The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—The Battle
Part 3.—The Battle.
Local preparations—Plan of attack—Frontage and objectives— Two phases—Troops—Tasks for the New Zealand Division— Tasks of the 2nd Brigade and of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade —Machine-guns, trench mortars, tanks, artillery—Assembly—Attack opens—1st and 3rd Battalions capture the German front and support lines—Lance-Corporal Samuel Frickleton, V.C.—4th Battalion companies capture Messines and the trenches to the east—2nd Battalion in reserve position—Success of 2nd Brigade —1st Brigade troops pass through and capture the Black Line— Australians pass through to the Oosttaverne Line—General consolidation—German estimate of the importance of Messines and the Ridge.
* The mines of the Messines sector have been a popular subject for picture and story. That underground fighting of this kind was no new thing may be seen from the following extract from an account of operations at the siege of Tournai during Marlborough's campaign in Flanders. The extract, quoted by Hon. J. W. Fortescue in his "History of the British Army," is from the newspaper "The Daily Courant" of August 20th, 1709:—
"Now, as to our fighting underground, blowing up like kites in the air, not being sore of a foot of ground we stand on while in the trenches. Our miners and the enemy very often meet each other, when they have sharp combats till one side gives way. We have got into three or four of the enemy's great galleries, which are thirty or forty feet underground and lead to several of their chambers; and in these we fight in armour and lanthorn and candle, they disputing every inch of the gallery with us to hinder our finding out their great mines. Yesternight we found one which was placed just under our bomb batteries, in which were eighteen hundredweight of powder besides many bombs; and if we had not been so lucky as to find it, in a very few hours our batteries and some hundreds of men had taken a flight into the air."
For our part, we had been in the Ploegsteert and Messines sectors since the last week of February, with a break of a fortnight spent in intensive training in the Tilques area during the earlier part of April. At Tilques the general plans for the attack had become fairly well known, and the special rehearsals there had been facilitated and rendered all the more intelligible from the knowledge we had already unconsciously gained of the country upon which the real drama was to be staged. Then, on our return, while the normal tours in and out of the line were worked in the usual regular manner, repeated Divisional, Brigade and battalion conferences were held with the object of securing the utmost possible perfection in every detail of the scheme. Constant patrolling beyond our lines gave us complete knowledge of all parts of No Man's Land; whilst information regarding the country and systems of defence well in rear of the forward lines of the enemy, obtained from the close study of maps and aeroplane photographs, and supplemented by the excellent observation from Hill 63 facing Messines from the south-west, was enhanced in value by the frequent inspection of a fine large-scale model of Messines and its page 195surroundings. This model, which, with its approaches, covered about a quarter of an acre of ground, had been constructed by the enterprising Australians near Romarin.
From the middle of April right on to the zero day aerial and artillery activity on both sides was intense. It was evident that an impending attack was suspected by the enemy, and trenches, roads, tracks, concentration areas and transport lines were almost constantly subjected to shell-fire and aeroplane bombing. In addition he made many attempts to raid various points along our whole line for the purpose of obtaining identifications, but these were all without result.
The frontage of the attack by the Second Army was planned to be some nine miles in length, gradually diminishing to six miles as the final objective, the chord of the salient, was approached, and the depth of penetration at the deepest part would be about three miles. To the IInd Anzac Corps, which was on the right, was allotted the three-mile sector from St. Yves to the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road. The scheme of attack for this Corps was a swinging movement with the right flank as pivot, enveloping in its course the hill and village of Messines. It was arranged to be carried out in two phases, first the attack and capture of the Black Line, secondly the attack and capture of the Green or Oosttaverne Line. The Black Line ran, from the right flank at St. Yves, slightly west of north, but took a more westerly direction as it passed Messines, from which it lay from 600 to 700 yards to the east. Abreast of the village the Black Line was about a mile from our front trenches. The Green Line branched off from the Black Line where the latter crossed the Douve River, north of Grey Farm, swung out north-north-east for a distance of a mile, and then turned nearly due north to the west of Delporte Farm. This bend in the Green Line was about a mile east-north-east of Messines Church. The task thus allotted to the Corps was to be accomplished in one day's operations, and was to include the capture of the enemy's guns to the north-east of Messines and towards Oosttaverne.
