The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter V — The Battle of Messines
The Battle of Messines
From the first strategic developments of the war the British Cabinet had regarded as their particular charge the defences which protected the coast line and the approaches to the Channel. The German drive on Calais in the First Battle of Ypres and the second attack in 1915 had been. providentially as it were, frustrated, but the menace of a further thrust was ever present. As it was, the enemy had secured nearly all the ground of tactical importance; and especially in the Ypres salient, commanded as it was by the low ridges to the east, where the German lines hung like an arrested wave ready to topple over and deluge the ruined city, the positions of the British were far from satisfactory. Costly to hold, the feasibility of their continued defence against a third German attack did not present itself as assured to sound military judgment.1
Early in 1916 the General Staff had weighed the difficultties involved in the capture of the ypres ridges and decided that at that stage an attempt would be premature. In the vicinity of the Channel ports, moreover, failure might be attended by momentous consequences. Various preliminary measures, however, and in particular the construction of railways, were taken in hand with a view to the possibility of action at a later date. The development of the submarine campaign from Zeebrugge and Ostend and its crippling effect on the general British effort accentuated attention on the northern sector. A successful attack from this point would rob the enemy of these bases and might not only cut off his troops on the coast, but also comprormise his whole position on his right flank. The new armies had been tested in the Somme Battle with satisfactory result, and the postponed operations appeared now feasible. In the Allied conference, therefore, held in November 1916, it was agreed that the main role of the British field forces in 1917 should be an offensive on a large scale in Flanders.
1 1 p. 155.
The Allies had with reason hoped that the combined offensive planned for all fronts in 1917, the British part in which has been indicated above, would yield decisive and final success. Fate willed, however, otherwise. On the Eastern front, any prospect of effective cooperation was dissipated by the Russian revolution and its aftermath, which were, as events proved, to strengthen the failing powers of the Central Empires and to exert an incalculable influence on the prolongation of the struggle. As the general Allied policy was thus upset, so too in the first months of the new year the British plans underwent considerable alterations. They were largely modified by the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg or Siegfried line, and they were vitally affected by a new plan of attack laid down for the french Army by General NivelIe and accepted by the Allied Governments. To his bold conception of a great break-through from the Aisne heights at the southern pivot of the Hindenburg line, with the capture of Iaon as the first day's objective, all other proposals of operations on the Western front were subordmated. As a preparatory nmeasure to it the British font was extended. General Haig's attack at Arras was to be proceeded with at an earlier date than at first contemplated, and with the additional object of attracting hostile forces from the french front. nor was this all. The main offensive task of the British was altered from the original plans to the more subsidiary role of co-operation in exploiting the gains to be won by the French. Only in the event of these advantages failing to accure within a reasonable period would the original proposal of the attack in the north hold good. The work of preparation in Flanders was therefore somewhat restricted owing to the demands for the necessary labour in the south.
In pursuance of these plans the Battle of Arras was fought in the beginning of April by the Third and First British Armies, the former now commanded by by the same General Horne under whom as Corps Commander the Divi-page 168sion had won its first laurels on the Somme. Subsidiary operations:, were conducted at the same time by the Fourth and Fifth Armies threatening the llindenburg Line. In the vast preliminary underground operations at Arras substantial assistance was given by a detachment of the New Zealand Pioneers, who were despatched thither at the end of 1916, and by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company. This latter unit, formed in New Zealand in October 1915, went to the Arras neighbourhood on arrival in France in march 1916. The company was originally commanded by-major J. E. Duigan, N.Z.S.C., and later, on his accepting a Staff appointment, by Capt. (now Major) H. Vickerman. They: left an abiding mark of their work in the New Zealand placenames given to the subterranean caves and galleries which they opened up, such as "Nelson," "Blenheim," and "New Plymouth," and the following letters written prior to the Battle of arras indicate th appreciation with which their services were regarded:—
To Commander Third Army.
I wish to bring to the Army Commander's notice the excellent work done by the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company during the past twelve months. First under Major Duigan and now under Captain Vickerman the work of the company has been excellent. Not only have the men worked extremely hard and well, but the: excellent relations that have been maintained with the various Divisions show a first-class organisation. I attach a copy of a report I have received from the G.O.C. 3rd Division which expresses clearly the opinion held by the Divisions in the line of the Ncw Zealand Tunnelling Company.
Lieut.-General, Commanding VI. Corps.
To VI. Corps.
I wish to bring to the notice of the Corps Commander the excellent work and willing help of the N.Z.E. Tunnelling Company in all their undertakings with the 3rd Division. All work has been punctually and thoroughly carried out to my entire satisfaction without a hitch or difficulty of any kind.
C. J. Deverel,
Major-General, Commanding 3rd Division.
The fruits of the first phase of the Arras operations were substantial, and Sir Douglas Haig would probably have been page 169well content to have stopped the offensive at that point. But it was part of the general policy to maintain the pressure while Nivelle's grand attack by 4 French Armies burst out on the Aisne. The French struck on 16th April. Their dream of a break-through was shattered by the Germen machine guns. It became speedily apparent that the day of rapid and extensive operations in open country was not yet. On 5th May. with the capture of the long platcau north of the Aisne traversed by the Chemin des Dames, the F'rench effort was brought to a conclusion. The Fabian policy of the limited offensive pursued by methodical progress was again endorsed, and Petain succeeded Nive1le.1
The French attack failing in its main objects, Haig's armies were thus released for the originally planned and now delayed attack in the northern theatre. for the purpose of diversion minor operations were continued by the British southern Armics.
Before the princjpal blow could be delivered in Flanders, it was essential to capture the strongly fortified, if not impregnable, ridge which leaving the southern tip of the Ypres salient stretched south-east past Wytschacte and Messines to the Douve valley. From it the enemy commanded unique observation over the whole, of the British lines about ypres, and from it they were in a position to strike at the flank of any attack originating within the salient, further north. It was with the object of removing at once this observation and this menace to the right flank of the main operation that the Battle of Messines was fought. It is not, merely connected with but is an integral part of the tremendous Third Battle of Ypres.
1 On the inner history of the French offensive and on the causes of Nivelle failure much light is thrown in an article by M. Paul Painlevé, who was at the!, Minister of War. His statements are sunrnarised in The Times, 1st Nov. 1919.
1 A Roman Catholic Orphanage for girls. At an earlier date the Mother Superior had tcheerfully rsstented to and witnessed from bombardmen our her institution.
Pending the Delivery-of Nivelle's attack on the Aisne, the labour and material available for the Flanders offensive was only such as could be obtained on the spot; but the preprations which had bcen undertaken since the end of 1916 mere developed steadily as far as the means at hand permitted.
“A large railway programme had been commenced and as soon as it was possible to divert larger supplies northwards, work was pushed on with remarkable speed. Great progress was made with road construction, and certain roads were selected for extension as soon as our objectives could be gained. Forward dumps of material were made for this purpose, and in the days following the 7th June roads were carried forward with great rapidity to Messines, Wytschaete, and Oosttaverne, across country so completely destroyed by shell-fire that it was difficult to trace where the original road had run.
“A special problem arose in connection with the water supply. Pipe lines were taken well forward from existing lakes, from catch-pits constructed on the Kemmel HiIIs, and from sterilising barges on the Lys. Provision was made for the rapid extension of these lines. By the 15th June they had reached Messines, Wytschaete, and the Dammstrasse, and were supplying water at the rate of between 450,000 and 600,000 gallons daily.”1
All the while underground there were being actively pursued operations and counter-operations which were to give a special character to the eventual attack.
“The inception of a deep mining offensive on the Second Army front dated from July, 1915, but the proposal to conduct offelisive mining on a grand scale was not definitely adopted till January, 1916. From that date onwards, as the necessary labour became available, deep mining for offensive purposes gradually developed, in spite of great difficulties from water-bearing strata and active counter-mining by the enemy.
“In all, twenty-four mines were constructed, four of which were outside the front ultimately selected forour offensive, while one other was lost as the result of a minepage 172blown up by the enemy. Many of these mines; had been completed for twelve months prior to our offensive, and constant and anxious work was needed to ensure their safety. The enemy also had a deep mining system, and was aware of his danger.”1
1 Official Despatch.
The final progress of the general preparations above ground was expedited by uniformly fine weather. A certain amount of the personnel necessary for the purpose was supplied by the various labour companies, but the bulk was drawn from the infantry. During May the network of broad and narrow gange railways and trench tramways was developed by extensive ramifieations. Ammunition stations, sidings, and forward dumps multiplied. An infinite number of new gun positions was constructed by the New Zealand gunners for the incoming artillery, and heavy and field guns were steadily brought into the area and formed into different groups. In addition to a stupendous mass of field artillery the 11. Anzac armament included a 15in, howitzer, a 12-in, and a 9.2-in. gun, over fifty 60-pounders, six 12-in. howitzers, over thirty 9.2-in., the same number of 8-in., and over a hundred 6-in. howitzers.2 As early as the middle of May some of the batteries were in forward emplacements under skilfully erected camouflage which merged with the natural grass and foliage, and by midnight 2nd/3rd June all pieces were in their Magnum Opus positions, and the tress which blocked the line of fire had been levelled. Long ere then, too, forward positions had been selected and prepared for guns of all calibres to occupy as soon as the crest was carried. A vast effort, amply repaid, was spent in the extension of the tramway of light railway systems to the battery positions.
1 Official Despatch.
2 Four of the new 6 in. trench mortars were also included.
As at the Somme, night firing was employed to prevent the repair of the enemy's defences and to interfere with his communications, and the roads on which no ground observation was possible were also harassed by day. In barraging the roads, a short sharp bombardment was put down at a selected point so as to cause a halt in a column of transport approaching that point. The road in rear was then searched up and down with shrapnel for a space of 1000 yards lo catch the blocked column. One of the ingenious features of the artillery policy was to drill the enemy into using certain roads and forming blocks of transport at certain points which he considered safe. These points were left to be dealt with on the nights immediately preceding the attack. Gas was discharged or projected frequently on the La Petite Douve Ferme defences and elsewhere.
Messines itself had been shelled repeatedly and with special violence on 17th and 24th May, when enormous pieces of timber and debris were flung high into the sky, and the whole crest veiled in clouds of smoke that made observation impossible. On 30th may it was again subjected to a concentrated bombardment by Army and Corps heavies both in the morning and evening, and similarly on the “U,” “V” and “W” days, preceding the “Z” day of the attack. On these days practice barrages and bombardments were fired by page 174the Corps or Army artillery, partly to force the enemy to disclose his batteries and partly to test our barrage. On 5th June an opportunity was given to effect final improvement in technical points by an Army practice barrage, under cover of which, as we shall see, the 2nd Rifles executed a daring raid in broad daylight.
