The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Section 3.—General Attack Renewed, September 25th
Section 3.—General Attack Renewed, September 25th.
General Objectives—1st Brigade to Factory Corner—N.Z.R.B. in reserve—1st Brigade to Gird Support—4th and 2nd Battalions attached—General success about Thiepval—2nd Brigade relieves the 1st—N.Z.R.B. in reserve—2nd and 3rd Battalions attached to 2nd Brigade—2nd Battalion bombing exploit—2nd Brigade and a 3rd Battalion company attack about Eaueourt 1'Abbaye— Conditions—N.Z.R.B. relieves 2nd Brigade—Departure from the Somme—Congratulations-—Casualties.
The weather having improved somewhat, the attack along the whole front was renewed on the 25th. The task for the New Zealand Division, the capture of the high ground from Factory Corner to Goose Alley, was allotted to the 1st Brigade, in support to which the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was held in readiness. The objectives on the British front included the villages of Morval. Les Boeufs and Gueudecourt, and a belt of country about 1,000 yards deep curving round the north of Flers to a point midway between that village and Martinpuich. The attack was successful everywhere except at Gueudecourt; but on the following day this village was captured, as also was Combles, in which the French and the British joined hands in the early morning.
On the 27th a further attack was made. In this the 1st Brigade again successfully participated, taking a section of Gird Trench and Gird Support west of the Ligny Thilloy Road. Our Brigade, less the 4th Battalion, which had been handed over to the G.O.C. 1st Brigade on the previous evening, continued in support. Two companies of the 4th Battalion were moved to the North Road and were for the time being attached to the 1st Wellington Battalion. At 2 a.m. on the 28th, one of these companies was sent forward to reinforce 1st Auckland and capture that portion of Gird Support still occupied by the Germans between the left of 1st Auckland and Goose Alley. This operation was successfully carried out during the early hours of the same day. At 9 a.m. the 2nd Battalion also passed to the command of the G.O.C. 1st Brigade, two companies being sent to Flers Trench and two to Flers Support. In the evening the 3rd Battalion took over the Brown Line from the 4th.
Following on the success of the push on the right on September 25th, the Fifth Army, at about noon on the 26th, page 138launched a general attack against Thiepval and Thiepval Ridge on a front of 3,000 yards. The attack was a brilliant success. By the early morning of the 27th the famous enemy strongholds, Moquet Farm, and Zollern, Stuff and Schwaben Redoubts, besides the village of Thiepval, were taken. On the 27th, also, the enemy east of Thiepval was pushed back until he came to a stand in his strong defences running in front of Le Sars and Eaucourt l'Abbaye.
During the night of 28th/29th the 2nd Brigade relieved the 1st Brigade in the line, the New Zealand Rifle Brigade remaining in the intermediate area from Flers Support to the Longueval-Bazentin-le-Grand Road, with the 2nd Battalion, now under the command of the G.O.C. 2nd Brigade, in Flers Trench and Flers Support. The 4th Battalion returned to Brigade.
On 29th September the 3rd Battalion passed to the command of the G.O.C. of the 2nd Brigade, and the following night relieved 2nd Wellington in the front line, Gird Support, from Ligny Thilloy Road westward. Early in the morning of the 30th, 2nd Lieut. H. M. Preston, of the 2nd Machine Gun Company, who was with the 2nd Battalion, opened out on an enemy working-party of two officers and 20 other ranks and practically annihilated it, only two Germans escaping.
During the afternoon of the 30th, the 2nd Battalion, under orders from the G.O.C. 2nd Brigade, took part with the 19th London Regiment on our left in a bombing attack on Flers Trench and Flers Support beyond the High Wood-Ligny Thilloy Road. The attack, vainly attempted by the Londoners alone on the previous evening, was this time completely successful, excellent work being done by Capt. H. E. Barrowclough, Lieut. G. A. Avey, and Sergeant A. McLeod. At one point in this attack the advance was brought to a standstill through the skill and tenacity with which an enemy post was held, till finally Lance-Corporal J. W. Voyle, taking a few bombers, moved round its flank in the open and kept the garrison inactive, thus enabling the post to be rushed from the front.
