The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 4.—Bapaume, August 28th to 29th
Part 4.—Bapaume, August 28th to 29th.
Now Zealand division carries on the attack towards Bapaume, August 24th—1st Brigade captures Loupart Wood and Grevillers —2nd Brigade captures Biefvillers and closes in on Bapaume—General results of the four days' fighting—1st and 2nd Brigades continue the attack on Bapaume, August 25th—New Zealand Rifle Brigade to continue the attack, August 26th—Concentration —Plans and objectives—An unexpected first objective—Partial success: Beaugnatre Road secured—Attack continued 6 p.m. —Cambrai Road gained and lost—Railway secured—Bapaume entered and line established beyond, August 29th.
At 4 p.m. on August 23rd, Warning orders were received that the New Zealand Division would sidestep slightly to the northward and carry on the attack towards Bapaume. Just before dawn on the following morning the 1st Battalion was, after much difficulty, relieved by the 7th Manchester Battalion of the 42nd Division, and joined the remainder of the Brigade in the bivouac area north of Puisieux. By this time the Brigade was under orders to move at half-an-hour's notice, for the operations of the 24th had commenced.
By the end of the day the 42nd Division, in the old sector, had captured Miraumont and Pys; while farther south the Thiepval Badge had been carried, as had other old Somme strong-points such as Pozieres, Ceurcelette and Martinpuich.
In the four days* since August 20th, the advance made by our Corps—the IVth—exceeded seven miles. Its general direction was at right-angles to that along which we had fought in the Somme Battle of 1916, and we were now well behind the shell-blasted forward zone of the enemy's trench-system. The roads were good, horsemen could ride everywhere without difficulty, and, owing to the rolling nature of the country, transport could be brought with ease within a mile of the battle-line. As for the fighting, this was entirely different from that of all earlier battles in which we had participated in France. Advances were deeper and on much I wider frontages, troops were not so densely packed, and there was greater scope for initiative and leadership. There was a diminution of the gruesomeness and horror of trench warfare, and all ranks were affected by a peculiar calmness, giving place at times to a distinct feeling of "the joy of battle." In one very important respect fortune favoured us: the enemy for once had lost his old allies, rain and mud.
* The casualties throughout the Brigade during this period were:—
Half an hour after the opening of this evening attack, the New Zealand Rifle Brigade commenced to move forward to take over the northern sector from the 2nd Brigade and make ready for a continuance of the advance next day. By 10 p.m., after a trying march across country in profound darkness and through a tropical downpour of rain, concentration between Biefvillers and Grevillers was completed. Definite plans for the attack, depending as they did on the results of the enterprise of the 2nd Brigade, could not be drawn up until after midnight, and at 1.30 a.m. on the 26th these were communicated orally to battalion commanders, who had been called to advanced Brigade headquarters for the purpose.
The frontage of attack being over 2,500 yards in length, three battalions were detailed for the operation, the 3rd, 2nd, and 4th, in that order from the right. From the position of the 2nd Brigade on the Beugnatre Road they were to advance in a south-easterly direction for about 1,500 yards, thus partially encircling Bapaume and securing a position due east of the town. Part of the objective lay slightly beyond the great highway running eastwards towards Cambrai, while a defensive flank would stretch northwards to connect with the 5th Division, which had relieved the 37th during the night. Cooperating on the flanks, the 1st Brigade would maintain touch with our right, send patrols into Bapaume, and, if the enemy's hold were found to be weakening, mop it up, while on the left, the 5th Division would assault Beugnatre and the system of trenches about its outskirts. The attack, timed to commence at 6.30 a.m., was to be carried out without a barrage and with no assistance from tanks. One section of the Auckland Ma-page 359chine Gun Company, and one of the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battery, were placed at the disposal of the respective battalion commanders, who each had also at call a battery of the New Zealand Field Artillery for the provision of covering fire. Battalion commanders had taken the precaution to bring their company commanders with them to the conference, and, the necessary plans having been discussed on the spot, the latter moved off to pass down the orders to their subordinates. The concentration area was some two miles behind the jumping-off line, but in good time the attacking units got forward into position immediately behind the line held by the 2nd Brigade. Here it was found that practically the whole of the Beugnatre Bead was still in the hands of the enemy; and this formidable position, for the most part sunken and strongly held, had now to be taken as an unexpected first objective. This necessitated pome modifications in the plans previously adopted, and threatened to entail vexatious delay.
