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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter XXVIII Of How the New Zealanders Swept Forward from Bapaume To Le Quesnoy

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Chapter XXVIII Of How the New Zealanders Swept Forward from Bapaume To Le Quesnoy

The German offensives had now definitely failed. The one hope, now, of their leaders was to fall back on defensive positions and, resolutely holding these, to play for time and bring the whole war to a position of stalemate. The Allies realizing this, thrust in against the retreating enemy with all their weight, hoping to turn their retreat into a rout.

On 21 August commenced the battle of Bapaume, and for the next eleven weeks the New Zealanders were constantly moving forward. Under cover of a heavy mist and barrage fire, the Rifle Brigade swept resistlessly in the direction of Irles. Three days later the 1st and 2nd brigades attacked on the line Biefvillers, Grévillers, and Loupart Wood to clear the last ridge before the town. An hour before dawn the assaulting battalions lined up in a long row. Fifteen hundred yards away their objective showed up, dark masses of trees against the lighter background of the open fields. There is | no barrage and the men move off quietly across the silent level. Some walk straight down the main page 299road and find no one to bar their path. Others when they have gone a dozen yards strike an impenetrable barrier of wire and almost immediately an enemy machine-gun opens up and strikes sparks of fire from the rusty coils. The leaders scout round and find a trench that runs beneath the wire and then turning comes out on a lower level. The first danger is past and they file on across the open field. Fifty yards away figures are seen dimly moving on the flank. Are they Germans or men of the right?

The line halts and a man moves forward to reconnoitre. The light is dim and there is utter quietness except for a sudden frenzied burst of machinegun fire far away on the left. He moves on. Five yards away there is a guttural challenge. The figures are German, a platoon probably in a forward post. The trench blazes with a sudden crackle of fire. The scout falls flat. By some miracle he is not hit and opens fire himself at point blank range. From behind a Lewis-gun comes into action and sweeps the parapet. Most of the Germans fall in a swathe and the survivors fling up their hands. The advance goes on. Two hundred yards farther on there is a stop while a trench and some old huts are searched. From somewhere on the left there are shouts of alarm and another rattle of fire. Someone else has run on to a point of resistance. Quietness again and a steady move forward! The outline of the tree-skirted village comes nearer. Some platoons reach the dark line without opposi-page 300tion, plunge in, and move through great masses of trees into the heart of the village.

Germans were everywhere. In a few moments it was clear that the New Zealanders had come clean through the infantry screen and had reached the enemy guns. A great Red Cross flag hung from the upper window of a large house from which a German ambulance just managed to make its escape; a battery of four 8-inch howitzers was taken; a great gun on a railway mounting was rapidly towed out by an engine and just got through; scores of men without firing a shot threw up their hands and surrendered. At Loupart Wood and at the top right-hand corner of the village there was bitter resistance.

Just at dawn the long thin line of attackers came up towards the crest-line. Suddenly it seemed light. From thirty yards in front came a shout of I alarm. German gunners had been peering out into the darkness. Their own men had not fallen back on them. No SOS flares had gone up. The fire in front might easily have been explained. Their ' front line was a thousand yards away. And yet | there were suspicions that all was not well. Then, as the dawn came clear before them, they saw an enemy line advancing! They hesitated! The initiative lay with any bold leader on either side. A sergeant rushes forward to lead the way in, but at | the critical moment finds a belt of trip-wire at his feet. A German springs to his gun. Then in a moment six of them blaze into action. They fire belt after belt and cut up the ground in all direc-page 301tions, It is impossible for a man to move forward. The attackers can only lie still and wait for better times.

