The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 1.—Lesdain and Beyond, October 8th
Part 1.—Lesdain and Beyond, October 8th.
Object of the Battle of Le Cateau—Front of attack—New Zealand Division engaged—New Zealand Rifle Brigade takes Lesdain and advances beyond—2nd Brigade captures Esnes—General success—Cambrai entered.
With the object of compelling the enemy to evacuate Cambrai, the Third and Fourth Armies on October 8th attacked on a front stretching seventeen miles southwards from the southern outskirts of the town. On the right, again, the French troops extended the line of attack as far south as St. Quentin, while, still farther south, the French and Americans attacked east of the Meuse and in Champagne. The action on the British front is known as the Battle of Le Cateau, and marks the commencement of the fighting in open country.
On the IVth Corps' front the 2nd Brigade and the New Zealand Rifle Brigade attacked in conjunction with the 37th Division on the right and the 3rd Division on the left. The task of the New Zealand Division was to establish itself just west of Esnes, and on the Esnes—La Targette Road to the north of the village. This meant a thrust to a depth of over 4,000 yards on a front of 3,500 yards, and would constitute the longest advance under a barrage the New Zealanders had yet made.
Crevecoeur is only about four and a half miles almost due south of Cambrai; and as the main object of the attack was to turn the enemy's position at Cambrai, the general direction of the advance was now to bend slightly north of east.
Our Brigade held a small salient, the most easterly point of the whole British front, round the eastern outskirts of page 405Crevecoeur, and had the village of Lesdain immediately opposite its right flank. The attacking battalions were the 4th, 1st and 2nd, in that order from the right, and the assault of Lesdain thus fell to the 4th Battalion. The advance of the 2nd Brigade was planned to overlap, some distance east of Lesdain, the frontage of the 4th Battalion, which thereafter was to confine itself to mopping up the area in and about Lesdain, as well at some 1,500 yards of the deep valley to the eastwards, through which flowed the Torrent of Esnes, and on the completion of this task was to assemble as battalion in support. The 3rd Battalion was to reduce its front line garrison to one company during the night, and immediately after zero, when the troops of the 3rd Division and the 2nd Battalion would have passed through the line, this company was to rejoin its unit in Brigade reserve.
A field-gun barrage was provided, to move forward by lifts of 100 yards every four minutes, to the Seranvillers trench-line forming the first objective some 2,000 yards ahead, beyond which it was to pause for half an hour and then advance again by similar lifts every three minutes to the final objective. This barrage was strengthened by the fire of the 32 guns of the Auckland and Wellington Machine Gun Companies; and heavy artillery would bombard selected points. After assisting in the opening barrage, four Stokes mortars were to go forward with the attacking troops, two with the 1st Battalion and two with the 2nd. To each of these units, also, eight guns of the Otago Machine Gun Company were attached, and the remaining sections of this company were directed to follow to positions from which covering fire could be directed to protect the flanks of each objective when taken. Four tanks from the 12th Tank Battalion were detailed to assist the 4th Battalion in the mopping-up of Lesdain. The 3rd Division was to have similar assistance in dealing with Seranvillers.
Our opening barrage-fire commenced at 4.30 a.m. The attacking battalions were in their assembly positions long before this time, and to avoid the enemy shelling which in response was expected to fall most heavily on Crevecoeur, they had got well forward of the village. Owing to the rapidity of the previous advance, our own artillery had not been able to com-page 406plete their dispositions and ranging in sufficient time to ensure that accuracy of fire which had characterized their covering work in previous engagements, and the short-shooting of one or two guns caused some slight confusion amongst the waiting troops. The first lift came four minutes later, and the three battalions advanced to the attack.
In the 4th Battalion's sector, "C" Company (Capt. D. W. McClurg), moving in touch with 2nd Canterbury, captured the strongly-held factory buildings and dump on the boundary just in front of the starting-line, and then passed on, pushing the enemy from the network of railway sidings immediately beyond. At this early stage of the advance there occurred an incident exemplifying the value of close co-operation between the flanks of different bodies of troops. During the sharp fighting about the Factory, it was observed that the Canterbury men were suffering heavily from the sustained firing of a machine-gun posted on the slope beyond the buildings. Lance-Corporal Davidson, of the 4th Battalion, marked down the position, and, with three of his section, worked round to the rear of the post and rushed it, captured the garrison, and effectually removed an obstacle which had threatened seriously to impede our neighbours' progress, but from which we ourselves had experienced no great inconvenience.
