The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter VI — Basseville
In pleasant summer weather the respite from the line speedily reinvigorated all ranks. A Divisional gymkhana, and athletic boxing and swimming competitions were interspersed with training in open warfare. On 4th July, in the Bailleul square, representatives of the Division were introduced to H.M. the King, and troops of the 2nd Infantry Brigade lining the Neuve Eglise road cheered him and the Prince of Wales as they drove past on a tour through the Corps area. It was during this period that the enemy's development of night bombing by aeroplanes first made itself appreciably felt. On the British side this feature of aggressive policy in the air had been long established and was a particularly prominent factor in the preparations for the Battle of Messines, but hitherto it had not been actively favoured by the Germans the night of 6th/7th July, however, nearly 100 bombs were dropped on Bailleul alone, inflicting many casualties, especially in the tents of a Casualty Clearing Station near the railway. Other. bombs fell elsewhere in the back areas, and of these 1 struck the 1st Wellington transport lines, causing the destruction of over 20 animals. The continued bombing and shelling of Bailleul forced Corps Headquarters to move to the less exposed village of Flégtre.
1 A eoubriquet of disputed origin, applied also to the Australians.
Two or three days previously the 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades had reoccupied their old positions about P1oegsteert.1 On 18th July the infantry began to move forward to relieve the 4th Australian Division. The relief was completed by the 20th, when the 4th New Zealand Brigade, still garrisoning with 1 battalion the right subsector on the Lys, reverted to General Russell's tactical command. The centre was now occupied by the 2nd Brigade with 2nd Otago and 1st Canterbury, and the 1st Brigade took over the left sector on the Douve with 2nd Wellington and 1st Auckland. Each of these 2 brigades held a battalion in close support at Hill 63 and a reserve battalion in huts further in rear. Divisional Headquarters returned to Steenwerck. A few days later the 3rd Brigade replaced an Australian brigade as Divisional reserve.
By this time the storm clouds about Ypres had banked up solidly. The activity of aeroplanes and guns was already marked, and all the countless preparation for the continuance of the battle, to which Messines had been the overture, were approaching completion. A tremendous concentration of troops was gathering in the Ypres flats. South of Arras the Third Army (General Byng) had extended their front over the Fourth and Fifth, Armies' area, relieving them for the Flanders offensive. The Fifth Army (General Cough) held the northern part of the old Second Army sector. on its left General Anthoine's Army had relieved the Belgians, and still further north General Rawlinson's Fourth Army occupied the former French sector by the sea. The spear point of the Allied attack was to be the Fifth Army, whose thrust-would be covered on the north by an advance of the right wing of the French. At a later stage the Second Army and the Fourth Army were to be used on the flanks to exploit success.
1 On 10th July the 2nd (Army) Bde, set out to join the 1st Div. Art. near Nieuport.
During the month II. Anzac had lost to the Fourth and Fifth Armies the bulk of its siege batteries and other heavy pieces, but there was still a formidable weight of artillery to support the proposed operations. In addition to six brigades of 18-pounders and thirty-six light howitzers, it marshalled twelve 60-pounders, one 15-in., four 12-in., six 8-in., and thirty-two 6-in. howitzers. Wire-cutting, counter-battery work and trench bombardment were begun in the middle of July, and from the 20th onwards the artillery programme was accentuated. Night firing was especially intensified. While a quarter of the ammunition allotted for harassing fire was used in daylight, three-quarters were expended in the hours of darkness. One or other of the rear towns or villages, Comines Deulemont or Quesnoy, was daily subjected to a devastating bombardment. With a view to "drilling" the enemy, practice bombardments and barrages were carried out nightly at an hour previous to and also at the exact hour fixed for the attack. The enemy guns re-page 228taliated with heavy shelling both on our forward trench system and on Ploegsteert and the back areas. The 4th (Howitzer) and the 11th and 12th Batteries were punished severely, several of their guns being destroyed. Extensive use was made by the enemy of his newly-introduced "mustard" gas.
During the interval that the Division was in reserve, the enemy had again established himself in the shellholes and ditches in front of the railway line north-east of Basseville from which he had been evicted at the end of June. He had heavily wired the hedges. The strength of his position was definitely established by a 2nd Wellington patrol which had a severe bombing fight over his wire on the evening of 21st July, and it was manifest that an attack in this quarter would now ret1uire substantial artillery assistance. While this was arranged for, the other necessary preliminaries were expedited. Assembly trenches were dug, posts pushed forward and dumps prepared.
