The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Chapter XVI. The Battle of Havrincourt and Epehy
Chapter XVI. The Battle of Havrincourt and Epehy.
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
Part 2.—Trescault Spur, September 12th.
Main action—Troops—Objectives—Barrage—2nd, 1st and 4th Battalions advance—Full success denied—Signallers, runners, stretcher-bearers—Sergeant Harry John Laurent, V.C.—New Zealand Division to Corps Reserve—Main battle continued—Results—New Zealand Rifle Brigade resting and training—Visits to Flers and other old Somme battlefields—Warned for action.
Preparations for the more important action on the morrow were now well forward. The IVth and Vlth Corps of the Third Army were to attack on a front of about five miles. The IVth Corps Divisions to be employed were, in order from the right, the New Zealanders and the 37th. Our right flank was to be safeguarded by troops of the 38th Division, Vth Corps. North of the 37th, the 62nd Division of the VIth Corps would attack Havrincourt,* while the New Zealanders and the 37th would assault Trescault Spur.
* By a curious coincidence the 62nd Division had made a similar attack in exactly the same manner in the successful Cambrai offensive of the previous October; and from this same locality, too, the enemy had opened his no less successful counter-attack only one week later.
An hour before dawn all three battalions were in position for the attack. Following was the order of battle: In the 2nd Battalion, "A" Company (Lieut. D. Kennedy) was on the right, and "C" Company (Capt. W. C. I. Sumner) on the left; "D" (2nd Lieut. R. O. C. Marks) and "B" (Lieut. H. B. Pattrick) were in support, but from each of these, two platoons had been detached to the forward companies as immediate reserves. The 1st Battalion had "B" Company (Capt. G. P. O'Shannassy) on the right, "C" Company (Lieut. E. B. Tustin) on the left, with "D" (2nd Lieut. H. Ellen) and "A" (2nd Lieut. D. L. Crooks) in support. "C" and "B" had attached to them one platoon from "A" Company. The two leading companies of the 4th Battalion were "D" (Capt. M. H. R. Jones) on the right, and "B" (Capt. B. McLeod) on the left; while "A" (Lieut. H. S. Kenrick) and "C" (Capt. D. W. McClurg) were in support. The 3rd Battalion, in Brigade reserve, held two companies in readiness at the call of Lieut.-Col. Jardine and Major Shepherd, and before the day had well advanced both were sent forward. Later on still another company was called upon by the centre battalion.
In the meantime the remaining two battalions had had a sufficiently hard struggle to gain their first objective in the face of the heavy machine-gun fire that swept the broader stretch of country over which they had to pass. Sergeant C. K. Jennens, of the 1st Battalion, completed the first advance in charge of a company, all the officers having been struck down. Approaching Snap Trench he personally and successfully led a small party against a machine-gun post which was delaying the advance. At another point Rifleman C. T. Stevens carried through a similar exploit, using enemy bombs when his own gave out, and then, when the post was taken, bringing the captured German gun into action. He was materially assisted by Rifleman J. Donn, who, after killing the crew of a gun on his own account single-handed, jumped into the trench and attacked this second crew from the other flank.
Riflemen F. Smith and A. Gillam, two 4th Battalion men, carried a post containing three machine-guns, and killed the garrison of three officers and ten men, thus relieving pressure that had for a time proved serious and costly. Further along the line, Rifleman W. F. Turner with a Lewis gun worked across the open to the flank of a strong-point from which the page 388enemy with two machine-guns was holding up his platoon. He succeeded in forcing down the heads of the German gunners, and so enabled the platoon to rush and capture the post. A similar feat, no less daringly essayed, was successfully accomplished by Rifleman E. Mellor.
With equal promptitude all opposition elsewhere was crushed, and the first objective for the two battalions was secured well up to time. Reorganization was proceeded with as rapidly as possible during the longer rest of the barrage in front of the line gained, and the platoons detailed for the purpose made ready to carry on towards the final goal.
The innumerable German machine-guns had our line only too well marked, however, and when the barrage moved on it at once became certain that the continuance of the advance across country was utterly impossible. There remained the saps leading forward, and up these avenues parties of our men immediately began to bomb their way, but the Germans, strongly posted at every vantage-point therein, clung to their positions with the greatest determination. After most strenuous efforts, in which 2nd Lieut. H. Ellen, the only remaining officer of his company, and Sergt. E. S. Ellingham, who led a handful of men in four successive bombing attacks, were most conspicuous, three posts were established in the southern end of Snap Trench by the 1st Battalion, and this was the only part of the second objective that fell into our hands. Farther north, the left company had to be content with the establishment of blocks to hold the enemy beyond bombing distance from Snap Reserve.
