The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—Passchendaele, October 12th
Part 3.—Passchendaele, October 12th.
Attack to be continued, October 12th—General objective—New Zealanders and Australians put in—2nd Brigade and the New Zealand Rifle Brigade detailed for the attack—Brigade objectives— Concentration—Into assembly positions—Attack opens— An early cheek—Wire, concrete forts, and machine-guns-Stubborn fighting—4th Battalion troops reinforce—3rd Battalion companies come np— Line stationary except on the left—Consolidation ordered—1st Battalion up to support—Position—Situation on the flanks—Counter-attack—General conclusions— Stretcher-bearers and wounded in the bogs of Passchendaele— Casualties—Brigade Pack Train.
Prior to the action of the 9th, plans had been drawn up for a general attack on the 12th, which again was to extend from the Ypres-Roulers railway to Houthulst Forest. These plans, with such modifications as the new situation demanded, were now adhered to, and accordingly the relief of the 66th and 49th Divisions by the 3rd Australians and the New Zealanders commenced on the 10th. The New Zealand Division took over the left sector, and was thus on the extreme left of the Second Army. On its left it had the 9th Division of the XVIIIth Corps, Fifth Army.
The southern boundary line of the sector over which the Division was to advance passed some 500 yards north-west of Passchendaele Church, and the final objective was about 2,500 yards from our front line posts. Thus the capture of the village itself was included in the task set the 3rd Australians, while the main objective of the New Zealanders was the spur about Goudberg.
The 2nd Brigade and the New Zealand Rifle Brigade were detailed to carry out the attack opposite our Divisional front, the former on the right and the latter on the left.
In our own Brigade sector the capture of the successive lines, the Red, the Blue, and the Green, was allotted to the 2nd, 3rd, and 1st Battalions, respectively, and the attack was to he carried out on the "leap-frog" system. The 4th Battalion was to follow in rear of each battalion in succession, rendering assistance in the advance where necessary, and forming defensive flanks where these should be required.* On our page 236left the Black Watch were to advance with us to the first objective, the Seaforth Highlanders to the second, and the 6th Royal Scots to the third. The corresponding units on our right were 2nd Otago, 1st Otago, and 1st Canterbury.
During the morning of October 9th, in miserably wet and cold weather, the Brigade concentrated at "X" Camp, near St. Jean, north-east of Ypres. The Brigadier, in company with his Brigade Major and the four battalion commanders, went up to the 146th Brigade Headquarters at Gallipoli for information, and then reconnoitred the front line to be taken over. It was now learned that in the recent operations the 146th Brigade had not been able to reach the first objective. The ground conditions were awful beyond description, enemy machine-guns and snipers kept up a continuous fire on the forward positions, and the troops in the line were completely exhausted.
From the camp at St. Jean, where they had been subjected to shelling and bombing, especially during and after the action of the 9th, the battalions of the Brigade moved up on the evening of the 10th to the relief of the troops of the 146th Brigade. This in itself was no easy undertaking. The 4th Battalion, which had been detailed to hold the front line posts, had to march over five miles before reaching its destination, and the latter part of the march, carried out in pitch darkness, Was an ordeal of the utmost difficulty, for there were neither tracks nor "duck-walks," and shell-holes and mud seemed to cover the face of the earth. Lieut.-Col. Puttick personally taped routes as far as that could be done under the conditions prevailing, but at the most optimistic estimate he did not expect to get more than three-fourths of his men into position before daybreak. The companies, however, completed their movements by means of compass-bearings carefully prepared and checked beforehand, and so satisfactorily, in the circumstances, was direction maintained that the front line of posts and shell-holes was sufficiently secure by 1 a.m. on the 11th, though the adjustment of the dispositions could not be completed until the evening. As an indication of the general confusion that reigned in the sector, it is sufficient to mention that the 4th Battalion took over from troops of no fewer than six different units. In order to allow for the open-page 237ing barrage of the 12th, the line finally held was placed slightly in rear of that taken over. On the whole the shelling on the forward area during the relief was not severe, but one of the 4th Battalion companies had several casualties from shell-fire on the way up. Following upon a reconnaissance of the front line by low-flying aeroplanes on the following afternoon the enemy's artillery registered on the position.
