The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—The Warneton Sector
Part 3.—The Warneton Sector.
Into the line—Conditions—General Johnston killed—General Young wounded—Command—Out to reserve—General: weather; the trench-system completed; artillery and aeroplanes; casualties and sickness; command.
* In the sector just south of us the lst Brigade took La Basse Ville in the early morning of July 27th, but were driven back by a strong counter-attacking force. The position was, however, taken again on the 3lst, and firmly held. The 4th Brigade, now permanently attached to the Division, still held the Frelinghien sector at the Lys.
The 3rd Battalion came into the line on August 4th, taking over from the 41st Australian Battalion the sub-sector north of the River Douve, with headquarters at Septieme Barn. The 2nd Battalion at the same time moved to Red Lodge, Hill 63, as support battalion, and the 4th to Kortepyp Camp as reserve.
At the time of taking over this Brigade sector the weather was wet and cold and the conditions generally were worse than those experienced on the Somme. Owing to the excessive shelling, especially on the left battalion area, which was on the forward slope of Messines Ridge, the communication-saps had been completely destroyed. The front-line trenches were for the most part thigh-deep in mud, devoid of duck-boards, and quite without shelter beyond the shallow little "cubbyholes" which had been excavated in the sides and which possessed no other value than that they enabled those men who were not immediately on duty, and were endeavouring to snatch a little sleep, to get their legs out of the slimy mess. It would be interesting to have had from these men some expression of opinion regarding the fact, not then known to us, that Britain was pilinjg up a huge debt to France, one that finally reached the sum of thirty million pounds, for such curious items as disturbance caused by British troops, dock dues, rent of houses and public buildings, and, most astonishing of all, rent of trenches!
General F. E. Johnston, while visiting the 3rd Battalion front during the early morning of August 7th, was killed by a sniper's bullet, Lieut.-Col. R. Young, from the lst Canterbury Battalion, assumed command of the Brigade on the 8th, and on the following day narrowly escaped the fate of his predecessor, being dangerously wounded, again by an enemy sniper, whilst inspecting the same sector. Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart thereupon took over the Brigade, and on August 19th was formally appointed to the temporary command with the temporary rank of Colonel. Major J. Pow then assumed command of the 2nd Battalion.page break page break page 225
On the night of 8th/9th August the 2nd Battalion relieved the lst in the right sub-sector, and two days later the 4th Battalion relieved the 3rd. Reliefs were effected again on the 14th and 15th. On account of enemy shelling and the difficulties of communication, the headquarters of both battalions were moved forward to old German "pill-boxes" on the River Douve near the Messines-La Basse Ville Road.
On the night of 22nd/23rd August we were relieved by a Brigade of the 4th Australian Division, the battalions moving back to their old camps at De Seule, and Brigade Headquarters to Brune Gaye Camp. Here the Brigade became temporary reserve to the Australian Division.
During the greater part of the period of our occupation of the Warneton Sector the weather conditions continued to be atrocious, and great difficulty was experienced in amending the deplorable state of the trenches. About the middle of the month the weather moderated, and the work thereafter progressed more rapidly, until, by the time we handed over to the Australians, we had connected the advanced posts into a good, continuons and well-wíred front line, had greatly improved the communication-saps, and had made fair progress with a satisfactory drainage System. Other troops had been similarly active, and the efforts of the infantry, coupled with those of the pioneers, resulted in the completion by the Division, during the month of August, of a new trench System with a total of 20,000 yards of trenches and a full proportion of wiring.
Artillery and aerial activity were throughout unusually intense. In return for the enemy's incessant shelling of our trenches the heavy artillery carried out some excellent shoots on the town of Warneton; and the infantry were particularly interested in watching the rapid disclosure of German maehine-gun towers as the shells of the buildings in which they had been constructed were blown away by our guns. A specially intense "dummy-raid" executed by artillery of all calibres, eventually brought about a considerable diminution of the enemy's shell-fire. The German fears of an attack on this occasion were revealed by the prolonged and magnificent display of coloured lights, and by the manner in which the enemy artillery responded, most of the hostile shelling falling along the Douve and between our lines of trenehes, searching page 226the hollows in which assemblies might be assumed to be taking place. German aeroplanes were more than ordinarily active in firing into our trenches and in bombing the roads in rear. Every morning at daybreak two enemy 'planes, painted brown and yellow, flew low along our front line. Despite our anti-aircraft shooting, from which they appeared to be immune, the pilots continued to display the utmost daring, and their visits were repeated with so much regularity and punctuality that they came to be known popularly as the "trench inspectors."
The casualties for the twenty-one days in the line were:—
The officer reported as missing was Lieut. W. A. Gray, M.C., a 3rd Battalion leader who had shared in many a bold enterprise. While reconnoitring alone beyond his wiring party in No Man's Land he encountered an enemy patrol, was severely wounded by a bomb, and captured.
Such was the condition of the weather and the state of the trenches that our sick-rate rose to 26 per cent. Lieut.-Col. Winter-Evans, 3rd Battalion, was evacuated sick on the 16th, but returned to duty on the 23rd, Major Bell assuming command in the interim. On the 17th Lieut.-Col. J. G. Roache, D.S.O.,* 4th Battalion, was similarly evacuated, his place being taken by Major Puttick. A third commanding officer, Lieut.-Col. Austin, went out through illness on the 26th, Major Bell then taking over command of the 1st Battalion.
* Lieut.-Col. Roache did not recover sufficiently to return to his unit, but from November, 1917, until May of the following year he commanded the New Zealand Rifle Brigade Reserve Depot at Brocton, and was finally invalided home.