The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 1.—The Boutillerie Sector
Part 1.—The Boutillerie Sector.
From the Somme back to the Lys—Into the line, Boutillerie Sector— Small-box Respirators—Command—Inspections—1st Battalion raid on Turk's Point—The Colonel-in-Chief at Bailleul— 2nd Battalion raid on the Angle—Raid by the Germans—4th Battalion raid on Corner Fort—3rd Battalion raid—Inspection by Sir Douglas Haig—Christmas Day "dummy raid"—Command and staff—Enemy's "dummy raid" on New Year's Day—2nd Battalion raid on the Lozenge—Out to Divisional reserve— General: trenches; artillery; patrolling; billets; schools; working- parties; aerial activity; regimental band; railway-construction party; a bitter winter.
After its participation in the Somme operations the New Zealand Rifle Brigade on October 6th marched to Albert, and there entrained for Longpre-les-Corps-Saints. From the detraining station the various units again took the road for their billeting areas, and by 6 a.m. on the 7th had settled down for a few days' rest in their new quarters, the 1st and 2nd Battalions at Mareuil, the 3rd at Villers-sur-Mareuil, and the 4th at Bray-les-Mareuil.
General Fulton departed on leave on October 9th, and Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart assumed temporary command of the Brigade.
On the evening of the 10th the Brigade proceeded by road to Abbeville, where train was taken for Bailleul, whence battalions, on their arrival, marched to and billeted at Outtersteene. Here General Godley, commanding the IInd Anzac Corps, to which we had now returned, held a conference with the Brigadier and battalion commanders on the 12th.
In accordance with orders for the Brigade to relieve the 14th Australian Brigade in the Boutillerie Sector, the 1st and 2nd Battalions marched on the 13th October to Vieux Berquin, and were transported thence by motor-bus to Bac St. Maur and Fleurbaix. During the night of 13th/14th these units relieved the 55th and 56th Australian Battalions, respectively, in the page 149line. The remainder of the Brigade arrived at Fleurbaix and Bac St. Maur on the 14th, Brigade Headquarters being located at the former village.
The sector taken over had a front line exceeding 2,500 yards in length. It was immediately south of the Bois Grenier Sector, which, it will be remembered, was handed over by our Brigade when we moved out for the Somme. The 1st New Zealand Brigade came in on our immediate right. Beyond the 1st Brigade was the 61st Division, and the 34th Division joined up with us on the left.*
The new small-box respirators, which afterwards proved so effective against any form of gas projected against us by the enemy, were now being introduced, and on October 18th the Brigadier, commanding: officers and company commanders attended at the Gas School at Nouvean Monde for instruction in their use.
Lieut.-Col. Austin, from hospital, and Lieut.-Col. Melvill, from leave, reported on October 15th and resumed command of the 1st and 4th Battalions respectively. General Fulton returned from leave on the 19th. Lieut.-Col. Winter-Evans, commanding the 3rd Battalion, and Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart, commanding the 2nd Battalion, proceeded to England on leave on the following day.
General Plumer, commanding the Second Army, accompanied by the G.O.C. Division, visited the Brigade and inspected the 4th Battalion on October 23rd.
On October 25th the 1st and 2nd Battalions were relieved in the line by the 3rd and 4th, and went to billets at Fleurbaix and Bac St. Maur. As the visibility was poor and the sector comparatively quiet, the interchange was carried out before nightfall, this being the first of many daylight reliefs.
* The 2nd Brigade was detached to "Franks' Force," and remained with it until December 3rd. Franks' Force was a temporary organization formed of reserve Brigades from the two remaining Division of the IInd Anzac Corps after the 51st Division had been sent to the Somme. It was holding the Houplines Hector at Armentieres.
Our casualties for the month of October were:—
A daylight relief was effected on November 6th, the 1st and 2nd Battalions taking over the line from the 3rd and 4th.
At 6 p.m. on the 16th a party of two officers and 50 other ranks from the 1st Battalion, under the general direction of Capt. C. K. Gasquoine, carried out a raiding-assault on a section of the enemy's trench known as "Turk's Point," but under stress of our artillery preparation the Germans had temporarily evacuated that part of their line, and no prisoners were taken.