The forward movement continued steadily until the western outskirts of Lesdain were reached. From this point one platoon moved along the southern edge of the village and took up a position on the east of it. A second followed half-way and held the southern edge, while a third, when these had been firmly established, passed along the northern fringe, cleared out the Chateau position, and faced the south. At the prearranged moment all three platoons entered the village simultaneously and proceeded to mop it up. This task was speedily accomplished and many prisoners were taken, especially from the strong dug-outs at the cross-roads on the far side. Amongst the spoils were six minenwerfer and two anti-tank rifles. "B" Company (Capt. B. McLeod), on the left, keeping pace with the barrage, had already passed along the north of the village, had cleared part of its outskirts, and was engaged in dealing with the enemy in the valley of the Torrent of Esnes. The platoons of this company had difficult country to work over, page 407and met with considerable resistance throughout their advance. The whole of the battalion's task was, however, completed in good time, and in all 324 prisoners, including 19 officers, were sent back. From this comparatively small area no fewer than thirty machine-guns were taken.
The 2nd Battalion had a frontage of only 500 yards at the commencement of the advance, though this widened somewhat near the first objective. It had more difficult country to work over, however, with scattered trench elements between the roads and on the flank. It advanced with "B" Company (Lieut. H. B. Pattrick) leading, "D" Company (2nd Lieut. R. O. C. Marks) following in close support to watch the left flank and to assist the forward line where required. "A" Company (Lieut. M. D. Smith) and "C" (Capt. W. C. I. Sumner) were detailed for the capture of the second objective, with "D" on the flank as before. The Northumberland Fusiliers were to be in touch to the first objective, and the Suffolks to the second. Throughout the first advance several checks were experienced, but all were of short duration. One machine-gun post was attacked from the flank by Rifleman A. E. Forsyth, who, with a Lewis gun, forced the enemy to retire over the open, thus exposing them to the fire of the remainder of his section, by whom they were all shot down. At another point, as the leading troops approached the first objective, intense machine-gun fire swept down the valley running up towards Seranvillers, causing many casualties on the left. Corporal S. J. Sapsford, a Lewis gunner, located the enemy guns, two of which were seen to be in action. Calling upon two other Lewis gun teams to follow him, he dashed across the open to a commanding position, and still under fire, directed the three guns upon the enemy post, which was speedily and effectually silenced. A short length of double trench lying directly across the advance and a little distance from the objective held up the line completely for a time; but the situation was smartly cleared up through some clever work on the part of Sergeant T. O'Neill, now in charge of a platoon in the place of his offi-page 410cer, who had fallen. Quickly grasping the situation, he made the dispositions for the sections of his platoon, brought both Lewis guns into effective action, and then personally led a bombing section against the flank of the position, killed several of the enemy holding it, and caused the rest to surrender. The troops on the left were thus enabled to get forward, and, aided by sections sent up from the support company as the front widened, they entered the trench forming the first objective. The right, however, was still held up by a strongly-held section of the trench from which machine-guns were firing forward upon the 2nd Battalion and also enfilading the 1st. This hornet's nest was dealt with by a bombing party led from the flank by Sergeant H. L. Moyle of the 2nd Battalion, who, by his furious attack, compelled the surrender of forty Germans with several machine-guns. The whole of the first objective was now in our hands, and touch was gained with the troops on the left. For the moment, the 4th Battalion's line ran back from the right of the 1st Battalion at right-angles, and joined up with that of 2nd Canterbury some little distance to the east of Lesdain.
It was now 5.30 a.m., and while the protective barrage rested just beyond the trench, the 1st and 2nd Battalions completed their dispositions for the next advance towards the final objective some 1,500 yards ahead. This was the tree-lined highway running from Esnes in a north-westerly direction to Cambrai. It rose steeply from Esnes to the Mill on the crest, and then dropped beyond down a longer and gentler slope to La Targette on the eastern outskirts of Seranvillers. As before, a number of intersecting roads and trench elements lay between us and our goal; and while, during the advance, the left would be in touch with the 3rd Division, the right would be exposed and unsupported; for, as will be remembered, the left of 2nd Canterbury's temporary line was, according to plan, by Lesdain, 1,500 yards west of us.