In the successive bombardments and barrages on Messines the machine guns co-operated actively, firing from localities appreciably distant from their battle positions. On these and on the dugouts in their vicinity, designed to hold spare personnel, reserve ammunition and belt-filling machines, they devoted much labour, which it was very important to disguise. They avoided breaking new soil or piling new earth on the parapets, and all their work was carried out by night, the results being screened before dawn.
This deadly bombardment and counter-battery work, which the enemy endeavonred to hinder with smoke screens, grew in intensity during the 10 days preceding the assault. “Harassing fire” was now directed nightly on railway junctions, unloading points, and all known transport halting places and approaches, special arrangements being made to ensure that there should be no pause between the night firing and the activity which began with daylight. Even now, however, the full weight of artillery was not revealed. Not more than half the total number of guns in action had been disclosed at any one time till “U” day, and even then only three-quarters were to be in action simultaneously till the attack should be launched on “Z” day. For the final 3 days of preparation, the counter-battery work took precedence of the bombardment of the trenches and achieved marked successes. The enemy's field guns were largely' destroyed or forced to withdraw to fresh position in rear, the heavies behind the Comines Canal and a considerable proportion of the field guns behind Warneton. As a result his retaliation in the latter period of the artillery conflict was marked by an absence of field guns, and the actual out-break of the battle many of these were in process of moving eastwards. During the last few days before the attack the German counter-battery work also decreased and became erratic. Information was afterwards vouchsafed by a prisoner that on the night 6th/7th June no fewer than 11 guns including 4 heavies were “knocked out” in a single artillery group.page 175
During the earlier part of May, as has been seen,1 the enemy had endeavoured with limited success to acquire information with regard to the frequent changes of our dispositions and the amount of work in our back areas. The vast preparations later becoming daily more visible could leave him in no doubt, but his infantry remained interprising arid aggressive. On the other hand his artillery activity developed. His retaliation to our bombardments at the outset was mostly confined to field guns, but by 20th May his batteries, like his garrisons, had been reinforced, particularly with his useful 5.9-in. howitzers, and while leaving the forward infantry positions completely unmolested, he became increasingly active with gas and explosive on roads and batteries. The evening sky was continually lit up by the glare of our burning dumps, Neuve Eglise and the other villages in rear were violently bombarded from Warneton and from Frelinghein and the German positions south of the Lys, and distant Bailleul was shelled on 3rd and 5th June in the morning and afternoon with heavy long-range guns. The German counter-battery work was directed specially on the batteries on and behind Hill 63. On 5th June English gunners attached to the 1st Brigade Group received unwelcome attention. Their positions were in an open field, and the artificial camouflage, erected over the guns, instead of concealing them, actually attracted notice in aeroplane photographs. The camouflage caught fire, and 13,000 shells and 5 guns were destroyed. It was at this time that a gallant action was performed by Lt. C. T. Gillespie, of the 7th Battery, assisted by Fitter H. Selby and Gunner L. D. Belton. A shell struck a pile of boxed ammunition at the gun-pit, and the boxes caught fire. Gillespie, with these 2 men, taking no heed of the bursting explosive and shrapnel, separated the burning boxes and extinguished the fire.
1 p. 161.
In the general preparations the New Zealand Division played their full part. The expenditure of shells rose steadily.1 The multifarious tasks that fell to the Engineers Pioneers and Infantry included the laying of an elaborate buried cable system,2 the excavation of advanced headquarters dugouts for battalion and brigade headquarters, the construction of signal dugouts, relay-posts for runners and stretcher-bearers, regimental aid posts and advanced dressing stations, the tunnelling of new catacombs in Hill 63 for the accommodation of the Divisional reserves, the formation of forward dumps, the screening of approaches, the clearing of obstacles behind our front line, the thinning of the thick hedgerows in No Man's Land, the preparation of portable bridges over the Douve and Steenebeek. Above all, the infantary were engaged in the completion and draining of the assembly trenches and the arrangements for rapid egress from them. The sector bore many names reminiscent of former Canadian occupation, and now, like the Tunnellers at Arras, the New Zealand battalions christened the new works in memory-of their homes. Thus to Medicine Hat Trail and Calgary and Toronto Avenues were added Otira Otago and Auckland Trenches, and the congeries of names significantly reflected the co-operation of 2 widely separated Dominions in the Empire's cause.
1 Between noon 31st May and noon '7th June the artillery attached to the Division fired 126,200 rounds of 18-pounder and 33,700 rounds of 4.5 in. howitzer ammunition.
2 In cable-burying the 11. Anz: ac Cyclist Battalion rendered conspicuously useful service.
1 At midnight, Ist/2nd June, a Stokes (light trench mortar) gas bomb bombardment was carried out on the Farm by the Special Bde, R.E. It appears probable that its reputation caused us to attach overmuch importance to the Farm.
Mention should also be made of a particularly valuable reconnaissance over the enemy front system carried out on the evening of 1st June by Major J. Hargest, the Second in Command of 1st 0tago, who was rapidly coming into prominence as one of the finest soldiers in the Division. In company with a n.c.o. he explored the German front line and went nearly 200 yards up the communication trench to near the support line, when the enemy's night sentries taking up their posts in the front line behind him made it necessary to withdraw.
In the preliminary instructions issued to the troops, the purpose of the forthcoming attack was veiled as an effort undertaken to compel the enemy to withdraw his reserves from the main battle front at Arras. The aim of the Second Army was to seize the whole 6 miles' length of the ridge from its southern base at St. Yves to its junction with the hills of the salient beyond Wytschaete, to capture as many as possible of the enemy's guns in the vicinity of osttaverne and to the north-east of Messines, to consolidate a line which would secure possession of the ridge, and to establish a forward position on which counter-attacks could be met at a safe distance from the crest. The requisite amount of elbow room would be given by the capture of the 0osttaverne Line, and this accordingly was fixed as the final objective. To secure all the fruits of a surprise attack and to effect the capture of guns it was imperative that the attack should be pushed through in 1 day. The troops available for the operations were, from right to left, 11. Anzac, the IX. Corps and the X. Corps. In reserve was the XIV. Corps, which had in the Battle of the Somme been on the right of the XV.
Under General Godley's command at the beginning of may were the 57th, the 3rd Australian, the New Zealand and the: 25th Divisions. The Corps was reinforced in the middle of the month by the 4th Australian Division from I. Anzac, then forming part of the Fifth Army. The Divisions earrnarked for the attack lay approximately-in their assembly areas. On the right, from St. Yves to the Douve, the 3rd Australian Division held a frontage of some 2000 yards. The New Zealanders, in the centre, from the Douve to just page 179north of the Wulverghem-Messines road occupied some 1500 yards. On the left, where 11. Anzac were divided from the IX. Corps at the Wulverghem-wytschaete road, the frontage allotted to the 25th Division was still narrower, in view of the greater distance that lay between them and the crest. On the Corps front south of the Lys the 57th Division had extended their positions1 to the north to include the subsectors of 1'Epinette and Houplines just south of the river, and now held a frontage of 18,000 yards, formerly garrisoned by 3 Divisions, each with 2 strong brigades in the line. Towards the end of May, to relieve the Second Army and 11. Anzac of responsibilities outside the active area, the 57th Division sector right up to the Lys was transferred to the XI. Corps of the First Army. The defensive front of the Corps, as contrasted with the offensive front on which the 3 Divisions were preparing their spring on Messines, was thus restricted lo the short sector from the Lys to St. Yves, held by the 3rd Australians Division. To relieve its garrison a separate force of 2 battalions of the already extended 57th Division was brought up on 3rd June north of the lys and attached for tactical purpose to the 3rd Australians.
1 p. 153
The assaulting positions of the 3rd Australians and the New Zealanders lay in a line, and no difficulty faced the Staff in synchronising their advance. At the left boundary of the New Zealand, however, an awkward problem presented itself. Here the German trenches bulged out westwards over the Steenebeek valley and up the rising ground on its right bank, where they inlcluded the ruins of a large farm called Ontario, from which point they turned again northwards along the IX. Corp's' front. As a result of this, the 25th Division's trenches lay 600-800 yards echeloned in rear of the remainder of the Corps' front. So too the German support positions in the upper Steenebeek valley, opposite the 25th Division, enfiladed the passage of the New Zealanders across No Man's land. To bring all assaulting troops into line, it might have been thought feasible to launch the 25th Division and the northern troops some minutes before the 2 Overseas Divisions, but in that case the enemy barrage would have time to come down on the front line and catch the Australians and New Zealanders in their assembly trenches. It was vital that all along the front as many of the attacking troops as possible should have crossed into the enemy's country before his protective curtain of fire fell. The advance, therefore, must start simultaneously.
This point once settled, arrangements were made that the left flank of the New Zealanders' line, placed so awkwardly in front of the 25th Division at the outset of the attack, should be protected and guided by an enfilade barrage, which would be gradually followed up by the ereeping frontal barrage of the 25th Division. Smoke clouds could also, if necessary, be discharged on the slopes of the upper Steenebeek valley, and Ontario Farm would be hurled sky-high by means of our mines which lay under it. The New Zealand left as it advanced would be swung back along the boundary line to ensure a flank defence; and the halts were so arranged that the 25th Division would catch up just short of the Ypres road running along the crest. and thereafter page 181would continue in line. A corresponding manoeuvre was to take place at a later stage on the boundary between the 25th Division and the IX. Corps.
On this rapid crossing of No Man's Land ere the German barrage fell, great emphasis was laid in the Divisional plans, and it was largely with this end in view that the numerous lines of assembly trenches had been constructed. For the same reason the first New Zealand objective was fixed, not at the German front line, where delay might cause congestion in No Man's Land, but at the support line. And the front line trenches had been so battered that serious resistance in them need not be anticipated.
The role allotted to the Division was the storming of Messines, the consolidation of the Black Line within the New Zealanders' boundaries, the establishment of a series of Strong Points on the Black Dotted Line, and the capture of any enemy guns within their area. These objectives fell naturally into 3 phases, firstly the capture of the trenches on the west slope and of the village with the ring of trenches immediately surrounding it, secondly the capture and consolidation of the Black Line, and thirdly the establishment of the Strong Points on the Black Dotted Line and the capture of the guns. The first phase, including as it did the capture of the 2 front systems of defence (the Blue and Brown Lines) and the village, bristled with difficulties and necessitated the employment of 2 brigades which would advance side by side. The second and third phases in the comparatively open country might be left to 1 brigade. For the capture of the crest and the village 2 battalion in each brigade sector would advance side by side and carry the first and second trench systems, and 1 strengthened battalion in each sector would divide the village between them. Half of each battalion would pass through the village to its further ring of defences and half remain to deal with the garrison. In the capture of each successive objective the "leap-frog" principle of advance was to be observed. Separate units were told off for the capture and consolidation of definite positions, and through them would pass fresh troops destined for further objectives.
