Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
On arrival in France, the New Zealand Division was incorporated in the 1st Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, which in turn formed part of the Second Army, then commanded by General Sir Herbert Plumer. On May 9th it was announced that the New Zealand Division would at an early date relieve the 17th Division in the line east of Armentieres, relief to be completed by May 20th. The distribution of Divisional troops decided upon in accordance with this relief was as follows: Right sector, 1st Infantry Brigade; Left sector, 2nd Infantry Brigade; Divisional reserve, 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. As part of the other details of relief, the l7th Division's Trench Warfare and Grenade Schools of Instruction were to be taken over and maintained for the use of the New Zealand Division. Prior to this date the Regiment had received its first issue of steel helmets.
Orders were now issued for the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment to relieve the 12th Manchester Regiment in the left Brigade subsector of the line immediately east of Armentieres on the' night of May 14th, and for the 1st Battalion to take over billets in the town as one of the reserve units to the 1st Infantry Brigade. In pursuance of this order the 1st Battalion moved from Morbecque to Estaires on May 9th, page 88 and after remaining there for three days continued its journey to Armentieres, where comparatively good billets were secured. The 4th and 8th Companies were located at Houplines, east of the town.
By this date Captain D. White, formerly in command of 4th (Otago) Company of the 1st Battalion, had been detached for duty as Town Major at Armentieres, an appointment which he retained until the German envelopment of the town in 1918.
The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment reached Armentieres from Doulieu on May 13th. At nightfall on the 14th, after a day of rest and quiet preparation, the Battalion moved up and took over its front line area. Two Companies, 4th and 8th, were disposed along the front line, 10th Company occupied the subsidiary line, and 14th Company was in reserve at Houplines. The relief was effected without special incident or greeting from the enemy, and once the first rush of curiosity as to what was on the other side had been satisfied, the garrison, with that sang-froid and adaptability characteristic of the Colonial, soon found itself firmly established in its first sector in France.
The line at Armentieres was at this stage typical of other sectors in France where the merely normal conditions of trench-to-trench warfare prevailed; its selection fur the New Zealand Division being doubtless prompted by the belief that it was a suitable area in which to dispose troops as yet unaccustomed to conditions on the Western Front. But the policy of observing what might be termed a passive resistance was of brief duration; and while the sector could hardly compare with the furious and unceasing conflict on some of the areas subsequently held, its pacific reputation quickly disappeared with the introduction of colonial aggressiveness.
Armentieres, once a prosperous and populous town, bore impressive evidence of the violence to which its proximity to the front line had exposed it. Most of its terrified inhabitants had fled, and those who remained doubtless did so dreading the menacing uncertainties that life offered elsewhere; and perhaps in some degree also because of the lure of trade with the troops quartered there. Incidentally, there was a decided shortage of ready money in the Regiment for some page break page 89 time following the first arrival in France. Most of the available resources had been drawn upon during the journey from Marseilles, and the non-arrival of the Field-Cashier accentuated the existing financial embarrassment. Access to Regimental funds was not possible for the same reason, and the difficulty was not overcome, so far at least as the 1st Battalion was concerned, until Lieut. W, Downie Stewart offered and obtained permission to proceed to Dunkirk, where, by means of letters of credit, he raised sufficient money to purchase supplies of vegetables, and straw for bedding. It was perhaps a peculiar circumstance that during this period of temporarily straitened finance the first announcement should have been made of the fact that leave to the United Kingdom was opened to New Zealand troops.
Through "Half-past Eleven" Square and along the devious ways which led through and beyond the town, the forward route extended to the shelter of a solidly constructed communication trench, as tortuous in its winding track as its length was seemingly interminable. From this covered way, incoming traffic debouched on to the support and front lines which, by reason of the low-tying country, were more in the nature of great breast-works than deeply dug trenches. At intervals of a dozen yards or so the front line breast-work was punctuated by traverses or semi-blocks, which restricted the danger arising from the lateral burst of enemy shells; while in rear of it a second wall or parados protected the garrison from backward bursts. Between traverses were the fire-bays, where from the wooden steps provided sentries stood up throughout the night listening and peering into the darkness which shrouded No Man's Land. This drab breast-work of mud, most of it contained in sandbags, extended into the dreary distance north and south, while out to the front, belts of barbed wire, broken and irregular from shell fire, ran parallel to it. Across the waste of No Man's Land there was a corresponding system of defences, with the vital difference that it belonged to the enemy. And secretly and vigilantly, day and night without cessation, each side moved and watched from the shelter of these sinuous ditches and mud walls and the almost interminable communications which led to them from the outer world. At night men moved out to erect more wire, page 90 or to wander round No Man's Land either for the purpose of stalking the enemy who had ventured abroad or for prying unobserved on his movements. The enemy was heard rather than seen; and thus in time the sense of hearing became more acute than that of seeing. By night hordes of rats, fat and loathsome looking, wandered defiantly over the parapet or duck-walk, devoured all uncovered food, and with their foul bodies pestered those of the garrison who endeavoured to find rest in sleep.
