The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter XVI — The Battle of the Sambre
The Battle of the Sambre
The courses of the large rivers Sambre and Scheldt are so directed that between them is left a broad avenue where no great natural obstacle bars an invasion of France from the north-east. Here, on high ground between the smaller rivers of the Ecaillon and Rhonelle, stands the fortress-town of Le Quesnoy. Founded before the XL century, it was a place of considerable importance in the ancient French Hainault. It was surrounded in the middle of the XII. century by extensive ramparts, which did not prevent its capture by several of the great captains in mediaeval and modern history. It had fallen, for example, to Louis XI. (1447), Henry II. of France (1552), the Spaniards (1568), Turenne (1654), Eugene (1712). In 1793 it had been captured by the Austrians, and with its recovery in the following year is connected one of the earliest recorded uses of telegraphy. Before it the English soldier had, in the year of Crecy (1336), been for the first time exposed to the fire of cannon.1 The fortifications had been maintained and improved, notably by Vauban, who remodelled them in the light of developing military science, but already before the war were rightly considered obsolete. The town contained an arsenal, barracks, military and civil hospitals, and a municipal college. Its population of barely 5000 was mostly employed in the manufacture of iron ware, cotton thread, sugar, and leather. It is entered by 3 roads, 1 from the east, 1 from Orsinval and the north through the Valenciennes Gate, and 1 from the south-east passing between 2 lakes and entering by the Landrecies Gate.
1 Fortescue, "History of the British Army," Vol. I., p. 550.
The enemy's position at the end of October cannot be defined more lucidly or briefly than in the words of the official despatch:—
“By this time the rapid succession of heavy blows dealt by the British forces had had a cumulative effect, both moral and material, upon the German Armies. The difficulty of replacing the enemy's enormous losses in guns, machine guns and ammunition had increased with every fresh attack, and his reserves of men were exhausted…..
“The capitulation of Turkey and Bulgaria and the imminent collapse of Austria—consequent upon Allied successes which the desperate position of her own armies on the western front had rendered her powerless to prevent—had made Germany's military situation ultimately impossible. If her armies were allowed to withdraw undisturbed to shorter lines, the struggle might still be protracted over the winter. The British Armies, however, were now in a position to prevent this by a direct attack upon a vital centre, which should anticipate the enemy's withdrawal and force an immediate conclusion.”
The general plan laid down for the British Armies was to continue their advance on the Aulnoye junction and other centres of communication about Maubeuge vital to the enemy, and, if possible, to cut the main avenue of escape for the German forces opposite the French and Americans. It was essential to strike with the least loss of time. A preliminary operation, begun on 1st November, brought up the left flank of the Third Army across the Rhonelle and gave the Canadians Valenciennes. South of Valenciennes the enemy made, on 3rd November, a limited withdrawal which did not extend page 566so far as Le Quesnoy and did not affect the New Zealanders. "There were indications," writes the Commander-in-Chief, "that a further withdrawal was contemplated both in the Tournai salient, where the line of the Scheldt was turned by our progress on the battle front, and also in the area to the south of us, where the enemy's positions were equally threatened by our advance. Our principal attack was ready."
It was to bo delivered the following morning (4th November) along the front of the Fourth Third and First Armies for a distance of about 30 miles from the Sambre, north of Oisy, to Valenciennes, with the co-operation of the French First Army southwards. The Sambre itself on the right of the attack, the Mormal Forest, the thickset nature of the country generally, and the successive river lines falling to the Scheldt across the direction of the advance, threatened to prove difficult obstacles. It was the Allies' intention, however, now to secure that complete victory which had just eluded their grasp in October and which would hurl the Germans back on the Mouse. Nor were their hopes to be disappointed or deferred. It should, moreover, be noted that while the French and Americans were exercising great and increasing pressure towards the Meuse, it was the decisive operation now undertaken by the British Armies which definitely crushed the enemy's resistance, forced retreats in front and on either flank, and compelled him to sue for an armistice. Rich in dramatic values, the pursuit of the broken forces of the invaders brought the Armies of the Empire back to Mons and over the Belgian frontier. These final operations are called the Battle of the Sambre (1st-11th November).
The Inner Rampart (Le Quesnoy)
During the pause in our operations the Rifle Brigade carried out a series of raids, in which the 2nd Rifles in particular showed enterprise persistence and audacity. In the early morning (2 a.m.) of 29th October Sergt. S. Hartley and 10 men of this battalion, after 2 minutes' bombardment with light trench mortars, attacked an enemy machine gun post in the Cambrai line embankment. The German n.c.o. and 16 men who garrisoned the post at once fled. Hartley's party sped in pursuit. They overtook their enemy, killed 2 and captured a prisoner, whereupon they returned without loss to our lines, At 9 p.m. on the 29th Hartley again led a raid up the sunken road towards Orsinval. After a brief light trench mortar bombardment, with his 9 men he left our post at the Level Crossing and stole across the open ground to the deep banks of the road. Moving forward our men heard the enemy running down the road and gave chase. One or two Germans turned and wildly and blindly fired their revolvers into the darkness. There were several small shelters in the steep sides of the road, and the occupants of these also shot at the pursuers. Our men stopped for a minute to clear the road, killing 3 Germans in the dugouts and another on top of one of the banks. They then continued the pursuit. But the minute's delay and the fact that the enemy had flung off rifles and equipment allowed him to retain his lead, and when our men had penetrated 500 yards down the road they ran into a support post, whose fire prevented further progress and the capture of prisoners. They returned safely up the road.
