The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—Straightening the Line
Part 3.—Straightening the Line.
Brigade formations restored—Counter-attacks—Enemy enlarges the salient at La Signy Farm—3rd Battalion holds its ground—4th Battalion takes over from 2nd Wellington at the salient, March 27th/28th—4th Battalion companies attack, March 28th, and clear the salient by March 31st—Congratulations—The new Line—Disaster to Brigade Headquarters: General Fulton mortally wounded, and Major Purdy killed—Command.
On the 27th the enemy launched a series of counter-attacks on the newly-established line, but, save at one point, these all proved abortive. At 6 a.m., while the 3rd Battalion attack was still in progress, a strong enemy concentration about the Serre Road was broken up by our artillery. In the middle of the forenoon a force of about the strength of two battalions was mown down by machine-gun fire as it came into view at "16 Poplars," east of Hebuterne. At this time the enemy's artillery, now evidently reinforced, commenced a light but steady bombardment of the whole area. The gunfire increased in intensity towards noon, when the massing of troops at various points in the distance was observed. Infantry attacks presently developed against the 2nd Auckland position about the Serre Road, and against the two Canterbury battalions opposite Beaumont Hamel, but though these were pressed with great determination they were everywhere held.page 290
At about 3 p.m. it was seen that the front of attack was again extending northwards, involving 2nd Wellington, our own 3rd Battalion, and the Australians south-east of Hebutérne. Against this section of the line the Germans advanced steadily in numerous short columns, small red flags being carried by the leaders, whose whistle signals could be heard from our lines. As they came within range our rifles and Lewis guns opened rapid fire, and the advance againt both the Australians and the 3rd Battalion was checked. The men of "A" Company welcomed the good targets at short range, of which they had to some extent been deprived during the early morning, and amongst the busiest of them all was probably one of the cooks, whose ordinary duties, as may well be understood, had not yet commenced. He certainly made very good practice, and the truth of his declaration, repeated as each new clip of cartridges "was pressed into the magazine, that he had mistaken his vocation, may be conceded; for if he had concocted his stews as magnificently as he was then handling his rifle he would probably have been kept carefully under cover.
But while the situation in front was thus far satisfactory, developments on the right flank of the battalion were giving cause for anxiety. Just prior to the advance of the enemy infantry our right company commander had received word from the troops on his right that they had had orders to fall back in the event of a serious attack. As the enemy assault developed it was seen that 2nd Wellington were in difficulties, for the Germans on their front, having the initial advantage of the small salient on which they had maintained their hold, were making full use of their superiority of position, and under stress of enfilade as well as frontal fire, our immediate neighbours were compelled to give ground, leaving our flank exposed. To meet this danger, 2nd Lieut. A. J. Beehan, who was in command of "A" Company's support line, was ordered to form a defensive flank with one of his platoons. While reading his instructions he fell a victim to the storm of machine-gun bullets coming across from the high ground about La Signy Farm; but his platoon-sergeant, Sergeant W. Cumming, promptly acted on the order and at once despatched a platoon under Corporal J. Dean to carry out this difficult task. The corporal's management of the affair was to the last degree page 291admirable. Under the cover of Sergeant Cumming's Lewis gun fire, he skilfully rushed his men to a small isolated trench beyond his flank. There he was faced by a German machinegun only 200 yards away. As though at target practice on the rifle range, Dean gave his men careful and detailed instructions and calmly awaited his opportunity. With the first renewed splutter from the gun he gave the object, distance, and the order for three rounds rapid fire. Thus he accounted for the gun team. The gun was re-manned, and again the procedure was gone through, with a like result. Yet again this was repeated, and this time he had the satisfaction of putting the gun out of action altogether. He how devoted his attention to other guns firing from the vicinity of a timber dump on the right, and was successful in considerably reducing the volume of fire coming from that point.
Thanks to the skill and daring of Dean and his men the threatened envelopment of the support positions failed, but the enemy was having greater, though but temporary success in that long straight trench by the road where the front line troops were stationed. Sergeant A. C. Goodhue, "A" Company's Lewis gun sergeant, was sent up to the front line to co-ordinate the work of the Lewis guns there in dealing with the attack, but meanwhile the Germans had rolled up our line for a distance of about 100 yards to where a small sap led diagonally from the main trench, and a German officer with twelve men, under cover of rifle and revolver fire, was advancing along the parapet towards the handful of our men at this point. Just as Sergeant Goodhue arrived he heard the German officer call out in English: "Come along, you New Zealanders; you will have to surrender!" With a characteristic expression voicing derision of the idea of surrender, Good-hue brought a Lewis gun to his shoulder and discharged the whole drum at the party, killing the officer and six of his men. The remainder, some of whom were wounded, made good their escape.
Earlier in the day, when the attack seemed imminent, bombs had been ordered up. These arrived from the transport speedily enough, but not one was detonated, the transport having been on the move continuously for some time. The whole of the battalion headquarters' staff thereupon set page 292to work to insert the necessary detonators, and a goodly supply was ready for the bombing party, which, under Lieut. J. Russell, now worked to the right and cleared the enemy from the last stretch of front-line trench.
