The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 5.—Fremicourt, August 30th to September 1st
Part 5.—Fremicourt, August 30th to September 1st.
Advance continued, August 30th—1st Battalion takes Fremicourt and the ridge beyond—1st Brigade takes Bancourt—1st Battalion's flanks exposed—Withdrawal down the slope—Counter-attacks—Advance to the crest again, September 1st—General results—End of the second stage of the British offensive.
Preparations were at once put in hand to exploit the successes so far gained. The enemy had withdrawn to a fine defensive position on the high ground to the east, and the line taken up included a number of villages already fortified, "while crossing it diagonally lay the strongly-wired Beugny trench system. To prevent, completion of consolidation it was proposed to press the attack on the following day. The Brigade's objective was the village of Fremicourt and the ridge 800 yards to the east of it. The 1st Brigade on our right was to take Bancourt and a section of the same ridge, while the 5th Division on our left was to capture the system of trenches known as the Beugny Line. On the right of the New Zealanders was the 42nd Division, which had Villers-au-Flos as its objective.
* Lieut.-Col. Austin was recalled from the Brigade Details' Camp and resumed command of the 1st Battalion on the 29th. On the following day Major Bremner, from hospital, again took up the duties of Brigade Major
At 5 a.m. the artillery and machine-gun barrage opened, and after six minutes advanced due east by lifts of 100 yards every three minutes. Both the attacking companies met with stiff opposition from machine-gun posts established in the huts of the rest-billets on both sides of the road just beyond the line of the first barrage. These, enclosed within the usual thick earth banks built up as a protection against aeroplane bomb splinters, formed ready-made strong-points and gave considerable trouble. They were, however, smartly outflanked, and the line was able to move steadily forward with the barrage. The trench behind the billets was cleared at the point of the bayonet, and our men were within touch of Fremicourt.
In accordance with instructions, each of the leading companies skirted the village, leaving its mopping-up to the support company. "A" Company progressed steadily, clearing without serious difficulty some isolated buildings and a trench system running round the south of the village, and then, pressing forward up the slope, carried the final position with a rush. Except for some stiff fighting in the sunken road marking its left flank, and a sharp struggle about a dug-out position confronting the centre when half-way up the rise, this company, during the concluding stage of its advance, nowhere found the enemy's direct resistance sufficiently stubborn to page 368cause a cheek, but as they approached the crest the men fell fast under the enfilade fire coming in from the right. On the left, "D" Company struck farther trouble when in line with the nearer outskirts of Fremicourt. Here, just beyond the north-west corner, was situated a large camouflaged strong-point containing three machine-guns, but, by keeping close to the barrage, the leading sections were able to rush and capture this without casualties. As the forward companies passed on, "C" Company, in support, approached the village. Shells from one of our heavy howitzers, still crashing down upon its western edge, threatened to block the way; but three platoons passed round to the north, and one to the south, and from the sides they entered the village and dealt with its garrison.
In the meantime "D" Company was meeting with new and unexpected difficulties, for it was beginning to lose touch with the flank of the 5th Division, which was drawing away northwards. To ensure its own safety "D" Company's left had to extend correspondingly, and this brought it against strong enemy posts at a large railway dump. In clearing the position here, fifty prisoners were taken, but by the time the task was completed the barrage had passed on. The right of the company, however, was already on its objective; and by 8 a.m. the left came up in line with it and secured a strong position with its outer flank on the railway-cutting. This final stage was not completed without a stiff contest, and the lack of support from troops beyond the railway was felt as a serious handicap. Fortunately a tank arrived on the scene, and the struggle ended with the taking of the cutting and the capture of another fifty prisoners.
Both companies were now in position on the final objective on the ridge, but the flanks were "in the air." The 1st Brigade's extreme left was digging in 300 yards behind "A" Company's right; while on the left, although we had extended 300 yards into our neighbours' territory, there was still a considerable gap between us and their nearest troops. The support company, having completed the mopping-up of the village, passed on clear of the houses and dug in at the prearranged position astride the highway and abreast of the cemetery. Its "bag" of prisoners consisted of seven officers and 110 other ranks. Of these, no fewer than five officers and page 36976 other ranks had been hoodwinked into surrender by the clever tactics of Corporal E. Sheldrake with a section of five men.