The 3rd and 2nd Brigades were ordered to carry out the first phase and the 1st Brigade the second and third. Brigade and battalion plans were scrutinised at conferences at Divisional headquarters, which at the end of April had moved to Westhof Farm, near Neuve Eglise. There, on 24th May, page 182Sir Douglas Haig visited General Russell to express his approval and confidence.
Of the 20 tanks put at the disposal of the Corps, 12 had been allotted to the Division. Their routes and tasks were carefully defined, and special bridges were constructed for their use over the Douve. In addition to the medium and heavy howitzers and guns of the Corps, the Division was directly supported by nineteen 18-pounder batteries and six 4.5-in. howitzer batteries. A field gun was available for every 7 yards of enemy front. The 2nd (Army) Artillery Brigade supported the 25th Division's attack. Special arrangements were made to give the artillery transport increased mobility.
Not the least interesting provision for facilitating the advance of the infantry was the formation of barrages by the machine guns, of which 144 were arranged along the Corps' front to sweep a line 500 yards in front of the advancing bayonets. The New Zealand attack was supported by 56 machine guns, divided for tactical purposes into 3 groups. Each assaulting brigade retained 8 of their guns for direct co-operation. The remainder, with those of the Divisional Company1 and of the newly arrived 4th Infantry Brigade, were employed under Divisional control. Like the artillery, the machine guns would maintain their normal harassing fire on communications throughout the final night, but at zero they would put down stationary and creeping barrages, lifting by 100 yards at a time as far as the crest of the ridge. On the capture of the trenches on the crest, 2 groups would move forward to the ridge to deal with any hostile attack on the Black Line, and later advance again to support the 4th Australians' attack on the Green Line with similar standing and creeping barrages.
1 p. 163.
On the afternoon of the 6th a company of 1st Canterbury were having tea on the slopes of Hill 63 when 3 shells fell without warning in the crowd round the dixies, and 30 men were wounded or killed. No misadventure, how ever, befell the small advance parties of the assaulting brigades that took over the line from 2nd Auckland.
In the late evening their fellows left the concentration areas, and marched up to the trenches by specially pegged and marked overland routes which were employed to avoid congestion and shelling on the main roads. A thunderstorm had cleared the sultry air, and the night was cool and fresh. All over the Army front innumerable platoons of the different Divisions were moving at 200 yards' distance from each other. No match was struck to light pipe or cigarette, and high overhead aeroplanes guarded the sky. On the right an Australian brigade was heavily gas shelled. Gas and lachrymatory shells fell also with their characteristic soft explosions in the New Zealand area, especially about Hill 63, where Advanced Divisional Headquaters were obliged to wear gas respirators for 6 hours prior to zero. The infantry suffered less. Few duties are more laborious than groping one's way up dark saps in respirators, but with order and precision the troops filed into the trenches, and thanks to good gas discipline suffered but few casua1ties.1 The machine gunners, who had moved to their positions on the previous evening and remained under cover during the day, now completed their emplacements or finally cleared their lines of fire.
1 The German gas shelling was favoured by a gentle steady easterly wind, owing to which our own proposed gas attack had to be cancelled.
In these congested trenches a bombardment would cause destruction and demoralisation. Arrangements had been made, therefore, that enemy shelling of our trenches should be frustrated by prompt and overwhelming counter-battery work. Should such bombardment arise within 30 minutes of zero, a S.O.S. signal would not be answered by our field artillery, in order that there might be no danger of our infantry mistaking retaliatory action for the opening of the barrage. Though our batteries, however, received the usual attention, our forward areas were left unmolested by artillery fire, and shortly after midnight the enemy gas shelling ceased. Fully anticipating our attack, the German Command did not expect it for some days yet, and his intention was to relieve with fresh troops the Divisions on the ridge, sorely tried by our unceasing bombardment. That very night, indeed, reliefs were being carried out on the silent hillside. Opposite the 25th Division the trenches were crowded with incoming and outgoing Saxons and Bavarians. in Messines the infantry-exchanges had been completed, and troops of the 40th Division (Saxons) and the 3rd Bavarian Division held the line opposite the New Zealand front. The machine gun reliefs, however, were still in progress and were to be caught in the storm.
Up to the moment of attack our own artillery and machine guns maintained their normal activity without either page 185slackening or intensifying. It was a fine night, lit up in the earlier hours by a full moon. Before the trenches, patrols covered No Man's Land with special vigilance; others examined the bridges over the Steenebeek, and where necessary repaired them, or laid guiding tapes from the bridges to the top of our parapets, or placed duckboards across the front trenches as bridges for the troops in rear. By 3 a.m. the parties in No Man's Land had withdrawn to the trenches, and at that hour the stormers silently fixed bayonets.
The moment of assault was fixed at 10 minutes past 3. The moon had now sunk below the horizon. The morning was dark and misty, but the first streaks of dawn just enabled close objects to be discerned. A minute or two before zero, some machine guns anticipated the barrage, but were fortunately not taken seriously by the enemy. Within a few seconds of the proper time the mines were sprung at Factory Farm, just beyond the right of the Australians, and at Anton's Farm Road, in the centre of their position. On the other flank of the New Zealanders one at Ontario farm, in reality of lesser dimensions but appearing owing to its proximity even more stupendous, caused the bottom of their trenches to heave and rock, and the volcano of jagged crimsonred flames lit up the forms of our infantary. moving over the parapet.
Ten seconds after the explosion of the mines and the opening roar of our artillery and machine gun barrages, the dark hillside under Messines was illuminated by the white rockets and white flares bursting into 2 green stars of the German S.O.S., and the observes on Hill 63 witnessed an astonishingly beautiful display-of fireworks stretching away north as far as the eye could see. There were the unseen enemy, now all too certain that the awaited British attack had in the end surprised them.
The German guns had been located by their activity-during our barrage feints. The effect of the deluge of gas and high-explosive with which they were drenched at the moment of zero by our heavies was instantaneous. They at once ceased the sporadic shelling of the batteries that had continued through the night, but it was not till 10 minutes later that their barrage fell about No Man's Land. Even then it was thin and irregular, and it was directed at now empty front lines. For, moving forward with the rapidity and ease born of frequent practice at Tilques, all 8 battalions of our 2 assaulting brigades were clear of' our page 186trenches in 7 minutes. Later the hostile barrage extended to the 1st Brigade trenches in rear without inflicting serious casualties. It descended with more weight on the 25th Division. The Douve chanced to mark a boundary between 2 different German Armies, the Fourth on the north and the Sixth on the south, and the Australians, who faced the latter, were hampered by a second heavy barrage of gas.
In view of the tiers of trenches on the hillside it had been decided to put standing barrages on them from the outset rather than devote part of the artillery to cover the infantry across the 200 yards' breadth of No Man's Land. It was from the German front line onwards that the creeping 18-pounder barrage advanced up the hill, protecting with its mighty shield the assaulting waves. Up to this date no barrage had been more scientifically planned, nor was one even later to be more admirably executed, and it was spoken of long afterwards by the infantry, ever sufficiently severe critics, with enthusiasm. Carefully calculated on the probable pace of the waves and their varying progress as they would be faced by difficulties of ground or points of resistance, It rolled up majestically to the support line, lifting 100 yards every 2 minutes. From there uphill to the trenches on the crest, It stretched forth Its destructive hand more slowly, taking 3 minutes to the 100 yards. Through Messines, in view of the difficulties of mopping up, 11 minutes clapsed from every 100 yards' lift. Once over the hill and in the open country It again hastened Its stride. The 18-pounder standing barrage waited for It and then lifted to the next trench. A standing 4.5-in. howitzer barrage fell 300 yards ahead of the infantry. The standing barrages of the medium and heavy howitzers were established on successive trenches and Strong Points within the limits of safety (400 yards) for the advancing waves.
For purposes of facilitating intelligence work, the German trenches had been give names beginning with the letter of the map square in which they were located. The New Zealand attack fell mainly in the square U and partly in the square 0, and the trenches of the front line system (the Blue Line) were from south to north know as the Ulna Ulcer Uhlan, and Oyster Trenches and Supports. Towards these the 2 battalions in each brigade now moved abreast, accompanied by their machine gun detachments. In the Rifle Brigade to the south were the 1st Battalion1 on the right and the 3rd Battalion on the left, the latter being strengthened by 2 platoons of the 2nd Battalion,2 which was in brigade reserve. In the 2nd Brigade, 1st Canterbury3 was on the right and 1st Otago on the left.
In the darkness the men moved steadily and rapidly over the Steenebeek with their rifles carried at the high port across their breasts. The German barrage had not yet fallen, but a few shells dropped in No Man's Land, and by an unlucky mischance 2 of these destroyed the machine gun crews attached to the 1st and 4th Rifles. There was no confusion, no trace of excitement. Officers and n.c.o.s quietly adjusted distances. The 2 platoons of the 1st Rifles detailed to take La Petite Douve Ferme met resistance from isolated groups in the ruins and the sap in rear, but speedily overcame it.
1 Major (temp. Lt.-Col.) J. G. Roache, vice Lt.-Col. Austin, wounded 21st March.
3 Major A. D. Sitt, vice Lt.-Co1. Young, on liaison duty.
In the support line of the front system, the 2 leading companies of each battalion stayed, and after a brief pause further companies passed through them and up the hill towards the second system (the Brown Line). The ascent was extraordinary difficult. Vast 15-feet-deep craters with sheer sides covered the whole slope. Scarcely a foot of level ground remained amid the shellholes. The dawn too had hardly broken, and the darkness was accentuated by the smoke of the shells, but the officers checked direction with their compasses, and in every case the companies reached their objectives practically correct.
