The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter IX — The German Offensive, 1918
The German Offensive, 1918
The collapse of Russia had not merely saved, the Central Powers from defeat in 1917, but held out to them a promise of positive success in 1918, with the realisation of their most ambitious hopes. The German Command was quick to appreciate the wholly changed situation. Masses of men and artillery had been released and the latter reinforced by vast quantities of captured armament. Once again Germany had recovered numerical superiority and that initiative which sne had lost since Verdun. Cards had been dealt her such as she had not dared to hope for. She had little hesitation as to how she would play thorn. It was on the Western front, and not in the subsidiary theatres of war on the Mediterranean and in the East, that the main issue of the war would be decided. An additional reason for an early offensive in France lay in America's intervention. The submarine campaign promised no effective hindrance to the crossing of American reinforcements, and it was apparent that did Germany not attack speedily, she would once again be outnumbered in the field and thrown back on the defensive by her enemies. Within her own borders, moreover, the Allied blockade and propaganda were not sterile, and there was doubt and uncertainty, even in high quarters. For these reasons it was imperative for Germany to strike with all her might while the golden opportunity lasted. Conscious of their strength, the generals at a secret session of the Reichstag in February promised the elated deputies a complete victory in the autumn.
Their plans were boldly conceived. When General Rawlinson met his Corps Commanders in December and reviewed the possible alternatives open to the enemy, he had directed particular attention to the Cambrai front. As the point of junction between the French and British Armies, and as familiar to the enemy through former occupation, it might be expected to appear specially attractive. On the other hand, Rawlinson pointed out that no objectives of far-reaching tactical importance such as the central ridges about Arras or Ypres seemed to be within reasonable grasp. The German plan, however, was more ambitious than their opponents page 332believed. Its aim was final and decisive success by complete defeat of the Allied Armies. The attack was designed first to separate them. by an overwhelming blow at this very point of junction, which in February 1918 was 30 miles further south of Cambrai than in December, then to roll the British Army right back on the coast and immobilise it there, and finally to turn on the French. Before America could put her levies in the field the Germans hoped that the catastrophes of the Armies and the demoralisation of the civil populations would compel the Allied Governments to accept a strong peace. Ludendorff's Staff appears to have believed that the close of the first day's fighting would see the British across the Somme, and the second day in general retreat down its lower valley. On the third day the pivot of the British line at Arras would fall, and before fresh reserves from the south could restore the situation, Haig's troops would be isolated and in disastrous retreat towards a precarious bridgehead on the Channel.
The German Staff had profited by the British tactics of secret assembly, absence of prolonged preparatory bombardment, and other features of our surprise attack at Cambrai, and had developed and perfected them by practice in Russia and Italy. Hitherto, with the partial exception of the Cambrai. operation, the offensives on the Western front had been limited by the highly technical but rigid barrage, carried forward by which the assaulting infantry advanced with little or no impetus of its own. It was the weakness of these-tactics that they restricted the personal influence of commanders. Condemning them as narrow and sterile, Luden-dorff replaced them by others calculated to yield more decisive results. Commanders, he laid down, were to command. Free play must be allowed for the fullest independence and tactical skill of subordinate leaders. The foremost infantry were to advance as long as possible and should be reinforced'. or "leap-frogged through" only when it became absolutely necessary. Attacking Divisions must be prepared not merely to pass the enemy artillery positions, but to press on the offensive for many miles and for several days. A feature which was to exercise immense importance was the insistence on the principle that reserves should not be thrown into the battle at points where the attack had been held up by centres of resistance and where unnecessary sacrifice was involved. They were to be used at points where the attack was still in movement, with a view to breaking down the enemy's re-page 333sistance in the neighbouring sector by rolling it up from flank and rear. Hardly less important than this principle of infiltration was the novel application of machine guns, hitherto mainly regarded as defensive weapons, to the attack. The very framework of the new policy was the bold use of the light machine gun in the van of the advancing infantry and its employment on the basis of what had been conceived as infantry, rather than of machine gun, tactics.
Throughout the winter months the enemy's preponderance of forces enabled him to release a large number of his Divisions from trench duties. They were assiduously and intensively trained in the use of signal flares to indicate breaches in our line, in other features of the new methods of attack and in open warfare movements. They attained a very great technical proficiency. Their morale was of the highest. By the middle of March 46 fresh German Divisions were accumulated on the Western front, making a total of 192. Of these more than half lay opposite the British sector, and on the eve of the battle over 70 were massed against the Fifth and Third Armies. On the opening day of the attack, designated in felicitous encouragement to his soldiers as Michael's Day,1 Ludendorff was to hurl against a front of 50 miles a force of splendidly trained soldiers, approximately equal in numbers to the entire population of New Zealand.
In anticipation of the German attack, the British Command in December had deliberately exchanged its offensive for a defensive policy. The change was reflected in the proportion of raids delivered by either side. Hitherto the number of the British raids had largely exceeded that of the German. Now twice as many were carried out on the British front by the enemy as by us, though the balance of successes was conspicuously in our favour. Immense efforts to improve defences were made along the whole line of 125 miles, extended since January down to the Oise, where Gough's Fifth Army, released from Flanders, replaced the French.
1 "Miclianl" was a favourite German personification of the nation's armed manhood, of somewhat wider significance than, find without the characteristic irony of the English "Tommy,"
At the beginning of the year hostile activity continued, notably at Ypres. The enemy's ammunition and supply dumps had been augmented, and rail and road communications had been improved along the whole front. By the end of February, however, indications pointed unmistakably to the probability that the enemy's initial attempt would be made in the southern sector. While therefore the northern Armies were left sufficiently strong to meet emergencies, more than half the British effectives, together with the whole of the cavalry, were now at the disposal of the Fifth and Third Armies. Plans were drawn up with special regard to the reinforcement of this front by reserve Divisions from the rest of the British area. Owing to the great bend in the Allied line south of the Oise the German concentration menaced in almost equal degree the French front on the Aisne. Detailed arrangements, therefore, were made with the French for mutual support should the need arise.
Though the threatened fronts were strengthened as much as possible, the defence could not be regarded as thoroughly satisfactory. On the north, General Byng's Third Army, consisting from right to left of the V., IV., VI., and XVII. Corps, disposed 1 Division to nearly 3 miles of front, while General Gough's Fifth Army on the south, composed from right to left of the III., XVIII., XIX., and VII. Corps, had only 1 Division to 4 miles. On the other hand, it was hoped that the southernmost 10 miles on the Fifth Army front would be protected by the Oise marshes. Special measures were taken to construct a strong bridgehead at Péronne to page 335cover the Somme crossings. In his defensive preparations Haig was hampered by the War Office's decision to retain large forces in England as a safeguard against the doubtful threat of invasion. Three zones of defence were, however, under construction. The third and final zone was in skeleton only. Nor was labour available to construct systems further in rear than on the average 4 to 5 miles behind the forward line of outposts. The 2 front systems were, however, strongly fortified, and the Staff, underestimating the German danger, believed them adequate to withstand the shock.
Against these thinly held and inadequately organised defences the German attack burst with unexpected power after a few hours of violently severe bombardment on the morning of 21st March. At least 60 Divisions were employed on a front of slightly over 50 miles. The British Intelligence Staff had predicted the launching of the attack on 20th or 21st March. Strenuous artillery counter-preparation had been carried out, and the garrisons of the different systems were all at their posts. Covered by a dense fog, the, enemy troops were enabled to reach within a few yards of our positions before they came under infantry fire. Our S.O.S. signals were masked in the fog, all communications were cut, and information of the attack reached our artillery and machine gun commanders late. The protective barrages were in consequence; delayed, and in frequent instances came down in rear of the assaulting Germans. In any case, all fire was largely masked by the fog. The swamps of the Oise, which it had been hoped would protect the extreme right flank, proved owing to unusually dry weather no serious obstacle.
In accordance with their new tactics the Germans drove with special strength on certain selected points and forced their way into our positions by sheer weight of numbers. Obstinate resistance inflicted extremely heavy losses and prevented that immediate and deep break-through on which Ludendorff had counted, but by the evening of the 21st the enemy had crossed the foremost defensive zone and penetrated into the second, before which the British Command had hoped definitely to arrest his progress. His furthest point of penetration was between 4 and 5 miles on the thinly-manned extreme right south-west of St. Quentin, and here, on the 22nd, the outnumbered and hard-pressed III. Corps, which had exhausted all local reserves, was thrown back behind its third and final defensive zone. The centre opposite St. Quentin was ordered to conform by withdrawing to the east page 336bank of the Somme. The 2 northern Corps of the Fifth Army remained for the night east of the river, holding the important Péronne bridgehead and the third zone northwards to the Army boundary. The Third Army, repeatedly repulsing attacks, still clung desperately to its position in the rear trenches of the second belt, but during the night its right and centre were also brought back to the third zone.
On the morning of the 23rd, reluctant to accept battle with tired troops in the undeveloped Péronne bridgehead, General Gough took the "momentous" decision to abandon it and fall back west of the Somme. Thus his northern (VII.) Corps, crossing the river and retiring further, exposed the flank of the withdrawing V. Corps of the Third Army, and created a gap between the Armies. This gap the Germans exploited with remarkable swiftness, forcing the V. Corps back to the ridges immediately south-east of Bapaume. By the evening of the 23rd Ludendorff had advanced only 9 miles, reaching the objectives originally planned for the 21st, and our line was not yet broken. The British, however, had lost, besides other heavy casualties, 25,000 prisoners and 400 guns. The men, who had fought magnificently, were now exhausted, and over a large part of the front they were now behind all existing defence systems. British reserves alone could not. save the situation, and on the 23rd arrangements were made with the French, for the moment released from anxiety about Champagne, to take over the Fifth Army front south of the Somme.
At the junction of the Fifth and Third Armies the enemy pressure still continued on the 24th. Measures were taken to strengthen the VII. Corps, and the V. and IV. Corps on its left were ordered to fall back to a line across the old Somme battlefield west of Bapaume. This general line was taken up by midnight 24th/25th, but the withdrawal involved a loss of touch between the V. and IV. Corps which was eventually to affect the movements of the New Zealand Division. On the rest of the Fifth Army front the Somme was still held for some 8 miles south of Péronne, but beyond that point the enemy had made rapid progress and was in a position to threaten Noyon, which, with Nesle, fell into his hands on the following day.
