The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919
Chapter VIII. — Trench Warfare After the Somme; and Preparations for Messines
Trench Warfare After the Somme; and Preparations for Messines.
The New Zealand Division (less artillery) was now in Corps Reserve, and was under orders to be transferred to the II Anzac Army Corps (Second Army). The 1st Canterbury Battalion accordingly left the Pommiers Redoubt at 6 a.m. on October 7th, marched to Albert, and entrained there for Longpre, where it arrived at 6 a.m. on the 8th and went into billets. After three days spent in reorganizing and training, the battalion entrained again at noon on the 11th, and arrived at Caestre (near Haze-brouck) in the early hours of the morning of the 12th. There motor-lorries were waiting to carry the troops to Estaires, on the Lys, and they reached their billets at 3 a.m. the same day.
The 2nd Battalion left Fricourt at 10.15 a.m. on October 6th and marched by way of Meaulte to Dernancourt, where it entrained, and arrived at Longpre about 6.30 p.m. After a long and trying march the battalion reached its billets at Bailleul (Somme) late that night. The four following days were spent in reorganization and training; and at 1 a.m. on the 11th the battalion marched to Pont Remy where it entrained for Bailleul (Flanders). Arriving there at 7.30 p.m. the battalion marched to its billets in Strazeele, on the Hazebrouck road.
Lieut.-Colonel R. A. Row, D.S.O.
Lieut.-Colonel O. Mead, D.S.O.
The New Zealand Division (reduced by the detachment from it of the 2nd Brigade and the whole of its artillery) was ordered to relieve the 5th Australian Division, which was holding the Sailly Sector. The front line in this sector extended from a point half a mile due east of Picantin, on the Fleurbaix-Neuve Chapelle road to a point on the Bois Grenier-Radinghem road, about a mile south-east of the former village, and was divided into two sub-sectors, the right (or southern) being called Cordonnerie and the left (or northern) Boutillerie.
The country here was low-lying, and very much like that in the Armentières sector; and the defences consisted of breastworks instead of trenches. Only the fire-bays were protected at the back by a parados; at the back of these there ran, in place of the usual travel-trench, a duck-board track, which was protected against fire from in front by the breast-work, but had no protection against shells bursting behind the track. Behind the front line ran a line known, on account of its distance from the former, as the "seventy yards line." This was also a continuous line, but was out of repair, and was not garrisoned. Behind it again was the support line—a series of small posts connected by a continuous breast-work, which could be defended if need be. Further back the ground was rather higher, and the subsidiary line consisted of a trench, which connected a series of defended localities.
The brigades holding the sub-sectors were responsible for the defence of the above lines; but behind them were two other systems of trenches, called General Headquarters lines, for the defence of which the troops in the rear were responsible. The front and support lines were held on the outpost system, with the garrison reduced to a minimum; for the enemy's front line was an average distance of a quarter of a mile away, and it was discovered that it was occupied only at night. The bulk of the garrison was kept in the support and subsidiary lines, whence it could be moved up to hold the front line if an attack were made by the enemy.page 130
The New Zealand Division relieved the 5th Australian Division by daylight on October 14th, when the 1st Brigade took over the Cordonnerie sector from the 15th Australian Brigade. The flanking divisions to the New Zealand Division were the 56th, on the right, and the 34th, on the left. The 1st Canterbury Battalion relieved the 60th Battalion Australian Imperial Force in the front line, on the right half of the brigade sub-sector (a frontage of about one mile), with three companies in the line, each with two platoons in the front trenches and two platoons in support, and one company in reserve. The sector was a very quiet one. After the first tour of eleven days in the line, the battalion settled down to regular reliefs of eight days in the line and eight days in billets in the Rue des Fiefs a road running south-east from the village of Sailly. Reinforcements arrived steadily, and both the battalions rapidly came up to strength again.
Nothing of importance took place before the end of the year, except a raid on November 21st by Lieutenant E. H. Bernau and fifty other ranks of the 1st Canterbury Battalion, with six sappers from the 1st Field Company, New Zealand Engineers. The point selected for the attack was opposite the Cordonnerie salient, on the battalion's extreme left flank, and the raiding party was ordered to work fifty yards out towards each flank, from the point at which they entered the enemy trench. The objects of the raid were the usual ones, indentification of the enemy unit opposed to us being the chief aim. A feature of the raid was the part played by the light trench mortars (3-inch Stokes); these bombarded the objective of the raiders, and also cut the wire in front of it, while the artillery confined its fire to the neighbouring trenches.