Back across the valley three tanks are seen. Helmets go up on bayonet points to attract their attention. A veteran sergeant who had fought in every fight from the Landing goes back and explains the situation. The tanks follow him up the hill. Bang! Bang! Bang! An anti-tank gun concealed somewhere among the trees opens up viciously on the lumbering iron monsters. One is hit and then another. The sergeant walks in front of the remaining one. The little shells burst all round him. A flying splinter tears his wrist. He moves on. The machine-gun rattle commences to slacken. The gunners see their danger and suddenly they feel hopeless. The tank is close upon them. They flee back among the trees. The infantry rise up, and, even as they do so, bang! clear and hard, a shell strikes the tank. It gives a lurch, slews half-round and then stops dead; but the infantry press on across the sunken road and work down the crest and fling themselves under heavy fire into the old grassgrown shell-holes of 1916. The brave sergeant who had led the attack was shot dead by an enemy sniper as he continued to press forward. All along the front the Germans recovered from their surprise. Fresh battalions were pushed forward in front of Bapaume. Their fire became very heavy and the attack was stayed.

For the next few days constant pressure was maintained. The fighting patrols were continually page 302moving across No Man's Land. Bombing parties fought their way along communication saps. The guns were rushed up and Bapaume was heavily bombarded. For several days the Germans held steadily out to gain time for their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line far to the rear. Rain fell, and the temporary trenches became clogged with sticky mud. Early on the morning of 29 August the German flares rising from Bapaume became less numerous. There was less machine-gun fire. Parts of his line were silent. As dawn came columns of black smoke rose from the town. Immediately fighting patrols went out and pushed their way through and round to a line across the Cambrai and Péronne roads facing Bancourt. Next day the New Zealanders attacked the village over the bare and open fields. The Germans were disposed in depth with many machine-guns. The position was carried with heavy loss. It could never have been carried at all if the Germans had kept their nerve, but their morale was breaking. They were conscious now that the war was lost. Many were eager to surrender and so make sure of life. Even when brave men here and there stood to their guns and fought back the attacking lines, others gave way upon their flanks and in a little while they were enveloped. The attack went on and the whole German line fell back. Frémicourt was taken, Haplincourt, Bertincourt, Ruyaulcourt, and still the advance swept on and worked round Havrincourt Wood and so up to the Trescault Spur where for a few days there was a stop.

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All this time prisoners came back in scores and hundreds. Patrols of four or five men moved up and attacked machine-gun nests and after a little bombing or a few shots the garrison surrendered and twenty or thirty men would file out with their hands up, leaving four or five guns splendidly placed with which they could have shot down a battalion. As they went back to the prison cages the men in the rear who had nothing better to do examined these "kamerads" for automatic revolvers, field-glasses, wristlet watches, and anything else of value. The "ratting" of prisoners was a very interesting process. Some men were too proud to plunder ana stood aloof. Others out of a thirst for knowledge or a desire for souvenirs displayed a keen interest in all that was Fritz's from his jewellery and cash to the photo of the "fräuleins" that he carried in his pocket. Usually the search was conducted in a friendly spirit and the unfortunate one was consoled for the loss of his Iron Cross or his girl's photograph with cigarettes or tobacco or a tin of beef. There were beastly men though whose desire for gain was stronger than any feeling of common humanity.

One Red Cross private in particular was disgustingly avaricious. A little group of Germans came stumbling back. One of them was very white and looked as though he were fainting. An infantry man stepped up to him, raised his overcoat, and saw that one arm was hanging in a broken smash. The ghastly wound was undressed, without a tourniquet, and the poor wretch was bleeding to death. The matter was pointed out to the Red Cross man, who page 304went on plundering. Thinking that he had not seen or did not realize, the infantryman showed him the wound and asked him to fix the unfortunate fellow up. He refused with oaths to touch the b——————b——————and continued his search. Only direst threats from the infantry, the ominous lifting of a rifle, and the emphatic orders of an officer induced him at last to do his duty. Inhuman wretches like this were rare, but of course were to be found in all armies. The mass of Germans and British alike were decent human beings. The great tragedy of the war was not so much that human beasts found unnatural licence, but that ordinary men, kindly and generous men, husbands, sons, brothers, good comrades who loved and were loved, were drawn into hideous conflicts in which their plain duty appeared to lie in the desecration and destruction of the lives of other men as kindly and decent as they.

