Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
On the morning of March 14th, 1917, the 1st Battalion of the Regiment marched out of Nieppe, passed through Romarin and Neuve Eglise en route, and went direct into the line fronting Messines in relief of part of the 13th Royal Irish Rifles and the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. This was in compliance with an order for the relief by the New Zealand Division of the 36th Division in the Messines or Douve sector. On the following day the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment left De Seule, and by midday was established in Kortepyp Camp, near Neuve Eglise.
The sector thus taken over by the Regiment extended from the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road on the left to where the Wulverghem-Messines Road crossed our front line on the right. On the left extremity, known as Slush Gap, the distance between the opposing front lines was less than one hundred yards; but commencing almost at the right battalion boundary, the German line swung back at right angles across the valley of the Steenbeek, and thence following a course along the lower slopes of the opposite ridge, formed a deep re-entrant. Standing on the right extremity of the dominating ridge which overlooked our lines and far to the rear, was the gaunt skeleton of Messines; away to the left the village of Wytschaete; and in the shelter of the valley to our left rear a few battered buildings which marked the site of the village of Wulverghem.
In taking over the new sector, 4th and 8th Companies occupied the front line with two platoons each, the balance of their strength in Fort Osborne and Surrey Lane and in Agnes Street respectively. The remaining two companies, 10th and 14th, occupied Forbes Terrace, S.P. 4, Fisher's Place and page 160 Marine Terrace. The sector, generally speaking, was in a moderately good state of defence and repair; and along the partially sheltered reverse slope of the ridge on which the foremost line was sited, there were numbers of deep shelters in which the main garrison of the defences was quartered. The attitude of the enemy during the first few days of our tenure was such as to indicate that he had been accustomed to regard our side of the line with a great deal of complacence. This state of affairs was quickly altered by the aggressiveness of the Battalion sniping organisation, and it was only a question of time when a complete ascendency was gained over the enemy in this phase of trench-to-trench warfare. Our first period of holding the line in the Messines sector was comparatively quiet; but while the enemy artillery was only periodically active our own artillery carried out some effective early morning "shoots" at targets presented by working parties on the Messines Ridge. On March 22nd the 1st Battalion went back to billets and reserve at Kortepyp Camp, and the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment took over the line. On the following day the 1st Battalion moved across to Vuaxhall, Belfast and Hillside Camps a short distance off.
In the course of a Divisional memorandum issued at this date, it was pointed out that the enemy could concentrate sufficient reserves for an offensive on a large scale on the Western Front. It was thought probable that should the enemy attack the blow would fall on the Second Army in the neighbourhood of the Ypres Salient, extending as far south as Hill 63. It was also decided that an attack on Armentieres in strength, either as a diversion or to assist an attack on Hill 63, would require to be taken into account. It was further considered that the weight of such an attack would fall on the Ypres Salient, and as the position there was dangerously exposed, withdrawal on that front was more likely to be necessary than opposite the southern flank of the enemy's attack. The defence of Hill 63 and of Neuve Eglise in rear of it was therefore of the utmost importance, as they furnished a pivot connecting our front line system with the second line positions on which the troops holding the Ypres Salient might fall back. The defence of Armentieres, which to a large extent prevented Hill 63 from being outflanked from the south, was also important.page break
Brig.-GeneralW. G. Braithwaite, C.B., C.M.G.,
D.S.O., (d.), [f.]
The 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade when in the line was tactically responsible for the front line from the River Douve to the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road and for the subsidiary line and all the intervening area. The right Brigade was responsible for the defence of Hill 63 and of Ploegsteert Wood within the Divisional area. Maintenance and improvement of the trench system was an important consideration. Front line companies were to carry out two hours work per day, and companies of support battalions five hours per day, exclusive of time occupied in moving to and from work. Each Battalion in Brigade support was always to have one company ready to move at 15 minutes' notice throughout the night, with the remainder of its strength ready to move within three-quarters of an hour, in fighting order. In the application of the general principles of defence formulated, troops and Vickers machine guns were to be distributed in depth; the ground between front and subsidiary lines was to be organised so that it could be fought bit by bit; the front line was to be held by a minimum garrison consistent with safety; and finally, the placing of Vickers guns in the front line was to be avoided.