The further developments south of the Somme, the attempt to sever the French and British Armies by an attack from Nesle, the advance of the Germans beyond Roye, the stand by General Carey's mixed force in the outer Amiens defences, page 337the intervention of French reserves, the supersession of General Gongh by General Rawlinson, the British resumption of command as far south as the Luce valley, the belated German effort at the Paris-Amiens railway, the final establishment of a stable Allied front in the first days of April, and with it the close of the German offensive on the Somme—all these are subject, matter of a larger history which can be studied nowhere better, despite inevitable reticences, than in the Commander-in-Chief's admirably lucid Despatch. It was with the right wing and the centre of the Third Army north of the river that the New Zealanders were summoned to play their part.
By the evening of the first day it was clear that the German attack involved practically the whole of Ludendorff's mass of manoeuvre. It was therefore "at once necessary and possible" to collect reserve Divisions from the rest of the front and hurry them to the Sommo. In view of the vital importance of the First Army's position in the centre, its greater proximity to the battlefield and the distinct possibility of its becoming implicated, reinforcements were drawn principally from General Plumer's Second Army further north. Among the troops so called on was the New Zealand Division.
Their period of rest and training in the Staple area was favoured by exceptionally fine weather, under which health and general fitness rapidly recovered from the strain of the winter. A comprehensive scheme of recreational training utilised the men's characteristic fondness of and aptitude for sports and competitions, with the object of promoting physical vigour, developing the fighting spirit, stimulating mental as well as physical alertness and restoring the vitality inevitably affected by a long period in the trenches. In the general military training it is interesting to note that stress was laid on the use of infantry weapons in combination with machine guns and light mortars, and on the development of the initiative and power of leadership of section and platoon commanders, especially as regards use of ground, direction and control of fire, and quickness of decision in dealing with all the varied situations which arise in battle. Rehearsals were made of deliberate fire-covered withdrawals from advanced positions both by day and by night, and of taking over in obscure situations defences held by a mixture of various and disorganised units. Suggestive, too, was the insistence given to emphasising in talks to the men the marked superiority, now long and indisputably established, of the New Zealand page 338soldier over the enemy in any kind of fighting. It had been intended that each infantry brigade should have a training period of 4 weeks, 1 brigade at a time remaining in the forward area for work on the Corps defence system. Musketry was practised on the ranges at Moulle beyond St. Omer. By the middle of March rest and training had reforged the Division into a weapon of sterling quality.
In view of the expected offensive, arrangements had been made for rapid movement in case of emergency to the Ypres ridges. On 21st March, however, when the German attack broke out on the Somme, orders were received that the Division would pass from Corps into Army reserve and be held ready to entrain for the south after midnight 22nd/23rd March. Provision was made for the relief of the artillery from the line and for the concentration in the Divisional area of the 4 battalions training on the rifle ranges at Moulle. On the 22nd the Division was marked for transfer to the Third Army and ordered to commence entrainment on the afternoon of the 24th. On that date the various units in the Staple area marched to the stations at Cassel and Caestrc. The Rifle Brigade1 group, with the Headquarters and 2 companies of the Engineers and with the Pioneer Battalion, all then in the forward area at Ypres, concentrated at Hopoutrc, near Poperinghe. The artillery, completing their relief behind Westhoek Ridge on 23rd March, entrained on the 25th at Caestre Godewaersvelde and IIopoutre. The rate of entraining was somewhat retarded owing to the destruction of a railway bridge near St. Pol by hostile action, and consequent disorganisation of the railway system. Caestre was bombed by aeroplanes, but no hitch marred the general arrangements. The Division for the remainder of its history was not again to form part of the XXII. Corps.
By the evening of the 24th, however, the immediate danger on the VII. Corps front had been averted by vigorous counterattacks delivered by the fresh Divisions sent to its support. Accordingly in the early morning of the 25th the New Zealanders were earmarked as G.H.Q. reserves and their destined concentration area moved further north up the Ancre valley to Mericourt 1'Abbé, Morlancourt and Dernancourt, places familiar to most New Zealanders who had participated in the Somme Battle of 1916. The railway line east of Amiens had been cut by bombs. It was arranged therefore that the troops should detrain at various stations between Amiens and Picquigny. Thence they would be brought forward, if practicable by busses, as far as Pont Noyclles, some 6 miles from Amiens on the Albert road, where they would be within easy reach of their destination. Divisional Headquarters moved during the afternoon to Ribemont on the Ancre. On this day (25th March) General Byng assumed command of all troops north of the Somme, and the Division thus passed, as originally projected, under the control of the Third Army.
A more important change in organisation was being made elsewhere. By this time the gravity of the situation overpowered reluctance to face the delicate problems involved in the creation of that one supreme command of both French and British Armies on the Western front for which the Advisory Council at Versailles had been a makeshift. Clemenceau and Pétain, Lord Milner, Sir Henry Wilson, and Haig met that day at Doullens and took the preliminary measures for the appointment of Foch as Generalissimo of the Allied forces.
On this day of the 25th, while this momentous decision was being arrived at in Doullens, and while the New Zealand trains were emptying their personnel in the disorganised stations west of Amiens, the German pressure on the right wing of the Third Army had not been relaxed. The VII. Corps had disputed the north bank of the Somme with gallantry and success, but to their north the V. Corps Divisions, out of touch with each other, had begun to fall back independently towards the Ancre. The seriousness of the situation may be gauged by the following message issued by Corps Headquarters at 5.45 p.m. to the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, which during the day had beaten off a succession of attacks:—page 340
“If you are forced back over the Ancre you must secure the crossings between Authuille and Beaucourt. Send back parties if possible to make sure of these crossings beforehand. The 2nd Division is being forced back at Beaumont-Hamel and is practically non-existent. The 2nd Division have been asked to hold the crossings between Hamel and Beaucourt, but G.O.C. does not think this will be possible. It is very important that your left flank should not be turned. Cyclists are being sent to hold the crossings between Aveluy and Beaucourt, but these will not arrive for some time. Retain your hold on the Pozières-Thiepval ridge if you possibly can.”
The northern troops of the V. Corps, however, fell back and crossed the Ancre at Beaumont-Hamel. On their left beyond the gap the IV. Corps right was similarly being forced westwards. The 42nd and 62nd Divisions, which had been released by General Home and for 2 days had been attached to other Corps of the Third Army, were now sent to the IV. Corps with the hope that under their cover the exhausted front line Divisions could be withdrawn at nightfall and reassembled, first at Puisieux-au-Mont and Bucquoy, and later at Hébuterne Gommecourt and Fonquevillers. The insistent drive of the Germans proved, however, too powerful, and the Third Army was obliged to withdraw its centre as well as its right to the Ancre.
Orders were thereupon issued for the V. Corps to hold the western bank of the Ancre, from Albert (inclusive) up to Hamel (inclusive). The 12th Division would be withdrawn from the VII. Corps for this purpose and come under the orders of the V. Corps, whose exhausted Divisions would then reform on the line Bouzincourt-Engelbelmer. On the right the VII. Corps were to withdraw at once to the line Bray Albert, conforming with the V. Corps and securing the retirement of the Fifth Army south of the Somme. The IV. Corps on the left would similarly fall back from its positions east of Logeast Wood and Achiet-le-Petit to the line PuisieuxBucquoy-Ablainzeville-Boyelles, where its left would be in touch with the VI. Corps. Meantime the personnel of the Third Army Musketry School was placed at the disposal of the IV. Corps, who with it and fragments of the 19th and 25th Divisions strove desperately to cover the Ancre crossings in the gap on its southern flank.
In this gap hostile patrols had already crossed the river north of Miraumont and were rapidly moving towards Serre, page 341of sinister memory,1 and Puisieux. During the night (25th/26th March) they were to reach these villages, and advance parties to push beyond under cover of smoke barrages into Hébuterne and Colin camps. On the following morning (the 26th) Logeast Wood and Achiet-le-Petit were to be in German hands, and an aeroplane was to look down on strong parties moving towards Beaumont-Hamel, whose capture illuminated so signally the record of the last days of the Somme Battle in 1916.
Elsewhere on the Third Army front the position on the 25th was satisfactory, but this ever-widening gap between the V. and IV. Corps was fraught with menacing possibilities. To fill it, a further call was made on the jealously guarded reserves. At 10 p.m. General Russell received orders from the Third Army to move with all speed by Hédauville and establish a line between Hamel and Puisieux. At the former place the New Zealand right would overlap the 12th Division of the V. Corps, and at the latter their left secure touch with the 62nd Division of the IV. Corps. The New Zealand Division itself was allotted to the IV. Corps (Lt.-Gen. Sir G. M. Harper, K.C.B., D.S.O.). At the same time the 4th Australian Brigade, so long associated with the New Zealanders on Gallipoli, was detached from its Division, now also in the rear of the battle, and allotted to the 62nd Division with orders to secure Hébuterne and extend the IV. Corps flank southwards.
1 p. 61. Serre was attacked again by us on 11th November 1916 without success. It was evacuated by the enemy on 24th January 1917 in the preliminary stages of his withdrawal.
1 Corps Headquarters had moved the previous day from this village to Marieux.
Little time was given the 1st Rifles for elaborate preparations, and it was already 6.30 a.m. before their leading companies, with 2 sections of machine guns, moved from Hédauville up the open slopes north-east towards Mailly-Maillet. The cultivated fields, the villages and the woods made Picardy appear "a very pleasant country" after the wastes of Ypres. The Rifles were protected by a company as an advanced guard. This screen, moving to the east of Mailly-Maillet at 10 a.m., soon came in contact with the enemy. With Lewis gun and rifle fire its centre platoon drove back German patrols seen 500 yards east of Auchon-villers Wood. The left platoon pushed along the northern slopes from Auchonvillers up the road which leads to Hébuterne. About 1000 yards north of Auchonvillers this road meets the road from Serre to Mailly-Maillet, and at the crossroads stood a refinery for the manufacture of sugar from the beet grown in the neighbourhood. The left platoon found the enemy already in considerable force on the sunken Hébuterne road, south of the refinery, and moving forward with entire assurance. Lining the open ditches they hotly engaged him and arrested his progress.
Fresh enemy forces, about 2 companies strong, now appeared north of the refinery on the road to Hébuterne, and close on 11 a.m. other considerable bodies were seen marching straight westwards along the road from Serre. Two advanced sections, under Rflmn. A. L. Sturmey and C. A. Tucker, held their ground against an overwhelmingly superior force, till the latter reached within 20 yards, then falling back skilfully on to the main platoon position. Sturmey alone killed 14 Germans, including 2 officers, and Tucker's Lewis gun section accounted for at least 90. But against the German numbers the thin screen could hardly have held its ground. At an opportune moment, however, the left platoon of the 2 companies detailed to occupy the outpost position came along the crest. The platoon commander, 2nd Lt. H. A. Mackenzie, had notpre- page 344viously been under fire, but he handled his men with great skill and dash, and the situation was temporarily saved.