The party had no difficulty in entering the enemy's trenches, in which it found no sign of recent occupation except a pair of feet protruding from under a fall of earth. Here was a concrete wall nine feet high, which, the sappers thought, probably concealed a mine shaft, and which they destroyed. The raiders then worked down two communication trenches without meeting any opposition, and returned to their own trenches eight minutes after entering the enemy's line. During the whole raid there was no enemy small-arms fire at all, and the page 131 only enemy retaliation took the form of light shelling of our rear area. These facts, and the experiences of the raiding party in the enemy trenches, gave full confirmation of the theory that the enemy had practically vacated his front line. The only casualties to the party were caused by a light trench mortar bomb, which fell short just as the attackers were reaching their objective, and wounded Lieutenant Bernau and twelve other ranks.
As part of the same operation, but later in the night, a patrol from the same battalion, under Lieutenant A. G. Dean, entered the enemy trenches at a point further to the west, and found the line here unoccupied also. From the observations of this patrol, it seemed likely that the enemy front trenches were patrolled regularly by single men, who discharged flares at intervals.
The experiences of the 2nd Brigade during the same period proved to be even less eventful. This brigade had on October 13th and 14th relieved the 8th Australian Brigade, which had then ceased to be attached to Franks' Force, and had returned to the 4th Australian Division. The sector was the identical one which the Brigade had held before it went to the Somme.
The 2nd Canterbury Battalion, which had been carried as far as Armentières in motor-lorries, took over part of the subsidiary line on the 14th, and remained there till the 20th, when it relieved the 2nd Auckland Battalion in the right half of the brigade sector. The battalion front was held by three companies in the front and support lines and one in reserve: every six days it changed places with the 2nd Auckland Battalion, and when out of the line was accommodated in billets in Houplines, and in the factory near "Barbed-wire Square" in Armantiers itself.
The sector was now a fairly quiet one; however, there was a great deal of work which called for urgent attention, for apparently the troops who had held the line since the brigade left it for the Somme had made little attempt to keep the trenches in good order. When out of the line, the troops who were not required for working-parties spent their time in drill and training.page 132
On October 31st the Prime Minister of New Zealand (the Honourable Mr. W. F. Massey) and Sir J. G. Ward, accompanied by Lieutenant-General Sir A. J. Godley, commanding the II Anzac Army Corps, visited the New Zealand Division, and inspected the 1st Canterbury Battalion at 11 a.m. and the 2nd Battalion at 12.15 p.m.
The 3rd Australian Division arrived in France during November, and was to be given its first experience in the line in the sector held by Franks' Force. On November 29th and 30th half of the 37th Battalion of the 10th Australian Brigade relieved half of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion in the line, and the troops on relief moved to billets in Armentières. The relief was completed on December 1st, but the Commanding Officer and a number of officers and specialists remained for a few hours to advise the new garrison on the peculiarities of the new sector. The whole of the battalion assembled in Armentières and marched to Estaires the same day.
The 2nd Brigade now ceased to be attached to Franks' Force, and coming again under the orders of the General Officer commanding the New Zealand Division, became brigade in reserve to the Division, and remained in billets in Estaires and Sailly for the best part of December. The 2nd Canterbury Battalion's billets were not good, but training and careful attention to feeding and clothing made a marked improvement in the standard of its health, which had been causing a considerable amount of anxiety.
During this period the battalion was inspected very frequently. Thus on the 17th it was inspected by its Commanding Officer, and on the 18th by the General Officer commanding the Division. On the 22nd the 2nd Brigade was inspected at Sailly by Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France. On December 23rd the 2nd Brigade relieved the 1st Brigade, and the' latter came into reserve. The 1st Canterbury Battalion went into billets at Estaires, while the 2nd Battalion moved to billets in the Rue des Fiefs, near Laventie, being one of the battalions in support to the battalions in the line.
The reorganization of the 1st and 2nd Brigades took place on January 1st, 1917, when the 2nd Auckland and 2nd Wellington Battalions were transferred from the 2nd Brigade to page 133 the 1st Brigade, and the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago Battalions went from the 1st Brigade to the 2nd Brigade. On that date the 2nd Canterbury Battalion relieved the 2nd Auckland Battalion in the line, and the latter marched back to its new billets with the 1st Brigade. The 1st Canterbury Battalion took over the billets at Rue des Fiefs vacated that morning by its 2nd Battalion. As the 1st Battalion marched through Sailly, on its way from Estaires, the 1st Wellington Battalion turned out to say good-bye, and its band played the Canterbury Battalion through the village.