The raid was so well executed as to deserve some tangible results. The position selected for attack was a small salient adjoining a re-entrant in the enemy line, and while it was expected that at least one machine-gun position would be found there, the configuration of the German trench was such as to preclude any possibility of enfilade fire being brought to bear on the assaulting troops. Corporal O. A. Gillespie, a patrol leader of exceptional ability, had frequently traversed the ground to be passed over, and knew almost every inch of it, and under his guidance all the leaders and many of the men had been taken over it in order to gain personal knowledge of its features. A ditch ran directly across from our own to the enemy's parapet, and other ditches at right angles to this provided suitable cover and convenient assembly positions. On the night of the adventure Gillespie and his patrol preceded the raiders across No Man's Land, and ascertaining that the artillery and trench mortars had cut a perfect opening thirty yards in width through the strong belt of wire protecting the position, sent back word to this effect to Capt. E. H. Buckeridge, who had by this time filed his men into position at the point of assembly in No Man's Land and disposed his flanking parties with Lewis guns at their appointed places. 2nd Lieut. A. D. Smith and the twenty men told off for the actual entry page 151were guided forward to the gap, and passing through this, they took up their stations under the parapet on a frontage of forty yards and awaited the signal for the final dash. This given, the entry was made simultaneously and bombing parties worked right and left for a hundred yards. All had gone exactly as on the practising-ground, even to the absence of an enemy to deal with, for the closest search failed to reveal any Germans, dead or alive, and nothing in the way of identification of any kind could be found. There was much water in the trench, and the ground behind as far as could be seen was more or less completely submerged. Mental notes were taken of the nature of the defences, one or two concrete dug-outs were blown up by the sappers accompanying the party, and the stated time having expired, the disappointed men were withdrawn to our lines. If Lieut. Smith's cup of irritation was not quite full as he beat the air in the German trench, it surely overflowed when he sprained his ankle during his return.
On the 18th the 3rd and 4th Battalions relieved the 1st and 2nd in the line, the interchange being completed by 4.50 p.m.
Representative officers of the Brigade went to Bailleul on November 4th to meet H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, Colonel-in-Chief.
Our casualties for November were comparatively light, the numbers being:—
On December 1st the 1st and 2nd Battalions relieved the 3rd and 4th in the line, the latter units going into billets in Fleurbaix.
A week later a party from the 2nd Battalion, under Lieuts. G. A. Avey and H. H. Daniell, silently raided "The Angle," but found that the enemy garrison had beaten a retreat when they discovered our men approaching. We were not able to secure prisoners, but succeeded in blowing up bomb-stores and parts of the parapet with gun-cotton. Valuable information of a general kind was obtained.page 152
The enemy attempted a raid on December 10th, directing his attack on part of the trenches held by "A" Company of the 1st Battalion. At dusk, and during the usual period of evening stand-to, very heavy machine-gun fire swept the parapet, the fire being continued for a considerable time. Presently it diminished on the right flank and was concentrated on the central portion of the battalion sector. Nothing unusual was apprehended, however, and the night sentries having been posted, the men stood down to draw their tea. At this moment an intense bombardment opened, trench-mortar fire being directed with considerable accuracy on the front trench and sap-heads, and an artillery barrage placed in rear and well down the communication-trenches. The significance of this was at once apparent and the garrison stood-to again, every man being at his post within three mintues of the opening of the bombardment.
The expected development was not long in coming. A German trench-mortar bomb landed in the bay where a Lewis gun post had been established to command a gap in our wire and also a line of trees that ran across No Man's Land from the enemy's trench to our own. This bomb wounded three men in the post, but the fourth, Rifleman W. H. Butler, as yet uninjured though somewhat shaken, continued his guard single-handed. By the light of a flare he now distinguished a party of the enemy making their way through the wire, and upon these he immediately opened fire. Unfortunately, his gun jammed before half a drum had been fired off and while feverishly struggling with the mechanism he was struck by a stick-bomb and severely wounded. Another man in the post, Rifleman P. H. Gifford, though mortally wounded, now struggled once again to his place on the fire-step to protect his fallen comrades with rifle and bayonet, and continued with what little strength remained to him to live on the attackers.
Fire had, of course, been taken up by the posts on the right and left, and this was supplemented by Sergeant P. Clark of the 3rd Machine Gun Company, who, when our Lewis gun ceased firing, mounted his Vickers gun on the parapet to take up the work. The attempted raid was thus brought to an abrupt conclusion. An interesting feature of the affair was the smooth manner in which Major Bell's plans for meeting page 153eventualities of this kind worked out. No sooner had the point of attack been determined that the bombing parties told off for the purpose had taken up their appointed positions ready to bomb through; information was sent back, artillery support called for, touch with the flank companies secured, and the reserve platoon brought up, all without a hitch of any kind. When the artillery fire on both sides had died down sufficiently, patrols were sent out. These found two dead Germans, one on our parapet and one in the wire, both riddled with bullets; and strung out along the line of approach by the trees, German bombs and steel helmets, eloquent indication of a hasty retreat.