In keeping with the above policy, and for the purposes of establishing a reliable defensive system, it was found necessary to outline at once a considerable amount of constructive work, and in the allotment of working areas the 1st Battalion of Otago was made responsible for its front line, Surrey Lane, Midland Farm, and the Wulverghem Switch Line; while the 2nd Battalion was allotted its front line, Spring Walk, Northumberland Avenue, Durham Road, and part of the Wulverghem Switch. On the 16th a new subsidiary line, extending from Hill 63 to connect with the Wulverghem Switch at Wulverghem, was selected. Thus the Regiment was committed to a big programme of trench work immediately on moving into the Messines sector; and even at the outset the fatigue parties supplied by the battalion in reserve comprised as many as 450 men per day. Midland Farm, for maintaining the defences of which the 1st Battalion was responsible, was practically the mainstay of the front line system. It included a system of deep dug-outs and galleries connected with the trenches by stairways; the whole of the defences of this redoubt being such as to assure a protracted resistance.page 162
At 4 o'clock on the morning of March 24th the enemy opened a terrific bombardment over the left of the sector occupied by the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, the full force of his fire being directed over the locality extending from Spring Walk to the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road and beyond, across Slush Gap and into the neighbouring Division's sector. The bombardment opened with heavy minenwerfer fire, followed by high explosive shell and shrapnel. The S.O.S. call was immediately sent to the 1st Field Battery by the officer on trench duty. Shortly afterwards the wire to the 15th Howitzer Battery and the direct wire to the Artillery Brigade were cut by the heavy shelling. Our artillery retaliation, however, was prompt in reply to the first call, and being on the correct sector gave immediate support to our infantry. About five minutes after the opening of the bombardment numbers of Germans moving in two lines in single file and estimated in strength at about 80, were observed advancing across No Man's Land. Our Lewis guns at once opened fire on them, and it appeared as if the attack might be beaten off. The enemy, however, succeeded in entering our front line between Durham Road and Northumberland Avenue, and penetrated to a depth of about 100 yards. They were finally driven out by our Lewis gunners and bombers, who displayed great gallantry under a most intense bombardment. Between 5 and 5.10 a.m. the bombardment slackened off and a few minutes later ceased. Our casualties were 12 killed, 21 wounded, and one missing, believed buried. Three members of the Lewis gun crew of the left post were killed and one wounded, and the remaining man stuck to his post to the last.
Our front trenches suffered badly, and Spring Walk, Northumberland Avenue, and Durham Road were badly damaged. On the left the signal station was demolished and all wires cut, and the signallers had to be dug out, but were uninjured. The raiders did not escape punishment, and there was much evidence of blood on the outer side of the parapet. One wounded German was left in our lines riddled with bullets, and was sent back to the adjoining Division's dressing station on the Wytschaete Road. The preliminary bombardment was of a very heavy and destructive nature; but the raiders could hardly claim to have achieved any permanent page 163 or material success. The enemy who penetrated the line at Slush Gap left behind several boxes of explosive, which suggested that they had aimed at reaching our underground workings.
On March 30th the 1st Battalion returned to the line in relief of the 2nd Battalion. While in reserve some of the companies had not been free from enemy shelling, apparently intended for batteries in the same locality, and it was during one of these occasions that 2nd-Lieut. F. C. Whittaker received wounds from which he subsequently died. On April 5th the Battalion was relieved in the line by the 8th Border Regiment of the 25th Division, and moved back to Kortepyp, command of the left sector passing to the 75th Brigade of the 25th Division on the same afternoon. The weather during this stage was still bitterly cold, and there were frequent heavy falls of snow; and there was in addition the cheerless reflection that the long and dreary European winter was not yet at an end. On April 4th the 2nd Battalion shifted camp to De Seule. Although the two Battalions were now out of the line, practically the full strength of the Regiment was being directed to the prosecution of front line work either by day or night. The journey to and from the line was in itself an exhausting ordeal owing to the great distance to be covered; the only consolation being that our back areas were at this time practically free from the attentions of enemy long range artillery, and undisturbed rest was afforded as a consequence.
It had long since become apparent by reason of the amount of preparation in progress behind our lines in the way of road and railway construction, the erection of dressing stations, the digging of gun-pits in forward positions, and the arrival of long range guns, that a big attack on Messines Ridge was imminent. All this evidence provided food for speculation; and the work that was being carried out in the front line areas with so much energy was regarded with a special interest as being part of the attack preparations. On the night of April 13th an operation involving the construction of a great trench line in No Man's Land under the very nose of the German garrison was daringly undertaken and accomplished without incurring a single casualty. It was necessary to construct this trench as a stepping-off line for an impending page 164 attack owing to the depth existing between our front line and the enemy's from its point of intersection by the Wulverghem-Messines Road on the left and its meeting with the Steenbeek on the right; and also in order to obtain improved alignment. The length of the new work was approximately 1,100 yards, and its greatest distance from our line 180 yards. There was a considerable amount of preliminary work to be done in the direction of patrolling and reconnoitring No Man's Land in order to obtain complete control of it, also in siting and taping out the trench; and in this connection exhaustive and valuable work was performed by Lieut. C. H. Molloy, of the 1st Battalion.
