The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 1.—The Advance in the Ploegsteert Sector
Part 1.—The Advance in the Ploegsteert Sector.
The German salient south of Messines—25th and New Zealand Divisions detailed to attack—Advance of the 4th Brigade's patrols—Accelerated assault, by the 2nd Brigade and the 4th Battalion—In touch with the warneton Line—2nd Battalion patrols about La Basse Ville—Out to reserve—Inspection by the Duke of Connaught at Bailleul—Command.
After the Battle of Messines the Australians, quietly exploiting their successes, pushed gradually forward from the Oosttaverne Line. This left a salient in the German forward position opposite Ploegsteert Wood, and to straighten out the line here plans were laid for an attack on June 14th. This was to be carried out by Two Divisions, the 25th on the north, and the New Zealanders on the south the River Douve forming: the dividing line between the two. The line in the mean-time was being held by the 3rd Australian Division as far south as St. Yves, and by the 4th New Zealand infantry Brigade* from St. Yves to the Lys.
* The 4th Brigade was established in March, 1917, under the command of Brigadier-General H. Hart, D.S.O. It was formed mainly of fit officers and other ranks from the convalescent camps and of drafts from the 20th, 21th, and 22nd Reinforcements, the first of these latter arriving at the Brigade camp at Codford on March 30th, In addition, the commanding officers for all the new units, together with a large number of other officer and of non-commissioned officers were despatched from the three Brigades in France; and special party of over a hundered non-commissioned officers was sent to English from the Division for training as officers in order to meet the demands likely to be made owing to casualties.
The Brigade left for France on May 28th, and during the operations at Messines was employed on the construction and repair of roads in the battle area. It was now in the line for the first time, having taken over the sector on June 10th. It had not yet joined up with the Division however, but was for the time being attached to the Australians.
For the proposed operation relief was to commence on the night of the 12th, when two battalions of the 2nd Brigade would take over that portion of the sector allotted to the New Zealand Division from the Douve to St. Yves. On the following night the New Zealand Rifle Brigade would come into the right sub-sector, holding the front line from St. Yves to the Warnave River with one battalion.
On the afternoon of the 12th, however, the 4th Brigade suddenly found that touch with the enemy had been lost along a considerable part of their front. Fighting-patrols were immediately sent out, and, as a result of their investigations, posts were occupied throughout the old German front line from St. Yves south to the railway line. On the 13th, further penetration to the enemy's support line was made, and posts were firmly established therein by nightfall.
As a consequence of these developments, it was now considered that the results anticipated from the larger engagement planned for the 14th could just as surely be attained by a rapid following-up of the enemy by strong patrols supported by the action of the heavy artillery. Orders to this effect were accordingly issued to the two 2nd Brigade units already in the line, and to our 4th Battalion then on its way up from Nieppe to occupy the front line and the assembly trenches selected in connection with the advance set down for the following day.
In the 4th Battalion three companies were detailed for the operation, "A" Company (2nd Lieut. D. J. Shaw) on the right, "B" (Capt. O. W. Williams) in the centre, and "C" (Lieut. E. A. Winchester) on the left. The task for each of these was the establishment of four forward posts, with a similar number in support, the new line this formed to extend for more than a mile in length from the Warnave River at the old German support line to the high ground immediately opposite the Sugar Refinery at La Basse Ville. This involved a swinging movement through an angle of thirty degrees, the left flank moving forward some 1,200 yards. "D" Company (2nd Lieut. R, 11. Tolhurst) was instructed to occupy the old German support lines as battalion reserve.
The night attack commenced at 9 o'clock, half an hour after the arrival of Major Puttick's first company. Six Ger-page 216man aeroplanes were actively reconnoitring at this time, flying low along our front line, and five minutes after the troops commenced to move an intense bombardment opened on the trenches and on the new No Man's Land. On the left, the 2nd Brigade troops were unable to gain all their objectives, but greater success attended the efforts of the 4th Battalion on the right. For the latter there had been no time for reconnaissance, and the advance in the darkness was more or less a leap into the unknown. Nothing more had been possible than to allot tasks to companies and platoons as definitely as circumstances permitted, the sequel being left to good leadership and brave following. Neither commanders nor men failed. Conspicuous amongst the subordinate leaders who did brilliantly successful work were Lieut. D. C. Armstrong; 2nd Lieuts. W. J. Organ and A. Bongard; Sergeants L. M. Blyth, H. J. Michell, and A. R. Scrivener; and Lance-Sergeants H. J. Blake and G. G. Griffiths. The whole area was swept by enemy machine-guns and artillery, and besides the difficulty experienced in establishing the posts, there remained the harder part of holding on. Posts were repeatedly blown out and their garrisons scattered, and as often the sections were reorganized and the positions once more occupied. Some amelioration of the conditions was eventually secured by direct appeal to our heavy artillery, and this night witnessed counter-battery work of the highest order. So well-directed and intense was the fire of our heavies, that at the first call the German guns were instantly silenced. They repeatedly reopened, but on each occasion the retaliation was increased in strength, till at last only a few isolated enemy guns continued their activity.
In view of the broken nature of the new line taken up, patrolling was; a feature of the utmost importance, for not only was it necessary to ascertain definitely the enemy's positions, but there was also the vital need for keeping touch between our own posts. In this work the services of Corporal T. Wilson and Lance-Corporals C. H. Still and H. R. Hayes proved to be invaluable. In the early morning Corporal Wilson's patrol encountered an enemy post uncomfortably near one of our own. By a skilful flank movement Wilson drove the enemy party out, and on the vantage point thus gained established a line of snipers that during the course of the day took page 217heavy toll of the Germans who from time to time momentarily exposed themselves in La Basse Ville.
