The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Chapter IX. After Messines
Chapter IX. After Messines.
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:—
Part 2.—With the French First Army in Northern Belgium.
By bus from Berquin to Rousbrugge Haringhe—Digging—Hospitality and appreciation—Return to the Berquin Area—In reserve—Ceremonial—Command.
The period of rest in the Berquin Area was of short duration. On July 3rd the Brigade marched northwards to Gode- waersvelde, the 3rd and 4th Battalions being inspeeted en route by General Godley. On the following day the Brigade moved by 'bus to Northern Belgium, where we temporarily joined the French First Army. The lst Battalion went into camp under canvas at Pollinchove, near Hoogstade; the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were located at Eykhoek, the 4th at Woesten, and Brigade Headquarters at Rousbrugge Haringhe.
In this area the Brigade was spread over a frontage of seven miles immediately opposite the Mer[gap — reason: damage]kem Peninsula (in the flooded canal region), Houthulst Forest, Bixchoote, and other points that were soon to become famous in the Third Battle of Ypres. Pollinchove was only twelve miles from the coast at Nieuport.
Each battalion had attached to it one company of the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion, and our duties, which commenced on July 5th, consisted mainly of the preparation of roads, railways, dug-outs, emplacements and cables for the forthcoming operations. Units received their orders direct from the French Artillery Group Commanders, a system that proved to be in the highest degree satisfactory. The method of piece- work was adopted as far as possible, and the working-power of our men completely surprised and mystified the French officers. Colonel Barbier, one of the Group Commanders, expressed the opinion that fifty New Zealanders could easily ac-page 221complish a piece of work for which he would ordinarily detail 250 French soldiers. In the work of cable-burying, in particular, our men, acting up to their reputation as "Diggers," progressed so rapidly that the Director of Signais found it necessary to recast his plans in order to enable him to keep up the supply of cable at the same rate as the trenches were dug. For our part, we were particularly struck with the extreme skill and thoroughness with which the French attended to the camouflaging of their works and tracks at every stage.
In the northern sector, then held by the Belgians, the front line ran along the embankment of the Yser Canal. Curiosity took one of the Maoris up to the Canal. Looking across the swamps beyond, he espied several Germans moving about in the open, and the temptation to do a little sniping proving irresistible, he raised his rifle to try his luck. His laudable intentions were, however, to his great disgust, immediately frustrated by a dozen Belgian soldiers, who promptly fell upon him and gave him to understand that the policy in that locality was, for the time being at least, one of quiescence.
During our stay here, our men were exceedingly well treated by both French and Belgian troops. The courtesies of hospitality were freely extended to us, we had a general invitation to their camp entertainments, and their regimental bands on several occasions played programmes in our camps and quarters. On July 14th, the great French National Day, the French Army sent us a special issue of wine, Champagne, and cigars. On the same day General Anthoine, the Army Commander, personally thanked the various battalion commanders for what he was pleased to call the magnificent work done by their units, and decorated the Brigadier and the Brigade Major with the Croix de Guerre.
The following letters of appreciation were received and published in orders: —
From General Anthoine, commanding the French First Army, to Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army:
"Now that the New Zealand Troops prepare to leave the French First Army, I wish to point out the fine attitude of the British troops you have put at my disposal.page 222
"Infantry and Pioneer Battalions and Engineers have rivalled one another in hard work and fine behaviour.
"I thank you very heartily for the precious help they gave to the First Army.
"I should be grateful if you would let them know my satisfaction."
From the General Officer Commanding the French lst Corps to the General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Rifle Brigade:
"Now that the men of the British Army who have been put at the disposal of the French Artillery have finished doing their work, I want to thank you most sincerely for your kind and very valuable assistance.
"The New Zealand Rifle Brigade have proved to be our brothers in arms, and have shown once again how anxious they were to best our common enemy; they were as eager as indefatigable, and, thanks to them, the French Artillery will be ready to take its share in the battle at the very moment that the British superior authorities have settled.
"I feel deeply grieved by the casualties suffered by your men on account of the enemy's shelling (four killed and twelve wounded) and, as soon as we get the necessary information, the latter will be proposed for being mentioned in orders and receiving the Croix de Guerre.
"I also take pleasure in expressing to you the sincere thanks of the French First Artillery Corps."
On July 15th the Brigade returned to the Berquin Area, with Headquarters at Doulieu. The period from July 16th to 20th was spent in training. On the morning of the 21st a transport competition took place, and in the afternoon Brigade sports were held, the 4th Battalion carrying off the honours on points.
The Brigade marched to the old area near Messines on July 22nd, and became Divisional reserve. The lst and 2nd Battalions were quartered at Canteen Corner Camp, the 3rd and 4th at De Seule and Bulford Camps, respectively, and Headquarters at Brune Gaye Camp. Here we remained until the end of the month, the units being engaged in training and in supplying parties for work under the Engineers of the Corps Troops. The transport of each battalion was in turn inspected by the Divisional Commander. The Brigade Demonstration Platoon, under Major J. R. Cowles, commenced a new term of page 223work on the 29th. Artillery and aerial activity continued on both sides with great intensity throughout the period spent in reserve.
On July 30th General Anthoine visited the area and presented the Croix de Guerre to Lieut.-Cols. A. E. Stewart, W. S. Austin, and J. G. Roache. The ceremony was of a somewhat imposing nature, 400 of all ranks from the Brigade, under Major J. Pow, forming the guard of honour on the occasion. Major P. H. Bell, who had temporarily commanded the 3rd Battalion while serving with the French, and who was at this time in England on leave, received his decoration at a later date.
On the 22nd, General Fulton proceeded to England to take command of Sling Camp for a period of three months, and Lieut.-Col. Stewart assumed command of the Brigade pending the arrival of General F. E. Johnston, C.B. Lieut-Col. Austin, from hospital, resumed command of the lst Battalion on the 3rd; Lieut.-Col. Roache returned from leave on the 8th and took over the 4th Battalion; and Lieut.-Col. Winter-Evans resumed command of the 3rd Battalion on his return from leave on the 25th.
Although the Brigade had been out of the line for the whole of the month the casualties numbered 24, including five killed.
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.