The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—The Ploegsteert Sector
Part 3.—The Ploegsteert Sector.
Into the line—Enemy raids—Side-step towards Hill 63—Enemy raid—Out for special training—General: the trenches; Ploegsteert Wood; general activities; cable-burying for the Messines Battle.
From Outtersteene the Brigade marched to a new area on February 20th, the 1st and 3rd Battalions going to billets in Nieppe, the 2nd to quarters at De Seul Camp, Steenwerck, and the 4th to le Romarin Camp. The 3rd and 4th Battalions were temporarily under the command of Majors P. H. Bell and J. Pow, respectively.
On February 22nd the Brigade relieved the 7th (British) Brigade in the Ploegsteert Sector in Belgium, about four miles north of Armentieres. The 3rd and 4th Battalions went into the front line from the Warnave River to St. Yves, taking over from the 8th Loyal North Lancashires and the 3rd Worcesters, respectively; the 2nd Battalion relieved the 1st Wiltshires in the "Fort" Line in support; while the 1st Battalion, in reserve, took over the Regina Camp quarters from the 10th Cheshires. Brigade Headquarters were located at Rue de Sac. 174page 175
The relief was completed by 11 p.m., but during its progress the enemy opened fire with minenwerfer on part of the trenches being taken over by the 4th Battalion. This continued intermittently on the same point throughout the night, and at 5.45 on the morning of the 23rd developed into an intense artillery and trench-mortar bombardment. At 6.10 a.m. the fire lifted and formed a "box-barrage," and at the same moment the enemy in strong force effected an entry into our line at the part where it had been blown in on the previous evening, and worked southward along the trench. As far as could be judged the raiders numbered 200, and they remained in our lines about five minutes, when they were driven out with rifle-fire and bombs.
Conspicuous amongst those who so promptly ejected the enemy from our line was Sergeant E. J. Hawke. Though three times buried owing to trench-mortar fire, his skill and judgment remained unimpaired, and he led his men with great gallantry and determination.
Our casualties were six men killed, Lieut. R. G. Ridling and twenty other ranks wounded, and three missing. It was afterwards ascertained that these three were taken prisoner. Two of them were stretcher-bearers attending to the wounds of the third, Rifleman J. W. B. Watson, who later succumbed to his injuries while in captivity. A fourth man, Rifleman J. Emerson, was wounded and taken prisoner. He succeeded in escaping, but was recaptured and forced to accompany a returning party of raiders estimated by him to have been eighty strong. When nearing the enemy's wire he seized a favourable opportunity and once again wrenched himself free and made off toward his own lines. Though his boots had been removed, he succeeded in eluding his captors, who, however, fired upon him, and he returned to his company suffering from two fresh wounds, and fainting from pain and exhaustion. At the time of the raid the country was enveloped in dense fog, and little could be seen of the enemy's movements. Moreover, the poor visibility prevented the artillery from picking up our "S.O.S." rocket signal, and all telephone wires from the front line to battalion headquarters had been cut during the final stages of the bombardment.page 176
The casualties throughout the Brigade during the month of February were:—
A daylight relief was effected on March 2nd, the 1st and 2nd Battalions taking over the position in the front line from the 3rd and 4th.
At 11 p.m. on March 9th the enemy made an abortive attempt to raid the part of the line held by the 2nd Battalion, the Germans being dispersed by rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire they could reach our trenches.
On March 10th the 2nd Battalion was relieved in the front line by the 4th Battalion, and two days later a readjustment of the sector was commenced. The 3rd Battalion, from support, took over the Douve sub-sector on the left from the 8th R.I.R., 107th Brigade, with headquarters at Limavady Lodge on the southern slopes of Hill 63; and the 44th Australian Battalion took over the right sub-sector from the 1st Battalion. The adjustment was completed on the 14th, when the 2nd Battalion, as battalion in reserve, moved north from Regina Camp to the Catacombs, a large tunnelled dug-out recently excavated in the side of Hill 63, above Hyde Park Corner. This side-step to the north gave the Brigade a position immediately facing Messines from the south-west, with its left opposite the German salient round La Petite Douve Farm. Brigade Headquarters moved to English Farm.
