The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 1.—Minor Operations
Part 1.—Minor Operations.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade takes over the line at Le Quesnoy—3rd and 4th Battalions advance the line—2nd Battalion attack on the Orsinval Road—Withdrawal to the Railway—Increase in enemy artillery activity—Readjustment of the line—Notable patrols and raids—Assembly for the attack—Conditions —The town of Le Quesnoy.
On the night of 24th/25th October we relieved the 2nd Brigade in the line at Le Quesnoy. The 3rd Battalion took over the right battalion sector of the front line from 1st Otago, and the 4th Battalion the left sector from 2nd Canterbury. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were in right and left support positions, relieving 2nd Otago and 1st Canterbury respectively. Relief was completed before midnight. The Otago Machine Gun Company, one troop of the Otago Mounted Rifles, and the 3rd Field Company of the Engineers were now attached to us. The support battalions were on the Beaudignies Road at the St. Georges River, some two miles behind the front line, but, with Brigade Headquarters, moved forward to Beaudignies on the afternoon of the 25th.
The main line of resistance taken over ran from south-east to north-west, and lay about 700 yards ahead of the outskirts of Beaudignies. The outposts were established from 300 to 500 yards in advance of this, and at the nearest point were 1,000 yards from the south-west angle of the outworks of Le Quesnoy. The left post was on the Ruesnes—Le Quesnoy Road, some 1,500 yards from the ramparts. This was the whole front of the sector held by the New Zealand Division. On our right we had the 37th Division, and on our left the 3rd.page 422
The trench-strength of units at this time was as under:—
|1st Battalion,||21 officers,||435 other ranks.|
|2nd Battalion||23 officers||450 other ranks|
|3rd Battalion||20 officers||448 other ranks|
|4th Battalion||20 officers||434 other ranks|
Thus, numerically, the man-power of the Brigade, available for immediate action, was considerably less than 50 per cent. of the normal strength.
The usual policy of active patrolling was ordered, with the twofold object of keeping touch with the enemy and advancing the line. During the afternoon and evening of the 25th, the right battalion swung its line forward through an angle of about 45 degrees into a north and south position, bringing its left post within 500 yards of the outworks of the town. The 4th Battalion troops moved forward also, and prolonged this line northwards. They overcame without serious difficulty all opposition on the right half of their front, but they found the enemy so strong along the railway running north-west from Le Quesnoy, and in the great triangle at the junction with that running south, that they had to be content with a line bent back on the left along the Precheltes stream. Throughout its whole length the Brigade's line of posts was now from 300 to 600 yards on the near side of either one railway or the other.
During the early morning the two commanders of the line companies of the right battalion, while making the preparatory reconnaissance for this advance, found that the buildings of de Beart Farm had been set on fire by the enemy shelling. The old farmer and his daughter stood weeping on the doorstep, while the flames rapidly spread through the upper rooms. It was hoped that the farm-house might have been used as a headquarters, but it was clear that the place was doomed. An aged civilian, who had already given valuable information regarding both the French and the Germans in Le Quesnoy, and was now acting as guide, took the officers forward to his little cottage on the eastern margin of the farm, which he hoped would serve as well. In this were found seven men, seven page 423women, and three children, and although the house was actually between two of our front-line posts, and the Gorman machine-gun bullets were chipping the tiles on the roof, the civilian inmates did not wish to leave. After the usual embraces had been submitted to, the cottage was inspected. It was found to possess two cellars, one below the other, and was accordingly settled upon as a headquarters. The four-course lunch that presently appeared may have been a determining factor in arriving at this decision. The civilians were evacuated next day, but apparently the interpreter who had the matter in hand had not been informed that the house was in the front line, for he went gaily forward on horse-back along the road towards Le Quesnoy. A burst of machine-gun fire greeted his appearance, and the horse, taking fright, careered along No Man's Land at a gallop, and was not got under control until a wood to the north was reached. Fortunately neither horse nor rider was hit, though a bullet passed through the saddle.
Renewed efforts were made during the night to swing up the left of the line across the railway, but against the intense machine-gun fire and showers of bombs the 4th Battalion fighting-patrols could make little headway except at the Orsinval Road Level Crossing. Here a party led by Lance-Sergeant H. Moscroft, after a stiff and prolonged fight, succeeded in establishing a post and holding it against a determined counterattack launched against it at 2 o'clock next morning under cover of a sharp bombardment. The post was practically isolated, however, with the enemy pressing strongly on both flanks, and shortly afterwards it was withdrawn.