A certain reorganisation of the troops, too, was necessary in connection with the general redistribution of the forces for the Ypres attack, and with the consequent extension of the Division's front northwards which was to follow later.1 The initial stage was effected on the night 23rd/24th July, when the 4th Brigade took over the right battalion sector of the 2nd Brigade area. Here 3rd Canterbury relieved 2nd Otago. The Divisional front was now held by 3 brigades, those on the flanks with 2 battalions and the centre with 1 battalion in the line. On the following night 3rd Otago relieved 3rd Wellington on the Lys.
1 p. 242.
This energetic patrolling, not only towards the Lys and the 1 remaining bridge opposite Frélinghien but over the whole New Zealand front, in itself heralded the approach of the Division's more aggressive role. This embraced 3 tasks. In the first place, to make the feint against Lille they would establish one or two forward posts commanding the river and dig on its banks isolated trenches intended, not for occupation, but to convey the impression of being designed to cover the construction of bridges and the crossing of the river. Secondly, they aimed at the capture and occupation of Basseville. Lastly, they proposed to raid the enemy's posts north-east of the village among the hedgerows and to advance their line in this neighbourhood. The Allied attack in the north, originally fixed for 25th July, was for various reasons postponed to the 28th. The preliminary operations of the New Zealanders were so timed that their first and second tasks should be carried out on the night 26th/27th and the third operation on the following night. The construction of the posts was assigned to the 4th and 2nd Brigades on the right and in the centre of the line; the capture of Basseville and the clearance of the hedgerows to the 1st Brigade on the left.
The 26th was a warm sunny day. The evening was unusually clear. After dusk, however, without attracting attention, 3rd Otago on the extreme right dug 4 short trenches on the river bank opposite Frélinghien and northwards to Pont Rouge, and laid, as if for the purpose of directing a night attack, white and noticeable tapes across No Man's Land down to the Frélinghien bridge and the water's edge. On their left, one of the three 3rd Canterbury parties carrying out similar work was equally undisturbed, but the other 2 were to have adventures. One party down stream from Pont Rouge was absorbed in its work when the sentry became aware of a hostile patrol approaching in single file from the direction of Basseville. When the Germans were within 15 yards, 2 flares happened to go up across the river and revealed our working party. The leading German challenged. The Canterbury sergeant at once fired a bullet, and the German fell. The rest of our party opened fire with rifles and grenades, and the enemy page 230ran, some silently, others calling out “Mercy, English.” Another large group of Germans blundered right into the third Canterbury party still further down stream, but were dispersed with casualties. In addition to the construction of these dummy trenches and the laying of the tapes, 2 posts were established by 3rd Canterbury in Pont Rouge. In the centre sector similar short trenches were dug and lengths of tape extended by 1st Canterbury. A forward post was also established near La Grande Haie Farm to cover the right flank of the 1st Brigade after their capture of Basseville and to prevent the Germans from crossing the river and taking them in rear. These operations on the right and centre of the front were carried out without artillery, and no casualties were incurred by any of our parties.
For the main operation, the attack on Basseville, on the 1st Brigade front, the commander of 2nd Wellington had selected the Hawkes Bay company (Capt. W. H. McLean). It had been sent out for 10 days' training and had come into the support line on the evening of 25th July. During the 26th its trenches were heavily shelled, and the company lost 4 men killed and 11 wounded. After darkness it completed final arrangements and moved into its assembly positions for the assault at 2 a.m. For nights past, as has been noted, the enemy had been drilled by a preliminary bombardment and by a practice bombardment and barrage at the actual time selected for the attack. The first bombardment took place as usual, and with the second and the barrage Wellington left their trenches. Their left flank would be exposed to enemy fire from beyond the Douve and their right to fire from beyond the Lys, and in front, beyond their objective, the Warneton Line bristled with machine guns. To cover the Wellington advance, therefore, it had been arranged that Australian shrapnel should sweep down the Douve, and that in addition to the support of the New Zealand artillery the machine guns should provide a creeping barrage up to the Warneton Line, in front of Warneton, and sweep the Uncut Trench System that faced Basseville south of the Lys. When this machine gun barrage should reach the Warneton Line, the fire of the bulk of the guns would remain there, but a few would search forward to catch fugitives or supports before rejoining the others in their fire on the trench itself.
The Wellington company was divided into 3 parties. One platoon (2nd Lt. J. S. Hanna) made across the swamps for the ruined Sugar Refinery that stood somewhat detached page 231at the south edge of the village. At the outset of the bombardment its garrison of 40 Bavarians had taken refuge in the cellar, and it was captured with ease. Into the cellar incendiary bombs were thrown, causing an explosion of ammunition and effectively destroying the garrison, not one of whom emerged. A post was then dug beyond the Refinery. When day came, it would be in touch with the new 1st Canterbury post on its right.