The line ran slightly east of north, roughly parallel to and about 1,000 yards west of the Beugnatre Road, the right being opposite the centre of Bapaume, and the left close to Favreuil. The outskirts of Bapaume extended northwards for about half a mile along the Beugnatre Road, and the northern extremity of this collection of houses was known as St. Aubin. Here there was a network of railway sidings, together with a number of huge dumps of timber and other engineers' supplies, the whole covering an area of some thirty acres on the western side of the village. This position lay almost on the dividing line between the sectors to be operated over by the 3rd and 2nd Battalions, and the reports as to its being strongly held by the enemy were confirmed in no uncertain way by the volume of machine-gun fire that issued from it whenever our men moved.
Lieut.-Col. Bell employed three companies for the attack on his sector. "C" Company (Lieut. J. H. Irvine) on the right was instructed to press eastwards towards Bapaume by means of fighting patrols; "B" Company (Lieut. A. L. Martin), on the left, was given the task of dealing with St. Aubin and the dumps; while "D" Company (Capt H. C. Meikle) would link up between the two and establish a line of posts facing Bapaume from the north. In the 2nd Battalion, "D"page 360
Company (Lieut. W. J. Organ) was to capture the allotted portion of the first objective on the road, with "B" (Lieut. K. M. Maben) and "C" (Capt. H. C. Collett) disposed in echelon on the flanks, the former being specially detailed to watch St. Aubin and its neighbourhood. On the left of the line, the 4th Battalion had two companies detailed for the capture of the objective, "D" (Capt. A. E. Brown), on the right, and "A" (Capt. E. A. Winchester), on the left. "C" Company (Capt. D. W. McClurg) had moved up earlier to take over the sector from the 2nd Brigade troops, and the remaining company was held in reserve.
When the general attack opened at 6.30 a.m., the absence of a barrage was felt at all points, for at the first forward movement, machine-gun fire poured in upon our men from front and flank. The 3rd Battalion's right patrols were held up almost at once, their position being completely dominated from the buildings of Bapaume. The left company made considerable progress towards St. Aubin, clearing by a series of hand-to-hand fights the greater part of the dump and siding area, but the machine-gun posts in the village itself were too strongly placed and could not be taken. The centre company came under heavy crossfire from Bapaume and St. Aubin, but pressed steadily forward and finally succeeded in gaining a position beyond the Arras Road, thus advancing the investment of the town by one more step.
The 2nd Battalion had slightly better success. The leading company, after an hour's steady fighting, pushed its way eastward to the road, and with a final rush succeeded in clearing its portion of this objective. The company's right flank was "in the air," however, for the supporting company had swung out too much to the right and was carrying out an attack on its own account against St. Aubin, finally digging in facing the south and south-east close up to the village and dumps. It was pinned down here by the accurate sniping and short-range machine-gun fire.
Meanwhile, in the 4th Battalion's sector, Capt. McClurg's company had gone on with the original programme. Advancing through the wood by Favreuil under the storm of shell-fire to which the enemy was subjecting the whole area, it reached the 2nd Brigade posts on the Favreuil Road, where it page 361was now learned for the first time that the Beugnatre Road as well as the intervening country was still held by the Germans Capt. McClurg decided to press on at once to secure the jumping-off line for the attacking companies,—a perilous undertaking in view of the obscurity of the situation on the flanks. The men were ably led, however, 2nd Lieut. W. Skelton and Corporal E. J. McInnes doing brilliant service in this respect, and they pushed steadily up the slope towards the road. They were exposed to machine-gun fire from the huts about the south-east corner of Favreuil and from Beugnatre, and presently came into full view of the enemy posts in the aerodrome huts near the road forming their objective. Advancing upon these in V-shape formation, the company secured a footing in the road and steadily extended its gains right and left till the position was won. Here it was decided to consolidate for the time being, the miniature hollows in the road-banks from which spoil had been removed forming ready-made cover from enfilade fire. Presently the scouts of "A" Company approached the position. Capt. Winchester had been wounded, and 2nd Lieut. C. Darling was now in command. Capt. McClurg acted with promptitude. Taking over direction of the forward operations pending further instructions, he placed "A" Company on the left to form a defensive flank. Similarly, he arranged with Capt. Brown to place "D" Company on the right to continue the main line southwards, and, though some stiff fighting lay before both these companies, it was not long before the position was comparatively secure. Soon afterwards the troops of the 2nd Battalion gained touch on the right, but the left was still "in the air." The wisdom of the precautionary measures taken for the safeguarding of this flank was demonstrated early, for during the forenoon the enemy, a half-battalion strong, counter-attacked from Beugnatre. Severe fighting took place, and the 4th Battalion had many casualties; but the flank company stood fast, and the enemy finally withdrew to the village. 2nd Lieut. L. C. L. Averill displayed exceptional gallantry and fine leadership during the struggle in this quarter.