The remainder of the Brigade was disposed in depth, the rearmost battalion being over 2,000 yards from the front line. The move was completed by 6 a.m. on the 11th, and then ensued the long wait of twelve hours of daylight in such cover as could be afforded by the nature of the shell-hole positions occupied. To our weary men the prospect generally was not cheering. The shell-holes were water-logged, the weather cold, and the sky grey and threatening. Out in the open, especially in the forward area, many British wounded lay where they had fallen on the 9th, while at the aid posts were others still awaiting evacuation. Such attention as could in the circumstances be given to these unfortunate men was cheerfully rendered, our stretcher-bearers and volunteers dressing their wounds, providing them with food and water from their own rations, and, where it was impossible to pass them to the rear, placing them in less exposed positions in the shell-holes. Yet amidst all this discomfort the morale of the men remained distinctly good, though their spirits, as may easily be conceived, could not be said to have reached that high state of buoyancy which had marked their entry upon previous engagements.
During the afternoon of the 11th Brigade Headquarters moved forward from Gallipoli to an old German pill-box at Korek, just north of Gravenstafel, and at 5 o'clock next morning reports were in from all four battalions that they had reached their appointed assembly positions. As if to accentuate the hardships already sufficiently great, rain had come on at 2 a.m.
Promptly at zero hour, 5.25 a.m., the opening barrage commenced, and the 2nd Battalion moved forward towards the first objective. Within fifteen minutes it became abundantly evident that the barrage, so pitifully weak as to be barely perceptible, would be quite ineffective. It had no appreciable effect upon the German machine-guns, for these, page 238operating for the most part from concrete "pill-boxes," immediately opened a fierce and withering fire which continued without abatement, and even increased in intensity at times, in spite of all our artillery could do. The enemy's artillery barrage was thin, and consisted almost entirely of high-explosive shell, the effect of which was to a great extent nullified by the softness of the sodden ground. Though it caused casualties amongst both the troops attacking and also those coming forward from the rear, it was nowhere as serious as it might have been had shrapnel been used in the same proportion by the German artillery as by our own. The enemy's reliance on his machine-gun barrage, however, was not misplaced, for here was a perfect example of the use of machine-guns in the defence, an intense and deadly grazing cross-fire sweeping the front of both the New Zealand Brigades.
In the meantime, the main advance of the 2nd Battalion troops was becoming more and more difficult, and presently they were directly confronted by a line of German concrete "pill-boxes," heavily wired, surrounded by a sea of mud, and strongly manned. Beyond these, again, and on slightly higher ground, stood other concrete fortresses, and the grazing fire coming from this frontal position some 500 yards ahead, as well as enfilade fire from Bellevue on the right and from Source Trench well off on the left front, was now so intense and well- directed that the general forward movement practically ceased. The centre of the line had suffered most heavily, and in consequence the left had swung up towards the Wallemolen Cemetery.
By 8 a.m. all three forward battalions were engaged, for, in addition to the two platoons of the 4th Battalion put in to cover the gap on the right, the two leading companies of this unit had, when the first serious check took place, each sent a platoon round the flank in order to help the line on, and the left of these companies had also pushed up a platoon to establish connection with the Black Watch. The line, however, still remained practically stationary except on the extreme left. Here Sergeant A. K. Coley, leading a composite platoon of men from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, carried out a brilliant assault on an enemy strong-point still holding out in the Cemetery. Twenty-five of the garrison were killed and three prisoners and four machine-guns captured. In this sharp fight Sergeant H. J. Langwell and Corporal J. Calderwood led their sections with great dash and skill. The whole of Calderwood's section became casualties, but, though he himself was wounded, he gathered a few more men from neighbouring shell-holes, and with this handful continued to assist till the position was won. The taking of the last strong-point in the Cemetery enabled some further general progress to be made in this quarter, and the position became of considerable importance in connection with the consolidation of the line finally held.