Now the barrage lifted and the advance was resumed. The 1st Battalion's companies had become somewhat intermingled, but they pressed steadily up the spur, the centre line of their advance leading directly towards the Mill on the sky-line. For the most part the enemy's resistance was easily overcome; the Mill was enveloped, and this position, as well as the greater page 411part of the objective along the road, fell speedily into our hands. Most of the casualties sustained were caused by machine-gun fire from the flanks, particularly from Esnes, which lay close to our right, and from which those of our sections clearing the banks and tracks and sunken roads on the steep southern slope were clearly visible and within short range. On the right of the objective the enemy had a strongly-wired trench system projecting from the village and looping across the road. Three machine-guns firing from this temporarily held up the right flank. Here Rifleman M. J. Mulvaney, who was in charge of a Lewis gun section, set to work to relieve the situation. Taking up a position on a point of vantage, he opened fire to cover a flanking movement, thus drawing fire upon himself. Marking down the nearest gun and watching his opportunity he succeeded in killing the crew. Soon afterwards he silenced the second gun in the same way, and then forced the crew of the third to take cover. Now, without a moment's hesitation, he dropped his gun, seized a rifle, and with one of his men dashed forward into the trench. A few minutes' exercise with the bayonet sufficed to complete his work, and the remainder of the garrison of the trench surrendered. The 1st Battalion was thus in possession of the whole of its allotted section of the objective. Consolidation was at once proceeded with, and a defensive flank formed facing the north-west of Esnes till the 2nd Brigade troops should come up.
While the digging was proceeding, the left forward company of the battalion was shelled by a German battery of field guns which were firing at short range from their position in a sunken road just beyond the objective. 2nd Lieut. A. L. McCormick was the only officer left, and, under stress of the accurate shelling, some of his men fell back. McCormick thereupon personally led parties of Lewis gunners forward to attack the battery from a flank. They engaged the field-gun crews at point blank range, but were driven back, and McCormick rallied his men for a second attempt. In this they were supported by Corporal F. R. Cormack, who had reorganized the men driven back from the trench, and who, under cover of Lewis gun fire directed at the battery from the front, was bringing them forward again. The attention of the Germans page 412being thus momentarily distracted, Corporal L. G. McLean, in charge of one of the teams working under the lieutenant, dashed from cover, raked the German gunners, and occupied the battery position till consolidation was completed. The officer in command of the battery scuttled off to the rear, but he was promptly run to earth and brought back.
The advance of the 2nd Battalion on its broadening front had been equally successful, but the troops had suffered some-what heavy casualties from machine-guns sweeping the open slopes about Seranvillers. Rifleman S. Fatt, a Lewis gunner, who with his team had been detailed to establish close liaison with the troops of the 3rd Division on the left during the two advances, had a remarkable series of adventures with successive enemy machine-gun positions. Two field-guns abandoned by the enemy were passed midway between the two objectives. Further casualties occurred as the 2nd Battalion companies crossed the sky-line on the spur behind the La Targette Road, for here they formed a good mark for the battery presently silenced by 2nd Lieut. McCormick and his Lewis gunners. However, all but the extreme left of the battalion's objective was taken without serious delay. On this flank two of "D" Company's sections under the command of Corporal F. L. Cross and Rifleman W. A. Mackinder, respectively, met with considerable resistance and were held up by a machine-gun post. The two leaders, working in co-operation, handled the position skilfully. One held the front while the other took his men to a flank, and, closing in, they cleared the position with a dashing rush, taking twenty prisoners and two machineguns. This completed the advance, the whole line being in our possession shortly after 8.30 a.m. By this time the 2nd Canterbury troops had gained touch on our right and were looking down on Esnes from the high ground close to the north-western edge of the village.
