With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine
Chapter XII — The Advance to Bapaume — Period 20th August, 1918, to 15th September, 1918
The Advance to Bapaume
Period 20th August, 1918, to 15th September, 1918
Time appeared to be the essence of the operation. The enemy had made a successful withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, but was not to be allowed to repeat the performance; the morale of the German Army had been rudely shaken by the failure of the grand offensive and by the costly attempts that had been made to exploit the initial successes that attended the operation. If the enemy could be manœuvred into battle before he could make good his withdrawal the rout must commence.
The Third Army, to which the New Zealand Division was attached, had formulated its plans quickly, and on the 18th eight guns of the Auckland Company were moved well forward to the left Divisional flank to prepare a barrage position from which to cover the advance of the 37th Division against the slopes east of Bucquoy. On the 20th the Otago and Wellington Companies moved to battle stations at Souastre Fork and Château de la Haie respectively, with fighting limbers, all ready to quickly move forward.
At 4.55 a.m. on the 21st August the Third Army opened its offensive, the chief movement being north of our Divisional front. The Auckland Company's barrage worked with splendid precision as the 37th Division attacked, and won very high praise. The Canterbury Company, together with the remaining guns of the Auckland Company, were organised to cover the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade's attack against a line immediately beyond Puisieux.
The operations on the 21st were completely successful, and in consequence the Otago Company moved forward to assist in the further advance. A section of this Company under 2nd Lieut. A. J. Billington pushed up during the night page 136to assist the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in the region of "the Dovecot." The enemy made a determined attack against this locality in the early morning under cover of a heavy mist, succeeding in pushing back the riflemen on its right flank. Unfortunately for the Germans the mist lifted, leaving them in full view of Billington's section, which opened a deadly fire against them. Over four hundred dead were counted; besides which another three hundred in seeking to avoid the bullet swept area ran into the arms of the infantry of the 5th Division, and were captured.
So successful were the initial operations that the Division was ordered on the 23rd to exploit the success towards Bapaume, and to advance with the intention of preventing the destruction of road and railway communications. The Companies of the Battalion became detached, Auckland Company going to 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, Wellington Company to 1st Brigade, and Canterbury Company to 2nd Brigade, while Otago Company became Divisional Reserve, remaining at advanced Divisional Headquarters.
The Canterbury Company came in for some heavy work during the 23rd, while the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade carried out its operation, and several gunners showed great enterprise and initiative, taking full advantage of cover, and also of the many targets that appeared.
The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade having fulfilled its task, was withdrawn with the Canterbury Company near to Bucquoy to await developments. The advance had now passed beyond the New Zealand Division and had proceeded in a southeasterly direction towards Bapaume. The line of the IV Corps on the night of the 23rd ran through Bihucourt beyond Irles, resistance having become very stiff towards Loupart Wood. The whole Army had been successful, and the New Zealand Division was again called upon to help clear away the obstacle of Loupart Wood. The 1st Brigade received orders soon after midnight on the night 23rd/24th, and was soon on the move towards an assembly area near the road running parallel to and about half a mile beyond the Albert-Arras Railway. The 2nd Brigade followed after the 1st Brigade, to be in readiness to push on if the first attack succeeded.page 137
The Division's scheme was divided into two stages—the first being the advance of the 1st Brigade to a line 500 yards beyond Loupart Wood and Grevillers, which meant the capture of both the wood and the village. This was the task of the 1st Brigade. The second stage was an advance to the high ground beyond Bapaume by the 2nd Brigade.
The 1st Brigade attacked at 4.15 a.m. with a section of guns from the Wellington Company attached to the two assaulting Battalions. The remaining two sections were quickly moved forward to positions from which to cover the attack with direct overhead fire.
The sections with the Battalions were frequently in action during the day, the gunners working their guns very boldly. At one stage of the advance Lieut. J. C. Coote's section was held up by an enemy strong post. Coote, with Sergt. R. S. Jones and Private E. Smith, under cover of the section's guns, rushed the point and bombed it. In a few minutes the garrison surrendered, and thirty-five prisoners and seven machine guns were captured. Unfortunately Coote was wounded and Sergt. Jones was killed. This little operation was one of the neatest and most effective of its kind performed by our machine gunners in France.