The 2nd Brigade launched a further attack on 1st October, working in conjunction with the 47th Division on the left, the objective of the latter being Eaucourt l'Abbaye. It was not page 139intended that our 3rd Battalion, still holding the right of the 2nd Brigade's line in Gird Support, should take part in this advance, and its commanding officer received definite instructions to this effect. Shortly after noon, however, he was ordered to make a local attack at zero hour (3.15 p.m.) in concert with troops of the 21st Division on our right, who were also pushing forward. The task was to be accomplished by "C" Company (Capt. W. Drummond), with a second company in support, and consisted of an advance of about 500 yards and the establishment of a forward line of strong-posts. This order was countermanded at 2 p.m., two platoons now being substituted for the whole company, the remaining half-company to be held in support. The operation was gallantly and successfully carried out, but it proved to be a very costly one. Heavy casualties were caused by machine-gun fire coming in from the high ground on the right, and it was found necessary on this flank to send forward not only the supporting platoon but also an additional platoon from "B" Company, then held in reserve. Much of the success in capturing and holding the position was due to the fine leadership displayed by 2nd Lieuts. A. L. Martin and S. J. E. Closey, and to the excellent work done by Sergeant A. Shearer, who, when his platoon commander was killed, carried on in control and completed the consolidation of two of the strong-points. When darkness fell, Sergeant Shearer made a thorough reconnaissance of No Man's Land and marked down with accuracy the position of the enemy's posts in the vicinity. Worthy of note, too, is the prompt action of one of the platoon-sergeants, Sergeant S. F. Breach. During the first advance the Lewis gun team giving covering fire was put out of action, with the result that the forward movement was brought to a standstill; but realizing the position, Sergeant Breach seized the gun himself, continued the covering fire, and so enabled his platoon to renew the advance.
The following extracts from the account of the officer in charge of one of the attacking parties will give some slight indication of the difficulties faced by our men in this and many similar tasks, of the awful conditions under which they worked, and of the dogged nature of their determination to carry on and win through in face of it all:—page 140
"The troops on our immediate right dissolved under the German fire, and our attack was carried out after the fashion of a solo raid. We had had little time to prepare—only about two hours………However, when the barrage lifted we gained our objective, an old German strong-point in and about the sunken part of the road from Flers to Ligny Thilloy, but our casualties had been exceedingly heavy. No sooner had we commenced consolidating than hurried orders came for a further advance. In executing this second attack we had to pass over dreadfully-exposed ground and under concentrated fire from all enemy weapons within reach. As a demonstration the advance had great value, for the Boche began to leave his trenches, and the forward party did enormous execution, so much so that the whole system was undoubtedly emptied of the enemy. The position lay well over the crest, some 150 yards away, and commanded a long-distance view in many directions. The rear party were pinned down on the crest, only one man getting through to those in the front position. The collection of wounded was impossible until dark came on, and so proved to be an extremely difficult task.
"I was in command of the strong-point established here; and when, at 4 a.m. on October 2nd, I received orders to evacuate, I went back overland to Battalion Headquarters to verify what seemed to me an extraordinary instruction. There I ascertained that the withdrawal had been ordered by the G.O.C. of the Brigade to which we were attached, because of the fact that the 21st Division on our right had no troops beyond Gird Support, and that consequently we were quite 'in the air.' By the time I had returned to my post, day was breaking. The dead were left where they were, and after a final scour for wounded, we withdrew, weary and sick at heart.
"At about 9 a.m. I received an order cancelling the withdrawal and instructing me to re-occupy the position. Could anything be more desperately hard? On the previous day my company had lost an officer and 15 other ranks killed, and 55 other ranks wounded. All my non-commissioned officers and all my specialists were casualties, and my company strength was down to 41. Could I ask these few remaining men to face again the ordeal they had already gone through at such a cost? They had had no real sleep and no hot food since the great battle opened on September 15th, and they were living now mainly because their high spirit had risen superior to physical exhaustion and the strain of the hellish fire of the previous day. If I should find them reluctant I could not blame them, but they rose splendidly to the occasion.page 141
"I had settled on twenty men as sufficient for the effort, twelve riflemen and a Lewis gun team of eight, and instructed 2nd Lieut. Clark to send them after me in pairs, rushing from hole to hole, and I hoped he would stop the advance if the losses should prove to be too great. And so we started off on the task, in broad daylight and without a barrage. We had 700 yards to go, and I decided quite finally, as also, I think, did my men, that no one would reach the position alive. Of the twenty, only six got forward to the battered post. The others we never saw again..…
"When we handed over on relief that night the strong-point was an advanced and isolated post, and the unit on our right was far in rear. I recall the expression on the relieving officer's face as I detailed frankly the plans I had for improving the parapets and traverses. It will be remembered that we had had heavy rain, and this, combined with the incessant shelling, had made the soil so yeasty that nowhere would it stand. I had therefore been compelled to resort to the only expedient left, and of the bodies that lay thickly about the remains of the trenches the few survivors of my party had already built two traverses and a parapet as a shield from the steady fire coming from the flanks as well as from the front."