On March 18th the 2nd Battalion relieved the 4th in the front line, the latter going into support with its headquarters at Creslow Farm. A further relief followed on the 20th, when the 1st Battalion, which had replaced the 2nd in the Catacombs, relieved the 3rd in the line on the left.
Early in the morning of March 23rd the enemy attempted a raid which, by a sort of poetic justice, was directed upon the trenches of the 2nd Battalion, for the Germans had probably received more attentions of this kind from the 2nd than from any other unit in the Brigade. Just before 4 a.m. heavy and medium trench-mortar bombs began to land in regular flights of ten in quick succession upon the support line behind the broad salient north-east of St. Yves, and at the same time page 177shrapnel and "pineapple" bombs were burst freely along the front line. The minenwerfer fire was maintained for more than half an hour, but the bombardment on the front line lifted after some ten minutes, and formed a box barrage so well defined that its outline showed up clearly in the snow. At this moment three parties of Germans came into view, one at the point where a communication-trench joined the front line, a second outside the wire at a small salient 300 yards to the right, and a third further out in No Man's Land 100 yards to the left. Beyond doubt the enemy's plans had been well laid. Evidently his main point of attack was the sap-head; two roads gave good direction for his two flank parties, while the ruins of Broken Tree House at the cross-roads gave sufficient cover for a forming-up position.
His plans miscarried, however. The avenue which formed the enemy's main objective, and upon which he had expended a vast amount of ammunition, had long been disused, and its head was counted of so little importance that not even a sentry-post had been placed there. This point was reached by some twenty Germans, but as their leading men commenced to enter they were noticed by Sergeant W. J. Murray, who was in charge of a working-party near by. He and another man at once opened fire on the raiders and checked their advance. Bombs were thrown at the sergeant and his comrade, but without effect, and presently the Germans withdrew. The two flanking parties had been dispersed by Lewis gun fire and bombs as soon as they were discovered. It is considered that many casualties had been inflicted on the enemy party as they assembled in the vicinity of Broken Tree House, a locality that was heavily bombarded by a section of the 3rd Light Trench Mortar Battery under Corporal J. McQuillan, one of the original 2nd Battalion men. The section itself suffered casualties during the enemy bombardment, but the corporal kept the gun working until the situation quietened, firing altogether a hundred rounds in forty-five minutes.
The 4th Battalion relieved the 2nd in the front line on March 26th, the 1st was relieved by the 3rd two days later, and at the end of the month the Brigade was withdrawn from the line for special training, the 1st Brigade taking over the sector from us.page 178
During March we had 21 men killed, and 5 officers and 64 men wounded.
Major W. H. Hastings, D.S.O., Brigade Major, was recalled on March 16th to rejoin his unit, the 92nd Punjabis, in India, and Major N. W. Thoms, N.Z.S.C., was appointed in his stead on the 29th. Lieut.-Col. Austin was evacuated wounded on the 21st, the command of the 1st Battalion devolving upon Major J. G. Roache. On the 27th General Fulton left for the Officers' Rest House, and Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart assumed command of the Brigade in his absence.
When we first came into the Ploegsteert Sector we found the trenches in very bad condition, the breastworks in the forward lines being extremely dilapidated and the drainage entirely out of order. A vast amount of work had to be done to render the conditions at all bearable, and this was the more difficult of accomplishment owing to the intensity of the enemy's artillery and minenwerfer fire, especially on the left about St. Yves. Parts of the trenches, which in the main lay along the forward edge of Ploegsteert Wood, were curious in outline. At about our centre the front line formed a rectangular re-entrant, into which projected a similar-shaped enemy salient known as "Umbo Nose" or the "Birdcage." The "Birdcage" appeared to be tremendously strong, but when this apparently formidable place subsequently fell into our hands, it was seen to be strong only in the quantity of wire it contained. South of the salient our line ran out to a blind end, this portion, known as the "Hampshire T.," having No Man's Land on both sides of it. North of the salient the line lay very near the angle in the enemy's trench; between the two were mine-craters practically lip to lip, a double one held by us and a single one by the enemy. A little to the north of St. Yves, near Anton's Farm; was the bit of No Man's Land where, as told by Captain Bairnsfather, the British and Germans fraternized on a certain Christmas Day, exchanging mutual services in the matter of haircutting and photography.