The reserve company also had its adventures. At 6.30 a.m., one platoon was sent up to strengthen the left flank of "D" Company. The remainder, while waiting near the road, about half-way between Bapaume and Fremicourt, were fired on by our advancing tanks, whose crews, however, presently made amends by assisting the men of this company in the rooting out of some nests of machine-guns, which had been passed over by the advancing troops and were now firing from positions south of the old rest-camp.
On our right, the 1st Brigade took Bancourt, two companies of our 2nd Battalion assisting in the mopping-up of the village, in which they captured 34 prisoners; but the 42nd Division, operating beyond them, did not succeed in the endeavour to take Reincourt, and consequently the further advance of the 1st Brigade was checked. Similarly, on the left, Beugny was to have fallen to the troops of the 5th Division, but it was still beyond their grasp.
A somewhat prolonged and agitated telephonic discussion with regard to the situation now commenced between Brigade Headquarters and that of the 1st Battalion. The unit had sent in the usual urgent reports concerning its own position and that of the flanking troops, these being based on the information furnished by its forward companies. It would appear, however, that as to certain details the reports did not coincide with those supplied to Division by the formations on either hand, and Brigade Headquarters promptly advised the battalion of the fact; but by this time the unit's intelligence section had made their special reconnaissance, and confirmation of the previous statement was as promptly presented. Nevertheless this did not end the matter, for apparently the information in the hands of Divisional Headquarters was still conflicting, and presently a curt intimation to this effect was sent down to the battalion. Affairs were now becoming serious, for, in view of a counter-attack in strength, which was to be expected in the ordinary course of events, the artillery were awaiting those definite particulars which would enable them to give effective support. To set the matter at rest, the adju-page 370tant, Lieut. L. J. Rowe, set out to make a close investi gation of the position. In the face of heavy machine-gun fire, now be coming increasingly intense, he passed along the line, visited in turn all of our own posts and in addition those immediately adjoining, and had the satisfaction of reporting that in no case was the location of our positions incorrectly given.
Occupying as it did a salient with two exposed flanks, the 1st Battalion soon found its position an exceedingly perilous one. The line was subjected to continuous heavy rife and machine-gun fire, not only from the higher ground to the right, but also from Beugny. Soon after midday the enemy counterattacked, and succeeded in driving in the right flank and a post on the left. Casualties throughout the morning had been severe. 2nd Lieut. H. Ellen found himself the only surviving officer of his company. Sergt. R. J. Sinclair's platoon was reduced to himself and eight men and another platoon was carrying on bravely under Rifleman C. J. Ball; and, as no further advance had been made by the troops on our flanks, the remaining posts on the crest were quietly withdrawn during the afternoon and the line re-established some 200 yards down the western slope. The three platoons of the reserve company were moved from the west of the village to the north, in order to meet any further attack that might develop on the exposed left flank, and a company from the 3rd Battalion was attached as reserve in its place. At nightfall the Vickers guns were also sent up to this flank to cover the road from Beugny. The seriousness of the position in this quarter had been observed by the 4th Battalion. Soon after the enemy had inaugurated his return thrust, "C" Company of that unit, under Capt. McClurg, came over from the Beugnatre Road and established itself, with its two attached Vickers guns, on a spur northwest of Fremicourt, and in view of the uncertainty of the situation their presence in the near neighbourhood was a source of some considerable comfort to the troops of the 1st Battalion.
At 5 a.m. on 31st August the enemy barraged our front line, and half an hour later launched a strong counter-attack. As the advancing Germans approached the line from the crest above, it was seen that they were accompanied by tanks, a new experience for our men. The S.O.S. rocket went up, but apparently the signal was not seen, for the attackers reached the page 371posts before our barrage could be brought down. Two tanks, working together, breached the line on the right and moved on towards Fremicourt, but the German infantry had not learned the art of co-operation, and the tanks were poorly supposed. Approaching "C" Company's position on the east of the village the tanks drew heavy rifle and Lewis gun fire, and, turning southwards, they moved on towards the 1st Brigade's line. "C" Company thereupon strengthened its defensive flank, but was not further molested. Both tanks fell into the hands of the New Zealanders two days later.