Deeds in the forward zone of the battle area are apt to over-shadow the less spectacular but no less important services of the non-combatants slaving behind the lines, but even here those duties are not unattended with difficulties to be overcome and dangers to be faced. Of the faithfulness of the transport-drivers, for example, the story will never be fully told, and of their many daring exploits only too few examples have been recorded. To escape heavy shelling in the back areas, foot-soldiers on the move may pass across the fields, but the transport must stick to the highway. On October 25th, while the companies up in the line were pushing forward, Rifleman C. H. Nailer, a 3rd Battalion transport-driver, was page 424"doing his bit" bringing up the rations to the accompaniment of the usual shelling on the roads. At a cutting he came to a water-cart from which the wounded team had been cut adrift, and around which the shells were still falling. Driving coolly on he delivered his rations, but, learning that the non-arrival of the water-cart meant shortage of water for the men of his unit, he returned with his horses to the cutting, hitched them to the abandoned vehicle, and, facing the shelling again, started off once more towards the front. This time he was wounded, but he persevered in his undertaking, finally bringing back his team and limber to the transport lines without further misfortune. Mention might be made here, too, of a fine act performed in the face of great danger of a particularly fearsome kind. The Brigade forward dump of ammunition, grenades and Stokes mortar bombs, located at Beaudignies, was struck and set on fire during a heavy shelling of the village. Rifleman M. Hickey, of the 3rd Battalion, then in charge of the dump, rushed from shelter, and, ignoring both the bursting shells and the possibility of a devastating explosion, dragged out the burning boxes one by one and threw them into a neighbouring ditch.
The operation of October 25th was made in conjunction with the 3rd Division on the left. The latter, meeting with less resistance, had a correspondingly greater degree of success. Their left had swung well across the railway, and they were now improving their positions preparatory to an advance eastwards against Orsinval and the villages to the north of it. This attack was to be made at dawn on the 26th, and we were to co-operate. The major part of the task assigned to our Brigade was allotted to the 2nd Battalion, then in support. This battalion was to extend our general line northward for about 1,200 yards along the Orsinval Road from the Level Crossing to the cemetery, advance eastward to the Le Quesnoy—Orsinval Road, and push out patrols to operate against the north and north-west of Le Quesnoy. The 4th Battalion was to have prepared the way by securing the Level Crossing during the night of 25th/26th, but, as we have already seen, the Crossing position was abandoned before the 2nd Battalion could arrive.
Through storms of high-explosive and gas shells, the 2nd Battalion moved northwards from Beaudignies at about mid-page 425night, and battalion headquarters were established close to the outskirts of Ruesnes, on the Le Quesnoy Road. At 3 a.m., 26th October, "C" and "D," the leading companies, began to work forward to their assembly positions on the Precheltes stream. At zero, 5 a.m., "C" Company (Capt. G. R. Jamieson) was to cross the railway, push up the Orsinval Road and establish itself on its allotted section. "D" Company (Capt. J. C. McKillop) would move past "C," capture the remainder, and secure the flank. Movement eastwards would follow with the assistance of "B" Company (Lieut. T. H. Denniston), while "A" Company (Lieut. F. T. Bennington) was held in reserve. There was a possibility that the operation would prove to be comparatively easy, for the enemy was reported to be withdrawing from the sector on our left, and a section of the Otago Mounted Rifles was attached to the 2nd Battalion and one to the 4th, to exploit successes if our penetration should be deep. No barrage was provided, but the attacking battalion had at its disposal two trench mortars and a machine-gun.
The intensity of the machine-gun fire experienced by the two leading companies as they approached their positions on the stream was a sufficient indication that, contrary to expectations, the railway ahead of them was not clear from the junction on the right to the reported "pocket" beyond the left. Definite information as to the true situation was soon forthcoming, and the change in the plan of action was arranged accordingly. This involved a preliminary attack on the whole section of railway from the junction along to the left boundary; and the necessary dispositions were made with such expedition that, after a preliminary bombardment of the junction and the crossing by the trench mortars, the leading platoons were able to advance to the attack within a few minutes of the original zero-hour. Thick fog hung over the ground, but intense machine-gun fire, started, no doubt, in response to our own trench mortar and machine-gun covering activities, poured upon the leading troops from the front, and with even greater volume from both the high ground in the triangle and the railway embankment on their right rear. Frontal and enfilade fire took heavy toll, but our men pressed on; and before 6 a.m. posts were established on the railway right across our front, from the left boundary to the junction.page 426
A further vigorous push half an hour later carried the line of posts 400 yards beyond the railway, the right post being on the sunken Orsinval Road, and the left in touch with the 3rd Division.