A curious observation-post stood just behind the front line. This took the form of a standing tree from which the branches had been shot away. It was constructed of steel, carefully modelled and painted to represent the real tree whose page 179place it took one dark night, and up the steps in its hollow interior the observer climbed to his peep-hole near the top.
At the time of our occupation of the sector. Ploegsteert Wood itself was a very pleasant area. It was fairly extensive, and, though subjected to frequent bursts of shelling, was, like the plantations on the rear slopes of Hill 63, strangely lacking in that blasted appearance one expected to find in such a locality so near the front line. About the feet of the elms and beeches, at first bare, but presently signalizing the onward march of spring by the swelling and bursting of their buds, snowdrops bloomed luxuriantly. The rear trenches and living- quarters in the Wood were well-constructed and comparatively comfortable. A log hut which served as a company headquarters, and which was dignified by the appellation of "Plugstreet Hall," was remarkable for the number of regimental crests and badges carved or painted by previous occupants on the ends of the timbers of which it was constructed. Doubtless the "Hall" went the way of many other good things in the course of the enemy operations of the following year. It would have made a fine "souvenir" if only we could have brought it away. The numerous duck-board tracks, named after well-known London streets, were for the most part open, the density of the forest growth ensuring freedom from observation; but as they approached the forward saps they assumed the nature of the communication-trenches with which in other sectors we had become so familiar, having revetted protective embankments on either side.
Towards the end of our tour of duty here the Brigade erected several miles of very strong wire in belts across the Wood, and within and beyond its perimeter. This supplementary work, we considered, should have gone far towards making the Wood impregnable, but it seems that the enemy, in his advance in 1918, passed round it and took the position by envelopment.
Throughout the whole of the period there had been intense activity of every sort on both sides. The enemy made increasing use of gas-shells on the Wood and of heavy trench mortars on our trenches and saps, and his airmen were very enterprising. For our part we cleared No Man's Land of enemy patrols, and by a combination of bold scouting and prompt page 180Lewis gun and artillery fire put an end to the enemy's endeavours to improve his wire. German snipers, at first troublesome, were quietened by the vigorous use of light trench mortars and rifle grenades. The Machine Gun Company attached to us continued the policy, found so valuable in former sectors, of subjecting back areas to fire at night, and, in concert with the artillery, kept the enemy in a constant state of tension by means of frequent "practice" barrages.
On the 12th of March a Working Battalion was formed of details from the three Brigades of the Division, each of which supplied some 300 officers and men for the purpose. Major J. Pow, of our 4th Battalion, was detached to command this temporary formation, which was organized into three companies, each representing the Brigade from which it had been drawn.
When it was observed that the Working Battalion was engaged in laying cable for a forward telephone system on an extensive scale, the old soldiers and other wiseacres predicted a big offensive at an early date. To those not in the secret— and, judging by the curiosity displayed by the enemy's airmen, and the attentions received at the hands of his artillerymen, the Germans may probably be included in that category—the activities of the new unit were indeed the first indication of the forthcoming battle of Messines.
The work was carried out under the supervision of the Director of Signals, IInd Anzac Corps, who issued general instructions and wisely left the details to the commander of the battalion. Major Pow was his own engineer, and personally selected and laid out the lines radiating from the main cable- head at Red Lodge, behind Hill 63, to the many future advanced battalion headquarters close up to the front trench. The whole scheme was carefully worked out in detail, and plans and instructions prepared, so that, in case a relief were ordered, the incoming unit could proceed with the work without interruption to its smooth progress.
Companies were told off to different lines, and at the outset company commanders employed all their men at the same time; but it was at once found that the digging progressed faster than the cable-laying could be done, and in addition to the disadvantage of having long stretches of open trench ex-page 181posed to view there was the exasperation caused by the necessity of re-digging where, in the shell-shocked ground, the sides collapsed soon alter the trench was dug. Better success followed the adoption of the method now devised. Only one platoon of each company was put on the job at one time, and as this finished its task it was succeeded by the next, so that three or four "shifts" were worked in one day. On the whole, the day's work for each man was comparatively easy. The trench was dug six feet deep and four feet wide at the top; and as a length of one yard and a half constituted a day's task for a man in an English labour unit, two yards was thought a fair quantity for each of our own men. Casualties, of course, were inevitable, but most of these were suffered during the night-digging down the forward slopes of Hill 63.