The second platoon was commanded by a fine fighting n.c.o., Sergt. C. N. Devery. His mission was to clear the village itself. He divided his men into groups of bombers and riflemen on one side and systematically gunners and rifle grenadiers on the other, and systematically dealt with house after house in the straggling. main street. A considerable amount of resistance was offered, but in the end the village was cleared by sheer fighting power, and 2 posts proceeded to dig in east of it, in a position to command the river crossings at the partially wrecked wooden bridges used by the Germans. On the cobbled street or about the buildings mere counted 30 German dead.
On the northern extremity of the village, but detached from it, as the Refinery at its other end, was a second factory on the road towards Warneton. Here the third platoon (2nd Lt. W. G. Gibbs) had a brief and hot encounter, and killed 10 Germans in the open. The others fled towards Warneton, pursued by Lewis gun fire. A post here completed the ring round the captured village, and the whole chain was linked up by an intermediate post with our front line to the north. By dawn the posts were dug 4½ feet deep. A section was left in each. To avoid shelling in the daylight, the remainder of the company was withdrawn to the front line. It was most unlikely that the enemy would attack during the day, and at dusk the posts would be doubly manned to meet any counter-stroke in the night.
The expectation of a quiet day proved optimistic. Two hours after the attack, the enemy barrage fell heavily round Basseville and grew in intensity, cutting off the approach of supports. Sergt. Devery's 2 posts in the centre were twice attacked by small bodies approaching down the river bank from Warneton. These were driven off by the men's rifles and Lewis guns. Shortly after daylight, however, a resolute attack was launched by a force then estimated at 250 strong, and later identified as a whole support battalion of the 16th Division. A large detached party moved down the page 232railway on the Wellington left and worked round the northernmost post. They had almost. surrounded it. The post moved out to meet them, but the enemy's pressure was overpowering, and to avoid capture our men mere forced to withdraw towards the railway. Their retirement was covered by a Lewis gunner, Pte. M. Vestey, who remained alone in the sap. A German platoon from straight opposite tried to rush him, but he dispersed them with casualties. He then turned his attention to the more dangerous party working down the railway from the north along the ditch under the embankment. He forced them to take cover. Seizing the opportunity offered by their check, he ran to the railway line with his gun Here in s shallow shellhole on the permanent way he once again brought his gun into action. The enemy by this time were advancing in force, and rifles and machine guns blazed at the lonely and intrepid figure on the railway. But only when his last magazine of ammunition was expended did Vestey withdraw. As he dashed for the shelter of the embankment a great gust of fire swept the railway, but he escaped unscathed. “By his coolness and gallantry,” says the official record, “he undoubtedly saved the lives of his comrades besides holding up the counter-attack most effectively for some time, and inflicting many casualties on the enemy.”
1 The notebook of an officer captured on 31st July contained a diagram of dispositions referring probably to this attack. Two strong forces were on either flank, a skirmishing party in the centre.
For some reason the Wellington posts were without S.O.S rockets, and it was some time before it was realised that an attack accompanied the bombardment. By the time the call for a protective barrage reached the artillery, it was too late. One of the machine gun groups, too, considering its task completed, had already withdrawn. As soon, however, as word came of his men's straits, McLean led a counter-attack of 2 platoons up to the railway through the barrage; but it was clear that the moment for their action had passed, and he showed good judgment in not persevering further in a forlorn hope.
The company had lost 4 men killed, 25 wounded, and 9 missing. Despite the ultimate failure, the performance was an extraordinarily gallant feat. It had been believed that the Basseville garrison did not total more than 2 platoons, but, as was corroborated by prisoners' statements, the village was actually held by 2 companies, whose combined effectives numbered at least 200 rifles. This garrison had been completely disposed of by the 130 attackers. They had killed half of them, captured 12, as well as 2 machine guns, and routed the remainder. Even when outflanked, the 44 men in the posts had put up a magnificent fight against over-heavy odds. McLean was awarded the M.C., and Devery and Vestey the D.C.M. As it was, however, the bitter fact remained that Basseville, if taken, had been lost.
But it was not intended to leave the enemy in enjoyment of his success, and plans were at once formed for a fresh enterprise. In the meantime the final stage in the operation, the clearing up of the shellholes to the north, was of necessity postponed; and the 1st Canterbury post on the right, which had remained in an exposed position during the 27th, was withdrawn in the evening.