It would be incorrect to suppose that every yard along this irregular front line was garrisoned. In a settled trench system the forward line comprised localities and gaps, the former occupied by the garrison, the latter merely patrolled at intervals or guarded by an isolated post. The existence of these gaps, of considerable length in places, did not necessarily imply a danger, for in the first place their actual location was unknown, or believed to be unknown, to the enemy, and in the event of penetration they were covered from the flanks or rear by supporting strong-points. Normally, a front line system comprised the front line itself, the support line approximately 100 yards in rear, and the subsidiary line from 600 to 700 yards still further back, with the whole linked up by communication and traffic trenches, and strengthened by machine guns disposed so as to deliver cross or flanking fire. Thus a disposition of forces in depth was assured.
Further to the rear, in a complete system of defence, there were established additional strong-points or defensive positions calculated to stem the enemy tide in the event of the front line system being penetrated. Under the arrangement existing at Armentieres on the occasion of the New Zealand Division taking over the line, the front was divided into two sectors, each held by one infantry brigade disposed as follows: Front line breast-works, support line, and strong-points, two battalions; subsidiary line, one battalion; in billets, one battalion. The Divisional Reserve consisted of one brigade of infantry, the Pioneer Battalion, and the New Zealand Engineers (three Field Companies).
The routine observed by the garrison of the front-line, where the normal policy was not to make any advance towards the enemy, was as settled and methodical as any organised page 91 business. Day and night watches were rigorously maintained without break, patrols were sent out by night to determine or counter, enemy movement in No Man's Land, and listening posts established in shell-hole or ditch some yards out from the parapet in order to obtain timely warning of enemy approach. The stability and maintenance of the defences constituted a first essential; trenches were kept clean and free from accumulations of fever-breeding rubbish; the cleanliness of arms and ammunition was insisted upon; and, of paramount importance, rations were brought up nightly from the forward dumps, generally in the locality of the subsidiary line, to which point they were conveyed by the battalion limbers under the direction of the company quartermaster-sergeants.
In the cooking of the daily meals, the closer the cookhouse to the garrison the hotter and the better the food when it reached those for whom it was intended. Thus the cookhouse, run under company arrangements, was frequently established in the front or support line, and if it were not convenient or desirable to have it there, it was often possible to bring the company cooker, or travelling kitchen, up to the next best place.
The maintenance of ammunition supplies and the forwarding and handling of unlimited supplies of engineering material required for the improvement and extension of the front line system called for the expenditure of further energy during both day and night. Thus the routine of trench life proceeded from day to day, interrupted at times by destructive bombardments, raids and counter-raids, patrol fights, and the various incident of trench-to-trench warfare. The trench system at Armentieres, when taken over by the Regiment in May, showed every evidence of neglect. It was also deficient of many of the approved principles of defence required to meet effectively attempted enemy penetration. This involved the immediate drawing up of a scheme which had for its object the introduction of considerable improvements and extensions, and in this direction the front line system received first attention. The whole of the work to be undertaken was based on a Divisional defence scheme, worked out on the principle of meeting superior forces on the ground allotted to the troops of the Division. Successive page 92 defensive positions were to be prepared, and it was laid down that no body of troops detailed to occupy any particular locality was to give it up. If it did happen that ground was lost as the result of enemy action it was to be retaken by counter-attack carried out by troops specially detailed for the purpose; and in that connection every battalion was to have a plan for counter-attack in the event of its front being penetrated. As to the deficiencies of the foremost system, the wire in front was almost a negligible quantity, the trenches were not capable of affording shelter from heavy bombardments, and there was an absence of suitable positions for Lewis guns and of means of countering the enemy's sniping and other forms of activity. To give effect to the principle of distribution of available troops in depth and the holding of the front line with a minimum of men, it was essential that these and other improvements should be carried out without delay.