During the same day a patrol had located 2 enemy posts about the near edge of Square Wood, some 300 yards away. These, it was found, could be observed from one of our own forward posts. It was decided to raid them in the early hours of the following morning. A covering party, with 2 Lewis guns, moved to a position whence in the event of emergencies they could support the operation. The enterprise itself was to be "silent." About 2 a.m. (30th October) the raiders moved into position. Nearing the posts they split into 2 parties, under Sergt. G. A. Jarvis and Cpl. M. Kerrigan, each with 2 men, the remaining 2 being kept in reserve. Both parties rushed the posts simultaneously. They met with a shower of bombs, but forced an entry. They slew nearly all the garrison, Kerrigan alone killing 5 and sparing 1, who page 568was wounded. The prisoner was sent back under escort of one of our men. As the other riflemen were looking for identifications and papers on the dead, they were interrupted by bombs thrown from posts nearer the wood. Without hesitation the raiders attacked those also, and after hard fighting killed some of their occupants and drove off the remainder. There were in the area altogether 8 or 10 small posts, but possibly all had not been occupied. About 30 Germans in all were encountered, of whom 15 were killed. But the raiders had not come off unscathed. Jarvis had received a stick bomb full in the chest and was very severely wounded, and another man also, hit in the thigh, was unable to move without assistance. Two more were wounded less severely, but were incapacitated and sent back to our lines.
The reserve men, hearing the fresh outburst of bombing, came forward to the posts which had been the original objective. There they found only the dead Germans. Failing to establish touch with their comrades in the darkness, they concluded that these had either driven the enemy away and returned already to our lines, or had been captured in a counter-attack. They also returned. Thus in the further posts nearer the wood Kerrigan was left alone with his 2 stricken comrades, Jarvis was quite incapable of moving, and was apparently dying. Kerrigan therefore assisted the other man in. With a stretcher-bearer he went back at once for Jarvis, but by that time the enemy had reoccupied the posts, and the rescue party was unable to approach them.
The 1st Rifles in the right of the line facing the Cambrai railway were less favoured by opportunities for these enterprises, but in the following night, 30th/31st October, they carried out a joint enterprise with the 8th Somersetshires on their right against the posts on the embankment. Protecting barrages were provided for the Rifles by the 3rd Artillery Brigade, machine guns and mortars. The New Zealand attack was carried out by 2 platoons, under Lt. H, Blackburne, on a front of 300 yards. Machine gunners accompanied them for the purpose of destroying captured enemy machine guns. The operation was a complete success. There was no hostile artillery fire. The garrison used neither rifles nor bombs, and only 1 machine gun fired. Some of the Germans ran up from the hedge at the foot of the railway embankment and disappeared down the other side amid saplings and thick undergrowth. 4 were killed, and the whole area was cleared in 25 minutes. The raiders returned page 569without a casualty and with 3 prisoners and 2 machine guns. Another gun was rendered useless by the machine gunners attached to the party. The Somersetshires were equally successful.
Though the German movement amid the trees opposite our front was now very considerably restricted, our artillery were still favoured with targets, which the forward observation officers were quick to detect and engage. In the morning of the 31st, in particular, admirable shooting was directed by the forward observation officer of the supporting howitzer battery. With the 2nd Rifles' intelligence officer he went during the forenoon to our advanced post at the Level Crossing. This post commanded a good view of the enemy defences on the road to Orsinval. A telephone wire was run out to it. At least 1 German post was blown up, and the fleeing enemy was harassed with machine gun fire at 1200 yards.
On the same day the 2nd Rifles crowned their achievements by an enterprise marked by tactical skill and dashing leadership. Early in the afternoon, following on a medium trench mortar bombardment on the Cambrai line about its northern junction with the Valenciennes railway, 2nd Lt. W. E. McMinn, M.C., and 5 riflemen attacked a strong enemy post on the embankment. Bombarded by the mortars and sniped at just previously from the Level Crossing, the enemy's sentries on the railway had forsaken their posts. A separate party of Lewis gunners, under Rflmn. W. A. Wilson, was pushed well down the main line so as to enfilade the branch line. Covered by the Lewis gun, our raiders worked round past the junction to the embankment on the enemy side of the Cambrai line. McMinn himself stayed at the junction to co-ordinate the work of both parties. When the Lewis gun team saw that the raiders were in position, they fired several bursts along the cutting, bringing the astonished enemy out of his shelters and straightway forcing them into cover in the ditch. Our patrol on the embankment stood up and fired on the Germans. But they did not rush them. One or two of the Germans fired back, doing no more damage than breaking one of our men's bayonets.. But McMinn, afraid that his quarry would escape or even succeed in mopping up the patrol, dashed along the 100 yards of the line and attacked the Germans single-handed. His patrol on the embankment at once joined him. Several of the enemy were killed, and the remainder surrendered. Another German post page 570200 yards further south down the railway threatened trouble, and McMinn, covered by our Lewis gun, withdrew to the junction and thence round by the Level Crossing to the road. When his party was all in, the covering Lewis gunners followed. An officer and 37 men were taken prisoners. We had not a single casualty.