The 3rd and 4th Battalions came into the line on December 12th, relieving the 1st and 2nd Battalions by 2.30 p.m.
At midnight on December 17th/18th a strong party of four officers (2nd Lieuts. G. E. F. Kingscote. F. T. Bennington, B. Mollison and A. Bongard) and 170 other ranks of the 4th Battalion, together with 12 sappers, the whole under the command of Capt. W. W. Dove, carried out a very successful raid. Profiting by the experience gained in our recent minor operations, the plans for this raiding force were laid on a more ambitious scale, and had for their primary object the close examination of the enemy's support line as well as his forward trench at a salient known as "Corner Fort." This point had been visited by our patrols on various occasions during the previous two or three weeks. Lance-Corporal H. S. Eastgate entered it without difficulty on 27th November, and on the following night took a patrol of seven men over to gain additional information, but this time he got into difficulties. He was met by a superior force and his party suffered casualties. Though himself wounded he carried back to a place of safety one of his men in worse case than himself, and then conducted a stretcher-party from our lines and brought the wounded man in. Rifleman N. A. Nicholson, one of the patrol, after leaving the enemy's trench, lay up for a time outside, and on hearing groans, went through the wire again and discovered a wounded comrade. He dressed his wounds, but these being too serious to permit of his being carried in single-handed, Nicholson came back to his own lines, reported the case, guided a bearer-party across, and so completed the rescue.page 154
Corner Fort was inspected again by one of the six officers' patrols sent out at the end of the month, when the gap in the wire was found to be closed, and the position apparently strongly held. Sergeant W. McConachy also had carried out special investigations during the week previous to the raid, as had Capt. Dove and several of his section leaders.
Capt. Dove's raiding force consisted in the main of four platoons, one from each of the companies of the battalion. It was divided into three parties, besides the usual covering and flanking groups. Each had its own assembly position in No Man's Land, and each its separate point of entry. The party under Lieut. Bennington entered at the point of the salient, made good their hold on the 600 yards of front trench allotted to them, wiped out a sentry group of four men, and proceeded to investigate the maze of trenches comprising Corner Fort itself. These proved to be little more than dummies constructed of wood and canvas to deceive aeroplane observers. Such trenches as existed were so full of water that the men found it more satisfactory to move across the open. A group of trenches in rear of the so-called fort was found to be the real strong-point, and some difficulty was experienced in silencing the two machine-guns that were firing from it. A long-range bombing attack failed to do this, but more success eventually attended the action of Riflemen J. Keys and E. M. Phelan, who wormed their way up to the position from a flank and bombed the garrison from close range. Heavy wire and deep water unfortunately precluded the possibility of securing the guns.
2nd Lieut. Kingscote's party got into the front line some 200 yards to the right of the point with little opposition, and worked back towards the support line, but owing to the flooded state of the trenches and the intricate nature of the many saps that had to be searched, no further progress was made before the time for withdrawal. Only one dug-out was discovered and only one party of Germans met with by this section of the raiders.
The party under 2nd Lieut. Mollison entered at a point about 400 yards to the left of the apex of the salient, and, according to plan, split up into two groups, each of about 20 men. One of these, under the direction of 2nd Lieut. Bongard, secured the flank covering the main communication trench. A page 155section was sent along the front-line trench to search those parts that were not obliterated. These found a strongly-wired post, the garrison of which succeeded in keeping their assailants at bay with egg-bombs, the ranging of which so greatly exceeded that of our own. Another section searched the main communication-trench. In a small cutting leading from this a bombing party under Sergeant H. C. Welch came across ten Germans, who at first showed fight, but on being beaten back, took refuge in a dug-out. This was at once attacked, five prisoners dragged out, and the remainder bombed. Further on, a second dug-out was discovered, but this contained nothing of greater interest than important papers.
