The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919
[The Polygon Wood Sector: and the Polderhoek Chateau Attack]
On October 21st the 2nd Brigade marched to Ypres, and there entrained for Wizernes, three miles south-west of St. Omer. On detraining, the 1st and 2nd Canterbury Battalions marched the same day to billets at Coulomby and Bayenghem respectively. There they spent the whole of the 22nd in resting and re-equipping, and the following day marched to their permanent billets—the 1st Battalion's at Lottinghem and the 2nd Battalion's at Quesques. Both these villages lie between the St. Omer-Boulogne railway (which runs south of Lottinghem) and the main road between those towns (which runs north of Quesques), and are about fifteen miles east of Boulogne.
Meanwhile, the 4th Brigade had been relieved on the 21st by the 1st Battalion of each of the 8th and 9th Brigades of the 3rd Canadian Division; and after spending the night in bivouacs in the St. Jean area, a mile north-east of Ypres, on the morning of the 22nd marched to Dickebusch, three miles south-west of Ypres, to entrain there on its way to join the rest of the Division. The headquarters and the 1st and 2nd Companies of the 3rd Canterbury Battalion detrained at Nielles, fifteen miles by rail south-west of St. Omer, and marched the same day to their billets at Journy, four miles north-east of Quesques; but the 12th and 13th Companies missed the train, and did not arrive at Journy till the 23rd.
After arrival at their permanent billets, all three battalions were rejoined by their "B" teams, received reinforcements, and began training.
The 2nd Brigade had suffered severely in the attack on Passchendaele; its losses had been greater than in any attack in the Messines or Somme battles, and it had failed for the first time in its history. It is true that the failure carried no disgrace with it, that the brigade had been held up by impassable mud and page 206uncut wire rather than by the enemy's troops: but the fact of the failure was there, and it was some months before the brigade fully recovered its morale.
The lines on which the training was carried on in the rest area showed that the chief aim of the Divisional commander was to re-establish the brigade's self-respect. The hours of the morning, usually strictly reserved for purely military work, were partly devoted to recreational training, and the mental condition of the troops received a large share of the attention which hitherto had rightly been directed mainly to their physical fitness.
In other respects the training was on the usual lines, except that no brigade operations were practised, and even battalion days were not as numerous as usual. The reinforcements received at this time had had very little training: most of them had not fired more than twenty rounds with the short Lee-Enfield rifle, and required special musketry instruction. As usual, also, the specialists, particularly Lewis-gunners and signallers, had suffered severe casualties, and men to take their places had to be specially trained. Wet weather interfered greatly with training during this period.
Early in November, the New Zealand Division received orders to relieve the 21st Division in the line in the Ypres salient, in a sector east of Polygon Wood and south of Zonnebeeke. The right boundary of the sector was a small stream, the Reutelbeek, which, rising on the north of the Ypres-Menin road, near the top of the eastern slope of the ridge, flows into the river Lys at Menin. Months of continual shelling had made the original course of the Reutelbeek unrecognizable and had dammed its flow; and its overflowing waters had converted the low ground about it into an impassable morass.
With its right flank in Cameron Covert protected by the Reutelbeek against the enemy in Polderhoek Chateau, the line crossed the Polygonbeek (a tributary of the Reutelbeek) and ran across the forward slopes of a short spur, at the southern end of which lay the village of Becelaere. At a point about a thousand yards north-west of this village, the line crossed the road leading to Passchendaele, and then ran north, roughly parallel to the road, and at about two hundred yards to the east of it. The page 207Divisional sector ended east of the scattered hamlet of Molenaarelsthoek.
The relief was due on November 13th, 14th, and 15th, when the 3rd and 4th Brigades were to take over the front line and the 1st and 2nd Brigades were to remain in reserve. Moving with the 4th Brigade on the 12th, the 3rd Canterbury Battalion marched from Journy to Wizernes, travelled from there by train to Houpoutre on the outskirts of Poperinghe, and the same day marched to a camp at Café Beige, on the Dickebusch-Ypres road, midway between those two places. There it continued training for a few days.