The extent to which the enemy was alarmed by these activities and the feint of crossing the river is not yet known, but the desired symptoms of nervousness were immediately forthcoming. On the following day (28th July) flights of his. page 234aeroplanes carried out a prolonged reconnaissance, and our whole area was shelled furiously throughout the afternoon and evening. Just before dusk hostile artillery undertook a violent bombardment of Armentières. At about 9.40 p.m. the shelling on the New Zealand trenches concentrated with special intensity on the left sector of the 1st Brigade held by 1st Auckland. In the right sector at the moment 2nd Wellington was being relieved by 1st Wellington, and the communication trenches were crowded, but fortunately the fire passed just beyond them, falling on the forward posts by the Douve. Telephone lines were at once cut, but our S.O.S. was answered promptly by the batteries and the machine guns. The so-called “normal” rate laid down for machine gun fire at this time was 3000 rounds per gun per hour, but on a S.O.S. call each gun fired 250 rounds a minute for 10 minutes, followed by 20 minutes' “normal” fire. Through this stream of lead and shrapnel 60 German raiders, under cover of their own barrage, made a valiant effort to reach the Auckland posts, garrisoned by the 15th (North Auckland) company. They were successful in driving 1 advanced section back with flammenwerfer. Another moved to its flank to escape the bombardment. The third held firm.
The withdrawal of 1 post was, as often happens in war, magnified into a disaster. The reserve company, which had stood to arms on the first alarm, was sent forward to re-establish the situation. They remained up in front, till shortly after midnight, when the posts were all back in position, and then returned to the support line. Auckland, suffering some 60 casualties, got off lightly, considering the violence of the shelling, which continued intermittently till 5.30 a.m. A few men were found to be missing. The Germans left 9 dead and a wounded prisoner in our hands.
At about the same hour retribution was being exacted on the other flank of the Division. There a 3rd Canterbury patrol was lying in wait at a moated farm in front of their lines for one of the German patrols whose tracks in the long grass showed clearly in our aeroplane photographs. They were not to wait in vain. A party of 15 approached them. They opened fire and killed 8, all well-built, soldierly-looking Bavarians.
Rain fell heavily the next day (29th July). An even gentle wind blew over the German lines, and a very large concentration of gas bombs was projected after dark on Frélinghien under highly favourable conditions which allowed page 235the fumes to hang for a considerable time about the billets and dugouts. In the evening 2nd Auckland relieved 1st Auckland by the Douve, and 1st Otago moved into the 1st Canterbury position in the centre of the line.
All the while preparations were being pushed on for the renewed attempt at Basseville. The main attack in the north had again been postponed owing to "a succession of days of low visibility combined with the difficulties experienced by our Allies in getting their guns into position."1 The new date was to be 31st July. As the German anxiety about an advance in the Lys valley was already manifest, and as any local attack now would meet strong resistance and prove costly, General Plumer himself decided that the New Zealanders' co-operation on the extreme right flank of the Second Army's subsidiary attack should not predate the general advance but be simultaneous with it. The feint of crossing the Lys had already been carried out, but the role now allotted to the Division was again, as on the 27th, three-fold: the capture and holding of Basseville, the clearance of the hedge system 500 yards to the north of the village combined with an advance of our posts, and the raiding of the enemy's position between our front and the railway on the extreme left towards the Douve.
The 1st Brigade area, from which the attack would debouch, was now held on the right opposite Basseville by 1st Wellington and on the left up to the Douve by 2nd Auckland, in touch with the Australians. It was arranged, however, that the greater part of the attack should be carried out by the other 2 battalions, who had completed their plans and were more conversant with the terrain. 2nd Wellington, therefore, would complete the enterprise undertaken on the 27th, and capture and hold Basseville. The second operation, the clearing of the hedge system in the centre of the line, was also entrusted to 2nd Wellington. The raid in the northern area was allotted to 1st Auckland. The captured positions would be consolidated by the battalions garrisoning the line. During the day there had been rain, and in the greasy trenches it was no light matter to carry up barbed wire and tools for consolidation, ammunition, mortar bombs, rations and water. The assembly of the incoming troops was similarly laborious. The night, however, was comparatively quiet.
1 Official Despatch.
At 3.50 am., 31st July, a roar of artillery fire along the whole 15 miles of the Allied front inaugurated the effort to win the coast, with the Passchendaele ridge as the first main objective. The field artillery, directly assisting the New Zealanders was divided into 2 groups. The right group supported the attack on Basseville by a barrage delivered by a gun to every 47 yards of front. Judged by the usual standard this was somewhat thin, but its deadly effect was to be testified to by the prisoners. On the open ground northwards to the Douve the left group had a gun available for every 23 yards. Howitzers bombarded the Strong Points and machine emplacements south of the Douve and in the Warneton Line. Barrages were also provided by machine guns, organised like the artillery into 2 groups. The right, supporting the attack on the village, searched the southern bank of the Lys and its trenches, and the treacherous dead ground on the northern bank. The left, protecting the assault on the hedges and the railway, swept the Warneton Line, the open ground to the east, mid the Douve valley. Admirably planned, these artillery and machine gun barrages were to prove of invaluable assistance.