In the meantime 2nd Lieut. Mollison with the second group pushed on down the communication trench to the support line, the redoubtable Sergeant McConachy leading. On the way two occupied dug-outs were located and bombed. The support line was found to be in splendid order, well revetted, and floored with wide duck-boards. Well sunk into the parapet at intervals of twenty yards were comfortable dug-outs, each provided with a porch fitted with rifle-racks, the main compartment being large enough for the accommodation of ten men. These were searched, but from all but one the occupants had fled. From this three prisoners were taken. The other inmates refused to come out and were promptly despatched with bombs.
The time allowed for the enterprise had now expired, and the engineers having completed the demolition of the tramline, pumping-plant and dug-outs, the raiders withdrew. Nine prisoners were captured, all but one being taken from the support line. Important documents were found in an officer's dug-out. During the progress of the raid there had been bursts of machine-gun and rifle fire from various points, and much bombing activity on both sides, yet our casualties had been surprisingly light. One man was killed just as the party left our lines, and four were wounded later. From time to time the Germans fired signal rockets, mainly from the support line, but the only artillery response was from a light gun, which threw six shells into our lines. Five of these were "blind" and fell on the support line as our men were crossing No Man's Land on their way back.page 156
Congratulations on the successful issue of this minor operation were received from the Commanders of the Army, the Corps, and the Division.
A raid by two officers and 67 men of the 3rd Battalion on the 23rd proved less successful. The enemy was no doubt smarting under the treatment meted out to him by the 4th Battalion five days previously, and was determined not to be caught again so soon, for though the section now raided was opposite the other flank of our sector it was found to be held by a very strong garrison who were evidently expecting an attack. As planned and practised, the raid was to have been a "silent" one, in other words an assault without special artillery support in the form of either preliminary bombardment or accompanying barrage. At the last minute, however, and contrary to the expressed wish of the raiders themselves, a short bombardment by our medium trench-mortars on two suspected machine-gun posts was ordered. In accordance with these instructions the trench mortars fired while the assaulting party waited in their assembly position out in No Man's Land; and although only twelve mortar-bombs in all were thrown, it was considered that this brief bombardment served to put the garrison immediately on the alert. In any case the essential element of surprise was now non-existent.
The enemy allowed our men to make their way through the wire and form up by the parapet, and then opened up such an intense machine-gun, rifle and bomb fire upon them that further progress was impossible. Many gallant attempts were made still to push on in the face of this fire. 2nd Lieut. M. F. Walsh, who commanded the assaulting party, persisted till he fell mortally wounded. Sergeant H. Anderson, the first to reach the parapet, alone attacked one of the flanking machine-guns and bombed it out of action. But all was without avail, and withdrawal had reluctantly to be ordered. Rifleman J. Hansen, a stretcher-bearer, with extreme self-sacrifice remained behind, searching for wounded and tending them under fire in shell-holes, on the enemy parapet, and in the German wire, eventually guiding bearer-parties who brought them in. One of our wounded, known to have been lying near the enemy parapet, still remained unaccounted for. To accomplish his rescue, Rifleman W. D. H. Milne set out from our lines, found his man page 157and brought him in, though in accomplishing this achievement Milne himself was mortally wounded.
Capt. W. A. G. Penlington, who was in general control of the operation, handled the awkward situation with promptitude and discretion; while the covering-party commanded by 2nd Lieut. W. A. Gray skilfully fulfilled its mission in the face of the enemy artillery fire which became intense in No Man's Land, and when this service was completed remained out for further voluntary duty with the stretcher-bearers.
Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief, inspected the 2nd Battalion at Sailly on the 22nd.
During the afternoon of December 23rd the 1st and 2nd Battalions relieved the 3rd and 4th in the front line.
Throughout Christmas Day, to disabuse the mind of the enemy as to the possibility of any fraternization, our artillery carried out an intermittent but very heavy bombardment of the German lines, culminating in a "dummy raid" at 8.35 p.m. The enemy's retaliation was only slight.
General Fulton departed for England on December 28th for a month's leave, and on the 31st Lieut.-Col. H. Hart, D.S.O., 1st Wellington Regiment, assumed command of the Brigade. On the 13th Major W. H. Hastings reported for duty as Brigade Major, vice Major T. R. Eastwood, evacuated to England, sick. Lieut.-Col. C. W. Melvill, 4th Battalion, went over to the temporary command of the 2nd Brigade on the 20th.
The casualties for December were:—
On 1st January, 1917, the Germans returned the compliment of Christmas Day by bombarding our sector heavily from noon till 3 p.m. On the same day the 3rd and 4th Battalions relieved the 1st and 2nd in the front line, but fortunately our interchange had commenced unusually early, and consequently the casualties were not so numerous as they might otherwise have been.
