The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919
Chapter IX. — The Battle of Messines
The Battle of Messines.
In the previous chapter it was explained that the British attack on the Messines and Wytschaete Ridges was merely the preliminary to a great attack from the Ypres Salient; and that before any attack could be made from this part of the British line it was essential that these ridges should be taken, because their capture would flatten and secure the right flank of the salient, and would deprive the enemy of much of the high ground from which he obtained his observation on the defences of Ypres, The ridges themselves formed in the German line a salient, which was about as large and deep as our own at Ypres, and the southern flank of which was dominated and protected by the strong defences of the village of Messines. The resemblance between the two salients was only in the matter of size: for the enemy's consisted of strong positions on high ground, which he bad deliberately selected on account of their menace to Ypres; whereas the British positions were on low ground, to which our troops had clung desperately, without choice of any other, in spite of the enemy's attempts to drive them out.
It has been seen, too, that the. German salient on the ridges ended at St. Yves, on the north-east comer of Ploegsteert Wood. Here the opposing lines, which had been running in a southeasterly direction for about three miles, turned to the south; and running along the eastern edge of the wood, continued in the same direction till they crossed the River Lys at Houplines, east of Armentières. Ploegsteert Wood with its strong defences backed by those of Hill 63, formed the natural southern pivot for the attack on the ridges.
The share in the attack assigned to the II Anzac Army Corps was the capture of the southern flank of the German salient, from St. Yves northwards to the Wulverghem-Wytschaete road, penetrating into the enemy positions to about a mile east page 152 of the village of Messines, The Corps' final objective, the "Green Line" and part of the "Black Line," was an almost straight line from the village of St. Yves to the hamlet of Wambeke. The Divisions of this Corps to take part in the first phase of the attack were to be the 3rd Australian Division on the right, the New Zealand Division in the centre, and the 25th Division on the left; which together were to establish a line running north from St. Yves, passing about nine hundred yards to the east of the village of Messines and running through Despagne Farm. This line was known as the "Black Line" and "Dotted Black Line."
Later in the day, the 4th Australian Division was to pass through the portion of this line established by the New Zealand and 25th Divisions, and capture the Corps' final objective from the Messines-Comines road (called on our maps "Hun's Walk") to Wambeke. At the same time, the 3rd Australian Division (which, it was anticipated, would up to then have had a comparatively easy task, and would already, in its first advance, have reached the Corps' final objective in the southern half of its own Divisional frontage*) would advance on the right of the 4th Australian Division, and capture the remainder of the Corps' final objective, from the Douve River to Hun's Walk.
The final objective of the New Zealand Division was, as stated above, a line about nine hundred yards east of the village of Messines, The Divisional and brigade boundaries and objectives are shown on the map at the end of this chapter: it may be broadly stated here that the task of the New Zealand Division was to capture the village of Messines, and to establish and consolidate a temporary defensive position about half a mile to the east of the village, on a frontage of slightly under a mile. This position was to be held as part of the British front line, until the 4th Australian Division had established another line in front of it, on the Corps' final objective.
* i.e.. the ' Bleck Line." As the part of the German line assaulted was a salient, the early objectives were naturally further to the west than the pivotal point of St. Yves; 80 that the Black Line, which ran due north till it reached a point opposite the southern end of the village of Messines, from that point began to swing away in a north-westerly direction. At the river Douve, the "Green Line" began; swinging out at first towards the north-east, but eventually running north again.
The greater width of No-Man's-Land on the left, and the danger of the loss of direction entailed by troops attacking from trenches which did not directly face the objective, made it necessary for assembly trenches to be dug in No-Man's-Land. These trenches were marked out on April 11th by Lieutenant J. Keilar (2nd Field Company New Zealand Engineers), Lieutenant Molloy (1st Otago), and 2nd Lieutenant A. Cracroft Wilson (2nd Canterbury), who were specially complimented by the General Officer commanding the 2nd Brigade for their work. On the night of April 13th, a party of four hundred other ranks of the 1st Otago Battalion, under Major J. Hargest, M.C., dug this trench. A covering party from the 2nd Wellington Battalion, under Captain R. F. C. Scott, protected the working party. The work was carried out without casualties, and reflected great credit on all concerned.
As will be seen from the map, the completion of this trench reduced the width of No-Man's-Land, for the purpose of the attack, to about four hundred yards. Still these preparations could not dispose of the awkward fact that the left Divisional boundary for eight hundred yards ran parallel to the enemy's front line trench, and at a distance of a hundred yards (and under) from that trench. This fact naturally caused a great deal of anxiety prior to the attack; for it was necessary for the page 154 attacking troops to assemble, and afterwards attack, with their flank exposed to this trench, in order to take by surprise the front line trench at the base of the re-entrant.