An attempt was now made to continue the penetration down the Orsinval Road. Taking advantage of the fog, a platoon under 2nd Lieut. R. J. Richards moved across the railway at 7 a.m., and worked forward some 800 yards, but, coming to a straight stretch in the road, they encountered a steady stream of machine-gun fire from the front. This caused heavy casualties amongst the men of the leading section, and the remainder thereupon left the road and dashed across the open country on their right towards a bank in the vicinity of a belt of trees. By this time, however, the enemy had recovered from his surprise and was beginning to press in strength upon all our forward posts. The men of Richards's platoon came under a hail of bullets as they rushed to cover, and found when they reached it that they could neither advance nor retire. The commander was wounded in the jaw and neck, and the Lewis gun was put out of action. The platoon-sergeant, A. Ashby, received a bullet in the thigh, but succeeded in dragging himself back to the road with information as to the plight of his comrades; and a scout sent out from one of the forward posts to reconnoitre the position reported that only dead and wounded were visible, but that owing to the intensity of the machine-gun fire he had not been able to cross the open to get in touch with the platoon. At about 8 a.m. artillery fire opened upon the belt of trees, the railway junction and the Level Crossing, and the enemy struck at all our posts beyond the railway. Under pressure from overwhelming numbers the platoon in the sunken road was withdrawn, the men working steadily back under cover of the fire from the posts in rear, but 2nd Lieut. Richards and his handful of survivors were trapped. From the high ground above, machine-guns barraged the road behind him, and another gun, brought up under the covered approach afforded by a dry ditch, suddenly appeared close up to his right flank, swept his line from end to end, and every man was hit.
In the meantime, pressure from the railway triangle towards the post at the junction had steadily increased, and the garrison there, weakened from the effects of the fierce page 427artillery fire directed upon that point, was at last compelled to fall back to the Level Crossing at 9.30 a.m. During the next hour the enemy bombardment became increasingly violent about this post, and presently a strong counter-attack developed from the triangle. This was pressed with the utmost determination, and we came near to losing the post at the Crossing. The Germans worked right up to the keeper's house, under the shelter of which they prepared to rush to the western side. Our Stokes mortar and rifle-grenade barrage proved to be too strong and too well-directed, however, and the rush never came. The leader of the party did indeed dash across, but he was immediately shot down, and the attack faded away. The attempt was repeated at 4.30 p.m. after a hurricane artillery and trench-mortar bombardment, and though the Germans again reached the crossing-keeper's house, they failed to break down our defence.
Through all the attacks of the day, Lieut. R. T. Carlyon's platoon had maintained a stubborn hold on the forward posts established in and about a little square wood situated to the left of the Orsinval Road and some 400 yards north of the railway; but in view of the changed situation these were now considered to be too isolated to be of great value, and at nightfall the platoon was withdrawn. Sergeant W. P. McGillan and five men had occupied the spearpoint of this position and had beaten back repeated assaults. They were willing enough to remain in spite of the danger of being cut off, but this was not permitted. They covered the retirement of the others, however, finally working back safely to our main line late at night. During the night our hold on the section of railway was strengthened, and the forward posts just beyond dug themselves in securely. Those troops of the 3rd Division still behind the railway swung forward, and their boundary was moved about 500 yards to the right The 4th Battalion drew in its left, handing over to the 2nd the sunken road from the Precheltes stream to the Level Crossing.
A great increase in enemy artillery activity was noticed in connection with our minor operations and the ensuing counter-attacks. At times shell-fire from guns of all calibres was intense; as on previous occasions our opponents sent over gas-shells to a considerable extent; and an unusually large number of minenwerfer were used. Altogether there was every evi-page 428dence that the enemy intended to resist to the utmost any attempt on our part to make further headway.
The swinging forward of our line on the left had had the result of increasing the Brigade front to more than two miles in length. On the night of 28th/29th October, the frontage was readjusted, some 500 yards of the line being handed over to the Brigade of the 37th Division on our right. The 1st and 2nd Battalions took over the remainder, the former on the right and the latter on the left, the 3rd Battalion going to support and the 4th to reserve.*
Patrolling and raiding, by night and by day, in parties varying from three men to a half-company, went on without cessation. By this means we not only caused many casualties and secured numerous prisoners, affected the enemy's morale and kept him in a state of unrest, but we gained an intimate first-hand knowledge of his strength and dispositions, and our activity precluded any possibility of his slipping away unobserved if, perchance, he should decide to retire.
* Major Barrowclough, commanding the 4th Battalion, went to the transport lines, sick, on October 25th; and Major K. S. Caldwell, who thereupon assumed command, was wounded on the following day, Capt. B. McLeod succeeding him. Major Barrowclough, however, returned at the beginning of November.
