The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Chapter IV. In The Battle Zone Of The Flanders Front
Chapter IV. In The Battle Zone Of The Flanders Front.
Marseilles to Steenbecque—First billets—Training—Detachments —Tunnellers—Trench mortars—Inspection by General Plumer— To Estaires—First visit to trenches—To Morbecque-—To Armentieres.
The journey from Marseilles across France to the battle zone occupied the greater part of three days. Battalions moved at different times, each in a single train composed for the most part of fairly comfortable coaches. We had not the omnipresent Y.M.C.A. of later days to supply us with tea and biscuits, and, as halts for any length of time were very few and far between, we had to be content with the ordinary fare as provided for on the army scale of rations. From our observations we concluded that there was one long line of rationtins, in various stages of decay, from the Mediterranean to the Channel; for wherever the train paused for a time, and these stops seldom took place at a station, the permanent way was lined on both sides with the familiar square cans lying in the open in defiance of the strict rule that "What you cannot burn you must bury." Indeed, sanitary matters of any kind seemed to have entered not at all into the calculations of the authorities concerned.
Long railway journeys are always more or less wearisome, and this was no exception to the general rule; but the novelty of the scenes which succeeded each other as we moved northward served to relieve the tedium. The monotony of the desert here gave place to green fields, early flowers, trees putting forth their first buds, extensive and orderly vineyards, quaint villages, ancient towns and thriving cities, and, in the south at least, bright sunshine bathing all. It seemed like a special privilege to see white folk again, and the smiles and cries of the cheering children were particularly touching to page 70men so far from home. In the bleak north the line approached the coast, and before turning inland again we caught a glimpse of the waters of the English Channel, and one is safe to say that few of us failed to be stirred by the thought that not far beyond stood the white cliffs of the Motherland whose welfare lay so close to our hearts.
From Marseilles our route ran through Arles, Avignon, Orange, Vienne, Lyons, Macon, Dijon, Montereau, Corbeil, Juvisy (on the outskirts of Paris), Creil, Clermoine, Longneau, Amiens, St. Roche, Longpre, Abbeville, Etaples, Bifur d'Boulogne, St. Omer, Bifur Wallon Capelle, Hazebrouck, Steenbecque. With many of these points to the north of Paris we were destined to become more familiar during the years that lay before us.
The first unit to move left Marseilles at 4.24 p.m. on April 13th, and, travelling day and night, reached Hazebrouck, the official destination, at about midnight on the 15th/16th. Here the commanding officer was verbally informed by a full corporal that the battalion was to go on to Steenbecque. After some trouble these instructions were verified and the train proceeded accordingly. The remaining battalions arrived at Steenbecque station at short intervals. Each battalion on detraining was met by the French billeting officer, and officers and men were immediately told off into groups and marched to their quarters under the guidance of members of the advance party, who had come on ahead with Brigade Headquarters.
Brigade Headquarters and the 2nd Battalion were quartered at Steenbecque, an interesting village with a quaint old church the gate-posts of which were unusually curious. The 1st Battalion was billeted in neighbouring farmhouses, and the 3rd and 4th in the adjoining villages of Tannay and Thiennes. On a readjustment of the area, which now came under the command of General Fulton, the 1st Battalion a few days later moved to the village of Boeseghem.
The various Transport Sections of the Brigade detrained with their horses at Abbeville, and having drawn at that base the vehicles to replace those we had left in Egypt, commenced the long three days' trek of sixty miles to the Steenbecque area, where they arrived on April 22nd.