From now onward to the Battle of Messines, the two Canterbury Battalions worked together, relieving each other in the front line at regular intervals of eight days. Thus the 2nd Battalion had had two turns in the line and the 1st Battalion one, when "the 2nd Brigade's turn to be brigade in reserve came round on January 24th. On that day the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade relieved the 2nd Brigade in the line, and the two Canterbury Battalions marched back to billets in Estaires.
The 1st Battalion seemed fated to have its period of rest snatched from it; for when the 1st Brigade went into Divisional reserve just before Christmas, the reorganization of the brigades had shortened the 1st Battalion's rest to nine days, and now on January 26th the 2nd Brigade was ordered into the line again. This unexpected move was made in consequence of orders which the Division had received to take over the sub-sector held by the right brigade of the 34th Division (on the left of the New Zealand Division) in the Bois Grenier Sector. The whole of the 34th Division had been withdrawn from the line at very short notice and placed in Corps reserve to meet an expected German attack.
The situation appeared to call for urgent measures; and though the 1st Canterbury Battalion did not receive orders till 1 p.m., it had marched the ten miles which lay between Estaires and the trenches, and had relieved the 16th Battalion Royal Scots by 7 p.m., in the right half of the front line. By 10.45 p.m. the relief by the 2nd Brigade was completed. The sector was a quiet one on the whole, though the enemy had many trench mortars, and his artillery was active at times. An interesting point about it is that it was the sector described by Mr. Ian Hay in his "The First Hundred Thousand."page 134
The 2nd Battalion relieved the 15th Battalion Royal Scots in reserve, having battalion headquarters and the 1st and 12th Companies at Rue Delpierre (a mile south of Erquinghem), and the 2nd and 13th Companies at Erquinghem. The expected attack did not take place, and the usual eight days' reliefs were carried out. On February 3rd the Division was notified that it would shortly be relieved by the 57th Division, and on the 4th and 5th some officers and non-commissioned officers of that Division were attached to the battalions in the line. The usual precautions to conceal the relief from the enemy were taken; but on the night of February 18th a patrol, consisting of an officer and non-commissioned officer of the 57th Division, and a non-commissioned officer and four men of the 1st Canterbury Battalion, was surprised, and all save two of its members were captured.
Notwithstanding, the relief by the 57th Division began on the night of February 25th/26th, when the 2nd/9th King's Liverpool Battalion relieved the 1st Canterbury Battalion, which marched to Estaires, was billeted there for the night, and the next day moved to Nieppe, two miles north-west of Armentières. The following night the relief was completed; the 2nd/10th King's Liverpool Battalion relieved the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, and the latter marched to billets in the Rue des Fiefs, near Sailly.
|1st Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||8|
|2nd Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||19|
Total for both battalions: 27 other ranks killed and 1 officer and 83 other ranks wounded.
The 1st Battalion remained in its billets at Nieppe till March 12th, but on the 5th of that month the 2nd Battalion left the Rue des Fiefs, and marched to a camp at Le Romarin, a small village a mile due north of Nieppe. On the 9th the 2nd Brigade was inspected by the Right Honourable Mr. Walter Long, M.P., Secretary of State for the Colonies, with whom were the General Officers commanding the II Anzac Army Corps and the New Zealand Division. The inspection took place on the Bailleul-Armentières road, and was followed by a march past in column of fours.
The New Zealand Division had now received orders to relieve the 25th Division in the Messines sector, which lay in country very different in character from any in which the Division had up to now been engaged.
The range of low hills on which the village of Messines stood begins at Dixmude, and curving round east of the Forest of Houlthurst and west of Staden, thence runs practically due south, through the villages of Westroosebeke and Passchendaele, a thousand yards east of Zonnebeke to a point about five miles due east of Ypres. From here the ridge runs south-east to Wytschaete, which lies four miles south of Ypres; but at this village it turns again to the west and rises up to Mont Kemmel, the dominant feature of this part of the country, and from there spreads out north, south, and west into a belt of low hills, extending eight miles west of Mont Kemmel with an extreme breadth of about six miles from north to south.
A spur two miles long, and higher than the saddle between Kemmel and Wytschaete, runs south from the latter village. This spur is practically flat on top—almost a plateau—to within half a mile of its southern end, where it descends rather abruptly. The village of Messines, perched on the southern extremity of the plateau, gave the spur its name of "the Messines Ridge."