It was now becoming abundantly evident that our troops page 242were being brought to a standstill. The casualties, which included practically the whole of the 3rd Battalion Headquarters, had been extremely heavy, and many of the companies and most of the platoons were without officers. The men of three units were inextricably intermingled, and even some of the Scottish troops found themselves scattered amongst our sections. All ranks were drenched to the skin and plastered with shell-hole slime from head to foot; a large proportion of the rifles and Lewis guns were choked with mud; and, taking advantage of the decrease in the volume of our fire, the enemy was rapidly reinforcing his forward line and even placing machine-guns on the top of bis "pill-boxes." To Lieut.-Col Puttick, who made a personal reconnaissance of the position soon after 8 o'clock, the definiteness of the check and the utter futility of attempting to make further gains at once became apparent, and, being the senior officer on the spot, he ordered a cessation of the attack and gave instructions for the consolidation of the position secured. This consisted in the main of an old German trench on the farther side of the road running south-east from the Cemetery to a point slightly beyond Wolf Farm, with a few small groups of men in shell-holes about 100 yards in advance of the general line. It was thus roughly parallel to the main band of wire crossing Bellevue Spur, the lesser entanglements having been passed.
A situation report was sent to Brigade Headquarters and also to the 1st Battalion, the latter being now on its way up from its assembly position, which, in accordance with the timetable for the day's action, it bad left at 8 a.m., and it was suggested that this battalion on its arrival should take up a support position in rear of the road. One of the German machine-guns captured at the Cemetery was posted on the left of the forward line covering the Brigade front, while a second was sent round to the right flank near Peter Pan to strengthen the command of the gap between us and the 2nd Brigade. At about 10 a.m. the 1st Battalion came up, and after obtaining further information and reconnoitring the position, Lieut.-Col. Bell established a support line about 150 yards in rear of the front line, and also a strong-post with eighteen men and four Lewis guns on the right of the main position, some 200 yards east of Peter Pan.page 243
The position now was that a more or less defined line was held, on the left 500 yards and on the right 200 yards from our original line. Practically all the advanced posts had ceased to exist, their garrisons having been withdrawn or else swept away by the withering fire. Both flanks were well held by 4th Battalion platoons placed so as to establish touch with neighbouring Brigades or to form defensive flanks. Some platoons of the 4th Battalion were in close support, while the 1st Battalion was holding a main support position, with a reserve company in readiness to move to any point. On the left we were in close touch with the Black Watch, whose commanding officer specially reported on the fearless reconnaissance work of Corporal A. McDonald of our 2nd Battalion, then on liaison duty with him. It appears that two companies of the Black Watch commencing the attack side by side had lost touch, and though both bad been held up, neither knew the position of the other. Information to this effect had reached the battalion commander, and McDonald volunteered to go out to locate the companies. He conducted a perilous search in the face of our own and the enemy's fire, but succeeded at last in reaching the separated flanks in succession. He then assisted the companies to establish touch, and when this had been completed made his way back through the storm of bullets, bringing to the Black Watch headquarters a detailed report as to the situation on this part of their front.
Soon after 9 a.m. the German artillery ranged fairly accurately on the new line, and kept up an intermittent fire upon it from that time onward. The enemy machine-gun fire now decreased in volume, but any movement on our part immediately drew heavy bursts from the many commanding positions above.
The situation on our immediate flanks was no more satisfactory than with us. The 2nd Brigade's jumping-off line had been closer up to the enemy's main defensive line than ours had been, and their advance had brought them up at once against the heavy belts of wire, here, as elsewhere, broad and intact, and covered by the machine-gun positions on all the vantage-points of the slopes beyond. Further progress was found to be impossible. On the left flank, where our advance had been least unsatisfactory, the Black Watch had made a page 244correspondingly deeper thrust, but here, as we have soon, they were no more than in touch, with us.
