Two of these, each consisting of three 6-gun 18-pounder batteries and page 141one 6-gun howitzer battery, were left under the immediate command of the Divisional Commander. The third, comprising the same number of batteries and guns, was placed under the control of the Army Conmander and called an “Army” Brigade. The 4th Brigade was therefore broken up. Its batteries (the 8th 10th 14th and newly-joined 16th), losing their individuality, were incorporated in the batteries of the 1st and 3rd Brigades, and its Headquarters Staff was split up among the various artillery units. Lt.-Col. Falla shortly afterwards took over the command of the D.A.C., vice Lt.-Col. Gard'ner, who received an appointment on the Corps Staff. The 2nd Brigade, detached at the time with the Australians at Armentières, was designated the “Army” Brigade. To bring it up to establishment an additional 18-pounder and howitzer battery were required, and pending its completion it was at the first opportunity withdrawn into reserve. A portion of the D.A.C. was allotted as the “Army” Brigade Ammunition Column.
On the first day of the New Year a change was effected also in the organisation of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades, with the object of bringing the sister territorial battalions into the one formation and facilitating administration, especially with regard to the transfer of officers. The 1st Brigade was reconstituted with the 2 Auckland and the 2 Wellington battalions, and the 2nd Brigade with the 2 Canter-bury and the 2 Otago battalions. Such severance of old associations, cemented by common experience in the trenches and on the battlefield, must inevitably cause regrets. Just previously, as we have seen, the 2nd Brigade had relieved the 1st Brigade in the Cordonnerie subsector, and now, as 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago moved up from reserve to the front area, their Wellington comrades "turned out" in Sailly to do them honour, and their band played them through. In the same month the Rifle Brigade received notification that II.R.H. the Duke of Connaught had consented to be their Colonel-in-Chief.
Throughout this period the battalions of the 2 brigades in the line, during their weekly turn of duty in support, formed working parties for the necessary maintenance of the trenches and for wiring. Under cover of the dull misty weather the infantry and the Pioneers construted miles of splendid successive bands of entanglements before the subsidiary line or rear trenches of the Divisional system, and it was with no little chagrin that they read, in the spring page 142of 1918, of the Gcrmans forcing their way through the Portugese garrison with little opposition.
For the brigade in reserve, in addition to normal military training and constant anti-gas drill in the recently issued small box respirators a comprehensive scheme of recreational training as laid down by the Army was carried out, and competitions were arranged in football, cross-country running and boxing. To organise this training, Lt.-Col. Plugge in January relinquished command, of 1st Auckland. Major (now Lt.-Col.)S. S. Allen, the next available senior officer in the regiment, was at the moment absent on duty, and the com mand of 1st Auckland temporarily devolved on his brother, Major R. C. Allen.1 The scheme of recreational training, providing for the participation of all ranks in manly exercises, was a welcome change from drill, and proved a valuable benefit to health and morale. With the same object, rest houses for officers and men, canteens, a cinema, and Theatrical troupe were organised by the Division. Musical elocutionary and literary competitions, concerts and 1ectures were also provided by the New Zealand Y.M.C.A., who began at this time to extend their beneficent activities on a large scale.
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About this time a very remarkable personality was associated with the Division for. some weeks, in the person of a fourth-class chaplain well above military years. Daily he might have been seen flying up in a side-car to the trenches, visiting the foremost saps, on more than one occasion narrowly escaping German explosive, and inspiring and endearing himself to all ranks alike by his indomitable fortitude that triumphed over ill-health and by his unaffected manliness and lovable character. That unassuming padre was the Right Rev. A. W. Cleary, Roman Catholic Bishop of Auckland.
The first active operation of the new year was carried out by the 2nd Rifles on 7th January 2 officers and 80 men, under Capt. J. B. Bennett, accompanied by 4 sappers, made a successful raid on a strongly garrisoned point in the enemy line. known as the Lozenge. The raiders entering the trenches were. led by Lt. L,. I. Manning and 2nd Lt. D. C. Bowler. The 4th 13th and 14th Batteries supported them. Moving forward, as soon as darkness fell, across No Man's Land, they crossed one of the innumerable channels of the country by a specially made bridge. Scouts crawled up and examining the wire. found the wide gap made by our mortars still open. The raiders thereupon passed through it in 3 assaulting columns. The borrow-ditch in front of the parapet was wide and 4-feet deep, but it did not suffice to hold them back, and they plunged unhesitatingly through the icy water. The parapet had been demolished and the trench partly filled in by the effect of our mortar and artillery fire. Here and there broken rails of the tram-way line running parallel to the front trench stood up on end in air. The 3 parties at once went to their assigned objectives.
1 The II. Anzac Medical Officers' Training School, which owed its inception to Col. Begg, was a particularly useful institution, and was copied elsewhere. in the British Armies. A Divisional school of instruction in Field Santitation was opened on 8th January.