By 11 a.m. the 2 companies of the 1st Eifles occupied the Auehonvillers ridge, the remaining company being held in reserve while the position was consolidated. Patrols, immediately pushed out, found the villages of Mertinsart and Mesnil to the south-east in possession of troops of the 12th Division. Elements of the 2nd Division were located astride the road from Hamel to Auchonvillers. The position of these troops was reported correctly by the 2nd Division to the V. Corps, but they were in no condition now to withstand further pressure.
During all this time the 2 Rifle platoons on our extreme left, fighting with great determination, held up every effort of the superior enemy to advance from the sunken road. Their flank, however, was absolutely in the air, and the pressure from enemy moving southwards from the unoccupied country about Hébuterne became severe. Heavy machine gun and rifle fire from the commanding ground to the north was increasingly and ominously enfilade. Half the reserve company were therefore sent forward shortly after 1 p.m., and with the remnants of some British troops prolonged and swung back the left flank to a knoll of apple trees south-west of the refinery. Somewhat later the remainder of the advancd guard company, whose work was now accomplished, together with the other half of the reserve company, were collected and also sent to this left flank. By this time, however, the "2nd Brigade" had come up and were moving through, and the Rifles' task was fulfilled. It only remained for them to swing up, after the "1st Brigade's" advance, the left flank from Apple Tree Knoll.
1 Lt.-Col. Mead, vice Lt.-Col. H. Stewart, in command of Brigade Transport and "B Teams."
With the shortest possible pause for the receipt of orders, for a meal, for the issue of shovels and picks, the insertion of detonators in grenades, and other hurried preparations, General Young's "brigade," consisting of the 1st and 2nd Canterbury Battalions and a machine gun company, moved out of Hédauville at noon to occupy the line of the ridge overlooking the Ancre from Hamel northwards. Behind a protective screen the platoons moved at 100 yards' distance, 2nd Canterbury leading the way. On arrival at Mailly-Maillet, in consequence of the enemy forces in the sunken road, a 2nd Canterbury company was detached to occupy a position near the Apple Trees and so protect the left flank during subsequent advance.
Deploying from the village shortly after 2 p.m., 1st Canterbury on the right and 2nd Canterbury on the left passed through the 1st Rifles' outpost line and moved forward to their objective. 1st Canterbury met some slight shell-fire, but with only a few casualties reached a line west of Hamel. The village itself they found held by elements of the 63rd and 12th Divisions, with whom they established touch. From their new positions they looked down on the Ancre valley about Thiepval. It was full of enemy movement. Directly opposite their front, however, it was manifest that the Germans had not yet crossed the river.
Further north, vigorously exploiting the gap between the V. and IV. Corps, the 4th German Division had by now passed Beaumont-Hamel, and occupied in strength a rise beyond it on the north-west, crowned by a single tree and called One Tree Hill. Already on the western outskirts of Auchonvillers 2nd Canterbury had met machine gun and artillery fire, which, though slight, had compelled deployment into section formations. East of the village artillery fire was distinctly more heavy, and from One Tree Hill on their left and from the ridges in front toward Beaumont-Hamel machine gun fire became troublesome. Our own machine guns, however, taken off the limbers behind Mailly-Maillet, had been rushed up to the high ground and were providing strong covering fire. The enemy immediately confronting us was not present in force, and our objective near the Beaumont-Hamel ravines was reached without heavy opposition. In the evening a German machine gun post was rushed by 2nd Lieut. J. page 346Sinclair with his company sergeant-major, D. M. G. Mackay, and L.-Cpl. M. I. Anderson. Shooting and bombing the team they captured 2 prisoners and brought back the gun. It was disconcerting to find that the enemy had already passed the line which the brigade was to occupy when conforming with the second movement of the "1st Brigade" further north towards Serrc. Till the "1st Brigade" came up, any movement on the left flank would be at best premature. For the moment the Canterbury Battalions turned their attention to consolidating the positions won.
In and about the left of our line were handfuls of very weary troops of all brigades of the 2nd Division, about 80 men in all. These were withdrawn in the evening. General Young's "brigade" had been just in time to forestall the enemy in occupation of what had been the 1916 British front line before the Battle of the Sommc. Crossing about Beaumont-Hamel the enemy had penetrated part of the old trench systems, but was not yet in sufficient strength to prevent the South Islanders from taking up their position. Numerous hostile parties were visible, but there was no indication of an impending organised attack. Only 1 small German patrol, about 12 in number, blundered on our outposts southwest of Beaumont-Hamel. In addition to the casualties inflicted on the enemy, 1 man and a light machine gun were captured. The Germans moved about with surprising audacity, and our machine guns and snipers secured many targets. Further in rear and out of range, considerable formed bodies were marching westwards, whom our artillery was not yet in position to engage. The 1916 trenches were still in fairly good order, with valuable belts in places of our old wire.
During the forenoon the IV. Corps Divisions north of the gap had fallen back behind Puisieux and now held a line in the old 1916 German trenches from Star Wood through Box and Fork Woods to the east of Bucquoy. Nearer at hand the position had improved. A battery of the 2nd Divisional Artillery galloping into action during the morning had, over open sights, silenced the German machine guns in Colincamps Cemetery, and the village had been later cleared by 14 of our new light fast tanks, the so-called whippets, which now for the first time proved their value. This was not yet. known, however, at Mailly-Maillet. What was known was that the Australian Brigade was not expected to reach Hébuterne till the late afternoon, and that on all the featureless terrain of page 347gentle ridge and valley, where little cover other than the old trench systems was available against the German machine guns, the enemy were already in strength well to the west of Serre. They held the road which ran along the high ground from Auchonvillers past the refinery towards Hébuterne, and were in force on the crest about the ruins of the large tree-encircled La Signy Farm, which lay just east of the road, midway between the 2 villages. Here the Germans had penetrated about a mile into our old 1916 trenches. It was already more than doubtful if General Melvill's "brigade" could reach Serre, and the position on the left flank towards Colincamps and Hébuterne was thoroughly unsatisfactory.
General Melvill's force, composed of the 1st and 2nd Auckland Battalions, the 2nd Rifles, and a machine gun company, had followed at a short interval the "2nd Brigade" to Mailly-Maillet. On General Melvill's arrival the situation was put before him, and he saw at once that a modification of his plan was necessary. It was still hoped, indeed, that despite meagre artillery support it might be possible to reach Serre and establish touch with the Divisions on the north at Puisieux, but arrangements were now made to swing our left flank considerably back so as to drive in the enemy from the vicinity of Colincamps. As a result of necessary deliberations, the “1st Brigade” attack astride the Serre Road did not develop till 5.30 p.m. 1st Auckland then advanced on the south of the Serre Road, the 2nd Rifles on the north, and 2nd Auckland followed in support. As 1st Auckland reached the northern end of the 1st Rifles' outpost line at the orchard on the Auchonvillers ridge, an enemy aeroplane flew low over their heads, and a certain amount of artillery fire followed. More serious were the enemy machine guns, which at once opened. Throwing off their fatigue in presence of the enemy, the 2 attacking 1st Auckland companies thrust forward vigorously along their 1500 yards' front. At the price of fairly heavy casualties they drove the Germans back out of the sunken road, capturing 3 machine guns. They then pushed some 300 yards beyond, where their right lay slightly behind the left flank of 2nd Canterbury. Serre was obviously out of the question. On the left also, where violent resistance was encountered, the 1st Auckland line lay for the time behind that of the 2nd Rifles, A stream of machine gun fire continued throughout the evening from the Serre Road, but after dark the left company advanced east along the road a further page 348300 yards. There they stormed a Strong Point, capturing 8 machine guns and 40 prisoners, and gaming touch with the 2nd Rifles. Particularly gallant work was done by Capt. H. R. Vercoe.
North of the Serre Road the 2nd Rifles advanced abreast with 1st Auckland, with the object of reaching the Serheb Road, which runs north-west from Serre. Two companies were in the front line, while another company acted as a left flank guard towards the north. The explosions of a blazing ammunition dump between the refinery and the Hébuterne Road forced a detour, but the billowing smoke screened our advance from a machine gun at the cross-roads and from 2 others in a trench parallel to the Serre Road and adjoining it on the north.
On the riflemen emerging from the smoke the machine guns opened fire. The leading platoon of the right company (Capt. W. J. Organ), on reaching the Hébuterne Road, paused a minute to assemble under cover of the road bank, and then, led by L.-Cpl. R. Ellmers and Rflmn. E. H. Dodd, dashed into the trench. 2 guns and 2 wounded prisoners were captured. The remaining 40 Germans retreated to trenches south of the Serre Road, whence in turn they were evicted by our snipers, leaving 5 unwounded prisoners in our hands. We captured also the Orderly Room records of one battalion, with a narrative of its actions since 21st March, and casualty rolls which showed that up to the 26th the unit had suffered 50% casualties. Pushing forward after the final advance of 1st Auckland, 2nd Lt. P. W. Parry actually reached a trench 1000 yards east of the refinery at the southern extremity of an important and commanding hedgerow which ran south from La Signy Farm and of which more will be said hereafter. Thence the company's line swung round north-westwards to the point (Euston Junction) where the road from Colincamps joined the Hébuterne Road. Further advance was barred, not so much by heavy cross machine gun fire from One Tree Hill southwards and from La Signy Farm northwards, as by the fact that the company was already far in advance of its flanks. Two attempts by the enemy to rush our trenches were checked. In the evening, after dispositions were made for the night, a German motor car crept up quietly and without lights on the Serre Road and stopped somewhat short of our furthest post. A lieutenant jumped out and walked up the road alone. Sergt. G. F. Webster and his 3 men in the post all fired at him, and killed him.page break page break page 349
Meanwhile the left company, somewhat less enterprisingly handled, had cleared the Hébuterne Road up to Euston Junction. From that point the flank guard took up a position along the Colincamps Road. In all, the 2nd Rifles captured 37 prisoners and 4 machine guns. They had lost 9 men killed and 35 wounded, all except 2 of the casualties being caused by machine gun fire. Invaluable assistance was given on this left flank by the light tanks which had cleared Colincamps during the morning.
By nightfall, as a result of these operations, in which the Division had sustained altogether 150 casualties, mostly walking cases, our foremost troops occupied a strong and practically continuous line from just west of Hamel to north of the Serre Road. The southern portion of the gap between the V. and IV. Corps was definitely closed. On the “2nd Brigade” front observation was particularly good. North of the Serre Road the enemy held the high ground and overlooked us, but the time was not yet ripe for further action, and General Russell issued orders forbidding an attack till the general situation cleared itself. Consolidation was pushed on unmolested, and touch maintained by patrols with the enemy in front.