The attack had not been successful enough to enable the 2nd Brigade to pass through beyond Bapaume, as was originally intended. This Brigade had to assist the 1st Brigade on the left flank near Biefvillers. The guns of the Wellington Company took up positions to cover Grevillers and the south-eastern edge of Loupart Wood, and the Canterbury guns covered Biefvillers and the northern flank of the Division, the scheme adopted being the establishment of a series of battery positions, each section forming a battery. The guns remained on the defensive throughout the night.
No respite was to be given the enemy, who had fought so desperately to hold up the advance beyond Bapaume. A renewal of the attack was ordered for the morning of the 25th. A direct frontal attack against Bapaume was to be avoided, and two encircling movements were planned. The 2nd Brigade was to thrust round the northern edge of the town, and the 1st Brigade, co-operating with the 63rd Division, was to attack to the south of the town, it being hoped page 138that with success on both flanks its envelopment would be complete, and a new line established from Riencourt through Bancourt to Beugnatre, well beyond Bapaume.
The attack by the 2nd Brigade finally succeeded in pushing a little beyond the town in the north, but the attack in the south did not advance very far, and the 1st Brigade spent most of the day in active patrol work. The Wellington Company sections covered the patrols through the day, one section engaging a party of about fifty Germans, causing a number of casualties.
When two German tanks, followed by a considerable force of infantry attacked the 1st Brigade, a pair of the Wellington Company's guns displayed a fine example of fire discipline. The officer in charge of the guns, knowing that nothing could be gained by engaging the tanks, held his fire until the enemy infantry presented a favourable target. He then opened, and wiped out the whole of the infantry; one tank on the flank was captured, and the one near to our guns, just as it was setting to work to knock them out, fell over the bank of a sunken road. The tank's six-pounder gun buried its nose about a foot into the opposite bank, leaving the tank crew with no alternative than to surrender.
The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade began to move up at about 7 p.m. to deploy along the Arras-Bapaume Road preparatory to continuing the advance on the following day, the Auckland Company coming forward with it, with one section attached to each Battalion.
The Battalion transport had been gradually moving forward, and on the 26th moved to Irles, establishing lines near the village. The spare personnel and drivers quickly threw up protective banks along the lines. Only one horse became a casualty during the forward move.
The Auckland Company's guns on the 26th were used by the Battalion Commanders to consolidate the positions gained and also to cover the infantry when the second attack was made at 6 p.m. During the respite on the 27th and 28th the Otago Company was brought up, and with the Wellington Company organised the defence in depth between Biefvillers and Grevillers.
A change came over the front on the 29th by the with-page 139drawal of the enemy from Bapaume and the advance forward of the 1st and 3rd (Rifle) Brigades. The Wellington Company left its defensive positions and pushed forward two sections on the right flank of the 1st Brigade, which successfully engaged numerous enemy parties.
The Otago Company came forward on the 29th through Bapaume, and disposed its guns to command the approaches from Bancourt and Fremicourt and to cover the Division's right flank.
It was decided to make a substantial forward move on the 30th, and all the available guns co-operated with the Otago Company to harass the enemy. The attack opened at 5 a.m., and every machine gun at once began its work, the majority of the guns firing upon the trenches protecting the forward villages in the hope of beating down the enemy machine gun fire that was expected from them.
The guns throughout the 30th and 31st had many excellent targets, and took a heavy toll of Germans, especially when the enemy counter-attack at 5 a.m. on the 31st was cut up.
On 1st September Battalion Headquarters was established at Grevillers, and the Canterbury Company and the Wellington Company prepared to assist the 2nd Brigade in its attack against the broad crest overlooking Haplincourt. Auckland Company was withdrawn into Divisional Reserve with the Otago Company.
The two Companies in the line were disposed into barrage groups to supplement the artillery barrage. The 2nd Brigade obtained its objective, and Canterbury Company was taken up to assist in the consolidation.
The morning of the 3rd September revealed vast coils of smoke arising from behind the enemy lines, the burning dumps foretelling further withdrawal. Patrols pushed forward quickly, and reported that Haplincourt was clear. The 2nd Brigade, throwing out advanced guards, followed the enemy in the direction of Bertincourt and Ruyaulcourt, the Canterbury Company's gun teams, with their heavy loads, keeping up with the rapidly moving infantry. The two forward sections frequently came into action. About 1 p.m. the infantry were troubled by an enemy battery; two guns under 2nd Lieut. Bartlett worked forward and engaged the battery with direct page 140fire, inflicting casualties and forcing the surviving gunners to beat a hasty retreat.