Despite the most persistent efforts, the 4th Battalion, with the broader area to cross in the second advance, and with Snap Trench lying midway between the first and second objectives, could make little progress. On the extreme left, a small party moving swiftly and with extreme boldness succeeded in actually reaching the objective; but, finding themselves entirely isolated, they had to fall back again in the face of superior numbers. For the rest, nothing more could be done than to establish advanced posts in the saps and await a more favourable opportunity to improve the situation.
The cold, driving showers which commenced at 9 a.m., after a bright morning, became more frequent and heavy as page 389the day advanced, and movement in the muddy trenches became increasingly difficult. During the afternoon the 1st Battalion, having brought up fresh supplies of bombs, commenced a series of attacks along the saps leading forward to Snap Trench and along this latter trench itself. Some progress was made, notably by sections led by Corporal E. C. Fletcher and Riflemen G. A. Papworth and W. McIntyre, but the gains did not materially improve our hold on the forward trench. The pressure from the repeated local counter-attacks on the advanced posts on the battalion's front proved most exhausting; and that the garrisons were able to maintain their hold at all was in large measure due to the fine example and gallant leadership of 2nd Lieut. A. G. Holder, who came up from support to take over the command of one of the companies that had lost all its officers. One by one Capt. O'Shannassy's subalterns had gone down under the deadly hail of bullets and showers of bombs, and when he at last fell the direction of affairs devolved upon his Company Sergt-Major, E. J. Reeve, who, under the trying conditions prevailing, acquitted himself magnificently. On the open slopes of Trescault Ridge, indeed, the warrant officers were unusually prominent in leadership and in personal service; and of their number was Company Sergt.-Major S. Smith, of the 4th Battalion, whose dash and vigour, apparently inexhaustible, proved to be a source of inspiration during repeated bombing-fights.
At 7 p.m. the 4th Battalion launched a fresh attack under an artillery barrage, the 1st Battalion co-operating; and, though they failed to achieve the full success they sought, by 7.30 p.m. the whole of Snap Trench was in their hands, and on the extreme left a post was established well forward and close to the second objective. Here touch was established with the troops on the flank.
During the fighting on the left, Riflemen E. L. Cullen and J. J. H. Wilson, each in charge of a section, proved themselves remarkably dashing and fearless leaders in a succession of assaults upon enemy strong-points. Of the many enterprises by bombing-parties, that carried out by 2nd Lieut. R. Whitefield's platoon from the flank support company was prosecuted with more than the usual insistence and boldness, but the attackers were opposed by Germans no less stubborn in their determina-page 390tion to hold on, and the fight proved long and strenuous. The men were splendidly led, and the efforts of the leader were skilfully seconded by his platoon-sergeant, Sergeant Hamilton; but probably the factor which at last turned the scale in their favour was the valorous action of the battalion commander himself. Major Barrowclough was up with his forward troops at the time, superintending this local assault, and, observing the fact that the platoon was in danger of being held up while still short of the desired goal, he seized a rifle and a supply of bombs, dashed up the shallow trench to the head of the attack, and laid about him with such effect that the well-nigh exhausted men, thus spurred on to fresh efforts, regained the ascendancy, and shortly afterwards had the satisfaction of beating down all opposition and securing the favourable position for which they had striven.
The counter-attacks that had fallen upon the men of the 2nd Battalion throughout the day, particularly those at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m., had made their impression on the flanks of their sector, but they still clung tenaciously to a considerable stretch in the central portion of the trench originally captured, and continued their endeavours to regain further lengths of this line. In these efforts Rifleman R. C. Naismith was conspicuous until, after leading successive bombing-parties as first bayonet-man, he was severely wounded by a bomb. Corporal G. Fruin, who had so distinguished himself in a series of most gallant attacks on the 9th, was mortally wounded while similarly leading on this day. With their refused flanks strengthened by sections brought up from their supports, the leading companies were well established in such a position as would prevent the development of a turning movement on the part of enemy troops moving from Gouzeaucourt, and with this they had now to rest content.