The outcome of all this was that over and above the effective garrisoning of the sector the Division had committed itself to a very extensive works programme. Such, indeed, remained the accepted policy throughout the whole of the campaign on the Western Front. The result was that a sector was invariably left immeasurably stronger in matters of construction and details of defence than it was when taken over. By working on sound and well considered lines, a high standard of efficiency was attained; although the drawback, expressed from the men's point of view, was that it involved at times an inordinate amount of hard work and constant fatigue parties in the worst possible weather; and probably extensive works of improvement had only been completed when the sector had to be handed over to a relieving division, which reaped all the benefit. From a broad point of view the policy was, of course, entirely sound, and it had in it the additional and valuable merit of impressive and convincing example. Above every consideration stood out the salient and reassuring fact that stout trenches meant safe shelter under the storm of an enemy bombardment, and in that done compensated a thousand times for the labour expended and the many weary treks at night between Armen-tieres and the line during the intervals of so-called rest which alternated with the periods of actually garrisoning the line.page 93
During this first period over which the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment occupied the line east of Armentieres the attitude of the enemy was for the most part passive, though 13 men were wounded, mainly the result of shell fire, and one officer, Lieut. A. C. Boyes, was killed by an enemy sniper.
This first casualty through the agency of a sniper may be said to have had its lesson. On first taking over the line at Amentieres, the German sniper was an ever-present element of danger, full of daring and ingenuity. A liberal equipment of telescopic-sighted rifles and good field-glasses gave the enemy a sweeping advantage. The distribution of field-glasses was not confined to snipers alone. From our point of view, there was a permanent shortage of field-glasses, and they were always professedly difficult to obtain. For example, they were never on issue to infantry noncommissioned officers and Lewis gunners, to whom they would have been invaluable. As a further advantage the German rifle was superior to the British S.M.L.E. weapon for purposes of sniping, but in that respect alone. However, the time arrived when the organisation of the Regiment's snipers and observers was extended and perfected, and by pursuing a combined aggressiveness, the enemy's ingenuity was effectively countered and his ascendency definitely overcome.
Relief of the 2nd Battalion in the line at the close of eight days was effected by the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. A return was made to Arrnentieres for a corresponding period of rest, which really involved nightly visits to the line to repair damage occasioned to trench and parapet by enemy bombardments, or to carry out works of extension and improvement.
In keeping with the series of reliefs then carried out, the 1st Battalion of the Regiment on May 21st took over from the 1st Battalion of the Auckland Regiment in the front line, as the left Battalion of the right Brigade sector in front of La Chapelle d'Armentieres. This represented the 1st Battalion's initial appearance in the line in France, and the process of relief was accomplished shortly after midnight without incident. On the afternoon of the following day the enemy's artillery assumed a decided aggressiveness, and this form of harassment was continued at intervals with varying degrees of intensity during the remainder of the tour.page 94
About this time a message attached to a German rifle-grenade was fired over the New Zealand lines, worded as follows: "Send over the time please, Anzac," It was perhaps more than a coincidence that the Daylight Saving Bill had just come into operation in the United Kingdom, and it was also significant that the enemy was well aware of the identity of the troops occupying the trenches opposite to him. This was the forerunner of other messages which were delivered or posted up from time to time from either side, some of them grim and some of them humorous.
On the third day of its return to the line the 2nd Battalion was subjected to a sustained trench mortar bombardment. Casualties were few, but considerable material damage was occasioned to the trenches. Following this display of ill-feeling, comparative quietness prevailed until relief arrived on the night of 7th-8th June. Under a rearrangement of dispositions given effect to at this period, the 2nd Battalion entered into occupation of the subsidiary line, extending from Buterne Farm (exclusive) to the River Lys (exclusive).
It was at Armentieres that the Regiment was afforded the first evidence of the accuracy of expert gunnery, being the occasion when the enemy registered on the Church of Notre Dame and at the fifth found struck the tower, practically completing its destruction before firing ceased. A few days later the enemy directed similarly destructive fire on the church at Houplines. The systematic shelling of billets and gun-pits was almost unknown at this period, most, if not all, of the retaliatory artillery fire being directed against the garrison of the front line, the battered appearance of which was in striking contrast to the support and reserve lines, where comparative immunity and comfort were enjoyed.