The centre party, working down their allotted trench, found a 6-feet high concrete sentry-post dugout with a domed roof, and took the 2 occupants prisoners. Further on were 2 large concrete dugouts. with a winding stairway of wood leading uderground. The first was empty, but in the next sparks of fire issued from an iron chimney. Summoned to surrender, 3 Germans crawled out submissively. As their captors were dealing with these, 3 others emerged and tried to escape rearwards. The New Zealand rifles cracked out simultaneously, and the stumbling figures fell headlong against the trench. Terrified by these shots and the rough imperious commands of the raiders, the rest of the occupants refused to leave their shelter. Two mortar bombs were rolled in, and their demolished dwelling became their tomb. From another dugout further prisoners were taken, and 7 other. prisoners who showed fight were summarily killed. The left party found the dugouts and machine gun emplacements in their area destroyed by artillery fire, but had the satisfaction of shooting 7 and bombing 3 Germans in the open sap. In all, the raiders found 16 bodies of Germans already killed by artillery fire, and themselves killed a certain 26. 19 prisoners were captured.
1 Many paybooks and identifications were brought in from the dead.
1 The infantry reliefs were conducted with exceptional rapidity. Thus 1st Canterbury. receiving warning orders at I p.m., had taken over their portion of the front line by 7 p. m.
A 1st Wellington party, under 2nd Lt. S. G. Guthrie, M.C., was equally successful in the early morning of 3rd February in the Angle. No Man's Land was slippery with ice, and the raiders, though in white smocks and calico-covered helmets, were visible to our front line sentries all the way across the frozen ditches. The Germans, however, failed to notice them even while they lay cutting the strands of wire that had survived the previous mortar bombardment. The raid was covered by artillery, and machine guns swept the flanks of the Angle. On the raiders' rushing up the parapet they were wildly fired at by 3 sentries in a lean-to shelter protected by wire, but on a bomb being thrown, these at once surrendered to L.-Sergt. W. A. Francis.
The enemy retaliated on the following night with a some-what severe gas shelling of Fleurbaix, in which we incurred 40 casualties, mostly slight, and a week later with one of his equally rare and unsuccessful raids. He selected a small salient in the 4th Rifles' line. His effort was preceded by 2 days' mortar activity on our wire, turning the white level surface into a chaotic mass of black pits, and thus giving indications of his intention. At 9.2 p.m. (8th February) an intense artillery and minenwerfer bombardment opened without warning, and our parapets were swept by machine gun and rifle fire. 5 minutes later 2 green flares shot up from the German trenches. On our front line the fire ceased, but intensified on the support line. Our troops at once stood to arms. Within 4 minutes the counter-attacking platoon and the reserve company were issued with extra bombs, and bombing squads had manned prearranged positions in the communication trenches. The S.0.S. call was sent to the artillery and the signal rocket fired, and instantaneously came the swish of our shrapnel into No Man's Land and the thud of our machine guns. The raiders scattered, A patrol, sent, into No Man's Land immediately after the bombardment, found no dead but a large number of grenades. Till morning it was not thought that the enemy had crossed our wire, but then it appeared that one or two had entered a disused gap and bombed an old mineshaft. A bag of wire-cutters and bombs had been discarded, and there were manifest traces of a hurried withdrawal. The excellence of our infantry dispositions, the page 147admirable rapidity with which both artillery and machine guns opened, the slight losses sustained in the bombardment, and the energy with which the gaps in the wire were at once filled by ready-made circles of loose tangled wire known as "gooseberries," all reflected the highest credit on the soldierly qualities of the defence.
Four nights later a further half-hearted and abortive effort was made at the head of the "avenue" which separated the 2 battalions of the 1st Brigade. Opposite the ("avenue," on the preceding night, one of our officers had just escaped capture by a German patrol. Our machine gun fire had been rearranged to command the approaches more effectively. On this spot, shortly after dark on 12th February, a severe minenwerfer bombardment was directed, which was maintained with half-hour intervals till midnight. The hostile minenwerfer were engaged by light trench mortars and howitzers in accordance with a preconcerted programme. They persisted, however, and just before midnight the enemy's artillery co-operated in a full-throated roar, perfectly timed and startling. A listening post brought in warning of the approach of the expected raiders. The S.O.S. call was given. Some 15 Germans reached the parapet of an abandoned derelict salient and were at once bombed by a party of 1st Auckland that worked towards them from the flank. The raiders withdrew immediately, and suffered some casualties in No Man's Land from our machine gun fire. The policy of the thin line of defence once more proved its value, and despite the severity of the bombardment only a handful of lhe garrison were wounded.
Since the first week in January there had been up to this time continuously frosty weather with occasional falls of snow. For days on end the ground had been covered by a white shroud. Round the guns, movement had to be restricted to avoid the making of tracks, and the difficulty of concealing positions was increased, for the blast of a firing gun melts the snow for. an area of about 15 or 20 yards, leaving a black smear in the white very noticeable to observation from the air, and on which falling snow will not lie for days. This dry, bracing cold had been most beneficial to health.
1 On the eve of a thaw, to avoid irreparable amage to roads, orders were issued reducing the use of transport to a minimum, lessening loads by half:, and confining traffic, to the pavé highways. On receipt of a warning telegram. “Prepare Thaw Restrictions,” the C.R.A., C.R.E., and S.S.O. (Senior Supply Officer) established 3 days' reserve forward dumps.
