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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1.—The Earlier Fighting

Part 1.—The Earlier Fighting.

Preparations for the summer campaign—Plan—Position—Preliminary bombardment—Opening of the attack—Progress—The French—Attack resumed—Results of second phase.

Before proceeding to deal with the part taken by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in the battle of the Somme of 1916, it will be well to take a brief survey of the progress of events in that field from the commencement of the great series of engagements on July lst up till the middle of September.

Preparations for a summer campaign had been long in progress, but the actual date of the opening of the offensive had not been fixed. The British armies had been rapidly growing in numbers, and the supply of munitions was increasing to a highly satisfactory degree; and, in order that the reinforcements should have the fullest opportunities for intensive training, and that the accumulations of munitions on the ground should in every way satisfy all requirements, the Commander-in-Chief was desirous of postponing the attack as long as possible, subject only to the necessity of commencing operations before the season was too far advanced. The Germans, however, were continuing their pressure on Verdun, and the Austrian offensive on the Italian front was gaining ground. Relief in the latter theatre, where by the end of May the pressure of the enemy was becoming alarming, was secured by the opening of the Russian campaign early in June. The enemy, however, did not in any way lessen the fury of his attacks on Verdun, where, though the heroic defence of our Allies had gained many weeks of inestimable value to us and to them, the strain was now becoming intolerable. In view of the general situation here and elsewhere, it was agreed that a combined French and British offensive should open not later than the end of June.

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The right flank of the British joined up with the left of the French in the vicinity of Maricourt, about a mile north of the Somme river, and the plan agreed upon provided for a French advance along both sides of the river, while the British pushed from Maricourt to the Ancre in front of St. Pierre Divion.

The British faced a dominating ridge rising more than 500 feet high, and forming the main watershed between the Somme and its tributaries on one side, and the rivers of South-western Belgium on the other, and having a general direction from east- south-east to west-north-west. The southern face is steeper than the northern, and is broken up into a series of long irregular spurs and deep depressions. Well down the forward face, the enemy's first system of defence ran from the Somme northwards for two miles, then westwards for four miles to near Fricourt, where it turned nearly due north, forming a great salient. Six miles north of Fricourt the trenches crossed the River Ancre, a tributary of the Somme, and running northward still, passed over the summit of the watershed near Hebuterne and Gommecourt, and so on down its western spurs to Arras. Behind this twelve-mile front from the Somme to the Ancre the enemy had a strong second System of defence, sited near the crest of the watershed and from 3,000 to 5,000 yards in rear of the first system. Nature and art and infinite cunning had combined to make his position formidably strong; and, after his two years' labour at his defences, he not unnaturally looked upon them as impregnable.

During the last week in June artillery bombardments, gas and smoke discharges, and more than seventy raids, were carried out against the enemy trenches opposite the whole British front, which since April, 1915, had increased in length from thirty miles to ninety. The air force, too, was particularly active, on one occasion destroying every observation balloon visible.

At 7.30 a.m. on July lst the British infantry assault was launched, and "the greatest one-day battle ever known in the world's history" commenced. The British main attack extended from Maricourt to St. Pierre Divion. Simultaneously a holding attack was directed against the enemy from the Ancre as far as Serre, with the object of containing his reserves and occupying his artillery; while further north a de-page 115monstration was made against both sides of the Gommecourt salient. The attack on the front from Maricourt to Serre was entrusted to the Fourth Army, under General Rawlinson, and the subsidiary attack at Gommecourt to troops from the Army commanded by General Allenby.

On the right our troops met with immediate success, and rapid progress was made. Montauban was carried, and the Briqueterie on the east and the ridge on the west of the village of Mametz were stormed and taken, as was a large section of trenches to the north of Fricourt, with the result that this village was threatened from three sides. Striking progress was made at numerous points from Fricourt to Gommecourt, but many of these gains had to be given up owing to the enemy's continued resistance at such points as Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel.