The first phase, the capture of the Black Line, was to be carried out by three Divisions disposed side by side, namely, the 3rd Australians on the right, the New Zealanders in the centre, and the 25th on the left; and then the 3rd and 4th page 196Australian Divisions, passing through the captors of the Black Line, would carry on with the second phase and take the Green Line.
The taking of Messines thus fell to the New Zealand Division, with an attack frontage of from 1,500 to 1,600 yards. Within the Division it was arranged that Messines and its all-round defences should be taken by the 3rd and 2nd Brigades attacking side by side, the former on the right, the latter on the left, the 1st Brigade then passing through the 3rd and 2nd, capturing and consolidating the Black Line, establishing a line of posts still further eastward on what was known as the Black Dotted Line, and taking all enemy guns within reach. Again, in the task allotted to the 2nd and 3rd Brigades, there were three phases: first, over-running the enemy's front line and capturing and consolidating the Blue Line, which ran along his supports; secondly, the taking of the Brown Line, a reserve system running through the western edge of the village; and thirdly, the capture of the village together with the trenches running round its eastern outskirts and to the north and south, these latter forming a Yellow Line. Within our own Brigade area the tasks allotted to the several units were as follows: 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion (plus two platoons from the 2nd) working abreast, to take the Blue and Brown Lines; the 4th Battalion (plus one company from the 2nd) to take the greater part of Messines and the Yellow Line beyond; the 2nd Battalion (less one company and two platoons, detached) to dig in behind the Brown Line as Brigade reserve. Brigade Headquarters were established in Regina Cut-off, just behind our front line.
The 3rd N.Z. Machine Gun Company detailed one gun to accompany each battalion, and one section was held in Brigade reserve; two sections came under orders of Division and were employed in laying down the barrage. Of light trench-mortars one gun accompanied each of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, two went with the 4th Battalion, and four were held in Brigade reserve. Tanks to the number of twelve were told off to co-operate with the Division, and the contact aeroplane programme was exceedingly complete as to detail.
A very fine artillery barrage scheme had been prepared, and this was supplemented by an intense machine-gun barrage page 197covering the successive bounds of the infantry. The advance of the New Zealand Division was supported by one hundred and fourteen 18-pounders, forty-two 4.5-inch howitzers, and a large number of heavy pieces of artillery; and by seventy-two Vickers guns, including sixteen guns of the 3rd Australian Division. When the Army barrage for the offensive was practised on the afternoon of June 2nd the display was on a scale of magnificence not hitherto approached in any theatre of war. It was watched with great interest, and its effectiveness added in no small measure to the morale of the infantry who were presently to go over the top under its cover.
Zero-hour had been fixed for 3.10 a.m. on the 7th of June. At 6 p.m. on the previous evening, one company of the 3rd Battalion, then on Hill 63, took over the whole Brigade defensive front from a portion of the 2nd Auckland Battalion, and three hours later the remainder of the Brigade, from the bivouac area at De Seule, started off on their long silent march to the front trenches, moving by the specially-marked overland routes W and X, which, to reduce the liability to casualties from shelling, avoided the roads for practically their whole length. As a further precaution platoons moved at intervals of 200 yards. Shortly after midnight the last of our men had entered the communication-trenches, and by 2 a.m. the assembly was complete.
A short portion of the right of our Brigade front had been left clear for the use of the 40th Battalion of the 3rd Australian Division, which was to advance just north of the Douve, but as we had ample room otherwise, this caused no inconvenience. Our men were now in readiness with battalions, companies, platoons, sections and attached machine-guns and trench mortars all in order for the advance. Fortunately, there had been very few casualties during the march and assembly, though gas-shelling rendered the final stages extremely difficult and wearisome.
Now ensued the long, anxious wait, only a little more than an hour by the clock, but how slowly in such circumstances do the minutes pass! In his sorriest plight the soldier will generally maintain his own good spirits and the cheerfulness of his companions by banter and joke, but this resort was denied him, for strict silence was enjoined; and there was not page 198even the solace of a pipe, smoking between the time of commencing the march and zero-hour being strictly forbidden. And it was known to all ranks that if the enemy were to take it into his head to attack or to raid within the last half-hour, there would be no response to our S.O.S. signal except counter- battery work, though there was some consolation in knowing that this, if needed, would be sufficiently furious and effective. So the time passed slowly on through the long darkest hour before the dawn. Some relief came at 3 a.m., when bayonets, or as we have it in Rifle Brigades, "swords," were quietly drawn from their scabbards and fixed. Now only ten minutes remained.