After the Rifle Brigade, the relief of the 1st Brigade followed, but before they said farewell to their winter scctor, a last smashing blow was planned against the enemy. It was to take the form of a fulldress raid, with minute preparation and overwhelming artillery support. It was to be on a larger scale than the Division had hitherto undertaken or were afterwards to undertake. 2nd Auckland was entrusted with the mission. The time fixed for the raid was dawn on 21st February. The 500 raiders, who were under the command of Major A. G. Mackenzie, D.S.O., were trained intensively, first by sections, then by platoons and by companies on a replica trench system laid well in rear, cut to a depth of 6 inches and then disguised by straw from prying aeroplanes. For a fortnight previously the medium trench mortars were engaged in breaking the wire, nightly reerected by the spider-like industry of the enemy. On the previous evening the 2nd Wellington garrison bridged the ditches and creeks of No Man's Land, and with memories of the evacuation from Anzac padded the duckhoards in the front line and the communication trenches with straw, over which hessian fabric was nailed down.
At 5.45 a.m. on the appointed morning, mortar projectiles fell with shattering crashes on either flank of the assaulted position. On the position itself our shrapnel lashed the parapet to force the enemy's heads down, lifting after 2½ minutes in accordance with the raiders' movernents to the support line, and. after a further 4½ minutes, to form a box barrage. The garrison were standing to arms and lined the fire-steps thickly. The storm of shell played havoc with them. The Aucklanders found the wire well cut, and all were over the parapet and among the demoralised Germans in the front trench by the time that the enemy's barrage fell in response to a multitude of red flares. As soon as ever his guns opened, our heavy howitzers broke into intense counter-battery work, depriving the enemy's fire, which lifted some 20 minutes later from our front to our support line, of much of its vigour and most of its accuracy. On the German second trench the assault was equally successful, though here a more stubborn resistance was shown by the enemy, some of whom fought with bitter fury. The raiders stayed half an hour searching the dugouts, blowing up bomb stores and machine guns, and completing their task of destruction. Then, showing great judgmmt in passing through the hostile barrage, they returned to our trenches. Nearly 200 Gcrmans had been killed by the artillery. and raiders. All officer and 43 men of the 77th and 78th Landwehr Regiments and of a freshly-arrived Bavarian regiment were made prisoners.
Our losses wcrr unfortunately heavy. An officer and 17 men had been killed, and 6 officers and over 70 men wounded. In bringing back the wounded over No Man's Land the stretcher-bearers showed their wonted devotion, hut not a few of these casualties were inflicted by enemy shells after the Aucklanders had returned to their own lines. In addition, 60 men were missing. These for the most part belonged to the companies that had assaulted the support line. They had been warned of a derelict trench before the real support trench. The morning chanced to be exceptionally misty and dark. Under these unlooked-for conditions the raiders might have fared better had the hour of attack been later. As it was, in the pall of smoke and dust, and owing to the battered state of the ground, they passed over the derelict trench without noticing it, and taking the real trench for the page 150derelict one, pressed on beyond into our barrage., where they were killed or cut off. Nothing is easier. than to lose sense of direction under these circumstances. A wounded officer returning with some prisoners found himself going away from our line towards what appeared to be 2 overturned and derelict German field guns, whereupon the prisoners complaisantly put him right and accompanied him back to our trenches.
Apart from these casualties, the raid had been a conspicuous success. 2nd Auckland received, amid other flattering messages. the congratulations of the Commander-in-Chief, and were later specially inspected by General Plummer 3000 rounds were fired by the light trench mortar batteries. Two guns burst, and all emplacements were exposed to uninterrupted shell fire, but the staunch personnel stuck to their work with their customary fortitude and determination. The rounds fired by the Divisional Artillery alone exceeded 8000.
After this exploit the 1st Brigade was relieved on the following day by troops of the 57th Division. On 23rd February the artillery completed their relief in the line, and on the 25th the last remaining units of the 2nd Infantry Brigade handed over the Bois Grenier trenches, and the command of the Sailly sector passed to the new Division. The heavy and medium mortar batteries remained in the line pending the return of the 57th Division's batteries from training; similarly, while the Division moved northwards to its new sector, the 2nd (Army) Artillery Brigade remained in rest in the Fleurbaix area, completing its establishment as sections arrived from England, and supporting on occasion raids by the 57th and 3rd Australian Divisions.
Just prior to the relief of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, General Braithwaite had returned to it from Sling.1 His duties in England were assumed by General Earl Johnston, and in the latter's place Lt.-Col. Brown was appointed Brigadier-General to command the 1st Brigade. Command of 2nd Auckland was assumed by Lt.-Col. S. S. Allen, the appointment of his brother, Major (now Lt.-Col.) R. C. Allen in the 1st Battalion being now confirmed.
1 p. 139.
In their new positions the trenches were of the poorest description. Accommodation was hopelessly inadequate, and drainage had been neglected. The thaw made conditions doubly uncomfortable. Not merely unoccupied "gaps," but portions of the fire trenches also were under water. The communication trenches were narrow, deep in mud, and all but impassable. There was a humiliating contrast between the rnassive German entanglements and the scanty shreds of wire in front of our own trenches. The parapet was low and in bad repair, and the enemy enjoyed marked superiority in sniping. The artillery positions were in a similarly poor condition, and sections of the 4th and 13th Batteries were practically in the open. For the troops in support there were few or no villages to provide billets, but this involved no hardship, for the men were as comfortably and, from a medical point of view, more satisfactorily housed in the many hutted camps about Romarin and elsewhere.