The 2nd Brigade, having successfully carried out its task of advancing the line, was relieved by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade during the night of 2nd/3rd October, and 1st Canterbury and 1st Wellington came under command of our Brigadier. Our men cannot be said to have come into the line fresh and vigorous, for both the 2nd and 3rd Battalions had been attached to the 2nd Brigade since the 29th September, and as has been stated above, both battalions, especially the 3rd, had been engaged in severe fighting. In addition, the 1st Battalion had gone over to the G.O.C. of the 2nd Brigade on the night of 1st/2nd October, being placed in Flers Trench and Flers Support, with two platoons attached to 1st Canterbury, two platoons detailed as carrying party to our 2nd Battalion, and two told off for similar duties with the 3rd. Hence, for the time being, our Brigade had consisted merely of Headquarters and the 4th Battalion.
When we took over the sector the average strength of our own battalions was down to 380; and the front line, some 2,500 yards in length, extended from beyond the Flers-Ligny Thilloy Road on the right, to the road junction about 300 yards north-east of the Eaucourt Abbey ruins on the left.page 142
Three battalions occupied the front line, the 3rd remaining in its old position on the right, the 4th taking over the centre, and the 1st the left. The 2nd Battalion was in support, with three companies in Goose Alley and one in Grove Alley; and the attached 1st Wellington and 1st Canterbury troops were held in reserve in Flers Trench, Flers Support, and Brown Line. Brigade Headquarters were at Ferret Trench. The weather was atrociously bad, and the trenches waist-deep in mud.
On the following night, 3rd/4th October, we were relieved by the 122nd Brigade of the 41st Division, and went into bivouac at Pommiers Redoubt.* Here we spent two days resting, cleansing and refitting—in so far as these could be accomplished in the circumstances—and General du Cane, Commanding the XVth Corps, having in felicitous terms farewelled the Division, we departed on October 6th on our return to the Armentieres region.
So ended our work on the Somme at this time. That the Division had done well may be gathered from the following messages of congratulation:—
From Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces:
"The New Zealand Division has fought with the greatest gallantry in the Somme battle for 23 consecutive days, carrying out with complete success every task set, and always doing more than was asked of it. The Division has won universal confidence and admiration. No praise can be too high for such troops."
From General Rawlinson, Commanding the Fourth Army: "I desire to express to all ranks of the New Zealand Divi-page 143sion my hearty congratulations on the excellent work done during the Battle of the Somme.
"On three successive occasions (15th and 25th September and 1st October) they attacked the hostile positions with the greatest gallantry and vigour, capturing in each attack every objective that had been allotted to them. More than this, they gained possession of, and held, several strong-points in advance of and beyond the furthest objectives that had been allotted to them.
"The endurance and fine fighting spirit of the Division have been beyond praise, and their successes in the Flers neighbourhood will rank high amongst the best achievements of the British Army.
"The control and direction of the Division during the operations have been conducted with skill and precision, whilst the artillery support in establishing the barrage and defeating counter-attacks has been in every way most effective.
"It is a matter of regret to me that this fine Division is leaving the Fourth Army, and I trust that on some future occasion it may again be my good fortune to find them under my command."
The number "missing," it should be explained, is that given in the immediate returns, for which purpose it is ascertained by subtracting from the number going into action the total made up of those answering the roll-call at its conclusion, plus those actually known, by name, to have been killed or wounded. As the result of subsequent courts of enquiry it was reduced almost to vanishing-point. In the case of one battalion, for instance, a large parcel of identification discs collected by the burial-party was destroyed by shell-fire, and thus formal investigation as to the disappearance of an unusually large number of men had to be made.page 144
It is interesting to note in this connection that of the whole Division not more than a score of prisoners were taken by the enemy.
It was with mingled feelings that we turned our backs upon the scene of our first participation, as a complete Brigade, in a prolonged engagement with the enemy on a grand scale. There was sadness in the thought of the gaps that had been made in our ranks, and grief that so many friendships cemented by common experiences in camp and billet and trench—friendships so exquisitely sincere that it is impossible to convey by mere words more than a faint suggestion of their nature—were now severed, never again to be renewed on this side of eternity. For we had left on the field of battle more than a full company-strength of officers and men who had paid the extreme price and yielded their all in the cause of Honour; and of those broken comrades, exceeding in number the strength of a whole battalion, there were many who, we knew full well, had fought their last fight.
