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The Auckland Regiment

XXI Messines

page 140

XXI Messines

"From out the smoky pall of battle strife
The Ridge looms grey, but with uncertain line;
And all it's stricken fields are brown. No green remains.
Our dead lie thickly in the broken town,
All strangely still and quiet, unheeding now
The thunder of the conflict they have won."

The first day's march of about fifteen miles brought the Battalions through Wizernes and Arques to the Wallon-Cappel area, the next, another hard day, saw them passing through Hazbrouck and the Foret de Nieppe to the La Motte area, leaving a comparatively short march through to the Bailleul road and so along the pave, under the avenue of trees to De Seule and Canteen Corner. Tents were pitched in a little wood beyond, and the Battalions settled down for a brief spell, which many employed for the purpose of visiting the newly-arrived 4th Brigade, who were under canvas half-way between De Seule and Bailleul. The quiet period during the winter, when casualties had been reduced to a minimum, had led to the building up of a considerable surplus of men in the English Base Camps. Many of the Gallipoli and Somme men were now fully recovered, and once more ready for active service. With so many men on hand, and with a continual stream of reinforcements arriving, the authorities determined to organise another brigade of infantry. Experienced officers and N.C.O.'s were sent over from France to season the new recruits. The Brigade consisted of the newly-formed 3rd Battalions of the Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago Regiments. Formed at Codford March 15th, 1917, the new brigade had two months training, and then, after being reviewed by the King, was sent to France—joining up with the Division only a few days before the battle.

The 3/Auckland Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel D. B. Blair, M.C., an officer who had seen much page 141service with the Mounted Rifles on Gallipoli and with the Canterbury Regiment in France. His Second-in-Cominand was Major Sinel, whose Gallipoli record was a very fine one. Captain Baker—a new officer—commanded the 3rd Company. Captain Dittmer, who had fought from the Landing without a break, came over from France to the 6th Company. Captain Evans, another very experienced officer, had the 15th, while Captain Closey, a man of great determination, courage and intellectual ability, came over to command the 16th Company. Lieutenant Thompson, of 1/Auckland, was of immense service, particularly in the work of training and organisation, Captain Gillett, Lieutenants McLean, Nicholls (the adjutant), McClurg, McAdam, Mclntyre, Aitken, Gordon, Richardson, had all seen previous service. A great number of the N.C.O.'s were experienced and reliable men, sent over from France to stiffen the new men. Many of the men in the ranks also had seen much fighting.

On June 3rd, 1/Auckland moved from Canteen Corner and went into support on Hill 63, while 2/Auckland took over the whole of the Divisional front. During the move forward it became increasingly evident that the time for the assault was close at hand. Everything was ready. Heavy railway tracks had been laid down as far forward as possible, and from these the light lines diverged in all directions, running up to the guns and ammunition dumps, which were everywhere. The massed guns were ranged in rows, clustered into little valleys, sheltered behind crest-lines, and in many cases standing boldly out in the open, protected from observation by camouflage netting only. W, X, Y, and Z overland routes from the concentration areas to the assembly trenches had been cleared and pegged out for the use of infantry moving up. Other routes were marked out for the walking wounded and prisoners of war. Red Lodge itself, heavily protected by means of reinforced concrete and sand-bag walls, had been fitted up as an advanced dressing station, the same thing had been done at Kandahar Farm, while at Hyde Park Corner a strong concrete dug-out had been built at the Charing Cross page 142Junction. Wire cages were provided here and there for the accommodation of the German prisoners.

Day by day the firing increased in intensity. The trench mortar, the flying pig, the eighteen-pounder, the six-inch howitzer, the nine-point-two, the twelve-inch, the fifteen-inch. the long-range naval gun, all pounded, hammered and searched the enemy lines. Every day the creeping barrage moved up Messines Hill. The green slope was gone; the clean outline of the trenches effaced; the village itself a heap of ruins. From the middle of No-Man's-Land to the reverse slope was a brown waste.

The Germans, knowing of a certainty that an attempt would be made upon the Ridge, had strengthened their defences, brought up fresh troops and more artillery. From the 1st June their guns were extremely active. They blew in the front line and practised a counter-barrage across the valley of the Douve. Barrage and counter-barrage, the whole dreadful machinery of attack and defence was tested in every part.