Some of the machine-guns assisting in the protective barrage opened out a few moments before time, and the men in the assembly trenches could scarcely be restrained from setting off in response. However, the long-looked-for signal came with the almost simultaneous roar of exploding mines* and the crash of the intense artillery bombardment, upon which the 1st and 3rd Battalions advanced across No Man's Land to the assault of the Blue Line, followed closely by the 2nd and 4th Battalions. Myriads of S.O.S. rockets rose from the enemy's lines, but the answering barrage came too late, falling as it did on our old front line trenches some minutes after our troops had left them. We had no creeping barrage to cover our movement across No Man's Land, but the barrage laid in succession on the enemy's front and support lines was so effective and well-defined that our men, to use their own expression, "could lean up against it."
The two leading battalions moved abreast, each on a two company frontage, and No Man's Land was quickly crossed. Owing to the darkness of the early hour and the smoke and dust caused by the bombardment, the keeping of direction by means of landmarks was impossible; but as all officers worked on compass-bearings they were able to check at once any tendency on the part of the little section-columns to deviate from the line laid down.
* None of these was on the front covered by the New Zealand Division; the nearest was that under Ontario Farm just beyond us to the left, while on our right one was blown opposite the centre of the 3rd Australians, and another at Factory Farm, clear of their right flank.
In the 1st Battalion's sector, "A" Company (2nd Lieut. E. Hulbert) was almost immediately in the enemy salient at La Petite Dome Farm, but the conclusions arrived at from the previous investigations of the 2nd Battalion raiding parties proved to be correct, and the two platoons specially detailed to deal with the Farm in ease the enemy had altered his dispositions had little resistance to overcome except from isolated posts in and about the ruins and in the trenches in its neighbourhood. The remainder of the company passed on at once, cleared their section of Ulna Support and the saps leading to it, and swung the right flank up into the general alignment. "C" Company (Lieut. E. B. Tustin), on the left, passed without a check over the ruins of the German forward trench and moved steadily onward towards the support line. Fire from a machine-gun near the centre and from another towards the left flank caused no little trouble, but bombing parties promptly moved against the positions and captured both guns and crews. Near the right of the company sector Corporal H. J. Jeffrey suddenly found himself facing a dug-out from which a German machine-gunner had brought his gun and was busily enfilading the Australians advancing on our right. Without a moment's hesitation Jeffrey rushed him, but the gunner was too quick. Evading his pursuer he darted into the dug-out, and a peremptory invitation to come out not being responded to with the promptitude desirable, a bomb was thrown in. This killed five of the inmates and brought out eight others with their hands up. One of these, an officer, seizing a favourable opportunity, made as if to draw his revolver, and on being rushed made good his escape. Four more now came out of the dug-out, bringing with them a wounded companion. The twelve uninjured prisoners were handed over to the escort in charge of another batch, and Corporal Jeffrey rejoined his platoon as if nothing unusual had happened. No less inspiring was the action of Sergeant J. V. M. Cauty, who attacked single-handed and bombed out a nest of enemy sharp-shooters who were delaying the advance. There was little further opposition of any serious nature, and presently the company cleared the whole of its objective and commenced the work of putting the line gained into order as a fighting-trench.page 201
The two leading companies of the 3rd Battalion, "D" (Capt. W. A. G. Penlington) on the right, and "B" (Lieut. C. E. Bridge) on the left, had fared equally well. Sixteen minutes had been allowed for the advance to and capture of the first objective, but before this brief period had elapsed the Blue Line, passed through to follow it up and capture the falling some little distance beyond it.
