The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Section 2.—The Advance Beyond Flers, September 15th
Section 2.—The Advance Beyond Flers, September 15th.
Second Brigade to Switch Trench—4th Battalion to Brown Line —3rd and 2nd Battalions to Flers Trench and Flers Support— Flers taken—1st Battalion to Grove Alley—Consolidation—2nd Wellington reinforce—Relief—Non-combatants—General progress —Results.
Ten minutes after zero the leading companies of the 4th Battalion, "C" (Major J. Pow) on the right and "B" (Capt. A. J. Powley) on the left, moved forward, following at a suitable distance the rear wave of 2nd Otago. All four companies had been arranged in the assembly-trench in such a manner that upon emerging they would fall at once into the new attack formation, which had been so assiduously practised during the period of training. Thus the platoons of "A" Company (Capt. J. L. Turnbull) were assembled alternately with those of "C," and the platoons of "D" Company (Capt. M. H. R. Jones) with those of "B," and by the time all had left the trench the battalion was moving in eight waves, each 60 paces behind the other, and each wave consisting of eight sections marching in single file. Between the sections an interval of 100 yards was preserved, so that the front covered was roughly 800 yards. Approaching Switch Trench the battalion halted and the men lay down to await the moving forward of the barrage. When this lifted the battalion advanced again, and presently wave after wave dashed in upon the trenches of the Brown Line. All ranks displayed magnificent spirit, and by 7.50 a.m. the enemy's stubborn resistance had been overcome, and the men were hard at work putting the captured trenches into fighting trim and constructing additional strong-points in preparation for withstanding more effectively a possible counter-attack. Of the two Vickers guns attached to the battalion, one was placed on either flank. That on the left had excellent targets in the shape of parties of retreating Germans, while the other, commanding both the road from Flers and also Flers Trench to the north, did some useful work against a counter-attack launched during the afternoon. The left was further strengthened by the posting there of a light trench mortar section with two guns. The tanks were not an unmixed blessing. One became disabled at 8 a.m., on reaching the centre of Brown Line, and drew heavy artillery fire, which was sufficiently in-page 125accurate to leave the tank unscathed while inflicting casualties upon the troops in the vicinity.
Lieut.-Col. Melvill had come forward with his battalion to a position slightly in rear of the objective, but here his headquarters came under rifle and machine-gun fire, and the liaison officer and others of the personnel were struck. A move was therefore made to the Brown Line itself. Inspection of the position revealed the fact that the right company, in keeping touch with the troops of the flanking Division, had extended to a considerable distance beyond the boundary line, but no adjustment was made till later in the day.
Though the successful achievement of the 4th Battalion has been told in few words, it must not be supposed that the task was either simple or easy. The capture of the objective, together with the 1,000 yards' advance from the assembly position, had taken over an hour, and during that time the attacking troops had been subjected to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Casualties had been heavy right from the commencement. Lieut. K. R. J. Saxon and 2nd Lieut. W. W. McClelland each completed the advance in charge of a company, all other officers of the two companies having fallen. In a third company 2nd Lieut. H. G. Carter led in the final assault in the place of his company commander, who had been wounded in the earlier stages. Saxon and Carter had themselves been wounded but were able to carry on, and the work of all three officers was reported upon as being conspicuously good. Similar fine leadership was displayed by Sergt. J. A. Martin and Rifleman T. Wilson, who reached the objective as temporary platoon-commanders. Sergt. Martin was killed just as his work was accomplished. The trying duties of the stretcher- bearers commenced at once, and many stirring tales are told of the deeds of those patient and self-sacrificing workers. The names of Riflemen W. T. Douglas, W. C. Campbell and A. Dunthorn are recalled in this connection, these men having performed some remarkable feats in conveying wounded men to places of safety single-handed. Their work was supplemented by that of Corporal S. R. McDonald, a combatant non-commissioned officer, who, immediately after the capture of the objective, went forward from the trench, bound up the wounds of two men under fire, and brought them safely in, though he page 126himself was severely wounded; and by that of Rifleman H. Youle, who similarly rescued no fewer than five men.