A party from the 2nd Battalion, consisting of two officers (2nd Lieuts. L. I. Manning and D. C. Bowler) and 78 other page 158ranks, the whole under the command of Capt. J. B. Bennett, executed an extremely successful raid on January 7th.
The objective was the "Lozenge," a rectangular set of trench works just behind the enemy front line opposite the left of the Brigade sector, and the enterprise involved not only the attack on this suspected strong-point, but also the taking and the temporary holding of three communication-trenches leading back from the front line. The preliminary scouting had been minute and thorough, and before five o'clock in the evening the raiders moved out from the lines full of confidence, crossed on portable bridges the stream running athwart the line of advance, and settled down in their appointed assembly positions to await the report of the scouts as to the state of the wire. This being favourable, they moved forward again, and in three columns, each in single file, penetrated the wire, silently waded through the four feet of icy water in the wide borrow-ditch, simultaneously rushed the parapet, and got to work on their respective tasks. The areas about the three sap-heads were immediately secured, and steps were taken to establish the necessary blocks on the flanks.
The right blocking party encountered the enemy some thirty yards along the trench, and a hot bombing fight ensued. The corporal in charge of our men was killed and another wounded. Sergeant G. Bates was meanwhile pressing forward through the communication-trench with a section bent on dealing with the Lozenge itself, but, hearing a cry for help from the blocking party, withdrew his men and went to the assistance of the former. Even against this additional strength the Germans held out for a time, but they were finally overcome, three being killed and three taken prisoner, the remainder making good their escape. Our party here had now to devote their attention to a machine-gun firing upon them from the front line still further along, and though by the time the gun was silenced with bombs it was too late to prosecute their attack on the strong-point in rear, this troublesome flank at least was made secure.
The party on the left flank established their block without difficulty beyond that of movement, for owing to the smashed and water-logged condition of the fire-trench they had to move along the parapet. They found four concrete dug-page 159outs, two of which, as well as a machine-gun emplacement, had been reduced to ruins by our artillery fire. They encountered ten Germans, seven of whom they shot, and three who endeavoured to take cover in the ruins of the dug-outs were followed up and bombed. Proceeding down the sap they met three of the enemy running towards them. These also were promptly shot. The time limit having almost been exceeded, nothing further could be done on this side.
The centre party experienced some difficulty in finding the head of their particular communication-trench. In their search for this they discovered in the front line a domed concrete sentry-post containing two sentries, who were taken prisoner. The sap-head found, 2nd Lieut. Bowler took his men along towards the strong-point. They had not gone far when, near a tramline-opening, they found two concrete dug-outs, one of which had a circular stairway and was occupied. Three Germans, attempting to run off, were effectually dealt with, three near the doorway were taken prisoner, and as the remainder refused to come out and our men had other pressing work to do, two detonated Stokes mortar bombs were rolled in and the place demolished. In the meantime the section under Corporal E. E. Islip had discovered another deep dug-out near by, and had already gathered in ten prisoners. On Islip's call for assistance, Sergeant H. W. Harvey with a few men from the main party returned, took four more prisoners, and the remaining inmates proving recalcitrant, were all shot.
By this time, counter-attacking troops were observed on their way up from the support line, and as our men already had their hands full the signal for withdrawal was sounded. Of the 22 prisoners taken, three gave trouble while crossing No Man's Land and had to be shot.
Our casualties were one killed and five slightly wounded.
* A rearrangement of the 1st and 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigades was made on 1st January, 1917, the 2nd Auckland and 2nd Wellington Battalions being transferred to the former, and the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago to the latter. Thus, from this date, the 1st Brigade consisted only of North Island units, and the 2nd Brigade only of battalions from the South Island.
Patrols from our garrisons were unusually daring, and after one or two encounters with enemy reconnoitring parties they had No Man's Land completely controlled. Not content with this, they went farther afield and carried on their investigations actually inside the enemy's defences. The following extracts from the reports of six patrols of an average strength of twenty, operating on the night of 30th Nov./1st Dec., will serve to indicate the class of work done on these special reconnaissances. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 Patrols were furnished by the 3rd Battalion, numbers 4, 5 and 6 by the 4th Battalion. Each was in charge of an officer and all moved out at midnight:—
No. 1 Patrol: Left the trench on the extreme right of our sector (the portion which the enemy attempted to raid on December 10th) and arrived at the enemy's wire at 12.25 a.m. The entanglements were very badly damaged, but at no point could they be found to be broken completely through. A thorough survey of the wire on this portion of the front was made, and these defences were ascertained to be from fifty to sixty yards in depth. No Germans were seen or heard, and no flares were fired from this locality.