At the appointed moment the curtain of artillery fire moved forward, and the remaining two companies of the leading battalions, by this time in positions of readiness behind the Blue Line, passed through to follow it up and capture the Brown Line. "B" Company (Capt. E. A. Harding), the right of the 1st Battalion's forward companies, had a comparatively long advance, but met with little resistance. Not more than ten prisoners were captured on the way up, and the only machine-gun taken was one that had just been abandoned. On the objective itself, here further east than the remainder of the line, there were no difficulties of any great consequence to contend with. Fire from a position some little distance beyond the line caused inconvenience until a party moved out against it and brought in the garrison of twenty, the majority of whom had been found sheltering in a dug-out. "D" Company (Lieut. A. W. Soundy), on the left, was held up momentarily by parties of the enemy who had established themselves in a hedge running across the line of advance, about midway between Blue and Brown Lines. Three posts here were rushed and their garrisons bombed or bayoneted, and the cause of the delay having been thus promptly removed, the advance was continued towards the trenches of the Brown Line. These were captured with ease, for on the barrage lifting, our men made the final dash and reached their goal before the Germans could raise their heads.
In view of the greater difficulties anticipated in the capture of their section of the close defences of the southern portion of Messines, each of the two 3rd Battalion companies, "A" (Capt. G. K. Dee) and "C" (Capt. D. B. Macfarlane), had been strengthened by the attachment of a platoon from the 2nd Battalion. Until the objective was closely approached, their advance from the Blue Line proceeded swiftly, the scattered groups of the enemy everywhere surrendering freely.page 202
For the most part, too, their allotted portion of Ulster Reserve was captured more easily than had been expected, but on the left the last stage of the forward movement was checked by machine-guns firing from positions amongst the ruins of the village. Between these guns and our men the barrage was falling with that admirable regularity and stiffness which proved to be a highly-important contributory factor in the success of the day's operations. Here, however, it was to us an obstacle, and to the Germans a protection. The awkward situation was relieved by the daring action of Lance-Corporal Samuel Frickleton. Followed by his section he moved up closer to the barrage, weighed his chances, and, seizing a favourable opportunity, dashed through to the other side. Here he proceeded at once to deal with the nearest gun single-handed. With bomb and bayonet he fell upon the crew like a fury and destroyed them all. Not content with this, he proceeded to the second gun, killed the three men serving it, and then, turning his attention to the dug-out below, he finished his work by destroying the nine men within who refused to come out. For this succession of courageous deeds, which undoubtedly prevented further casualties both to our men and to other units coming forward, and led to the completion of the capture of the objective, Lance-Corporal Frickleton was awarded the Victoria Cross. In his efforts he was gallantly supported by the survivors of his section, notably Corporal A. V. Eade and Rifleman C. J. Maubon. The former carried forward the first captured gun for the purpose of engaging another enemy gun still further ahead, but was killed while mounting it for action. Maubon followed Frickleton closely and rendered material assistance. Later on, again beyond our barrage, he himself engaged a machine-gun firing from the Institution Royale, and by daring and skilful bombing work killed the gunner and smashed the gun.
The whole of the allotted section of the Brown Line was now in our hands, the capture having been completed by the schedule time, 3.45 a.m., less than three-quarters of an hour from the time the first advance commenced. The commanders of both units attributed much of the success gained within that brief period to the excellent leadership displayed under most difficult conditions by the company officers and non-com-page 203missioned officers. According to custom, a fair proportion of the company, platoon and section commanders had been left out of the line, involving in many cases the throwing of added responsibility upon the shoulders of subordinates. Moreover, the casualties, though not on the whole heavy, were severe in the ranks of the leaders. In the 3rd Battalion alone, one company had lost all, and another company three of its officers before 4 a.m., and by the time the final objective was reached only nine officers in the whole battalion remained effective. As breaches occurred, however, they were promptly filled by juniors, and amongst those specially mentioned for fearless and skilful work in this connection were Sergeants H. Allen. F. J. Prebble, A. Taylor. G. Heard and H. Anderson, who became temporary platoon commanders; and Lieuts. F. E. Greenish, E. F. J. Reeves, and K. C. Clayton, and 2nd Lieuts. R. C. Abernethy, R. A. Bennett and J. Russell, each of whom took over the command of a company in the early stages. There were many instances of wounded officers and men remaining on duty, Major A. Digby-Smith had been entrusted with the special task of personally supervising the advance of the 3rd Battalion companies until the objective should be reached. Though severely wounded in the face at the commencement of the action, he carried on with unabated zeal and gallantry until success was assured; and it was only on the arrival of his commanding officer, who was now permitted to more forward from his headquarters in our old front line, that he consented to go out for medical attention. Similar devotion was displayed by Capt. W. A. G. Penlington and 2nd Lieut. F. S. Goulding.