In the meantime, following closely behind the 4th Battalion's rear companies as they advanced to the attack, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions had been coming forward to gain a position in the Brown Line. This was to be their jumping-off line for an advance involving the capture of a large area intersected by such formidable works as Flers Trench, Flers Support, parts of Grove Alley and Flers Village, and the sunken Abbey Road with its strong-points and deep dug-outs. Each moved on a single company frontage, the platoons being in artillery formation with the sections arranged chequerwise. The companies were in the normal order, the commanders on this day being Major A. J. Childs and Captains R. O. Brydon, J. B. Bennett and C. Horsnell, in the 2nd Battalion; and Capt. A. Thomson, Lieut. W. N. Masefield, Capt. J. D. K. Strang and Capt. W. C. Harley in the 3rd. While crossing Switch Trench the troops came under severe fire from machine-gun nests in Crest Trench, the mopping-up of which had not at that moment been completed. The advance was not checked, however; indeed, the forward movement appears to have been carried on too impetuously, for a number of the men of these units had already mingled with the leading waves of the 4th Battalion when the latter made the assault on the Brown Line. There was ample time for such reorganization as was required, and punctually at 8.20 a.m., the 2nd and 3rd Battalions left the Brown Line and advanced towards the third objective. At this stage the 3rd Battalion lost three company leaders, Capt. Strang being killed and Capt. Thomson and Lieut. Masefield wounded.
On the right, the 2nd Battalion companies experienced little difficulty in dealing with their section of Flers Trench; but they came under heavy machine-gun fire from Flers Support as they moved forward from the former, and this caused a few minutes' check.
On the left, the 3rd Battalion found trouble at once. The wire in front of Flers Trench was practically intact, and, while held up by this obstacle, the leading companies suffered heavily at the hands of the German machine-gunners and snipers. Repeated efforts were made to break through the bar-page 127rier, among these being a particularly daring bombing attack led by 2nd Lieut. R. A. Bennett, but all attempts proved utterly unavailing. The men thereupon took cover in shell-holes and awaited the arrival of the tanks, then momentarily expected. Lance-Corporal E. Bassett, becoming impatient, moved out into the open and repeatedly picked off enemy snipers as they showed their heads to fire. He put up an excellent score, and came through the ordeal without a scratch. Equally commendable was the work of a runner, Rifleman J. R. B. Harwood, who moved about the scattered parties in the shell-holes, establishing touch and aiding organization.
Two tanks came up at 10.30 a.m. One of them took up a position on the extreme left flank, while the second proceeded to deal with the wire and machine-guns holding up our men. Realizing the difficulties confronting the leading waves of the 3rd Battalion, Major J. Pow, of the 4th Battalion, together with 2nd Lieut. A. C. Fulton and a party of riflemen and bombers, moved forward to their assistance. Bombing along Flers Trench he met with wonderful success, capturing no fewer than 145 prisoners, including two officers. Bombing parties of the 3rd Battalion had also been active, and presently, this section of Flers Trench being taken, the rear waves of the battalion advanced. Sending parties up the saps and inwards from the left flank, they secured Flers Support and pressed on to capture their allotted portion of Abbey Road. Here a fine action was performed by Rifleman J. R. Walters. Going forward under fire, he dressed the wounds of eight men who had fallen in advance of the position, and brought them in unaided. Not content with this, he carried two of the worst cases overland to a more protected spot 200 yards in rear.
Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion was engaged in dealing with its section of Flers village. Progress in this locality was at first slow owing to machine-gun fire from the north-west corner of Flers and from Abbey Road. Here Major Childs, the senior company commander of the battalion, was killed while pressing forward with his men. Noting the delay, the commanding officer of the 4th Battalion sent up his reserve platoon to assist. Skilfully handled by 2nd Lieut. W. W. Dove, these additional men proved sufficient to turn the scale. Both the Abbey Road and the village positions were now smartly cleared, page 128and when consolidation was well under way the platoon of reinforcements was withdrawn. Our men were by this time well beyond the right boundary of the Divisional sector, but this was rendered necessary through the Division on the right failing to cover the whole of its allotted front.
