The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—Puisieux-Au-Mont, August 21st
Part 2.—Puisieux-Au-Mont, August 21st.
Objectives for the New Zealand Rifle Brigade—First phase: 3rd and 4th Battalions capture Puisieux—Second phase: 3rd Battalion dears the triangle towards Miraumont—Germans counter-attack the 42nd Division—3rd Battalion troops advance the line—Success elsewhere.
In the opening battle of August 21st the task for our Brigade, the only one of the New Zealand Division engaged, was divided into two phases. In the first phase, we were to advance abreast of the 42nd Division on the left, to the general Blue Line which, opposite us, ran approximately north and south about 500 yards east of the centre of the village of Puisieux-au-Mont. In the second phase, the 5th Division was to pass through the 37th and our left on the Blue Line, and, carrying on the advance in conjunction with the 42nd Division, gradually pinch us out. Our role in the second phase was to secure, by means of fighting-patrols, the triangular area formed in this pinching-out process and extending some 2,000 yards in advance of our Blue Line; and also to assist the 42nd Division in the capture of Beauregard Dovecote, an outstanding feature in their general objective, on a hill-top north-west of Miraumont.
The capture of our portion of the Blue Line, some 3,000 yards, was entrusted to the 3rd Battalion (Lieut.-Col. Bell) on the right, and the 4th Battalion (Lieut.-Col. Beere) on the left. The battle opened at 4.55 a.m. in a heavy mist which did not lift until 10 a.m.
From the outset the infantry attack went well. The 4th Battalion reached its objective with the loss of only seventeen men wounded, having met with little stubborn resistance except on its flanks. On the left, Lance-Corporal H. A. Matheson and Rifleman J. McLure did admirable work in assaulting a machine-gun post and exterminating its crew; while on the right, after a stiff struggle in the eastern outskirts of Puisieux, a Lewis gun section under Corporal N. C. Neilson succeeded in capturing two machine-guns and twelve prisoners. During the consolidation of the line an odd adventure befell a 4th Battalion runner. Returning to the forward position after delivering a message to his company headquarters, he missed his way in the fog and walked straight into a German post. Here he was promptly disarmed and sent off to the rear under guard of a party moving back. His journey towards Berlin had not proceeded far, however, before he was overtaken by a tank manned by Australians, who promptly reversed the position, placed the runner in charge of his erstwhile captors, and shepherded the whole back to the former's proper destination.
The 3rd Battalion had a complicated task to perform. Its section of the objective was shorter than that of the 4th Battalion, but it had a greater portion of the village to deal with. Moreover, beyond the right flank there was a hill-top higher than any other ground in the neighbourhood, and from which our position on the Blue Line could be directly enfiladed; and although this was situated in the area over which troops of the 42nd Division would pass in their swinging movement towards the south-east, yet it was deemed necessary to detail a platoon to assist in the capture and clearing of this domi-page 348nating position, and thus render the flank secure. Again, to the 3rd Battalion fell the work of clearing the triangle referred to above, and of assisting in the capture of the Dovecote. That the whole of this intricate series of operations was successfully carried through by noon, notwithstanding the constantly changing situation and the difficulty of keeping touch with the two Divisions on the flanks, was largely due to Lieut.-Col. Bell's cool handling of his companies, following upon his personal reconnaisance of the positions at the different stages of the action.
At the opening of the battle the 3rd Battalion's movements were planned to coincide with those of the 42nd Division; and as the front line south of the village was nearer the objective than was the section to the north, the 3rd Battalion commenced the advance a little later than the 4th. The left swept through the southern part of the village without a check, and, extending northwards, established touch with the right of the 4th Battalion on the Blue Line, The right moved over open, exposed ground and suffered some casualties from the sweeping fire of machine-guns operating apparently from a shell-torn road just short of the objective. Guided only by the sound, for through the fog nothing could be seen, the leading sections rushed the position, which was found to consist of four machine-gun posts. The crews were killed and the advance continued, but the troops immediately came under more intense fire from another gun directly to their front. The rush was repeated, and a fifth machine-gun silenced and captured. This brought the men of the right company to a second road about a hundred yards beyond the objective; and here, protected by shell-hole posts established 150 yards in front, they consolidated their position. The centre company met with strong opposition from a series of old trenches about 200 yards short of the objective. From the greater part of this position the Germans were quickly cleared; but further advance was held up by a concealed machine-gun post, which was finally rushed from a flank by Riflemen C. W. Batty and J. Lowe, who captured the guns as well as the garrison of one officer and ten men.
The movements of all the attacking companies of both battalions, notwithstanding temporary checks, were well timed, page 349the forward line kept close to the barrage throughout, and by 6 a.m. Puisieux was in our hands and the troops were well established on the Blue Line. During this hour's fighting we took nearly 100 prisoners and several machine-guns, our own casualties being comparatively nominal.
The fog which had proved of advantage in covering our movements was not an unmixed blessing, for, besides obscuring landmarks, it rendered establishment and maintenance of touch exceedingly difficult. Thus, Sergeant W. Motion, of the 4th Battalion, in charge of a section on the flank, found on reaching the objective that the neighbouring unit had failed to join up. Going out alone under fire he succeeded in eluding the enemy, located the nearest section, and then returned and led a number of his own men to a position from which, the gap could be held. Rifleman A. Dalzell, of the 3rd Battalion, going out on a similar mission, had a more exciting time. He found the intervening area still in possession of the enemy, but without pausing to consider their possible strength he attacked them single-handed, bombed a number of dug-outs, and captured five prisoners. At the same time he marked down the position of a machine-gun actively firing. Having brought in his five prisoners and handed them over, he took three men and with them went back to deal with the machine-gun post. After some preliminary manœuvring for position the little party rushed the post, killed the crew, and carried off the gun.