This was our first experience of billets, and it will readily page 71be understood that there was no little difficulty in getting comfortably settled down, especially on the part of those units that arrived in the middle of the night. Hitherto we had lived for the most part in orderly-arranged hutments or tented camps, or had bivouacked in the open; but here we had to fit ourselves into such accommodation as was afforded by barns, lofts and sheds, none too liberally supplied with straw, but paid for by the British authorities at a fixed rate per head. For the officers, rooms were usually found wherein they slept and messed and carried out with moderate convenience their administrative duties. The peculiarities of the French farmhouse were in many respects a source of wonderment. In the darkness, one unfortunate company commander made an involuntary personal reconnaissance of the ancestral midden which formed the most striking feature of the courtyard of his quarters, and received his commanding officer, on the latter's round of inspection during the morning, in an ill-fitting suit of velveteen provided by his obliging host. The notices in English posted up at all the house-pumps—"Not to be used for drinking purposes" —at first appeared odd, but careful consideration of the position of the well led to a most respectful obedience of the instruction.
We found the inhabitants of the district kindly and obliging to a degree, and such good people as those of La Belle Hotesse and the other hamlets and villages will long be remembered for their solicitude on our behalf. Cupidity, an unfortunate trait displayed by the country people in some billeting areas occupied in later days, was not a characteristic here. Usually the greatest kindness was displayed by those who had suffered most. The war, it will be remembered, was already drawing to the close of its second year, and signs of its effects were not wanting. There was a marked absence of able-bodied men; in the fields women and old men followed the plough or executed other forms of manual labour from daylight till dark; and as the people wended their way to church, on Sundays and Saints' days, one noticed that the majority of the women and children wore mourning.
On arrival in the battle zone the New Zealand Division became reserve to the Ist Anzac Corps under Lieut.-General Birdwood, the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions being already in the line.page 72
General training, specialist work and route-marching commenced at once. Every possible square foot of land being under cultivation, our exercises had perforce to be carried out on the roads. Flannelette gas-helmets were issued, and training in their use formed an important part of our daily exercises. Before the end of the month the whole Brigade attended a special demonstration, every man being subjected to the ordeal of the gas-cloud and passing through trenches charged with both lethal and lachrymatory gas.
As early as April 20th, battalion commanders received the first of a long series of orders couched in such terms as these: "Please detail (so many) other ranks to report at (such-and- such) School of Instruction for a course in (subject)..…" Orders of this kind came to hand with more or less frequency right through our career in France, as often as not while the unit was moving up to take over a new sector in the line, or even in the thick of a fight.*The system itself was an excellent one, providing as it did for the special training of officers and other ranks in various branches of military work, and ensuring that the unit as a whole was kept up-to-date in all developments in the art of fighting; but to the fretting commanding officer, chronically under establishment in officers and non-commissioned officers, it seemed to be carried out with a merciless unconcern as to the fitness of things. The order on this occasion was for the despatch of eight non-commissioned officers per battalion for gas-helmet instruction at the Gas School at Oxelaere.
"Please detail an officer of the rank of Captain for duty as Town Major at Estaires." This was a class of order that was always received with dismay, for it was a point of honour that officers so detached should be in the highest degree efficient. For this particular post Capt. R. O. Brydon was detailed on the day after our arrival at Steenbecque, and the services of a very able officer were lost to the 1st Battalion for a period extending over many months. It is still an unsolved mystery why such a position was not filled by an ex-service officer from England, too old for active service but still willing and able to carry out non-combatant duties of this nature. At page 73that time, it must be remembered, battalions had to find their "specialist" officers from amongst their platoon commanders, and companies were correspondingly short. In this case Capt. Brydon was the second-in-command of a company.