As soon as the barrage had died down sufficiently, each battalion sent forward reconnoitring patrols to maintain touch with the enemy; but strong hostile machine-gun fire from the ridge above Longsart seemed to indicate that the expected rapid retirement had not yet commenced. Indeed, we were to have convincing evidence of enemy activity nearer home, for before the "D" Company men, on the left of the 2nd Battalion, page 413had got well started with their digging-in, their position was threatened by two tanks that came lumbering down the road leading straight to our line from Wambaix. They proved to be two of our old female tanks* that had been repaired and painted by the Germans. There now ensued an exciting fight between these two tanks and a German field gun on the one hand, and a New Zealand Lewis gun section on the other. For Rifleman R. C. Ramsay, of the 2nd Battalion, had gone out along the Wambaix Road in advance of our line to engage with his Lewis gun an isolated enemy field gun firing from a position south of the village. Despite the approach of the tanks, Ramsay continued firing on the field gun until he had silenced it, and then turned his attention to the tanks, which were now within 150 yards of the position held by his section. Steadfastly holding their ground, he and his men kept up a steady fire upon these moving fortresses, but the odds were doubly against him, for, safe behind the stout steel plates, the German crews were returning his fire with their captured Lewis guns. At this critical moment two of our own male tanks came upon the scene from Seranvillers. Moving up to the Cambrai Road, they shelled the enemy tanks at close range and completely disabled both in quick succession. Not a few of our men have reason to remember 2nd Lieuts. H. H. Sherratt and F. Clarke, of "C" Company, 12th Battalion, Tank Corps, for their prompt support on this morning of October 8th.
The situation beyond our left flank was still somewhat obscure, and we had not established touch with the 3rd Division. Moreover, machine-gun fire was falling upon our left rear. To secure definite information as to the situation on this quarter, Corporal J. C. Dibble, of the 2nd Battalion Scouts, was sent off with three men in the direction of Seranvillers. He eventually pushed on into the village itself, searched the roads and houses, and finally marked down enemy posts still clinging to the north-eastern outskirts. He then located the two right posts of the 3rd Division, reported to them the results of his investigations, and returned to his own battalion headquarters with the information gained.page 414
At 9.30 a.m. the 2nd Brigade troops advanced from their second objective 700 yards west of Esnes, and without much difficulty captured that village. Exploitation patrols now moved forward from the whole Divisional front and cleared up the country as far eastward as the "Green Dotted Line" beyond which, in accordance with orders for the day, no further advance was permitted. This line ran north-west midway between Esnes and Haucourt, and about 1,200 yards east of the Cambrai Road. Here we had to halt until the artillery, now rapidly moving forward, got into such positions as would enable them effectively to cover a further advance next day.
The whole operation had been most successful. Our Brigade had advanced nearly three miles, and had captured seven 77 mm. guns, a howitzer, 89 machine-guns, the usual proportion of trench-mortars, and nearly 900 prisoners.
The casualties in both the forward battalions had been somewhat severe, especially in the 1st Battalion, whose list of wounded included its commanding officer and adjutant. As soon as the first objective had been taken, Lieut.-Col. Allen moved his headquarters forward from Crevecoeur to the captured line. Passing on to note the progress of the final stages of the second advance, he was in time to witness McCormick's contest with the field-guns. Satisfied that all was well in the new line, he presently returned to his advanced headquarters. Shells were falling about this position and a move was being discussed, when a burst of high explosive disabled the greater portion of his party. The adjutant, Capt. E. Baxter, M.C., an officer of exceptional ability and with a long period of distinguished service in various capacities to his credit, was mortally wounded. While attending to the comfort of Capt. Baxter, Lieut.-Col. Allen was himself wounded, but, though suffering severely from his own injury, he remained at his post personally superintending the evacuation of the casualties, and only consented to go out when the day's operation was completed. He was temporarily succeeded in the command by Capt. E. A. Harding, but returned from the casualty clearingstation next day with his arm in a sling.
During the afternoon the enemy began to feel back cautiously to ascertain the position of our line, and patrol encounters were frequent. At about 5 p.m. he launched a strong page 415counter-attack against the Division on our left. As the left flank of the Germans moved across from Wambaix towards Seranvillers they came into full view from our line. The machine-gun section attached to us took full advantage of the excellent targets offering, as they had done during the advance earlier in the day when they sighted the enemy's batteries within good range, and our advanced artillery also joined in the shooting. The enemy was successful in occupying part of Seranvillers, and our left flank had to be refused accordingly. Two hours later our neighbours recovered their lost ground, and the line thereafter remained stable.
* Briefly, the distinction between the female and the male tank lay in the fact that the former was provided with machine-guns only, while the latter had in addition two six-pounder Hotehkiss quick-firing guns.