No. 2 Patrol: Proceeded across No Man's Land towards "Turk's Point" (the section raided by the 1st Battalion party on November 16th). Here the enemy's wire was found to be much blown about, the entanglements still remaining being nowhere more than fifteen feet through. The patrol leader, with three other ranks, entered the trench, and patrolled 200 yards to the right and 100 yards to the left without finding any sign of the enemy, the trench had been greatly damaged by our bombardments. A deep dug-out was seen, but this was full of water, and no wire was discovered in rear of the trench. The support lines, from which machine-guns and flares were being fired, lay from 300 to 400 yards behind the front trench, and in the intervening area there was very much water.page 162
No. 3 Patrol: Left the trench at about the centre of our line, and moved across to the locality in the enemy's trenches known as "Clapham Junction," crossing two streams four feet wide on the way. At about eighty yards from the enemy's parapet progress was barred by a wire screen about six feet deep, almost intact, and extending right and left as far as could be seen. A gap was found, through which the patrol passed, but within a few feet of the parapet an impassable barrier was encountered, consisting of a moat from fourteen to sixteen feet wide, filled with a wire system, and containing water to a depth of six feet. This extended to the left as far as examined, and to the right it entered a stream running perpendicular to the trench. The patrol moved back 150 yards, crossed this stream, and approached the enemy's trench farther to the right. The wire here was not greatly damaged, but the patrol succeeded in getting through by gaps and low places. As, in spite of considerable noise, the party was not fired on, it was concluded that the trench was unoccupied. This proving to be correct, the officer commanding divided his patrol into three parties, one of which was sent forward towards the support line, and the others right and left along the trench. In the saps the forward party found several dugouts like our own, but for the most part these were being dismantled and the timber stacked. The ground was very water-logged and rough. An apparently new belt of wire had been erected about midway between the front and support lines, the latter being about 200 yards in rear of the main trench. The party discovered and destroyed a double-cable telephone wire.
The right party went some 250 yards along the trench, which was found to contain from one to three feet of water, with the parapet badly wrecked. "Clapham Junction" was not identified, but several wrecked communication-trenches connecting with the front line were seen and examined. Scouts moved forward towards the support line, and the information secured corresponded with that obtained by the forward party. An enemy wiring-party was heard at work about 350 yards to the right of the first point of entry.
The left party found the trench to be well constructed for a length of seventy yards. It was eight feet deep, with a parapet eighteen feet wide, well traversed, revetted with brushwood hurdles supported by 4 in. x 4 in. uprights, and provided with fire-step and elbow-rests, with piles of bombs at frequent intervals. In places the parapet was prepared for men to fire in the prone position, and for the whole distance was carefully levelled and trimmed. This section was protected in page 163front by the moat already referred to. Still farther to the left the trench appeared to be permanently disused, and there seemed to have been no attempt at repairing the damage from shell-fire. No enemy were seen, but machine-guns were firing from a strong-point 350 yards behind the line. The time spent in their investigations by the parties of this patrol was over four hours.
No. 4 Patrol: Crossed No Man's Land towards a point where a previous patrol had reported a gap in the enemy's wire about 300 yards east of "Clapham Junction." On the way they observed a hostile patrol, which immediately withdrew through the wire near "Corner Fort." Arrived at the entanglements, our patrol discovered that the gap had been re-wired. The leader, with one non-commissioned officer, cut through twenty strands and, leaving a covering-party, took the bulk of the patrol forward and surmounted the parapet. Here the trench formed a bay about 35 feet long, revetted with planks. Both parapet and parados were found to be much damaged, there was approximately four feet of water in the trench, and no signs of recent occupation were visible. A sentry-group was seen about fifty yards to the right, and another some forty yards to the left, both apparently posted at communication-trenches, and strongly protected by wire nearly two chains deep. During the two hours the leader of our party spent on the parapet these sentry-groups were visited three times by patrols working up the communication-trenches from the support line. Immediately in rear of the parados ran a partially-submerged tramway, with a large dump of old timber near the line. Sheets of water prevented exploration towards the support line, in which there appeared to be a large number of ordinary dug-outs, the glare from which could be clearly seen.