Two officers and 100 other ranks were detached for duty with the 172nd Tunnelling Company on April 30th. As practically all of these men were thus, as the event proved, finally separated from the Brigade, brief mention may here be made of their subsequent career. They were in every case experienced either in mining or in some allied occupation that would specially fit them for the particular service for which they were now detailed. The men drawn from the 1st and 2nd Battalions were commanded by 2nd Lieut. G. Lewis, and those from the 3rd and 4th by 2nd Lieut. S. J. E. Closey. They were privileged to be the first New Zealand troops to serve in the trenches of the battle-front in France, for on the day after leaving us they entered the line in the Bois Grenier Sector, then held by the 19th and 21st Australian Battalions. Three days later they were called upon to man the trenches when the sector was raided by the Germans, but fortunately, though the bombardment was especially severe, they escaped without casualties. They were thanked by the Australian brigadier for their assistance in the fighting as well as for their service as stretcher-bearers. When the New Zealand Division went into the line on May 10th, our detachment relieved part of the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company in the New Zealand sector, and later, on the arrival in France of the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company, the New Zealanders were transferred from their old company, the 172nd, and were attached to the Australians, remaining on duty, however, on the New Zealand front. While here, the New Zealand miners were specially detailed for the sinking of the "Anzac Shaft," with its series of galleries, in trench 74 of the Armentieres sector. This was the first satisfactory steel-lined water-tight shaft ever sunk in the Second Army area; and as the whole of the work was executed by New Zealanders, the achievement is one of which we have no small reason to be proud. The detachment experienced a second raid on the evening of July 3rd, the enemy's main objective being, on that occasion, the underground works in course of execution at another point. As soon as it became page 74clear, during the artillery preparation, that the enemy would probably attempt the destruction of the shaft, the sappers were withdrawn from the galleries where they were at work, and 2nd Lieut. Closey remained behind with two or three of their number to mask and protect, by means of sandbagging, the entrance to the shaft-head. When shells began to fall thickly about the spot, the officer sent the men back to the shelter of a dug-out in rear and completed the work alone, just managing to escape when the raiders entered the trench in search of the shaft-head. This, however, had by then been so effectively covered and disguised that the enemy failed to locate it, and the number of unexploded mobile charges left behind at this spot testified to the raiders' disappointment. The Australian officer reporting upon the matter states in conclusion: "There is not a question of doubt in my mind that 2nd Lieut. Closey, by sticking to his duty under heavy shell-fire, saved our mining system from possible destruction." From time to time our men were drafted in small parties from the Australian to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, with which unit the majority continued to serve in various sectors, for the most part far removed from those held by the New Zealand Division, until the end of the war.
On April 22nd the Brigadier and the Battalion Commanders attended an interesting demonstration, held at Berthen, in the use of light, medium and heavy trench mortars. Important improvements had recently been made in this comparatively new arm, and the display was distinctly heartening. Visions of the period of tragic stress were called up by the fact that the journey to the trench mortar school was made in a London motor-'bus.
In addition to inspections at various dates by the Brigadier and the Divisional Commander, the battalions were seen at work on April 25th by General Sir H. Plumer, the Commander of the Second Army, of which we now formed a part.
The Brigade marched fifteen miles, from Steenbecque to billets in Estaires, on May 1st. and the same evening we had our first experience of a gas-alarm, which, however, eventually proved to be false. We were now well within the battle zone. On our first morning in Steenbecque we heard the rumble of distant artillery fire, and at night the flashes of the guns could page 75be distinctly seen. At Estaires, bursts of machine-gun fire were frequently heard, sometimes in great intensity.
On May 6th. the Brigadier, Brigade Major, the Commanding Officers and Company Commanders of the 1st and 2nd Battalions went to Armentieres and were attached to the 51st Brigade, 17th Division, for a twenty-four hours' tour of duty in the trenches. By this means valuable information was obtained as to the new conditions under which we were presently to work, but, as frequently happens, the sector which was so closely studied did not prove to be the one the Brigade eventually took over.
Three days later the Brigade marched back to Morbecque for a special course in musketry and practical Lewis and Vickers gun training. Here our first Brigade School was established, bombing being the principal subject taken up.
The New Zealand Division commenced to take over from, the 17th Division east of Armentieres on 10th May, the 1st Brigade going into the right sector of the front line on the 13th, and the 2nd Brigade into the left sector on the 14th. The length of the front occupied was 6,000 yards. On the right were the 2nd Australians. The Division was on the left of the Corps sector, and on the left again, north of the River Lys, was the 9th Division, afterwards relieved by the 41st.