Commencing between Mont Rouge and Mont Noir in the belt of low hills west of Mont Kemmel, there runs towards the east a broad valley, which is bounded on the north by the southern slopes of Mont Kemmel and the saddle between that page 136 hill and Wytschaete. The southern boundary of the valley consists of a chain of low hills, of which the two easternmost are Hill 63* and Neuve Eglise Hill, and which are connected by slightly lower saddles.
Down the centre of the valley there runs a small stream called the Douve, which, flowing east, eventually reaches the River Lys at Warneton. The northern side of the valley of the Douve is broken by a spur running south, the southern half of which is considerably lower than Messines village, and which lies about a mile to the west of Messines Ridge. In the valley between the ridge and the spur there rises a very small stream called the Steenebeek, which joins the Douve between Hill 63 and the southern end of the Messines Ridge.
The height of the range of hills above described is not great: Mont Kemmel is little over five hundred feet high, Neuvc Eglise and Wytschaete about half that height, while Hill 63 and Messines are almost exactly the same height of two hundred and ten feet. North of Wytschaete, the highest point of the country is astride the Ypres-Menin road east of Hooge: at no place does its height exceed two hundred feet. Nevertheless, being the only range of hills in the Plain of Flanders, its importance from the military point of view is very great.
In the early fighting of the war, the British had made a great effort to hold Messines, but had found that the capture of the Wytschaete ridge by the enemy had made the village untenable. After the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans remained in possession of the whole of the ridge, as far as the saddle between Wytschaete and Kemmel; but the British had been able to retain the very important strategical features of Mont Kemmel, Neuve Eglise, and Hill 63, and still held these hills at the beginning of 1917.
* So called on account of its height of 63 metres.
From the southern end of the Ypres salient, the British line ran virtually due south, crossing the saddle between Kemmel and Wytschaete, and running along the western slopes of the spur above described as running parallel to the Messines Ridge. A quarter of a mile north of the Wulverghem-Messines road, the line took the general direction of south-east, skirted the foot of the Messines Ridge, and ran across to the hamlet of St. Yves, nearly a mile east of Hill 63. From here the line ran south again, along the eastern edge of Ploegsteert ("Plug-street") Wood, to cross the River Lys at Houplines, north-east of Armentières.
The enemy being entrenched on the high ground, with a ridge at his back, it is clear that he could move about freely without any fear of detection by ourselves. It is true that we held very valuable observation points in Mont Kemmel, Neuve Eglise, and Hill 63; but though these gave us an excellent view of some of his trenches on the west of the ridge, they did not enable us to keep the whole of his trench system with its approaches and back areas under constant observation, as he could keep ours. East of Kemmel or Neuve Eglise, no movement of our troops or transport was possible by day; and even in the trenches there were many places where it was impossible to construct cover from view.
The first sector allotted to the New Zealand Division lay in the low ground south of the River Douve and to the north and east of Ploegsteert Wood. Between March 12th and 16th, however, the Division handed over to the 3rd Australian Division all the portion of the line held by it to the south of St. Yves, and took over from the 36th Division all the front line as far as the point where it crossed the Wulverghem-Wytschaete road. The left of the New Zealand Division's new sector was therefore on the spur which lay to the west of the Messines Ridge, and the River Douve formed the inter-brigade boundary. The relief was carried out by the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade page 138 side-slipping to the north, and relieving part of the 107th Brigade, and by the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade relieving the remainder of the 107th Brigade and the 108th Brigade. The 1st New Zealand Infantry Brigade, relieved by the 11th Australian Brigade, moved back to the Nieppe-Romarin-De Seule area, and became brigade in reserve to the New Zealand Division.
The relief of the 108th and part of the 107th Brigades was carried out by the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade as follows:—On the night of March 12th/13th, the 1st Canterbury Battalion relieved the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (107th Brigade) on a seven hundred yards' frontage, with the River Douve (exclusive) on its right flank. The following night, the same battalion took over from the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (108th Brigade) the part of the front line which lay between the portion of line already held by the 1st Battalion and Boyle's Farm, on the Wulverghem-Messines road. The same night the 1st Otago Battalion relieved the rest of the front line battalions of the 108th Brigade between Boyle's Farm and the Wulverghem-Wytschaete road.
