The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 4.—The German Attack, April 5th
Part 4.—The German Attack, April 5th.
Improving the Line—Daylight patrols—Advancement of posts—Readjustment of sector—Opening of the attack—Intense bombardment —German infantry everywhere held—Attack dies away by noon—3rd Battalion advance the Line—Local enemy counterattacks —Congratulations—Enemy success about Armentieres, Messines, and Passchendaele.
The heavy rain that had drenched the men of the 4th Battalion throughout their long uphill fight continued on the 31st, but every effort was put forth to clear the lines and consolidate the position gained. After dark the 1st Battalion took over the sector, the 4th going into Divisional reserve at Courcelles.
Both battalions in the line now commenced a vigorous policy of improvement. The main position ran for the most part along the hedge and the Hebuterne Road, the garrison occupying an old trench with posts pushed forward along the saps leading eastward towards the German lines. Although we were on the crest of the ridge, it was found that there was much dead ground immediately in front. We were thus at some disadvantage, and as a preliminary step towards amending this State of affairs, daylight patrolling was at once put in hand in order to secure information as to the forward positions of the enemy.
On the 1st Battalion front Lance-Corporal R. McMurray pushed out alone, and, after much patient manœuvring, succeeded in pouncing upon a sentry, whom he brought in. From this man we gained sufficient information to enable us to capture and occupy two posts in the neighbourhood during the evening. Not content with this, McMurray moved on and marked down a third post, and on the following day continued page 301his reconnaissance until a considerable stretch of the enemy's line was located with certainty. In the course of his wanderings he drew fire from an enemy machine-gun which we afterwards silenced with artillery-fire. Capt. Saxon and Lieut. C. C. Best gave special attention to the mysterious La Signy Farm, and without great difficulty succeeded in investigating the hedge on its northern and eastern sides during daylight. Fighting-patrols actively engaged the enemy on the 2nd Battalion front, and as a result of these combined efforts our forward posts were pushed into positions giving uninterrupted close as well as distant observation. These posts were strengthened, wired, and eventually connected up with a continuous trench, and, where required, further saps were dug.
This advantageous adjustment of the greater part of the line brought sections of it within fairly dose touch with the enemy's advanced posts, and the necessary wiring was carried out at even greater risk than usual. One party engaged at this hazardous occupation near La Signy Farm came almost within bombing range, and when the Germans found that bombs failed to cause any appreciable check to their activities they opened fire with a machine-gun, an action that compelled our men to take cover with due promptitude. Then the usual flares went up again from the vicinity of this German post, and the illumination revealed the fact that the whole party of six men had sought the protection of the one small shell-hole within reach. They had, however, done little better than the ostrich, for, though their heads and shoulders were safely under cover, the greater part of their bodies remained exposed above ground round the rim. Fortunately they lay sufficiently still to escape enemy observation, and no casualties were sustained.
The 1st Brigade on our right established posts to the east of La Signy Farm on the night of 3rd/4th April, but these were not destined to be held for very long.
A readjustment of the sector was made on the night of 2nd/3rd April. The 4th Australians took over that part of the front line so smartly captured by our 3rd Battalion on 27th March, the 1st Battalion extended its front northwards to junction with the Australians, and the 2nd Battalion, thus relieved, went into support at Colincamps. Again, on the page 302night of 4th/5th the 1st Brigade was withdrawn from the centre of the Divisional sector, our Brigade taking over from them the front line from One Tree Hill northward. The Brigade now held a front of well over 3,000 yards, with three battalions in the line. The 3rd held from One Tree Hill to the Serre Road; the 4th the centre, with its left on the hedge to the north of La Signy Farm; and the 1st the left from this point to the right of the Australians. Brigade Headquarters had by this time moved to safe quarters in a deep dug-out near the Colincamps—Sailly Road.
During the night the enemy's patrols displayed no unusual activity, though one consisting of an officer and ten men was discovered fumbling with the wire in front of a 1st Battalion advanced post held by a Lewis gun section under Lance-Corporal S. W. Toms. The lance-corporal dashed out and, covering the officer with his revolver, endeavoured to take him prisoner. The officer resisted, however, and was shot dead, and his party was dispersed with Lewis gun fire.