At 10.30 p.m. the enemy launched his last counter-attack in strength. The stroke fell for the most part upon the much-tried forward posts in the salient of the 1st Battalion's sector, and these were pushed back to the road running north from Dead Man's Corner, leaving Snap Trench in this vicinity finally in the hands of the enemy; for though bombing-fights continued throughout the night they did not result in any material gains. The right company of the 4th Battalion was also page 391affected, though to a less extent. All its officers with the exception of the company commander had been either killed or wounded, and now its right post was lost for the third time. So heavy had been the casualties that the platoon here was by this time almost completely annihilated, and a platoon had to be brought up from the support company to re-establish the post. When Capt. Jones was finally relieved his company consisted of himself, one lance-corporal, and a handful of men.
So ended this day of fierce struggle. A competent authority has stated that there was more long-sustained close fighting on the 12th of September than the Division had experienced on any other single day since Gallipoli. We had opposed to us fresh troops from two of Germany's finest Divisions, including the Jagers, specially brought in to hold this important ground; and, all things considered, the achievement of the Brigade in securing the greater part of the line of vantage on the crest of Trescault Spur was one of which we had no small reason to be proud. The enemy had held his sector in great strength and had suffered correspondingly. A careful estimate of the enemy dead alone puts the number at not less than 300, quite apart from the casualties he must have suffered in his rear lines from shell-fire, while the toll of prisoners taken reached a total of 502.*
On the sectors to the north of us, Trescault was taken by the 37th Division and Havrincourt by the 62nd. Hence on this part of the front the desired favourable position for the grand attack on the Hindenburg Line was now secured.
The full tale of the work of the subsidiary sections of the Brigade throughout this day with its fluctuating fortunes would in itself make a moving story of gallant service and extreme devotion. The discharge of their duties was a matter of sheer self-sacrifice, for though they had all the dangers to face they had not the thrill of hand-to-hand conflict to sustain them, nor the satisfaction of being able to return blow for blow. Sergeant W. J. Clifford and Riflemen G. Burgess, J. S.
* Our total casualties during the fighting from 1st to 12th September, including those at Fremicourt, were:—
Mathias and W. Stockdale are remembered for their efforts in laying and repairing the telephone lines, exhausting duties which exposed them to constant danger front shell-fire and gas. So also are Riflemen W. H. Jowers, H. Heath, E. McGrath, T. J. Senn, D. G. Irvine, W. H. Corbett and E. J. White, as representing that wonderful band of battalion and company runners, upon whose skill and faithfulness in bearing messages to and from the front line so much of the success of an operation depends. It is characteristic of the runners that they never give up till outraged Nature knocks them off their feet; and it must be borne in mind that in the execution of their duties they have frequently to pass through the enemy's barrage. Rifleman Jowers, for instance, is credited with twelve such runs in this one day. They gain an uncanny knack, a sort of new sense, by which they are able to foresee, nine times out of ten, where the next shell will fall; but in this respect they are not infallible, and every time they go out they take their lives in their hands, but in the face of it all they smile and "carry on." Riflemen W. J. Allason, D. A. McKie, J. A. Jones, G. Skatt and T. W. Voss were amongst the stretcher-bearers who survived. Some of these devoted men continued at their labours for eighteen hours on end, and in many instances they crept out into No Man's Land to bring in wounded who had fallen as the line swayed to and fro. Even the men of the transport had deeds of daring to their credit, as, for instance, Rifleman J. R. Gould, of the 2nd Battalion, who took his limbers through a barrage and brought bombs and ammunition to within 500 yards of the front line.
Of the combatant officers all will willingly yield pride of place to Lieut. D. Kennedy, M.C., of "A" Company, 2nd Battalion, to the influence of whose brilliant reconnaissance work and brave and skilful leadership on the 9th, and again on the 12th, the fine advances and stubborn resistance of his company on both those days were in great measure due. He advanced to the attack on the 12th with a company-strength of 50, and went out on relief with two officers and 23 men. The unusual award of the Distinguished Service Order granted to Lieut. Kennedy was richly earned.