No. 5 Patrol: Moved across towards "Corner Fort" (raided later by the 4th Battalion). The hostile patrol reported by No. 4 was also seen by this party. A gap previously discovered in the enemy wire, and through which our patrol expected to enter the trench, was found to have been re-wired, and the parapet strongly held, there being no fewer than three sentry-groups in a space of forty yards. From the volume of talking and coughing heard, it was concluded that a considerable number of men were on the alert and ready to man the parapet. It was therefore decided not to force an entry, but to lie up close to the wire and watch. The wire observed was very thick. The patrol leader formed the opinion that the head of each communication-trench was strongly held by sentry-groups.page 164
No. 6 Patrol: Made for a known gap in the enemy's wire round "The Angle," a position raided a week later by the 2nd Battalion. The patrol passed through the gap and lay down on the parapet. The trench was found to be eight or nine feet deep and filled with a tangle of wire. A sentry being heard coughing at a point thirty yards to the right of the point of entry, the leader, taking two men, proceeded to stalk and capture him. It was discovered, however, that thick wire ran up the parapet on each side of the sentry's post. He was therefore bombed and rushed, but was found to have been killed. Shoulder-straps and cap were taken from the body for identification, but no documents were found upon him. A second man, wounded, seen crawling down a communication-trench, was chased by two of our men. He, however, succeeded in escaping into a dug-out provided with a steel door, but, before he could close this behind him, two bombs were thrown inside. It is considered that he and three unwounded men seen within must have been killed by the bombs.
Billets in the villages of Fleurbaix and Bac St. Maur occupied by battalions when not in the line were, on the whole, very satisfactory. In the latter place the 1st Battalion was fortunate enough to be able to establish a mess for all its officers, and the regular informal gatherings thus rendered possible were a delightful change from the comparative isolation forced upon the groups of officers within the unit by the exigencies of life in the trenches and in the ordinary scattered billets. At Fleurbaix the Engineers converted a battered and deserted school-building into a very fine Y.M.C.A. hall, in which we held several concerts, and at Bac St. Maur we were within easy reach of the Divisional Cinema Hall that had been constructed at Sailly. The 2nd and 4th Battalions enjoyed elaborate Christmas dinners by companies in their respective billeting areas. The 1st and 3rd, being in the line at the time, were less fortunately placed, but they "kept their Christmas merry still" at a later date.
Battalion schools for the instruction of additional specialists, such as signallers, Lewis-gunners, bombers, etc., were established while we were holding this sector, the training being carried on both in the line and while in support or reserve. One of the lessons of the Somme had been, that the ordinary supply of specialists from Base, and the augmentation secured by sending men for training at Army, Corps and Divisional page 165schools of instruction, proved insufficient for the replacement of casualties to the extent required in order to keep units up to the full state of efficiency. The ideal aimed at was not only to ensure an ample reserve of well-trained observers and signallers, but also to make every rifleman proficient in the use of the bomb and able to handle the Lewis gun; and although this result was not fully attained, yet we succeeded in taking a long step forward towards that end.
It must be borne in mind that when units were in support or reserve their time was not their own. It was a point of honour with the New Zealand Division that it should leave its defensive works of every nature in a far better state than that in which it found them. Hence the working-parties that had to be supplied daily by battalions nominally resting were required to be as strong as possible; and commanding officers had the greatest difficulty in meeting the demands of the Engineers for men, and at the same time to carry on the interior economy of their units, get all ranks to the baths, and provide for instructional work.
Aerial activity at this time was not very intense. Perhaps the most exciting incident was the visit of an enemy observer, who flew his 'plane at an extremely low altitude over the streets and neighbouring fields of Fleurbaix. The German airman must have had a charmed life, for, though fired on at close range by hundreds of Riflemen, he made good his escape apparently uninjured.
Some little space may conveniently be devoted here to a brief account of the vicissitudes of the Regimental Band, a Matter of seemingly slight importance, but, as has already been indicated, one of very considerable interest to our men throughout the whole of their period on service.
It will be remembered that the band, as originally constituted, consisted of men whose main duty was that of stretcher- bearing. During the early stages of our service in France it was found that casualties amongst the stretcher-bearers were so heavy that the very existence of the band was threatened, and it was therefore decided to establish separate stretcher- bearer sections, and reserve the bandsmen for special duties out of the line, usually with the quartermaster's branch and in the transport lines. From the musicians still remaining in page 166the four battalions a Brigade Band was formed consisting of thirty members, under Lieut. Cole; and as the band was, for rations and other purposes, formally attached to the 1st Battalion, it came about that this unit unavoidably received more than a fair share of its good influences. On starting off for the Somme battle area, efforts were made to retain the spare instruments; but at the last moment, owing to an unusually stringent inspection of the transport, these were put off the wagons, and with them, unfortunately, a case containing the bulk of the sheet music and a number of mouth-pieces and other spare parts.