On the well-defined front line of the 1st Battalion the preliminary bombardment fell with great intensity, particularly on the trenches held by the right company. Capt. Saxon, however, took his garrison forward to a position between the front line and the line of advanced posts. When the Germans had gained ground at the Farm they had this company's position enfiladed, and they thereupon endeavoured to exploit the advantage by working northward. Capt. Saxon immediately met the situation by promptly placing two sections of riflemen along the hedge running out past the Farm, and by ordering a platoon to form a defensive flank across the main line in case the enemy should succeed in breaking through from the front. Particularly gallant work on this flank was done by Sergeant B. L. Dixon, who took the place of his fallen platoon commander. Similarly, Lieut. M. A. Stedman, commanding the platoon holding the forward posts of this company, finding the Germans had pushed past his flank and were firing into the rear of his position, took out one of his sections of riflemen and lined the hedge, thus continuing the line already placed in position by his company commander. Notwithstanding heavy trench mortar and machine-gun fire this flank was securely held.
In the meantime the forward posts farther to the left were holding their own. Two attacks on the left company and three on that in the centre were boldly pressed, the enemy, finding his attack over the open unsuccessful, making determined efforts to reach our posts by way of the saps, but all his assaults were beaten off. Early in the day Rifleman R. C. Shannon, one of a Lewis gun team that had made some fine page 305shooting against the advancing waves, was wounded by a shell that put his gun out of action. He at once attached himself to a neighbouring post guarding a sap. Up this trench fully a hundred Germans, led by an officer, were advancing rapidly against the post, when Shannon rushed out across the open, bombed the enemy at close range, killed the officer and two men near him, and wounded five others. A Lewis gun brought to bear on the remainder completed the rout of this assaulting party Lieut. J. McL. Roy's platoon occupied a prominent salient which bore the brunt of repeated attacks from which it suffered severely. When the enemy abandoned the open and took to pushing up the saps. Lieut. Roy suitably laid a Lewis gun and then personally led a bombing section forward beyond oar wire and forced the Germans back. Those who stuck to toe trench were vigorously bombed, while those who rushed across the open to escape from the bombing were mown down by the Lewis gun. These forward movements were common features of the morning's work, and without doubt proved more effective in beating off the attack than mere fighting from the trenches. As leaders in such sorties, Capt. H. W. Kennedy, Lieut. R. J. Grant, Lance-Corporal G. A. Papworth and Rifleman A. L. Peters were conspicuous.
By noon the situation was again normal. Our casualties were not heavy They were very slight in the 3rd Battalion; the 4th had one officer and 25 men killed, and one officer and 45 men wounded; while in the 1st, two officers and 26 men were killed, and one officer and 50 men wounded. A conservative estimate of tie enemy's casualties opposite our immediate front places the number at over 500.
This attack was unique in the respect that it was the only one of major importance that the New Zealand Division ever sustained. It was launched with great determination, and wave after wave of advancing troops added strength and weight to the leading lines striking vainly at our posts. The enemy's immediate objective was that long stretch of high ground to our rear on which Colincamps stood, and along which the construction of our defensive system known as the Purple Line had already been commenced. This was made clear from pencilled sketch-maps which were found on the bodies of German offices and non-commissioned officers, and page 306which were drawn with so much detail as to show the positions in our territory that had been fixed upon as his battalion and brigade headquarters. Add to this the circumstance that his men advanced to the attack wearing full packs, and the fact is at once apparent that a successful issue was, in his mind, a foregone conclusion.
Throughout the day the fighting spirit of our men was exceedingly good, and probably the sentiment expressed in the concluding passage of a situation report sent in during the morning by a company commander, in which he says: '.…We have beaten off two attacks by the Hun and are waiting him to put in a third," would have been subscribed to heartily by every man in the trenches. Doubtless the success of the operations from March 26th onward had much to do with the maintenance of high morale, while the novelty of dealing with an attack in force, and the unusual experience of fighting from a superior position, were important contributing factors.
An unusual bit of fearless reconnaissance s worthy of record. When the bombardment opened in the early morning, Corporal L. J. Whisker, of the 1st Battalion, took a patrol through the barrage and well out into No Man's Land to watch for possible developments on the part of the enemy infantry. From his point of observation he sent back to his company commander valuable information of enemy novements, while he himself remained out until the certainty of an advance became evident, rendering on his return a clear and definite report regarding the strength of the hostile force and the probable points of attack.