On the Rifle Brigade front the right company of the 1st Battalion found a machine gun emplacement 200 yards below the Brown Line wire, with a machine gun and ammunition, but the personnel had fled. Pressing forward and jumping into the trenches the moment the barrage lifted, the company accounted for the garrison, of whom they took 30 prisoners. Their objective, Ulcer Reserve, lay about 100 yards further east than the rest of the Brown Line. The left company were fired at from a hedge while still 200 yards from their goal, but rushed the hedge and bayoneted the Germans in the roughly fortified shellholes beyond, taking also a handful of prisoners. In their sector of trench were 2 concrete dug-outs. One, containing explosives, they later blew up. From a loophole in the other a rifle fired down the sap. Dodging behind the debris, the riflemen, surrounded it, and the 6 occupants surrendered. In all, the 1st Battalion captured over 70 prisoners and 4 machine guns.
The 3rd Battalion companies, with the 2 platoons attached from the 2nd Battalion, reached the neighbourhood of the Brown Line without opposition, but here they came under intense fire from a well-posted machine gun on the edge of Messines. The officer commanding the company opposite the gun was killed. Men fell rapidly, and the line was checked. Then L.-Cpl. Samuel Frickleton, although already slightly wounded, called on his section to follow him and dashed through our barrage with his men. Flinging his bombs at the gun crew, he rushed and bayoneted the survivors and then, still working within our barrage with the utmost sang-froid, attacked a second gun some 20 yards away. He killed the 3 men serving the gun and then destroyed the remainder of the crew and others, numbering page 190in all 9, who were still in the dugout. The infantry at once swept on to the trench. Frickleton, who was later severely wounded, was awarded the V.C. for the magnificent courage and leadership which prevented many casualties and ensured success. In this gallant action. Cpl. A. V. Eade was also prominent. He carried one of the machine guns forward to engage another gun further on, but was killed while getting the gun into action. Another member of the party, Rflmn. C. J. Maubon, a few minutes later when a machine gun opened fire from the ruins of the inner wall of the Institution Royale, rushed up within the shells of our barrage, bombed the gunner and destroyed the gun. The 3rd Battalion captured in the Blue and Brown systems nearly 100 prisoners and 3 machine guns. Their casualties in the actual advance were 21 killed and 75 wounded. Only 9 officers remained to supervise consolidation. Major A. Digby-Smith had been severely wounded in the face by shrapnel in No Man's Land, and suffered in addition from the effects of gas poisoning, but 'continued to lead his company till consolidation was well under way.
Mcanwhile along the farm road dividing the 2 brigades a 1st Canterbury party had carried the group of houses at the Au Bon Fermier Cabaret. Light trench mortars accompanied them to assist in beating down the resistance expected at this Strong Point, but the Germans, driven back from the sandbagged entrances, threw up the sponge. From the cellars Canterbury collected 17 prisoners and 3 machine guns, and the light trench mortars, in accordance with the pre-arranged plan, moved over to the left flank. In the further advance on the Brown Line trouble was given by an enemy machine gun. Two Lewis gunners, L.-Cpl. G. A. Hewitt and Pte. R. T. Garlick, however, pushed through our barrage and engaged it. The Germans presently made signs of surrender, and Hewitt and Garlick went forward to take them prisoners. As soon as the 2 men emerged into the open, the machine gunners opened fire and wounded both. But the Germans reckoned without the determination of their opponents. Making light of their wounds, Hewitt and Garlick crawled up a sap and bombed the gun, killing the whole crew of 6. Then rushing the emplacement they captured the gun and 11 prisoners in the adjoining dugout.
The Otago company detailed to seize the crest trench on the right of the battalion's sector of the Brown Line gained their objective without difficulty, Pte. C. A. Fitzpatrick page 191showing marked gallantry in rushing a machine gun, bayoneting 5 of the crew and capturing the remaining man and the gun. On its left 2 platoons of the remaining company, pending the arrival of the 25th Division fulfilled their function of safeguarding the flank by occupation of a communication trench which ran diagonally down hill in the direction of Birthday Farm. 1st Otago captured 2 field guns, 3 trench mortars and 9 machine guns, and 6 officers and 150 men. By the evening, shelled erratically but heavily, the battalion had lost 11 officers and over 200 men, of whom 3 officers and 30 men had been killed.
It was now close on 4 a.m. Except on the left, where it was part of the policy to wait till the 25th Division was in line, the second system of trenches (the Brown Line) had fallen, like the first (the Blue Line), up to timetable. The day was now rapidly becoming lighter, and the artillery forward observation officers were already on the foremost positions won, eager to find targets for their guns. The infantry lost not a minute in beginning consolidation. In the front line trench system they dug themselves in some 70 yards above the German defences. On the crest in front of the Rifle Brigade the protective barrage stood somewhat close in, and hence the new trenches were perforce constructed rather closer to the old than was desirable.1 Before Messines the 2nd Brigade sited their trenches below the German ones, for otherwise they would have been too near the outskirts of the village, which was certain to be shelled, and in addition the German wire, which was still despite the bombardment in fair condition, now served their own purposes. 1st Otago was for a time harassed by machine guns from the ruins of Swayne's Farm on the Wytschacte road, but forth-with a tank came up and, manocuvring with some difficulty past a large shellhole, crashed into the wall. The wall crumbled before it in a cloud of reddish dust. The roof fell in. The garrison of 30 came out and surrendered.
1 p. 84.
The portion of the ridge on which the frontier village of Messines is built is flat, and the ground falls gradually away to the south-east and west. The natural strength of the position was recognised in ancient times and was improved by a fortified enceinte, traces of which still remained in a depression on the western outskirts, now filled with barbed wire. In his scheme of defence of the ridge the German had designed Messines, the southern corner-post of “the Wytschaete bend,” to be a fortress capable of all-round resistance. On the north and north-east as well as on the west he had surrounded it with well-constructed and heavily-wired trenches.
A permanent commander (Capt. Thomas) had been appointed for its outer and inner defences. The former consisted of the whole trench system round the town, the latter were based on 5 completed concrete works commanding the lines of the streets and on others still in course of construction. Should the outer defences be broken, the town was to be defended by sectors. Each of the 5 concrete dugouts was a self-contained Strong Point, and as such was to be held to the last until the town should be retaken. Of the 200 odd houses the majority were small cottages with ground floors only, but some were substantially built with 2 floors. Nearly every cellar was converted into a concrete shell-proof dugout. The stronger were used as offices and telephone ex-changes and for accommodation. In addition to troops of the reserve battalion, Capt. Thomas could call on certain Pioneers and other forces as an emergency garrison, and these as a distinguishing mark carried a white band on the left arm.2
2 The German Defence Orders were captured and are held as a New Zealand war trophy.
These 2 battalions pressed close behind the leading troops of their brigades. The 4th Rifles, following the 3rd Battalion, was on a 3-company frontage. The right company, in conjunction with a 1st Battalion company, was to take a half-finished trench beyond the Brown Line on the open ground south of the village, and so straighten up the position with the advanced right flank of the 1st Rifles.1 The centre and left companies had their task in clearing the village. In rear came the remaining 4th Battalion company, which passing through the village would complete the capture of the Yellow Line on the left of the brigade sector due east of the village, and the attached company of the reserve battalion. 2nd Canterbury extended over the whole of the 2nd Brigade area on a 2-company frontage. The first wave was composed of the assaulting platoons that would capture Oxonian Trench. Behind them followed the troops detailed to clear the northern half of Messines, and finally came the supporting platoons of the leading companies. Slightly echeloned in rear of the left companies moved the 2nd Otago company, which would be used, as the 25th Division came abreast, to take the trench known as October Support beyond the Wytschaete road north of the village.
1 p. 189
3 p. 207.
1 No satisfactory evidence supports the improbable statement that the wells in Messines were poisoned with arsenic. The chemical analysis made appears to have been faulty.
Meanwhile on the left flank the 25th Division had over-come all difficulties about the Steenebeek valley and pressed up towards the crest, the enfilade barrage which protected the New Zealanders' left flank lifting off before them as they came. When they drew abreast of the diagonal sap in which the 1st Otago troops refused the New Zealand left, the frontal barrage covering these also lifted forward, and Otago rose from their trenches and, in conformity with the 25th Division, swept up to extend in a straight line the position held on the ridge. Through them presently moved the 2nd Otago company attached to 2nd Canterbury. This company passing the now innocuous Swayne's Farm,1 from which the tank had drawn the sting, crossed the Wytschaete road and captured October Support a few minutes after 5 a.m. 200 yards in front of the trench a new line was dug across the position, and the machine guns of the battalions in rear rapidly took up posts in it.
1 25th Division troops seem to have made doubly sure of this (?) Farm by a subsequent "capture." A succession of small concrete Strong Points, or "pill-boxes" on the Wytchaete road made identification difficult.
The first act was thus brought to a triumphal conclusion, and the stage was set for the appearance of the 1st Brigade. The position of the Black Line selected for consolidation east of the ridge was on an average some 600 yards in front of the trenches which had been captured and were now being redug by the 2 leading brigades. From the point of junction with the 3rd Australians near Bethleem Farm it followed the contour of the hill over Unbearable Trench and Huns' Walk to the northern boundary, where it swung back slightly westwards along the head of a shallow valley. The line passed just in front of a little wayside shrine, the Chapelle du Voleur, on Huns' Walk, and of the mound of a former windmill called the Blauwen Molen. Further north, just before it bent westwards, it included the fortified buildings at Fanny's Farm.
The two 1st Brigade assaulting battalions left their assembly trenches shortly before 4 a.m. 1st Auckland moved on the right and 1st Wellington on the left. 2 light trench mortars accompanied the former and 3 the latter. Advancing side by side in small columns through the empty front line over the Steenebeek and up the hill, they swerved right and left to avoid confusion or shelling in Messines. The 2nd Brigade paid a tribute to their perfect formation. Just before 5 a.m. they reached the rear of the Brown Line.
At this moment the curtain of fire encircling Messines was still halted in suspense, the furthest are of the circle waiting for the barrage with the following troops on either side to draw up level and join it in making once more a straight line across the whole Divisional front. On the north we have already marked the approach of the barrage in the advance of the 2nd Otago company over the Wytschaete road. On the southern edge of the village the guns lifted at 5 a.m., and the expectant lines of 1st Auckland immediately followed. Across their front ran the upper section of a wellwired trench called Ungodly. This was unheld, and the company detailed to take it at once established 4 posts in front. Another company passed through them to advance to the Black Line. They knew that they would cross the road from Messines to Basseville. It ran across their front and would be helpful in checking direction. In the smoke page 198and dust their eyes were strained towards it. Before they discerned the road itself, they saw a sight that thrilled their pulses. Through the battle fog appeared a crowd of Germans on a bank intent on dragging something away. In a flash the men realised what that something was. With a cheer and shouts of "Guns" the line broke from its steady walk into a panting run. The straining gunners redoubled their efforts, and a German machine gun from a niche in the bank opened fire. Down in a shellhole dropped the Lewis gunners on our flank and poured in a hot covering fire which silenced the machine gun, while the infantry streamed forward to the road. They jumped down from the near bank. They jabbed their bayonets into the panic-stricken Germans. The 2 guns and the machine gun were captured, and the greater part of the enemy were killed or taken prisoner. Exultantly this right company then pressed on without further adventure to the Black line. The leading company on the left meantime had skirted above Ungodly and taken Unbearable and the shrine without much difficulty. Both companies without delay proceeded to dig themselves in.