So keenly was the lack of bands felt on the long marches to the Somme that, on arrival in that area, steps were at once taken to organize a band for each unit. In the first place the Brigade Band was divided into two portions and the moieties augmented to form bands for the 1st and 2nd Battalions, and much patient search at various bases enabled Lieut. Cole to locate and secure sufficient of our old instruments to equip these. The drums of the Bugle Band could not be found, but this was immaterial, as the maintenance of that little organization had long since become impossible.
At Fleurbaix, after the Somme battle, the task of establishing the remaining two battalion bands was proceeded with but the difficulties encountered were so great that it was not until the Brigade came out of the line to train for the Battle of Messines that all four units were each in possession of its own band. Not the least of the obstacles in the way of success were the reluctance of the base depots to part with their trained musicians, the fact that the 4th Brigade was coming into existence, and the scarcity and cost of good instruments Of two sets of band instruments obtained from Paris, one was of Continental pitch and had to be rectified by mechanical means at the front, while the other was of such inferior quality that the whole outfit was purchased for £60. At a later period the four bands were placed on an equal footing with complete sets of silver instruments. These are now in use with various territorial units in New Zealand.
A party numbering 300, made up of drafts from the four battalions, was despatched on January 8th for railway construction duty with the Vth Corps. Capt. P. F. McRae, of the page 167and Battalion, went in command of the detachment, and with him were Lieut. P. E. Salmon and 2nd Lieuts. H. J. Trevethick and J. G. Greenwood, in charge of the parties from the 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions, respectively. The whole of the personnel were picked men who had had experience of railway construction or similar work in civil life.
The scene of operations was on a new railway line from Dunkirk to Poperinghe and Ypres, then being built in connection with preparations for the spring offensive. The main line [gap — reason: damage]an south-east from Dunkirk to Bergues, thence south and south-east to Hazebrouck; and Poperinghe was reached by means of a branch line running fourteen miles north-easterly from Hazebrouck. To shorten this long roundabout journey, a new line was being constructed direct from Bergues across the frontier to Poperinghe, and passing through Proven. Our party was detailed for work on the stretch between Bergues and Proven, and the men were to be billeted at Vyfweg, a village at a railway-junction near the former town.
The forty-mile journey by motor lorries over the snow- covered country was an interesting yet comfortless experience, but the hearty welcome received by our men at the hands of the Maire and the people of Vyfweg, who turned out en masse to witness their arrival, served in no small measure to dispel their present misery. As no British troops had hitherto been quartered in this district, the novelty of the situation appealed strongly to the inhabitants, who proved themselves remarkably kind and hospitable.
Work commenced at once and proceeded as steadily as the weather conditions permitted. While the ground remained frozen to a considerable depth progress was necessarily slow, but rapid strides were made whenever a thaw set in; and altogether our men acquitted themselves so well as to earn high praise from the officers of the Railway Operating Department, under whose general direction they were working.
Notwithstanding the severity of the weather, the party's two months' stay at Vyfweg was more enjoyable than otherwise. There were few of the intimate realities of war beyond an occasional bombing of Bergues or Dunkirk; the quarters were good, rations arrived regularly, and the extra provisions dearly loved by the soldier were plentiful and cheap. Week-page 168end leave was granted to a third of the men at a time, and the railway officers provided transport to Dunkirk and, for bathing parties, to Proven. The discipline was excellent, and there were no complaints whatever from the military authorities as to the behaviour of the men while on leave. Matron O'Gorman and the nurses on a Red Cross barge that was icebound in the Canal outside Bergues are gratefully remembered by our men for their kindness in giving several concerts for their entertainment. The only unusual occurrence was the arrest of a bogus interpreter who claimed to represent the French Mission. It was reported that he proved to be a spy, and that he was summarily dealt with accordingly.
The party set off by motor lorries on March 8th on their return to Brigade, the mutual expressions of regret at departure serving to indicate how deeply friendships had been established. A note of appreciation from the Vth Corps Commander was published in Divisional Orders.