To complete the account of this day's doings there remains one of its earliest events, an astonishing adventure that page 393possesses many of the features of an independent operation. In accordance with the general instructions for the attack on the 12th, each battalion detailed beforehand certain sections for the duty of exploiting the success gained. These sections were to form reconnoitring patrols which, immediately after the capture of the final objective, were to work forward and maintain touch with the enemy. One of such patrols from "A" Company, 2nd Battalion, consisting of twelve men with a Lewis gun, under Sergeant Harry John Laurent, moved forward from African Trench on its special mission. Strangely enough, for the Germans were sufficiently numerous elsewhere, the patrol failed to make that instant contact with the enemy which from their experience of the 9th they had good reason to expect, and Sergeant Laurent led his men cautiously but steadily forward, taking advantage of such little cover as was available. Machine-gun bullets and shells were falling unpleasantly thick, but there was still no sign of the enemy infantry. As the patrol continued their advance down the slope they were presently able to make out a trench, afterwards ascertained to be some 750 yards east of African Trench, lying at right angles to their line of advance, and strongly garrisoned. Laurent was seeking contact, and he now determined to get it with a vengeance. A few moments sufficed for the necessary dispositions, and, with a shout of exultation, Laurent, followed by his mere handful of men, dashed at the trench. Rifleman M. Healey found himself alone on a flank, where with bayonet and bomb he killed ten of his opponents, and presently accounted for a senior officer who was frantically working the telephone. Corporal E. W. Wood moved along the parapet firing his Lewis gun from the hip into the trench. An attempt on the part of a German machine-gun crew to bring their gun into action was nipped in the bud, and the enemy, now thoroughly demoralized by the suddenness and fierceness of the onslaught, threw up their hands, but not before our men had accounted for some thirty killed and wounded. The prisoners were unceremoniously marshalled and conducted as expeditiously as possible to our lines, bringing with them our casualties, consisting of two dead and two wounded. They numbered in all an officer and 111 non-commissioned officers and men, and proved to be the survivors of a whole support page 394company. The position they had occupied, partly trench and partly sunken road, was extremely strong, with many concrete emplacements each mounting a heavy and a light machinegun; while in the close vicinity were field guns firing over open sights. Sergeant Laurent, as the leader in this extraordinary enterprise, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
During the night of 12th/13th September, in pouring rain, we were relieved by the 1st Brigade,* and went into Divisional support near Ytres. On the 14th the Division became Corps reserve, being relieved by the 5th Division, and the New Zealand Rifle Brigade moved to the area about Favreuil, Biefvillers and Sapignies.
The battle for the forward positions on our right was continued on the 17th, when the Australian and IXth Corps captured Massemy and Holnon Village and Wood, and again on the 18th, when the Fourth and Third Armies attacked on a front of seventeen miles from Holnon to Gouzeaucourt, penetrated to a depth of three miles, and captured the important positions about Epehy.
In this fourth stage of the offensive, fifteen British Divisions defeated twenty German Divisions, took 12,000 prisoners and 100 guns, and secured all the positions required for a great attack on the main Hindenburg defences.†
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade remained in Corps reserve from 15th to 27th September, during which time training, including battalion and company tactical exercises, was carried out. Except for a few thunderstorms the weather was fine throughout the period, and, despite some bombing of the bivouac area from time to time, all ranks enjoyed to the utmost the rest and change.
* On the following night the Germans, using liquid fire, attacked the two southern battalion sectors and succeeded in driving the garrisons back to African Support. African Trench was not regained till the 28th, when troops of the 25th Division secured it after two strong attacks.
† Throughout this period, the French Armies kept up their pressure and made important advances. The Americans also were making their presence felt; on September 12th their First Army dealt a smashing blow, driving the enemy out of the St. Mihiel Salient and inflicting severe losses in prisoners and guns.
On the same day a Special Order was issued by General Hart, congratulating all ranks upon their splendid work, and praising the gallantry, skill, determination and assurance displayed throughout the operations just concluded. The order recalled that, during a period of twenty-two days, the Brigade had taken part in eight engagements, capturing 1,281 prisoners and very large quantities of war material.
Units, with their transport, were inspected by the G.O.C. Division, who took the opportunity to congratulate the battalions on their achievements in the great advance, and to compliment the men on their fine appearance and bearing so soon after the strenuous times they had just passed through. While on route marches the different battalions visited the old battlefields of the Somme, in particular Flers and its vicinity.
Reconnoitring parties kept constant touch with developments in the forward zone. On September 25th the Brigade received a warning-order to be ready to move at short notice in support of operations to be carried out by the IVth Corps, and on the 28th moved to a position of readiness east of Bertincourt, replacing the reserve brigade of the 42nd Division.page 396