The French attack on a five-mile front on the banks of the Somme had also gone well. They penetrated to a depth of 1¾ miles, and on the following day pushed on and took Flaucourt, driving the Germans back towards Peronne. Their toll of prisoners for the two days was over 6,000.

The operations of July lst had tested the German line, and, in view of the results, it was decided to press forward on a front from our junction with the French to a point midway between La Boisselle and Contalmaison; to maintain a steady pressure from La Boisselle to the Serre Road, this portion to form a pivot on which our line could swing as attacks to its right made progress to the north; and on the remainder of the front—from the Ancre to Gommecourt—to hold the enemy to his positions and prepare for a resumption of the subsidiary attack there later should this be found desirable. In order to give General Rawlinson a free hand for his operations from the south, General Gough was given command of the pivotal sector from La Boisselle to Serre.

On these lines the attack was continued, and by the middle of July the British had taken Bernafay Wood, Trones Wood, Longueval, Mametz Wood, the two Bazentin Woods and the two Bazentin villages, Contalmaison and La Boisselle; and from the French left at Maltz Horn Farm the line ran east of Trones Wood, west edge of Delville Wood, north of Longue-page 116val, Bazentin-le-Grand, Bazentin-le-Petit, Contalmaison Villa, Contalmaison, Contalmaison Wood, Ovillers.

The second phase of the great battle lasted from the middle of July till the middle of September, a contest during which "the enemy, having found his strongest defences unavailing, and now fully alive to his danger, put forth his utmost efforts to keep his hold on the main ridge. This stage of the battle constituted a prolonged and severe struggle for mastery between the contending armies, in which, although progress was slow and difficult, the confidence of our troops in their ability to win was never shaken. Their tenacity and determination proved more than equal to their task, and by the first week in September they had established a fighting superiority that has left its mark on the enemy, of which the possession of the ridge was merely the visible proof."*

During this period the policy of vigorous raiding all along other parts of the front was continued. The largest of these enterprises was that carried out on July 19th by an Australian Division, south of Armentieres. The lst Anzac Corps, under General Birdwood, moved down to the Somme front immediately after this exploit.

The main events of this second phase were the taking of Pozieres by the Australians, July 22nd to 26th; the capture, two days later, of the whole of Delville Wood, in which the good work of the South Africans was conspicuous; of Guillemont, Sept. 3rd; of Leuze Wood, Sept. 5th; and of Guinchy and the greater part of High Wood, Sept. 9th. In addition, slow but steady progress had been made in the advance against the stupendous defence works of Thiepval, and the concentrated efforts of the French had also been eminently successful. On 13th September the British line ran from midway between Maurepas and Combles, where it joined up with that of the French, east and north of Leuze Wood, east of Guillemont, north of Guinchy, north of Delville Wood, through High Wood, midway between Pozieres and Martinpuich, just south of Mouquet Farm, and thence to a point about 600 yards south of Thiepval. The remainder of the line northward was practically unaltered. The enemy had lost all observation posts page 117on the main ridge with the exception of those in High Wood and N.N.E. of Guinchy. The British, on the other hand, had now a clear view of Courcelette Martinpuich, Flers, Lesboeufs, Morval and Combles. Combles itself was threatened, and the French advance towards Sailly-Saillisel along both sides of the Bapaume-Peronne road was thereby materially assisted. Gradually the enemy was being pushed into the low-lying ground in the apex of the triangle Albert-Bapaume-Peronne. That he recognized the desperate nature of his position is shown by an Order of the Day issued as early as July 30th, which contained the statement: "……The decisive battle of the war is now being fought on the fields of the Somme…Attacks must break against a wall of German breasts.…"

Such was the position at the end of the second phase of this great struggle, and it was the privilege of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade to participate in the opening events of the third and final phase, in which the British advance was pushed down the forward slopes of the ridge, extended on both flanks, and the whole of the plateau from Morval to Thiepval, with a good deal of the lower ground beyond, captured and firmly

* Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches.

†See p. 109.