The infantry continued the advance, and at dusk the Divisional front extended along a line between and beyond Velu and Bertincourt with patrols pushing forward towards Ruyaulcourt.
The Otago Company came forward on the afternoon of the 3rd September and disposed its guns in depth in defensive positions—two guns in each.
The 2nd Brigade continued its advance at 7 a.m. on the 4th, using two sections of the Canterbury Company in the van of the advance to deal with enemy parties. Later in the day the guns were employed to engage the enemy field guns firing from the edge of Havrincourt Wood. The guns were splendidly handled; they were carefully advanced to covered positions from which they delivered direct fire against the field artillery, and materially assisted in the complete silencing of it. The work of the two Canterbury sections illustrates eloquently how machine guns carefully handled in the open can successfully engage artillery at a range of from 1400 yards to 2000 yards. The machine gun is a very small target, even when firing in the open, but is indistinguishable when firing from behind a small rise. By employing short rapid bursts—expending at the rate of 100 to 150 rounds per minute—there is no "give away" steam. Although the Canterbury gunners were actively engaged firing in the open the whole day, they only suffered two casualties.
Not only did the Canterbury guns play havoc with the enemy artillerymen in front of Havrincourt Wood. A little after 1 p.m. the enemy were observed advancing in open order towards Neuville-Bourjouval, the capture of which was part of the task allotted to the 42nd Division on the New Zealand Division's right. The right section of the Canterbury Company turned their guns southwards and joined with the artillery in decimating the advancing Germans.
The remaining sections of the Canterbury Company moved up as the advance proceeded on the 4th, disposed to form defensive positions; and during the 5th, which was spent in consolidating, kept up a continuous harassing fire against all observed enemy movement.page 141
The New Zealand Division's line had by nightfall been successfully consolidated about 600 yards in front of Havrincourt Wood, down past Neuville-Bourjouval, which the 42nd Division had succeeded in capturing.
During the night of the 5th/6th there was heavy enemy shelling, which gradually died down towards daylight Infantry patrols quickly reported that the enemy had withdrawn from the positions on the right Divisional front, and the 1st Otago Battalion was quickly on the move—flanking Havrincourt Wood. Again the Canterbury Company had a great day of rapid "action" against enemy parties and artillery, as it advanced with the infantry; and also of engaging enemy machine guns with direct fire. So successful had the advance on the flank of the wood been that everything seemed to point to its envelopment without the necessity of the terrible sacrifice that would he necessary to force its passage. The enemy, however, made a graceful withdrawal from the wood daring the afternoon, and the 2nd Canterbury were through to the eastern side of it by 10 p.m.
The Canterbury Company covered the new line during the night, and the Wellington Company was brought up to strengthen the support positions. Ahead of the New Zealand Division's line lay the formidable Trescault Ridge, already in a state of defence—the first outpost of the well-known Hindenburg Line. The 7th September was a day of adjustment—getting everything in order for the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade to take over during the night.
The Canterbury Company had experienced a heavy week, but had thrived on the hard work it had been called upon to perform. The gunners were in excellent health and spirits throughout the advance, and justly felt as they were relieved by the Auckland Company during the night of the 7th/8th September that they had added lustre to the reputation of the New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion.
Different conditions met the Auckland Company as it settled down. No longer was the Division faced with an enemy disorganised and demoralised—eager to carry out the orders of the Higher Command—namely "retire according to plan"—but an enemy well entrenched in a naturally strong position, ready to defy our further advance, except at great page 142cost, leaving us yet to deal with the still intact Hindenburg Line—three miles further on.
Five gun positions of the Auckland Company were heavily shelled during the 8th, three men being wounded and one gun destroyed. New positions were quickly established, and a gun brought forward to replace the one knocked out.
Constant pressure on the enemy was the predominating order, and a new attack was planned for the 9th. The main attack was to be undertaken by the V Corps on the right of the New Zealand Division, but to be supported by the Division protecting the left flank of the attack. This protection was given by the right Battalion advancing and capturing African Trench and the communication trench back to Dead Man's Corner, and by the centre Battalion forming a defensive flank back from Dead Man's Corner to our line in front of Havrincourt Wood, the left Battalion of the Division standing fast.
To assist the 2nd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, one section of Auckland Company was sent forward with the right Battalion to assist in consolidation, two sections were grouped together to give a creeping barrage, and one section grouped to barrage localities on the centre and left which were known to be held by the enemy in force.