Here and there, as for instance, in the low-lying section in the vicinity of the trench known as Mud Lane, the ground was swampy, and the full depth of six feet could not be secured. To compensate for this, extra earth was piled on top when the cable had been buried, and over all a quantity of bricks or stone blocks to serve as "bursters" to minimize the danger of damage to the cable under shell-fire. The bursters were obtained from the ruins of the chateau on the hill. This, by the way, was reported to have been the property of Hennessy, the well-known distiller of brandy. At any rate, our men engaged at the work of carrying down the material had a merry time, but only by way of dodging the enemy shelling, for they were in full view and formed excellent targets for the German field-gun "snipers."
How thoroughly the whole task set the Working Battalion was performed may be judged from the fact that throughout the battle of Messines only one break occurred in the entire network, this solitary instance having been caused by a 5.9 shell striking the bury in soft ground. The importance of the work will, of course, be readily understood. Twice during its progress it was inspected by the Corps Commander, who on each occasion expressed his entire satisfaction with the manner in which it was being executed and with the expedition with which it was being pushed ahead. His appreciation was emphasized in the following communication to the New Zealand Division at the end of March:—page 182
"The Corps Commander desires me to say he is pleased to have received from A.D.A.S., IInd Anzac a very favourable report on the work done by the New Zealand Working Battalion engaged in burying telephone cable. 9,000 yards of line have been buried since the 15th instant, in spite of unfavourable conditions.
"He hopes you will convey to the battalion his appreciation of the manner in which they are carrying out a very important piece of work.
"(Signed) C. W. Gwynn, "Brig.-General, G.S., IInd Anzac Corps."
Soon after the middle of April the Working Battalion was reinforced by the Cyclist Battalion, its commander, Lieut.-Col. C. H. Evans, taking over the command of the combined units; and, as the preparations for the "Magnum Opus" neared completion, parties of the infantry were from time to time released from this work and returned to their original units, the execution of the final stages of the cable-burying being left to the Cyclists alone.
Amongst the officers who did exceptionally good work with the Working Battalion were Capt. E. C. Parry and Lieuts. J. N. Rauch, H. E. McGowan, T. M. Sim, W. E. Anderson, T. Collins, R. J. Grant, and J. G. Greenwood.
While the men of the battalion were engaged in this special duty they were quartered in Regina Camp, near Romarin. Orders for the formation of the unit must have been sudden and unexpected, for it was found that little preparation had been made for the provision of transport and camp equipment. As an example, it may be mentioned that the first supply of fresh meat was cut up for issue by the commanding officer and his adjutant-quartermaster, Lieut. J. D. Swan, the only implements available being pocket-knives. Just why it was found necessary for Major Pow to carry out this operation personally is not known, unless it be that it was merely another manifestation of that extreme solicitude for the comfort of his men for which he had been noted throughout the Brigade from its earliest days.
It was not long, however, before Regina Camp, through the strenuous efforts of the commanding officer, became one of the best-run camps in France. The battalion secured a special transport of its own consisting of two motor-lorries; a page 183set of hot-water tanks for the men's bathing and washing; and a well-equipped drying-room. Even a battalion estaminet, or "wet" canteen, was established in the camp. This last innovation was the result of a desire to reduce the number of orderly-room cases arising from the men's visits to the open estaminets in Romarin during the evenings, and that laudable object was instantly and fully attained.
In connection with the Working Battalion's stay at Regina Camp, an amusing instance of attempted extortion by a downtrodden native of the country is recalled. When the Brigade first moved up to this area the 1st Battalion occupied Regina Camp, and on going into the line for its tour of duty it was at the last moment presented by the owner of the farm on which the camp stood with a bill for the value of a tree alleged to have been cut down by some of the men. The account was paid. The 4th Battalion, of which Major Pow was second-in-command, had a similar experience over the same tree a few days later. Now the enterprising landowner presents a claim to the Working Battalion, the well-known tree once more figuring in the bill. The dénouement may easily be imagined.page 184