Nor was the welcome given to the Rifle Brigade in these miserable trenches an enviable one, for on the very night (22nd/23rd February) on which they entered the line they were raided by the enemy. The relief of the 4th Battalion had been delayed through the activity of enemy mortars on a section of the front trench at St. Yves Hill. When at length the 25th Division troops had quitted the area, the company commander detailed a platoon to stop the breaches page 152in the parapet and clear out the debris that blocked the trench. Despite the fatigue of the march, the men set to work with a will. They were, however, interfered with by minenwerfer bombs dropping at odd intervals on the spot. Cpl. J. McQuillan, of' the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battery, despite this fire, kept his Stokes in action for 45 minutes, firing over 100 rounds. About 4 a.m., a deluge of shrapnel swept the position, and a number of mortar shells exploded in quick succession. Patience being exhausted, artillery support was invoked, which silenced the minenwerfer. The work of clearance continued. At 5.45 am., however, a perfect tornado of shells "rumjars" and "pineapples" burst afresh on the same section of the line. The working party was ordered to withdraw, and on either flank the harassed defenders manned the parapets. An ex-ceptionally heavy fog hung over the swamps, and they could discern nothing. Nor could the green Verey light of the S.O.S. signal be seen by the artillery or battalion observers, and all telephonic communication had already been cut. Thus no S.O.S. support was given.
After a few minutes of fierce bombardment, the enemy's fire lifted from the front trench and fell in a circle round the doomed sector, where the mortars had obliterated wire and trench, hemming it in and hampering the approach of supports. At the same moment a body of 200 Germans rushed forward and forced an entry. The raiders' hopes of securing a large number of prisoners mere not to be realised. Only the working party was in the battered fire-bays, and the majority of them had managed to withdraw. One or two still remaincd. One of these had been wounded, and lay outstretched in the bottom of the trench. Some 40 Germans ran over him, and one in passing, taking him for dead, cut off the shoulder-strap of his greatcoat. Four others they took prisoners, but the raiders were not stout-hearted enough to push their assault home.
In 5 minutes, when our men on the flanks, penetrating the box barrage, got in touch with them, they withdrew without offering resistance, leaving behind them some mobile charges and many stick grenades. Our rifle fire and bombs had killed and wounded some of the enemy, and these, except for one dead man, they took with them, together with their prisoners. One of these, RfImn. J. Emmerson, who had been wounded, escaped, but was again recaptured by a second party, some 80 strong, of the returning raiders. Near page 153the enemy wire, Emmerson saw another chance of making a bid for freedom. He tripped up his burly guardian, wrenched himself free, and in a flash, despite his wound, dashed back for our lines. The Germans opened fire and hit him in 2 fresh places, but struggling on finally succeeded in reaching our lines in extreme exhaustion.
The documents found on the dead German were at once forwarded to the Army Intelligence Staff and established the presence on the Western front of a Division last identified in Roumania. Our casualties, in addition to these 3 prisoners, were 6 men killed and an officer and 20 other ranks wounded. Very considerable damage was done to the already wretched trenches.
Nor were the 1st Brigade to be immune. Just before dawn, on 28th February, the Germans attempted a raid, accompanied by their usual shelling, on a Strong Point known as Glasgow Redoubt, in the 2nd Auckland trenches, Only half a dozen of the enemy, however, reached an empty bay. These were at once bombed out by the occupants of the next bay, and fled, leaving one of their number wounded, who died shortly afterwards. In their retreat they were pursued by fire and suffered further casualties. 10 men of 2nd Auckland lost their lives, and 15 were wounded in the bombardment. A further German attempt, on 9th March, was crushed by artillery.
Snow fell again during the first week of March, rendering the tasks of working parties more arduous. Their strenuous toil, and the labours of the Engineers and Pioneers, had already made a new world of the sector. The wire was stronger, and the trenches were drained and defensible. The enemy snipers, too, were now effectively mastered by the New Zealand marksmen. It was common and inevitable experience in the Army, however, that for good or ill troops should reap what they had not sown, and the labour bestowed on the position was to benefit others. On 13th March, in view of coming events, the Corps front was extended north-wards to the road from Wnlverghem to Wytschaete. The New Zealand Division side-stepped northwards to relieve part of the 36th (Ulster) Division on the southern flank of the IX. Corps. In consequence of this move, the 57th Division took over the Rue de Bois subsector from the 3rd Australian Division to enable the latter to relieve the New Zealanders in the Le Touquet and Ploegsteert trenches. Each of the 2 southern Divisions thus now manned 4 brigade subsectors page 154with 2 brigades, holding 1 in reserve, while the New Zealanders occupied the 3 subsectors of St. Yves, Messines, and Wulverghem. These last were now divided into 2 brigade fronts, north and south of the river Douve. The 1st Brigade on the right in Le Touquet, wholly relieved by Australians, went into reserve. The Rifle Brigade side-stepped to the Douve, and the Wulverghem subsector north of the Douve was taken over by the 2nd Brigade, who now came into the line. In its period of reserve it had been training on the hill-slopes near Bailleul, and had been reviewed on 9th March, with the 3rd Australian Division's reserve brigade, by the Right Hon. Walter Long, Secretary for the Colonies. The artillery followed into their new positions shortly afterwards. Divisional Headquarters remained at Steenwerck.