Every night now the bombing planes went over, squadron after squadron, to bomb the German roads and bridges and dumps and the towns of the Rhineland. Germans, too, came over—not so many, because they were being overwhelmed in the air also —and bombed Bapaume. In the old days at Romarin the night raiders had been picked up by searchlights and then heavily shelled by antiaircraft guns. There was a beautiful display of fireworks for all those who cared to sit up and watch the proceedings. In due course the raider dropped his bombs and then departed trailing shrapnel bursts behind him, but never apparently the worse for wear. The anti-aircraft gunners and the search-page 305light people felt after the commotion had subsided that they had made a valuable contribution toward winning the war, while the German no doubt was just as satisfied. He had dropped his bombs and they had burst with a very loud noise. And so to bed!

Times, however, had changed and the "strafing" of raiders had become a much more scientific and deadly business. The drumming in the air grew louder, the throb of a German engine became clearly distinguishable. Half a dozen dazzling beams shot up and crossed and recrossed each other in the darkness. One of them catches the great Gotha; then the others converge upon him and hold him fast in a point of intense light. Desperately, blindly, he endeavours to break through the circle of light into the friendly darkness. A British fighter that has been on patrol far up in the upper air flies to within fifty feet of the blinded giant and rattles in a short burst of fire. The Gotha commences to fall. The roar of her engines ceases. Streaks of smoke and flame burst from her fusilage. She is on fire and falling fast. A thousand feet from the ground she tumbles out of the searchlight beams and then, wrapped in a sheet of her own flame, crashes among the ruins of the town, her bombs exploding with frightful detonation as she strikes the earth. For miles round the infantry in all the camps look on with eagerness and cheer as the raider drops to earth. The searchlights go out. The patrol takes up its beat again. Two page 306twisted, scorched, disfigured bodies lie near the charred debris of the plane.

Trescault Spur was strongly held and the Germans were determined to maintain it. They brought up two crack divisions, newly rested and re-equipped, one of them being the famous Jaegers, a magnificent body of men in their distinctive uniforms of green, strengthened with patches of leather. They lined the ridge with machine-guns and brought a power of artillery. The 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Rifle Brigades made the preliminary attack. The companies moved out in the pitch darkness stumbling over broken wire, old trenches and through the tangled copses in front of Gouzeacourt Wood. Our barrage fell and still in the darkness the men moved forward. The German guns replied at once and their whole front blazed with machine-gun fire. In the darkness they trained their guns too high and the right attacking company went in and stormed African support. After some little while the company on the left came up, but the remainder of the attack made only small progress. Now commenced some of the fiercest bombfighting of the war. Parties of riflemen bombed all along African support to Dead Man's Corner, driving the enemy before them. But their supplies of bombs ran out and the brave Jaegers attacked in their turn and drove them back. All day small parties of men dashed up communication saps with bucketfuls of bombs and, raining them on some enemy post, compelled it to give ground, and then, as like as not, were beaten back by showers of stick page 307bombs. Riflemen on both sides got out to one side or the other of these bitter little fights and sniped at every movement. At seven o'clock the Jaegers made a grand attack and poured down every sap in a desperate attempt to win back the lost ground, but the riflemen held on grimly and at last, as darkness fell, the enemy sullenly gave up and the fight rested. Three days later the Rifle Brigade attacked again, and despite desperate resistance, carried the greater part of the ridge. The Jaegers lost heavily and their dead lay thickly through all the trenches and in the cemeteries behind. All honour to these brave German men who fought a hopeless fight and stood like a strong wall when all about them their army was breaking and their cause lost. They were very valiant men.