The capture of the Blue Line was now complete, and the two battalions got to work constructing strong-points and establishing blocks.
During the advance of the 3rd Battalion from the Brown Line and in the work of consolidating the captured objectives, 2nd Lieutenants A. L. Martin, S. J. E. Closey and W. A. Gray, who, owing to casualties amongst the officers, had had to assume the duties of company commanders, did conspicuously good work under most difficult conditions. Closey and Gray, indeed, found themselves the only officers left in their respective companies. Sergeants J. E. Day, S. F. Breach and R. Simmers took over the duties of their fallen platoon commanders with no less satisfactory results. To the north of Flers brilliant work was done by that fine officer, Capt. R. O. Brydon, of the 2nd Battalion, who reorganized the remains of two companies, established two strong-points, and beat off repeated enemy counter-attacks. Wounded early in the morning, he carried on with great tenacity and cheerfulness throughout the 15th, but was killed on the following day. Sergt. N. E. Fitzgerald, also of the 2nd Battalion, had all the officers of his company killed or wounded; he rallied forty men, and with them established a post north of Flers, and this he held with his garrison, now reduced to twenty-five, until the evening of the 16th.
The 1st Battalion, detailed for the task of securing the final objective, consisting roughly of Grove Alley, moved forward immediately behind the 2nd and 3rd. The advance was made on a two-company frontage. "A" Company (Capt. L. M. Inglis) on the right and "B" (Capt. B. R. Lankshear) on the left, leading, with "C" (Capt. P. A. Elder) and "D" (Capt. H. C. Meikle) following in support. Part of "D" Company had been detailed as battalion reserve. Approaching the Blue Line the battalion began to suffer heavy casualties from machine-gun fire coming from the left. Lance-Corporal F. N. Fletcher, with a bombing-party of six men from one of the rear companies, swung out beyond the left flank, located the enemy machine-gun, and attacking it from flank and rear succeeded in bombing out the crew and destroying the gun, thus removing a serious obstacle to the advance. The check aggravated the slight confusion that had already arisen from the intermingling of the men of the 1st with those of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions. Indeed, the necessary orderly arrangement of sections of the 1st Battalion was repeatedly upset through yielding to the irresistible temptation to join in any local fighting that might be going on, and hence it was found imperative, when the Abbey Road was reached, to make a brief halt in order that proper organization might be restored before making the final swinging advance on Grove Alley.
The general situation at about 11 a.m. was as follows:— The Green Line occupied by 2nd Auckland and 2nd Otago; the Brown Line held by the 4th Battalion; Fiers Trench, Flers Support and Blue Line generally being consolidated by the 2nd and 3rd Battalions; Flers village occupied by a mixture of New Zealand Rifle Brigade and English troops; and the 1st Battalion reorganizing in Abbey Road. Beyond the right the position was uncertain, although it was known that a small page 130party from the Brigade on that flank was digging in, north of Flers near the German strong-points known as Box and Cox,
At 11.30 a.m. the 1st Battalion continued the advance from the vicinity of Abbey Road, both leading companies coming under severe machine-gun fire from a number of guns on the high ground away to the left in the neighbourhood of Goose Alley, besides suffering many casualties from shell-fire in the general bombardment. They even had to face two field guns firing at point-blank range, though this difficulty was finally removed by the daring action of 2nd Lieut. J. R. Bongard, who with a party of seven men dashed forward in the face of the fire, bayoneted the teams and captured the guns. Section by section, however, these companies gained a footing in Grove Alley, and under a hail of bullets commenced the work of consolidation.