In their new area the New Zealanders were to remain, with various minor adjustments, for the 3 months preceding the Messines offensive. Half the long straggling Ploegsteert village and the northern part of the Ploegsteert Forest behind the ruins of St. Yves were still iucluded in the Divisional area. This wood had been the scene of bitter fighting in 1914. It was thin and except where blocked by wire entanglements passable for infantry everywhere. The dominating features of the country were, on the one hand, the gaunt ridge crowned by the houses and the ancient and massive church of Messines, which had been German territory since November 1914, and which now half-faced and half-enfiladed our trenches; and on the other hand, behind our own line, the beautiful treeclad hill, Rossignol, or Hill 63, so called from its height in metres. Instead of the unbroken flats, with which the Division had been familiar through the winter, the country behind the front area was markedly rolling. The hills themselves produccd their characteristic effect of exhilaration and adventure, and from Hill 63 the distant view of the great bluff of Kemmel, of the picturesque Mont des Cats, with its monastery, and of other abrupt and isolated eminences, steeped in blue haze, was instinct with romantic beauty. On the steep southern side of Hill 63, screened from German observation and inaccessible to hostile shrapnel, the Army had built on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood log-houses such as Stafford House and Limavady Lodge, used as billets for supporting battalions. And at Hyde Park Corner, where the road from Ploegsteert to Messines began to mount the south-eastern shoulder of the hill, deep shelters, known as the Catacombs, and capable of holding a page 155weak brigade, were opened by General Plumer in November 1916. That road, on mounting the ridge, came under enemy view, and was of little service to the New Zealanders. More useful was the road which leading from Romarin and adjoining farms, now occupied by Brigade Headquarters, turned to the north near Red Lodge and crossed the western slopes of the hill by a wayside Shrine and the "White Gates" of the ruined chateau. Here it joined a cart track that ran across the fields from the hamlet of Le Rossignol back in the direction of Neuve Eglise.
The defence of Hill 63 was of the utmost importance. On its retention depended the safety of the Division's new positions and those of the Australians to the south down to the Lys, It formed the northern pivot of our defences in case of a German "break-through" about Fleurbaix. The Armentières system guarded against its being outflanked from the south, and it was from a blow northwards at our lines from the Messines Ridge up to the salient round ypres, that its secure possession was most likely to be endangered. It was known at this time that the Russian disintegration had enabled the Germans to accumulate on the Western front adequate reserves for offensive action, and it was believed that such action was actually being contemplatcd, either to forestall the threatened Allied blow or to neutralisc it When deliverd. Should an offensive be launched, this was the sector of the whole British front considered most likely to be affected. If it were delivered on a grand scale, the exposed positions in the ypres salient might be found untenable. Should they be abandoned, Hill 63 and the Neuve Eglise ridge in rear furnished a pivot connecting the present first-line system with the second line, of which Kemmel formed the corner-stone. The northern face of the hill, therefore, was already defended by successive lines of trenches and a. line of small self-contained redoubts, but a new rear line was dug and fresh wire erected by thr 1st Brigade to join the G.H.Q. system and the so-called Wulverghem Switch at the village of that name. Leading features of the defence policy were the carefully-concealed and well-protected machine gun emplacements and the shell-proof cover to protect infantry garrisons during a bombardment. On the subfeature of St. Yves Hill, lying just to the north-east of Ploegsteert Wood in the right brigade subsector, a maze of trenches afforded a striking example of the ill co-ordinated labours of successive tenants and the destructiveness of German artillery.page 156
Apart from the screen afforded by Hill 63, the whole country lay open to the enemy's observation from the ridge. He looked straight down the important road from Neuve Eglise to Wulverghem, so that wheeled traffic was impossible in the daytime, and parties moving up to the trenches had to move at intervals and in single file, hugging the side of the road. A little way up froiu the village was a gum-boot store, where working parties drew gum-boots for the trenches, and any assembly here at once attracted fire. Our own observation posts on Hill 63, which lies a few feet lower than the Messines Ridge, similarly commanded an extensive view east-wards down the Douve valley and along the southern slopes of the ridge to the Warncton church spires.
Behind the opposing lines the country was on either side covered with hedges and spinners, and the roads screened by trees. The centre of the Divisional area was marked by the Douve, which running eastwards falls into the Lys at Warneton. In summer it is an insignificant shallow stream, some 10 feet wide, but in the winter rains it rises and becomes a serious obstacle to military. operations, especially near the front line trenches, where it floods its banks and at times forms a sheet of water 40 feet wide. Hence at this point there alternative defensive systems, called respectively Summer and Winter Trenches, those in the flat nearest the stream not being held in the winter months. North of the Douve and directly facing Messines, the ground behind our support line sloped up to the rise of Midland Farm, which, forming a sister bulwark to Hill 63, was of considerable tactical importance and was correspondingly fortified with earthworks and concealed machine guns.