It should be mentioned, too, that in one battalion at least the cook-house staffs, whose usual orderly routine had been sadly disturbed by the early morning's fighting brought up supplies of hot tea which they took round to the hard-pressed men of the front line while blows were still being exchanged; and that the Padre, the Revd. C. B. W. Seton, welcome everywhere, but appearing to have a special preference for positions of danger, spent the whole of the forenoon visiting the posts on his battalion front, assisting the stretcher-bearers in their labours, dispensing comforts to the garrisons, and shedding abroad that heartening influence which he to an eminent degree possessed.page 307
The sub-sector taken over by the 3rd Battalion on the night of the 4th/5th was in some respects unsatisfactory. The line was not continuous, the posts were situated in old fragmentary trenches and communication saps, and for the most part the observation was poor. The enemy attack on the following morning had delayed the preparation of general plans for the improvement of the position, but throughout the ensuing night local attempts were made to push back the German bombing-posts in the communication trenches, and to clear out troublesome machine-gun nests still clinging to a salient between "C" Company (Lieut. F. J. L. Buchler), on the right, and "A" Company (Capt. F. E. Greenish), in the centre. Some progress was made in the saps, but the attack on the machine-guns succeeded only in pushing the nearer gun slightly back.
On the morning of the 6th, while the two company commanders were reconnoitring the position with a view to a more definite attack on the machine-gun positions and the clearing of the salient, Lieut. Buchler was killed by a shot from a sniper, the same bullet also accounting for a sentry stationed in the shallow trench near him. Later in the day a strong enemy counter-attack developed in this locality. The Germans were particularly bold and enterprising, and there was long-continued hand-to-hand fighting in practically every sap held by the 3rd Battalion. Our artillery action, however, prevented enemy reinforcements from coming up, and not only were the attackers everywhere forced back, but fresh ground was gained at all points.
The position was not yet satisfactory, however, for in spite of the progress made, the enemy still had the advantage of the higher ground with its commanding view. During the next two nights our bombing-attacks continued, and yard by yard the posts were advanced. On the afternoon of the 8th, a general advance was made by the three forward companies. The men of "D" Company (Capt. H. C. Meikle), on the left, had very stubborn fighting. The two main communication trenches in their sector were held with great determination, and the bombing parties were unable to make progress until rifle-grenades and a Stokes mortar had been brought into use. Success eventually crowned the efforts of all three companies, and the higher ground was gained throughout. The front line page 308here was now from 150 to 200 yards farther east than the original position, and for us dead ground no longer existed. After nightfall the digging of a continuous front-line trench was commenced, and by the time the battalion was relieved this work, with the exception of a gap of fifty yards near the centre, was completed.
Throughout the fighting of the last three days on the 3rd Battalion front, excellent service was rendered by a platoon from the support company temporarily attached to that in the centre of the line. The platoon, commanded by 2nd Lieut. H. T. Marshall, took more than its full share in the various attacks, and its work against the strongly-held salient was particularly daring and successful.
Apart from the local activity on the part of the 3rd Battalion companies the situation on the Brigade front continued comparatively quiet. On the night of 8th/9th the two flank battalions extended inwards, enabling the centre unit to be withdrawn and held in Brigade reserve. This alteration being completed, we were relieved by the 1st Brigade on the following night.
This tour in the line had been a particularly strenuous one, for in addition to the heavy fighting there were the effects of the long-continued rain to contend with. In the 3rd Battalion sector especially, because of the constant local encounters, little attention could be given to the drainage of trenches, and these were almost everywhere thigh-deep in liquid mud. Yet even under such conditions our men found some slight compensation, for prisoners and enemy dead yielded up generous supplies of expensive brands of cigarettes, looted, doubtless, from the British canteens during the rush towards the Channel.
Major J. Pow, D.S.O., was severely wounded on the 6th, and Major L. H. Jardine, M.C., assumed command of the 2nd Battalion. Major Pow was promoted Lieut.-Colonel in the following month, but never recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to the unit. Major Jardine had been transferred to the Brigade from the Wellington Regiment at the end of 1917, from which time he had occupied the position of Second-in-Command of the 4th Battalion, except for a brief interval while in temporary command of the 2nd.page 309
The attack on 5th April was the enemy's final attempt to prevent the French and British line in this region from becoming stable. On the previous day ho had launched an attack with massed troops against the British front south of the Somme, but failed to make any appreciable impression. On 6th April the principal German effort was made north of the liver, the attack being delivered on practically the whole of this front from Dernancourt to beyond Bucquoy. Except that he gained the eastern portion of the latter village, the enemy's attempted stroke was entirely without result. "His troops, held or driven back at all points, lost heavily, and any hope that he might have entertained of opening the road to Amiens at the eleventh hour ended in an exceedingly costly rebuke."*
The following message of congratulation was received from General Harper, commanding the IVth Corps:—
"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 organization of their troops for the defence of the line has been extremely well carried out."
* Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches.
* The 1st and 3rd Entrenching Battalions had been sent south to follow up the Division at the end of March; the 2nd rejoined the Group at about the middle of the following month.