The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade in the line—Plans for the forthcoming attack—Tanks—"B Teams"—Objectives for the New Zealand Division—Method of attack—Artillery preparation— Conditions.
The Brigade having reached Fricourt on the 9th of September, proceeded on the following day and night to take over the sector held by troops of the 165th Brigade, 55th Division, and of the 2nd Brigade, lst Division. The 1/N.Z.R.B. relieved the 1/5 King's in the front line from the junction of Peach and Tea Trenches inclusive, to Sap "A" exclusive. The 4/N.Z.R.B. relieved both the 2nd Bn., K.R.R., and the 2nd Bn., Royal Sussex, in the front line from Sap "A" inclusive to Cork Alley exclusive. Thus the front line ran south-east to north-west from a point 500 yards N.W. of the northern apex of Del-page 118ville Wood, to within about a hundred yards of the eastern corner of High Wood. The 2/N.Z.R.B. went into Savoy and Carlton Trenches in support of 1/N.Z.R.B., relieving 1/7 King's, and the 3/N.Z.R.B. went into Carlton and Check Trenches, behind the 4/N.Z.R.B. The 3rd Machine Gun Company and the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battery went into the sector at the same time. Brigade Headquarters were established at Bazentin-le-Grand. The Divisional front was covered by the 14th Division Artillery and half the N.Z. Division Artillery, all under command of C.R.A., N.Z. Division. On the night llth/12th the greater part of the Brigade front line was swung forward, the right being advanced some 300 yards. Each front line battalion constructed three forward posts 20 yards long, with flank trenches of five yards, connected these up, and dug a communication-trench to complete the System.
On the evening of the 12th the four battalions were relieved respectively by the Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington and Otago Battalions of the 2nd Brigade, and went back for a short period of comparative rest, the lst and 4th to Mametz Wood, and the 2nd and 3rd to Fricourt Wood. Brigade Headquarters moved to Pommiers Redoubt.
At 3 a.m. on September 14th, Brigade orders were issued for an attack on Flers in connection with a general advance of the line on the following day. It was at once evident, not only that plans for the forthcoming attack were exceedingly thorough as to minute detail, but that they were characterized by unusual features in at least two respects. Contrary to the usual practice, on the 15th September the whole force of the Allies was to move forward at the same time, from the line Vermandovillers to Thiepval, in a combined endeavour to thrust the enemy back over the whole front of attack. In the second place the new armoured cars known as "tanks" were to be employed for the first time. Light armoured cars had been used with great success in the flying-column work on the Egyptian deserts against the Senussi, but they would be useless in the trench country of Europe. A tank is well-nigh invulnerable except from a direct hit by a shell; can surmount any kind of obstacle except deep water or an excavation approximating its own length; can flatten out any barbed wire entanglement, however complicated; is practically a moving page 119fortress, and even when its motive power fails can be turned into a ready-made strong-point. The event proved that, all things considered, the tanks, at this their first appearance in battle, came well up to expectations, the most serions drawback proving to be the slowness of their movements when compared with the impetuons dash of the infantry.
It may be mentioned here also that instructions were issued to the effect that a percentage of the officers, non-commissioned officers and specialists of each unit were to be left out of the line. Experience in the earlier stage of the Somme battle had shown the wisdom of such a precaution, for these officers and men, being experienced and well-trained, would, in case very heavy casualties were sustained, form a substantial nucleus round which the unit could be reconstituted without an undue break in its continuity or in its traditions. The second-in-command of each battalion was quartered at the transport lines, at which position he would be able most efficiently to carry out the duty of sending forward supplies of water, rations and ammunition. The personnel thus excluded from participation in a major action were styled the "B. Teams," and were for the time being included in what were known as the "Brigade Details."
The New Zealand Division had joined the XVth Corps, Fourth Army, and in the operations on the 15th September was to have the 41st Division on its right and the 47th Division, Illrd Corps, on its left, and had four tanks allotted to it. The task set the New Zealand Division was an advance of from 2,500 to 3,000 yards on a front something over 800 yards wide, and the attack was planned to cut through Switch Trench, Flers Trench, Flers Support, the north-western corner of Flers Village, Grove Alley, beyond the village, and to terminate with the most advanced troops in position roughly in the form of a spear-head with its point on Factory Corner, 1,500 yards west of Gueudecourt.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade and portion of the 2nd Brigade were detailed to carry out the attack, which was divided into four distinct phases, as under:—
First Objective, or Green Line: The Switch Trench from the junction of Coffee Lane therewith. This objective, roughly 600 yards from our front line, was allotted to the 2nd Brigade, and the troops employed were the 2nd page 120Auckland and the 2nd Otago Battalions, which were then [gap — reason: damage] occupying the front line.
Second Objective, or Brown Line: A zigzag line from the junction of Fat Trench with Flers Trench, about 600 yards almost due west of Flers Church, along Fat Trench, up Fish Alley, along Flag Lane and across to the Flers-High Wood Road at a point about 300 yards west of its crossing with the Longueval-Factory Corner Road. The Brown Line was roughly 1,000 yards in advance of the Green Line, and its capture was allotted to our 4th Battalion (Lieut.-Col. C. W. Melvill).