Soon after the taking of the Blue Line the second phase of the day's action commenced. The 5th Division troops passed through our 4th Battalion on their way towards securing a predetermined position from which they were to launch their attack on Achiet-le-Petit. This position they were expected to gain at 7.30 a.m.; and shortly before that time the remaining company of the 3rd Battalion moved out to capture the triangle and fill the narrowing interval between the 5th and the 42nd Divisions, the general objective of the latter being a line running north-east through the Dovecote, and extending to the valley of the Ancre. Owing to the fog, Lieut. Russell's company advanced warily, and failing to gain touch with the 5th Division after having moved forward some 500 yards, our men were halted and a temporary line was formed. Small fighting-patrols were now sent out, and these having page 350located the flank of the 5th Division at about 8 a.m., the advance towards the south-east was continued. When the fog, lifted, soon after 10 a.m., our left platoons found themselves in advance of their objective and in a position on the exposed face of a spur under full observation by the enemy. They were swept by machine-gun fire coming from the high ground beyond the Ancre valley on their left, and there were no friendly troops on that flank. They were therefore withdrawn slightly to conform to the line of the 5th Division; and at noon the two remaining platoons, maintaining touch with the Division on the right, came up into alignment, which was now unbroken throughout. Here the company proceeded to dig itself in, in preparation for an expected counter-attack. The position occupied faced the south-east, with the outskirts of Miraumont 1,500 yards away and directly to the front. Immediately below was the bottom of the valley through which a light railway ran westward towards Serre, and beyond the valley the ground sloped up to the Dovecote, 1,000 yards distant. During the afternoon and evening the posts were strengthened and improved and patrols worked through the bottom of the valley and about the slopes on either side. Thus ended an excellent day's work. With the loss of some sixty killed and wounded the Brigade had carried out all its tasks, and the forward posts of the 3rd Battalion were 2,000 yards east of Puisieux. The toll of prisoners had risen to 235, and the number of captured machine-guns to 30.
The men of "A" Company had had a particularly strenuous time. During the heavy shelling that fell on their assembly positions a few minutes before zero, Captain R. J. S. Seddon and some of his platoon were killed and others wounded. Two hours later, 2nd Lieut. S. N. Managh, D.C.M., while leading his platoon to the jumping-off position on the Blue Line, was shot by a sniper still lurking in Puisieux. Then during the forenoon 2nd Lieut. A. Hart, while manœuvring to outflank a machine-gun post holding up the advance of his men, fell under a burst of fire at point-blank range. Lieut. Russell was thus left without a single officer, but the non-commissioned officers, notably Company Sergt.-Major F. Slevin, rose splendidly to the occasion, promptly assumed leadership, and, as we have seen, carried on the operation to a successful issue.page 351
No fewer than ten machine-guns were captured by this company alone, and the prisoners taken numbered sixty-six, including two officers.
The night passed fairly quietly, but at five o'clock next morning, the 22nd, the enemy in great strength counter-attacked from Miraumont with the object of regaining his lost position of vantage on the high ground about the Dovecote. The 3rd Battalion's sector of the line was not directly involved; but as the left of the 42nd Division fell back under the weight of overwhelming numbers, our own right flank was uncovered. As the leading party of the enemy's flanking troops appeared over the skyline, Lance-Corporal R. Milne rushed with his Lewis gun to the crest and there engaged them at point-blank range, killed twelve, disabled a further eight, and sent in five prisoners with four machine-guns. This dashing deed prevented the enemy from occupying a commanding position from which he could have rendered an important section of our line untenable; and beyond the bending back of our extreme right to form a defensive flank, the line, which had been strengthened on the previous evening by an additional platoon from the support company, remained unaltered.
The enemy succeeded in regaining possession of the Dovecote, but an attempt to follow up this success by advancing still further across the spur resulted in fearful slaughter, amongst the advancing waves. Coming under close range fire from eight New Zealand machine-guns handled by sections, that had taken up an excellent forward position, they were literally mown down. Fully 400 were killed, and a further 250 surrendered at once to a platoon of the Gloucester Regiment that had overlapped our front during the night.
During the forenoon the support company of the 3rd Battalion, less the platoon already sent forward, passed through the advanced posts and established a new line well down the slopes overlooking the railway. This forward movement took place in conjunction with the advance of the troops of the 42nd Division in a further but only temporarily successful attack on the Dovecote.*page 352
As to the advance as a whole, the battle had gone well, the attack having come as a complete surprise to the enemy. The general objective, the Arras-Albert Railway, had been secured on practically the whole front, and the British troops had gained the required positions from which to launch the principal attack. Early in the morning of August 22nd, the IIIrd Corps captured Albert and advanced the line between the Somme and the Ancre well to the east of the Bray-Albert Road.
* In the afternoon the 1st Brigade concentrated between Gomme-court Park and Rossignol Wood, and a squadron of the Royal Scots Greys was attached to the Division ready to assist in the advance.