The reserve battalion of the 2nd Brigade was detailed to protect the flank, if required: but as it turned out, no trouble was experienced from this direction on the day of the battle. The credit for this was due: firstly, to the excellence of the 18-pounder barrage, which remained on the trenches on the left flank till it gave place to the infantry who were following it; and secondly, to the fine work of the 25th Division, which had a stiff task on the left, and did it well.
The tasks allotted to the various infantry brigades of the New Zealand Division were as follows:—The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade on the right and the 2nd Brigade on the left were to take the village of Messines, and the German trenches at the rear of the village, which were sited so as to defend the village from the attacks of flanking parties. On the right of the village, the 3rd Brigade was to take the reserve trenches of the enemy front line system (Ulcer Reserve); and on the left the 2nd Brigade was to dig a line a hundred and fifty yards on the enemy's side of the Wytschaete-Messines road.
Except on the extreme left, the whole of these objectives were to be attained in one hour and forty-eight minutes after the attack commenced; and the 1st Brigade was immediately to continue the advance to a line running about five hundred yards east of the village of Messines, but swinging round in a westerly direction north of that village, so as to protect the left flank from counter-attacks from the direction of Wytschaete. The 1st Brigade was to consolidate this line (called the "Black Line"), and then, five and a half hours after the zero hour of the Division's original attack, was to go forward and capture the Division's final objective, the "Black Dotted Line."
The fact that the 25th Division was not timed to come fully up on the left till the 1st Brigade's second attack, delayed the infantry's advance on the left flank; and also made necessary the formation of strong protective flanks on the left, as each successive objective was captured.
Turning now to the 2nd Brigade's share in the attack, the brigade had been allotted the left half of the Division's sector.page 155
The boundary between the 2nd and 3rd Brigades commenced at the point where the River Steenebeek entered our front line, and thence ran in a straight line to the bend of the Gooseberry Farm-Messines road (in No-Man's-Land), and thence up to the left side of that road to its junction with the Wytschaete-Messines road in the village of Messines, From there, the boundary followed the enemy side of the Wytschaete-Messines road in a northerly direction, to an open space in the village, halfway between the Gooseberry Farm-Messines road and the Wulver-ghem-Messines road: at which point the boundary turned off at right angles, and ran in a straight line to the Chapelle du Voleur, on Hun's Walk.
The 2nd Brigade's share of the Division's objectives was subdivided into the main objective described above, and two sub-objectives, (1) the "Blue Line," i.e., the enemy's front line system as far as and including the support line, with the strong-point at the Moulin de I'Hospice, and (2) the "Brown Line," i.e., the enemy's reserve trenches, except a portion of those trenches on the left, where the "Brown Line" left the line of the reserve trenches and swung back to the west, thus forming a defensive flank.
On account of the curve of the German salient, and the deep re-entrant opposite the New Zealand Division, the objectives of the 25th Division (on the left), though they were practically in line with those of the New Zealand Division, were some five or six hundred yards further from its jumping-off point than of those of the latter Division. Also, its No-Man's-Land was narrower than that opposite the New Zealand Division; So that the 25th Division had to fight its way over seven or eight hundred yards more than the New Zealanders.
As a result, the plans for the battle involved the New Zealand Division fighting with its flank "in the air," as far as infantry support was concerned, for two hours after the first assault was made. But the flank was not, of course, to be left unprotected: a tremendously heavy artillery barrage was to come down on the whole of the enemy trenches there, and to remain there till the 25th Division had time to fight its way over the intervening ground.page 156
According to the time-table for the attack, nine minutes after zero hour the barrage was to lift off the German front line trenches attacked by the New Zealand Division: and the 25th Division was not timed to arrive level with the same trenches till forty-five minutes after zero. As the 25th Division gradually came up level with the New Zealand Division. the defensive flank on the "Brown Line" (mentioned above) would become unnecessary: so that on the left the 2nd Brigade had a third sub-objective—the "Purple Line"—consisting of that part of the enemy reserve trenches which lay to the north of the "Brown Line." The capture of this third sub-objective would straighten the "Brown Line."
For the same reasons, there was a sub-objective to the 2nd Brigade's main objective, or the "Yellow Line." This "Yellow Line" consisted solely of the German trench (Oxonian Trench) constructed for the defence of the village against attacks from the flanks and rear, and joined the "Brown Line" at the Wytschaete-Messines road, where the "Brown Line" turned towards the west to form the defensive flank. The sub-objective to the main objective was the "Red Line," which ran parallel to and a hundred and fifty yards to the east of the Wytschaete-Messines road. The "Red Line" was to be taken when the 25th Division came up on the left.