As time went on it became increasingly evident that the position occupied by the battalion was extremely precarious. The effective strength had been sadly reduced by casualties throughout the long advance of nearly two miles under fire and without a barrage, and now that the greater part of the objective was secured it was found that no touch could be got with the troops of the Division on our right, either to the north or to the north-east of Flers. It was concluded, rightly, as the event proved, that our neighbours were not on their objective, and even the small party about Cox had by this time disappeared. Thus the right flank was entirely "in the air," and the whole position, besides being under fire from both west and east, was enfiladed by machine-guns from about Factory Corner to the north-east. At about 2 p.m., therefore, when the awkwardness of the situation was fully realized, the captured guns were disabled and the right company was withdrawn slightly till it faced the north. The digging of a series of posts covering Flers, from Cox to the left of the Blue Line, was now begun, the position thus taken up being some 400 yards short of the extreme point of the final objective. The new line at once came under concentrated shell-fire and had to bear the brunt of repeated counter-attacks, and the situation called for prompt and energetic action on the part of the few junior officers and non-commissioned officers left. 2nd Lieut. N. L. Macky, who was in charge of the reserve of two platoons, page 131on ascertaining that the right was still uncovered and that the enemy was advancing in that quarter, sent information back and immediately took his men forward to establish a defensive flank, a task which he succeeded in accomplishing only after much severe fighting. 2nd Lieut. W. G. Harrison, who had led two platoons to the final objective, now found his command reduced to twenty men. With these he commenced the establishment of a strong-point near Cox, and though for a long time completely isolated, he succeeded in beating off all attacks until troops eventually came up on either side. 2nd Lieut. N. Angus, who had been placed in charge of a burial party and had followed up the advancing lines in connection with his special duty, now found the work of defence more urgent and necessary, and having collected some scattered men he constructed a separate strong-point, which he handed over only when conditions had become more settled. This done, he realized the need for augmenting the ration parties, and he at once pressed his burial men into this new service, making four successive trips from the dump to the advanced posts before relinquishing his self-imposed task at daylight on the 16th. Company-Sergt.-Major G. H. Boles early in the afternoon found himself in command of his company, now without an officer, and both in Grove Alley as well as later in the line of posts north-east of Flers, displayed remarkable powers of leadership and organization. Here also Sergeants A. R. Blackmore, R. T. Caldwell and C. Gair proved their ability in grappling with unusual situations, and their independent work was of the utmost value during the establishment and final consolidation of the line covering Flers. Sergt. Caldwell's work in particular was noted by Major Gwyn Thomas, Brigade Major of the 122nd Brigade, who wrote in glowing terms of his display of intitiative, and referred especially to the support afforded to the troops on the right.
Machine-guns were promptly brought forward and placed in position under the personal supervision of 2nd Lieut. A. H. Preston, who proved to be of invaluable assistance both in establishing and in holding the advanced line. Particularly good work was performed by the two gun crews under the control of Sergt. W. Paine. The line, which now extended over 400 yards beyond the right of the Divisional boundary, was page 132further materially strengthened by the arrival of a tank, which look up a position on the Flers-Ligny Thilloy Road.
At 3.20 p.m. the Brigade received orders from Division that the advance was to proceed no further than Blue Line, which, with Flers, was to be consolidated and held at all costs. This was welcome news to the much-tried men of the 1st Battalion, to whom the necessity of withdrawal from Grove Alley an hour before had proved a bitter experience. At this time the troops on our right advanced to Flea Trench, on the right of Cox, and linked up with us. They, however, withdrew again at 7.30 p.m., making it necessary for us to refuse our right still further. This extension was brilliantly carried out and, against a series of attacks, maintained by a composite party of men from the 1st and 2nd Battalions under Capt. L. M. Inglis. Later in the night a platoon from the 2nd Wellington Battalion reinforced the sparsely-held line on this flank.
No connection had been made with the troops of the 140th Brigade on our left, and it was ascertained later that they had not been successful in gaining that part of Flers Support which formed their objective, having advanced only as far as the Flers-Martinpuich Road in continuation of our Brown Line. The left flank was thus quite open, and to overcome this difficulty the 3rd and 4th Battalions were ordered to dig a trench forming a defensive flank back towards Flag Lane, and the 1st, 2nd and 4th were instructed to dig a support line to this. The night of 15th/16th September proved comparatively quiet, and this defensive work was successfully accomplished without serious interference.