The 4th Battalion, with the attached company of the 2nd, followed close up to the troops assaulting the Blue Line. Preserving their dispositions as far as possible, the troops took advantage of the shelter available and waited for the next bound of the barrage, the signal for their advance to the attack on Messines and the Yellow Line beyond. Three companies formed the forward line. "A" Company (Capt. W. W. Dove) had as its task the capture and consolidation of a zigzag section of trench just to the south-east of the village, and, working with it. "D" Company of the 1st Battalion would capture a short length in front of the right of the 3rd Bat-page 204talion, thus straightening out the line in this quarter. The other two leading companies of the 4th Battalion, "C" (Lieut. E. A. Winchester) and "D" (2nd Lieut. W. E. Collins), were to capture the southern half of Messines, while "B" Company (Capt. 0. W. Williams) was detailed to pass rapidly through the village and secure the trenches beyond. The fifth company, that from the 2nd Battalion, was hold in battalion reserve.
Plans for the mopping-up of Messines had been worked out in great detail, and these had been communicated to the men as well as to their leaders early in May. Every man knew his particular job, and just where it was located; and to make assurance doubly sure he was provided with a specially-prepared map showing the streets and buildings as well as the dug-outs and other suspected danger-points.
Punctually to time the barrage lifted to its next position, and our men advanced. Resistance in the village proved to be much slighter than had been expected. Only those of the garrison stationed in fancied security behind their machineguns seemed to have had any heart in their work. All above ground were speedily accounted for, and then attention was directed to the dug-outs and fortified cellars. No fewer than forty of such positions were found, constructed wholly or in part of reinforced concrete, and in most cases garrisoned. Where invitations failed and Mills bombs proved ineffective in bringing about an ejectment, recourse was had to smoke-bombs or, in more pressing cases, to Stokes mortar bombs thrown in by hand. The stiffest fight in the town raged round the ruins of the Institution Royale. The ground-floor section of this building was still standing because of the fact that it had been strongly concreted within and transformed into a fortress prepared against attack from any quarter; and it was protected by the heap of fallen rubble above from all but the heaviest of our artillery. The assault of this position, the strength of which had been suspected, fell to a platoon under Sergeant J. W. Penrose, and so fierce was the hand-to-hand struggle that only two men of the platoon survived the contest, the gallant leader himself being numbered amongst the killed. From time to time reinforcements from other parties joined in this attack on the completion of their own special tasks, and the work of page 205Penrose's platoon was presently brought to a conclusion by the capture of the Institution and the annihilation of the garrison. In this stubborn fight, Lance-Sergeant J. E. Thomson, who had taken up the leadership when Sergeant Penrose fell, acquitted himself no less magnificently; but he too was killed before the victory was gained.
Two hours had been allotted for the thorough mopping-up of the village, and within that time the company commanders directly responsible reported that they had finished their task. Amongst the prisoners taken was Capt. Thomas, who some time previously had been specially appointed to the permanent command of the inner and outer defences of Messines. A wounded officer volunteered the information that a tunnelled dug-out containing 200 men was situated under the Church Square, but as our search for this proved fruitless it is surmised that, if the officer's statement were correct, the entrance to the dug-out must have been blown in by our heavies and the whole of the inmates trapped within.
Meanwhile the capture of the trenches constituting the Yellow Line had been completed. The lighting here had been more severe than in the area west of the village, but all resistance on the 4th Battalion sector was quickly overcome. In the more open country to the south, the company from the 1st Battalion met with greater opposition. As the advance proceeded from point to point, the Lewis gun sections had some excellent targets both while covering their own men and while supporting the forward movement of those on the flanks. Approaching the final objective the right and the left of the leading waves of this company were held up by strong-points in the trench itself. From two concrete dug-outs fire continued to pour, and it was some time before they could be enveloped and rushed. Some five or six prisoners were taken from each; one yielded also much useful signal material, while the other, containing a quantity of explosives ready to our hand, was bombed and wrecked.
The two companies that had dealt with the village itself moved forward to the captured Yellow Line, each leaving behind a platoon to clear up any "pockets" that might have been overlooked. The village was left practically empty of troops in order to minimize casualties from the heavy enemy page 206shelling expected to fall upon it within two hours after the opening of our attack.