Early in the evening of April 13th five officers and 400 men under the command and direction of Major J. Hargest, M.C., moved up to the line, and shortly after 10 o'clock went out into No Man's Land and commenced digging operations. In view of its proximity to the enemy's line, and the very large number of men employed, the operation was naturally regarded as a very hazardous and delicate one; but it was so well organised and controlled by Major Hargest, and was prosecuted with such vigour that by three o'clock on the following morning it had been entirely completed and the whole party was clear of the area. The accomplishment of this task was always regarded as a remarkably fine performance. A strong covering party was furnished by the Wellington Battalion, but beyond certain desultory shelling the night was quiet and the enemy apparently unaware of what was going on. The existence of 1,100 yards of freshly constructed trench in No Man's Land doubtless occasioned surprise and interest in the enemy's lines on the following morning, and it was noticeable that during the day some of his artillery registered on it. The entirely successful completion of this undertaking, and the special reconnaissance performed by Lieut. Molloy, were the subject of a congratulatory message from Brigadier-General Braithwaite, which was read out on the following evening, when the last working party from the 1st Battalion during the month of April assembled prior to moving up to the line.
On the morning of the 14th an unlucky enemy shell struck a pile of trench mortar bombs at Ration Dump, alongside La Plus Douve Farm. A terrific explosion followed, page 165 and of a working party from the 2nd Battalion four men were killed and one wounded. Subsequently a German official communication stated that in consequence of the traffic observed for several days going to and from a building over which flew the Red Cross flag, they had shelled it and a loud explosion followed; the implied suggestion being that the Red Cross flag was being used to conceal the presence of an ammunition dump. This was put forward as a counterblast to charges made against the enemy at that time of sinking British hospital ships. As a matter of fact, there was a dressing station about 300 yards away over which the Red Cross flag flew, and the enemy was entirely wrong in his assumption that there was any connection between the dump at La Plus Douve Farm and the building which did duty as an advanced dressing station.
On the morning of April 16th the Regiment temporarily turned its back on the line and the strenuous work of trench construction tor a period of intensive training, and set out for the Quelmes area, approximately 50 miles distant. During a three days' march there were occasional falls of snow and sleet. The 1st Battalion, after successive nightly halts at Sec Bois and Sercus, finally settled in the area of Esquerdes, while the 2nd Battalion, after halts en route at Strazelle and Eblinghem, entered the area of Leuline, Etrehem, and Hudethun. Here, under the direction of Brigade, a systematic course of training was commenced, and in ten days a great deal of strenuous and valuable work was accomplished. Attack practice figured largely in the syllabus, and it was in these exercises, aided by an exact model of the German defences over the Messines Ridge, that the real lessons were learned for the important operation to which the Regiment was shortly to be committed. During the course of manoeuvres visits or inspection were made by General Plumer, Commanding the Second Army, and by General Russell, Commanding the New Zealand Division, and there were frequent lectures and conferences for officers on matters of training and in relation to the concerted attack itself. On May 1st the Regiment commenced its return journey. The 1st Battalion was back at Kortepyp Camp on the evening of the 3rd, and the 2nd Battalion reached De Seule on the same day.page 166
The storm clouds were now gathering on the horizon; the rumble of gun fire was growing louder and more insistent day by day; trench mortars had commenced the cutting of the enemy's wire, and all the preparations for impending attack were advancing under the eyes of an enemy from whom, by reason of his dominating position, they could not well be concealed. At 9.30 p.m. on May 5th the enemy opened a heavy bombardment of our back areas. This was continued for an hour, repeated at midnight, and again at 4 a.m. The 1st Battalion was compelled to beat a hasty retreat from Kortepyp Camp to the adjoining fields, and later it was deemed advisable to dig in there as a means of shelter. As it was eight men were killed and eleven wounded, and the huts were badly damaged. On the occasion of this unexpected bombardment the Division sustained a total of 106 casualties, and in addition lost over 80 horses. Our artillery fired 2,500 rounds on the enemy billets and back areas by way of retaliation, and on the following night when the enemy repeated his performance, though with nothing like the same disastrous results owing to the precautions taken, again replied vigorously. The real punishment, however, was meted out on the night of the 7th, when our artillery, in conjunction with the whole of the formidable forces of the Second Army, opened out on selected targets in the enemy's rear areas with five minutes' intense fire, and at 11 o'clock repeated this very salutary lesson.