North of the village 1st Wellington had followed close on the 2nd Otago company and in their eagerness not to miss the barrage were in October Support but a second or two behind them. Wellington attacked with 3 companies abreast, the right company swinging out to connect with Auckland once it had rounded Messines. A special platoon under 2nd Lt. A. R. Blennerhassett, detailed to storm Blauwen Molen and the sap leading to it, had a few minutes' sharp fighting at the Mill, but the enemy was rushed by Cpl. J. Fernandez and his men with a determination that ensured the minimum of casualties. It had been an artillery headquarters, and the dugouts were full of Germans, whom they bombed. 3 machine guns, an officer and 26 prisoners were captured, Pte. R. Alexander taking a machine gun and its entire crew single-handed. The right Wellington company did not meet with much opposition, and 2 machine guns and 25 prisoners fell to them. In this company Sergt. R. Corkill commanded the platoon on the right of the battalion sector. He led his men to the objective with great dash and judgment. He was hit in the right eye by a sniper. Though in great pain he remained on duty while touch was gained with Auckland on the right and consolidation well advanced, and he refused to be taken to the aid post till he had collapsed from pain and exhaustion.page 199
Against the centre company a stiff resistance was shown in their task of clearing up a battalion headquarters and attacking stoutly-held enemy posts in the shellholes. A platoon of this company under. Lt. R. Wood fought with magnificent courage. Here as elsewhere on the brigade front the enemy barrage was not severe, but the German snipers were marksmen and took heavy toll. Shortly after a charge at and the capture of a machine gun, Woods himself was wounded and his platoon reduced to 12 men, but Sergt. M. Beck, L.-Cpl. C. W. Hansen and the remainder charged the Germans with desperate fury. Unhesitating gallantry on the part of a handful of men in close quarters not infrequently annuls a disadvantage of numbers. It was so to prove in this case. Beck and his men killed a round 50 of the Germans and were mortified to see others escape. To the remaining platoons of the centre company it fell to clear Fanny's Farm and the trench guarding it, where less stubborn resistance was overcome. The total prisoners of this company amounted to 100, and they also shot many of the enemy.
The Wellington company on the left who pushed up the communication trench leading from October Support to Fanny's Farm had also to fight their way. One man in this company, Pte. J. A. Lee, was prominent for fearless gallantry. He tackled single-handed a machine gun near the Wytschaete road and captured the 4 gunners, and later, when the centre company was held up by an enemy post, he worked to its rear and rushed it successfully. In all this struggle the Stokes mortars gave valuable assistance, and here they ejected a machine gun from a concrete emplacement near the Wytschaete road, and silenced with 4 shells another troublesome one at the trench junction near Fanny's Farm. The left company secured 2 machine guns and 40 prisoners. The battalion in all captured 7 machine guns and nearly 200 prisoners, including 5 officers. On this battalion area perhaps more than elsewhere the Germans showed bitter resistance, but generally speaking their morale was high. In later examination the prisoners denounced the lack of support given by their artillery, many stating emphatically that the infantry was sacrificed to save the guns.
The attacking troops were to be on the Black Line at 20 minutes past 5. At 20 minutes past 5 consolidation was being begun, and pigeons were winging their way back with the news of success to the Division lofts at Westhof page 200Farm. As soon as word was received of the capture of Messines, the forward group of the barraging machine guns had come on with remarkable quickness, They were led by the Divisional Machine Gun Officer, Major R. D. Hardic. Wounded in the eye and having every reason to believe that he had lost its use, this splendid officer disdained to leave his men for treatment, but continued with a skill equal to his fortitude to direct their fire and remained with them through-out the action. On reaching the intermediate position allotted on the eastern slope the machine gunners found it right on the line of the enemy barrage, and so, skilfully led by Lts. B. Palmes and P. C. Ashby, pushed further forward to their final objective, arriving in rear of the Black Line some 10 minutes after the infantry. Heavy casualties had been sustained in their advance, and on this new line 2 guns were destroyed. A third gun, with, Lt. A. H. Preston, M.C., a conspicuously fine officer, and 2 of its crew were buried. The other members of the team, under heavy shell-fire, contrived to extricate them, and Cpl. H. M. Hopper, using artificial respiration, succeeded in bringing round the 2 men. The gun was recovered and again brought into action. All efforts failed to resuscitate Preston. In the task of consolidation, in which the reserve companies lent a hand, water was soon reached, and the sides of the trenches fell in, but the shelling was not yet intense, and the men were in extraordinarily high spirits. In the morning General Brown paid a visit to his troops all down the inchoate line.
2nd Lieut. S. Frickleton, V.C,
Mcanwhile the 2nd Auckland companies. who had followed the 2 leading battalions of the 1st Brigade had been halted since 5 a.m. at the Moulin de 1'Hospice. Up to this point their casualties had been inconsiderable. At 6.40 a.m. 2 companies started forward to get into position behind the continuous Black Line for the execution of the third phase of the Division's action, the establishment of a Black Dotted Line of posts in front of the Black Line, the capture of the guns and the consolidation of 5 specially selected Strong Points. At the appointed time, 8.40 a.m., the protective barrage lifted and began to creep forward 100 yards every 3 minutes to cast of the Black Dotted Line followed closely by the patrols. On the right a 1st Auckland platoon pushed a post 200 yards down Unbearable Trench. The other 4 Strong Points were established further north, each by a platoon of one of the two 2nd Auckland companies. The other company was retained for the moment behind the Black Line. The withdrawal of the German batteries beyond Warneton frustrated any hopes of large captures of artillery, but the platoon on the extreme left captured a field gun. Two of these posts were heavily shelled after noon by our own or the enemy's artillery and had to withdraw temporarily for a short distance.
An hour's protective barrage was put down in front of the posts to cover consolidation. It was not kept on the same line all the time, but throughout swept forwards and backwards up to a depth of 1000 yards, so that the ground in front was completely searched and all enemy movement frustrated. The forward observation officers on the crest were able to some extent to direct it on suitable targets. On its conclusion, patrols of the other company of 2nd Auckland, who had rested behind the Black Line, moved out to reconnoiter the ground as far as the Green Line. All troops operating east of the line of posts had been instructed to do everything in their power to facilitate the advance of the 4th Australians, and it was in this spirit that these patrols page 202carried out their mission. With fine audacity they went right up to within 100 yards of the Green Line, where they found the wire destroyed. The runners despatched back to Brigade Headquarters with the results of this reconnaissance appear one and all to have fallen victims to enemy fire, but the good news was told by word of mouth to the Australians as they passed through the Black Line. During this long but unavoidable pause of several hours, necessary to co-ordinate movement on the whole battlefront, 3 New Zealand and Australian cavalry patrols from the II. Anzac Mounted Regiment, in addition to the Aucklanders, pushed well forward to keep in touch with the enemy. They formed, however, too conspicuous a target to German artillery and machine guns, and were forced to withdraw with the loss of most of their horses.
On the definite crushing of this attack all the available guns turned again to their interrupted task of bombarding the Green Line and its entanglements. In the morning an aeroplane had passed along it from Ploegsteert to its northern boundary and reported that at this time it held no concentration of troops. By the afternoon, however, the garrison had been largely increased. The original time fixed for the Australian advance had been extended some days previously by the Army Staff to a time which would be determined on the actual day by the progress of events. At 10.30 a.m. Corps were informed that the new zero would be exactly 12 hours after the opening of the attack. It was thus not till close on 3 p.m. that the protective barrage reestablished itself in front of the Black Dotted Line to cover the deployment of the 4th Australians. The gentle easterly breeze did not mitigate appreciably the sultriness of the afternoon.
At 3.10 p.m. the 4th Australians advanced simultaneously with Divisions of the other Corps on the north. The artillery covering the New Zealand and 25th Divisions supported them, and they were accompanied by tanks. Northwards the assault was successful, but east of Messines the machine-like precision with which the earlier stage of the battle was conducted did not characterise either the assault on the Green Line or the holding of the portion taken. Information came in vague and fragmentary, and mounted patrols were again pushed out in the afternoon to supplement it. Between 8 and 9 p.m. the enemy put down a strong barrage, which included 8-in. shell and extended to the New Zealand positions. He followed it up with a series of determined local attacks by the 1st Guards Reserve Division. Under the pressure portions of the Australian line which had reached the Oosttaverne trenches but had not yet consolidated were driven in. There followed not a little confusion in the forward areas and uncertainty at Headquarters due to varying and inconsistent reports-now that all was well, now that the forward troops were retiring and the situation critical. The New Zealand batteries and machine guns answered the S.O.S. signal with the utmost vigour, one machine gun group firing no less than 21,000 rounds. No enemy were observed from the Black Line, and the hourly reports received by the Division from its own brigades made it clear that page 204the New Zealand positions were secure. General Russell and his Staff were imperturbable. Some commanders on the Corps front, however, fearful of the safety of the Black Line, took the extreme step of shortening the barrage, which entailed an unfortunate amount of casualties among those Australians who remained stubbornly in the Oosttaverne System. Notification of these instruction to the artillery was communicated to Corps Headquarters, who at once took strong action. The barrages both of field and heavy guns were peremptorily ordered to be advanced again east of the Green Line; further, they were to be accentuated at 3 a.m., at which hour the Australians were instructed to reoccupy the positions. The remainder of the night was fairly quiet. The Australians carried out the necessary reformations, and the whole of the Oosttaverne Line was in their possession by the early fore-noon of the 8th.1
1 The disadvantages arising from the independent command of the 4th Australians in front of the New Zealanders and the 25th Division are of a somewhat technical nature and need not be discussed here.