Another small raiding-party from the 2nd Battalion went out in the early morning of the 30th. This was composed of Sergeant G. A. Jarvis, Corporal M. Kerrigan, and six men, and their objective was a double post close to the little wood occupied by us as a forward position on the 26th but vacated the same night. Kerrigan knew the ground well, for he had been one of the garrison holding the copse throughout that long day. Protected by a covering party with Lewis guns, put out to prevent their being cut off from a flank, the raiders crept out silently at 1.30 a.m. and gradually separated into two parties. As they rushed the post both parties were met with showers of stick-bombs, but they succeeded in killing every man of the garrison except one, whom they took prisoner and sent back at once to our lines. While making sure that the work had been well done and that there were no Germans left, our men were bombed from posts on either flank. These posts were now rushed in turn, and their occupants killed or put to flight. Of the thirty Germans seen, fully fifteen had been despatched, five having fallen to Kerrigan alone, but we on our side had also suffered. Four of our party had been wounded, including the sergeant, who had been struck in the chest by a bomb. Declaring his wound to be fatal, he insisted on the others returning to our lines as best they could with the less severely wounded. This was accordingly done. Corporal Kerrigan immediately went back with a stretcher-party page 430to bring in the sergeant, but was unable to approach the posts, for the enemy had now re-occupied them in strength.
Opposite the 1st Battalion, on the right, the enemy's front line along the railway embankment was practically straight and even. Patrols had got into touch with the Germans at various points, but no outstanding features were discovered such as might be dealt with by small parties. During the forenoon of the 30th, 2nd Lieut. M. G. Luxford and two men went out to reconnoitre a wood in No Man's Land, and to discover how strongly the enemy held the section of the railway in the vicinity of this. The patrol thoroughly searched the copse, and reached its eastern edge at noon. Two machine-gun posts were found, empty, but with fresh cartridge shells lying about; also a house, then unoccupied, but evidently, like the other two positions, used at night. Four enemy posts were definitely located on the railway, which, it was ascertained, was held in strength. The patrol spent three hours in this useful reconnaissance, and although they drew fire from each of the occupied posts, the party returned without mishap.*
This was followed by an enterprise carried out at 3.30 a.m. on the 31st, in co-operation with the Somersetshires, our neighhours on the right. Two platoons were employed in each case, and the objective was a stretch of the enemy's line some 600 yards in length.
* Apparently the German patrols had been similarly active and not leas successful; for, from one of the officers of the party captured on the railway by the 1st Battalion's reserve company during the advance on November 4th was taken a German map giving the exact disposition of practically the whole of the Brigade, including the precise positions of the front-line posts. From the fact that the same map showed how the remainder of the Division was placed, we were inclined to ascribe the exactitude of the information to the activities of spies as well as to the enterprise of the enemy's patrols. It is interesting to note that the same German officer had in his possession a document, similar to that captured at Hebuterne in the previous July, giving a detailed description of the Division. (See p. 336.)
On this same day the 2nd Battalion completed the long series of brilliant raiding exploits for which that unit was deservedly famous throughout the Division. Its earliest enterprise of this kind, carried out in the Armentieres sector in the middle of 1916, only a month after its first introduction to trench warfare, was an achievement of the highest order; and now an officer with a handful of men was to round off the wonderful record with a dashing adventure as successful as it was daring.
The nearer railway line of the notorious triangle passed, as it approached the junction, through a cutting which, as we well knew, was very strongly held. During the forenoon a patrol consisting of Rifleman W. A. Wilson and two others worked down this line and located a strong enemy post, and, on their return with the report on the position, plans were set on foot to bombard the post with trench mortars and at the same time to send out a fighting-patrol to watch the result. If circumstances were auspicious, the patrol would attack the garrison. The trench-mortar shoot opened shortly after noon, and 2nd Lieut. W. E. McMinn, who had arranged with a neighbouring Lewis gun post to give him covering-fire on page 432the right, moved down the line with Lance-Corporal F. H. Phillips and five men with a Lewis gun. Arrived at a point beyond the junction, the party divided. The lance-corporal and two men crawled along the main line under cover to a point opposite the post. They were followed by Rifleman W. A. Wilson and the remaining two men with the Lewis gun. Wilson, who, as the result of his experience with the reconnoitring patrol during the forenoon, knew his ground well, manœuvred his gun into position at the bend so as to enfilade the line where it ran straight on. The forward party, having advanced another 150 yards, now worked across the high ground to the top of the cutting. Looking down, they discovered a large number of the enemy sheltering in small dug-outs in the opposite bank. The corporal and his two men at once stood up and opened fire on the couching figures, and Wilson supported them with bursts from his Lewis gun on the flank. 2nd Lieut. McMinn, from his position farther back, whence he had been directing the operations of his men, now saw that his forward party was hopelessly outnumbered, and, fearing that they might be cut off, he dashed along the line to their assistance. Joined by one of the Lewis gun team as he passed, he fell upon the enemy, shooting the nearest with his revolver. The patrol ahead slipped down the bank and continued the fight with the bayonet, and within a few moments the Germans threw up their hands and were hurried along the railway to our lines. Other parties of the enemy farther along the cutting were engaged by the Lewis gun as our party withdrew, and finally the Lewis gunners also worked back without mishap. Our men suffered no casualties. Their "bag" of prisoners consisted of one officer and thirty-seven men.