The Canterbury Regiment was given the largest share in the capture of the brigade's objectives. The first two sub-objectives were divided among two battalions, the right half being allotted to the 1st Canterbury Battalion, and the left half (together with the third sub-objective) to the 1st Otago Battalion. The whole of the brigade's main objectives were allotted to the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, reinforced by the 10th Company of the 2nd Otago Battalion, which was attached to the 2nd Canterbury Battalion for the operations. The remainder of the 2nd Otago Battalion formed the brigade reserve.
The following transcript of the brigade's Operation Orders shows the tasks allotted to the Canterbury Battalions:—
1st Canterbury Battalion:
|(a)||First sub-objective: The capture and consolidation of the Blue Line, i.e., Uhlan Trench, Uhlan Support, Uhlan Row, page 157 and Oyster Avenue, from the Gooseberry Farm-Messines road (inclusive) to the Moulin de I'Hospice (exclusive).|
|(b)||Second sub-objective: The capture and consolidation of the Brown Line, i.e., the Oyster Reserve [inclusive of the Gooseberry Farm-Messines road and the Wytschaete-Messines road (inclusive) ] to the junction of the last named road and the Wul-verghem-Messines road (exclusive). This sub-objective also includes the capture of Oyster Avenue, the Strong Works about the Au Bon Fermier Cabaret, and the houses on the northern side of the Gooseberry Farm-Messines road, which latter operation is to be allotted to a specially detailed body of troops.|
2nD Canterbury Battalion:Brigade Main Objective.
|(a)||First sub-objective: The capture of the Yellow Line (Oxonian Trench) from the right brigade boundary to the Wytschaete-Messines road (inclusive) and the establishment of a bombing post down Unbearable Trench about one hundred yards east of the junction of that trench with Oxonian Trench. The mopping-up of that portion of Messines north of the brigade's right boundary.|
|(b)||Second sub-objective: The straightening up of the Yellow Line by capturing the Red Line (October Support) from the Yellow Line to the brigade left boundary.|
The 1st Canterbury Battalion had been in the tunnels in Hill 63 since the evening of June 5th. On that evening its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel R. Young, who had been attached to the Division for liaison work during the operations, handed over the command to Major A. D. Stitt, who was to lead the battalion in the attack. The second in command of the battalion. Major N. F. Shepherd, left for the transport lines on the same day, to supervise the work of the "Q" branch during the attack.
At 9.30 p.m. on the night of June 6th/7th, the battalion left for its assembly trenches, via Plumduff and Calgary Avenues, and was in position by midnight. In the afternoon of that day, one platoon of the 2nd Company and one platoon of the 12th Company had relieved the 2nd Auckland Battalion in the right half of the 2nd Brigade's portion of the front line.page 158
The assembly positions were as follows:—
- (3 platoons) Advanced Trench (in No-Man's-Land) and Front Line.
- (l platoon) Auckland Switch.
- (2 platoons) Advanced Trench.
- (2 platoons) Advanced Travel Trench.
- (2 platoons) Otira Trench, forward of Auckland Switch.
- (1 platoon) Otira Trench, right of Romer Avenue.
- (1 platoon) Otira Trench, left of Romer Avenue.
- (2 platoons) Otira Travel Trench, forward of Auckland Switch.
- (1 platoon) Otira Travel Trench, right of Romer Avenue.
- (l platoon) Otira Travel Trench, left of Romer Avenue.
The strength of officers and other ranks taken into action is not stated in the official reports.
Before moving off for the trenches, the battalion was unfortunate in losing thirty men by shell fire, which caught them dividing rations outside the tunnels. The assembly trenches were not shelled, from the time the battalion arrived in them, till it moved forward to the assault. Nevertheless, conditions were rendered very unpleasant by the enemy's copious use of gas, as appears from the following extract from the Brigadier's Report on the operations:—
"The move to the assembly trenches was carried out to time, but under very adverse conditions, owing to the effect of the gas shells which the enemy kept pouring over our communication trenches throughout the evening, and the early part of the night. The effect of these shells is most demoralising and depressing. and it reflects the greatest credit on the brigade that they succeeded in reaching their assembly trenches in the way they did. as each man was heavily handicapped by having to wear his box respirator, Considering the heavy nature of this gas barrage, page 159 the casualties from gas were exceedingly light: the 2nd Otago Battalion suffered the most severely, losing twenty-five men."