1 Major W. F. Narbey, vice Lt.-Col. Cook, sick.
2 Major Hargest, vice Lt.-Col. Charters, wounded (gas) in February.
The whole concentration of the isolated units from their different detraining stations had been characterised no less by masterly Staff work on the part of the Division than by the splendid response made by the men. As a rule the marching of the Division was not above criticism. The troops had been 2 nights without sleep and were tired and footsore, but at this critical juncture there was not a man but put forth his sternest effort on the forced march. Most battalions covered over 20 miles, and among them they had not lost half a dozen men. Thus, to take a single instance, 1st Otago, after travelling all night and day, detrained on the evening of the 25th at Hangest, 11 miles down the Somme valley from Amiens. Marching through Picquigny, it rested for the night in derelict lorries on the roadside. At 6.30 a.m. on the 26th it was again on the move and tramped steadily a further 16 miles through Amiens, Pont Noyelles, Franvillers to Hédauville. Not a man fell out the whole way. The 2nd Field Company of the Engineers, marching with full packs 23 miles between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m., similarly did not lose a single man.
As soon as the gap between the New Zealand line and the Australians was reported to the Division, the more rested troops, comprising the 3 companies of the 3rd Rifles, 2nd Wellington and 2nd Otago, with a machine gun company, were formed into a composite brigade under Lt.-Col. A. E. Stewart, with orders to extend the line northwards up the Hébuterne Road. The Divisional reserves were now reduced to 1st Wellington and 1st Otago till the 4th Rifles arrived about midnight.
At 1 a.m. on the 27th this force marched through Mailly-Maillet and reached Colincamps at 4 a.m. Here, in much the same way as the 1st Rifles had covered the Canterburys at Auchonvillers, 2nd Otago was thrown out in a screen east of the village and behind the left of the 2nd Rifles on the road to Euston Junction to protect the advance of 2nd Wellington and the 3rd Rifles. While Otago moved into position, these rested in the shelter of the buildings for some 10 minutes, and then with the first glimmer of dawn moved forward. They were covered by advanced and flank guards. 2nd Wel-page 351lington was on the right and the 3rd Rifles on the left towards Hébuterne.
There was no shelling, but machine gun fire was at once encountered, and the troops deployed into skirmishing order. On the north the 3rd Rifles advancing rapidly pushed back the German advanced posts, and by 6.30 a.m. gained touch with the Australians south of Hébuterne. The splendid dash with which the Rifles moved had its due reward. The enemy, in considerably superior numbers, were apparently taken by surprise. They at once decamped, leaving behind them much equipment and entrenching material. Only at 1 point did they attempt resistance. They called on a section of riflemen commanded by L.-Cpl. J. N. O'Bonnell to surrender. O'Donnell's reply was an immediate charge with the bayonet, which drove the enemy back with heavy losses. From the position won, L.-Cpl. W. G. Bowers made a notable single-handed effort. He pushed forward alone down a sap to locate 2 enemy believed to be wounded. Instead of these he encountered 12 Germans, armed and unhurt. He at once attacked them. He was wounded but succeeded in capturing 2 prisoners and dispersing the remainder. 2nd Wellington ran right in the teeth of the machine guns firing from near La Signy Farm, and after securing 42 prisoners and a machine gun, in whose capture Capt. Melles, 2nd Lt. J. T. Thomas, and 3 platoons of the Wellington West Coast company did particularly fine work, they were obliged to dig in 400 yards short of the Hébuterne Road, which formed their objective. Touch was, however, maintained with the 3rd Rifles on the left and secured with the 2nd Rifles on the right at Euston. By 9 a.m. there was no gap left for German infiltration, and any further hostile advance would be purchased at a heavy price.
Meanwhile on the “2nd” and “1st Brigade” fronts the night had passed quietly except for an assault on the British troops south of Hamel, which was repulsed by a counter-attack. Beyond them again, owing to an unfortunate misunderstanding, the VII. Corps had abandoned the Bray Line. The German vanguards were pressing towards Albert and reaching positions from which they were to turn the left flank of the Fifth Army on the following day. But no effort had been made against the New Zealand front. Advantage was taken of the enemy's inactivity to reorganise the brigades and restore units to their proper formations. 2nd Auckland relieved the 2nd Rifles north of the Serre Road. During or page 352shortly after the relief Auckland appears to have pulled back from the very marked salient about the hedgerow where the 2nd Rifles had established their outposts on the previous evening. The complacent announcement in German "intelligence," captured later on 30th March, of the peaceful recovery of this important high ground completely mystified the Divisional Staff, who did not at the time know that it had ever been in our possession. It was regained only at the cost of hard fighting.1 On relief, the 2nd Rifles was brought into General Melvill's reserve at Mailly-Maillet as a preliminary step to its replacement by 1st Wellington, when it was to move first as Divisional reserve to Courcelles and later as Rifle Brigade reserve behind its own brigade front at Colincamps. In the early morning (27th March) 1st Otago relieved the 1st Rifles on their 3000 yards' support line behind the Canterburys. It was proposed that on relief the 1st Rifles should go to Colincamps as Divisional reserve, but in view of the enemy pressure about Hamel they were temporarily detained as brigade reserve by General Young at Engelbelmer.
1 pp. 361 sqq.
A somewhat heavier blow was delivered shortly afterwards on the 1st and 2nd Canterbury lines in the south. About 9 a.m. the enemy had begun to shell our front lines, at first lightly, but by noon his bombardment was of considerable weight and extended as far back as Mailly-Maillet. Half an hour afterwards his infantry, which had assembled in the quarries and deep ravines south of Beaumont-Hamel, advanced in small groups over the open and up old communication trenches towards the Canterbury positions. The attack penetrated within bombing distance but was successfully repulsed by rifle and machine gun fire, and the enemy retired to his trenches, leaving 30 dead and 2 light machine guns in No Man's Land. In the afternoon General Young extended his right to assist the English brigade on that flank in restoring a somewhat obscure situation.
1 See Map No. 12.
2 10th August 1915.
Foiled at each flank as on the Serre Road, the enemy struck at 7 p.m. at the 2nd Wellington position, 1500 yards long, midway between the refinery and Hébuterne. Here he scored his only success. The reserve company counterattacked, killing about 80 and capturing 5 machine guns, but could not restore the situation over the whole battalion front. The left company had been forced back 500 yards from the Hébuterne Road. During their withdrawal, one machine gun team on the northern flank was left much exposed. Prudence dictated their falling back some little distance to conform, but prudence in war can be a positive defect. A Rifles' n.c.o., Cpl. J. Bean, came over from the 3rd Battalion line and promised that “if the team would stick it out, he with his Lewis gun team and platoon would do so also.” It was agreed to “stick it out.” When later in the evening heavy rifle fire ensued from 150 yards in front, this team opened fire to let the enemy know the way was barred. In their uncertainty as to the general position in front, however, they fired high, and when subsequently a party of 40 men passed along 100 yards before the gun position, they could not in the uncertain moonlight distinguish whether they were friend or foe. The party moved away to the left and were presently lost to view. Dean not merely kept his word nobly, but later in the night himself led a section forward and rushed an enemy machine gun which was enfilading his flank, killing the crew and putting the gun out of action. In the course of the day 2nd Wellington had lost 4 officers and 70 men casualtied.
Into the gap caused by Wellington's withdrawal the Germans swarmed, occupying securely the line of the road and pushing some posts west of it. The 3rd Rifles, however, swung back and strengthened their right flank with their last company, which now arrived opportunely on the battlefield.
Similar attacks elsewhere on the Corps front were mostly frustrated. At Rossignol Wood, however, which lying between Hébuterne and Bucquoy was later to become so familiar to the New Zealanders, the enemy penetrated into its eastern outskirts, and further north he captured Ablainzeville and Ayette. Beyond the right boundary, Hamel, which had been definitely assigned to the V. Corps, was lost, and the 2nd Brigade reinforced their right flank and extended it southwards to assist the hard-pressed troops in this quarter page 355In all his attacks the enemy had incurred heavy losses, and additional casualties were inflicted throughout the day on large bodies of his troops in rear. Our machine gunners, indeed, were thoroughly and keenly enjoying themselves. During the afternoon German artillery teams attempting to bring up ammunition to a battery west of Serre were dispersed with casualties. A pair of guns engaged 2 companies of the enemy in column of route at a range of 700 yards, literally mowing them down, so that stretcher-bearers were busy moving in the vicinity for 3 hours afterwards. Another body of the enemy in mass formation, about 700 strong, was engaged at somewhat longer range. With the second burst of fire about 50 were seen to fall. A long burst was therefore fired plumb into the mass; great numbers fell, the remainder breaking and taking cover in shellholes and undulations. In this one instance 300 casualties at a conservative estimate were inflicted, and the ground was observed to be littered with bodies. At another point in the battlefield, 12 enemy machine gun crews attempted to move over the open towards their front trenches. Bursts were fired on each of the teams, some of which were entirely knocked out. The survivors abandoned their guns and ran back. In repeated attempts made to recover the guns many more casualties were inflicted. Enemy prisoners later testified to the powerful effect of our machine guns in checking their attacks. Such admirable targets could not be expected to continue, and every opportunity was sought to make hay while the sun shone.
In the forenoon of the 27th the anxiously awaited New Zealand batteries, which had detrained west of Amiens on the previous day, began to arrive, and by noon four 18-pounder batteries and a 4.5-in. howitzer battery had concentrated at Hédauville. Their officers rode off at once to reconnoitre positions about Mailly-Maillet, and the guns went into action without delay. Practically all batteries were in position by nightfall. The 2nd Divisional Artillery was then withdrawn.
The considerable movement opposite the New Zealand front, testified to alike by ground and air observation, and the use of smoke screens, covering the deployment of machine gun companies, made it appear very probable that the enemy would renew his attacks in the morning of the 28th. The utmost advantage was therefore taken of the lull that followed the enemy check. A reserve line of trenches was decided on by Corps, and on the Divisional sector page 356every man available, Engineers, Pioneers, and all 3 light trench mortar batteries, for whom Stokes ammunition became available only on the 28th, were employed on its construction. This so-called Purple Line ran in rear of Mailly-Maillet Colin camps and Hébuterne. Its northern portion was the more important, and on it work was primarily concentrated. The line was designed in the first instance to hold 2 infantry battalions and a machine gun company. Orders were given that it should be completed by 5 a.m. on the 28th. 2nd Otago was withdrawn from its former outpost line in front of Colincamps into Divisional reserve to garrison this portion, assist in its construction, and secure touch with the second Australian position behind Hébuterne. Here the battalion stayed till the 29th, when it exchanged places with the 1st Rifles at Engelbelmer. thus completing the reorganisation of the brigades. The Engineers were already beginning their resourceful explorations of the great catacombs under Mailly-Maillet, which had formed a refuge for the inhabitants in 1870 and now promised to afford shell-proof cover for reserve battalions. In the evening (27th March) Divisional Headquarters moved from Hédauville to a more central position at Bus-les-Artois.