On May 13th the Brigade moved forward again, the 1st and 2nd Battalions marching to Doulieu and the 3rd and 4th to Estaires. A further move towards the front was made on the 15th, when the Brigade marched in to the town of Armentieres as part of the Divisional reserve. The 1st Battalion, with two companies in Armentieres and two in Houplines, relieved the 9th West Riding Battalion as reserve to the left Brigade sector, the Brigade there having all four battalions in the line. A readjustment was made on June 8th, after which date each Brigade found its own reserve.
Before the war Armentieres was a town of some importance, and had a population of over 25,000. It is situated close to the Belgian frontier, some ten miles west of Lille. The canalized Lys, on the banks of which it stands, was one of those inland waterways so greatly valued in this part of the country, and Armentieres was a small but busy river port. It was particularly famous, however, as one of the more impor-page 76tant manufacturing centres. Its many factories were engaged mainly in the spinning of flax, hemp and cotton yarn, and in the production of woollens, cottons and linens. In addition there were several large distilleries, soap works and tanneries; the minor manufactures were various; and there were extensive brick-making works.
When we first came to Armentieres a considerable proportion of the inhabitants was still in the town, for only certain quarters had as yet suffered from shell-fire. During our short stay we were to witness some remarkably accurate shooting on the part of the German gunners, such churches of the town as were then intact coming in for special attention; and more than once we were to suffer casualties through sudden bursts of concentrated "hate" upon the neighbourhood of our billets. It was not till the following year, however, that the place was systematically shelled, and in connection with the temporary German advance in this area in 1918, the destruction of the town was completed. While we were quartered at Armentieres we had excellent billets situated mainly in abandoned factories, while certain of the more pretentious dwellings, now deserted, formed convenient homes for the various Brigade and Battalion Headquarters. One of our battalions was, during a spell out of the line, billeted in a large building that had been a Girls' College, and the lady-principal was still in residence. It is worthy of note that this lady was able to tell us of our next move into the line some time before official warning or definite orders reached the headquarters of the battalion, and she complained most bitterly that, apparently through the soldiers' unguarded talk, such information frequently filtered out till it reached the civilian residents, amongst whom it became the common topic of conversation.
The transport lines of the various units of the Brigade were established at Pont de Nieppe, just west of the town; and here also were situated the Divisional Baths for the men's use, and the laundry establishments through which clean underclothing was issued.
* When the Brigade was in the line during the Battle of the Somme, in September, 1916, one officer and fifteen other ranks were detached for a course of instruction at the Lewis Gun School, Le Touquet.
Part 2.—The Fighting On The Flanders Front From The Outbreak Of War Till May, 1916.
First German advance—Liege—General German advance—Brussels —Mons—Namur—Lille—The Aisne—The Marne—The British to the left of the line—West Flanders campaign—New Corps come in—Armentieres—Nieuport—La Bassee—Arras— Ypres—Messines—Positions—Neuve Chapelle—second Battle of Ypres—Minor offensives—Trench fighting—Line readjusted— Loos—Winter trench-work.
It may not be out of place to give here a brief outline of the progress of the fighting on or about the Flanders front from the outbreak of war up till the beginning of 1916. This account will of necessity be somewhat disconnected and sketchy; but it may serve to get the situation from time to time into proper perspective, and clear away erroneous ideas formed from the reading of contemporary newspaper accounts, which, as we now know, were not always strictly impartial.
The German advance towards France was first attempted mainly through Liege, the gateway to the Belgian plains. By the evening of August 3rd, 1914, German columns were on Belgian territory, and on the following day were closing in on Liege from the north-east, east and south. At this time the Belgian army was still in process of mobilization and was being placed in position to resist a German advance on Brussels and Antwerp. It was realized that Liege must eventually fall, but the city was nevertheless held in order to gain time, for as long as its forts could withstand the enemy's attacks he could make no progress by rail towards the plain beyond. The bombardment of the Liege forts commenced on August 4th, and three days later the city was entered; but Liege did not become an open gateway until the 15th, when the last of the forts was taken.