In the meantime, the 2nd Battalion had since the morning of June 3rd been under canvas at Canteen Corner, making final preparations for action. At 9 p.m. on the night of June 6th/7th the battalion left camp for the assembly trenches viâ "Y" route (a cross country track along the spur which connects Neuve Eglise and Hill 63) and Plumduff and Calgary Avenues. The strength of the battalion was twenty-one officers and six hundred and sixty-nine other ranks, and Lieutenant-Colonel H. Stewart was in command. Major G. C. Griffiths, second in command, remained at the transport lines.
By 1.30 a.m. the battalion was in its assembly positions, which were as follows:—
Battalion Headquarters in Auckland Trench, on the right of Calgary Avenue.
1st Company in Auckland Trench:
1 platoon on the left of Romer Avenue, 3 platoons between Romer Avenue and the brigade's right boundary.
2nd Company in Auckland Trench:
3 platoons from Calgary Avenue to Otago Avenue, 1 platoon on the left of Otago Avenue.
12th Company in Auckland Treneh:
- 2 platoons in Auckland Trench between Calgary and Romer Avenues.
- 2 platoons in Canterbury Trench between Calgary and Romer Avenues.
Zero hour was fixed for 3.10 a.m. on the 7th. From 12.30 a.m. to that hour the night was fairly quiet, except that one section of machine-guns opened the barrage four minutes before zero. Fortunately this was not sufficient to alarm the enemy; and no great damage was done, beyond the fact that some of the troops in the rear assembly trenches moved forward on hearing the machineguns open. The morning was very dark, and there was a slight mist in addition, so that it was quite dark when precisely at 3.10 a.m. the mines were exploded at Ontario Farm and our barrage came down.page 160
There was no creeping barrage across No-Man's Land, but there was a stationary 18-pounder barrage on the enemy front line till nine minutes after zero.
At zero hour the leading waves of the 1st Canterbury Battalion (2nd and 12th Companies) left the assembly trench in line in extended order, and advanced across No-Man's-Land till they were checked by our barrage on the enemy front line. They were followed by the 13th Company plus 1 platoon of the 1st Company, and then by the remainder of the 1st Company of the same battalion, extended over the whole of the battalion front, in irregular line of sections in single file, with fifteen yards' distance between companies. On the left, the 1st Otago Battalion moved forward in similar formation.
|(1)||2 platoons each of 13th Company (on right) and 2nd Company (on left).|
|(2)||2 platoons each of 1st Company (on right) and 12th Company (on left).|
|(3)||The remaining platoons of 1st Company and 12th Company.|
|(4)||The remaining platoons of 13th Company and 2nd Company.|
The attached company (the 10th North Otago) of the 2nd Otago Battalion formed a fifth line of sections; and immediately behind it came the remainder of that battalion, in similar formation. The last of these troops had passed the forward assembly trench in No-Man's-Land by seven minutes after zero, before the enemy counter-barrage had come down.
Commenting on this the Brigadier says, in his Report on the operations:—
Lieut.-Colonel A. D. Stitt. D.S.O., M.C
Lieut.-Colonel J. G. Hughes, C.M.G., D.S.O. (D)
Immediately the barrage lifted off the enemy front line the 2nd and 12th Companies of the 1st Canterbury Battalion entered it without opposition, and five minutes later the further lifting of the barrage enabled them to capture the support line at 3.25 a.m. The barrage remained stationary on a line two hundred yards in advance of the support line for eleven minutes, during which time the 13th Company and one platoon of the 1st Company of the same battalion moved up to the barrage into position to continue the advance. Twenty-seven minutes after zero (3.37 a.m.) the barrage, which up to this time had conformed to the shape of the front line of the enemy trenches, began to straighten out; and six minutes later the barrage was in a straight line across the whole brigade front, and moving forward at right angles to the line of direction of the advance, at the rate of a hundred yards every three minutes.
The process of straightening out allowed the 1st Company platoon to take the Au Bon Fermier Cabaret, with three machineguns and seventeen prisoners. The 13th Company followed up the barrage and took the Brown Line at 3.50 a.m.
Immediately after the capture of these objectives, the battalion consolidated in three lines, between the old German front line and the Brown Line. The 13th Company dug a trench fifty to a hundred yards behind Oyster Reserve, from the Wulverghem-Messines road to the Gooseberry Farm-Messines road. About a hundred yards to the rear of the right flank of the 13th Company, the platoon of the 1st Company which had been attached to the 13th Company for the purpose of dealing with Au Bon Fermier Cabaret, dug a strong-point.