After dusk, there being no improvement in the situation beyond our right, a platoon from the reserve company was sent up to reinforce the hard-pressed men on the flank. Fortunately "C" Company (Lieut. F. J. L. Buchler), which had been detained on duty at Amiens, arrived from Hedauville at 7.30 p.m. Three of its platoons were immediately pushed in on the exposed flank, which was thus strengthened and securely held; and this extension enabled touch to be gained with the left of 2nd Wellington, now about 500 yards back from the original line. 2nd Wellington, assisted by our covering fire, launched a counter-attack at 8.50 p.m. with the object of regaining the lost ground. The results, however, were inconsiderable, and the situation in our immediate neighbourhood remained practically unchanged.
Capt. (Temp. Major) A. Thomson, acting Second-in-Command, took over control of the battalion just after noon, Lieut.-Col. E. Puttick, D.S.O., having been wounded.* His conduct of the operations following the capture of the general objective was characterized by much skill, and his coolness in the face of the difficult situation that developed had a markedly steadying effect upon all ranks. Major P. H. Bell, from the 1st Battalion, assumed command of the 3rd Battalion on the following day.
During the night (27th/28th) the 4th Battalion marched from Hedauville to take over from 2nd Wellington, but as the latter unit was engaged in fighting for the lost ground, the relief was not completed until near daylight. "B" Company (Capt. W. F. Fowlds) went in on the right, "C" Company (Capt. A. L. McDowell) on the left; "D" Company (Capt. M. H. R. Jones) was placed in support, and "A" (Capt. W. W. Dove) in reserve.
* This morning's fight marked the close of Lieut.-Col. Puttick's active service in France. He commanded the Reserve Depot at Brocton from the end of May until a month after the Armistice, when he left for New Zealand on duty.
The enemy was holding 1,200 yards of the Hebuterne Road from 400 yards north of Euston to the flank of the 3rd Battalion, with a series of posts pushed well forward. He was strong in machine-guns, and from his commanding position on the ridge had the whole battalion frontage under observation and fire. A night reconnaissance was made, but as the sector was otherwise unknown it was impossible to make a general attack on the salient at once. Some slight gains had been made, however, even before the relief was actually complete, for at 5 a.m. a platoon of "B" Company, under 2nd Lieut. G. Malcolm, fought their way forward against heavy odds and established posts in old gun-pits below the road. It was a stiff struggle, and in the hand-to-hand fighting the platoon-commander was killed. Then, again, at 7 a.m. 2nd Lieut. A. French led a section from "C" Company in a bombing attack along one of the main saps leading directly up to the road above. The trench was strongly held, but the Germans were driven back fifty yards, and the section established a post covering the ground gained. Beyond effecting certain necessary adjustments in the various posts and reconnoitring the position, nothing more was attempted in the meantime.
Away on the left flank of the 3rd Battalion, Capt. H. C. Meikle's company had, during the night and early morning, been thoroughly patrolling the saps and country to its front; and as a result of the investigations made it was decided to attack the enemy's position in a series of quarries some little distance in front of the centre of the company's sector. Supported by Australian trench mortars and machine-guns, the attack was made during the afternoon. All resistance was quickly beaten down, and the position, large enough to hold a company, with good quarters and an excellent well, fell into the hands of the enterprising "D" Company. As on the previous morning, the Germans left behind a great quantity of tools, equipment, rifles and bombs. The captured position gave a wide field of observation extending over 3,000 yards, and formed an excellent advanced post covering our line for some distance to the north and south.
At 11.30 a.m. Lieut.-Col. Beere received the expected orders for an attack at 4 p.m., with the object of pushing the enemy off the high ground and establishing touch with the 3rd page 294Battalion, whose front line troops were to assist by bombing southwards. Little artillery support was available, and the covering barrage was feeble. The attack was made by "B" Company on the right and "A" on the left, "D" Company moving back into the reserve position. The right of "B" Company was successful in gaining the objective on the crest, but its left flank was held up by the enemy strongly entrenched about the huge timber dump. Here, however, a platoon established a post in one of the old gun-pits. The left company made similar progress, the two platoons on its inner flank being held up, and the remainder gaining the ridge, but the machine-gun fire had been so fierce that when the objective was reached only two officers and twelve men were left. This small party was confronted by fifty Germans fighting fiercely to retain their hold on the trench. The enemy were driven out, however, and no fewer than six machine-guns and two Lewis guns were captured. Touch was gained with the 3rd Battalion, whose platoon under Lieut. D. George had given splendid support to the 4th Battalion men. In this platoon Rifleman J. H. Bromley led a handful of men to the attack on a strong-point containing a machine-gun. They killed the garrison, secured the gun, and, moving on with it, repeated the exploit at the next post.