2/Auckland in the line had an extremely trying time. Every little while the enemy shelled heavily with whizz-bangs and five-nines. Dug-outs were blown in, and the line rapidly commenced to crumble away. Men crouched up against sandbags, squeezed into the safe corners or lay down beneath the fire-step to obtain a little overhead cover from the flying splinters that came zutting down upon the duck-walks. "Bang! Crash! Bang! Crash! Whizz-bang! Zirr-Zut"—for half an hour the air is full of splinters, flying débris, dust, smoke and infernal noise, Men sit quietly, nerves and muscles tensed up, braced for a shock, or ready to roll away if the parapet shall give way above them. They think of many things. The minds of some are clouded with fear. As each shell shrieks toward them they feel the agony of wounds, and suffer many times all the bitterness of death. Others, with a certain scientific detachment, speculate on the probable point of impact of an approaching shell, and then from its explosion the calibre of the enemy gun. A few force the sensations of the present moment back into the fringe of consciousness and focus their page 143attention on past pleasures or future hopes. Some cheerful souls make a jest of the whole business. The nobler minds feel a lifting up of spirit. Death is near and there is a certain solemnity. They are lifted from the plane of the commonplace. Such men think of God, and to them in the broken trench the Presence is near and real. The hour of terror is an hour of vision. During the enemy bombardment, when ruin is all around, when nothing can be done save watch and wait, then is seen the finest valour. Men move amongst their fellows with a word, a gesture, a smile, bringing good cheer to the over-wrought, the trembling, and the much afraid. In some indefinable fashion virtue goes forth from them, and the weak looking to them are made strong. The same men may afterwards do great deeds, winning the Victoria Cross or a great name, yet the men around them know full well that the supreme hour of their valour was an hour when nothing could be written of deeds done only when some could say, "He gave us the courage." And as the shells crashed in amongst the entanglements or thudded against the parapet men thought to themselves to-morrow, or the next day, or perhaps the next, I must leave the shelter of the trench and go out into the storm of flying steel. What will the chances be?

The German guns ceased for a while, and those of the British opened up on the Hill in front. Messines vanished in smoke and drifting columns of dust. The fiery hail rained down on trench and dug-out. Nothing on the surface was safe, and twenty feet below ground the flying pig rooted and tore. German diaries show what a hell it must have been for them. "This everlasting murder. They send over shot after shot. The casualties increase terribly. All the trenches are clodded up. The English demolish our dug-out also. Casualty after casualty. No shelter left. They blow up the earth all round us. To look on such things is utter misery."

"O'er all the sand fell slowly wafting down
Dilated flakes of fire."

As dug-out and trench collapse in heaps of smoking debris little groups of men run across country seeking a fresh shelter, page 144if such may be found. But the Lewis-gunners in the Auckland trench are on the look-out for just such an opportunity. "Br-r-r-r-rt-t-tt," and they run no more.

Back on Hill 63, 1/Auckland were in huts and tents beneath the trees. Guns of all calibres were firing round them, and, in consequence, drawing retaliatory fire. At night the Germans sent over gas shells. Alarms were frequent, and rest was much disturbed. Respirators were in use a great part of the time. On the afternoon of June 5th, the 1st Battalion were relieved and went back to Canteen Corner to get a night's rest and to be served out with its final issue of gear and ammunition. 2/Auckland remained in the front line until the afternoon of the following day, and then, being relieved by a Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, went back to Midland Support—their battle-station.

The amount of extra equipment issued was very great. Perhaps in no other battle of the war did the private soldier carry quite so much. Steel helmet, rifle, bayonet, Webb equipment, full pouches of S.A.A., and an extra hundred rounds carried in bandoliers, entrenching tool, haversack and water-bottle, with the small box respirator slung on the chest, were quite sufficient to make a good load. In addition to these, every man carried two Mill's bombs in his breast-pockets and extra rations in his haversack, also a pick or shovel. Then distributed amongst the members of a platoon were wire-cutters of all sizes, shapes and descriptions, buckets of bombs, carriers full of rifle-grenades, spare Lewis-gun panniers and groundflares with which to signal position to contact aeroplanes. All officers and section commanders were supplied with small scale maps, showing in detail the enemy trench system in the area to be assailed by the New Zealand Division.

At dusk on the 6th, 1/Auckland fell in and commenced the march from Canteen Corner to their battle-station in Hanbury Support. Lieutenant-Colonel R. C. Allen was in command, and had with him on Battalion Headquarters Lieutenants W. P. Gray, the Adjutant, and W. P. Fitchett, the Intelligence Officer. The O.C.'s Companies were:—

page break page break
Lieutenant. Colonel S. S. Allen, C.M.G., D.S.O.

Lieutenant. Colonel S. S. Allen, C.M.G., D.S.O.

page 145
  • 3rd Auckland: Captain C. L. Knight.
  • 6th Hauraki: Captain G. H. Holland, M.C.
  • 15th North Auckland: Captain A. E. Alexander.
  • 16th Waikato: Captain R. Tilsley, D.C.M.