Notwithstanding all the efforts of the runners, amongst whom Rifleman E. Vazey, S. N. Managh, and S. E. Johns were noted as having performed extraordinary feats in the open country under fire, the situation on some parts of the line remained obscure, and to clear this up a reconnaissance of the whole battalion front was made at dawn by Major Puttick, in company with Captain Purdy, Brigade Major, when the results of the operation were found to have exceeded expectations; and upon receipt of a definite report to this effect, the Corps Commander telegraphed his congratulations.
The battalion, indeed, had accomplished a noteworthy feat. There had been no general conference before the commencement of the operation. Companies had reached the jumping-off line in succession, and half an hour after its arrival each had been despatched in turn on an unexpected adventure into strange country. Yet it was found that the whole series of posts had been established as ordered, and that not one was more than twenty-five yards from the position laid down for it.
On the following night battalions of the 2nd Brigade continued the attack in the left sector and succeeded in establishing a line of posts between the Messines-La Basse Ville Road and the Douve River, west of Warneton, their operations being carried out in conjunction with an advance by the 25th Division east of Messines, from Farm de la Croix northwards. On the same night, by active patrolling, the troops of the 4th Brigade pushed their front forward to the west bank of the Lys.
The advancement of posts was equally successful along the rest of the Army front, and the British line was thus brought in close contact with the strong German defensive system known to us as the "Warneton Line."
The posts in our Brigade sector were subjected to extremely heavy shelling, Ploegsteert Wood was drenched with gas, and the enemy's machine-guns continued to be very active. The Germans still clung to two strong forward positions at La Basse Ville and Pont Rouge, on the western bank of the Lys, where patrols from the 2nd Battalion, which had relieved page 218the 4th Battalion in the new front line on the night of 15th/16th June, had frequent encounters with those of the enemy. Lieut H. M. Keesing, acting-adjutant of the battalion, during a special personal reconnaissance of the line while forward posts were being advanced in the neighbourhood of La Basse Ville, found the garrison at a vital point on the extreme left in difficulties. Three attempts to establish the post had failed owing to the heavy shell-fire and casualties had been numerous. Both the company commander and the platoon commander had fallen, and the men were almost ready to give up in despair. Grasping the situation. Lieut. Keesing rallied and led them forward for a fourth attempt, succeeding at last in firmly establishing the position. On the following night Lance-Corporal P. Moffitt led a reconnoitring patrol throughout the whole battalion front, investigating the unknown No Man's Land for a distance, in some parts, of 900 yards in advance of the forward posts. Arrived at last in the neighbourhood of Pont Rouge, opposite the right of the sector, he sat down and wrote a detailed account of the results of his investigations up to that time, sent it in, and then led five men into an enemy strong-point to make certain of the position of the Germans by actual contact.
On the night of 18th/19th June the new line was taken over from the 2nd Battalion by the 3rd and lst, the former, on the right, holding from the Warnave River to Le Gheer Road, the latter, on the left, from this point to the Messines- La Basse Ville Road. Both battalions were distributed in great depth, their reserve companies being well back in Ploeg- steert village and Wood. Brigade Headquarters moved from Nieppe to Brune Gaye. The Brigade immediately commenced digging continuous front and support lines, and, by bold patrolling, gained control of the whole of the ground in front as far forward as the River Lys, excepting in the vicinity of La Basse Ville, to which point the Germans still clung tenaciously.
Another relief was carried out on the night of 24th/25th, when the 3rd and lst Battalions were relieved by the 4th* and 2nd respectively, the units from the front line going into bivouacs on Hill 63.
* Major P. H. Bell in temporary command.
It was now noticeable that enemy activity at the Sugar Refinery in La Basse Ville, opposite our left flank, was curiously spasmodic. On June 26th this strong-point appeared to have been abandoned, and Capt. G. A. Avey and 2nd Lieut. R. Tennent, both of the 2nd Battalion, went ont to make a daylight reconnaissance. These two officers reached the village, but fell into an ambush. After emptying their revolvers against the Germans they agreed to separate and endeavour to make their way back if possible unobserved. 2nd Lieut. Tennent succeeded in regaining our lines without mishap, but, finding that Capt. Avey failed to return, he concluded that his companion must have been wounded. He thereupon took a party of ten men, with a Lewis gun, and set out to find and bring him in. He selected a shorter route than that previously followed, but the party unfortunately ran against an enemy post from which they came under rifle and machine-gun fire from three directions. Our party suffered several casualties including 2nd Lieut. Tennent, who was killed. After nightfall repeated attempts were made to recover his body, but owing to the heavy shelling and machine-gun fire, it was found impossible to approach the spot where he had fallen. It was afterwards ascertained that Capt. Avey had been surrounded and taken prisoner, and though he subsequently made several attempts to eseape from prison-camps in Germany, on one occasion reaching a point within a mile of the Allied line, he remained in the hands of the enemy until the Armistice.
The New Zealand Rifle Brigade was relieved in the line by a Brigade of the 4th Australian Division on June 29th, and by the 30th had settled down in billets in the Berquin Area, with Brigade Headquarters at Doulieu. General Plumer visited the Brigade on June 21st and expressed his appreciation of the work of the troops at the Battle of Messines.
One June 26th, H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, Colonel-in-Chief of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, inspected a representative party from the IInd Anzac Corps at Bailleul, our Brigade sending 25 officers and 100 other ranks to this parade.
General Fulton was evacuated to the Officers' Rest House, sick, on June 16th, but returned to duty on the 25th, Lieut Col. A. E. Stewart having taken command in the interim.page 220
The casualties in the Brigade during the month of June, including those suffered at Messines, were:—