But the soldier must steel himself. To yield to sadness would tend to unfit him for his task, and we knew that we had but touched the fringe of what lay before us. And so we cheered ourselves with the reflection that though we had suffered greatly we had served not indifferently. We had "done our bit" with a Division that had within the comparatively brief period of three weeks covered itself with glory and had earned definite distinction in an army that had accomplished what the enemy had confidently considered to be impossible. In the actions on the Somme the Division was always in a salient of its own making, and in the thrusting out and the holding of the first of these, when Flers was covered on the north on September 15th, the New Zealand Rifle Brigade by its successive bounds had carried forward the longest single advance made throughout the period of the Division's fighting in the great battle.
The sights and sounds of struggle and carnage burnt in upon our memories could never be entirely obliterated; fragments of the all-pervading mud and filth of the battered area over which we had fought and struggled still clung to arms, equipment, clothing, even to the very pores of the skin, and conspired with the weariness of mind and body to recall and page 145again recall the horrors of our recent experiences. But our faces at last were turned towards the peaceful open country, and we were out for rest. Soon enough we should resume the tiresome stationary trench warfare further north, but in the meantime here were smiling fields, unbroken woods and villages, dry billets, and, above all, hard solid ground to walk erect upon. The past was gone; to dwell upon it would be unnerving. The future was in the lap of the gods, and our present duty was to prepare ourselves to meet whatever was in store for us with that spirit of confidence which had sustained us hitherto, and this end would best be served by enjoying to the full the blessings that now lay to our hands.
New Zealand has erected in France and Belgium four memorials to her soldiers. The first, at Longueval, commemorates their earliest ex- ploits as assaulting troops in a great battle on the Western Front; the second, at Messines, serves as a reminder of the brilliant part they played in one of the most perfectly planned and executed actions of the war; the third, at Gravenstafel, is placed within view of the scenes of our activities in the various parts of the Ypres Salient, but perpetuates more particularly the memory of those who fought so victoriously about the village of Gravenstafel itself, as well as of those who struggled no less gallantly at ill-fated Passchendaele; while the fourth, at Le Quesnoy, stands as a monument to the achievements of the Division in the final advance to victory. The Longueval memorial, like those at Messines and Gravenstafel, takes the form of an obelisk. It has been placed where the road leading due north from that village crosses Switch Trench, and occupies a fine position at the highest point of the trench- site, a thousand yards east of High Wood. On the shaft is the inscription in English and in French: "In honour of the men of the New Zealand Division. First Battle of the Somme, 1916." On two of the panels of the massive base are engraved the sentence: "The New Zealand Division, after gaining this position as their first objective, launched from it the successful attack on Flers, September 15, 1916." This is sufficiently comprehensive, but the inscription on the rear panel, "New Zealand Division, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, Otago," would at first sight appear to be somewhat slighting to the troops of the 3rd Brigade, who carried the advance forward from Switch Trench to a position beyond Flers and who were not drawn from any particular province of New Zealand. The front panel has an exquisite design, with a suggestion of Maori carving, showing in the centre the words "New Zealand" enclosed within a laurel-wreath supported by crossed taiaha. The base bears in addition the phrase: "From the uttermost ends of the earth."
In the temporary church at Longueval, which is simply one of our Nissen huts with a bell-tower constructed of parts of a broken windmill, a small brass tablet has been placed bearing the simple inscription: "To the glory of God and in memory of those of the New Zealand Division who fell in the battles of the Somme, 1916, 1918."
* The command of the sector passed from the New Zealand Division to the 41st on the morning of October 4th, but, as was customary, the 3rd Machine Gun Company remained in position for some time after relief. At 5 a.m. on the 4th, some two hours after the infantry had changed over, the Germans counter-attacked, and in the action that followed our machine-guns put in some very useful work. Of the section in charge of Lance-Corporal C. O. Samson, one of the original 2nd Battalion machine-gunners, the General Officer Commanding the 122nd Brigade reports as follows:—
"The New Zealand machine-gun team was of particular assistance. All except one man of the team were hit, and the machine-gun was at length put out of action. This man, Lance-Corporal Samson, behaved with the greatest gallantry, working his gun to the end."