In the meantime the general advance of the German forces had begun. The enemy had got six armies in position, the First in the north and the Sixth in Alsace in the south. The general plan was to carry out a great sweeping movement, pivoting on the Sixth Army opposite Belfort, the First and Second Armies passing through Belgium, and forming the right of the German front descending upon Paris and the Marne Valley. This movement commenced on August 7th. By August 15th the First and Second Armies passed through Liege for Namur and page 78France, and four Army Corps were sent against Brussels and Antwerp. Five days later Brussels surrendered.
The British Army was in position before Mons, west of Namur, by August 21st, on a front of about 25 miles. This "contemptible" force, commanded by Sir John French, consisted of the Ist Army Corps (Haig), the IInd Army Corps (Smith-Dorrien), and one Cavalry Division (Allenby). On the right of the British was the French Fifth Army, while away to the westward beyond the British left was a force of French Territorials. The task of the British was to protect the left of the general advance to the north. The Allies' plan was, first to meet the shock of the German advance on the defensive, and then to take the offensive against the German right by a turning movement with Namur as the pivot. This was expected to raise the siege of Namur, and thus open the way to re-occupy Brussels and form a junction of the British left with the Belgian Army advancing from Antwerp.
On August 22nd the Germans attacked the front and right flank and rear of the French Fifth Army, which gave way. Information as to the situation did not reach Sir John French, and the result was that the attack on the British next day was doubly severe. Under pressure from the front and on the right flank the British were slowly but surely forced back and the famous retirement from Mons began.
The worst of the retreat from Mons was over by the evening of August 28th, by which date our IInd Army Corps was on the Somme. Thenceforward the pursuit was slack, and the British were in position on the Aisne on the 30th.
Notwithstanding the lesson of Liege, the fortress of Namur was held to be invincible; yet, attacked on August 20th, it was entered by the Germans three days later.
In the vicinity of Lille was the extreme right of the German force advancing upon Northern France. This force consisted mostly of cavalry and horse artillery, with the IInd Corps of Infantry, the last being rushed forward by motor transport. It operated beyond the right of the German First Army (von Kluck) and formed a huge raiding-party, which had for its object the cutting of the communications of the British force with its principal bases at Boulogne and Havre. Moving southwards with its right on the River Lys, it created panic amongst the civilians in the district, and took Lille. That page 79city, with its obsolete fortresses, the Allies made no attempt to hold. British Marines were hurried across the Channel to save Ostend, but the Germans had no intention of occupying that port, their main line of advance being by Arras towards Amiens. The raiding force for the time being met with no opposition. The Allies, relying on their anticipated victorious advance into Belgium, had made no preparation to meet this contingency. Amiens was evacuated forthwith. British Headquarters sent orders to abandon Boulogne as the main supply base, and a new base was established at St. Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire.
We return now to the British Army which, on August 30th, had reached the Aisne, and had on its left a new French Army, the Tenth, which had come into position on August 28th. The line now held by the left of the Allies was an ideal position: indeed, it was the one actually selected forty years before by the French Staff for a final stand against an invading force that might overcome the frontier defences and be marching on Paris. The enemy's pressure on the centre, with the object of dividing the force and then mopping up the western portion, including, of course, the British, proved, however, to be too great, and a general retirement to the Maine was ordered. The great retreat from Mons, in which 100,000 British were opposed to a quarter of a million Germans, came to an end on September 5th.
Von Kluck's First Army, instead of continuing its sweep towards Paris, now changed direction to the south-east and attempted to drive a wedge between the left of the French Fifth Army and the right of the British force, which he was pleased to consider demoralized. As a result of this change, the raiding force of cavalry off on von Kluck's right was drawn in to conform, and Lille was evacuated by the Germans. Advantage was immediately taken of von Kluck's mistake in moving across our front. His right was attacked on September 6th, by the British and French on the left of the Allied line; pressure was continued on the 7th; and on the following day the German right was in retreat. On the 9th the German centre was badly beaten, and on the 10th the Battle of the Marne became a drive. The enemy, however, was too strong in numbers for us to convert his retreat into a rout, and on September 12th he had got back in good order to the Aisne. page 80The position taken up was as nearly perfect as could be imagined, situated as it was on the crest of a plateau some two miles north of the Aisne stream. In passing over this ground a few days before, the enemy had left behind working parties to prepare defensive trenches in case of a retirement.