Prominent amongst the 4th Battalion leaders were Lieut. D. J. Shaw, who assumed command on the loss of his company commander, and Sergeants A. J. Steer and R. Whitefield, who commanded platoons under similar conditions. As a mark of appreciation of the masterly conduct of the attack and of the fine work of the battalion under his command, Lieut.-Col. Melvill was shortly afterwards decorated with the Belgian Ordre de la Couronne.
Within thirty minutes after zero, the 2nd Battalion, less the six platoons detached with other battalions, had reached its appointed position between the Blue and Brown Lines, and had commenced to dig itself in. As Brigade reserve it held itself in readiness to move to any threatened point. On their way forward, the troops of this unit mopped-up several parties of the enemy in the Blue Line and in Ulcer Sap. During consolidation they were troubled by an enemy machine-gun firing from a concrete dug-out in the vicinity of Messines Church, but a party despatched from "C" Company promptly surrounded this position and destroyed the garrison.
Thus the Brigade's defined tasks were successfully accomplished, and nothing now remained but to push on with the completion of the consolidation of the positions gained as fighting lines, and to erect wire entanglements for their further strengthening. The casualties had been surprisingly light, and, as a consequence, the trenches of our new positions were thickly held. Though this was undesirable in view of the heavy shelling to which the enemy was sure to subject the area, yet because of the fact that operations were being continued farther forward, no thinning-out could he permitted until their success was assured. The faithful stretcher-bearers, already at work, found their labours steadily increasing. Assisting these on all parts of the battlefield was the Revd. S. Parr, Chaplain to the 3rd Battalion, who spent many hours searching for the missing, dressing the wounded, and burying the dead. The names of Riflemen H. T. Waller, A. E. Dickson, C. Ferguson, amongst the stretcher-bearers, are recalled in connection with special gallant and devoted service.page 207
Of rescue work under fire, two striking instances may be given. Sergeant T. T. Murray, of the 3rd Battalion, finding his trench in rear of Messines subjected to particularly accurate shelling, withdrew his platoon to a flank away from the part shelled; but one of his men being reported to have been buried, he at once returned alone in the face of the continued bombardment and extricated him. Rifleman A. Dunthorne, one of the 4th Battalion men in the newly-captured Yellow Line, observed that a salvo, striking the trench, buried three of the garrison. Heedless of danger he rushed to the spot and dug out two of the three. Another crash now fell at the same spot, burying the rescued men, the concussion almost incapacitating Dunthorne himself. Struggling to his feet, he returned to the task, and by almost superhuman efforts succeeded at last in getting all three men out alive.
Maintenance of communication also was becoming increasingly difficult. The signalling personnel of Brigade, battalions and companies, amongst whom were noted at the time Sergeant A. W. M. Ohlson. Corporal A. F. Gilmour, Riflemen H. Wright, H. J. Byrne. P. Neville and W. H. F. Law had a most difficult task, not only in laying the lines, but in locating and mending breaks caused by shell-fire. Some of the lines were repeatedly broken so badly that mending was out of the question, and entirely new lines had to be laid. In consequence of these frequent interruptions, runners had to be called upon for getting communications to the rear and to the flanks. Shell-fire and machine-guns took heavy toll of these tireless and faithful men. Rifleman A. Johnston, for instance, was the only 3rd Battalion headquarters' runner surviving the assault; while Riflemen W. R. White and A. H. Bone, of the 1st, and S. N. Managh of the 4th, after long and continuous efforts, collapsed at last from shell-shock and exhaustion.
Of the four tanks detailed for work in our Brigade area, all were late, owing to delays at bridges: one afterwards became stranded at our old front line, and two in advance of Blue Line, and the fourth moved off beyond the right flank at about 4.30 a.m. Neither the Stokes mortars nor the Vickers guns attached to battalions were called upon for action, and two of the latter were disabled by shell-fire early in the day.page 208
The administrative arrangements generally could not very well have been improved upon. As an indication of their effectiveness, it is recorded that supplies of munitions and water reached Messines before the mopping-up of the village was complete. It is worthy of mention, too, that before the next day had dawned the Pioneers and the 1st and 2nd Battalions had dug new saps from our old front line to Messines, and that a mule-track had been carried forward well up to the neighbourhood of the village within the same period.