The lost positions on the right of the front line were presently regained, for the remaining posts had succeeded in holding up the infantry attack without great difficulty. Indeed the whole situation appeared to be eminently satisfactory; but at daylight two parties of Germans, each about fifty strong, were discovered in rear of our left flank, having worked their way in between our left and the right of the 5th Division. The first party was sighted by Sergt. A. J. Cunningham, of "B" Company, who was now to add yet another achievement to the fine score already standing to his credit. Taking with him no more than a section, he moved out at once to engage the Germans, and so skillfully did he handle his men that within a few minutes the little operation was over and 46 prisoners were on their way to the rear. The second party of Germans moved on till they reached the position held by the Vickers gun section and the detached platoon of "B" Company on the north of the village. Here they received short shrift, for, making no response to the command to surrender, they were raked by our rifles and machine-guns, and the handful of unwounfled Germans remaining gave themselves up.
* The total casualties to the Brigade from the opening of the great battle on August 21st were, up to the end of the month, 14 officers and 114 men killed, and 34 officers and 499 men wounded, together with 40 men unaccounted for. During the earlier part of the month they numbered one officer and eight men killed, and four officers and 61 men wounded.
At 4.55 a.m. the barrage came down promptly, and shortly afterwards "C" and "B" Companies passed through the outposts of the other two companies and pushed up the slopes. In spite of heavy machine-gun fire from the flanks, the leading platoons gained their objectives by 5.30 a.m., capturing 75 prisoners and a number of machine-guns and trench-mortars. Touch was established with the 1st Brigade troops, who had come up on the right, but the flank company of the Brigade on our left did not arrive in time to participate in the attack. Eventually the company moved as far forward as was possible in the daylight, and in the evening, under cover of darkness, completed the advance and filled the gap.
The number of prisoners captured by the 1st Battalion from 30th August to 1st September was over 400, including a battalion commander and his staff, this total being greater than our own unit's trench strength. The battalion also took two 77 mm. guns, nine minenwerfer, six anti-tank rifles,* and thirty machine-guns. Our front line was now thirteen miles east of Hebuterne.
At 7 a.m. on September 1st, Lieut.-Col. Austin was wounded by a shell-splinter and was evacuated,* Capt. G. P. O'Shannassy assuming temporary command of the 1st Battalion until the return of Major Shepherd from the Details' Camp.
In the evening the Brigade was relieved by the 2nd Brigade, and went into the area between Bapaume and Favreuil as Divisional reserve.
* These were the first anti-tank rifles captured on this front. They were long, clumsy pieces, apparently too heavy to fire with accuracy except from a rest. The bore was much larger than that of an ordinary rifle. It was curious to note that tie sling, cartridge-belt and pouches were woven, like our Mills equipment, and that the material was of twisted paper, similar to that used by the Germans for their sand bags.
* Lieut.-Col. Austin did not return to the Brigade.
During these closing days of the Battle of Bapaume the fighting had gone well along the whole front of the Fourth and Third Armies. By the night of August 30th, their line north of the Somme ran along Clery, Marrieres Wood, Combles, Les Bœufs, Bancourt, Fremicourt, Vraucourt, to the western outskirts of Ecoust, Bullecourt and Hendecourt. By the fighting of the following two days the line was pushed still further eastward and embraced Mont St. Quentin and Peronne, which were taken by the Australians.
So ended the second stage in the British offensive. In the first stage Amiens was freed. In the second, the Third and Fourth Armies, comprising 23 British Divisions, had in ten days driven 35 German Divisions from one side of the old Somme battlefield to the other, thereby turning, as had been intended, the line of the River Somme, inflicting an enormous number of casualties, and capturing over 34,000 prisoners and 270 guns. It now appeared that the enemy would for a time stand on the line of the Somme River and the high ground about Roquigny and Beugny until he could with safety withdraw behind the Hindenburg Line.*
* Owing to the local pressure on the Lys front, and to the reverses south or Arras, the enemy gave up all hope of reaching the Channel ports, and began, early in August, to withdraw from the Lys Salient. At the end of the month his retrograde movement became more rapid and extensive, and by the 6th September our forces in that area were once more back on the general line Givenehy-Neuve Chapelle—Nieppe—Ploegsteert—Voormezeele, the salient having now entirely disappeared.