The first objective was thus only partially gained, and for that reason the hostile artillery fire on the new line was, for the moment, practically negligible. Such casualties as we had page 362suffered from shell-fire had occurred on the way up to the position of deployment, and these included a considerable proportion of the personnel of the 2nd Battalion headquarters' section, which was twice struck. The enemy, however, had the situation sufficiently well in hand. Still holding in strength Bapaume and Beugnatre on the flanks, as well as the commanding position at St. Aubin, he was able to pour streams of machine-gun bullets upon the whole length of the Beugnatre Road and over the country in the vicinity. The heavy rain had ceased before daybreak, giving place to bright clear weather, and the German gunners in the high buildings, unmolested by our heavies, could pick up their targets with ease. The situation beyond the left flank remained unsatisfactory; Bapaume, of course, was not being assaulted; and neither the 3rd Battalion company on the west nor that from the 2nd Battalion on the north could make any satisfactory impression on the awkward St. Aubin salient. In these circumstances an immediate continuance of a local attack was out of the question, and, shortly before 10 a.m., orders were issued to the forward units of the Brigade to sit tight and await further instructions.
At noon general Hart held a conference with commanding officers at the 2nd Battalion headquarters to discuss plans for the resumption of the attack.* All were agreed that the advance could be carried on successfully provided a satisfactory artillery barrage could be arranged for, especially if the guns concentrated on St. Aubin and the two flanking towns even though for a very brief period. For the moment, however, no definite orders could be issued. It was clear that any action must be made in concert with the troops of the 5th Division, but these were still held up at Beugnatre, and no instructions for the next move had as yet been received. These indeed did not reach General Hart until some three hours later, and as zero hour was to be 6 p.m., he at once issued orders by telephone. The evening attack was to be supported by a barrage, under cover of which the 2nd Battalion was to ad-
* Lieut.-Col. R. St. J. Beere, commanding the 4th Battalion, was wounded while on his way to attend this conference, and the command was taken over by Major H. E. Barrowclough. Major J. Murphy was in temporary command of the 2nd Battalion, Lieut.-Col. Jardine beine absent on leave.
The 3rd Battalion on the right would conform, and send patrols vance to the original final objective on the Cambrai Road, into Bapaume from, the north; while the 4th Battalion, swinging forward its right into a north and south line, would link up between the left of the 2nd Battalion and the right of the 5th Division, the latter being ordered to continue the attack on Beugnatre.
Major Murphy sent for his company commanders, but these were not able to assemble until 4.45 p.m. The original plans were modified to the extent of putting in "C" Company on the right of "D," leaving "B" in its present position to continue the pressure on St. Aubin. "A" Company was to act in support, and "D" Company of the 1st Battalion was brought up in reserve. In view of the brevity of the time now remaining, the company commanders pressed for a short respite to enable them to perfect their arrangements, but the action not being an isolated one it was impossible to alter the zero hour. Orders got down to platoon commanders only twenty minutes before the opening of the barrage, and it speaks well for the adaptability of our men that, though little could be done beyond giving them the objective and the direction, they "shook themselves into their formations as the advance progressed, and moved forward in excellent style."