The creeping barrage was successfully accomplished, and the harassing section kept a steady fire upon the selected localities. After the time in which the infantry should have reached their objective had passed, the creeping barrage and harassing fire sections laid on S.O.S. lines to cover the high ground overlooking our left flank, from which it was anticipated the enemy would counter-attack.
Zero hour was 4 a.m., when it was still pitch dark. The right Battalion mistook African support trench for African Trench, and did not discover the mistake until after daylight. The flanks of the leading company were in the air, and the final objective could not be reached. The machine guns were then pushed forward and established two strong posts to protect the flanks, with two guns in each. The post protecting the right flank was in the vicinity of Queen's Cross, against which the enemy made repeated attempts throughout the day. Probably no two guns in the Machine Gun Corps were so page 143continuously active in one day as the guns in this post. The fire discipline was perfect—and every attempt was wiped out before the attackers got within bombing distance.
The three sections covering the left defensive flank were heavily engaged during the afternoon and evening, especially when at 7 p.m. the enemy made his final effort to win back the ground he lost. This final effort was a failure, frustrated by the wonderful gallantry and steadfastness of the infantry and the devastating fire of the machine guns and artillery.
The whole Auckland Company, exposed to the heavy enemy shelling and machine gun fire throughout the day, miraculously escaped without a single casualty. The two attacking Battalions unfortunately lost forty killed and one hundred and thirty-four wounded. No wonder is it that the Machine Gun Corps lost the title (properly earned upon Gallipoli) of "the Suicide Club."
The 10th September saw our line firmly established, with the machine guns disposed in a co-ordinated defensive position. Preparations were again afoot for another operation, and on the 11th Wellington and Otago Companies came up to take part in the attack that was scheduled for the next morning. The role of the New Zealand Division on the 12th September was to attack with three battalions of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade on a front of about 2500 yards, with African Trench on the right as the first objective, and the high Trescault Crest to "Charing Cross" on the left as the final objective. The Division was on the right of the main attack—exactly opposite to its position on 9th September.
A machine gun barrage group was formed by Wellington and Otago Companies and one section of Auckland Company; the remaining three sections of Auckland Company were allotted to the attacking battalions for the purpose of holding the first and second objectives during and after consolidation.
Zero hour at 5.25 a.m. resembled the Zero hours of 1916 and 1917; a strongly entrenched and held position had to be assaulted, and every available gun was brought up to support and protect the infantry.
The barrage group opened at Zero, placing a standing barrage along the first objective and then lifting back to search areas beyond the objectives. Owing to the desperate nature page 144of the fighting in the vicinity of the final objectives the barrage group remained in position throughout the day; the group was subjected to heavy shell fire, but suffered comparatively few casualties. The gunners had become extremely efficient in constructing emplacements and shelter; they dug a number of short lengths of deep narrow trench in firm ground, which they found gave full protection against practically everything except a direct hit.
The fight of the infantry to secure the final objective is excellently narrated in the "New Zealand Division." For the machine gunners there is little to tell; their job was to watch for calls for help and to respond; it cannot be denied that throughout the strenuous day and the night that followed it, their response was prompt and effective.
General Hart decided, in view of the uncertainty in the situation in front, to retain the barrage group laid to barrage ahead of the final objective; by 10 p.m., however, the position became settled, and Otago Company was withdrawn. Early next morning Auckland Company withdrew, leaving Wellington Company to organise the machine gun defence of the line and to provide support for the several infantry attacks that took place during the day. The gunners of this Company had very few chances to engage targets on the 13th with direct fire, owing to the Germans being very careful to keep to their trenches.
The New Zealand Division had had a long, continuous tour of duty, and was due for a well-earned rest. On the 14th September the relief of the Division by the Sth Division commenced. Wellington Company was relieved during the night 14th/15th September and rejoined the Battalion the next morning. The Division was soon well away from the battle zone, and before nightfall on the 15th the Machine Gun Battalion reached Bihucourt, where it remained for two pleasant weeks.
Mr. Massey sympathetically hears a Gunner's Tale of Hardship. His Private Secretary takes a note of the case, so that attention will be given to it on Mr. Massey's return to New Zealand.
No. 4 Section Wellington Company just after it had finished firing at Huns near Bapaume. (Lieut. C. V. Ciochetto at the gun in the foreground).