Troops had been ordered not to drink water found in Messines, a wise precaution in view of the reports that came in later to the effect that the water in the wells contained traces of arsenic.
During the 8th the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was withdrawn from the line, the portions held by the different units being taken over by battalions of the 1st and 2nd Brigades. Our 1st and 2nd Battalions went into quarters at Hill 63, but the 3rd and 4th were held near the old front line in readiness to go forward again at short notice. All four battalions supplied strong parties for road-malting and cable-burying on the 8th, 9th and 10th, working steadily through a series of high-explosive and gas bombardments.
The distastefulness of these tasks, in many respects more dangerous and less welcome than the exciting activities of front-line garrison duty or even of an actual advance, was only slightly tempered by the fine weather that prevailed; and not even the urgency of the work in hand could prevent an occasional pause to watch the issue of manœuvres at this time so frequent in the air above. On the 9th, Richtofen's squadron of eighteen aeroplanes, conspicuous by their brilliant colouring, cruised slowly up and down over our new front line at a comparatively low altitude. Immediately above the village of Messines, and flying parallel to the Germans was a squadron of five British open-fusilage machines. The opposing formations, so unequally matched in strength, for some time maintained a respectful distance from each other, exchanging occasional bursts of machine-gun fire at long range. Presently, to the dismay of the interested spectators, a British machine suddenly swerved and crashed to earth. Almost immediately, and as if from nowhere, there appeared another British aeroplane, but this was of a vastly different type from the ponderous fighters majestically patrolling the airy spaces above the line. A light, fast machine, twisting and manoœuvring dexterously, it looked quite out of place in its present company. After a few moments, spent, as it seemed, page 210in taking stock of the position, the British scout wheeled aloft in a fast spiral, and, turning abruptly, plunged down like a meteor, alone, into the midst of that famous German squadron which was the pride of the Fatherland, and which our enemy fondly believed to be the dread of all Allied airmen. Now followed a scene of the most thrilling interest. Wheeling, twisting, turning, diving, the British machine darted hither and thither amongst the enemy 'planes, its machine-gun crackling incessantly. The Germans retaliated in kind, but finding, as it would appear, that they were firing into one another, the squadron, which had hitherto been keeping magnificent formation, broke up in disorder. From the disorganized group five machines drew off, and, mounting swiftly heavenwards, took order one above another. Then in succession they swooped down upon the lone British machine, which was stil maintaining the state of confusion amongst the remaining thirteen. Each of the five endeavoured to "get on the tail" of the Britisher, but no sooner did that object appear to be within reach of achievement than the position was reversed by the prompt and skilful handling of the British aeroplane. Our men, who, in the face of this all-absorbing contest, had temporarily given up all thoughts of digging, heartily applauded each successful manœuvre on the part of the plucky pilot, and raised a derisive cheer as, thoroughly discomfited, the German squadron withdrew. They saw with satisfaction the gallant scout, now doubtless short of ammunition, turn slowly homeward, and watched with renewed interest two of the Germans, apparently emboldened by this retreat and sensing a possible defenceless victim, break back and give chase. The pursuers, however, had little heart in their work, for when the British scout turned they suddenly and finally gave up the contest. Perhaps the Germans had begun to suspect, what was indeed the case, that the pilot of the British machine was the redoubtable McCudden, whose unequalled reputation for skill and daring was well known on both sides of the Allied front.
On June 10th the Brigade came under the G.O.C. 4th Australian Division, then holding the whole of the sector from Messines forward, and on the following day moved back to Nieppe, where we rejoined the New Zealand Division, which had gone out to Corps reserve on the morning of the 9th. The page 211Corps Commander (General Godley) visited the Brigade on the morning of the 12th. Addressing the men, he congratulated them on their excellent work on the 7th and was good enough to say that in the recent attack the New Zealand Rifle Brigade had proved itself second to no other Brigade in the Corps.
The captures made by the Brigade during the Messines operations included 285 prisoners, one 7.7 gun, eleven machine-guns, and one trench mortar, besides much miscellaneous ammunition, arms and specialist gear. On the whole Army front 7,200 prisoners, including 145 officers, fell into British hands, and 67 guns, 294 machine-guns, and 94 trench mortars were captured.