During the night (27th/28th March) the 1st and 2nd Brigades improved their positions. The batteries fired bursts on likely concentration areas about Serre. The expected general attack did not materialise. As soon as dawn broke our artillery registered all along the front, and during the day did some splendid shooting, which no one enjoyed more than the infantry in the line. The vigour and efficacy of the fire was proved by the markedly more cautious attitude of the enemy across the Ancre. For the most part only small groups were visible except on 1 occasion when 2 brigades moved to the Ancre from the neighbourhood of Serre. The New Zealand batteries swept the area for over an hour, and the German columns were not seen again. Though the enemy artillery was decidedly heavier, the whole situation on the Corps front was more stable, and General Harper took the opportunity of thanking his troops in the following message: "The Corps Commander congratulates the 42nd, 62nd, and New Zealand Divisions and the 4th Australian Brigade on their magnificent behaviour during the last few days' fighting. Numerous heavy attacks by the enemy have been completely repulsed with heavy loss and the capture of prisoners and machine guns. He heartily thanks the page 357troops for their courage and endurance and is confident that they will continue to hold the line against all attacks."
2nd Wellington had found it impossible to retrieve the gap on their left. They were relieved during the night by the 4th Rifles, the last infantry battalion to reach Hédauville. With the morning (28th March) the New Zealand infantry prepared to strike back. The first enterprise was undertaken by the newly arrived 4th Rifles with the object of filling the gap on the Hébuterne Road. They had every reason for immediate action. Apart from their lack of touch with the 3rd Rifles, their position was commanded by enemy observation from his line about the Road, and was swept by the direct fire of a large number of machine guns already in position. At 5 a.m. a platoon of the right company advanced against machine gun fire and reached some old gun-pits west of the Road. Its commander, 2nd Lt. G. Malcolm, was killed during the operation after gallant hand-to-hand fighting against heavy odds. Two hours later a bombing section of the left company drove the enemy back 50 yards along a sap which afforded direct approach from the Road to our lino, and killed a number of Germans equal to their own strength. With these efforts the 4th Battalion advance was momentarily checked.
The left company of the 3rd1 Battalion immediately south of the Australian positions at Hébuterne now took up the action. Beside the Road, 500 yards south of the nearest houses of Hébuterne, were large quarries secured by the Germans on the 26th. Shortly before noon the left company of the 3rd Rifles, under Capt. H. C. Meikle, attacked these and captured them with slight loss. The enemy offered no resistance, but retired hurriedly, leaving a large quantity of arms and equipment. The position won was of the utmost value, commanding observation up to 3000 yards to the southeast. Among the German dead it was interesting to find individuals not only of the 4th Division, but also of that 20th Division, which the New Zealanders had battered so cruelly at Gravenstafel.2 The 20th and 4th Divisions had alternated with each other as front line and support troops since the opening of the offensive on 21st March.
1 Major (now Lt.-Col.) P. H. Bell, vice Lt.-Col. Puttick, wounded on 27th.
2 2 p. 271.
The right company, covered by enfilade fire from the 2nd Auckland Lewis guns, reached the line of the Road from Euston Junction for 100 yards northwards, repaying 2nd Auckland by materially improving the situation on their left. Further north, also, where the enemy was in considerable strength, they did not quite reach their objective, but pushed a post close up to some prominent stacks of timber beside the Road. Though the aim of the operation was not completely achieved, the post at the "Woodstaeks" would be a thorn in the flesh of the enemy at La Signy Farm and would facilitate a further attempt.
No effort was made by the enemy this day against the well-established line of the 2nd Brigade, but against 2nd Auckland repeated strong bombing attacks were launched from La Signy Farm and down the Serre Road. Two of these in particular were pushed with great determination in the afternoon, after heavy artillery and machine gun fire. They were all repulsed with slight loss to the garrison and severe casualties to the attackers. In one of these a New Zealand machine gun was captured, but the gun team obtaining bombs pursued the Germans, recovered the gun and killed most of the raiders. A last attempt was made by the enemy page 359at 10 p.m., under cover of a particularly heavy machine gun barrage, when some of his troops moved over the open as well as up the saps. They were beaten off and left several dead in our hands. Further north the Germans penetrated deeper into Rossignol Wood. These local attacks and other operations of a larger nature elsewhere, similarly repulsed, were undertaken in conjunction with the grand attack at Arras and on the Scarpe, whereby Ludendorff sought to punch out the narrowing salient into which his advance southward was now confined. His decisive failure on the whole battlefield was a severe blow to German ambitions.
The artillery supporting the Division was now reorganised, and General Napier Johnston assumed command of the brigades covering the front. In addition to the 1st and 3rd Brigades these consisted of the 25th Divisional Artillery, 1 "Army" brigade, and 3 R.G.A. brigades with a 60-pounder battery. Our harassing fire became continually more active. During the day (28th) there had also been a marked increase in enemy artillery as well as machine gun fire. The 1st Canterbury trenches had been pounded from close range. In the evening an unlucky 5.9-in, shell secured a direct hit on the cellar which was the Rifle Brigade headquarters in Colincamps. The whole place was wrecked, and the occupants completely buried. Major Purdy was killed, and Capt. Dailey, with the signal and intelligence officers, was wounded. General Fulton, who had arrived back on the 27th, succumbed later to the effects of concussion. General Fulton was the third and last of the New Zealand brigadiers to fall in action. A New Zealander by birth, he had held a commission in the Indian Army. Brusque, masterful, punctilious with regard to details, conscientious and capable, with some marked antipathies, among which was included a particularly keen dislike of strong language, he had ever been keenly sensitive to his men's sufferings and casualties. He had been associated for almost his entire service during the war with the Rifle Brigade, first as battalion commander and then as brigadier. Its interests were intensely dear to him, and it was largely due to his unflagging effort that the Rifles early attained an efficiency not surpassed by either of the other brigades. The casualties in the Colincamps headquarters amounted in all to 2 officers killed and 3 wounded and 9 men killed and 11 wounded. Lt.-Col. (now Brig.-General) A. E. Stewart assumed command of the brigade. Major Logan (later succeeded by Major P. W. Skelly, N.Z.S.C.) became Brigade page 360Major, Lt. (now Capt.) E. Zeisler was appointed Staff Captain. On the following morning Brigade Headquarters moved from their very unhealthy position in Colincamps to the schoolroom at Courcelles.
The situation on the right of the New Zealanders was improved during the night 28th/29th by the 2nd Division's taking over the elements of its own troops and of the 12th Division, and assuming command of the sector from west of Hamel southwards. Capt. C. G. Hayter, too, of the machine gun company attached to the 2nd Brigade, gave the tired 2nd Division machine gunners assistance in digging in their guns and forming dumps of ammunition and rations. Some personnel also was left to strengthen the teams and ensure the guns' being kept in a fighting condition. On our own front, posts had been pushed out wherever possible 100 yards into No Man's Land. Orders wore issued, however, by a higher authority that all communication trenches leading out from our line towards the enemy were to be filled in for at least 50 yards, and the posts therefore were subsequently withdrawn.
In the early morning of the 29th the 4th Rifle companies made a fresh effort to connect their positions and close the gap in our line between La Signy Farm and Hébuterne. Very bitter fighting ensued with superior enemy forces, on whom heavy casualties were inflicted. A bombing section cleared 200 yards of trench towards a communication sap which ran to the Red Hut at the junction of the La Signy Farm track with the Hébuterne Road. No substantial improvement, however, was effected. Further south, another bombing attack delivered by the enemy against 2nd Auckland was again repulsed. The rest of the day passed quietly.
Observation improved during the morning of the 30th, and enemy movement across the Ancre north of Thiepval and a large amount of transport on the Albert-Bapaume Road were dispersed by our artillery. The 11th Battery fired on 2 British howitzers in use by the enemy, obtaining a direct hit and exploding ammunition.
In the afternoon 2nd Auckland and the 4th Rifles carried out a joint operation with a view to improving their overlooked position north of the Serre Road. Opposite them the enemy occupied a spur which was the highest ground in the vicinity and commanded a most extensive view eastwards. On it, prior to the German withdrawal in 1917, had been situated the British artillery observation posts. Along its crest lay the hedge, which had been reached at its southern end by the 2nd Rifles on the 26th. A very prominent feature of the landscape, this hedge ran for 1000 yards from the Serre Road in a north-westerly direction on our side of La Signy Farm to the Hébuterne Road just short of the Red Hut. Behind it lay a small system of dugouts. From the trench alongside it snipers and machine guns maintained an active fire on our lines and inflicted casualties. General Melvill had personally reconnoitred the country north of the Serre Road on the 29th and had suggested to Divisional Headquarters the capture of the crest south and west of the Farm. 1st Wellington, who had relieved 1st Auckland during the night 28th/29th south of the Serre Road, would co-operate with 2nd Auckland by advancing in conformity. The 4th Rifles on the left would continue the line to the Hébuterne Road, capturing the rest of the Road northwards and establishing connection with the 2nd Rifles on the extreme left.page 362
The morning of the 30th, Easter Sunday, was very quiet, and the details of the operation were threshed out at Mailly-Maillet without interference from hostile activity. The attack was launched at 2 p.m. under an artillery barrage provided by 3 brigades of field artillery. A battery of 4.5-in. howitzers bombarded La Signy Farm, and 2 batteries the Strong Point at the Red Hut, lifting after 3 minutes to a line east of the Farm. 2 batteries of 6-in. howitzers barraged a line still further east, and 2 batteries of 60-pounders searched and swept the Serre Road. The barrage directly covering the attack rested for 2 minutes short of the objective and for 2 minutes on the objective, then lifted 200 yards and searched forward for 500 yards, when it gradually died away, our final S.O.S. line being arranged 100 yards beyond our line of consolidation along the hedge.