Among the trees and the trenches lay the shattered farms of now exiled Belgian pcasauts. Most of their names, if ever known, had been forgotten, and they were rechristened by troops in the early days of the war with titles which reflected the humour and the realism of the soldier: Donnington Hall, Mac's Ruin, Dead Cow Farm, Stinking Farm, and so on. These were in the front line company areas; somewhat further back Battalion Headquarters were located in the shacks behind Hill 63 or up the Douve valley, at St. Quentin's Cabaret, for example, or in the concrete quarters under the shell of La Plus Douve Farm buildings.
About 1000 yards down stream from these farms past our front line the larch-fringed Douve entered the German trenches at La Petite Douve Ferme, where the enemy line projected sharply into No Man's Land. This salient was the most advanced and exposed position of the Messiness defences. La Petite Douve was the objective in the autumn of 1915 of the first of these operations that came. to be known later as trench raids. Owing to the proximity of the lines about the ruins of the farm, mining operations had at an early date been started on both sides. The British, however, had allowed the Douve to flood their shaft at this particular point, but they maintained activity underground in the vicinity, and kept a careful scrutiny of German progress, which it was anticipated would break into their own abandoned works. On 10th January 1917 the expected happened. The water in our shaft dropped with a sudden rush 70 to 80 feet, and must at once have flooded the German galleries and drowned miserably the Silesian miners. Laboriously and patienty, as was his wont, the German undertook; the Sisyphan work of unwatering. He continued it for some weeks till he realised that he was vainly pumping the running water of the Douve. From this point the German lines bent back northwards to the lower slopes of the Messines Ridge, which they followed on a level some 15 yards higher than our own front line. The Steenebeek, a small tributary of the Douve from the north, flowed through No Man's Land between the opposing trenches, entering our lines a short distance before it mingled its waters with the larger stream.
Towards the end of March, on 2 successive days, the Germans made attempts at the extreme flanks of our Line to secure identifications. At 4 a.m. on the 23rd the 2nd Rifles, on the right, were suddenly bombarded with a hail of mortar page 158bombs fired in flights of 6 or 10, swooping down 60 to the minute. The box barrage was picked out after dawn in the snow in a regular line round the position. Three parties attacked our trenches. One that reached the wire was dispersed by bombs and Lewis gun fire, the second was beaten back in No Man's Land by machine gun and rifle fire, and with the help of the 1st 12th and 13th Batteries, The third entered. an unoccupied portion where a small working party emptied their rifles at them. Two of the raiders were seen to collapse, but their companions managed to bear them away with them. The fire had been heavy on the support line, where all our casualties were incurred. 4 men were killed and an officer and 9 men wounded. Otherwise the raid was ineffective.
On the following morning, at the same hour, 100 Germans attacked our left flank at the junction of 2nd Otago and the Ulster troops of the 36th Division. An unusually heavy bombardment of artillery and mortars broke all telephonic communication, but, 'the S.O.S. rocket was answered promptly and efficiently by the artillery. The Germans, advancing in single file, were raked by the flank Otago Lewis guns, which cut noticeable gaps in their line. Pressing On, however, with great determination, they reached our wire. At one point they were checked by bombs, but in another they effected an entry and captured one of the garrison. The Otago bombers on the flanks immediately counter-attacked, and after an exchange of bombs drove them out. Conspicuous gallantry was shown also by the Lewis gunners. Remaining at their posts, they did everything possible to prevent an entry and to harass the raiders throughout the bombardment. In one team of 5, for example, 3 were killed and a fourth wounded, but the remaining man worked his gun on the bloodstained sandbags with unflinching resolution. 10 men of Otago were killed and 12 wounded in the bombardment, which did material damage to the trenches. Pools of blood on the enemy side of the parapet showed that the raiders had not gone unscathed.
During the day the enemy bombarded our batteries severely, 300 rounds of high-explosive being fired into the 4th and 13th Batteries' positions. A gun of the 13th Battery was damaged and 500 rounds of 18-pounder ammunition exploded. The 11th Battery suffered similarly the following day, and in the evening the damaged gun-pits were observed and no doubt photographed by a German aeroplane, which descended to within 200 feet over the guns.page 159
At the end of March the weather, which had been milder and showed promise of summer, changed to heavy gales, accompanied by frost snow and hail. The 25th Division had now returned to the 11. Anzac area as Army reserve from the Tilques training grounds. Circumstances did not permit of the New Zealand Division's going out as a whole, but the different artillery and infantry brigades went in turn. In the 12 days' training for the forthcoming offensive nothing was left undone to achieve realism. The ground at the training area happened to conform with the actual position to be assaulted, and replicas of the whole German trenches and our assembly. ones were cut out a foot deep to scale. In these, battalions and brigades rehearsed the delicate operations of the assembly and attack, and attained an invaluable certainity of purpose, The final full-dress rehearsals were witnessd and criticised by the Second Army Commander and his Staff. A day was also devoted to open warfare manoeuvres. Throughout the infantry training every effort was made to illustrate practically the principles of tactics underlying the recent reorganisation of the platoon into semi-specialised sections of riflemen, Lewis gunners, bombers, and rifle-bombers. The quick and sound appreciation of situations and the initiative shown by subordinate commanders in these operations in the training area were auguries of success on the battlefield which mere not to be belied.