The raids of October 31st were the last of the New Zealand Division's operations of this kind. Patrolling was continued, but this was entirely for the purpose of keeping close touch with the enemy on all parts of the line. No premeditated encounters with the enemy's posts were now permitted, for warning orders in connection with the forthcoming attack on Le Quesnoy were already out, and the necessary preparations, which claimed all our attention, had begun.
The total casualties for the month of October were:—
During the night of lst/2nd November the 4th Battalion relieved the 2nd, the latter going back to reserve for a well-deserved and much-needed rest. On the following night the Divisional front was again adjusted, the 1st Battalion taking over some 700 yards from the 37th Division, and the 4th Battalion handing over to the 62nd Division that part of their line on the railway running back from the Level Crossing. At dusk on the evening of the 3rd the 2nd Battalion returned to the line, the garrison of which was thereupon rearranged in readiness for the following morning's advance, the 1st Battalion holding the right, the 4th the centre, and the 2nd the left. The 3rd Battalion concentrated about Saint Roch, just behind the right of the 1st Battalion.
The weather was, and had been for a long time past, well-nigh perfect. The nights were chilly and the early mornings often misty, but when the sun burst through it shone glorious and warm. The part of the country which we had now reached was exquisitely beautiful. It was mostly rolling, cultivated down-land, dotted over with many orchards, and the copses about the villages shone in all their autumn glory. Before us were the ancient walls and tall buildings of Le Quesnoy, seemingly untouched by the devastating engines of war. It is not surprising that into the otherwise dry-as-dust official records of one of our battalions there should have crept the statement that "More than one 'Digger' for a moment forgot page 434the horrors of war, the crash of artillery, and the clatter of machine-guns, as he contemplated the rolling countryside with its brown and gold hedges and woods, and the tree-crowned ramparts and rising towers of the promised land of Le Quesnoy."
Le Quesnoy is an ancient fortress town of some 5,000 inhabitants, supported for the most part by a few minor manufactures. Any great interest attaching to it is mainly historical, it having changed hands frequently in the many wars throughout the centuries from the 15th to the 18th. Mons is twenty miles to the north-east.
Its fortifications, no longer proof against artillery, nor, indeed, as the sequel will show, against determined infantry-men without the aid of siege guns, consist mainly of a wide and deep moat, and a rampart consisting of a solid brick wall backed by a broad bank of earth, both completely encircling the town. The moat, banked on the outer side, is from 200 to 300 yards in width, and its bottom is about fifteen feet below the general level of the surrounding land. The rampart, from thirty to forty feet high, is in outline of the form of an irregular eight-sided polygon, and at the angles is carried out to form bastions giving flanking fire along the intervening sides. Within the moat is a series of detached bastions, irregularly placed. These are faced with brick or stone, and their tops, rising to a height of from twenty to thirty feet above the ground-level of the moat, are crowned with trees and under-growth. Their outer faces are perpendicular, but in rear the earth bank slopes away more or less gradually. At the foot of the main rampart itself there is a narrower but deeper moat, which could be filled to the brim by letting in the water from one of the two lakes just outside the town on the south-east. Ordinarily the outer moat is dry, save for seepage water which forms ponds here and there. In some respects the defences may be likened to a trench position, the moat taking the place of the wire entanglements, the detached bastions that of the outposts, and the inner ramparts serving as the main line of resistance. The "lofty islets" were indeed strongly garrisoned as outposts by German machine-gunners and snipers.
Of the three roads which enter Le Quesnoy, one comes from the railway station on the east, one from Orsinval on the page 435north, and one from Jolimetz and the Mormal Forest on the south-east. Roads from other directions junction with these as they approach the town, and there is no gate on the western side.