The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—the Battle of the Selle River
Part 3.—the Battle of the Selle River.
New Zealand Rifle Brigade in billets at Esnes—A freed town—Inspections—The Prince of Wales—The battle opens, October 17th—Enemy driven from the river, October 20th—Patrols to the Harpies River—The great attack of October 24th—2nd Brigade advances four and a half miles—2nd Brigade advances again to within a mile of Le Quesnoy, October 24th—The New Zealand Rifle Brigade keeps pace in reserve.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade, after the successful actions of October 8th and 9th, went into billets at Esnes on the 10th. These were real billets in houses, and this was the first time the whole Brigade had occupied such quarters since the preceding February, when we were in the Staple area for training. For the past three months we had been almost constantly on the move, the "bivvy," the dug-out, and occasionally the dilapidated hut, being the extent of our luxuries in the matter of shelter from the elements. We were now in new country almost entirely undamaged by shell-fire. The villages, though deserted, were intact, and stoves and the heavier articles of furniture, and even the precious feather beds, remained in the houses. To the delight of everyone, vegetables in plenty were found growing in the gardens, and we were thus able to provide a welcome addition to the rations which it had been impossible to augment in any way for six weeks past. That the same quarters had been occupied by the German troops was evident from the filth that abounded.
On the afternoon of the 10th, one of our senior officers going forward to reconnoitre the front took the opportunity page 418of visiting Caudry, which had been taken during the morning. He thus describes the town as it appeared immediately after evacuation:—
"Caudry is a large factory-town and had been occupied continuously by the Germans since the Mons retreat, when our British 'Contemptibles' were forced back over this ground. The place had not been knocked about by the Germans until a few days ago, when parties of men were specially detailed to go through the factories and deliberately and methodically smash the machinery with hammers. I saw for myself the results of their activity. Everywhere cog-wheels were shattered, and I could quite understand how half a dozen men could utterly ruin the machinery of a huge factory in one half-day. Even in private houses clocks, ornaments, furniture and windows had, in many cases, received equally thorough attention.
"Between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants and refugees, women, children, and old men, were still in the town. The Germans had lived there so long that most of these unfortunates had learned to speak the language. Before the oppressor left he concentrated them all in one street, every house in which he marked with a red cross flag, so that, if we had not harassed him onward, he would have been able to shell the remaining part of the town. All men between the ages of fifteen and sixty had been taken away. At various times during the past four years most of the population had been induced by threats or specious promises to leave the town for employment in munition works or on roads and railways. The people were not starved, for they had succeeded somehow in cultivating their crops and vegetables in order to keep themselves in food. They were delighted to see us. The tricolour was flying from nearly every window, and the people waved their hands, doffed their caps, threw kisses, shook hands, and showed, by smiles and signs and every other possible means of expression, how grateful they were at their deliverance from veritable slavery.
"The roads in and around Caudry had been blown up at all junctions and other important points, this destruction being effected by binding together half a dozen minenwerfer bombs or large shells and exploding them by means of electric batteries. 'Booby-traps' were placed in dug-outs, houses, roads and wells to catch the unwary; but, wisely enough, we now keep German prisoners whom we send to these places first to remove the traps safely or otherwise.…"
The Division being now out of the line, the battalions of the Brigade commenced at once to reorganize and refit, and to carry out recreational and general training. For some page 419reason, our reinforcements were coming forward very slowly, and all units were sadly under strength. On Sunday, October 13th, a Brigade church parade was held. The Corps Commander, General Harper, was present, and after the service presented ribands to twenty-seven recipients of awards recently made. He also spoke in warm terms of the Brigade's good work during the past operations. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was on a visit to the New Zealand Division, inspected the Brigade during training on the 14th, and was shown over the scene of the latest fight.
The repair of roads, railways and other communications on the Le Cateau front was so far advanced as to warrant the recommencement of larger operations on October 17th, on which date the Fourth Army attacked on a ten mile front extending from Le Cateau southwards. The French First Army co-operated by attacking farther south. The enemy was holding his line in great strength, and during the first two days' fighting his resistance was obstinate; but by the end of the 19th the French had driven the enemy across the Sambre Canal as far north as Catillon. From that village the British front followed the course of the Richemont stream to its junction with the Selle, north of Le Cateau.
This operation was followed by an advance at 2 a.m. on the 20th October, when the Third Army launched an attack on the line of the Selle River north of Le Cateau. The resistance offered by the enemy proved very serious. His position, naturally strong, had, during the delay caused by our difficulties in completing communications, been further strengthened by the erection of extensive wire entanglements. The attack succeeded, nevertheless, and the enemy was driven back from the river, British patrols reaching the Harpies River three miles east of Solesmes.
The capture of the Selle positions paved the way for a greater attack with the object of gaining the line Sambre Canal—Mormal Forest—Valenciennes. The major assault was opened at 1.20 a.m. on October 23rd by the Fourth Army, and was extended at a later hour by the Third Army. The New Zealand Division was engaged in this fight.* Led by the 2ndpage 420
Brigade, it passed through the 42nd Division at 8 a.m. The day went well, and the 2nd Brigade made a record advance of four and a half miles. The enemy had strong positions but a faint heart, and, tackled at close quarters, he surrendered freely. Next day, October 24th, the First Army prolonged the front of attack northwards to the Escaut; on our own front the 2nd Brigade attacked again, and by the evening the line had been carried forward another mile and a half, being now within a mile of Le Quesnoy.
In the Selle Battle, thus brought to a victorious close, twenty-four British and two American Divisions, though opposed by thirty-one German Divisions, had made a deep advance and had taken over 20,000 prisoners and 475 guns.
Keeping up with the general advance, the New Zealand Rifle Brigade had moved, on October 19th, to Beauvois, about a mile north-west of Caudry, where it lay in readiness if required for the attack on the 20th. Owing to the great amount of destruction done to railways, roads and bridges, the traffic on the few available avenues was greatly congested. Time after time the railway was blown up by clockwork devices, often as long as a week after the enemy's retirement, and for several days transportation of ammunition and supplies had to be carried out entirely by motor lorries. Railhead was established at Beauvois on October 22nd. On the morning of the 23rd the Brigade went forward again, marching eastward some seven miles to the reserve position on the farther bank of the Selle River, just south of Solesmes. Here the 4th Battalion was attached to the 2nd Brigade as reserve during the day's fighting. The 3rd Battalion joined the 4th in the afternoon, and the two units moved up to Vertigneul, where they were held in readiness for action at half an hour's notice. Movement was now becoming so rapid and extensive that that part of the first line transport carrying ammunition, bombs and tools was ordered up to accompany the respective battalions, and the remainder was brigaded within easy reach. Next morning, following upon the further advance of the 2nd Brigade, another eastward march was made, the 1st and 2nd Battalions moving to Vertigneul and Romeries, and the 3rd and 4th to positions about midway between those villages and Beaudignies.page 421
* It had been intended to employ the New Zealand Rifle Brigade for this undertaking, but, owing to our numerical weakness, the task was given to the 2nd Brigade.