The German positions were occupied chiefly by the 20th Division, but also by remnants of several other units which had become confused in the course of their advance. All were now tired and short of supplies. For the last few days they had been living mostly on captured British "dry rations," and these had been by this time consumed. As soon as our barrage opened, at least 100 Germans retired from their trenches south of the Serre Road towards Beaumont-Hamel and were vigorously engaged by the rifles and Lewis guns of 1st Otago, who had relieved 2nd Canterbury on the previous evening.1 This withdrawal was orderly. The Germans moved along a trench towards Beaumont-Hamel in single file. After most of his men had withdrawn, an officer standing on high ground, just out of reach of our infantry weapons, observed our advance through his glasses. Other parties ran in disorder down the Serre Road, and these were raked by the fire of the machine guns attached to the 2nd Brigade. The machine gunners had been cheated during the preceding days of good targets. Now happily unharassed by enemy artillery, they made good use of their opportunities, silencing at the same time German machine guns which opened flanking fire on the 1st Brigade attack.
1 2nd Otago relieved 1st Canterbury on the night 30th/31st March.
In the centre of the attack 2 companies of 2nd Auckland, protected also by heavy machine gun fire, closely followed the barrage towards the hedgerow. The right company attacked in 2 waves at 50 yards' distance, the left partly over the open and partly up a communication trench which formed the dividing line between the companies. The surprise was complete. Many of the enemy were found lying down with their equipment off, and in 7 minutes, except for a post in the centre of the position and a Strong Point on the Serre Road, the whole objective was in Auckland's hands, and the dugout system behind the hedge cleared. Sergt. W. A. Procter rushing a machine gun post killed 3 of the crew and captured the gun. Fighting was not heavy except in the communication trench, where a platoon of Waikato men encountered deadly machine gun fire and lost 18 men killed, most of them being shot through the head. A machine gun on the enemy's side of the hedge was stalked by snipers and put out of action.
The post in the centre was speedily dealt with. But for the moment the redoubt on the Serre Road prevented touch being gained with 1st Wellington, and the attacking troops here ran short of bombs. Thereupon the light trench mortars came to their assistance. Cpl. G. L. Stuart, of the 1st Battery, collected all available ammunition and brought his mortar well forward to obtain direct observation. At 5 p.m. his preparations were complete. A few well-placed shots were fired, and the 40 survivors of the garrison surrendered.
On the left the 4th Rifles had been faced by very hard fighting, and the Aucklanders were unable to report satis-page 364factoryconnection till the evening. Touch was maintained for the time by a sap on our side of the main trench by the hedgerow, but in the trench itself, north of the Auckland flank, there was still at 11 p.m. a pocket of Germans. The whole Auckland objective, however, was gained. Four platoons of 2nd Wellington1 were put at Auckland's disposal for carrying purposes and as battalion reserve.
The trench held several good concrete dugouts. Though muddy, it was found to be strongly consolidated with a double row of wire. The field of fire averaged 500 to 1000 yards. While we thus commanded observation over the enemy's country, the cover of the hedge, though necessarily a mark for his artillery, together with the configuration of the ground, would enable our own troops to proceed overland in the daylight to the front line. Though the further sector of the trench which ran from the captured position along the line of trees towards La. Signy Farm was full of enemy, Auckland were confident that in this quarter they could hold a German attack. A more dangerous point was on the right where the enemy might assemble in a depression near the Serre Road. Arrangements were accordingly made for this neighbourhood to be dealt with by artillery periodically during the hours of darkness. From 6 p.m. onwards the enemy shelled the area violently. The 1st Brigade troops were by this time tired. Heavy demands had been made during the last few days on their physical endurance and fighting spirit. Nothing, however, could shake their soldierly morale and resolution, well illustrated, for example, by the evening report of the left Auckland company commander: “We are connected with Rifle Brigade, but the Hun still holds about 150 yards in straight line along trees as shown in attached sketch. We have a strong bombing post in trench to prevent them entering further, and as soon as you can send up a sufficient supp]y of bombs I will organise a bombing attack and clear the remainder of the trench. I have not sufficient bombs to do that yet. I have strengthened both flanks, and I think the position well held. Am sending out patrols every hour and listening-posts in front of trees. We want more S.A.A.” After a visit on the following day the Brigade Major reported that “the operation has left our men in excellent spirits with absolute confidence in themselves and their leaders, and eager to go on and push the enemy back again.”
During the night (30th/31st March) heavy rain fell. The German pocket was to be cleared, but not by Auckland. The patrols, sent out, duly captured an enemy sergeant-major and a private and directed Lewis gun fire on enemy heard cutting wire about the Serre Road as a preliminary to a counterattack. These were dispersed, and the attack did not develop. On the left an enemy patrol of 6 was fired on by Lewis guns, 5 being killed. German posts in one or two communication saps were withdrawn, and there were no further signs of the enemy at close quarters. The night remained quiet, and there was now little shelling.
In this strikingly successful enterprise 2nd Auckland lost only 12 men killed in addition to the 18 who had given their lives in the capture of the central communication trench. 7 officers and 75 other ranks had been wounded. These last were evacuated during the attack to the regimental aid post at the refinery. The Germans had lost severely. In a single trench enfiladed by one of our machine guns the retreating enemy had been mown down, and not less than 60 dead lay along its muddy bottom. 140 German corpses were counted in the trench under the hedge, and 156 prisoners had been captured. The war material taken included 42 machine guns, a Lewis gun, 2 mortars, 3 bicycles and a signalling lamp and apparatus.
On the left of the attack persistent ill fortune, through no fault of their own, again dogged the 4th Rifles. Their main assault, like that of Auckland, was delivered by 2 companies, each strengthened by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion. The isolated party on the left, who were in touch with the 2nd Battalion, co-operated by bombing their way forward to establish connection. Very strong hostile resistance with bombs and machine gun fire from the crest of La Signy Farm was encountered all along the front. Part of the right company attained their objective. The remainder reached the flank of the “Woodstacks” just short of the Hébuterne Road, where the enemy were in great numbers, and after exhausting their bombs held a precarious position in the adjacent shellholes. The left company met very strong resistance. They drove the enemy back some distance and captured over 20 prisoners, but after stiff hand to hand fighting were obliged to dig in. The bombing attacks of the isolated party met also determined opposition, and they were unable to make much headway.page 366
No higher tribute can be paid to the indomitable fighting spirit of the Rifles than to say that despite these cheeks they grimly set about preparing to renew their thrust. As soon as darkness fell, the left company was replaced by a fresh company, and the 2nd Battalion, extending their flank, relieved the isolated platoons. The first position cleared was on the right. There, anticipating Auckland's night enterprise, a platoon of the 3rd Battalion moved shortly before midnight through Auckland and bombed its way northwards up the trench along the hedge. Two prisoners were taken. From the new line a communication trench ran back westwards towards the "Woodstacks." Down it patrols were sent out immediately, and the fruit of the increasing pressure of the day's struggle was at length gathered. For the enemy's heart had failed him. Under cover of the darkness he fell back from his position. Our patrols found his posts about the "Woodstaoks" evacuated. The right company thereupon moved forward and occupied the remainder of the crest to the point where the La Signy Farm track leaves the Hébuterne Road. When dawn came, 10 enemy machine guns and many dead were found lying in the area won. Before daylight, too, the left company had pushed their way further forward without resistance to the top of the ridge, where a half-hearted effort by German rearguards was summarily overwhelmed. During these operations the 4th Battalion had lost 3 officers and 50 men killed and 5 officers and 140 men wounded.
Meantime the 2nd Rifles on their extended southern flank had carried out a brilliant minor operation. Capt. Barrow-clough with 2 platoons struck eastwards and southwards to clear up the gap on their right flank and gain the crest. The party proceeded first along one of the many saps leading up the rise. On reaching a hedge which ran due east from the Road north of La Signy Farm they possibly made some noise. The Germans fired 2 star shells. Our party was not, however, detected, and the enenry machine guns did not open. After a minute's pause, Barrowclough's men crept nearer to take the German position from the flank. On the first shot being fired as a signal, every man doubled forward and opened rapid fire, enfilading the German position. L/Cpl. Grover with his Lewis gun poured in a hot fire on a German machine gun crew and within a few seconds killed every man. In utter panic the Germans fled without more ado, and when pressed further offered little resistance.page 367
In this pursuit Rflmn. J. G. Scaife had laid down his rifle to throw bombs when he was suddenly surprised by the appearance of a German at his side. Without a moment's hesitation he went for his enemy with bare fists, but his knock-out blow was anticipated by a comrade who put a bullet through the German's heart. At the cost of only 2 men wounded, 1 of whom later died, Barrowclough's party had completed the recovery of the whole of the important position lost on the 27th and considerably improved our hold on it. They had killed many Germans, captured 22 prisoners with 16 machine guns, and put the rest to flight.
The effect of these different but co-ordinated operations was both local and general 250 German dead were actually counted on the front attacked, and doubtless others lay beyond. Wounded were seen to go back in streams. Including evacuations through casualty clearing stations, the number of prisoners taken, chiefly from the infamous 77th Inf. Regt.,1 was 3 officers and close on 300 other ranks. So heavy were the 20th Division's losses that it was withdrawn from the line and eventually disbanded. In addition, 15 mortars and 110 machine guns2 were captured. Our own tactical position was completely altered by our advance. Instead of being as hitherto broken and overlooked, the line now ran continuously from One Tree Hill along the whole ridge to the Quarries and lying throughout on the crest, afforded excellent observation over the enemy's position while denying him command over our own. "The infantry," notes an artillery brigade diary at this time, "have the enemy well under hand." The Division received among other telegrams of appreciation a highly prized message of congratulation from General Plumer.
1 1 p. 271.
2 The average allotment of machine guns in a German battalion was at this time 25.
Heavy rain and thunderstorms alternated throughout the 31st, and the day was spent in consolidation and in burying the dead. As soon as the weather cleared, the pressure on the enemy was continued. On 1st April a 1st Otago patrol rushed a trench north-west of Beaumont-Hamel, and 1st Wellington captured 5 prisoners and a wounded officer south of the Serre Road. West of La Signy Farm, following on particularly fearless reconnaissance and daylight patrolling by L/Cpl. R. McMurray, the 1st and 2nd Rifles became increasingly aggressive. A German post was rushed, and its occupants killed or captured. A post of our own was established in its place, and another one pushed forward north of the Farm. On the following day (2nd April) a fighting patrol of the 2nd Rifles killed all the occupants of one sap and had a bitter fight, honours remaining equal, with a second post. The next night (3rd/4th April) in the continuous rain the New Zealand posts thrust themselves all round the Farm and 150 yards to the east.