Throughout this time the activity of our artillery never slackened. Continuously and regularly the railways and tramways brought loads of shells to the batteries, thus freeing the roads of ammunition limbers and thereby avoiding those blocks in traffic which had so often hindered movement at the Somme. Soon after the capture of the Black Line a battery of an English brigade attached to the Divisional artillery moved with inspiring élan to the neighbourhood of Messines to render close support to the Australian attack. Other batteries pushed forward to positions previously selected and prepared on Hill 63 or north of the Douve in the shallow hollows about Stinking Farm, and were in action by the evening. On the following day further batteries were to move to the Steenebeek valley. For the first few hours of the battle our gun-positions were practically immune from hostile shelling, but about 9 a.m. fire from Deulemont and Warneton began to fall heavily on Hill 63. No damage was done to the guns, but a dump of 3000 rounds of 18-pounder ammunition was destroyed. On the subsequent days of the battle the gunners were to be seriously inconvenienced by the German observation balloons.
For military students the victory of Messines will remain a classic example of the battle undertaken with limited objectives, characterised by prolonged and recondite preparations, by minute elaboration of detail, and exact definition of tasks. They will not readily exhaust the skill with which page 206The Division's Work in the Battle each piece of mechanism fitted in with the whole. In the result, the Staff work both of the General and Administrative branches proved of surpassing excellence. The battle had been a gauge of the enemy's ability to stop the British advance under conditions as favourable to him as any army could hope for, with every advantage of ground and preparation. The victory won by General Plumer was complete.
The work of the Division was stamped with the same thoroughness. But Staff work, however excellent in itself, cannot win battles, and the ultimate factor of success is the fighting spirit of the troops. To its high pitch each brigadier has left on record grateful testimony. “I attribute our success,” writes one, “to the careful and methodical preparations which were made during the weeks preceding the attack, but above all I attribute it to the magnificent leading of all officers and non-commissioned officers and to the in-comparable bravery of our men.” This was no perfunctory compliment, but the deliberate judgment of one who weighed every word with care.
All objectives were taken up to time without confusion. Of the prisoners taken, 438, including 11 officers, passed through the Divisional cage.1 A 5.9-in. howitzer, 10 field guns, 39 machine guns, and 13 trench mortars were captured, with a large amount of war material. As typical of the many messages of congratulation received, the following tribute from General Godley may be quoted:—“Please convey to all ranks of my old Division my sincerest thanks and heartiest congratulations on their successful capture of Messines, which adds another page to their already brilliant record and of which New Zealand will be proud to hear.”
1 The Corps captures amounted to 25 officers and 1600 other ranks.
Owing to this German fire it became a matter of urgency to minimise losses by withdrawing all but the proportion of troops actually needed for the security of the position, Once the necessary garrison is provided for, the denser an infantry line is, the greater the casualties and demoralisation, and the heavier the labour of taking up supplies and carrying back wounded. Thus the reserve battalion companies attached to the 4th Rifles and 2nd Canterbury, and the working parties sent forward by the reserve battalions rejoined their units in the Steenebeek valley during the evening or night, and 2 companies also of the 4th Rifles were withdrawn to our old front line for salvage purposes and for assistance in the removal of the wounded or burial of the dead.1 During the morning of the 8th the enemy bombardment recommenced. On the useful shell-trap of Messines village, which the troops knew to avoid and which was shortly afterwards put out of bounds, the German gunners squandered enormous quantities of ammunition.
It was in the course of this shelling during the forenoon that General Brown war killed while talking to General Russell near the Moulin de 1'Hospice. Lt.-Col. (now Brig-Gen.) Melvill took over the command of the 1st Brigade, and Major E. Puttick temporarily that of the 4th Rifles, which was later assumed by Major (now Lt.-Col.) J. G. Roache. In General Brown's death the Division lost a splendid New Zealander and a brilliant soldier, whose quiet unassuming manner veiled both intense determination and knowledge of his profession.
1 In View of the uncertainty of the situation after the evening counter-attack, these 2 companies were again sent forward up the hill. It may be noted that some criticism was directed against Corps Headquarters for retaining the whole of the Division east of the Steenebeek during the night 7th/8th. The fault, however, if fault it was, lay with the Army Staff, whose orders yielded to no argument or protest.
After relief, the 1st Brigade front, in support of the Australians, was held by 1st Auckland on the right and 2nd Wellington on the left in the Black Line. 2nd Auckland and 1st Wellington took over the areas held by the 4th Rifles and 2nd Canterbury respectively. During the night (8th/9th June) half the machine guns on the Black Line were withdrawn, and others in the forward area were relieved by the 4th Brigade guns which had supported the preparatory barrage. A fine feat of consolidation was carried out during the darkness by 3 companies of 2nd Otago. The German communication trenches were too badly damaged to be serviceable. Working in, reliefs, Otago dug a 5½-feet-deep communication trench a distance of over 1000 yards up the ridge connecting our old front line in the valley with October Support.
At 9 a.m. on the 9th the 4th Australian Division assumed command of the whole ridge on their front, as far back as Messines inclusive, and the New Zealand Division, less its artillery, withdrew into Corps reserve. For the time being, the 1st Infantry Brigade and the 56 forward machine guns remained on the ridge, passing under command of the 4th Australian Division, but they were relieved by the Australians in the evening mid night 9th/l0th June, and thereon marched back to Neuve Eglise. The casualties, light at first, had mounted up. Thus 1st Wellington in the 3 days and nights had lost 2 officers and over 70 men killed and 11 officers and over 300 men wounded. The total losses of the page 209Division in the battle amounted to 3700, the heaviest burden being borne, as was to be expected, by the 1st Infantry Brigade.
With the transfer of command, Divisional Headquarters had moved to Baillcul and the 2nd Infantry Brigade to a rearward area. The Rifle Brigade remained oil Hill 63, mending roads and burying cable. On the 10th they were placed at the tactical disposal of the 4th Australian Division, but moved to Nieppe on the following day and passed again under General Russell's command. The artillery remained in the line supporting the Australians. The 2nd (Army) Brigade on the capture of the Green Line had been attached to a 3rd Australian Division group on the right flank to equalise the number of field batteries along the new front.
One of the results of the Messines victory was to compromise the enemy position on the defensive front of the Corps from St. Yves southwards to the Lys; and the gravity of the German situation was still further accentuated when, on the afternoon of the 9th, the 2 Australian Divisions began to push strong patrols eastwards. During the night 10th/11th the Australians established a hold on the Uncertain System about La Potterie Farm, which continued the Oosttaverne Line south beyond the original area of the battlefield. Here their posts were now half a mile east of the final objective of the 7th. The Corps were determined to pursue the enemy disintegration, and issued orders on the 11th that patrols should be pushed out energetically all along the front to keep touch with the enemy, and that outposts should be established as far forward as possible. The II. Anzac Mounted Regiment were engaged for the same purpose and showed not less enterprise than the infantry. Coming under shell-fire their patrols dismounted, sent their horses to the rear and pushed forward on foot. The remainder of the regiment attached to the 3rd Australian Division succeeded during the night in establishing a line of posts cast of La Potterie Farm.
While continuing this policy of infiltration by strong patrols, General Godley resolved on still more aggressive measures, aiming at the clearance of all the low ground north of the river as far as the village of Basseville. Owing to the sharp turn to the north which the Lys makes at Armentières, this area was in the shape of a long narrow inverted triangle, with its apex pointing south at Frélinghien. It was covered with plantations which sheltered substantial farm houses. page 210The eastern side of the triangle was formed by the 30-yard broad Lys. Above the river's scrub-covered left bank the ground rose very slightly towards the Armetières-Warneton railway, which lay roughly parallel with the river. Still well within the narrowing confines of the apex flowed the small muddy stream of the Warnave which, running also roughly parallel with the Lys and the railway, joined the river at the village of Pont Rouge Half-way down stream from Frélinghien to Basseville North of the point where this book cut our front line, the Corps planned that one Division should drive out 1500 yards eastwards and establish a position in front of a series of farms, Loophole Farm, Les Trois Tilleuls, La Truie and Sunken Farms, and thence to the Douve, while another Division should similarly advance north of the Douve and capture Gapaard. The whole frontage involved amounted to some 6000 yards, and in the event of success the apex of the triangle held by the enemy must prove untenable.
Little alteration of gun positions was necessary, and much of the preparatory destructive bombardment had been done, but further wire-cutting in particular was essential, and the relief of the Australian Divisions was deemed desirable. It would not be possible in any case to carry out the operation before 12th June, and to give the troops much wanted rest it was suggested to the Army that, it should be undertaken on the 14th. The Corps proposal was approved and the co-operation of the other troops arranged further to the north.
1 p. 179.
Action developed, however, earlier than had been looked for. Prior to the relief on the 12th, a 4th Brigade party had been detailed to bury the dead on the old battlefield, and some time later the snipers in our front line were astonished to see a group of individuals, obviously our own men, with spades on their shoulders moving leisurely in the open about the German positions. On investigation it was found that the burial party had missed their way and borne too much to the south. The 4th Brigade was at once ordered to investigate the situation. Crossing No Man's Land, their patrols occupied without serious opposition the larger portion of the German front line as far south as the railway. Like the 57th Division troops the 4th Brigade garrisoned the line with 2 battalions. Of these, Auckland on the south were more harassed by snipers than Canterbury, and it was clear that the Germans were not yet prepared to relinquish their less exposed positions further distant from our new salient at Messines. The vacated trenches were found to be incomparably superior to the British ones and to be blocked with wire and full of booby-traps. North of the Douve corresponding progress brought the line just west of Gapaard.
Thus the sharp re-entrant from the posts about La Potterie Farm was rounded off, and it was a much greater extent of the old German front system than had been anticipated that was taken over in the late evening (12th June) by 2nd Canterbury1 and 1st Otago. There had been no time to make communication trenches, and observation balloons overlooked all the approaches. The relief of the front line therefore was delayed till dusk. The 2 support battalions marched up to the Catacombs on Hill 63. Brigade Head-quarters moved into a deep dugout in Ploegsteert Wood. The Rifle Brigade were not to take over the rest of the line north of the Warnave till the following evening.page 212
As soon as Canterbury and Otago had completed their relief, strenuous efforts were made to strengthen the trenches, and patrols were sent forward in the direction of Flattened Farm, Knoll 30, and Les Trois Tilleuls Farm. The Germans, however, were resolved not to be pushed. The worn Bavarian garrisons were being relieved by Prussians who had come from rest in the Lens area and had seen little fighting during the year. Our patrols came under hot rifle fire. The whole of the vacated positions occupied by us were heavily shelled, and the Otago trenches about La Potterie Farm in particular were swept by machine guns in Sunken Farm.