The 2nd Brigade remained at its billets till November 13th, when the 1st Canterbury Battalion left for Coulomby and the 2nd Battalion for Setques. The following day they marched to Wizernes, where they entrained for Houpoutre. Arriving there late in the afternoon, both battalions marched to Reninghelst, three miles south-east of Poperinghe, where they arrived after dark and were accommodated in huts and billets. On this date Lieutenant-Colonel H. Stewart joined the 2nd Battalion for the first time since he was wounded at Messines, and resumed command.
Both battalions remained at Reninghelst till the 16th, and then marched to join the rest of the Division, which had established its headquarters at Chateau Ségard Camp, near Café Beige. The 1st Battalion went into bivouacs at Kruistraathoek, near Divisional headquarters, on a very muddy area which provided damp and uncomfortable quarters. The 2nd Battalion was luckier, as it was sent to Forrester Camp, on the eastern side of the Neuve Eglise-Ypres road, opposite the Chateau Ségard. Both battalions settled down to training at once; but on the 21st the 2nd Battalion was put on to salvage work on a large area between Café Beige and Hell Fire Corner, on the Ypres-Menin road.
On the night of November 14th/15th, the 3rd Wellington and Auckland Battalions of the 4th Brigade relieved the 110th Brigade in the left of the Divisional sector, having the 49th Division on their left; and on the 16th the 3rd Canterbury Battalion, in reserve, took over from the 6th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment the Railway Dug-outs in the embankment of the Ypres-Menin railway line, just east of where it crosses the Ypres-Messines road. page 208On the night of the 21st/22nd, the battalion relieved the 3rd Auckland Battalion in the left of the brigade sector, with its right flank at the ruined buildings called Joiner's Best. The trenches were incomplete and unprotected by wire; but before the battalion was relieved it had completed both front line and support trenches, and wired with a single belt the whole of its frontage.
On the night of November 26th/27th, the 4th Brigade took over the whole Divisional front, having the 1st Wellington Battalion attached to it for this purpose. Bach of the two battalions already in the line (the 3rd Canterbury and 3rd Otago Battalions) took over an additional length of front line trenches, the 3rd Canterbury Battalion's portion of the line now extending from where the line crossed the Becelaere-Passchendaele road to the left of the Divisional sector. On relief on the night of December 1st/2nd by the 4th Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, the 3rd Canterbury Battalion moved back to billets in Dickebusch Huts, near the Dickebusch-Ouderdom road, and about a mile north-west of Dickebusch.
One of the highest points in the neighbourhood of the New Zealand Division's sector was the spur to the south of the Reutelbeek. Most of this spur was within the British lines; but though the eastern end, on which stood the ruins of the Polderhoek Chateau, had been captured in the advance of October 4th, it had been re-taken by the enemy the same day, and still remained in his hands. The chateau, on account of its high position, gave the enemy excellent observation, not only on the British line and its approaches on the spur itself, but also on the New Zealand Division's sector on the opposite side of the Reutelbeek.
The portions of the Division's front line most seriously affected were the posts in Cameron Covert (between the Reutelbeek and the Polygonbeek) and the right flank of the trenches north of the Polygonbeek; but in addition the chateau enfiladed the depression behind the Division's line, down which the Polygonbeek flowed, and across which was the most direct approach from the reserve positions to the front line. Consequently, the possession by British troops of the Polderhoek Chateau would render easier the defence of the sector: it would also greatly improve our ground observation on Gheluvelt and Becelaere.page break
2nd Lieut. R. C. Ecclesfield, D.C.M.
C.S.M. D. M. G. Mackay, D.C.M.
Sergt.-MajorK. B. Burns, D.C.M.
The British trenches immediately opposite the chateau were not in the New Zealand Division's sector, but were in the sector of the IX Corps, on the right of the New Zealand Division. The consideration that the part of the line held by the latter Division would derive the greater part of the benefit arising from the capture of the chateau, was doubtless the main reason for the decision of the General Officer commanding the Second Army that the II Anzac Corps should undertake the operation. For the same reason, the New Zealand Division was ordered to take over the part of the IX Corps' sector in front of the chateau, and to make the attack. The Divisional Commander detailed the 2nd Brigade for the operation, the assaulting battalions being the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago Battalions.