For a few days the New Zealanders were withdrawn and held in reserve to exploit successes on the army front. But on 29 September they were brought up and early in the morning attacked across Welch Ridge and toward La Vacquerie. While brave men in pockets here and there fought well and a couple of platoons were even cut off and compelled to surrender, the attack swept forward resistlessly and in an effortless fashion. Nearly fifteen hundred prisoners, thirty-two cannon and two hundred machine-guns were captured with the slightest of loss, and there is little doubt that the triumphal procession would have swept on still farther if it had not been halted prematurely. Such are the successes that can be won against a broken army. From the captured ridges the grey spires and towers of page 308Cambrai rose from green unbroken fields. Next day an attempt was made to cross the Scheldt Canal, but it was held and it was not until the following day that Crèvecour fell.

The advance swept forward again across the impenetrable masses of wire that guarded the Beaurevoir-Masnières line through Esnes and Lesdain, numbers of Germans surrendering without a fight. Patrols pushed into Fontaine-au-Pire and Beauvois. In the latter village the New Zealanders received a rapturous welcome from a few civilians who had hidden in the cellars till the fighting should pass over them. Viesly was taken and Briastre. To show how broken were the enemy, it is sufficient to say that the New Zealanders had advanced eleven miles in five days and with a total casualty list of five hundred and thirty-six had inflicted very great loss on the enemy, captured thirteen guns, and over fourteen hundred prisoners. During all this time there was intense activity behind the lines. Transport continually moving up to establish fresh supply bases, engineers testing wells, building bridges, repairing roads, signallers incessantly pushing out fresh wire, field ambulances moving forward their advanced dressing stations, artillery moving up to keep pace with the advancing infantry.

On 23 October the New Zealand Division commenced its last advance and swept through Vertigneul and Pont-à-Pierre and Beaudignies to the outskirts of Le Quesnoy, where, on 4 November, the last fight was fought. In the darkness two orange-coloured flares shot up as a signal that all was ready page 309for the attack. Ten minutes later the great barrage fell on the fortifications: a deluge of trench mortar bombs, a rain of shrapnel and high explosives on the outer walls. Machine-guns swept the ramparts. From the German posts the red and gold SOS flares went soaring up to call down the protective barrage of their guns and this fell heavily on our artillery. The battalions moved forward and on the right and left swept over trenches and posts and fortified houses until the town was passed and surrounded on every side. Prisoners were sent in to counsel surrender but the garrison held out. An aeroplane dropped a formal summons but still the machine-guns cracked from the old walls. Under cover of a smoke screen, a scaling ladder went up and men worked their way across the outer bastions and at last discovered an assailable point in the great inner wall. Lewis-guns and light trench mortars played on top, driving the garrison under cover. Again the scaling ladder was reared, its top just clearing the ancient brickwork and reaching the grass-grown mound on top. The storming party assembled at the foot. Two officers were the first to mount, then the colonel of the battalion, and after them a line of riflemen. The first stormer set his foot on the solid earth and peered through a screen of bushes. There was a shout of alarm and a German post fled before him. The men swarmed over. Fifteen minutes later the gates were flung open and the men of the Rifle Brigade marched into the town. As our men passed the houses, heads appeared cautiously at windows and then the families page 310came streaming out, men and women and little children. There was a scene of the wildest enthusiasm.

"Nous sommes sauvés! Nous sommes sauvés l"

"Vive I' Angleterre! Vive la France!"

"Embrassez-moi, monsieur!"

"Ici, monsieur, four vous et les camarades!"

Flowers and cakes and flags were showered on the men. There was kissing and handshaking and weeping and laughter.

"Après quatre années! Nous sommes sauvés!"

There was wild tumultuous excitement. Everywhere as if by magic the tricolour was flying on the buildings and the blue, white and red of France was on rifle-barrels and round men's hats.

And outside the town, when the fighting had died down to a few long-range shots, one of the bravest of the brave who had fought at Anzac and through all the French campaigns fell mortally wounded by a chance shot.