Protected by this outpost line and reassured by the organisation of the Purple system, of the switch line between Colincamps and Mailly-Maillet, and of other rear defences, all now in an advanced state of completion,1 the Division could at length release the Lewis gun companies of the British Tank Battalion, reorganise its front generally, and withdraw 1 infantry brigade into reserve. Already on the night 2nd/3rd April the Australians, now under the 37th Division which had relieved the 62nd, had extended their flank 500 yards south of the Quarries so as to completely cover Hébuterne and reduce the very long front held by the New Zealanders. The 1st Brigade in the centre was therefore on 4th/5th April withdrawn into reserve, and the Rifle Brigade took over their subsector, holding now a front of 3200 yards. The 3rd Battalion was placed on the right to the south of the Serre Road, the 4th in the centre at La Signy Farm, and the 1st on the left.
1 The medium trench mortar batteries arriving on 1st April at Bns-les-Artois from a course at the Army Mortar School commenced to dig their defensive positions on 3rd April.
On the New Zealand front the German bombardment began at 5 a.m. and continued with intense severity for 3 hours without cessation, extending as far back as Bus-les-Artois and Bertrancourt. Courcelles and Colineamps were shelled by guns of all calibres up to 12-in. It was perhaps the severest bombardment that the Division as a whole experienced during the war. Many fresh German batteries had been brought in for the purpose, and still more guns were to be in action by noon. All communications were cut. Soon after 8 a.m. a regiment of the 26th German Division attacked the Rifle Brigade with the object of penetrating as far as Colineamps, now over a mile behind our front line. The first attack was completely repulsed after reaching within 30 yards of our trenches. At 10 a.m. it was repeated in great force and succeeded in overwhelming the small 4th Rifles' garrison of 14 men in the most advanced sap to the east of La Signy Farm and in recapturing the Farm itself. Endeavouring to use the Farm as a pivot and under the cover of heavy mortar fire the enemy pushed many parties up the old saps towards our front line, but our forward posts established in advance of it inflicted severe casualties on the attackers and effectually stopped them. At no other point did the Germans make progress. The Farm and trenches in the vicinity were kept under constant fire by our artillery, light trench mortars and machine guns. In this attack the 4th Rifles had 1 officer and 25 men killed and 1 officer and 46 men wounded.
1 Five of our tanks assisting in this attack stuck in the old wide trenches in this area, and were abandoned. They formed targets for shelling throughout the summer.
After dusk the 3rd Battalion south of the Serre Road actually advanced their line some 150 yards to improve their field of fire and widen their footing on the high ground. Our machine guns had again had splendid targets, and a captured officer gave them the chief credit for the enemy's failure. A German private made prisoner later near La Signy Farm had the following reflections in his diary:—
“Principally our failure was due to machine gun fire from the flanks. The losses are very great. Many comrades find a hero's death, others writhe in their wounds. Many wounded are lying in the open. At night the battalion retires to its starting point. During the day we are withdrawn to battalion headquarters, but here also we are under fairly heavy fire. Thank God we are now relieved.”
Brig.-Gen. A. E. Stewart, C.M.G., D.S.O.
On the 2nd Brigade front another enemy Division was to have advanced simultaneously with the attack on the north, but was disorganised by the weight of our artillery response. It was not till the afternoon that the attack developed, and then it achieved nothing. A mere handful of German infantry worked up a communication trench, just over the boundary, of the British brigade to the south. They were seen and were at once attacked by the right post of 1st Canterbury under L/Cpl. W. White. The whole party was accounted for. 1 was killed and 9 taken prisoners. This was not to be end of the 2nd Brigade successes on 5th April, for their Lewis guns shot down an enemy aeroplane which descended east of Engelbelmer, both the pilot and observer being captured by the troops on the right.
On the 6th the 3rd Rifles again advanced their lines south of the Serre Road, when the enemy put up a S.O.S. and our support and reserve areas were heavily shelled.1 In the evening 2 companies of enemy infantry were seen moving against the same spot in artillery formation, and another body, estimated at 2 companies, was observed to be massed in their communication trenches. A heavy artillery barrage was put down by us which annihilated the attempted counter-attack. During the day the 25th Divisional Artillery was withdrawn and replaced by 2 (Army) brigades. The batteries continued to bombard the enemy's positions, expending on an average 700 rounds per battery per day, and to harass his working parties now engaged in consolidation. Infantry activity, however, slackened, and conditions were rapidly reverting to trench warfare. During the afternoon rain had begun to fall heavily, and in dismal weather the battle for the moment stood still over the whole Somme front.
1 In this bombardment Major Pow was wounded and the command of the 2nd Battalion assumed by Major (later Lt.-Col.) L. H. Jardine, M.C., previously transferred from the Wellington Regiment to the Rifle Brigade. Pow was promoted Lt.-Col. on Lt.-Col. Roache's evacuation in May to N.Z. through, sickness, p. 388.
We may now briefly review the action of the Division. After 2 sleepless nights, a fatiguing train journey and forced marches, it had been in consequence of a changed situation diverted from its pre-arranged assembly areas and with marked skill concentrated at Hédauville. Without delay, unit by unit, it had marched into the battle and closed the gap on the Ancre. Not content with that, it had struck back and won an admirably strong position overlooking the German lines. It had constructed formidably-wired reserve trenches through which only a grand assault could hope to break. Artillery, machine guns and mortars had been handled with consummate boldness and efficiency, and despite exhaustion and exposure the men in the trenches were throughout cheerful and confident. It is not too much to say that they eagerly awaited an enemy attack, assured of their power to repel it with their machine and Lewis guns and rifles. When they attacked, here and there they had bitter fighting and were foiled, but generally they smote the enemy irresistibly.
General Birdwood signified his approbation of his old troops' performance in the following message to General Russell:—“My hearty congratulations to you and your Division on the magnificently fine work which you have been doing.” With proved success the feeling of superiority grew. Every diary notes the high spirits of the troops and their intense appreciation of the opportunities given of hitting the enemy hard and avenging Bellevue. In barring the German advance the Division had paid an inevitable price, but by no means an unduly heavy one, 30 officers and 500 men had given their lives, 100 officers and 1700 men had been wounded, and some 60 were missing; 127 machine guns, 5 trench mortars and much other booty had been taken, page 373and 429 prisoners had been captured. The measured terms of General Harper's congratulatory message convey a soldier's appreciation of the work of both commanders and men:—
“The Corps Commander desires to congratulate the New Zealand Division on their fine record since coming into the line in the Corps. By a brilliantly-executed attack they captured a large number of prisoners and machine guns. They have held their ground successfully against numerous attacks and have caused the enemy very severe losses. The organisation of their troops for the defenee of their line has been extremely well carried out.”
Not only had the British Divisions, which withstood the brunt of the storm, fought their unequal contest, as Germany herself testified, with the utmost gallantry, but the civil populations also of the Allied countries had shown almost universally commendable steadiness of nerves. America increased her recruiting and strained every sinew to expedite the despatch of her troops. France displayed the same quiet heroism with which she had withstood earlier perils. In Britain the troubled waves of industrial strife at once subsided, and the workers cheerfully gave up their holidays to replenish stores and munitions. The limit of military age was raised to 50. Within a month 350,000 of those home forces, for whom Haig had hitherto pleaded in vain, were sent overseas. In New Zealand and the other Dominions, where owing to distance the full gravity of the situation was not generally appreciated, there was no lack of spontaneous declarations of steadfast resolution. On 9th April the Governor-General of New Zealand sent to Sir Douglas Haig a message which breathed fervid loyalty and was worded with simple and fine solemnity:—
“At the present time, when the Armies of the Empire are engaged in the most deadly struggle in which British citizens have ever been called upon to take part, the Government and the people of New Zealand desire to express most intense admiration for the heroism of our soldiers and the utmost confidence in the officers and men of the British forces, as well as the forces of our Allies. Though the furthest of the Dominions from the scene of operations and one of the smallest, in this hour of the nation's trial New Zealand is heart and soul with Britain and the other dependencies of the Crown, and nothing will be left page 374undone to support our fighting men and assist in bringing about the decisive victory and permanent peace which we all earnestly desire.”
The Commander-in-Chief replied on the following day:—
“The message from the Government and people of New Zealand has been duly appreciated by all ranks of the British Armies in France. The Empire is proud of the part which New Zealand is playing in this war, and no troops could have fought more gallantly than the New Zealand Division.”
In the new battle of the Lys where Ludendorff, frustrated on the Somme, sought a diversion by attacking the denuded Flanders front and attracting Foch's reserves as a preliminary to a fresh thrust past Amiens to the sea, New Zealand troops were also to be involved. The 2nd (Army) Brigade of the artillery, after enjoying a brief respite from the line in March, had left the XXII. Corps on 6th April, and on the following day had taken over Australian guns in positions on the Bloegsteert front covering the 25th Division. Two English field artillery batteries, the 84th and 85th, completed the group, which was commanded by Lt.-Col. Falla. On 9th April, when the German attack broke through at Fleurbaix, all was quiet on the Ploegstcert sector, but early next morning the Sixth German Army's blow was taken up by the Fourth German Army northwards. A very heavy bombardment with gas and high-explosive shell was followed by an assault in thickish fog and by a rapid advance. At 6 a.m. orders were received for the batteries to be withdrawn to Wulverghem. The 84th Battery was surrounded early in the morning, but the English gunners fired all their ammunition, blew up their guns and, covering the movement with their anti-aircraft Lewis guns, effected a most gallant withdrawal. The 85th Battery on Hill 63 saved all their guns and passed under the command of their own brigade. The New Zealand 18-pounder batteries similarly withdrew safely and were in action again by noon.
Teams coming for the howitzers of the 6th Battery (Major R. Miles, R.N.Z.A.,) about Hyde Park Corner missed their guide. In any case, however, the guns were sunk deep in winter mud and could not have been shifted from the pits. Orders were thereupon issued for the battery to fight to the last round but to refrain from destroying the guns till they found the enemy round them. Rallying the infantry in tienches in the vicinity and shortening ranges, Miles' battery page 375had by 11 a.m. exhausted all the ammunition of 3 howitzers. A fourth with its crew had been put out of action by enemy shelling. The remaining 2 were nearly out of ammunition. By this time, though our lines still held northwards at St. Yves, the enemy on the south was through Ploegsteert village and in the little larch wood, which, well known to all New Zealanders, covered the flats from Ploegsteert village towards the Shrine on Hill 63. Machine guns were enfilading the road from Ploegsteert to Hyde Park Corner, and German artillery flares were going up from a house in the village.