Dr. Nelson was in charge of the R.A.P., and the Rev. Gavin was Chaplain. The Battalion never went into action with a finer fighting staff.

The march across open country was very slow, and owing to numerous delays and halts it was after midnight when the Battalion reached Hill 63. From there on progress was still more difficult. Strict orders had been issued that all troops moving forward must keep to the saps. The main sap leading from the crest of the hill forward to the assembly point was crowded, and stoppages were frequent. All night long the German gas shells were bursting on the slope. Every now and again helmets had to be worn, and progress ceased for the time being. Casualties occurred. At last Colonel Allen ordered the men out of the communication trench and led them directly overland to the allotted position, which was reached half an hour before zero. The British Artillery was silent. A few machine guns were firing, and an aeroplane flew low down over the trenches to drown the noise of the tanks moving forward.

2/Auckland, concentrated in and about Midland Support, had a fighting strength of 20 officers and 660 men. Lieutenant-Colonel S. S. Allen was in command, with Lieutenant Seddon, M.C., acting as Adjutant. The Company Commanders were:—

  • 3rd Auckland: Captain F. E. Beamish.
  • 6th Hauraki: Captain W. Watson.
  • 15th North Auckland: Captain F. R. Foster.
  • 16th Waikato: Captain C. H. McClelland.

Dr. Addison was still in charge of the R.A.P., while the Rev. C. T. H. Dobson was the Battalion's Chaplain.

During the early part of the night the extra equipment and supplies had been served out, and then all ranks endeavoured to get what rest was possible. Gas shells were coming over continuously, and, in consequence, men had a choice of page 146two evils—to sit up with a gas-mask on all night or take the risk, go to sleep and hope for the best. A short while before zero the men were roused and given a hot meal. Everything was now ready.

General Plunder's objective was the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, which was the buttress of the German line in the north. The New Zealand Division were given the task of storming Messines itself and of passing through some five hundred yards to the reverse side of the hill. On the right flank the 3rd Australian Division were attacking, and on the left the 25th Division of English troops. If the first part of the attack was successfully carried out, then troops of the 4th Australian Division would pass through the New Zealanders and go on to the final objective. The area to be occupied was divided by imaginary lines, the Blue, Brown, Yellow, Black, Black Dotted and Green, into six successive areas. The taking of the first three of these, which included the 1st and 2nd German trench systems on the forward slope and Messines Village itself, was entrusted to the N.Z.R.B. and the 2nd N.Z. Infantry Brigade. As soon as the village was taken the 1st Brigade (Brigadier-General C. H. J. Brown, D.S.O.) were to go forward to the Black Line, and from there push posts out to the Black Dotted Line.

At 3.10 a.m. there was a shaking of the earth, a column of leaping flame quickly obscured by smoke and debris, and then a muffled roar. The mines had gone up. A brief pause. the sudden rattle of thousands of machine-guns, a flash round the horizon, and then with a thunderblast of sound the great barrage fell on the German line. The long roll of the heavy guns and the quick, stabbing, bang-snap-bang of the eighteenpounder blended into one tremendous volume of sound. Up from the enemy posts went the signals of distress and warning, but their urgent appeal met with small response, for the Hun artillery had been overwhelmed by the weight of the British counter-battery work. For hours their field guns were out of action, and the only reply they could make was with long-range guns of heavy calibre.

page 147

Behind the moving wall of steel and flame the infantry flung themselves on the demoralised enemy. With little opposition and light casualties the N.Z.R.B. and the 2/Brigade took the Blue, Brown and Yellow lines. A few scattered groups of Germans made a show of resistance, but little more than a show; by far the greater number were too dazed and shaken to think of anything but immediate surrender.