The question of raids was now beginning to receive serious attention by Division. The object of a raid, it might be explained, was in almost all instances primarily to gain information as to the enemy's identity and possible intentions, and secondly to embarrass and harass him. To fight and deal with an enemy successfully, even in trench-to-trench warfare, it was essential to know something about him, who he was, his strength and his temper, his dispositions, and his probable intentions and attitude towards the troops who confronted him. Much of this task of measuring was effected through page 95 the agency of patrols and organised observation, but not all of it. Thus a raid, if successful, brought back prisoners who were identified as to their Regiment, a useful guide to the fighting worth of the enemy Division and a contribution to determining the general disposition of his forces. To gain the desired information prisoners were interrogated, and by the adoption of various means persuaded to converse; while documents and other material seized by the raiding party frequently afforded valuable information. The force committed to an enterprise of this kind approached the enemy's lines in silence, or more often under the protective cover of an artillery barrage which forced the opposing garrison to rush for cover, entered his trenches, seized what prisoners were dive after the bombardment, collected maps and documents from dug-outs, and then made speedily back to its own lines and safety.
Accompanying these raids was a great deal of artillery and trench mortar preliminary and subsequent bombardment, and then retaliatory fire from those who were being raided. Thus as the practice of raiding developed, so did the artillery bombardments increase in frequency and intensity, and if the object aimed at was to arouse the enemy and harass and annoy him, then a great deal of success was achieved. For example, on the night of June l6th, when troops of the 2nd Infantry Brigade carried out a raid on the Breakwater and trenches adjoining, our artillery expended some 5,000 rounds in support of the operation and in conducting a diversion on the Railway Salient near by. Artillery retaliation was a natural sequence, and from this and the other frequent blasts and counter-blasts of artillery fire which a raiding party had directly or indirectly provoked, it followed that the front line trench system and the bewildered and unfortunate infantrymen who garrisoned it were subjected to periods of heavy and destructive battering. The bombardment, perchance, finally expended itself in intermittent shooting throughout the night, or stopped, as if by mutual consent, as suddenly as it had started. The net results of these provoked or unprovoked assaults were, as they affected the infantry, much mental anguish, some killed or wounded, and a badly battered trench system which must be immediately repaired.page 96
When the 1st Battalion of the Regiment on June 7th, in relief of the 2nd Battalion of Aucklancl, entered into possession of L'Epinette Salient, which was our closest point to the enemy's line, it involved an increase of the front formerly held by the 1st Infantry Brigade of approximately 1,000 yards. Otago continued to hold the line there until June 21st, which represented an inordinately long spell in the trenches without relief. Raids on the right and left of the sector resulted in the Salient receiving the back-wash of the enemy's artillery retaliation, and casualties were inevitable. The town of Armentieres was also not free from enemy shelling at this period, and at times heavy artillery fire was directed on it. This either preceded our artillery's bombardment of Premesques and Perenchies, to the east of Armentieres, and of other vulnerable spots in the enemy's back areas, or followed as a retaliatory measure. Meantime the cutting of the enemy's wire entanglements by guns of lighter calibre and by trench mortars and the breaching of parapets by howitzers, proceeded apace in view of projected raiding ventures and as part of a general scheme to bewilder and puzzle the enemy. At the same time patrols were constantly out during the night, and brushes and encounters with the enemy; some rather vague as to results, were becoming frequent. In keeping with the avowed policy of aggressiveness it was determined that a mastery of No Man's Land should be obtained. The enemy was apparently imbued with the same offensive spirit, and there was always the possibility of something of interest developing when a patrol from our side crept across No Man's Land under cover of darkness.
Typical French Billet.
First Billet occupied by 14th Company, 1st Battalion, near Sercus, on arrival in France, 1916.
There were further conflicts with the enemy on subsequent nights, and when a patrol from the 1st Battalion went out with the object of determining if possible how strongly the enemy line was held, it penetrated two rows of wire before being discovered, It was then decided to move to the right, and subsequently, when lying down in the wire, a party was heard moving along the enemy trench. From close range a dozen bombs were hurled, but, as frequently happened, results were unknown.
On the night of June 16th a special party of five officers and 83 other ranks drawn from the different Battahons of the 2nd Infantry Brigade carried out a raid against that portion of the enemy's line known as the Breakwater, The assaulting parties were under the command of Captain E. B. Alley, of the 2nd Battalion of Otago. The particular point selected for the raid was part of the new enemy work opposite Edmead's Farm, and east of Houplines, extending over an approximate distance of 250 yards, with the addition of a portion of the main trench on either side. The raiding troops were divided into wire-cutting and left and right bombing parties, and telephone party. The particular duties of each party had been carefully rehearsed; a special course of training had been undergone in the arts of close fighting, and a careful study made of the ground. The weapons carried included rifles and bayonets, revolvers, grenades, and knob-kerries, and electric torches and wire-cutters were included in the equipment. Whether with the intention of increasing the terror of the enemy or of assisting to lessen the chances of discovery, all ranks had their hands and faces blackened, while the wearing of a white armlet served to distinguish friend from foe once the enemy's trenches were gained.