The 2nd Canterbury Battalion on the 14th relieved the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in a hutted camp at Red Lodge, where Ploegsteert Wood spreads up the southern slopes of Hill 63. It remained there till the 20th, when it relieved the 1st Canterbury Battalion in the line, the latter battalion moving back to Red Lodge. The battalions changed over again on the 28th. After remaining at Red Lodge till April 5th, the 2nd Battalion returned to the camp at Romarin, while the 1st Battalion, on being relieved in the line on April 6th by the 1st Auckland and 2nd Wellington Battalions, marched to billets at Nieppe. During the two battalions' tours in the line, they had been kept fully employed in repairing the trenches, which were in poor order; and while at Red Lodge and in billets, they were engaged on working parties to the front and subsidiary lines, and in laying railway lines and preparing positions for artillery.
The British General Headquarters now estimated that the enemy had sufficient reserves to enable him to make an attack on the British front; and it considered that the point at which the enemy would strike would be the Ypres salient, and that page 139 the front of the attack would probably extend as far south as Armentières. It was absolutely imperative that our positions south of the salient should hold out against such an attack; for while the British line in the salient was in an exposed position and liable to be forced back more easily than the line further south, the retirement of our troops from Kemmel and Hill 63 would expose the flank of the troops to their north, and would lead to the destruction of the bulk of the Second Army.
For this reason, special precautions were taken to ensure that the defences were as strong as work could make them, and all officers and senior non-commissioned officers were ordered to reconnoitre thoroughly the whole of the Divisional front, and all approaches from the rear areas.
The trenches between the front system and the subsidiary line, which having long been disused had been allowed to fall into bad repair, and which were ill-provided with covered approaches, were put into fighting order, and were connected with the other defences by proper communication trenches.
The usual standing orders that, in the event of an enemy attack, the troops in the trenches were to hold out against all odds, were repeated with special emphasis; and the impression received by all ranks was that while there might be sectors where the loss of a little ground was unimportant, this was certainly not one of them.
The enemy, however, did not make an attack; but it began to be common knowledge that there was to be a British attack on the Messines and Wytschaete Ridges, and that the New Zealand Division was to take part in it. The almost daily arrival in the back areas of new batteries of artillery—and of heavy artillery especially—showed that the operation was to be on a large scale. The preparation of positions for the newly-arrived batteries called for the assistance of working-parties from the infantry; and both Canterbury Battalions, when out of the line, supplied parties for this purpose. As soon as the guns were put in position, they began a bombardment of the enemy defences, and especially of the ruined village of Messines, which was to continue steadily right up to the day of the attack.page 140
By the middle of April, the plans of the attack were in the hands of brigade commanders. The attack, though complete in itself and on quite a large scale, was but a preliminary to a great attack extending from the Ypres salient to the sea. The enemy's positions from Messines to north of Wytschaete themselves formed a salient in his line; to cut off which would not only shorten our line, but would practically flatten the southern half of our own salient at Ypres, the deep penetration of which into the enemy's country made it vulnerable to flank attacks. Besides reducing this danger, the capture of the Messines and Wytschaete Ridges would take from the enemy much of the ground which gave him his best observation of the Ypres salient; and this would of course make easier the preparations for the main attack from that part of the line.
Though the attack on the ridges was in this sense a subsidiary one, yet it was by no means considered an easy task, or in any sense a minor operation. In the first place, the positions from which our attack was to be made were under full observation by the enemy, who could not fail to be aware of the true reason of the preparations which he saw growing daily under his very eyes. Then the enemy's lines were sited in strong natural defensive positions, and during his long occupation of them he had left nothing undone that military science could devise to improve his defences. He believed them to be impregnable against direct assault. The British preparations to take these positions therefore included a hitherto unprecedented concentration of artillery, which began its work months before the date fixed for the attack; a more elaborate barrage of heavies, field-guns, and machine-guns, to cover the advance of the infantry, than had been employed before; and a very careful and special training of the troops picked for the operation.
The training area of the New Zealand Division was situated south-west of St. Omer, in country that during peace time had been one of the training grounds of the French Army. Consisting of gently rolling downs, broken here and there by deep valleys and lightly cultivated and unfenced, with small woods and villages here and there, it was ideal country for military page 141 purposes. The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had gone to the training area at the beginning of April, and on its return the 2nd Brigade was sent there.
|1st Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||9|
|2nd Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||1*||4|
Total for both battalions: 1 officer and 13 other ranks killed and 1 officer and 20 other ranks wounded.