The Auckland Battalions remained in the assembly trenches until 3.55 a.m., by which time dawn had broken, and then moved forward by half-platoons in file across the Douve and the old front line. Heavy black H.E. shrapnel burst overhead, but did little damage. Gas was met with in the valley, and respirators had to be worn during part of the ascent. Fortunately there was no lachrymatory mixed in with the phosgenechlorine preparation which was at that time generally used by the enemy and so it was only found necessary to adjust mouthpiece and nose clip to ensure perfect safety. Prisoners passed on their way to the cages—well set up men, who, from their spruce appearance, had evidently been but a short while in the line. Some of our wounded going back and a few dead lying here and there on the slope showed that the success so quickly attained had not been won except at a price. 2/Auckland concentrated round the Moulin de l'Hospice, and there took shelter in shell-holes and hastily dug trenches, waiting orders, while the 1/Battalion, passing to the right of Messines, drew up on the Wytschaete-Messines road in readiness for the attack on Ungodly Trench. At 4.55 a.m. the barrage moved forward. Nothing could face it, scarcely anything live under it, and so the 6th and 16th Companies had no difficulty in occupying the trench. With the same ease the 3rd and 13th Companies attacked and captured Unbearable Trench, finally digging in on the Black Line at 5.20 a.m. A strong point was established on the Black Dotted Line, and the Battalion's work was done. Battalion Headquarters and the 3rd and 6th Companies of 2/Auckland moved forward at 6.40 a.m. to a position in rear of the Black Line, from where they established four posts in the Black Dotted Line. Here a 77mm. gun was page 148captured, which, with the two that were taken at the same time by the 1st Battalion, were the first guns to be taken by the New Zealand Division. At 9.40 the barrage ceased, and patrols sent out to the Green Line reported that the wire in front had been cut.

The blow staggered the enemy army in the salient, and for two or three hours the Huns were utterly demoralised. A bold and daring sweep forward while the Battalions were flushed with victory, still comparatively fresh, and very little reduced in numbers, might have led to very great results. Instead, a policy of safety was adopted, and the consolidation of the newly-gained ground became the prime business of everyone. The Germans recovered quickly. What guns were still in position and undamaged opened a furious fire on the lost ground. Fresh batteries were rushed up, and the fire became more intense, and every moment made a strategic exploitation of the tactical victory a more difficult matter.

15th Company, 2/Auckland, were ordered to proceed to the front and dig communication between Ungodly and Unbearable Trenches. Moving round to the right of the village they came under direct observation, and were heavily shelled, only by extreme good fortune escaping with light casualties. On the completion of their task, the Divisional Front was fully established and held in its entirety by the Aucklanders.

From this time forward there was nothing to be done except watch, wait and endure. The day was hot, and the exertion, with the battle-smoke and the acrid fumes from the explosives, caused intense thirst. In some parts of. the line the digging uncovered numbers of tiny springs, the water from which, muddy and dirty though it was, served to supply the urgent need. Up in the front posts men ran greater risks from the short bursts of our own artillery than from the German fire. One battery of four big guns was continually firing short, and inflicted many casualties. For some reason or another, despite our complete control of the air and the large number of observation 'planes continually flying overhead, no message was got through to this battery. Its continued activity page 149caused considerable loss and the slight withdrawal of two posts. The Hun barrage fell heavily on the Yellow Line, in the vicinity of which the two battalion headquarters had been established, with the result that runners, signallers, and stretcher-bearers had a particularly dangerous and difficult time. All through the morning the heavy guns continued active, while the field batteries were rushed forward. At 1.17 p.m. the 3rd Company, 2/Auckland, reported a counter-attack forming on their front. Concentrated artillery fire was at once directed on the spot, and the attacking formations dispersed. A local counter-attack developing against one of the posts was dispersed by the Lewis guns.

At 3.10 p.m. the Australians moved through to take Owl Trench and Owl Support. For various reasons their attempt was far from a success, and they became entirely disorganised. Some stayed in No-Man's Land, others joined the garrisons of the posts, while others fell right back on the Black Line, and then could only with difficulty be restrained from going back further still.

During the afternoon Colonel Robert Allen was very badly wounded by a shrapnel burst. His loss was a very great one. It is perfectly true that a good officer is of more value than many men. No one in a battalion has anything like the same influence for good or for evil as the Commanding Officer. There are many things he should be, for he has many parts to play—wise in administration, careful over business, watchful for detail, just, purposeful, sympathetic, of clear brain and good understanding. To achieve success, moreover, he must be a good combining medium for men of widely different temperament and ability. Above and beyond everything else, however, he must have about him a subtle power of touching the hearts of men, of capturing their imagination; for he is the source of inspiration and the beginning of all true discipline. Such an one was Colonel Allen. It was one of 1/Auckland's greatest misfortunes to lose him at a time when so much heavy fighting lay ahead. He was never replaced. The same shell which wounded him killed Captain Foster, the brave page 150commander of the 2/15th Company, who had been doing excellent work throughout the day.