On the supposition that the enemy was merely holding a delaying position, the British opened the Battle of the Aisne with a frontal attack. We succeeded in crossing the stream on September 14th, but, after a five days' struggle, realized that this was no rearguard matter, and a weary war of entrenchments began.
To turn the enemy's right, the two new French Armies on our left, the Seventh and the Tenth, extended our line at right angles from the Aisne beyond Albert to Arras and Lens, and almost to the Belgian frontier, a distance of nearly seventy miles. Then the Germans took the offensive, stretching out their right in the endeavour to outstrip our movement. In this new effort, by which he hoped to secure the Channel ports and the Seine Valley for an advance on Paris, the enemy had the advantage of the better railway systems.
By the end of September, Sir John French had come to the conclusion that in consequence of the extension of the line the British Army was in the wrong place. At Mons it had been on the extreme left. Now it was almost in the centre of the Allied line, and consequently there were difficulties in the matter of communications and supplies, which crossed those of the French Armies. If the British were transferred to the left of the line, we should then be within easy reach of the Channel ports. There was also another aspect to be considered, namely, the imminence of a great offensive against Britain herself, with the possession of the Channel ports as the immediate objective. Antwerp was at its last gasp, and when that city should fall to the Germans a fresh army would be available for a dash at the gap between Lille and the sea. Even now the finest of the German troops were under orders for the north, and in the first week of October large masses of German cavalry appeared again in the neighbourhood of Lille and Armentieres. General Joffre concurred in the views of Sir John French, and the transfer was accordingly arranged.
Now commenced the West Flanders campaign, which proved to be harder and more intricate than any the Allies page 81had yet fought. It was a self-contained campaign, in which only three out of the eleven Allied Armies, namely, the French Eighth, the British, and the French Tenth, took part. When it was seen that Antwerp must fall the following plan was adopted by the Allies. The Belgian Army, covered by Sir Henry Rawlinson's British force, consisting of the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division, recently landed at Ostend and Zeebrugge for the purpose of assisting in the defence of Antwerp, would retire by Bruges and Ghent to the line of the Yser to protect the Allied left, and, together with the new French reinforcements, meet any attack along the coast by German troops released after the fall of Antwerp; Lille and La Bassee to he held by the Allies; and the British, pivoting on La Bassee, to swing south-east, isolate the northern wing of the Germans, and threaten the communications to the south.
By September 30th the French Tenth Army had got into position, with its right on the River Ancre near Albert and its left extending beyond Arras to the vicinity of Lens. Several French Territorial Divisions occupied Lille and Douai opposite the German right. On October 8th the Germans, who still held Lens, took Douai and shelled Arras and Lille. Their cavalry were still scouring this region as far west as Hazebrouck. Bailleul and Cassel, and were therefore within twenty miles of Dunkirk.
On October 11th, the IInd Corps (Smith-Dorrien), on the way to the new position in the line, had marched from Abbeville and was placed on the left of the French, between Bethune and Aire. On the same day the Corps wheeled round till its left rested on Merville, and during the next four days pushed the Germans back to the La Bassee-Lille Road. Further advance was checked by strong counter-attacks. Indian troops first came into the line on 19th October, the Lahore Division being placed near Bethune in support of the IInd Corps.