The 2nd Brigade marched to the training ground, leaving its back-area camps and billets on April 16th. The first night the 1st Canterbury Battalion spent in billets at Pradelles, and the 2nd Battalion at Grand Sec Bois; and next night the battalions were at Wallon Cappel and Lynde respectively. The following day the march was finished, and the battalions settled down in billets for a period of twelve days—the 1st Battalion at Tatinghem, two miles west of St. Omer, and the 2nd Battalion with its headquarters and three companies at Setques, five miles south-west of the same town, and one company (the 1st) at Quelmes, two miles north-west of Setques.
* Major F. B. Brown (accidentally killed 7th March).
The training was carried out on progressive lines as usual; though, on account of both battalions having been out of the line for some time before beginning the march, and also on account of the good effect of the three days' marching, little time had to be spent in getting the men into good physical condition. For the first few days, training was carried on by the companies, and the time was spent in rifle exercises and barrack square drill (to smarten everybody up, and thus foster his self-respect and improve his morale), bayonet fighting, gas drill, exercising the platoons in open warfare movements, the siting and digging of communication trenches and strong-points, and night marching by compass.
At the end of the period devoted to company work, the company commanders practised the movement of their commands, in attacks under conditions of open and trench warfare and against villages. Thereafter the companies ceased to work except under the direct control of the Commanding Officer of the battalion. Under his command the battalion practised attacks from trench to trench and in open country, with and without a creeping barrage, moving through enemy country with advance and flank guards, taking up outpost positions, enveloping villages. and street fighting.
In the meanwhile, the Brigade Major, Major H. M. W. Richardson, D.S.O., M.C., (New Zealand Staff Corps) had selected a piece of ground which corresponded closely in contour and area to the ground on which was situated the enemy's defences of the village of Messines. On this he marked out all page 143 the enemy's trenches, as shown by aeroplane photographs, the village itself, and the British trenches on the other side of No-Man's-Land. The troops of the brigade then dug shallow trenches and marked the position of streets and houses by scratching lines in the turf, and the result was a replica, to full scale, of the country over which the brigade was to fight.
On this ground the brigade practised the attack again and again, moving forward under a barrage represented by men carrying flags and controlled by the staff captain of the brigade. The time-table laid down in the orders for the operation was strictly adhered to: the time between "zero hour" (i.e., the time the first infantry left the trenches) and the capture of the brigade's last objective was over one and three-quarter hours, so that not more than two complete attacks could be properly carried out in a working day, even though lunch was taken on the field. After each practice, the Brigadier held a conference of officers and criticised the way in which it had been done.
With the exception of the troops detailed to assault the front line trenches, who advanced in extended order across No-Man's-Land, the whole brigade moved in artillery formation, that is, with each platoon in two irregular lines of sections in single file. For the first part of the advance, each line was kept as close up to the preceding one as was safe, so as to enable the rear-most troops to get across No-Man's-Land as quickly as possible. The object of doing this was to get all the attacking troops across No-Man's-Land before the enemy's barrage could be brought down there and on our front line.
The reason for the advance in sections in single file was twofold; first, this formation prevented loss by artillery fire, and second, experience had proved that it enabled the section to be kept under better control than if it were in extended order, and also that it was the best method of crossing country badly pitted with shell-holes. As each line approached its objective, the platoon commanders gave orders for their sections to extend, and the platoon was then ready to rush in two waves on the enemy trenches. The above brief description of the brigade formation is sufficient in a description of the training for the attack; details of the objectives and the order of battle of the battalions will be found in the description of the actual battle.page 144
Two such practices of the attack took place on April 26th, and two more the next day. The 28th was devoted to an open warfare tactical exercise, in which the brigade, moving under cover of an advanced guard, came in contact with the enemy and attacked him. The enemy was represented by a skeleton force, with gas alarm rattles to represent machine-guns. Next day the brigade marched in the dark to the assembly trenches, and at 5 a.m. carried out another practice attack.
On April 30th the final practice took place, in the presence of General Sir H. Plumer, commanding the Second Army, and the General Officers commanding the II Anzac Army Corps and the Division. A contact aeroplane from the 42nd Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps co-operated with the infantry, and the attack was made more realistic by the use of smoke-bombs and dummy rifle-grenades. The constant practising had made the attack practically a drill movement, and General Plumer expressed his approval of the way in which it was done.
This was the last day of training, and the following day (May 1st) the 2nd Brigade began its return journey to the Divisional sector. The 1st Canterbury Battalion was billeted for the night at Wallon Cappel on May 1st and at Pradelles on the 2nd, and on the afternoon of the 3rd it marched into Bulford Camp on the Neuve Eglise hill. The 2nd Battalion spent the nights of May 1st and 2nd at Lynde and Grand Sec Bois respectively, and arrived at Romarin on the 3rd.