With the return of the Regiment no time had been lost in resuming the front line labours on which it had been engaged previously. A vast amount of preliminary work, such as the construction of assembly trenches and approaches, still required to be carried out, demanding the constant employment of units not actually engaged in garrisoning the line. The control and direction of the whole comprehensive programme of work for which the 2nd Infantry Brigade was responsible was entrusted to Major J. Hargest, of the 1st Battalion of Otago. The construction of the Otira Assembly Trench, 600 yards in length and traversed, was commenced on the 9th, and a few days later the travel trench was opened out and completed. On May 10th command of the Wulverghem sector, the left portion of the New Zealand Divisional sector, had passed to the 25th Division. On the 22nd the 1st Battalion moved to Hill 63, and the 2nd Battalion relieved the page 167 1st Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in the front line between Currie Avenue and Medicine Hat Trail, with headquarters at McBride's Mansions. With the 1st Battalion fatigues continued to be the order of the day and night, cutting new trenches and improving others. The assembly trenches, although their construction involved a vast amount of labour, were only intended for disposing troops for a few hours prior to the commencement of attack.
Hill 63, where the 1st Battalion was now quartered, was like most other areas, not immune from enemy shelling, and on the 26th a direct hit on one of the huts killed two men and wounded another of 14th Company. As a result of the increasing intensity of enemy artillery retaliation, the casualties of the 2nd Battalion during its tenure of the line totalled three killed and 23 wounded. Patrols were out constantly over night in order to determine the attitude of the enemy. A patrol from the 1st Battalion, comprising ten other ranks under 2nd-Lieut. A. R. Cockerell, succeeded in penetrating to the enemy support line, and established the important fact that the enemy was holding the immediate front mainly by means of two great strongholds, the Moulin de I'Hospice on the right and Birthday Farm on the left. On the same night four artillery officers were taken out by this patrol for a distance of about 300 yards in order to determine the state of the Wulverghem-Messines Road for the passage of artillery.
The 2nd Battalion was relieved by the 1st Battalion of the Regiment during the afternoon of May 30th, and moved back to the slopes of Hill 63, to return daily or nightly to trench labours. On the early morning of June 1st Major W. G. Wray, M.C., was wounded by a shell which burst outside his quarters, and in consequence he was evacuated. During the afternoon and early on the following morning the enemy heavily bombarded our front line system, but all this was as nothing compared to the manner in which our own artillery was pounding the enemy and his defences. The Battalion's front line was being garrisoned at this stage by 4th and 8th Companies, with 10th Company at Petawawa Farm, and 14th Company at Red Lodge. The maintenance of nightly patrols with a view to announcing immediately any change in the enemy's dispositions and attitude towards page 168 our ever-increasing artillery hostility and other indications of impending attack, was essential to the accumulation of an accurate intelligence in relation to the enemy, and in this important preparatory phase a large share of the work devolved upon 2nd-Lieut. C. F. Wilkie.
On the night of June 1st Major J. Hargest, accompanied by Sergt. T. Sounness, 8th (Southland) Company, penetrated a considerable distance through the enemy's lines. When within 50 yards of Uhlan Support, a party of 20 Germans emerged from a partially demolished structure in rear, and moving quickly in single file worked their way from shell-hole to shell-hole towards their front line. It was assumed that they were moving out to establish a series of listening posts, and in order not to be cut off, it was deemed expedient by our patrol to withdraw. The enemy's trenches were found to be battered almost beyond recognition, and no evidence of occupation was encountered over the front system. Scarcely a root of ground remained that was not pitted or churned, some of the shell-holes being from ten to fifteen feet deep. It was in this inferno of unceasing shell fire and upheavals of the earth's surface that the enemy garrison of the Messines Ridge lived for several days before the final blow overwhelmed them.
On June 2nd the 2nd Battalion took over the remaining portion of the Brigade sector, 10th and 14th Companies relieving troops of the 1st Battalion of Canterbury. The sector held now extended to Donnington Hall on the right. During the same afternoon the Corps artillery opened a violent bombardment over the Messines Ridge, with a practice barrage on No Man's Land, the enemy replying vigorously over our several communication trenches. Our casualties were one killed and six wounded; the precaution having been taken previously of withdrawing most of the garrison from the front line. On the morning of June 3rd Otago was relieved by Auckland troops, and marched back to the area of concentration at Canteen Corner. Here over the succeeding three days the Regiment was finally organised and equipped and rested before going into battle; an important side of this preparation being represented by lengthy conferences and discussions on the various phases of the Magnum opus.