On the 13th the 4th Brigade bit still deeper into the crumbling defences, and by the evening the whole front line system north of the Armentières-Warneton railway was in our hands, together with a large section of the Le Touquet earthworks between the railway and the river. Evidence pointed strongly to. further German withdrawal, and it appeared feasible that the tasks set the New Zealanders in the proposed operation might be won after nightfall by active patrol work, which would avoid the set-piece attack under a barrage, with its inevitably higher casualty roll. Enemy rearguards might be looked for, but the enterprise and initiative of platoon commanders and a policy of mutual support and covering fire would, it was hoped, enable small bodies of hardy fighters to move forward from point to point till the final objective was reached.
Orders to this effect were at once issued to the 2nd Brigade, already in position, and to the 3rd Brigade, who were to take over that evening the remainder of the 4th Brigade line north of the Warnave. The heavy arti1lery was instructed to continue the bombardment of Les Trois Tilleuls, La Truie, and Sunken Farms until 6 p.m., and then to increase their range so as not to shoot within an area 500 yards east of that line and of the old German second system southwards.
In the evening (13th June) the 4th Rifles relieved the rest of 3rd Canterbury, and the 4th Brigade sector was, in accordance with plans, contracted to a 1-battalion frontage south of the Warnave.
It had been General Braithwaite's intention to hold the line with the 2 battalions, 2nd Canterbury and 1st Otago, who had suffered most on the Messines ridge, and to carry out the attack with 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago. The rapid development of events, however, precluded this, and the 2 tired battalions were called on for a further effort. The page 2134th Rifles, on their part, had not had time or opportunity for reconnoitring the position by daylight. None the less at nightfall the 3 battalions started out with alacrity on their enterprise. Each was supported by machine guns, and 2nd Canterbury had 4 light trench mortars. No sooner had the troops left their trenches than they were overtaken by an unforeseen mischance of war. Seven enemy aeroplanes flew low overhead and sent a wireless call to the German batteries. An intense bombardment at once followed. The assistance of our heavies was invoked, and shortly afterwards they succeeded in silencing the enemy guns, but not before considerable casualties and confusion had been caused in the attacking troops, especially of the 2nd Brigade, on whom the storm fell with particular violence.
The 4th Rifles pushed on into the darkness, and their parties, led with great skill by Lts, E. A. Winchester and D. C. Armstrong and 2nd Lts. W. J. Organ and A. Bongard, established outposts in the unknown country beyond Loop Hole Farm and Les Trois Tilleuls. One or two posts fell back temporarily under heavy artillery fire but were speedily re-established. An invaluable reconnaissance by Sergt. H. J. Mitchell located the enemy's outposts, and in the early morning of the 14th a patrol under Cpl. T. Wilson coming into contact with an enemy party effected a skilful surprise attack which forced the Germans to withdraw. Wilson then established a line of snipers' posts and succeeded during the day in killing about 12 of the enemy in front of Basseville.
The 2nd Brigade was not to be so fortunate. The heavy shelling which swept their area disorganised and delayed their advance. In the pitch-dark night the number of hedges trees spinneys and copses was baffling and bewildering. The enemy forces proved to be appreciably stronger than had been expected. The 1st Otago parties returned with their mission unfulfilled. 2nd Canterbury made considerable progress. One company, strengthened by 2 platoons of the reserve company, occupied Flattened Farm. Pressing on towards La Truie Farm and the important Unchained Trench, which commanded the ground towards the railway, they were met by very heavy rifle and machine gun fire directed from a strong concrete emplacement. On it the light trench mortars poured in a brief hurricane of fire, and the infantry rushing forward seized it and occupied the trench. The other companies, too, succeeded with extraordinary good fortune in reaching Un-chained Trench, which chanced to be held thinly. It was page 214cleared of the enemy and linked up with our possessions about La Potterie. 150 yards in front, however, there were the ruins of an inn at the point where the St. Yves road joined the road from Basseville to Messines. It was called the Au Chasseur Cabaret. From its concrete works a. volume of machine gun and rifle fire poured towards Unchained Trench.
The Deulemont and Qnesnoy batteries had been, as it happened, that night drenched with gas discharged by the XI. Corps from the old New Zealand sector at Houplines, and in any case could not shoot so near the German positions. Thus the checked patrols were not faced with artillery fire. Though fully recognising the strength of the enemy position, they were determined, as they said after-wards, “to give it a go.” The tough resistance already en-countered made it certain that the La Truie and Sunken Farms, still 400 or 500 yards away, were inaccessible to troops unsupported by artillery. That gloomy cabaret immediately in front, however, was a more likely proposition. In the darkness and fighting the platoons had become much mixed, but Capt. M. J. Morrison organised the troops on the spot aid led them to the attack. The German machine gun fire, however, was too heavy, and the attackers, suffering heavy casualties, could not reach the inn. The dawn was now brightening the sky over Basseville. Disdaining to with-draw on Unchained Trench, the survivors gathered in shell-holes in close proximity to the cabaret and dug a series of small trenches on a low rise (Knoll 30), by a former German observation post. This knoll, commanding the low ground towards the river and Warneton, was of the utmost tactical value, but so long as the enemy held the Cabaret we were unable to derive full advantage from its occupation. Were we to secure the Cabaret as well and be enabled to develop our lines on the knoll, we would dominate the German positions in the flats. The enemy was fully aware of his danger.
In this night attack the 2nd Canterbury casualties were heavy, 75 being sustained in a single company. Though they had failed in their full task, they had appreciably advanced their line, and in their capture of Unchained Trench, however much “a lucky fluke,” they had performed a note-worthy achievement. Throughout the 14th their foremost posts were in a very exposed position, and the enemy in the Cabaret made the task of consolidation and the supply of water and rations extremely difficult. On account of the page break page 215unexpected opposition encountered by the 2nd Brigade in the northern subsector it was necessary to fall back on the original plan of an attack supported by artillery.
It had been hoped that the 2 rested battalions of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago, would be available for carrying out this attack at dawn on the 15th. Army arrangements, however, involving a simultaneous advance by the 25th Division and other troops to the north, laid down the zero hour for the evening of the 14th. Brigade plans had no alternative but to conform. In the absence of communication and assembly trenches it was impossible to bring forward fresh troops, and once again therefore it was necessary to employ the 2 worn battalions in the line, whom it had never been intended to use, and who had already been severely tried on the previous evening. One modification it was possible to make. In view of the casualties which 2nd Canterbury had sustained, the capture of Sunken Farm was now allotted to 1st Otago, who were instructed also to cooperate with the 25th Division in seizing Ferme de la Croix on the Douve. To the fresh call made on them the 2 South Island battalions were to make a splendid response.
No tanks were available, but the artillery assistance was overpowering. The New Zealand Division alone was supported by thirty-two 18-pounders and nine 4.5-in. howitzers; and a 12-in., a 9.2-in., and a 6-in. howitzer were added to the Corps heavy artillery of 7th June. For the most advanced Rifle Brigade posts established on the previous evening, the margin of safety afforded in the proposed heavy artillery bombardment was inadequate. They were temporarily with-drawn. The nearer bridges over the Lys up-stream from Pont Rouge were kept under fire by the field guns, and the more distant below Pont Rouge by the heavies. The Warneton trench system and the batteries at Deulemont and Warneton were severely bombarded. A great fire was already blazing in Deulemont. At somewhat short notice the battery commanders worked out the barrage lines, and at 7.30 p.m, the guns opened. Under this covering fire the 2nd Brigade assaulting lines moved out to attack, and the Rifles reoccupied their posts.
1st Otago this time made no mistake. A platoon under 2nd Lt. A. R. Cockerell carried Sunken Farm and dug in 50 yards cast of it. Another party reached Ferme de la Croix on the Douve simultaneously with the 25th Division page 216troops, and others again established a line of posts over half a mile in advance of the Potterie System. The slight losses were mostly due to machine gun fire. 2 men were killed and over 30 wounded.
2nd Canterbury encountered more serious resistance. The concrete shelters in the ruins of the Au Chasseur Cabaret which had foiled their efforts in the early hours of the morning were a tough nut to crack, and a frontal assault threatened to be costly. While strong bombing parties were therefore pushed up the communication trenches leading directly towards the stronghold, others crept up from the flanks along the ditch on the Basseville road and along a disused sap bearing towards the blind side of the Cabaret. As soon as our barrage opened the German machine gunners in the loop-holed concrete structure itself and in a communication trench to the south swept the approaches with a traversing stream of lead. Our light trench mortars flung their projectiles at the ruins, and the moment they exhausted their ammunition the bombing parties rushed towards the dark outlines of the building, The garrison of this enemy Strong Point and of the dugouts under the metalled road which led from it to St. but mustered close on 150. They put up a stubborn fight, but the 3 machine gun crews were killed. In a further short struggle several Germans were bayoneted and 27 captured. The enemy survivors retreated down the road towards Basseville. As they ran they were seen by the flanking party that had attacked the inn from the north and by the other Canterbury company advancing on the south towards La Truie Farm. At close range their machine guns and Lewis guns mowed down the fugitives. La Truie Farm also was vigorously defended and did not fall at the first thrust. At 9.30 p.m. the contact aeroplane dropped a message at Divisional headquarters that flares had been seen east of the other farms, but that they were doubtful about La Truie Farm. Shortly afterwards, however, it wax surrounded, the garrison killed, and a fourth machine gun captured.
Canterbury, thus in possession of all their objectives, were not to be left in undisputed ownership. The enemy was determined to recover the Cabaret and with it the all-important knoll. Forces seen massing in a Sugar Refinery near Basseville, in front of the Rifle Brigade, were dealt with by 18-pounders, and no assault developed. Further to the north, however, an organised counter-attack was delivered almost immediately against 2nd Canterbury by troops of the 22nd Reserve Divi-page 217sion. These pressed back along the Messines road and poured up the main communication trench, Unchained Avenue, running to the inn from the east. For 3 nights on end Canterbury had been engaged in arduous consolidation or bitter fighting and had foregone sleep. During the whole of the present attack they had been exposed not only to fire from their immediate front but to a heavy machine gun barrage from the railway. They once more proved, however, the sterling fighting qualities of the New Zealand soldier. Assisted by the indomitable machine gunners, they drove back their assailants with rifle fire and bombs, and on a further enemy machine gun beyond La Truie Farm opening fire to support the counter-attack, they rushed it, killed the crew, and put the gun (making the fifth) out of action. Their General left on record his admiration of these men. “Throughout these operations,” he wrote, “they fought with the tenacity and valour which they have always displayed.”