During the night the 2nd Wellington Battalion, which had come up earlier to reinforce, took over the section of Abbey Road held by companies of our 2nd Battalion, the latter rejoining the remainder of the battalion in Flers Trench and Flers Support. In view of the very high percentage of casualties suffered by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, the arrival of the 2nd Wellington companies was very welcome. They entered heartily into the struggle, and, in particular, the presence of the party with our refused right flank added greatly to our sense of security.
In addition to the close inspection of the lines, and of the position generally, made towards the end of the day by Gene-page 133ral Fulton, and by Major Hastings of the Divisional Staff, a notable reconnaissance was carried out by Capt. R. G. Purdy, Staff Captain, from 11 a.m. till 5.30 p.m. Incessant machine-gun and artillery fire, together with the truly awful state of the ground, had rendered communication almost impossible, and the general obscurity of the situation towards the end of the forenoon called for a personal investigation covering the whole sector. This was undertaken with eminent success by Capt. Purdy, and his report, together with those sent in from time to time by battalion commanders, showed that the work of the different units had been entirely satisfactory, and that, all things considered, the situation generally was even better than could have been expected.
The day of the 16th September was spent in consolidating the lines. At 9 a.m. the enemy made a more determined counter-attack than those that had developed during the previous afternoon. This came from the north-west, but was eventually beaten off, the Vickers guns attached to battalions putting in some excellent work. At 9.30 a.m., to facilitate the continuation of the advance of the Divisions on both flanks, the 1st Wellington Battalion passed through our line and retook Grove Alley.
On the night of 16th/17th September we were relieved by the 2nd Brigade, and went into Divisional Reserve in Savoy and Carlton Trenches and Check Line, Brigade Headquarters remaining at Carlton Trench.
The work of the various subsidiary sections on the 15th and 16th, such as the medical, transport and signal sections, and the carrying, ration, stretcher and burial parties, cannot be recounted at length. Under, conditions that beggar description they carried on without pause in the face of the most fearful obstacles and with absolute contempt of danger. The recorded and unrecorded instances of heroism and persistence displayed by these men, many of whom had not the excitement of personal combat to spur them on, are beyond all praise.
In performing the duties in connection with the establishment and maintenance of communications, so vital an element in the successful conduct of operations, only the signaller page 134knows the trials and dangers that have to be faced. It is shell-fire that cuts his wire, and it is under shell-fire that he must go out and find and mend the break, and that without a moment's unnecessary delay. Conspicuous amongst those who laboured so faithfully and well in this important work were Lieutenants G. A. Avey and E. Burrows, Sergt. J. N. Beattie, and Riflemen N. L. Ingpen and A. Beattie. But wires cannot be taken far forward at once, nor can they serve all parts of the field. The bulk of the work of communication in a moving engagement must be performed by battalion and company runners, and many were the astonishing feats, not only of bravery but of endurance, that were placed to the credit of these indefatigable men. Of those who devotedly served in this capacity mention may be made of Corporal E. D. Duthie, Riflemen A. C. Elliott, W. G. Franklin, H. P. Parsons, C. C. Palmer, D. G. Irvine, A. W. Forsyth, H. Gowers, E. H. Campbell, A. Bridgeman, and A. E. White, the last being the sole survivor of six company runners.
