The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 1.—Trescault Spur, September 9th
Part 1.—Trescault Spur, September 9th.
Situation—Object of the main battle set down for September 18th—Preliminary action, September 9th—Objectives—2nd Battalion attacks African Trench and African Support—3rd Battalion forms a defensive flank to the north—Counter-attacks.
The enemy's main line of resistance north of Havrincourt was the Canal du Nord, and south of the village it was the Hindenburg Line. His position behind the Canal was strong, whereas on the British side of it the ground sloped gradually down and was for the most part, open to and swept by his machine-guns on the eastern bank. It was clear that nothing but a carefully-organized attack would succeed in driving him from such a position. Again, the main line of resistance running south-east from Havrincourt was covered by formidable positions about Havrincourt and Epehy, and before a final attack on the Hindenburg Line itself could be undertaken, it was first necessary to clear this strongly-held forward zone.
Operations to this end were planned for the 12th of September, when the IVth and VIth Corps of the Third Army were to attack on a front of five miles in the Havrincourt sector.
As a preliminary to this attack, however, a subsidiary action was ordered for the 9th, with the double object of feeling the strength of the enemy and weakening his hold on the Trescault Ridge and Spur. In this operation the Vth Corps on our immediate right was to attack the high ground to the west and south-west of Gouzeaucourt, while the New Zealanders were to assist by prolonging the Vth Corps' line slightly and establishing a strong defensive flank back to the projecting south-eastern corner of Havrincourt Wood.
The position held by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was some little distance in advance of an old British trench running roughly north and south. In front of us the ground page 378sloped to the bottom of the Trescault Valley, in the southern end of which was Gouzeaucourt Wood. Across the valley the ground rose again to the crest of the Trescault Spur, which jutted out northwards from Gouzeaucourt to Trescault. Along this crest was another old British system, consisting of a main trench and a reserve trench, the former being about 2,000 yards from our position, and the latter from 300 to 500 yards nearer to us. On the southern section opposite our front they were known as African Trench and African Support, and on the northern section as Snap Trench and Snap Reserve. A portion of this system formed the main part of the objective for the day's operations, and the task for the New Zealand Division was allotted to our 2nd and 3rd Battalions, the former being detailed to capture that portion of African Support and African Trench lying direetly opposite its front, and the latter to establish a defensive flank running diagonally back from the left of the 2nd Battalion's objective, through a sunken cross-roads known as Dead Man's Corner, and so on to our original line. The 4th Battalion, on the left, was to remain in position for the present. A moving barrage was provided for the advance of the 2nd Battalion, and a standing barrage was to be placed along the enemy trench in front of the 3rd; while the heavies were instructed to bombard Gouzeaueourt and the trenches and sunken roads running along the eastern slopes of the Spur. Machine-guns were also to place a standing barrage on selected trenches and roads.
Part of the line finally taken up by our Brigade on the afternoon of September 7th lay along the western edge of Gouzeaueourt Wood, and, as the latter presented a possible serious obstacle to the intended advance, patrols went out at daybreak on the 8th to ascertain the position and strength of the enemy posts within it, and to report on the feasibility of moving the line forward to the eastern edge. One of these, led by Rifleman J. C. Dibble, working beyond the southern boundary, had an encounter with an enemy party just on the point of rushing one of the 17th Division's posts on our right, Dibble's arrival and prompt action averting what threatened to be certain disaster to the garrison. The Wood was found to be strongly held, and although a few posts were actually established on the forward edge, they were, on ac-page 379count of their comparative isolation, withdrawn in the evening.
The attack on the 9th opened at 4 a.m., and it was soon evident that the enemy's tired rear-guards had been replaced by fresh troops determined to maintain to the last their hold on the valuable spur. His artillery response to our opening barrage was heavy and well-directed, while the country over which our advancing troops were to pass was swept by the heaviest machine-gun fire yet experienced.
The objective for the 3rd Battalion, on the left, was roughly parallel to Snap Reserve, a continuation of African Support, but here bending back slightly towards the west. Elements of both the leading companies, "A" (Capt. H. W. Slater) on the right, and "C" (Lieut. J. H. Irvine) on the left, succeeded in reaching this, but the advancing troops, as well as reinforcements sent up to their assistance, melted away under the fierce machine-gun fire from Dead Man's Corner and Snap Reserve. A counter-attack drove the remains of the left company back to the vicinity of their original position, and the left of the right company had to swing back to conform. On the ground lost, three of our wounded were plainly visible to their comrades, now 200 yards away. Desperate efforts were made to bring them in, but every movement was the signal for a fresh burst of machine-gun fire from the slopes above. Sergeant J. Keatley, having been wounded in the face, was sent back to receive attention and to take a despatch to company headquarters. Disdaining his injuries, however, he returned to the outpost line and at once went out to endeavour to rescue the wounded. He succeeded in bringing in Rifleman C. Soar. A second journey was made, and, despite continuous machine-gun fire, he brought in Rifleman A. T. Oliver. His errand of mercy was repeated yet once more, but when he reached the third man, Rifleman A. W. Cooper, he page 383found that the later had been struck again and was now past all help.
The line now firmly held by the 3rd Battalion ran roughly along the northern edge of Gouzeaucourt Wood, with the right in touch with the 2nd Battalion. Casualties had been heavy, and the toll was steadily increased throughout the morning. The machine-gun fire continued with unabated intensity, the enemy's artillery steadily bombarded the line of posts, and even aeroplane bombs were dropped upon it. As if this were not sufficient, the much-tried men were harassed in a manner new and strange. At 9.30 a.m. the Germans projected upon the line two salvos each of about 300 spherical bombs slightly larger than an orange. These exploded as they fell, throwing out shrapnel and gas, and as the clouds drifted away it was seen that the grass had been burnt black.
At about 7 p.m., after a heavy bombardment with gas and high-explosive, the enemy counter-attacked along our whole line. He was everywhere held up except at one point, but the post he succeeded in driving in here was immediately re-established. During the night the 3rd Battalion companies slightly advanced their line and improved their positions.
In the fighting of this day we took over a hundred prisoners, a large proportion of whom were from Jager regiments, regarded as amongst the best fighting troops in the German Army. They stated that they had been warned to expect an attack that morning, the investigations of their aeroplane observers flying low behind our lines on the previous day having revealed unmistakable signs of immediate action.
The following two days passed fairly quietly. The weather was fine, but disagreeably cold and windy. There was a diminution in enemy artillery activity, which was mainly confined to drenching with gas the village of Metz-en-Couture, lying just behind our position. In the early evening of the llth, a patrol under Corporal N. G. Stone worked forward, bombed the enemy out of Dead Man's Corner, and occupied it. At 6 p.m. the enemy again counter-attacked in strength, but he was everywhere repulsed except at Dead Man's Corner, from which he drove the little party of six that had so recently captured it. The fine covering work of Rifleman W. H. McMillan enabled Corporal Stone to withdraw his men without casualties.page 384