Nor had 3rd Auckland, on the 4th Brigade sector south of the Warnave, been idle. On the previous evening they had pushed their way still further among the Strong Points opposite Frélinghien, and now, covered effectively by the trench mortars, they occupied the enemy's support and reserve line along the whole front down to the Lys. For these operations the troops concerned received tributes of appreciation from the Army and Corps Commanders.
After their failure on the Cabaret the Germans attempted no further reaction, and our artillery intensity slackened before midnight. The 25th Division, to the north, had been not less successful and had captured Gapaard and a howitzer. Seventy prisoners lay behind the wire of the Corps cage. Along the whole Army front posts had been successfully pushed forward and the line brought up against the Warneton System.
In the early daylight of 15th June, after considerable hostile shelling throughout the night, Cockerell's platoon in front of Sunken Farm killed 2 German snipers and drove a third from his position. Throughout the day the enemy's reorganised and regrouped batteries bombarded our new line of posts, particularly in the centre of the Divisional front and in the Potterie System. When evening fell lie betrayed marked nervousness. His S.O.S. went up repeatedly, and heavy shelling searched the Douve valley. About 10 p.m., in response to a call from our infantry, the artillery retaliated with an intense barrage on his forward positions and with page 21815 minutes' concentrated and effective bombardment of his batteries. After his shelling ceased, 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago at last took over the 2nd Brigade front, and the 2nd Rifles relieved the 4th Battalion. On the 16th the New Zealand batteries began to move to the Ploegsteert area immediately in rear of the infantry.
South of the Warnave, 3rd Wellington1 had relieved 3rd Auckland and were pushing out posts three-quarters of a mile in front. An achievement of one of their patrols well illustrates the spirit of initiative that animated the Division and the good fortune that waits on the braw. On the 15th, in the early afternoon, Lt. T. L. Ward a sergeant and a private crossed the Lys by a plank over a partly destroyed pontoon bridge. Leaving the sergeant to guard the bridge, Ward and the private went along the road into Frélinghien. The place seemed deserted, and in search of adventure they turned, revolvers in hand, through an archway into a factory. In a cellar they found 3 Bavarian pioneers asleep, took them prisoners and came back unchallenged. The Bavarians thoroughly appreciated the humour of the situation. Frélinghien, they pointed out, was held in strength, and the bridge guarded by a machine gun detachment, whose sentries must have been asleep. An attempt to repeat the enterprise on the following evening found the enemy keenly alert along the river.
1 Major J. R. Short, vice Lt.-Col. Fletcher, wounded 14th June.
After the establishment of the posts on the nights of 13th/14th and 14th/l5th, June preparations were made for joining them in a continuous front trench and for constructing a support trench some 400 yards in rear and a subsidiary line some 900 yards in rear of the support. The lines were taped by Lt. C. W. Salmon, D.C.M., during the night 15th/l6th, and work was begun in earnest the following evening. In order. to augment the necessary personnel for labour on the spot, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the Rifle Brigade relieved on the 18th the 2nd Battalion in the line. On the 18th also the 1st Brigade took over the line between La Truie Farm and the Douve from the 2nd Brigade, who withdrew into reserve, 2nd Wellington relieving 1st Canterbury on the right and 1st Auckland1 relieving 2nd Otago on the left. In the combined operations at Messines and before Basseville 12 officers and 250 men of the 2nd Brigade had paid the supreme price. 44 officers and 1100 men had been wounded. 50 men were for the moment unaccounted for. The heaviest casualties had been sustained by 2nd Canterbury, who had lost 16 officers and nearly 500 men.
1 Major E. H. Orr, vice Lt.-Col. R. C. Allen, wounded 7th June.
As events turned out, indeed, the Germans so far from withdrawing were preparing to assert their hold on Basseville and the zone in front of the Warneton Line. The snipers' activity on the railway became more marked. In the wide No Man's Land between Sunken Farm and Ferme de la Croix on the Douve. was a slight ridge some 450 yards west of the railway embankment. Its reverse slope was dead ground from our lines. Here, in accordance with the enemy's new policy which favoured a series of isolated trenches in preference to a continuous line, his infantry began to entrench a row of strongly wired posts which, while not forming a marked forward line, would cover Basseville, be connected with the Warneton trenches, and act as an outlying bulwark of that system. To raid this suspected line of consolidation and destroy his covering and working parties, 2 patrols, each composed of a platoon, were sent shortly after midnight, 21st/22nd June, by the two 1st Brigade battalions in the line, 2nd Wellington and 1st Auckland.
The weather was cold and unsettled. The way was paved for the operation by a 5 minutes' intense fire by 4 brigades of artillery. The light trench mortars had brought up ammunition and guns forward of our posts and now bombarded the machine gun emplacements on the railway. To Raids on Basseville and the German Outposts page 221this fire the enemy made no reply till half an hour later, when 2 green flares were at once answered by heavy shelling of our posts and support trench. The 2nd Wellington patrol, about 40 strong, was led by the same Lt. A. G. Melles whose admirable reconnaissance on 8th June has been noted above. They now entered Basseville, and in fierce close fighting among the buildings and hedges killed some 20 of the enemy. Prominent among the bombers was Cpl. J. D. Fraser, who, though wounded, continued to lead his men with dash and determination, and killed a powerful opponent in a hand-to-hand encounter. The enemy fought grimly. On the way home the patrol caught 2 prisoners, but these refused to cross the railway and were shot. 1 man of the patrol was killed, another wounded and missing, and 16 wounded. Melles showed remarkable qualities of leadership throughout. The other patrol lost its way in the darkness.
In consequence of this lack of success against the posts in the shellholss, it was decided to act on a larger scale and with a barrage on the following night (22nd/23rd June). Zero was fixed at 1 a.m. on the 23rd. The purpose of the enterprise, as on the previous evening, was to prevent the enemy from holding an outpost line between our posts and the railway. There was no idea of occupying the enemy's positions or thrusting our line eastwards. one company of 2nd Wellington attacked on the right, and a company and a half of 1st Auckland on the left. The enemy expected the attack, and his barrage fell at once and inflicted heavy casualties. On our artillery opening, the patrols went forward and confirmed the evidence of the air photographs that the enemy had not yet connected his posts in a continuous line. A 2nd Wellington party came across several Germans in shellholes and under the hedge near the railway. Of them these killed about 17. Another Wellington patrol pushed into Basseville, but found it now occupied strongly. In the centre of Auckland the enemy were holding his wired shellholes in some force, but the area was cleared except along a well-defined bank south of the Douve from Ferme de la Croix to the railway. Here a machine gun concrete dugout and strong wired positions near the Douve proved unassailable. Here, also, for some 50 yards, the railway line was not reached It was estimated that at least 100 of the enemy were killed. 9 prisoners were captured. 1st Auckland lost about 20 men killed and 2nd Wellington 7 men killed. Almost 100 page 222men in all were wounded. A further advanced post was dug by 1st Auckland nearer the railway, and it was hoped that this area had definitely passed from German control.
In retaliation, on the following day the enemy artillery shelled intermittently throughout the hours of daylight, and at 10 p.m. began an unusually heavy bombardment with high-explosive and gas shells over the whole sector from Hyde Park Corner and Ploegsteert Wood forward to our support line. The left area particularly suffered, and it was fortunate that the relief of the 1st Brigade battalions in the line by 2nd Auckland and 1st wellington had been completed just previously. A certain number of casualties was caused by the gas.
In the 4th Brigade area 3rd Otago had come into the line on the 22nd for their first experience of the trenches, and on the 24th the 4th and 2nd Battalions of the Rifle Brigade relieved the 3rd and 1st. On the: 26th, representatives of all units of the Corps were reviewed in Bailleul by H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, who inspected the trophies captured in the Battle of Messines. At this function the Rifle Brigade were particularly strongly represented to meet their Colonel-in-Chief.1
The enemy artillery still maintained continuous activity on all our back areas. Hill 63 was nightly shelled. Transport and relief, unwary enough to be caught at Hyde Park Corner after dark, underwent unenviable experiences. The last phase of the battle, however was now over. Our own artillery had already been denuded of siege batteries despatched to the Fifth Army now in the north. Apart from such heavies as remained, the front was covered by the New Zealand guns and by 2 brigades of the 3rd Australian Division, all of whom had for weeks past borne the strain of ardnous exertions and incessant hostile shelling, their casualties, as at the Somme, proving to be heavier before and after an operation than during it. In order to rest the exhausted personnel, the covering field artillery was now reduced on each Divisional front in the Corps to 2 brigades. The Australian batteries, therefore, and the 2nd (Army) Brigade went into reserve. Thenceforward the remaining brigades, whose allotment of ammunition had already been reduced, adopted a less aggressive attitude in order not to provoke the enemy at a time when we had no marked superiority of guns.page 223
The Germans rapidly followed suit, and the end of the month became much quieter. Patrol activity, indeed, was maintained both by night and day, and the New Zealand infantry attained their usual complete and unchallenged mastery of No Man's Land.1 The adventures of these patrols comprise many instances of inspiring courage and fortitude. One example may be quoted. L.-Cpl. G. H. Nielson and Pte. E. Grieve, of 3rd Otago, were at a bridge over the Lys studying the loopholed houses in Frélinghien across the river, when they were fired on by 6 rifles and 2 machine guns from one of the buildings. The corporal was severely wounded in the thigh, and the private pulled him back into a shallow sap. The bitterness of Lt. ward's exploit2 may have rankled in German memories, for not merely did the enemy fire a volley of rifle grenades and sweep the parapet with machine guns, but actually called on his field artillery to shell the 2 men in the sap. All this diversified fire, however, could not shake Grieve's resolution. Half-pulling, half-carrying the semi-conscious corporal, he did not rest till he brought him into a place of safety.
Towards the end of June the weather was again cool and unsettled, with days of continuous rain or violent thunder-storms. The decreased activity of the enemy's guns, however, enabled rapid progress to be made with the consolidation of the different fire positions, the construction of communication trenches, and the crection of entanglements. It was a point of honour to leave the position complete ere. the forthcoming relief by the 4th Australians, and the Pioneers and every available men of the support battalions were employed from dark till dawn. The relief of the 1st and 3rd. Brigades in the line by the Australians was effected on the night 29th/30th June. The rear companies went out by daylight and the front line companies at dusk.
1 The Germans scored a success on 26th. June. Capt. G. A. Avey, M.C., and Lt. R. Tennant, on a daylight patrol, ran into a strong enemy post. Tennant was killed and Avey taken prisoner. After repeated escapes from his prison camp and recaptures Avey was repatriated to England in December 1918.
2 p. 218.
2nd Lieut. L. W. Andrew, V.C. [Photo Wilkinson