Midway between the 13th Company's trench and the Blue Line, the 2nd and 12th Companies dug in, with their flanks resting on the two roads last mentioned above. The remainder of the 1st Company dug a trench under cover of the slope, between the same two roads and from fifty to a hundred yards in advance page 162 of the old enemy front line. At 4.10 a. m., battalion headquarters was established in the ruins of a house, midway between the Au Bon Fermier Cabaret and the Moulin de I'Hospice, and close to the strong-point garrisoned by the detached platoon of the 1st Company.
Meanwhile the 2nd Canterbury Battalion had been following close on the heels of the 1st Battalion. Directly the 1st Battalion had captured the Brown Line, the 2nd Battalion followed the barrage into the left portion of the village of Messinee. On its way up the battalion had met with a little opposition from two machine-guns in shell holes two hundred yards west of the village, which had been passed by the leading troops. These guns were rushed and the crews killed.
When the barrage was half way through the village, it halted for fourteen minutes (from 3.52 to 4.06 a.m.). During this time the 1st Company commenced its work of clearing the dugouts in the village, to the right of the Wulverghem-Messines road. On the left, however, the barrage failed to lift, and the 12th Company was thus prevented from entering the northern outskirts of the village. Two platoons of this company, however, were worked around to the right flank of the position; and on the barrage lifting, Oxonian Trench was rushed by the whole of the Company. Many of the enemy were killed, and fifty prisoners were taken.
Meanwhile the barrage had crossed the remainder of the village, at the rate of a hundred yards every fifteen minutes, and was closely followed by two platoons of each of the 2nd and 13th Companies. Very close behind them came the 1st Company, which in its work of clearing the village met with some resistance from snipers and bombers. This resistance was quickly overcome; a large number of the enemy were killed, and a hundred and eighty prisoners were taken. Two machine-guns were captured in the church, by the 1st Company.
On passing through the village, the 13th Company's two leading platoons (on the right) were held up by a party of the enemy, which had manned Oxonian Trench and the trenches in the cemetery to the east of the village. The remaining two platoons of the Company were immediately brought up, and the enemy position was rushed. Here a number of the enemy were page 163 killed, and fifty were taken prisoners. On the left, the 2nd Company's two leading platoons met with little opposition, except from a machine-gun, which they captured. The company took its share of Oxonian Trench without much difficulty or resistance.
The 2nd Canterbury Battalion had captured all its objectives by 4.58 a.m., in accordance with the timetable, and without meeting with serious opposition. Of the twenty machine-guns captured by the battalion, only five had been brought into action by the enemy; and these had been rushed before they could do much damage. Practically no artillery fire was encountered till the enemy's support trenches were passed; and no heavy fire until Oxonian Trench was captured.
At 4.12 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart had established his battalion headquarters at the Moulin de I'Hospice. After the capture of the final objective, patrols and covering parties were pushed forward as far as the barrage would permit, and the work of consolidation commenced. This consisted of a narrow and deep trench parallel to and about two hundred yards in advance of Oxonian Trench.
At 5 a.m. the enemy began to shell the village very heavily, and this shelling was maintained till the battalion was relieved next day. The digging of the trench proceeded under very heavy shell fire, and it was here that the chief losses of the battalion were incurred. At the same time the 1st Battalion's new trenches came under heavy enfilade fire from the enemy's artillery. This fire continued without intermission until 5 p.m. the following day, and was the main cause of the battalion's casualties in the operations.
At about 5 a.m., Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart, while moving the 2nd Battalion headquarters forward to the village, was dangerously wounded in eight places by a shell. Major J. McCrae, commanding the 2nd Otago Battalion, took over the command, till he was relieved at 8.30 a.m. by Major F. Starnes, D.S.O., who had been sent up from Le Plus Douve Farm. Battalion headquarters was then established by Major Starnes on the south side of the Wulverghem-Messines road, just to the west of the village.
During the clearing of Messines and the capture of Oxonian Trench, our barrage had assumed the nature of a "box barrage" page 164 round the village; while at the same time there was a creeping barrage through the village, to enable the dug-outs to be cleared piece-meal, The barrage on the flanks of the village began to creep forward again at 5 a.m.
By this time the 25th Division was up on the left, and the 1st Brigade came through the 2nd Brigade, and attacked the Black Line. At 5.20 a.m. (zero plus two hours ten minutes) the whole of that line had been taken, and a protective barrage established three hundred yards in advance of it. The attack paused at this point for over three hours, while the artillery moved up. At 8.40 a.m. (zero plus five hours thirty minutes) the barrage began to move on again, and nine minutes later the Black Dotted Line was taken by the 1st Brigade, and posts established there. Shortly after 1 p.m. the enemy were seen massing on the Green Line for a counter attack. An artillery barrage was put down. and the attack was broken up before reaching the Black Dotted Line.