Reports had come in, however, to the effect that farther off on the left the troops of the same Brigade had reached a position in the vicinity of their final objective, and that the Australians beyond the right flank of the New Zealand Division had also progressed well. The New Zealanders were therefore instructed to renew the attack at 3 p.m., and at one o'clock our battalion commanders were called to a conference at Kronprinz Farm. These, with their first-hand knowledge of the situation, were unanimous in their opinion as to the fruitlessness of any immediate attempt to get forward, but the orders were definite, and it was for them to carry those orders into execution to the best of their ability. By the time they had returned to their commands only half an hour remained to issue the necessary instructions. Preparatory reorganization was out of the question. Even if there had been time for this no general movement was possible, and it was arranged that the dispositions should be effected as well as might be when our barrage opened, and completed during the advance itself. At the last moment, in consequence of later reports that the general advance had been successful only on certain isolated sectors, the orders for the renewal of the attack were countermanded, and instructions were issued for holding the line.
Soon after 3 p.m. an enemy attack developed on the left flank, but this, after we had had the number of our casualties greatly increased, was driven off. Rifleman C. E. Town with his Lewis gun, and the trench mortar section under Corporal H. S. Leighton, rendered conspicuous service in this emergency. It would seem from the statements of two Germans who gave themselves up to a 4th Battalion post on the right at 7 p.m., that this attack was part of a general counter-stroke, but that for the most part their men had refused to advance in the face of the barrage, now much more effective than that of the early hours of the day, which our artillery, owing to the non-receipt of cancellation orders, had put down to cover the afternoon's attack.
After dark the adjustments required were carried out. The 3rd and 4th Battalions were withdrawn to support and page 245reserve, respectively, and the 1st and 2nd, now occupying the forward positions gained, continued the work of consolidation.
We had come so far short of achieving our object that the attack of October 12th must be considered a failure. The direct cause of the frustration of our efforts was the presence, along the whole of the enemy front, of the exceedingly strong band, or, rather, field of wire, the existence and nature of which had not been known until the evening of the 11th, after the Division had taken over the line, it having been left to our own patrols to make the discovery. The difficulties experienced by the artillery brigades in bringing forward the batteries, though all concerned had laboured with the utmost devotion and self-sacrifice, had in most cases proved to be insuperable. The result was that a large proportion of the guns never reached their positions. Again, for many of the pieces solid platforms could not be provided, and on being fired they rapidly sank into the oozy ground and became for the time being useless. Hence the advance of the infantry was insufficiently supported, but even in the face of this disadvantage we should doubtless have won through if the wire had been dealt with. It is true that von Arnim's system of strengthening the defence by means of concealed "pill-boxes" had by now reached the last stage of perfection, and that the concrete fortresses on the Passchendaele slopes had been most skilfully sited; but positions of this nature, as we proved often enough, are not necessarily impregnable provided the infantry are able to attack them at close quarters, especially if this can be done within a reasonable time after the heavy artillery has played its part.
The failure of the attack of three days earlier had been disastrous, and now we in our turn had failed; but though downcast we were still unashamed, for surely to the New Zealanders might be applied the words of Sir Douglas Haig concerning certain earlier operations: "There was no position which the Germans chose to hold and fortify which our men could not take, even by frontal attack, when the guns had exercised their full power in the preparatory stages of the battle."