Our casualties during the actual attack were exceedingly light, but mainly owing to the subsequent heavy shelling of the whole area, and especially of the village of Messines, the total was rapidly increased. From June 6th to 12th, the casualties were:—
Brigadier-General C. H. J. Brown, D.S.O., commanding the 1st Brigade, was killed at Messines on the 8th while accompanying the Divisional Commander ou a tour of inspection. Lieut.-Col. C. W. Melvill, D.S.O., then commanding our 4th Battalion, took over the command of the 1st Brigade the same evening, and Major E. Puttick thereupon assumed command of the 4th Battalion.
The following translation of an order found in Messines Headquarters will serve to indicate the importance attached by the German command to the holding of the village at all costs:
"Regimental Order xo. 9,447 OP 5th May. 1917. Instructions to the Commandant of Messines.
"1. In consequence of the importance of Messines as the southern corner post of the Wytschaete Salient, I appoint a permanent responsible commander for the outer and inner defences. Captain Thomas is detailed for this post.page 212 "2. The outer defences consist of:—
(a) The whole trench system of Oyster Reserve* to Ulcer Reserve—the trench round the south of Messines to Unbearable Trench and Oxonian Reserve. (b) The inner defences nf Messines are based on five concrete works which command the lines of the streets. More of these are planned, and some are in course of construction. "3.
In the event of the outer defences being broken by the enemy, the place itself is to be defended by sectors. The main defence is five concrete dug-outs which are connected together by a close system of rubbish obstacles. Each dug-out is a self-contained strong-point, and as such is to be defended to the utmost, that is, until the place has been retaken.
The concrete dug-outs form together a mutually-supporting system of strong-points.
"4. The Commandant of Messines has the following forces at his disposal, which are to be considered as an emergency garrison. In order to distinguish them, these are to carry a white band on the left arm.
For the Outer Defence:
(a) 1 Zug (platoon) of Regimental Pioneer Company of 181st I.R. for the defensive positions north of the Wulverghem Road. (b) I Zug of the Oyster Reserve Company of the Reserve Battalion in Messines. (c) I Zug of the Regimental Pioneer Company, 134th I.R., stationed in the dug-outs of the Institution Royale. (d) I Zug of the Regimental Pioneer Company. 134th I.R., stationed in the western end of Unbearable Trench.
For the Main Defences of the Town:
(a) The last company of the Reserve Battalion (formerly Regimental Reserve Company) which is in Messines, and battalions must arrange for the same battalion to be detailed each time; also the machine-guns as per map [not found] and the emergency gun ' Suedflinte' which is in the S.W. edge of the town. "5. The duties of Commandant of Messines include:—
(a) Thorough instruction of all leaders and detachments (especially machine-gunners) about their duties in case of enemy attack.page 213
* In this translation our own trench-names are used.
(b) Practice drills in manning posts. (c) Provisioning the dug-outs with sufficient rations. (d) Supervision of ammunition and ration depots. (e) Keeping ready special gear for hand-to-hand fighting, and pioneer stores at each strong-point. (f) Regulation of Aid Posts in conjunction with the Medical Officer on duty in the Dressing Station. (g) Control of Intelligence arrangements. "6.
Captain Thomas is authorized to make at once any necessary alteration to the disposition of the forces detailed for the defence of Messines and is to report on same by 10th May to 'Regimental Headquarters.
Lieut. D. L. Spanier is detailed to assist.
"7. Captain Thomas will occupy the former battle headquarters of the Reserve Battalion Commander in the Institution Royale, and will relieve him every five days, starting 16th May. "8. While Captain Thomas is in rest quarters in Comines, the Commander of the Reserve Battalion will he Commandant of Messines. When the definite operations start, Captain Thomas is to be continuously in Messines. The Commander of the Reserve Battalion will then be at my disposal.…
Again, General von Laffert, commanding the German 4th Corps, entrusted with the defence of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, issued, on June 1st, an order urging the importance of the holding of the natural strong-points of Wyschaete and Messines for the domination of the Wytschaete Salient. Inter alia, he instructed that "these two strong-points must therefore, not fall, even temporarily, into the enemy's bands. Both must he defended to the utmost and be held to the last man, even if the enemy cuts connection on both sides and also threatens them from the rear." The whole of the 3rd Bavarian Division had been placed at von Laffert's disposal to support if necessary, the counter-offensive.