There was still another pause in the attack till 3.10 p.m. (zero plus twelve hours), when the 4th Australian Division went through the 1st Brigade. advanced to and captured the Green Chain Line, and linked up with the Corps on our left. The reports as to the actual position of the Australians during the 7th and the night of the 7th/8th are very conflicting, and the whole matter is obscure: but by 10 a.m. on the 8th, the Green Chain Line was in the undisputed possession of the 4th Australian Division. Till then the position gave grounds for anxiety, to the 1st Brigade especially.
The 1st Brigade being firmly established on the Black Dotted Line, the dispositions of the 1st Canterbury Battalion were altered slightly. A new trench was dug in front of the Blue Line, and garrisoned by the 13th Company and three platoons of the 1st Company, the rest of the battalion remaining in their original trenches. The change was completed by 4.30 p.m. Half an hour later, battalion headquarters was moved back to our old front line, and telephonic communication was established between the front line companies and battalion headquarters.
Both the Canterbury Battalions spent the rest of the day, and the night which followed. in improving their positions. During the night plenty of rations and munitions were brought up; and page 165 though heavy shelling was still maintained by the enemy, the trenches now afforded a good measure of protection against its effects.
The next day (the 8th) the shelling was still continuous and heavy; but the work of improving the trenches went on steadily, and some useful wiring was done, by the 1st Battalion especially, At 6 p.m. on the same day, the 2nd Battalion was relieved by the 1st Wellington Battalion, and moved to Battle Reserve trenches. These trenches consisted of two lines in the right half of the Divisional area, the front line linking up with the 1st Canterbury Battalion's front line. The support line did not join up the 1st Battalion's line, but began at the point where the Blue Line crossed the Messines-Ploegsteert road, and ran parallel to the 2nd Battalion's front line as far as the right Divisional boundary.
On this day the regiment suffered severe loss through the death of the Rev. Father J. J. Mc.Menamin, who was killed while burying the dead. He had been with the 2nd Battalion since it was formed, and was loved and respected by every officer and other rank who had known him.
Rations and a welcome issue of rum came up early in the evening, and with them clean socks for everyone. The night was quiet, and the men had a chance to make up for the previous sleepless nights. Trench improvements continued the following day (the 9th) and at 4 p.m. both battalions moved back to rest, the 1st Battalion to Forfar Camp, Waterloo road, and the 2nd Battalion to Crucifix Camp, on the south-western slopes of Neuve Eglise Hill. Here, on the 10th, Lieutenant-Colonel Young rejoined the 1st Battalion and Major Griffiths took over the command of the 2nd Battalion.
|1st Battalion.||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|2nd Battalion||Officers.||Other Ranks.|
|Trench Mortars, 8-inch||1|
The 2nd Brigade remained out of the line till June 12th, the time being spent in resting and reorganizing. The casualties had reduced the majority of the platoons below the minimum fighting strength of twenty-eight laid down by General Headquarters, and accordingly the companies had to be reorganized on a three platoon basis and in some cases on a two platoon basis. The 2nd Canterbury Battalion during this period received a reinforcement of four officers and fifty-two other ranks from its "B" team at Morbecque.
On June 12th, orders were received to relieve the 9th Australian Brigade in the sector from St. Yves to the River Douve. This was the extreme right of the new line established on June 7th and 8th, the right flank of the brigade being at the junction of the new and old British front lines. The right half of the front line, from St. Yves to Ash Avenue, was allotted to the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, and the left half from Ash Avenue to the Douve to the 1st Otago Battalion. The 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago Battalions were in reserve at "The Catacombs," a system of deep tunnels in Hill 63, at Hyde Park Corner in Ploegsteert Wood.
These battalions were able to relieve in daylight, and left the rest area early in the afternoon. The 2nd Canterbury Battalion left Crucifix Camp at 7 p.m. and relieved the 35th Battalion Australian Imperial Force, the relief being completed by 1.40 a.m. on the 13th. The companies in the line, from right to left, were the 1st, 2nd, and 12th Companies, with the 13th Company in support. Battalion headquarters was in a deep dug-out underneath St. Yves post office.
Patrols were sent out immediately, but owing to the leaders not having seen the ground in daylight, and the meagre information about the enemy received from the previous garrison, very little ground was covered. After daybreak, patrols were again sent out, and were fired on from Les Trois Tilleuls Farm. Another patrol, working south along the German support line, found the trenches abandoned by the enemy, and met patrols from the 3rd Canterbury Battalion, 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, which was holding the old British front line on the eastern edge of Ploegsteert Wood, to the right of the 2nd Brigade. The rest of the battalion spent the day in improving the posts, which had been handed over in poor order.