On the last day of March, in a heavy fall of snow, the 1st Brigade relieved the Rifle Brigade in the line, and 2 days later the Rifles proceeded on the 3 days' 40-mile march to Tilques. The 1st Firld Artillery Brigade went at the same time. In place of the Rifles, a brigade of the 25th Division was lcnt to General Russell for tactical purposes and for work on the New Zealand Division's front. Shortly aftewards permission was given by Army to the Corps to employ the 25th Division brigades as line garrisons under the proviso that if required they could be withdrawn at short notice into Army reserve. This was taken advantage of to allow-the 2nd Infantry Brigade to withdraw from the line preparatory to its following the 3rd to the training area. The 3rd Artillery Brigade went also towards the end of April, and the 2nd (Army) Brigade, after a further temporary attachment to the 57th Divison, in the first week of May. On 6th April the 3rd Australian Division extended northwards to embrace the position assigned to it for the impending attack on the ridge, and the 25th Division took over the northern subsector page 160from the vicinity of the wulverghem-Messines road to the Wulverghem-Wytschacte road. As a result of these moves the contracted New Zealand front now held by the 1st Brigade corresponded roughly with the sector defined for the Division's assembly position.
For the attack, disguised in the memoranda of the time as the Magnum Opus, preparations were already in progress. Several new lines of accommodation were in process of construction. But the area of our assembly trenches was not to be bounded by the front line. Between the front line and enemy trenches on the Messines hillside ran, as has been said, the valley of the little Steenebeek, crossed by the road from Wulverghem to Messines. On this road, between our front trench and the stream, a heavily wired German listening post had been captured and occupied by 2nd Wellington, but a large part of the valley was dead ground, not visible from any point in our trenches. With a view to securing command of observation over it and also to providing a nearer assault position, the construction of a new trench 750 yards long in No Man's Land was desirable. To dig it immediately preceding the attack would court disaster to the assembled troops. In order therefore to familiarise the enemy with it and avoid arousing untimely alertness and aggressiveness, it was resolved to construct the work in good time.
The undertaking was committed to the 2nd Brigade before they left for training. The 1st Brigade garrison cut and taped 7 gaps through the wire, and a party of 2nd Brigade officers, all of whom had been constantly on patrol and knew every detail of the ground intimately, surveyed and pegged out the new trench. On the night of the 13th, covered by a party from 2nd Wellington, who were then holding the line, 500 men of 1st Otago, under command of Major J. Hargest, came up from the reserve area. Such a task required minute elaboration of detail and fine discipline. Each party knew its task. Sentries kept the trenches clear for them. They. entered the sap heads at 9 p.m. Splendidly organised and disciplined, without the least noise or confusion, each party went to its position, completed its task by 2.30 a.m. and was clear of the trenches by 3 a.m. When dawn broke. our sentries eyed a long new trench 100 to 180 yards out in No Man's Land.
While Otago dug, arrangements had been made for artillery and machine gun action in case of enemy fire or interference, and the battery commander concerned was present page 161in the front line with the officers commanding the working and covering parties. The silent precision, however, with which the task was carried out raised no alarm in the German trenches. Not a single casualty was incurred, and the unerring judgment of the Divisional Commander, which had discounted predictions of disaster, was amply vindicated. On the following evening the trench was extended, drained to the Steenebeek and connected with our old front line by 2nd Wellington. It was later completed with travel and support trenches in rear.
In face of this new line, the multiplication of communication trenches and similar works elsewhere, and all the various preparations for an attack, manifest both in our front and rear areas, the enemy began to show unmistakable signs of uneasiness. The frequent changes in the dispositions of our troops for the purpose of adjusting frontages and withdrawing brigades for training increased his anxiety to obtain identifications and possible information from prisoners.
During April he attempted 7 organised raids and 5 patrol reconnaissances against the Corps front. An attempt on 30th April on the New Zealanders was crushed by our artillery before it developed, and the enemy was seen to run back over his front parapet and thence to his support line. In the beginning of May he embarked on 2 equally unsuccessful enterprises. Just before dawn on the 5th, a 4th Rifles' patrol, which happened to be out on the Steenebeek, reported a party of 60 Germans advancing along the Wulverghem-Messines road. Our S.O.S. shot up, and the Germans, casting from them their bombs and raiding gear, turned and fled. A few ran forward, but it was to drop into the shelter of the nem unoccupied trench, and there a patrol found one dead and captured another. They belonged to the 40th (Saxon) Division, and the prisoner stated that their object was to discover the character of the new trench and ascertain whether the relief movements noticed were connected with the supposed arrival of a Division from Arras, Two days later, under cover of the inevitable bombardmeat, a raid was made on our new trench. The working party in it withdrew to our front line. Three men, who chose to remain, narrowly escaped being cut off. A fighting patrol sent forward immediately afterwards found the trench clear.