These battalions began to train for the assault in the middle of November; but owing to the congestion of troops in the area, the ground available for training was very limited, and wet weather interfered with its progress. On November 18th, Major A. D. Stitt relinquished the command of the 1st Canterbury Battalion and took command of the 2nd Brigade School at Ottawa Camp, Ouderdom, two miles west of Dickebusch, which had been established for the purpose of resting and training a proportion of the officers and other ranks of the front line battalions. Major (temporary Lieutenant-Colonel) O. H. Mead took command of the battalion, which on the 23rd and 24th marched to the Ouderdom-Dickebusch area to continue its training.
On November 25th the battalion moved to Walker's Camp at Dickebusch, where the brigade-major laid out a full scale model of Polderhoek Chateau and its defences. Buildings and pill-boxes were shown in their proper relative positions, and were numbered to correspond with the numbers on the maps which had been prepared for the attack. On the 30th two practice attacks were carried out, in conjunction with the 1st Otago Battalion, and with the co-operation of contact aeroplanes. The General Officer commanding the New Zealand Division watched the morning attack, and in the afternoon the General Officer commanding the II Anzac Corps was present.
The 2nd Canterbury Battalion was to take no part in the attack; nor was it to be held in reserve near the scene of the attack. It was detailed, however, for the important work of page 210 digging the assembly trenches and mating the reconnaissances of No-Man's-Land for the operation. It has been mentioned that the trenches opposite the chateau were not in the New Zealand Division's sector; on the night of November 25th/26th the 2nd Brigade took over from the 118th Brigade the line from the Reutelbeek to as far south as the Scherriabeek, and the 2nd Canterbury Battalion relieved the 1st/1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment and a company of the 4th/5th Battalion Black Watch Regiment. It at once began work on the assembly trenches, which were called Chord and Timaru.
The line was in poor condition, and the wet weather experienced during the spell in the trenches made it an unpleasant one. The enemy's artillery was more active on the areas of the support and reserve companies (the 1st and 2nd Companies) and the overland approaches—there were no communication trenches except in the near neighbourhood of the line—than on the front line trenches. The troops here suffered mainly from the attentions of low-flying aeroplanes, which attacked them with bombs and machine-guns; and from some of our own shells falling short of the enemy's line, which was very close. An inter-company relief took place on the night of November 29th/ 30th, when the 12th Company went into support and the 13th Company to reserve.
The attacking troops had been assigned two objectives. The first, or "Dotted Red" Line, ran roughly north and south at a distance of fifty yards east of the Chateau, extending to the right as far as the road which passes a hundred and fifty yards south of the chateau on its way to join the Ypres-Menin road, and to the left to within fifty yards of the Reutelbeek. The right flank of the final objective, or "Solid Red" Line, rested on the right flank of the Dotted Red Line, and thence ran north-east to include a group of ruins three hundred yards due east of the chateau. Here the line turned and ran practically due north for two hundred and fifty yards, when it turned sharply to the west, and joined the left flank of the Dotted Red Line. The flanks up to the Dotted Red Line had also, of course, to be protected during the advance.
It will be seen that the attack, had it succeeded, would have caused a very narrow and deep salient to project from our line. page 211 A straight line, running also due east, and passing just to the south of the chateau, formed the boundary line between the 1st Canterbury Battalion (on the right) and the 1st Otago Battalion. This meant that the Otago Battalion had a rather larger frontage than the Canterbury Battalion: on the other hand, the outer flank of the Canterbury Battalion was more exposed to attack than that of the Otago Battalion, which was protected to a great extent by the muddy bed of the Reutelbeek.