"C" Company suffered rather heavily in skirting St. Aubin. "D" Company's line of advance was crossed diagonally by the strongly-wired Bancourt Trench, but this was cleared of its garrison by a section of the right platoon after fourteen rounds had been thrown into it from the Stokes mortars, and both companies approached the railway running along the broad valley towards Bapaume. The resistance met with here was speedily overcome, though the troops suffered from machine-gun fire sweeping across from the spur to the left front. From the railway the advance was continued towards the Cambrai Road, here 500 yards ahead. The barrage, however, moved too slowly, and the German machine-guns on the road, as well as those on either flank, had not yet been reached by the artillery. Under the withering fire our men fell fast. "D" Company lost two of its platoon commanders, and "C" Company all its officers. The objective was reached but could not be held. The road was enfiladed from page 364both flanks, and presently, from a sunken road leading to the old Sugar Factory, the Germans poured into the gap between the two companies. At the opening of the evening attack the platoons had mustered only from twenty to twenty-five bayonets, and by this time, 8 p.m., our numbers had been too greatly reduced to withstand this all-round pressure. The remnants of the two companies were thus compelled to give ground, and they eventually dug in by the railway, from the little branch known as Gun Spur, along to St. Aubin, which still held out. The 3rd Battalion patrols working round the north of Bapaume made progress, but were unable to reach the Cambrai Road. They were held up by the steady machine-gun fire from the Brickyard and the Shrine situated on their objective, besides being enfiladed from both flanks, and had to be content with a line of posts close to the northern out-skirts of the town. The 4th Battalion, keeping touch with the 2nd, moved forward some 500 yards to the high ground east of the road. The company on the, outer flank had a sufficiently difficult time maintaining connection with the troops of the 5th Division as they strove with the enemy in and about the village. It was involved in considerable fighting long after the remainder of the Brigade had proceeded to consolidate, for the Germans were not driven from Beugnatre until late that night. Here Corporal W. J. Patching distinguished himself by his fine handling of a platoon on the loss of his sergeant, and later by carrying out an excellent reconnaissance, in which, as at Puisieux on the 21st, he gained accurate information concerning not only the position of the flanking posts on our side, but also the location and strength of the enemy's line in the vicinity.
The night of the 26th/27th was spent in re-organizing and consolidating, the troops close to Bapaume devoting much attention to the construction of overhead protection from machine-gun fire which the enemy, from his elevated positions, was able to direct into the trenches. During the 27th the situation remained unchanged. Our new posts were heavily shelled and the German machine-gunners renewed their activities, but there were no further attempts to counter-attack. In view of the contemplated advance from the north against the Cambrai Road and Fremicourt by the 1st and 4th Battalions, page 365in conjunction with the 2nd Brigade on the left, the 3rd Battalion was withdrawn to reserve on the night of the 27th/28th, relief being effected by the 2nd Battalion and the 2nd Brigade extending their inner flanks. The projected operations were postponed, however, and the opportunity was taken to bring the cookers further up and supply the troops with a welcome hot meal.
The night of the 28th/29th was quiet. Patrols had continued their operations unceasingly, some having succeeded in reaching the rest-billets near Fremicourt. The enemy was found to be everywhere alert, and flat a few casualties were sustained during the progress of this reconnaissance work. After dawn on the 29th, however, a diminution of his watchfulness was noted, and about Bapaume contact could not be gained. Reports were quickly got back, and the 3rd Battalion came up to prosecute further investigations. Capt. Meikle's company was organized into strong patrols, and at 8.30 a.m. these entered Bapaume by the Arras Road and worked east-wards through the northern half of the town. Troops of the 1st Brigade simultaneously moved through the southern half. Soon afterwards the remaining line battalions took up the movement. The 2nd Battalion advanced to the Cambrai Road, and then swung up its right in touch with the 3rd Battalion as the latter moved steadily eastward. A large number of machine-guns were captured by both units, the 3rd Battalion, claiming in addition as part of its spoils a fine haul of telephone-exchange instruments, some horses, and two ten-inch howitzers. The 4th Battalion was not able to advance to the same extent, the enemy continuing to hold in strength the system of railway sidings opposite the centre of its position. Against the posts at the sidings two whippets dashed out from the Beugnatre Road, only to bring down upon themselves a storm of artillery fire from all the German guns in the neighbourhood, and their plucky attempt was cut short before they had gone 200 yards. By 2 p.m. the new line had been established 1,500 yards east of Bapaume and the Beugnatre Road, and was within about the same distance of Bancourt and Fremicourt. From the latter village machine-gun fire continued to pour upon our posts, but from Bancourt the enemy was seen to be retiring in haste. Battalion commanders pleaded page 366for permission to advance further and occupy the latter village, but the initial forward movement had not been carried out to the same depth on the flanks, and sanction was reluctantly withheld. This was unfortunate, for presently the enemy troops began to filter back again, and there was to be some stiff fighting before the village, a veritable strong-point elaborately entrenched and wired, finally passed into our hands.