The renewed 2nd Wellington attack on Basseville was carried out by the Wellington West Coast company (Capt. McKinncn), assisted by 2 platoons of the Taranaki company, and a handful of Hawkes Bay men who had penetrated the village 4 mornings previously and now volunteered to act as guides. Officers and men were equally eager to avenge their misfortune. In the meantime the German defence had not been idle. Round the west edge of the village they had fortified a series of shellholes, and here stubborn resistance was offered by fresh troops who had just come into the line. The leading Wellington platoon seized the Refinery. Two platoons followed it and worked up the village, one on each side of the main street. The fourth platoon made for the northern factory. The south part of the village and the 2 factories fell easily. The houses of the main street were cleared by bombs and bayonets in half an hour. The dugouts were left full of dead. Beyond the town a few snipers lurked in ditches or behind hedges, but these were killed or fled along the river bank in the direction of Warneton into these grey running figures rifles and Lewis guns poured their lead, and many fell to run no further. In an hour's time the whole vicinity was cleared and consolidation already in progress.page break
Inspection by the commander-in-Chief
(Right Hon. W. Churchill in mufti)
Special arrangements had been made to deal with the estaminet on the Warneton road which had proved so trouble-some to Devery's men on the 27th, and 2 sections under L.-Cpl. Leslie Wilton Andrew were detailed expressly for the destruction of its occupants. As they moved forward, pushing close behind the barrage, they threatened a smachine gun post on the railway line to the north 'which was holding up our troops on the left. Diverging towards it they captured it, killing several Germans, and then dashing after the barrage picked it up afresh, pushed right into it for their proper objective, and ran towards the estaminet. In it a machine gun fired continuously. Its assailants made a detour round one side. Crouching and worming their way through a patch of thistles, they crept within striking distance of their prey. They flung a shower of bombs and rushed. Some of the Germans fled towards the river, in the wake of our barrage. The others were killed and the gun captured. While the rest of our party withdrew with the gun, Andrew himself and Pte. L. R. Ritchie undertook a reconnaissance towards Warneton as far as our standing barrage permitted. 300 yards along the road, on the very threshold of the village, was a wayside inn, In Der Rooster Cabaret: and in its cellars some of the hunted Germans sought refuge. A machine gun post was in an open trench beside it. The post was rushed, the cellars and adjoining dugouts were thoroughly bombed, and only then did the 2 men turn their faces towards our line. For his leadership and gallantry Andrew was awarded the Victoria Cross.
In the centre meanwhile the Ruahine company on Wellington's left front (Capt. M. Urquhart) had experienced bitter fighting. The general plan of the left machine gun group was on similar lines to that carried out in the former attack. Opening at 400 yards to the west of the Warneton Line, they lifted 100 yards every minute till they reached the trenches. After dwelling on them for a few minutes, 16 guns searched forward 100 yards per minute to the outskirts of Warneton to their extreme range. Here they were ordered to maintain a protective barrage till shortly after 4.30 a.m., when they would shorten their fire to unite with that of the remainder of their group on the trenches. 4 machine guns enfiladed down the Douve valley for 10 minutes and then lifted to the outskirts of Warneton.page 238
The Ruahine company attacked with 2 platoons, Keeping a third in reserve. The fourth platoon was used to dig an advanced company headquarters. The task of the right party under Lt. H. R. Biss was to establish a post on the railway line. As they neared it they came under heavy fire from 2 machine guns in the embankment. Several of the party fell, arid the remainder were forced to take cover in the shellholes. They worked their way forward from one shellhole to another as far as the edge of a glacis. devoid of a vestige of cover. No further progress was possible, and fire was exchanged with the Germans on the railway. It was at this moment that L. Cpl. Andrew's men approached on their way towards the estaminet. Lt. Biss' party saw them, and the Germans saw them, and wavered. Biss observed them looking behind—a tell-tale sign. In an instant he shouted to his men strung out in the shellholes to follow, and the whole party rose to their feet and dashed at the embankment. Their determination was not to be in vain, and while Andrew's men dealt with the one gun, they captured the other, killing its crew. Biss, who had been wounded in the charge, stayed to see consolidation well under way and then reported the events of the morning to his company and battalion commanders before making his way to the dressing station.