German machine-guns and snipers came into action again during the evening, and before nightfall were active. There was constant expectation of a counter-attack developing, and to make the position doubly secure numbers of machine-guns were rushed up to the forward side of the slope. Night fell. Under cover of darkness, organisation which had been impossible during the latter part of the afternoon, was rapidly carried out. Rumours got round that the advanced posts had been driven in and that the enemy were coming over in force. Men nerved themselves to resist to the uttermost, and took courage from the bursts of fire which rattled overhead from the machine-guns massed in rear. Nothing came, and when the sun rose on the morning of "A" Day it was generally felt that the position was secure. Throughout the battle Captains Holland and Tilsley, Lieutenant Fitchett, of 1/Auckland, and Lieutenants Tuck, Frank McKenzie, Stewart and Lorie, of 2/Auckland were a great source of inspiration to their men. That very brave and able soldier, Lieutenant Cooper, was killed. Sergeant Calame, of 1/Auckland, and Sergeant-Major Gordon, of 2/Auckland, especially distinguished themselves.

Early in the morning Brigadier-General C. H. J. Brown, D.S.O., was killed. He was universally looked upon as one of the best soldiers in the N.Z.E.F. At the Landing, Helles and Quinn's Post he had demonstrated his courage and ability to command. His handling of 2/Auckland through the Somme fighting had been masterly, and at the first opportunity he had been promoted to the command of the 1st Brigade, passing over many who were senior to him in rank and service. Two distinct types of commander achieve the greatest success. There is the dominant character, severe, masterful, efficient, compelling, feared rather than loved, but absolutely trusted—such a commander was Earl Kitchener; and then there is the other type, the loved leader of men, who is served with a passionate devotion by men who count a smile from him or a word of thanks to be the best reward they know—such a leader page 151was Earl Roberts. Of the latter type was General Brown. From batman to Major-General, we all loved him, and would have done any thing for him.

Colonel S. S. Allen took over the command of the 1st Brigade, and proceeded with the reliefs that had already been agreed upon. The 15th and 16th Companies of 2/ Auckland moved back to Moulin de l'Hospice in readiness to relieve in the Yellow Line after dark. All day shelling was exceptionally heavy, and very little movement was possible. At 10 p.m. the 15th and 16th relieved the 1st Battalion N.Z.R.B. in the Yellow Line, while 2/Wellington relieved the 3rd and 6th Companies from the Black Dotted Line. The 3rd Company relieved part of the 4th Battalion N.Z.R.B. about midnight, and early in the morning the 6th Company completed the relief. 1/Auckland remained, as they were holding the ground they had won. There was no slackening of the German fire. During the whole of this trying time Dr. Nelson did splendid work. He pushed his R.A.P. up almost into the front line, and always under heavy fire successfully cleared numbers of wounded. Padre Gavin also did excellent work.

The continuous strain of the last three days was commencing to tell on all ranks, and the order received that night to go back to Bulford and Kortypyp Camps was very welcome. The journey back was slow and tedious. Once across the old front line and passing along the saps to the crest of Hill 63, every man was carefully checked at Brigade Station. This at any rate was a rest, and tired men dozed off, leaning up against the trench wall or lying flat on the duck-boards. Up again, and moving down the slope, they passed through the mass of heavy guns. Brilliant green and yellow flames stabbed through the darkness, to be followed by a bellowing crash of sound. "Cr-r-r-a-a-sh." Twenty yards away a monstrous weapon explodes with a hideous clamour. A moment of intense blackness and then once more the flame of fire and the shock of the discharge. For half a mile, on both sides of the track, batteries are in action. The ordeal is terrible. A battery just ahead has the muzzles of its guns almost touching the road. page 152It fires a salvo, and the file of infantry see what is ahead. Can they pass before the next discharge? Tired as they are they quicken pace. No. 1 is being screwed up to its right elevation. No. 2 is ready, but still silent. Perhaps they will just clear! But no! The battery commander megaphones his warning order. "Hurry up there in front, before the b—b—goes off!" Too late! "Fire" comes the muffled voice through the megaphone. "Crash" from No. 1. "C-r-r-a-sh" from No. 2 just in rear, and then the solid earth shakes as 3 and 4 bellow out. "Oh, Hell! Get on! Get on!" At last the guns are passed, and on the good road faster progress is made, until at last all stumble wearily into the camp, and as soon as possible fling themselves down and sleep luxuriously after the week of strain and stress.

Casualties for the Auckland Regiment, although the heaviest in the Division, were very much lighter than in the Somrne Battle. They were:—

  • 1/Auckland: Killed, 3 Officers, 39 O.R.'s; wounded, 4 Officers, 228 O.R.'s; missing, 16. Total, 290.
  • 2/Auckland: Killed, 3 Officers, 57 O.R.'s; wounded, 8 Officers, 290 O.R.'s; missing, 23. Total, 381.