It has been previously pointed out that there was not a consensus of opinion among the most experienced machine gun officers that the Machine Gun Battalion formation was an unqualified success, so far as the tactical handling of the guns was concerned. The machine gun and its tactics developed wonderfully during the war, and each year new schemes were put into operation. The battalion formation was given a lengthy trial, and it seems that its chief failure was the non-realisation of its true tactical handling—as a battalion. It is conceivable that many occasions arose when the machine guns should have been fought as a battalion, and others when it would have been possible only to employ them in sections acting with infantry battalions or even companies. Tactical situations differ, and decisions must be guided by the conditions of the moment.
It is interesting to note the view of the Higher Command at this time upon the handling of the Machine Gun Battalion. On 29th September, 1918, the Third Army issued an order which stated "that it was again necessary to emphasise that the officer commanding a Machine Gun Battalion is a fighting commander who directs and controls his units in the same manner as any other commander of a formation—with the exception that his operations are dependent on and subsidiary to those of the infantry. His one aim is to assist the infantry in reaching the objective and maintaining it there; he must therefore not be tied to Divisional Headquarters during battle, but forward with his troops, with his report centre at or in the vicinity of one of the infantry Brigade Headquarters which is actually conducting the operations, where he is on the main line of divisional signal communication and from which he can handle his Machine Gun Battalion tactically in accordance with the plan of the Divisional Commander. In this position he can by the use of his reserves influence the fight, that is to say, according to the situation he must be able to—page 146
(a) Concentrate in order to obtain superiority of fire where required; (b) Arrange for flank penetrations; (c) Harass the enemy when in retreat; (d) Reorganise in depth for a further advance; (e) Occupy ground gained so as to consolidate in depth; (f) Relieve tired troops with fresh ones. (g) Keep a reserve as long as possible, so as to be able to influence the fire fight.
In short, the Machine Gun Battalion is, and must work as a fighting formation and not as a pool for supplying machine gun units to other formations. The Headquarters of the Machine Gun Companies and sections should similarly be located at or in the vicinity of Infantry Brigade, Battalion or Company Headquarters with which the Machine Gun Company is working for the time being."
Referring to the control of the Machine Gun Battalion and the method of co-operation with the infantry the same order states:—"The Divisional Commander explains his plan of operations to the Machine Gun Commander, and issues definite orders as to what he requires the Machine Gun Battalion to do. It is for the Machine Gun Battalion Commander to decide how to carry out these orders, and to settle the distribution of the battalion best suited for attaining the object in view. Machine Gun Companies should not normally be placed under the orders of the infantry brigades, still less of infantry battalions. The Machine Gun Battalion Commander will detail such portion of his command as he considers suitable to work with each attacking brigade. The machine guns so detailed should be considered as affiliated to the infantry brigade for the time being, and the commander of the machine guns must keep in the closest touch with the infantry brigade commander, must know his plans, and must decide the best method and distribution for carrying out the orders he has received from the Machine Gun Battalion Commander and for supporting the infantry brigade. He will detail sections of the machine guns under his command to the various tasks required. These tasks may involve certain machine gun sections working with certain battalions, and while so doing the section will be regarded as affiliated temporarily to those bat-page 147talions in the same way as the machine gun companies are to the infantry brigades. The machine gun section commanders must maintain the closest liaison with Infantry Battalion Commanders and usually place their Headquarters in the same vicinity."
The above order is an excellent exposition upon the cooperation of machine guns with infantry and irrespective of the future formation of the machine gun unit is recommended to the study of all machine gun officers.
If the Divisional and Brigade Commanders had realised the true tactical significance of the machine gun battalion formation it is probable that much of the opposition to it would have disappeared. It is submitted that on active service the machine gun battalion is the true formation, although it is conceded that the present establishment is most suited for training in peace time. The tremendous influence the machine gun has upon the fire fight renders it absolutely necessary that the whole of the Divisional guns be under a separate command, so that the reserves may be employed solely in conformity with the tactical situation. If companies or sections form part of brigades or battalions they are very often in places where they are not required and cannot be brought into action without such delay as may very easily render their assistance useless. The main feature of the battalion formation is that the officers become trained in handling the battalion as a fighting unit. Machine gun work is a specialised branch of the service, and to promote efficiency it is advisable to have a formation that will give machine gun officers the chance of passing through the regimental ranks, without the necessity of going back to the infantry.