The second platoon (2nd Lt. C. S. Brown) had the difficult task of clearing the hedgerows. After a 5 minutes' bombardment by the light trench mortars and under cover of close Lewis gun arid machine gun fire from the flanks, the platoon left its trenches. It was divided into 3 parties. Two of these were practically annihilated by the Prussians' rifle fire from behind the hedge. Brown himself was wounded. The third party was led by Sergt. S. C. Foot, one of those splendid n.c.o.s that the type of manhood in the Division produced in inexhaustible profusion. It reached its objective but was fired at from the railway and on each flank and obliged to fall back. The Germans had just relieved the former garrison and had been in the position for only 3 hours. They were not less uneasy than the party that had confronted Biss, and the loss of the machine guns down the railway line decided them. They began to steal away. Foot was not the man to be content to let them go so lightly. He immediately sent one of his men, Pte. A. Stumbles, to work round one flank, and he himself ran to the other. Both were expert marksmen. They steadied their breath and fired coolly. In a few seconds 8 Germans pitched forward, each page 239with a bullet in his head. The other 24 held up their hands and surrendered. One of the prisoners was an officer, and he vouchsafed the information that the company headquarters was in a concrete dugout not far away. Foot and his men hurried there to capture the company commander. They found, however, only his servant, a young lad of 18. The commander himself had found urgent business at battalion headquarters at the beginning of our bombardment. The rest of the hedge system was cleared without difficulty and a machine gun captured. The advanced posts were established and consolidated with the help of the support company.
The 1st Auckland1 raiders by the Douve were drawn from the 15th (North Auckland) company (Capt. J. G. Coates), which had its own revenge to seek for its trials of a few nights previously. They had since been taken out of the line for a night's rest. They attacked in 4 parties, and were followed as a second wave by a party of 2nd Auckland, who were made responsible for the construction and garrisoning of the new posts. The Germans had strongly organised their shellholes, roofed them with timber and matting and on top spread a 6-in. layer of earth to provide some protection from splinters. Over the earth thistles and grasses had been strewn, and in the long grass the positions proved most difficult to locate. A small hole gave entrance to each at the rear, and loopholes commanded the approach. In these shellholes the right party had a brief encounter on its objective, but the bulk of the garrison ran, and those who remained and fought were killed. One was taken prisoner. The second party's experience was similar. They killed nearly 50 and captured a prisoner and a machine gun. The third party was also successful in inflicting casualties. The platoon on the left, faced by intense fire from 3 machine guns and by a heavy mortar bombardment, were unable to make much progress. This check prevented the 2 parties in the centre from reaching the embankment, but the raid had achieved its purpose. Some 80 Germans were killed, 12 were taken prisoners, and 2 machine guns captured.
1 Now commanded by Lt.-Col. Alderman rejoined from Sling, pp. 60, 219.
The Germans lost no time in directing intense shelling on Basseville and our new line to the east and north of it. Machine guns from the In Der Rooster Cabaret and from positions south of the river swept and enfiladed the advanced posts and the approaches from our old front line to Basseville. Under cover of continuous bombardment 3 efforts were made at the recapture of the village, one in the early morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. All were repulsed.
Shortly after dawn the first counter-attack was delivered at the centre of our line by local reserves from Warneton approaching between the river and road. They were observed concentrating at the In Der Rooster Cabaret. The mistake of the 27th was not repeated on this occasion. The S.O.S. green Verey lights, and rifle grenade signals, bursting into 2 red and 2 white balls, were at once fired and taken up by the rocket-post sentries in rear, whose gold and silver rain rockets had scarce died away when shrapnel and machine gun fire lashed the attackers. A few came on with great tenacity but fell to the Lewis guns and rifles of the posts.
The afternoon attack aimed at the post on the right. All our officers here had been killed or wounded, but the command of the post was in very competent hands. The light trench mortar officer, Lt. R. K. Nichol, who had covered the attack on the hedgerows, had moved his guns to Basseville to assist in its defence. Shortly afterwards his mortars had been put out of action by shell-fire, and Nichol readily obtained the company commander's permission to take command of the infantry post. About 50 Germans assembled in the dead ground under the river bank, and sneaked along it, endeavouring to come in behind our front line. Nichol. collected about 10 men and was reinforced by a small 1st Wellington party under Sergt. W. A. Wasley. Biding his opportunity he charged the enemy. With a cheer and a volley of bombs the little party demoralised the surprised Germans. 13 were bayoneted and 20 shot, and the rest fled.page 241
The attack in the evening was a repetition of the morning one, delivered with larger effectives and pushed home with a determination to which our men paid generous tribute. Rain had set in, and in the heavy drizzle the observation posts saw the Germans again massing at the Cabaret. Throughout the operations Wellington had used their rifles with masterly confidence and effect. They were now to give a final exhibition of their skill. Decimated by the barrage, groups of Germans pressed on to within 100 yards of our posts, where Lewis guns and rifles vied with one another in picking them off. The attack dwindled away, and we remained in complete possesion of our objectives. In the late evening the posts were taken over by 1st Wellington in pouring rain which had already reduced trenches and posts to muddy ditches and greatly impeded work and movement.