Late in the afternoon orders were received that the 2nd Brigade was to advance a distance of fifteen hundred yards, and to establish a line of strong-posts from La Truie Farm to a point on the Douve River to the south-west of the Ferme de la Croix. The 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade on the right, and the 75th Brigade (25th Division) on the left, were to continue the line of posts north and south, the intention being that these posts should be linked up later on, and eventually should become the front page 168 line of a new trench system. It was considered by the staff that the enemy had withdrawn his main forces from the objectives, leaving only weak rearguards, and that no artillery barrage to support the attack was necessary,
At the last moment, the 25th Division decided that it would not move forward without a barrage: but the New Zealand Division determined to carry out the original plans. It had been the brigadier's intention to use for this attack the 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago Battalions, which had suffered less severely than the other battalions of the brigade in the Messines operations. These battalions had therefore been left in the Catacombs, so that they would be kept fresh for the attack, which it was thought would be made early in the morning. The retreat of the enemy upset these calculations; and as the forward movement of the rear battalions in daylight would have warned the enemy of our intended advance, there was nothing to be done but to use the front line battalions.
The ultimate objective assigned to the 2nd Canterbury Battalion was the southern half of the brigade objective, as far north as a road which ran west from Warneton, and passed five hundred yards north of Sunken Farm. The buildings of La Truie and Sunken Farms were accordingly included in the objective; and before these were reached, Fuze Cottage, Thatched Cottage, Flattened Farm, and Au Chasseur Cabaret had to be secured. The advance also involved the capture of a trench system, subsidiary to the old German front line system, and accordingly running north and south. On our maps this trench was called Unchained Trench: it lay two hundred and fifty yards to the west of the Au Chasseur Cabaret.
Orders were received by the company commanders so late that there was barely time to communicate them to the platoon commanders before 9 p.m., the hour fixed for the attack. As the troops were being assembled a large number of low-flying German aeroplanes came over the trenches, and after firing on the troops, returned to give the alarm. Directly the advance began a heavy barrage by artillery and machine-guns came down, and fairly heavy casualties were incurred. The country had been so broken up by artillery fire, that roads and other land-marks were almost unrecognisable, even by day. The night was a very dark one, page break page 169 so that. even with the aid of compasses, it was difficult to keep direction.
On the right of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion was the 1st Company, whose strength was reduced to two platoons by casualties sustained at Messines. To it were attached two platoons of the 13th Company, and the rest of this company was Attached to the 2nd Company, in the centre. On the left was the 12th Company.
Flattened Farm and Thatched Cottage were found unoccupied by the enemy; but Unchained Trench was strongly held, and all three Attacking companies met with serious resistance at this point. On the right, the bombardment by the 2nd Light Trench Mortar Battery of a strong concrete machine-gun emplacement enabled the 1st Company to eject the enemy from the portion of the trench to the south of the St. Yves-Au Chasseur Cabaret road. The 12th Company, on the left, had lost direction and come too far south, owing to the troops which it had relieved having given incorrect information as to the position of Fuze Cottage. This company drove the enemy from a portion of Unchained Trench to the north of the St. Yves-Au Chasseur Cabaret road.
The 2nd Company had suffered heavily in coming through the barrage: part joined up the 12th Company in Unchained Trench, and one platoon, which had lost direction, dug in two hundred yards south of the 1st Company. One platoon of the 1st Company, which had been detailed to take La Truie Farm, was unable to get any information as to the position of the rest of the battalion, and eventually dug in near the 2nd Company platoon last mentioned, and on the left of the 3rd Brigade.
Meanwhile, in view of the heavy machine-gun fire from the defences of the Au Chasseur Cabaret and La Truie Farm, the company commanders had decided to consolidate the positions they had captured in Unchained Trench. This was reported to battalion headquarters, but as information had been received that the 1st Otago Battalion had taken all its objectives, orders were sent to the company commanders that they were to go on to their final objective. It may be said here that the information as to the Otago Battalion's position was not correct, as the companies of this battalion had "completely lost their way, and came page 170 back to their original position with difficulty." * On receipt of these orders, an assault was made on Au Chasseur Cabaret, but was repulsed by the enemy, with heavy loss to us. However, a concrete observation post, two hundred yards to the north-west of the Cabaret, was captured by the 12th Company.