Lieut.-Colonel G. C. Griffiths, C.M G.
Lieut.-Colonel N. F. Shepherd, D.S.O.
page 145 each way to and from their work, as well as a solid six hours' task of digging.
Casualties were inevitable: but on looking back it is difficult to understand why the enemy did as little as he did to hinder the work, which every morning he must have seen had grown in the night. Certainly it was not because our artillery let him alone: our heavies pounded his defences as long as there was enough daylight for the observers to direct their fire, and all night our field guns hailed shrapnel on his roads and tracks, and our long-range guns shelled his billets. Possibly the enemy was so confident in the strength of his defences, that he considered our attack must end in disaster; and so he wished the attack to be delivered.
However, the enemy did not allow all our activity to go unchecked. On the night of May 5th/6th he shelled our roads and back areas at irregular intervals during the whole of the hours of darkness. The 1st Battalion, at Bulford Camp, was driven out of its quarters three times during the night, as heavy guns shelled the camp between 9.30 and 10 p.m., between 11 and 11.30 p.m., and between 3 and 3.30 a.m. killing one man and wounding one officer and one other rank. The 2nd Battalion's camp was also shelled once during the night: no casualties resulted, but one other rank was wounded while on the way back from work in the line. The following night the shelling was repeated, though not so persistently; but again the 1st Battalion suffered, having one other rank killed and five wounded, as against the 2nd Battalion's loss of one killed and one wounded.
It appears from intelligence subsequently received that the enemy expected to be attacked at this time, and that his artillery fire was directed against the troops he supposed were assembling for that purpose. In consequence of this artillery activity on the part of the enemy, the Second Army arranged a retaliatory shoot on the night of May 7th/8th, when every piece of artillery under the Army's command engaged in a hurricane bombardment between 8.45 and 8.50 p.m., and also between 11 and 11.5 p.m. After this, night fire on our back areas gave very little trouble.
On May 10th the 1st Battalion handed over Bulford Camp to the 9th Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and page 146 marched to billets at Nieppe. While the battalion was there, it was successful in winning the first prize for battalion transport, at the New Zealand Divisional Horse Show, held on the 13th.
During this period a brigade school was established at Bonanza Lines, between Romarin and Nieppe, and Captain A. D. Stitt was appointed commandant and chief instructor. Platoon commanders and senior non-commissioned officers from all battalions attended for a week's course, which was devoted mainly to the use of maps and compass by day and by night message writing, and minor tactics. A model platoon was established and billeted at the school, and was used for carrying out the tactical exercises.
The weather during May was wonderfully fine and warm, and enabled preparations for the attack to be pushed forward unceasingly. Besides the preliminary work in which, as has been mentioned, the two Canterbury Battalions took their share, there was very great activity in other directions behind our lines. Our preparations could not be hidden from the enemy: the country swarmed with men building gun positions, new broad and narrow-gauge railways, light-railway marshalling yards, and dumps for ammunitions, rations, and materials of all kinds, laying buried telephone-cables,* improving old roads and building new ones, and engaged in the hundred other activities which must precede an attack on a large scale.
* Officers and other ranks detached from all battalions of the New Zealand Division were formed into special units for burying cables.
One of our most important preparations, which no camouflage could possibly conceal, was the work of the artillery. For this battle the General Headquarters Staff had concentrated more guns than had ever before been used in an attack of this size. Except where a battery was to be kept silent till zero hour, as soon as a gun came into position it began to take its share in the destruction of the enemy defences. While the heavies and trench-mortars were engaged by day in cutting the enemy's wire and destroying his trenches, the field-guns spent the night in harassing fire; making the roads their principal targets, with the object of preventing the enemy from bringing up material to renew his defences.
The guns of the larger calibres concentrated their fire on the points where the enemy was known or suspected to have built strong concrete works: in the New Zealand sector their chief target was the village of Messines, which before the attack had been reduced to practically the level of the ground. The enemy retaliated chiefly by counter-battery work; and as the whole face of the country was covered with small ammunition dumps, fires and explosions were frequent.
In order to make the enemy disclose the position of his guns, our artillery carried out very heavy bombardments of Messines on June 2nd and 3rd. There was no continuous bombardment, such as had occurred in previous battles, immediately preceding the assault; heavy concentrations at irregular intervals, followed by periods of silence, were the rule, and on the morning of the attack our guns were comparatively silent from 12.30 a.m. till zero hour.