In these operations 1st Auckland lost only 2 men killed and some 20 other casualties. The 2nd Wellington losses were inevitably heavier. An officer and 26 other ranks were killed or died of wounds, and 4 officers and 100 other ranks wounded. They had, however, the satisfaction of triumphing over their previous ill-fortune by an operation abounding, as the former one did also, in incidents of courage and self-sacrifice, but crowned with success. It was indeed one of the most brilliant minor operations which the Division executed. While all ranks insisted on laying stress on the magnificent co-operation of the artillery and machine guns, 2nd Wellington had full reason to be proud of their own courage skill and success. One further instance of devotion to duty may be quoted in the conduct of Pte. J. E. Ryan, a company runner. The other runners in the company were killed or wounded, arid Ryan was for 20 hours incessantly engaged in making his way under fire from his company commander back to battalion headquarters or forward to the posts east of Basseville. Dangers and exertions alike he accepted with coolness and cheerfulness, and not yet satisfied with his arduous duty, when in the evening the relieving company wanted guides, Ryan was the first man to volunteer.
In their captured material 2nd Wellington included 5 machine guns and 2 trench mortars, and took an officer, a warrant officer and 40 men prisoners. Capt. McKinnon was awarded a bar to his M.C., Capt. Urquhart a M.C., and Ryan and Foot D.C.Ms. The regimental doctor, Capt. H. M. Goldstein, and Urquhart's sergeant-major. W. McKean, re-page 242ceived for conspicuously fine work a M.C. and a D.C.M respectively.
Immediately across the Douve the 3rd Australians had been equally successful in capturing the enemy's line of posts along the road from Warneton to Gapaard. In the north, the left wing of the Second Army had pushed astride the Ypres-Comines canal, and Hollebeke and Klein Zillebeke were after 3 years' interval once more in British hands. Still farther north the grand offensive of the Fifth Army was falling short of expectations.
After the failure of his counter-attacks on the New Zealand front the enemy resigned himself to the loss of Basseville and confined his activities to heavy shelling, under which the 1st Wellington posts suffered severe1y.1 No infantry attack developed, however, and no opportunity was given to test our strong machine gun protective barrage covering the approaches from Warneton. On the evening of 1st August, as a further2 step to the approaching prolongation of the Division's front northwards, the 2nd Brigade took over from the 1st Brigade their right battalion front, including Basseville. In the following evening the trenches on the south bank of the Douve were handed over by the 1st Brigade to the Rifle Brigade, and during the night 3rd/4th the Rifle Brigade relieved a battalion of the 3rd Australian Division north of the Douve. In the interval which had elapsed since their last visit to the trenches the Rifle Brigade had lost General Fulton, who had gone to Sling for his period of duty. General Earl Johnston, whom he relieved there, took over on rejoining the Division, the command not of his old 1st Brigade, now commanded by General Melvill,3 but of the Rifle Brigade. These changes of areas prepared the way for an extension of the Corps front a mile northwards on 8th August, when the 4th Australians relieved the remainder of the 3rd and took over the southern extremity of the IX. Corps line.
1 Among other casualties to be deplored was the death of Major A. E. Horwood, M.C., R.N.Z.A., commander of the 7th Battery.
2 p. 228.
3 p. 207.
The infantry were fully occupied in building a continuous front line and communication trenches. This front line itself was covered by detached posts and by groups thrown as far forward as the river Lys and including Basseville. The main line of defence, however, was the support line. Owing to the flat and low-lying nature of the country it was not possible to make habitable “bivvies” in either the support or the front line, and the troops garrisoning them were withdrawn, after a 4 days' tour of duty, to the more comfortable dugouts of the subsidiary line. Much work was necessary throughout, and especially north of the Douve on the new battalion sector which ran up to Steignast Farm, east of Messines. Here there were no communication trenches and practically no fire trenches. The front line posts themselves lay in converted shellholes on high ground about an isolated windmill on the road from Warneton to Gapaard, and formed a marked salient with the enemy on 3 sides. These posts and the rear trenches generally were alike waist-deep in mud.
2 An excellent memoir appears in the Stonyhurst Magazine, Vol. XIV. No. 213.
The work of consolidation was very much hampered by the wretched weather conditions of the first part of August, which were at the moment affecting so disastrously Sir Douglas Haig's plans further north. Day after day rain fell continuously. The sector, already largely water-logged, became a muddy and deplorable swamp, worse than “the Somme.” The conditions in the trenches were miserable. Carrying parties and stretcher-bearers preferred to risk enemy fire and did much of their work in the open. Thus when an exploding 5.9-in. shell fell on the 2nd Canterbury front line at dawn on 15th August and grievously wounded Capt. Morrison, whose fine work at the Au Chasseur Cabaret was noted in the preceding chapter, his stretcher-bearers carried him overland to the dressing station, where he died. All the way the little party was escorted by 2 German aeroplanes, who flying at a low height refrained from firing. Forethought and care could not prevent the men in the trenches from living and sleeping in wet clothes. The rate of sickness increased correspondingly.