The IIIrd Corps (Pulteney) arrived at St. Omer on October 11th and marched to Hazebrouck. On the 13th it moved towards the line Armentieres-Wytschaete, linking up the Ypres and the La Bassee sections of the front. This Corps came into conflict with the enemy in strength at Meteren, and, after a sharp fight, drove him out of Meteren and Bailleul and occupied the line Bailleul-St. Jans Cappelle. By October 17th the IIIrd Corps had taken Sailly, Nieppe and Armentieres, and page 82pushed forward to a position with its right at Bois Grenier, three miles south of the Lys, and its left at Le Gheer, a mile north of the river. Here we were against the main German line, and it was found impossible to recover Lille, from which the enemy had driven the French Territorials on the 14th, or, indeed, to make any further advance from the position taken up here on October 19th. "This, the British right centre [about the Armentieres sector] was destined to have one of the most awkward places in all the coming: battle. It was not itself the object of any great massed attack, as on the Yser, at Ypres, and at La Bassee, but it suffered from being on the fringe of the two latter zones,.……and was gravely endangered in the German enveloping movements."*
The nucleus of the IVth Corps (Rawlinson) was the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division (Byng), which, as we have seen, had gone from Ostend and Zeebrugge to help the Belgians at Antwerp. When that city fell on October 9th; the Belgians and the British in accordance with the general plan, fell, back towards the Yser Canal. The Belgians took up the line of the Yser from Houthulst Forest (north-east of Ypres) through Dixmude to Nieuport, with French Territorials in support. Our 7th Division took up a position cast of Ypres on the line Zandvoorde-Gheluvelt-Zonnebeke, with the 3rd Cavalry Division as advanced guard on a line roughly from Bixschoote to Poelcapelle. French Cavalry holding Passchendaele. On October 18th, two days after the Allies had secured these positions, four reserve corps, rushed up from Germany, were put into the line from Roulers to Menin. Our IVth Corps, in the endeavour to secure the latter place as a pivot for a turning movement, came into contact with this overwhelming force, and being unable to make headway, entrenched itself on an eight-mile line just east of Gheluvelt cross-roads.
The Ist Corps (Haig) having detrained at St. Omer and marched to Hazebrouck on October 19th, was ordered to move through Ypres to Thourout, and to march thence against Bruges and Ghent. The presence of the four new German corps was not fully known to our Headquarters; and the 1st Corps, soon meeting with determined opposition at their hands, had to settle down east of Ypres as the left wing in the great struggle.
* John Buchan: "Nelson's History of the War."
Opposed to the Allied line of nearly 100 miles from Albert to the sea at Nieuport were one and a half million German troops, outnumbering us by five to one. The four principal points in the line, at any one of which an advantageous breach might, be made for a German advance against the Channel ports and our lines of communications, were, in descending order of importance, Arras, La Bassee, Ypres, and Nieuport. Strangely enough, the Germans, in the great series of battles which now commenced, struck at all four points simultaneously.
The struggle for the shortest route to Calais, via Nieuport, came to an end on October 31st through the deliberate flooding of the countryside by the Belgians, who blocked the mouth of the Yser Canal for that purpose.
The fighting about La Bassee, where the Germans attacked in great strength on October 22nd, resulted in the pushing back of the left of the British line in that region, till, by the middle of November, the front ran from Givenchy (west of La Bassee) northwards past the west of Neuve Chapelle to near Laventie, thence bending back towards Estaires. Indian troops were employed with the British in these engagements, but the climatic conditions proved unsuitable.*
The heavy stroke at Arras by the Germans from October 20th to 26th was considered by them to be one of the main battles of the war, but by the beginning of November this attack had definitely failed.
* The Indian Divisions were transferred to eastern theatre of war towards the end of the following year.
From this time onward till early March of 1915, both sides devoted themselves to trench construction, with occasional raids, small attacks and counter-attacks. Of the raids the most important were those made by and upon the Indian troops about Givenchy, and of the minor attacks the heaviest were those at La Bassee.
In March, 1915, a new British Corps, the Vth, under Sir Herbert Plumer, came into the line north of Wytschaete; to the sonth of the Vth was the IInd Corps, behind Wytschaete and Messines; the IIIrd Corps (Pulteney) was east of Armentieres; the IVth Corps (Rawlinson) lay southwards from Estaires to west of Neuve Chapelle; thence the Indian Corps extended towards Givenchy; and finally came the Ist Corps linkinig up with the French. North of Ypres the French, with British cavalry at intervals, held from the salient to Dixmude, whence the Belgians continued the line to the sea at Nieuport. The Canadien Division came in in February.