The assaulting parties, according to programme, moved out from the sally-port into No Man's Land, and lay down 120 yards in advance of our parapet waiting for the artillery bombardment to commence. The bombardment, with page 98 medium and light trench mortars co-operating, proved most effective, smashing the enemy's wire and silencing machine guns which opened up from either flank. At the same time a bombardment of the Mushroom was carried out by way of diversion. As the bombardment lifted, the raiders breached the wire ahead without difficulty, and quickly entered the enemy's trenches. Two Germans were bayoneted by the left party, and others were found dead, but a stout barrier of sandbags and wire prevented any lengthy incursion to the right. The party now withdrew as arranged, and returned to the safety of our lines.
Our total casualties were two killed and eight wounded, and included Captain E. B. Alley, who, to the regret of all ranks, succumbed to his wounds. No prisoners were secured as a result of the raid, but it was evident that the enemy was not holding the Breakwater in any strength, perhaps for the very good reason that this new work had not reached a stage of completion, Those who took part in the raid were congratulated by Brigadier-General W. G. Braithwaite, Commanding the 2nd Infantry Brigade, for the fine offensive spirit displayed. Referring to the death of Captain Alley, he stated that it was to this officer's leadership and example that the enterprise owed its success, and had he been spared he was convinced the raid would have been even more successful than it was. It was when approaching the enemy's lines that Captain Alley was mortally wounded, and it was at the same stage that practically all our casualties were incurred.
Comparative quietness was experienced by the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment during the five days succeeding Its relief of the 2nd Battalion of Wellington on the night of June 21st. Still there were the usual exchanges of compliments between our own and the enemy's artillery, but the solid breastwork trenches and the shelter which they afforded appreciably minimised our casualties. Patrolling continued as actively as hitherto, and the building up and repairing of trenches damaged by artillery and trench mortar fire, and the strengthening and extending of the system of wire entanglements in front of our line all called for strenuous exertions. Works of improvement were, in fact, being pushed forward with increased vigour.page 99
Clear weather implied good observation, and in the movement by day of large bodies of troops, or transport, or of any considerable firing by artillery, the presence of enemy observation balloons had always to be taken into consideration. It was on their account that extensive movements of troops along roads under direct observation had invariably to be carried out by night, that screens were fixed along certain highways which would otherwise be exposed to view, and that in summer time unavoidable day-time traffic was required to travel slowly and not raise tale-telling clouds of dust. To say the least it was embarrassing to have these enemy "eyes" peering down and probing into affairs that were not strictly their own; and on the evening of June 26th there was considerable jubilation when our aeroplanes suddenly swooped down on four balloons which were well up behind the enemy's lines, sent three of them crashing in flames, and compelled the fourth to make a hurried descent to escape a similar fate.
In the course of the Regiment's successive tours in the line, special activity was at all times observed in the direction of obtaining early warning of intended or actual launching of enemy cloud gas attacks. The success of such an attack was a matter depending very largely, almost solely one might say, on the direction of the wind and on the weather, and whenever the wind was "dangerous" from our point of view these precautions were naturally doubled. The discovery of an approaching gas cloud or of indications which led the observer to believe that a gas attack was about to be delivered, was to be heralded by the blowing of sirens which warned everyone to adjust his protective helmet, and notified the garrison to assume a defensive role in view of possible enemy assault following upon the discharge of gas. False alarms were fairly frequent, and a warning raised by some far-off garrison was repeated for a considerable distance on either side. On June 27th elaborate preparations were commenced for the discharge of gas over the enemy's lines. During the hours of darkness over 140 cylinders were placed in position in anticipation of a favourable wind. This was an undertaking involving a considerable amount of labour, apart from the attendant risks and the necessity for absolute secrecy. Delay in discharging gas already installed was page 100 dangerous in view of possible enemy bombardments, and in this instance there was cause for further anxiety. A deserter from a battalion of the 1st Infantry Brigade had gone over to the enemy from the Mushroom on the early morning of June 29th, and a subsequent bombardment of the area over which the cylinders were installed, to say nothing of even more destructive occurrences, seemed to confirm prevailing suspicions. At 10 p.m. on June 30th gas was delivered north of Hobb's Farm. Everything worked without a hitch, and the severity of the bombardment which the enemy directed to our front line and Houplines by way of retaliation conveyed the suggestion that the operation had been attended by success.