In addition to this wastage many casualties were caused by the German artillery, which maintained abnormal activity. Armentières Nieppe and Ploegsteert, and all our back areas, were continuously and heavily shelled. The last remaining civilians, who had endured so much, were at last constrained to evacuate their reeling houses. The baths at Nieppe were destroyed by shell-fire, and the Division temporarily deprived of their immense benefit to comfort health and morale. On our posts and front areas, commanded by the towering observation. posts in the Warneton buildings, the shelling raged persistently, and in the first fortnight in August from this cause alone the Division lost the equivalent of a battalion. Gas fell for the most part in the back areas and about the batteries and round Hyde Park Corner and Hill 63, compelling on several occasions the wearing of respirators by reliefs marching up to the trenches or by men working at the quartermasters' stores or wagon lines some miles in rear.
The enemy aeroplanes continued by day to harass the forward troops and battery positions and by night to bomb page 245the rear villages, considerably increasing the frequency of their visits and widening the radius of their operations. On 9th August the 2nd Infantry Brigade Headquarters lost several horses, and on the 11th the 1st Machine Gun Company and 2nd Wellington stables were wrecked and nearly 100 animals destroyed. Our own guns were even more aggressive than the German. Warneton Deulemont and other villages were reduced to heaps of ruined roofless walls, gaps in which revealed the more substantial concrete dugouts which they screened. Co-operation was given to the attacks in the north, particularly to that of 16th August on Langemarck, by artillery and machine gun barrages and violent counter-battery activity. Frélinghien also was on that date drenched in gas and liquid oil.
1 Major (now Lt.-Col.) Weston had taken over command from Major Short on 19th August.
In the intensity of the enemy's artillery fire there was a marked decrease in the last 10 days of the month, due to the withdrawal of guns for his defence in the north. The number of active positions recorded by Sound Rangers and Flash Spotters dropped very suddenly, and the result was reflected in the Corps casualty roll:—
With his reduced groups, however, counter-battery work was continued persistently even in the latter part of the month, and several New Zealand guns were destroyed, but in the trenches and forward area conditions were becoming normal as early as 17th August, when the 2nd Brigade was relieved in the centre of the line by the 1st Brigade and withdrew into reserve. On the 21st it began to move to the La Motte area. The rest of the Division was not to be long in following it. Arrangements were already under way for the 8th Division to take over the right and centre subsectors and for the 3rd Australians to occupy the Rifle Brigade subsector on the Douve. The latter move began on the 22nd. Owing to the proximity and activity of the enemy opposite the Windmill on the Warneton-Gapaard road, the Rifle Brigade had experienced the utmost difficulty in the construction of their front line, but the ground was of particular tactical importance, and it was essential that our grip of it should be strengthened. By untiring efforts the work had been completed. The posts were now connected with each other and the whole with the support line, and movement under cover was possible throughout the entire subsector.
During the 21 days that the Rifle Brigade had been in the line it had sustained casualties not less heavy than those of a serious engagement. 5 officers had been killed, 14 page 247wounded, and 1 was missing,1 and the casualties among other ranks amounted to 60 killed, 350 wounded, and 2 missing. On relief by the Australians the brigade moved to the La Crèche area in tactical support to the 57th Division, who were holding the familiar trenches about Fleurbaix. The 8th Division completed the reliefs of the 1st Brigade on the 27th and of the 4th Brigade on the 31st. As these 2 brigades were withdrawn, they marched back to the Corps rear area. After their 3 months in the trenches the 4th Brigade, burdened with full packs, blankets, steel helmets, and other accoutrements, were severely tried by the 17-mile march.
From these staging billets the Division, less the artillery and the Rifle Brigade, proceeded by train at the end of the month to the Second Army reserve area at Lumbres in the Aa valley west of St. Omer. Units were accompanied by their travelling kitchens and water carts, but the remainder of the transport trekked by road. The last of the artillery moved out of the line on 6th September and rested for a few days in the neighbourhood of Morbecque, whence they presently rejoined the Division. The rifle Brigade was left in the forward area for work on cable communications under the orders of the Second army. At the end of August the 4th Australian Division was relieved by IX. Corps troops and transferred to I. Anzac. Thereupon II. Anzac Headquarters handed over the command of their sector to the VIII. Corps and moved to Lumbres.
1 Captain W. A. Gray, M.C., 3rd Battalion, captured after being wounded 6th August.