We now had two armies in the field, the First Army (Haig), consisting of the Ist, the IVth, and the Indian Corps, and the Second Army (Smith-Dorrien), comprising the IInd, the IIIrd and the Vth Corps. The total strength of all arms was approximately half a million.†
* For the three weeks' Battle of Ypres the German losses are estimated at not less than 250,000; those of the Allies from Albert to Nieuport were over 100,000; in the Ypres fight alone the British lost 40,000.
† "It is instructive to remember that the British under Marlberough were rarely more than a division strong; that at Waterloo we had a division and a half; that at our strongest in the Peninsula we had no more than one modern army corps; that in the Crimea we had under two divisions; and that at the full tide of the Sonth African War we less than a quarter of a million, men. March, 1915, saw a British army assembled on the Flemish borders twelve times as large as that which had triumphed under Wellington in the Peninsula, and fifty-five times greater than the force which charged with King Harry at Agincourt." —John Buchan: "Nelson's History of the War.
A new British offensive opened on March 10th, when troops of the First Army attacked at Neuve Chapelle, south of Armentieres, with the object of straightening the line and securing the ridge commanding Lille, Roubaix and Turcoing. To distract attention the Ist Corps attacked from Givenchy, and the IIIrd Corps advanced just south of Armentieres. They succeeded in capturing the village of Neuve Chapelle, but not the ridge. The hamlet of l'Epinette was taken on March 12th by troops of the IIIrd Corps, who advanced their line 300 yards on a front of half a mile.
The Second Battle of Ypres raged from April 22nd to May 13th, 1915, the Germans directing their attack mainly against the northern part of the salient between Ypres Canal and the Menin Road. Owing to operations elsewhere, the enemy found our line thinly held. On this occasion the Germans first used gas* in large quantities against our lines, the Canadians, who had put up a magnificent fight, suffering heavily from this barbarous weapon. As a result of the succession of attacks the salient was considerably reduced in size, but our line still remained unbroken.
Our minor offensives, such as that at Festubert, near La Bassee, in the middle of May, showed the necessity for greater artillery strength, and also that under our attacks the enemy's front did not bend but would break up into a series of field fortresses. The net result proved to be a condition of stalemate.
Midsummer activities in the West were a succession of small things, the one outstanding exception being the German attack on the French in the Argonne; and trench fighting now rose to the rank of a special science.
* Liquid fire was first used by the Germans in their attack on the British trenches at Hooge Crater two months later.
The enemy held his front in varying degrees of strength, his troops being most heavily massed round Ypres, Armentieres, La Bassee, Lens, and all the avenues to Lille. For the present it was the task of the British to hold these forces in position, not necessarily to win ground.
In September the Freneh advanced in Champagne, and as a subsidiary action to that operation we attacked at Loos on the 25th, our object being to isolate the railway junctions of Lens and open the way into the plain of the Scheldt. Loos was taken, but the greater objective was not secured. Four other but smaller attacks made at this time included one by troops of the IIIrd Corps from Bois Grenier, south-west of Armentieres, against the German trenches at le Bridoux.
This fighting died away by the beginning of November, and both sides settled down to trench work during the winter.*For several months there was little of importance to chronicle. There were endless local attacks and counter-attacks, mining and counter-mining, and an incessant struggle with nature, but no extensive operations. At this time, initiated, apparently, by the Canadians, the small raids were evolved, a novel form of minor operation by which damage was inflicted, prisoners taken for identification purposes, and the enemy kept in a constant state of tension, but in which the raiding parties always returned to their own lines without making any attempt to gain territory.
Such was the general position in Flanders when the New Zealand Division came to France in the spring of 1916.
* Sir Douglas Haig became Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces on December 15th, 1915.