Each of the two attacking battalions detailed two companies to capture its objectives and a third company to deal with counter-attacks, and kept its remaining company in reserve. The plans of attack prepared by the brigade divided the objectives of each battalion into two, and each of the leading companies was given the task of capturing both objectives on half its battalion's front. Each of the leading companies was to allot the whole of its first objective to two platoons, and the whole of the second objective to its remaining two platoons: all the platoons detailed to capture the first objective on the whole brigade frontage were to assemble and to attack in one "wave," and all the platoons for the final objective were to form a second wave, fifty yards behind the first wave. Each of these waves consisted of two lines of troops: the first, made up of two sections from each platoon, was to make the assault; and the remaining two sections, following close on the heels of their leading sections, were to act as "moppers-up," to deal with any pill-boxes or trenches which the first line would be compelled to leave behind it, in keeping as close as possible to the creeping barrage. On the capture of the first objective by the first wave, it was ordered to consolidate the captured ground, while the second wave was immediately to pass through to continue the advance to the final objective.
On the leading companies leaving their assembly trenches, the counter-attack company was to move up at once and to occupy the positions vacated by them. The reserve companies, it was hoped, would not be called upon till after dark, when they would relieve the companies in the newly established front line, complete its consolidation, and erect wire in front of it.
Directly the advance should begin, the 1st Canterbury Battalion was ordered to commence to form a defensive flank facing south, and to extend this flank as the advance progressed. The page 212 12th Company, the right attacking company of the battalion, was detailed for this duty, and the 1st Company (on the left) was accordingly allotted the whole of the battalion's share of the final objective. This departure from the brigade's plans for the attack was rendered necessary by the nature of the objectives assigned to the 1st Canterbury Battalion, as is readily seen on referring to the map.
The time fixed for the attack was noon on December 3rd. In order to give the attacking troops an opportunity of getting a thorough look at the ground by daylight, two platoons of each of the attacking companies of the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago Battalions took over the front line on the night of December 1st/ 2nd. Two platoons of the 12th Company (on the right) and two platoons of the 1st Company (on the left) of the 1st Canterbury Battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion in the right half of its frontage, and four platoons of the 1st Otago Battalion took over the rest of the frontage. On relief, the headquarters and 12th Company of the 2nd Battalion went to Walker's Camp by light railway from Birr Cross-Roads (on the Menin road, two miles east of Ypres), and the 1st and 2nd Companies marched to Forrester Camp. The 13th Company was not relieved till the following night, and then moved to Walker's Camp, whither the 1st and 2nd Companies had gone earlier in the day.
The assembly for the attack took place on the night of December 2nd/3rd, which was a quiet one. The remainder of the 1st and 12th Companies of the 1st Canterbury Battalion joined their platoons in the forward assembly trenches, and the 13th Company, in support and as counter-attack company, occupied the trenches to their rear. The 2nd Company was held in reserve, and bivouacked for the night some little distance back, round the old German pill-box known as "the Tower," west of Veldhoek. More than the usual precautions were taken to conceal the relief from the enemy: he gave no sign of having detected it, and the night passed quietly.
At noon on the 3rd the barrage opened erratically, and several shells falling in our own lines caused some confusion.* The page 213 leading troops left the trenches as the barrage moved forward, and on topping a slight crest in front of our line were met by heavy machine-gun fire from pill-boxes in the chateau grounds and from Gheluvelt on the right flank. The advance faltered; but the situation was saved by Captain G. H. Gray, commanding the 12th Company, who, accompanied by Lance-Corporal Minnis, went forward and captured a pill-box about a hundred yards east of our front line and north of the road bounding the chateau grounds on the south, taking a machine-gun and eight prisoners. This enabled his company to get forward, in spite of the fact that the intensity of the machine-gun fire had increased very greatly. Later in the advance, the company was again held up by an enemy strong-point; but Private H. J. Nicholas, by capturing the position single-handed, gained the first Victoria Cross won by a member of the Regiment. The official account of Private Nicholas's gallant action is as follows:—
* In justice to the artillery it must be mentioned that at this time of the year the mud was so bad that it was impossible in most places to get stable gun positions. With the guns requiring re-laying after every few shots, a good barrage was out of the question.