Third Objective, or Blue Line: A line running northwest from the extreme northern point of Flers to Abbey Road, and thence bending back as a flank line to the point where Flers Support crosses the Longueval-Factory Corner Road. The taking of this objective, which was from 900 to 1,000 yards in advance of the Brown Line, involved the capture in succession of sections of Flers Trench, Flers Support, Fort Trench. Grove Alley, Abbey Road, and a strong-point where Fort Trench joined Abbey Road. The task was allotted to the 2nd Battalion (Lieut.-Col. A. B. Stewart) and the 3rd Battalion (Lieut.-Col. A. Winter-Evans).
Fourth Objective, or Red Line: A line facing north- west, with its left on the forward point in the Blue Line at Abbey Road, and its right at the road-junction 300 yards south of Factory Corner, and also a defensive flank on the right, facing Gueudecourt. The capture of the Red Line, which, without reckoning the defensive flank towards the east, was over 1,100 yards in length and nearly at right angles to the preceding objectives, was entrusted to the lst Battalion (Major J. G. Roache).
The final objective of the Division on our immediate right, the 41st, was to include Flers; while the 14th, on the right of the 41st, was expected to pass beyond Gueudecourt. The advance of the 47th Division on our left was not to go beyond Flers Support, their final objective being in the form of a right angle, one arm being about 500 yards of Flers Support, and the other a line about twice that length facing the High Wood-Ligny Thilloy Road. The Brigades on our right and teft flanks were the 122nd and the 140th, respectively.
Two Vickers guns of the 3rd Machine Gun Company, and two Stokes mortars of the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battery, were attached to each of the four battalions of the Brigade, and came under the orders of the respective commanding officers during the operations. The remainder of the machine-page 121guns were held in Brigade reserve, and were detailed to give covering fire to the advance.
Two contact aeroplanes were detailed for duty over the sector operated on by the Division, and were to be in the air, weather permitting, from zero till dark on the 15th, and on the following day one was to be up from. 6.30 a.m. till 8.30 a.m.
"Battle order" for every man consisted of rifle, bayonet and equipaient less pack; 220 rounds of ammunition and two bombs; haversack, worn in place of the pack, with waterproof sheets, jersey, two empty sandbags, 24 hours' rations, iron rations, water-bottle filled; two gas helmets,* one worn on the chest at the alert position; and a steel helmet. Every alternate man carried a pick or a shovel strapped to his back.
For the units of the Brigade, positions of assembly were selected within 500 yards of the new front line held by the Auckland and Otago troops, and the battalions were instructed to complete their dispositions by 9.30 p.m. on the 14th.
The "leap-frog" method of attack was adopted; that is, as each objective was taken it became the jumping-off place for fresh troops in their attack on the next succeeding objective. The main drawback in this system is that the new assaulting troops assembling in the successive starting-places become intermingled with the men consolidating there, and unavoidable delay may be caused thereby. Besides this, the bodies advancing towards the more distant objectives are subject to the enemy fire directed on the successive captured positions as well as on themselves as they pass across the open.
The most intense artillery bombardment ever known in the previous history of the war had opened on the German lines on September 12th,† and continued unabated to the zero hour for the great infantry advance, which was fixed for 6.20 a.m., September 15th. The successive attacks were timed to fit in with the lifts of the more terrific barrages, and the hours set were as follow:—Infantry capture Green Line, 6.40 a.m.; capture Brown Line, 7.50 a.m.; capture Flers and establish Blue Line, 8.20 a.m.; advance from Blue Line and establish Red Line, 10.50 a.m.page 122
Friday, September 15th, broke fine, but with a morning mist. The enemy artillery fire on our front was much below normal and no casualties had been suffered by our men overnight; everything, indeed, with the exception of our own artillery, was unusually quiet. A Royal Flying Corps report of an air reconnaissance, carried out shortly before zero, stated that Crest Trench, lying between our front line and the first objective, appeared to be in good order; that Switch Trench, the first objective, had been practically obliterated; that Fish Alley, running north from the right of our first objective and through our second to Flers Trench, had been to a great extent re-dug; and that Flers Trench and Flers Support appeared to be badly damaged in many places. Reports from battalions showed that all minor hitches incidental to the completion of preparations in the adverse conditions that prevailed had been overcome; and General Fulton awaited with confidence the opening of the attack. News received from Division at 6.15 a.m., to the effect that of the four tanks allotted to the sector one was out of action and the remaining three late, was somewhat disconcerting; but as the several advances had been arranged to coincide with the lifts of the barrage, and were not to be dependent on the movement of the tanks, it was realized that the delay on the part of the latter would not interfere with the infantry programme.
* These were the old pattern, a saturated flannelette bag fitted with air outlet and eyepieces.
† The New Zealand Artillery alone fired approximately half-a-million rounds at the Somme.