The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 1.—Before the Battle
Part 1.—Before the Battle.
To the Tilques Training Area—Return march—Into the Douve Sector—Staff—Aerial and artillery activity—Enemy raid—Assembly trenches—2nd Battalion raids on La Petite Douve Farm— Out to reserve.
On being relieved in the Ploegsteert sector by units of the 1st Brigade at the end of March, our four battalions went respectively to Aldershot, Romarin, De Seule and Bulford Camps.
The Brigade rested here till April 3rd, on which date the troops started on their three-days' march to the Tilques Training Area, some forty miles distant. Battalions moved by different routes for convenience in billeting at the end of each day's stage. The march commenced in wretched weather, a strong wind blowing, with sleet and snow at intervals. It was nevertheless capitally executed, the men, though just out of the trenches, standing the test well and arriving in the training area in fine spirits. The battalions went into billets in a number of scattered villages round about Wisques, some distance west of St. Omer.
The greater part of the Brigade rested on April 6th. One company from the 1st Battalion marched to the Second Army School at Wisques for the purpose of practising the latest attack formation, the majority of the officers of the Brigade being present to witness this introductory demonstration.
General Fulton now returned from the Rest House and resumed command.
The ensuing period of ten days was devoted almost entirely to strenuous training in the trench-to-trench attack and in open warfare fighting. The configuration of the country in the training area closely resembled that over which the projected advance at Messines was to be conducted, and as the page 185outlines of the enemy defences were accurately reproduced here, the details of the various stages of the forthcoming action could be worked out with much precision and thoroughness. The more important rehearsals were witnessed by the General Officers commanding the Army, the Corps, and the Division.
The return march commenced on April 18th, in heavy rain, but notwithstanding the adverse conditions it was exceedingly well done. The Divisional Commander inspected each unit en route. On the 20th we were back in the vicinity of Messines, the 1st Battalion at Neuve Eglise, the 2nd at Kortepyp, the 3rd at De Seule, the 4th at Romarin, and Brigade Headquarters at Rue de Sac.
During the next six days the Brigade supplied working- parties of an average strength of 2,600 for cable-burying, road-making, and the construction of trenches and gun-pits.
On April 27th we relieved the 1st Brigade in the Douve Sector, the 1st and 2nd Battalions going into the front line, the 3rd to support at Stafford House, and the 4th to reserve at Red Lodge, the quarters of the last being hehind the shoulder of Hill 63. Brigade Headquarters were opened at English Farm. The 3rd Australian Division was on our right, and the 74th Brigade on our left, but the latter was relieved by the 1st N.Z. Brigade on April 30th.
Capt. R. G. Purdy, N.Z.S.C., was appointed Brigade Major on April 10th, vice Major Thorns, N.Z.S.C., recalled to Divisional Headquarters. On the same date Capt. G. C. Dailey was appointed Staff Captain in the place of Capt. Purdy.
During the month of April we had two men killed and eighteen wounded.
The period from April 27th to May 5th was characterized by great aerial and artillery activity. There were very many fights in the air, and it was noted with considerable satisfaction that in the majority of contests our airmen got the better of their opponents. The shelling of forward and back areas, camps, headquarters and transport lines was frequent and intense. On May 5th the quarters of the 1st Battalion Band were struck by a shell, four of the oldest players being killed and practically the whole of the instruments destroyed.
The heaviest shelling of back areas known since the fall of 1915 occurred during the afternoon of the 6th, Brigade page 186Headquarters coming in for an unusual share of the bombardment. This was repeated on the 7th. By way of retaliation, every heavy gun on our Army front opened up for five minutes twice during the evening of the 7th, thus effecting considerable amelioration of our discomfort.
On the night of 4th/5th May the 1st and 2nd Battalions were relieved by the 3rd and 4th. This interchange was completed by 1 a.m., and two hours later the enemy attempted a raid on the 4th Battalion front. Little damage was done, and the solitary German who succeeded in entering the trench was promptly captured.
The 2nd Battalion came up from reserve on the night of 11th/12th, and dug a new assembly-trench from 70 to 100 yards behind the front line. This well-constructed piece of work was provided throughout with a travel-trench and was over 700 yards in length, extending across the whole Brigade frontage. No casualties were sustained during the digging, but while inspecting the trench Lieut.-Col. Stewart met with a severe accident which prevented his taking any part in the subsequent battle beyond acting as the Division's liaison officer with the 3rd Australians. Two nights later 1st Otago dug a similar trench across the left Brigade's frontage, but on the far side of the Steenebeek well out in No Man's Land, a very notable feat.
In the ordinary front line and in these new trenches, the latter of course for the time being remaining unoccupied, the assaulting troops could be assembled in the order of their advance, and it was hoped that from them they would be able to move forward with such speed as to escape the enemy's S.O.S. barrage. The Otago trench provided for the leading troops of the left Brigade a good jumping-off line approximately at right angles to the direction of advance, and, in addition, the special advantage of position on the enemy's side of the bogs of the Steenebeek, which here were both wide and deep. Strangely enough, the construction of this trench was completed without serious interference, though the enemy later attempted to investigate it by means of fighting-patrols.