In the front area, apart from these enterprises and the bombardment of our new earthworks in No Man's Land, the enemy's attitude for the remainder of May was surprisingly page 162quiet. Nightly he tried, harassed by our machine and Lewis guns, to repair the destruction caused by our mortars to his front wire. Retaliation by his minenwerfer was rare, and the hillside seemed denuded of snipers. On the back areas, however, his increasing artillery became very active, with persistent shelling of villages, roads, transport lines, dumps, and battery positions.
After dark on 6th May, an exceptionally heavy enemy bombardment, surpassing anything experienced in this area since the autumn of 1915, was opened all along the Second Army front with high-explosive and incendiary shells. The bombardment lasted intermittently throughout the night, at intervals of 3 hours reaching great intensity, particularly over intermediate and back areas of billets and camps. The Divisional casualties excceded 100, of whom 24 lost their lives; 81 horses were killed in the 1st Battery and other wagon lines. The. bombardment was designed undoubtedly to catch the troops whom the enemy had reason to believe were now assembling for the Messines attack, and the extent of the Division's losses shows how serious the effect would have been, had not our attack been in reality postponed. Several huts were burnt, a gun-boot store destroyed, and a shell falling into one of the 1st Rifles' huts destroyed the baned instruments and killed 4 of their oldest bandsmen. Another shell struck one of the huts occupied by the 1st Field Company of the Engineers, and the woodwork immediately burst into flames. Sergt.-Major J. Woodhall, assisted by Sergt. J. S. L. Deem, rushed into the burning hut and rescued a badly burnt sapper. Meanwhile Sergt. M. H. Grigg carried out the Orderly Room box containing the men's pay and secret papers. All 3 were severely burnt about the face arms and legs.
In retaliation for this bombardment our heavy artillery fired 2500 rounds, but the enemy shelling was repeated the following night, when fortunately the Division's casualties were few. On the night 7th/8th the bulk of the masses of artillery now concentrating on the Second Army front opened on selected targets in the enemy's hinterland at an intense rate for 5 minutes at 8.45 p.m. and again at 11 p.m. Salutary punishment was inflicted. Strings of ambulance wagons were observed on the roads on the following day, and the lesson was effective.
In the battle of the trench warfare type opportunity for maneuver is denied, and there is no sudden clash of the page 163opposing arms. The positions of the defence are impregnable to infantry without prolonged artillery preparation. 1t is easy to say that the battle is not, properly speaking, initiated with the swarming of the attacking infantry out of their assembly trenches It is more difficult to fix a date marking a definite commencement. Plans mature, preparations develop, counter-measures are taken gradually. For our present purpose we may note that while the general policy had been long determined and definite preparations in hand weeks before the beginning of May, the 2lst of that month saw the initiation of the systematic preparatory bombardment of the enemy's trenches. On that date, therefore, it is convenient to break the thread of the story. The further activities of the opposing forces up to the time of the actual infantry attack may be reserved for a general paragraph dealing with the initial phases of' the battle, which is the subject of the succeeding chapter.
In October, Col. Begg was promoted to be D.D.M.S. of II. Anzac, and in his appointment as A.D.M.S., New Zealand Division, was succeeded by Lt.-Col. (now Col.) D. J. McGavin. Lt.-Col. E. J. O'Neill succeeded the latter in command of the New Zealand Stationary Hospital which, leaving Salonica in March 1916 had arrived at Havre in June and been established in Amiens in July. Major (now Lt.-Col.) M. Holmes took over command of No. 1 Field Ambulance. The Divisional Staff sustained a serious loss prior to the Messines operation, when Major Temperley left it for promotion on the Staff of a British Division. He was succeeded as G.S.O. 2 by Captain L. A. Newnham, Middlesex Reginment. In the G.S.O. 3 appointment several changes have to be recorded. Captain Hastings was; promoted to fill the Brigade Major's appointment in the Rifle Brigade when Major Eastwood page 165vacated it through sickness, and his place was taken by Major J. E. Duigan, N.Z.S.C., who had been in command of the Tunnelling Company.1 On Major Duigan's receiving a Staff appointment in the British Army, he was succeeded by Major N. B. W W, Thoms, N.Z.S.C. Major H. E. A very, D.S.O., N.Z.S.C., was appointed D.A.Q.M.G. in place of Lt.-Col. N. C. Hamilton, D.S.O., who rejoined the British Army. Lt. S. Cory Wright assumed the duties of Divisional Intelligence Officer in February. On the Brigade Staffs, Capt. T. R. Jackson (General List, British Army) had replaced Capt. M. H. Jackson, who had been wounded on the Somme, and was in turn succeeded as Brigade Major in the 1st Brigade by Major Thorns. The vacant G.S.O. 3 post was now filled by Major W. I. K. Jennings, N.Z.S.C. in the 2nd Brigade, Capt. Richardson and Capt. Wilks had exchanged appointments on the Somme. in the 3rd Brigade, Major Hastings was recalled to India in March. After an interregnum, Capt, R. G. Purdy exchanged his appointment for that of Brigade Major, and was succeeded in the appointment of Staff Captain by Capt. G. C. Dailey.
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