It was now growing light, so there was no choice but to consolidate the ground already gained. The battalion was in a very exposed position, and movement was difficult, on account of sniping from rifles and machine-guns. During the afternoon of the 14th, the Cabaret and La Truie and Sunken Farms were the targets of a severe and unusually accurate bombardment by our heavy artillery. This reduced the enemy sniping. and enabled the battalion to be reorganised to continue the advance.
It was arranged that the new advance should be made under a creeping barrage: and the 25th Division was also to advance at the same time. Rations and water were brought up during the day with difficulty; and the men were very tired. as they had very little sleep since the night of the 12th. As had happened the previous evening, there was no possibility of bringing up the 1st Canterbury and the 2nd Otago Battalions, which were better fitted to make an attack than the battalions in the line; but it was arranged that these fresh battalions should take over the new line directly it had been consolidated.
The new attack took place at 7.30 p.m. on June 14th. The capture of Sunken Farm was now allotted to the 1st Otago Battalion, and the new inter-battalion boundary ran immediately to the south of the farm. At zero hour, a hurricane bombardment of the Au Chasseur Cabaret was opened by the 2nd Light Trench Mortar Battery. Under cover of the barrage, one platoon ("A" platoon) of the 1st Company, with fifteen other ranks of the 13th Company attached, worked up the communication trenches, and rushed the Cabaret immediately the barrage lifted. Three machine-guns were taken and their crews killed after some resistance.
* Brigadier's Report on Operations.
After capturing the Cabaret, the "A" platoon of the 1st Company pushed on, without meeting further resistance; and under cover of the barrage, which was now stationary, dug a strong-point. This was in an avenue of trees, midway between Sunken and La Truie Farms. At the same time, the "B" platoon dug a strong-point a hundred yards to the north of La Truie Farm, under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from the Warneton-Armentières railway and La Basse Ville, which caused severe casualties. This platoon was joined here by a platoon of the 12th Company, which had been detailed to dig a strong-point further north, but had lost its officer and senior noncommissioned officers before arriving there.
The remainder of the 12th Company dug a support trench in front of Au Chasseur Cabaret. The 2nd Company had been left in reserve in Unchained Trench, This point was on the enemy's barrage line, and the 2nd Company had to sit down under very severe shelling by heavy artillery, and suffered serious casualties.
The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade having attained its objectives the previous evening, did not take part in the advance. The 1st Otago Battalion experienced very little difficulty in attaining its objectives, and on its left the 75th Brigade (25th Division) was equally successful.
During the morning of June 14th, the 1st Company of the 1st Canterbury Battalion had come into support of the 2nd Battalion, and had occupied the front line trenches vacated by that battalion on the night of the 13th. Just before daylight on the 15th, the 2nd Company of the 1st Battalion took over all the 2nd Battalion's posts. The 12th and 13th Companies of the page 172 1st Battalion remained at the Catacombs; but battalion headquarters was moved to the St. Yves post office. The whole of the 2nd Battalion moved back to the Catacombs, and rested till the following night. It had suffered very heavy casualties during the operations of June 13th and 14th, having had thirty-one other ranks killed and three officers and ninety-six other ranks wounded, out of a total strength of thirteen officer; and three hundred and ninety-eight other ranks engaged.
The two companies of the 1st Battalion at the Catacombs were engaged in digging new support and travel trenches, on the nights of the 15th, 16th, and 17th; and on the nights of the 16th and 17th, the 2nd Battalion dug a communication trench, from the old front line to the German communication trench which ran beside the St. Yves-Au Chasseur Cabaret road. At dawn on the 18th, the 2nd Battalion marched out from the Catacombs to its old quarters at Romarin. The night of the same day, the 1st Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Wellington Battalion, and moved out to Bulford Camp. During the period in the line this battalion had had two officers and thirty-four other ranks wounded.
The 3rd Canterbury Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. A. Row), which had arrived in France at the end of May, took no part in the actual attack on the Messines Ridge. On June 7th, when the battle opened, the battalion left its camp near Bailleul and bivouacked in the neighbourhood of Wulverghem. On the 8th and 9th the battalion was engaged in repairing the Wulverghem-Messines and Birthday Farm-Messines roads. and on the 10th relieved the 2nd/5th Battalion Loyal North Lancashires (57th Division) in the old British front line from the Warnave River to St. Yves. On the 13th, on the evacuation by the enemy of his old front line and support lines, these lines were occupied by the battalion on its own front. The same evening the 4th Battalion of the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade continued the advance, and the 3rd Canterbury Battalion marched back to a bivouac area near Pont de Nieppe.
Its casualties in the battle had been thirteen other ranks killed and five officers and forty-four other ranks wounded.