It was during the progress of this fighting that a young Saxon came over and surrendered to one of the 3rd Battalion companies. Quite unnerved and practically inarticulate, he kept on repeating hysterically the same six words, of which our people, ignorant of the language, could make nothing except that there appeared to be some reference to Prussians and Saxons. Presently an officer was found who, though his knowledge of German was decidedly limited, succeeded in eliciting from the deserter the information that in his post were twenty Saxons under a Prussian officer. The man was plied with cigarettes and other comforts with the object of rendering him more loquacious, but this treatment had little result. The company commander was now struck with the brilliant idea of securing the whole garrison of the post without cost to ourselves, and with the few words that constituted his stock of German, aided by many gesticulations, gave the deserter to understand that he was to go back and persuade his fellow-page 295Saxons to return with him. Ominous wavings of a revolver made it clear that a terrible fate awaited him if he should fail to report again either alone or with his comrades, and with a final objurgation given in dumb show he was sent off on his mission. Apparently the iron discipline of his Prussian officer was considered preferable to the frightfulness of the New Zealanders, for he was not heard of again.
Though the efforts of the 4th Battalion on the evening of the 28th had resulted in a considerable reduction in the extent of the enemy salient, full success had not been attained, and after daylight next morning an attempt was made to complete the work. Gallant endeavours were made by bombing-parties led by Capt. J. L. McAlister from the flank, and by Lieut. J. G. Greenwood from the front; but though they each drove the enemy from 200 yards of trench, their supplies of bombs ran out before they could make good their gains.
* Supplies of ammunition having now become available, three Stokes guns assisted, firing on the posts about the timber dump.
Preparations were now made for a renewed effort. The 2nd Battalion extended its flank to the right, setting free the little group of exhausted 4th Battalion men there, and Lieut.-Col Beere replaced his "C" Company on the left with the comparatively fresh "D" Company. At 3 a.m. on the 31st, soon after this preparatory adjustment had been completed, patrols reported that the enemy had evacuated his strong-point about the dump, whereupon "B" Company moved up and occupied the coveted trench on the ridge as far along as the cross-roads. From the position thus taken ten machine-guns were captured, and the number of German dead that lay about the trenches testified to the severity of the long struggle. Of the salient there remained now only that part opposite "D" Company, whose platoons moved up the slope at 5.15 a.m. Their advance was swift, resistance being slight except on the crest itself, and in a few minutes they had beaten down this opposition and were in possession of the trench.
So ended the 4th Battalion's stubborn struggle. Against an enemy strongly holding a position having all the advantages, his last bit of high ground to which he clung with the utmost determination, they had, through four long days of heavy rain, struck and struck again, until at last success had come. To both sides it had been a costly contest. The captured saps and trenches were found littered with dead and wounded, while the casualty list of the 4th Battalion included three officers and fifty other ranks, killed, and five officers and 139 other ranks wounded.
The long line held by the three Brigades was now approximately regular and continuous, and being on high ground the advantage gained was invaluable. Observation was good throughout, particularly on the northern half from One Tree Hill to Hebuterne, for from this portion we almost completely overlooked the enemy. Many congratulatory messages were received by Division, amongst these being one from General Plumer, commanding the Second Army from which we had become detached when we moved down from Ypres.page 299
We were now able to reflect with some degree of satisfaction upon the Brigade's share in the notable successes achieved by the Division during the past six days. Of this we had every reason to be proud, but the natural feeling of elation was damped by the disaster that had fallen upon Brigade Headquarters. During the heavy shelling on the night of the 28th, the cellar in Colincamps occupied by the Brigade staff was struck by a shell and demolished. Brigadier-General H. T. Fulton, C.M.G., D.S.O., who had returned from leave on the previous evening, was mortally wounded, and Major R. G. Purdy, M.C., the Brigade Major, was killed. The Staff Captain (Major G. C. Dailey), the Signalling Officer (Lieut. C. R. G. Bassett, V.C.), and the Grenade Officer (Lieut. K. E. Luke) were wounded, and no fewer than nine other ranks killed and eleven wounded. General Fulton succumbed to his injuries on the following morning whilst being conveyed to the casualty clearing station at Doullens. To the Brigade this catastrophe came as a severe blow. General Fulton had been entrusted with the organization and training of the Brigade from its inception, and during practically the whole of its existence it had been under his command. He jealously guarded its interests, but ever aimed at a high standard of efficiency. He was a strong disciplinarian and a stern taskmaster, yet every officer and man under his command knew that a somewhat gruff exterior but thinly concealed a kindly and sympathetic nature, and, infected by his intense pride in the Brigade, learned to discharge every task as if it were a personal service as well as a public duty.
Major Purdy, an officer of the New Zealand Staff Corps, had also been closely identified with the Brigade from its birth. In the 1st Battalion he had been in succession Platoon and Company Commander, and for a period Adjutant, serving in each of these capacities with conspicuous ability. Later he became Staff Captain and then Brigade Major, and won the esteem of all for the extreme thoroughness with which he discharged his duties, not less than for the self-sacrificing manner in which he gave his personal attention to the smallest details, however trying the conditions might be. He was fearless in the presence of danger, and every inch a soldier.page 300
Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart, of the 2nd Battalion, again assumed command of the Brigade, with Major R. Logan, N.Z.S.C., of the 2nd Brigade, as temporary Brigade Major; and Lieut. E. Zeisler took over the duties of Staff Captain. Major J. Pow succeeded Lieut.-Col. Stewart in the command of the 2nd Battalion.