The wounded can speak most feelingly of the medical officers and their orderlies and of the stretcher-bearers, but there were few with the Brigade at the Somme who did not see something of their self-sacrificing labours. Such will call to memory Capt. G. V. Bogle, who in the forward area worked at his dressing-station in the open unceasingly for thirty-six hours at a stretch, and was killed by a shell as he paused to take a first brief respite from his labours; his orderly, Lance-Corporal C. J. Henty, who had served with like devotion and now carried on alone, ceasing his labours twelve hours later, when the last wounded man of his battalion had been evacuated from the dressing-station; and Lance-Corporal H. Rosanowski and Rifleman Myers, two of the few stretcher-bearers who came through the ordeal unscathed. No less devoted was the action of the Revd. Clement Houchen, Chaplain to the 1st Battalion. He accompanied his unit throughout its long advance, rendered invaluable assistance to the medical officer, aided the stretcher-bearers, soothed the last moments of many a passing hero, and, when no further help could be given to the living, accompanied the burial parties to lighten their labours and perform the last sad offices to the dead. Removed from the stirring scenes of the forward area, yet still under page 135fire, the seconds-in-command and quartermasters of battalions worked without ceasing at the dumps, sending forward supplies of water, food and ammunition, their duties being as trying, though perhaps not as arduous, as those of the carrying parties, some of whom had to trudge more than two miles each way. Finally, there were the men of the transport sections, equally faithful, and making good their boast that nothing should cause them to fail their comrades in the hour of need.
The advance of the Allied forces elsewhere had on the whole gone well. The scheme of operations is thus stated in Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches of 23rd December, 1916: "The general plan of the combined Allied attack which was opened on 15th September was to pivot on the high ground south of the Ancre and north of the Albert-Bapaume Road, while the French Army devoted its whole effort to the rearmost of the enemy's original systems of defence between Morval and Le Sars. Should our success in this direction warrant it, I made arrangements to enable me to extend the left of the attack to embrace the villages of Martinpuich and Courcelette. As soon as our advance on this front should reach the Morval line, the time would have arrived to bring forward my left across the Thiepval Ridge. Meanwhile on my right our Allies arranged to continue the line of advance in close co-operation with me from the Somme to the slopes above Combles, but directing their main effort northwards against the villages of Rancourt and Fregicourt, so as to complete the isolation of Combles and open the way for their attack upon Sailly-Saillisel."
The success of the morning's operations, resulting as they did in the capture of Flers, in the advancement of the English troops on the right to within striking distance of the strong line of defence running before Morval, Les Boeufs and Gueudecourt, and in the complete clearing of High Wood on our left, made it possible to carry out during the afternoon that part of the plan which provided for the capture of Martinpuich and Courcelette, and by the end of the day both these villages were in British hands. By the 18th September the advantages gained on the 15th were enhanced by further progress between Flers and Martinpuich, and by the capture of the Quadrilateral, an enemy stronghold just to the east of Ginchy, which had hitherto held up the advance of the right towards Morval.page 136
The result of the lighting from the 15th to the 18th was, to quote from General Haig's Despatches, "a gain more considerable than any which had attended our arms in the course of a single operation since the commencement of the offensive. In the course of one day's fighting we had broken through two of the enemy's main defensive systems and had advanced on a front of over six miles to an average depth of a mile. In the course of this advance we had taken three large villages, each powerfully organized for prolonged resistance. Two of these villages had been carried by assault with short preparation in the course of a few hours' fighting. All this had been accomplished with a small number of casualties, in comparison with the troops employed, and in spite of the fact that, as was afterwards discovered, the attack did not come as a complete surprise to the enemy."
Between the 15th and 18th of September, the French on our right had gone forward north of Priez Farm and were threatening Combles, while south of the Somme they had taken Berny, Deniecourt and Vermandovillers, and were before Bovemt and Ablaincourt.
From this date forward the New Zealand Rifle Brigade as a whole was not engaged in any large attack on the Somme, though, in addition to the ordinary trench tours, it supplied individual battalions to one or other of the 1st and 2nd Brigades to assist in carrying on the advance, such units becoming temporarily attached for this purpose.
The Brigade remained in Divisional reserve until the night: of 18th/19th September, when it moved forward into the intermediate area, with the 4th Battalion in Switch Trench and the remaining battalions in rear. Heavy rain had come on during the 18th, and the shattered surface of the country rapidly deteriorated into a sea of mud. During the following week the Brigades relieved one another in succession. The weather was too unfavourable for operations beyond small affairs of outposts, but no adverse conditions were permitted to interfere with work devoted to extending and improving the saps, strengthening the posts, and preparing generally for either continuing the advance or withstanding counter-developments.page 137