Owing to the wet weather, the broken nature of the country, and the almost entire absence of duck-board tracks, the page 246evacuation of the wounded was a serious matter, six, and sometimes eight men being required to bring out one stretcher-case; and as the task usually took six hours to accomplish, the bearers were exhausted after one journey, and rest was imperative. As an indication of the state of the country over which these duties, sufficiently difficult even where properly-formed tracks exist, had to be performed, it may be mentioned that Riflemen W. C. Turner and M. Hennessy were specially reported upon as having, while still under fire, rescued wounded men from drowning in the shell-holes. If ever the devoted stretcher-bearers were worthy of thanks and praise, it was doubly so on the sodden field of Passchendaele, and with others Riflemen J. L. Keogh. F. K. Judd, B. Booker. F. A. Clark, F. Backholm, S. G. Stirling. D. Stevenson, F. Smith, H. F. Orpwood, F. A. Meurant and C. J. Arnold are gratefully remembered for their devotion to duty through the long dreary days and nights from the 11th to the 14th; while the bearers as well as the wounded owe much to the personal efforts of the Revd. H. Clark, Chaplain to the 2nd Battalion, who with the utmost gallantry laboured untiringly amongst them in all parts of the field. To add to our difficulties, large numbers of wounded men of the Division that had been engaged in the fighting of the 9th were still in the lines and in the regimental aid-posts. So serious, indeed, had the congestion at the aid-post at Kronprinz Farm become that early in the day word had to be sent to the advanced troops that the wounded would be safer for the time being if placed behind any sort of cover in the forward area. At one time there were as many as sixty cases, English, German and Colonial, at this one post, and as the dugout, an old German "pill-box," could hold only a comparatively small number, the rest had perforce to be laid in the open. Amongst the wounded here, now within and now without, the medical officers of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Captains R. H. Baxter and P. B. Benham, slaved unceasingly, caring naught on their own behalf for the cold, driving rain and frequent shelling from which they were powerless to protect so many of their helpless charges.
Twelve hundred men of the 4th Brigade were employed on stretcher-bearer work in the Divisional sector during the night of the 12th/13th, besides a battalion of the 147th Brigade lent page 247to the Division for the purpose. Even parties of the Artillery and the A.S.C. were brought up on this duty. During the 14th an informal truce existed between the British and the Germans, parties from both sides scouring No Man's Land in search of their wounded, and by the afternoon of this day all cases had been brought in.
The casualties sustained by the Brigade were 22 officers and 160 men killed, 25 officers and 873 men wounded, and 1 officer and 133 men missing.
The 3rd Battalion mourned the loss of their commander, who had been struck down early on the morning of the 12th. Lieut.-Col. A. Winter-Evans had come with the unit from New Zealand, and had led his men in all the main engagements in which the Brigade as a whole had taken part. His remarkable genius for organization was only equalled by his extraordinary gallantry under fire. In connection with the Battle of Messines, his plans for training, assembly and attack were not less notable for their minute attention to detail than for the remarkable precision which characterized their execution. When his battalion's objective had been taken on that day he was amongst his men as they laboured at the task of consolidation, and heedless of the bombardment he moved along the parapet of the trench directing and cheering them on. In like manner, at Passchendaele, as soon as it appeared that the check was more than temporary he had gone ahead to endeavour by direct personal efforts to get his troops forward, but moving from shell-hole to shell-hole amongst the scattered groups, he drew upon himself the inevitable bursts of machine-gun fire, under which, fearlessly persisting, he at last fell mortally wounded.
Mention should be made of the fact that supplies of water, rations and ammunition were maintained with excellent regularity. This was in great measure due to the fine work done by the Brigade Pack Train, under Lieut. C. M. Rout, which was employed bringing up supplies to the forward dumps. Owing to the state of the roads, wheeled transport was out of the question. The work of the men with the horses was faithfully done in the face of almost impossible conditions, and the exploits of Lance-Corporal L. C. Aldridge and his little band of volunteers called for in connection with page 248a specially-difficult undertaking in the face of fierce shell-fire were as admirable as they were daring.
* In command of battalions on October 12th:—1st Battalion, Major P. H. Bell; 2nd, Capt. W. G. Bishop, vice Lieut.-Col. Pow, at transport lines (injured); 3rd, Lieut.-Col. A. Winter-Evans; 4th, Lieut.-Col E. Puttick.