By superhuman exertions and with the assistance of some Australian Pioneers 1 gun was brought out on to the Messines road above Hyde Park Corner and turned against Ploegsteert and the machine guns. With its second round it demolished the house from which the artillery flares were rising. Then, silencing the machine gun fire, it enabled the infantry to recapture part of the village. In a daring reconnaissance Miles himself was wounded by a sniper; 2nd Lt. S. J. Henrys held on till ammunition was exhausted. He then guarded the howitzers with his Lewis guns till all hope of a counter-attack was gone and there was imminent risk of capture. Only then did the gunners fall back after rendering their pieces useless. The New Zealander 18-pounder batteries did not leave their new Wulverghem positions till they fired every round, and then pulled back according to orders along the road to Dranoutre.
In the early hours of 14th April Neuve Eglise and its important ridge fell into German possession. The 2nd Brigade batteries, including the 6th Howitzer Battery, which had been re-equipped with new guns, engaged the enemy's position west of the village. On his advancing in the evening they continued their withdrawal behind Kemmel and fought an exemplary rearguard action, the 2nd and 9th Batteries covering the movement of the 5th, and then the 9th covering the movement of the 2nd. A forward section of howitzers remained firing at the slopes south-west of Neuve Eglise till 3 a.m.
On the 15th, in conformity again with the general movement, the brigade fell back south-west of Scherpenberg. When on the 19th the French took over the British front in this neighbourhood the artillery was left for the moment in the line, where it maintained its harassing fire and shelled the farms that sheltered German headquarters.page 376
On 23rd April the brigade was advised that they would withdraw to the wagon lines that evening, and that responsibility for answering S.O.S. calls would cease at 7 p.m. The batteries set about getting rid of their ammunition at likely farms and approaches. In the early afternoon, however, the enemy started a heavy bombardment, which continued for 2 hours on all battery areas, roads and approaches. At 7 p.m. it was repeated on an even more violent scale. S.O.S. signals rose from our front line. Responsibility for answering these had now ceased, but all batteries that had any ammunition left responded vigorously. The 5th Battery, which had on several occasions been particularly heavily shelled during the battle, now again came under concentrated fire. 2 officers were killed and 5 men wounded. Teams were kept in a sunken road waiting for the bombardment to die down. The 2nd 6th and 9th Batteries “got clear” about 8 p.m., but the 5th not till 11 p.m.
On the following day the brigade moved to the Staple area behind Hazebrouck which the Division had left a month previously. There they came under the orders of the 1st Australian Division. Two days later (26th April) they went into the line on the 1st Australian front south-east of Hazabrouck, where Australian infantry and New Zealand gunners, working with great sympathy and mutual understanding, caused heavy casualties to the enemy. One notable achievement undertaken by the brigade was the salving of part of a large dump of 15,000 rounds of 18-pounder ammunition at Strazeelc in the beginning of May. The dump was only some 500 yards from the German outposts. This dangerous enterprise was persevered in till stopped on orders from higher authority. On 16th May the brigade left the Hazebrouck area, and after 4 days' trek joined the New Zealand Division in Picardy.
In the Lys battle other New Zealand troops, too, were to play a humble share and lay down their lives. On 10th April, while the enemy's northern forces carried Ploegsteert and reached the crest of the Messincs Ridge, his Sixth Army had taken Estaires. Crossing the Lys between that town and Armentiéres, they had immediately forced the evacuation of Armentiéres and pressed the British line back north of Steen-werck over country every hectare of which was familiar to the New Zealanders. On the following day (11th April) the German vanguards carried Neuf Berquin and Merville, and for tactical reasons our troops were withdrawn from Nieppe page 377and Hill 63 to positions east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem. On the vital sector south of the Lys the approach of reinforcements checked the hostile advance.
Northwards, however, driving in on 12th April with strong forces between Neuf Berquin and Steenwerck, the enemy pressed very rapidly forward, created a gap on the IX. Corps front south-west of Bailleul and threatened not merely Meteren, but the important railway centre of Hazebrouck. Most fortunately his pressure at Neuve Eglise was this day held, but towards Hazebrouck and Meteren the situation speedily became critical.
No formed reserves were available beyond a brigade of the 33rd Division (Major-General R. J. Pinney). These were strengthened by a body of cyclists and a pioneer battalion. Schools also and reinforcement camps were drained of their personnel in order to fill the gap. In response to an urgent telephone message from the Second Army, General Godley made every effort to give the IX. Corps "as much support in as short a time as possible."
To replace troops sent to the Somme, the XXII. Corps Mounted Regiment and Cyclist Battalion had been formed towards the end of March into a composite battalion and put at the disposal of the 49th Division now holding the whole Corps front. Under that Division, when the Lys battle opened, they were occupying the Shrewsbury Forest sector before the famous Hill 60 south-east of Ypres. On 12th April the Otago Mounted Rifles Squadron and one of the cyclist companies had just been relieved from the trenches. These were increased by drafts from the Corps Reinforcement Wing and added to General Pinney's force. The rest of the composite unit was earmarked as further reserves on their relief.
Of the Entrenching Battalions the 1st and 3rd had already at the end of March been sent to the Somme, but the 2nd was still at Abeele. It too had been organised for offensive action and provided with 12 Lewis guns from labour units, and now in the afternoon of the 12th, augmented by details of the Corps Reinforcement Wing to a strength of 1100, it was rushed1 partly by busses, partly by forced marches to Meteren to construct and garrison a line behind the village. These various reinforcements filled the gap that night. On the following morning 2 companies of the Entrenching Battalion were sent to strengthen weakened English units.
1 It was given 24 hours' warning notice and received definite orders 1½ hours beforehand.
The resistance and self-sacrifice displayed on the following day all along the front allowed the 1st Australian Division to detrain undisturbed and march east of the Nieppe Forest and so save the Hazebrouck railway. About Bailleul, however, the German pressure continued. Neuve Eglise fell in the early hours of the 14th, Bailleul on the 15th, Meteren on the, 16th. In our withdrawal from the last plaee 2 companies of the 2nd Entrenching Battalion, now in the front line, were involved. Though 60% of the men were new drafts, they held their ground with tenacity till they found the enemy round both flanks. The left company fought its way back, Sergt. W. P. Morrin, M.M., inspiring his platoon which was surrounded on 3 sides by the enemy. The right company nearer Meteren held on too long and lost 100 prisoners, a number which by far exceeded the greatest aggregate total captured by the Germans in any one action from the Division. Ludendorff now, seemed within measurable distance of bending the British left on to a line from Arras along the Aa to the sea. Attacking north of Ypres, and at Béthune and Kemmel, his troops, exhausted or raw, failed to show the skill in infiltration that marked the March attack, and were repulsed. In the defeat of the attacks on the Meteren reserve line on 17th April the 2nd Entrenching Battalion played a small but useful role. Part of the battalion was relieved by French infantry that night, and the remainder later by the Australians.
This fighting at Meteren did not exhaust the services of the battalion. By 25th April our garrisons in the Ypres salient had been withdrawn in successive voluntary stages as far as Zillebeke, and the XXII. Corps front was now directly affected by the German offensive. The battalion had received orders and was making its final preparations for entraining at Poperinghe to rejoin its group in the south, when the great enemy attack developed on the 25th. They were sent up into support, again under General Pinney, behind Dickebusch. They came into action on 8th May, when they assisted in repelling an enemy assault launched by 2 Divisions and in preparing the way for a British counter-attack which recaptured a position lost beyond their flank. In this action conspicuously fine work was done by Lt. J. M. C. McLeod, M.C., who, when the line on his right was broken, swung up his left flank and drove back the enemy by enfilade machine gun fire. Relieved on 11th May by French troops, the 2nd Entrenching Battalion was thanked by General Godley, page 379General Pinncy and other officers for their services, and then entrained for the south.
We must now turn back to the remainder of the composite battalion of the Mounted Regiment and the Cyclists who were holding Shrewsbury Forest on 12th April. They were relieved that evening. Reorganised as mounted units and ordered to be in readiness to move at half an hour's notice, they were sent forward in the early hours of the 13th, in view of the pressure at Neuve Eglise, to establish a defensive line on Kemmel. The subsequent German advance rapidly exposed their position to severe shelling, in which several lives were lost before French cavalry relieved our men on 18th April. During the attack on the 25th they, like the 2nd Entrenching Battalion, were again called on and despatched to close a gap near Vierstraat north-west of Wytschaete. Here they took up a defensive position astride the Vierstraat road, and here, subjected for several days to heavy shelling, cyclists and mounted men stopped all attempts of the enemy to advance. They were relieved on 1st May. During the operations the Cyclist Battalion casualties amounted to 5 officers and 100 men.
It is convenient to allude here to the action of the XXII. Corps in the Battle of the Marne in July, when the early triumphs of the last German offensive, undertaken on the Aisne in May like the Lys attack in April with a view to dissipating the central reserves prior to a fresh attempt to separate the Allied Armies, were converted by enemy strategical blunders and by Foch's genius into the victory which marked the turning of the tide. For the Generalissimo's counter-thrust Sir Douglas Haig had not merely released the French troops in Flanders but had also sent 4 Divisions under General Godley's command.
The latter took with him his XXII. Corps Headquarters which with the 51st and 62nd Divisions arrived in the Ardre Valley on 19th July. By forced marches and passing through an Italian Corps on the Montague de Reims, the British Divisions at once engaged in the battle amid the standing crops and coppices overhung by steep thickly-wooded spurs on each side of the valley. The Mounted Troops rendered excellent service on patrols and advanced reconnaissances during the later phases of the operations. In the Cyclist Battalion preparations had been long in progress to celebrate in peaceful festivity the second anniversary of their formation as a battalion, (22nd July) but an opportunity was given them of commemorating and adding lustre to it by battle. Attached page 380to a 62nd Division brigade, which was weakened after days of continuous fighting, they captured on 23rd July the village of Marfaux and a ridge 400 yards beyond, one of the 3 great points d'appui in the valley. “The Cyclist Battalion fought as infantry,” says the official narrative, “and proved both gallant and efficient.” During the operations the battalion captured 100 prisoners and 9 machine guns and recovered many French and English machine guns and a battery of 75s. They rescued also several famished Yorkshire prisoners who had reached the village during an unsuccessful attack made by the 62nd Division 3 days previously. General Berthelot of the Fifth French Army signalised his appreciation of the Corps' achievements in an eloquent Order of the Day, and of the Cyclists' performance by the reward of a richly-embroidered fanion, presented later to Lt.-Col. Evans at Epernay during the Peace Celebrations in 1919.
Note.—Ludendorff's Memoirs make it clear that the Somme attack was in April definitely abandoned in favour of the Flanders offensive. The latter was to have been resumed in August. Some of the remarks in this narrative on the German plans accordingly require modification.