The battalions changed over again during the night of 13th/14th May. With curious perversity, one of our forward batteries, coming into the line on the same evening, established page 187a gun-position immediately above the dug-out which was occupied by the headquarters of the 1st Battalion. Discretion being the better part of valour, and artillery the superior arm, battalion headquarters promptly found another home.
Opposite the sector held by the 2nd Battalion, the German line formed a very pronounced salient passing round the ruins of La Petite Douve Farm.* This, like the "Birdcage" in the Ploegsteert Sector farther south, had the general appearance of being a formidable strong-point, and in the plans for the battle of Messines the importance of the locality was stressed. The patrols of the 2nd Battalion therefore gave it special attention, but as they found no direct evidence of anything abnormal it was decided to prosecute a closer investigation. For this purpose a fighting-patrol of fifteen men under 2nd Lieut. R. P. Vaughan went out on the night of 18th/19th May. The officer, with two scouts, led the way, the remainder keeping some twelve yards in rear, and creeping cautiously forward, the head of the patrol finally reached a shell-hole just outside the enemy's trench. Here they found themselves close to a concrete dug-out with two loop-holes. They were not unobserved, however, for almost immediately a bomb was dropped from one of the openings, and this, landing in the shell-hole, wounded one of the scouts. Far from being a deterrent, this mishap served but as a spur to action, and Vaughan at once brought his main party forward and rushed the position. Two men moved along the trench to the right to form a block, while others dealt with the Germans about the dug-out. The latter retreated smartly underground, but were followed up closely. Lance-Corporal E. E. Islip, a scout of outstanding ability, was in the lead and called to the Germans inside the dug-out to surrender; but as there was no reply, another of the party threw in a bomb. This was followed by a second, which apparently was picked up by a wounded German, who staggered out of the doorway with it. Here he fell at the feet of our men, and the bomb exploding page 188killed the German and Lance-Corporal Islip, and wounded 2nd Lieut. Vaughan and three of his men. The difficult task of bringing back the wounded from the enemy's trench now claimed attention, but this was accomplished with admirable skill, the Germans being held up until the injured men were well on their way across No Man's Land. As the little rearguard retired, however, fire was opened on them, and a sixth man was wounded.
Three nights later another investigation was made by a patrol working under cover of artillery support. Except half a dozen men hurriedly making off to the rear and two or three groups working their machine-guns in the support line, no Germans were seen, and a close inspection was made of the locality without direct molestation. The dug-out found by the previous patrol was seen to have been damaged by our trench- mortar fire, and the trenches in the vicinity were in ruins.
The results of these activities pointed to the fact that too much importance had been attached to the Farm as an enemy stronghold, and to verify these conclusions a daylight raid was earried out by a party from the 2nd Battalion at 3 p.m. on June 5th, two days before the Battle of Messines. The attack was led by Lieut. L. I. Manning and 2nd Lieut. H. B. Pattrick, and was carried out under an Army practice barrage. It was entirely successful, and the information gained proved that no greater resistance might be expected at this point than at any ordinary portion of the German line. Our artillery and trench- mortar fire had obliterated the trenches, and the sappers attached to Manning's party practically completed the work of destruction by demolishing with charges of ammonal two of the three remaining concrete pill-boxes. Upon withdrawal it was found that three men had not returned. Lieut. Manning thereupon doubled over to the Farm and sent these men across to our line. He himself, being out of breath from the exertion of his double journey, dropped into a shell-hole for a momentary rest on his way back. Capt. S. A. Atkinson, commanding the company that had supplied the raiding-party, thought that Lieut. Manning must have been wounded, and he immediately rushed out to his assistance; but before reaching his officer, Capt. Atkinson was killed by an enemy sniper. Our only other casualties were 2nd Lieut. Pattrick and two men wounded.page 189
Amidst all the preparatory work for the Messines offensive, time was found for the holding of a very successful Divisional Horse Show in the rear area on May 13th.
The Corps Commander inspected the Brigade Demonstration Platoon on the 20th. This had been formed at the beginning of May, Lieut. D. C. Bowler being platoon commander, and Major J. R. Cowles, M.C., in charge of the training. The idea was to train one platoon to a state of perfection, and to have twelve subalterns attending for a ten days' course with it. By this means very good results were obtained, the general effect on the efficiency of the Brigade being most marked. At this time, to facilitate the passage of troops along the narrow and congested roads, marching in "threes" was introduced, but no instructions as to a uniform method of procedure in forming "threes" from "two-deep" were issued. Apparently each Brigade adopted its own system, ours being based on that devised at the platoon-school.
On May 22nd the Brigade was relieved in the line by the 2nd Brigade, the battalions going back to De Seule, Romarin, Canteen Corner and Kortepyp Camps, with Brigade Headquarters at Rue de Sac. From this date till the 31st strong parties were supplied daily for preparing the Divisional front for the approaching battle, a work that was greatly hampered by enemy shelling.
A Divisional Conference, at which the Commander-in- Chief was present, was held on the 24th, and on the 29th General Birdwood visited the Brigade.
On May 31st the Brigade moved to De Seule Concentration Area, where units remained resting until the eve of the Battle of Messines.
Our casualties for May were:—
* The Farm position was the objective of the first organized trench- raid launched by British troops. The methods adopted by the Canadians, who earned out that enterprise on 18th November, 1915, formed the basis upon which plans for subsequent attacks of this nature were laid. (See page 86.)