To support the attack of the infantry, the staff had arranged a most elaborate barrage, consisting of standing barrages by the heavy artillery, laid on certain dangerous areas and continued until the infantry approached the danger zone of the shells, and a creeping barrage by the field guns and machine guns. Some idea of the amount of artillery at the disposal of the Second Army is given by the allotment of field guns to the New Zealand Division. Attacking on a front of rather under a mile, the Division was supported by nineteen batteries of eighteen-pounder page 148 guns (one hundred and fourteen guns) and six batteries of 4.5-inch howitzers (thirty-six guns). Fifty-six machine-guns also supported the Division's attack. The number of heavy guns under Corps and Army control supporting the Division was in proportion to the number of field guns.
Another feature of the preparations for the attack was the work of the tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers and Australian Imperial Force, who had been fighting the enemy underground throughout the winter and spring. At zero-hour, twenty-three mines were exploded, which were estimated to contain a million pounds of high-explosive. There were no mines exploded on the territory over which the New Zealand Division fought; but on the Division's left flank a large mine, exploded under Ontario Farm in the enemy's front line, was within six hundred yards of the left flank of the assembly trenches, and considerably closer to them than the first objective.
Finally, thirty-two tanks were ordered to co-operate with the II Anzac Army Corps; and of these, twelve were allotted to the New Zealand Division. As events turned out, their help was not needed, as the few which succeeded in getting across No-Man's-Land were outstripped by the infantry. One tank, however, did very good work on the left flank, and is claimed to have been instrumental in causing the garrison of Swayne's Farm to surrender.
These preparations continued without intermission right up to the very hour of the attack. Meanwhile, on May 22nd, the 2nd Brigade relieved the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in the line. The 1st Canterbury Battalion, having last had a turn in the line, was in brigade reserve, and relieved the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade by daylight, taking over huts and tents on the wooded slopes of Hill 63. The 2nd Battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in the Douve (or right) sector, at dusk on the same day, the 2nd and 12th Companies being in the line with the 13th Company in support and the 1st Company in reserve. All the troops, except those actually in the line, continued to work in preparation for the attack: casualties were becoming more numerous, but the arrival of reinforcement drafts for both battalions more than made up their strength. On May 30th the page 149 Canterbury Battalions changed places. the 1st Battalion putting the 13th and 2nd Companies in the line, the 12th Company in support, and the 1st Company in reserve. Before the relief, the "B" team from the 1st Battalion was sent back to camp at Morbecque.
The 1st Brigade was due to return from the training area on June 2nd, and was to relieve the 2nd Brigade in the line on the 3rd. In preparation for the relief, the 1st Otago Battalion, which was also in the line, took over the whole of the brigade front on the 2nd, and the 1st Canterbury Battalion marched back to Canteen Corner, a short distance east of the intersection of the Bailleul-Armentières and Neuve Eglise-Steenwerck roads. Here was the bivouac area for the whole brigade: on the morning of the 3rd, the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, which had been relieved early by the 2nd Wellington Battalion, marched in. Tents and tarpaulin shelters were available for use at night, but the troops were not allowed to keep them pitched during daylight, for fear of aeroplane observation by the enemy.
No work was done while the brigade was in bivouacs; the special equipment and materials required for the battle, such as smoke-bombs, flares for signalling to aeroplanes, S.O.S. rockets, picks and shovels and sandbags, were issued to the company commanders, and by them distributed among the men. On the night of the 3rd, the enemy shelled the bivouac area with long range high-velocity guns; but though his shooting was accurate and destroyed a cook-house, it caused no casualties. Otherwise the brigade was undisturbed, and waited for orders to attack.
The "B" team of the 2nd Battalion left for Morbecque on the 4th. On the afternoon of the same day the Brigadier-General held a final conference of all officers of the 2nd Brigade, and, as well as going over the details which were already familiar to all, handed on to them all information which it had been thought advisable to keep confidential up till the last moment, including the date of the attack—June 7th. The following day the 1st Canterbury Battalion relieved the 1st Auckland Battalion in the tunnels on Hill 63; but the 2nd Battalion remained at Canteen Corner till it moved out on the night of June 6th/7th to its assembly trenches.page 150
|1st Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||18|
|2nd Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Killed in Action and Died of Wounds||4|
Total for both battalions: 22 other ranks killed and 2 officers and 86 other ranks wounded.