At 5.40 p.m. a further effort by the 2nd Battalion at the sunken Orsinval Road had to be relinquished owing to intense machine gun fire. The road had been bombarded during the previous day in short sharp bursts by our mortars and 18-pounders, and the enemy was now very alert. On this occasion he actually attempted to attack in his turn hut, losing 3 men shot, desisted. Periodical bombardments on our positions were put down in considerable weight, and the German sentries and gunners were "jumpy" at the least noise. Our patrols remained active, but all attempts to effect surprise found his posts intently watchful, and McMinn's exploit was to prove the last of the Division's long record of successful raids. For the many preparations necessary in view of the forthcoming attack were beginning to claim undivided attention.
The role allotted to the Division was, in conjunction with the 37th Division on the right and the 62nd Division of the VI. Corps on the left, to attack and establish a line from the western edge of the Mormal Forest northwards through the more distant outskirts of Herbignies to the cross-roads at Tous Vents. This line was nearly 4 miles east of our present positions and 2½ miles beyond the eastern ramparts of Le Quesnoy. Should opportunity offer, it was proposed to exploit success still further eastwards through the Mormal Forest.
Without intense bombardment, which would destroy historic monuments and material wealth and cause casualties among the civil population, a frontal assault on the fortress-town was impossible. It was arranged therefore to envelop it from the flanks. The attacking troops would move past on the south and north of it to a series of intermediate objectives, forming as they advanced flanks to face and eventually to encircle the town. During this movement the ramparts would be screened by smoke. The operations proposed fell into 5 phases.
|(a)||5.30 a.m.—The Rifle Brigade, with 3 battalions in the line, would capture the railway and draw an are round the western side of Le Quesnoy from south to north (the Blue Line).page 571|
|(b)||7.29 a.m.—The reserve battalion of the Rifle Brigade would pass through the right battalion south of the town, and a battalion of the 1st Brigade, at 7.51 a.m., pass through the left battalion north of the town, both battalions establishing positions which would be in a level with and beyond the eastern ramparts, but not yet connected with each other. (The Blue Dotted Line.)|
|(c)||8.56 a.m.—Two fresh battalions of the 1st Brigade would pass through the Blue Dotted Line north of the town. gradually striking south-east as well as east, and meeting a further advance (beginning 8.47 a.m.) of the reserve battalion of the Rifle Brigade on the south of the town. The converging movements would meet on the Green Line, and the 1st Brigade take over the whole front. The Rifle Brigade would mop up Le Quesnoy.|
|(d)||10.20 a.m.—The same two 1st Brigade battalions would advance from the Green Line for the final objective. (The Red Line.)|
|(e)||Should enemy resistance weaken, patrols would establish the Red Dotted Line some 3000 yards further eastwards.|
From this point the 2nd Brigade would continue the advance. A troop of the 3rd Hussars was attached to the 1st Brigade, the rest of the squadron to the 2nd Brigade. A section of Otago Mounted Rifles was posted to each brigade. A proportion of Engineers and New Zealand Tunnellers were detailed to investigate mines in Le Quesnoy and in the area east of it. The remainder of the Engineers were held in readiness to prepare crossings over the Valenciennes-Aulnoye railway for the field artillery, and to carry out work on roads and bridges.
The attack was to be carried out under a somewhat complicated barrage of varying rates co-ordinated with the movement of the troops on either flank. General Napier Johnston had at his disposal the 3 New Zealand field artillery brigades, the 42nd Divisional and 2 further British R.F.A. brigades. Of these 7 brigades, all to be posted at first in the vicinity of Beaudignies, 5 would carry the attack forward to the Green line, the remaining 2 being superimposed as far as the Blue and thereafter firing a smoke screen on the outskirts of Le Quesnoy. Definite stages were laid down for the artillery brigades to cease barrage work and follow up the advance. Three batteries of 6-in. howitzers were also available for the bombardment of special points. Prior to the attack, increase and decrease of artillery fire were equally forbidden, and in page 572all oilier ways the strictest measures were taken to preserve secrecy. Ammunition was brought forward under darkness. Road screens were erected to conceal such small movement of troops as was inevitably necessary in daylight. Normal wireless activity was maintained, and no additional stations were allowed to come into action. Once the infantry advance started, careful arrangements ensured touch being established at a succession of selected points along our boundaries with the Divisions on either flank.
In the first phase the Rifle Brigade proposed to attack with 8 battalions in line, the 1st on the right and the 2nd on the left crossing the railway and forming the first sectors of the circle to be drawn round the town. The 4th, in the centre, would also cross the railway and advance towards the ramparts. The 3rd Battalion was in reserve. When, in the second phase, the 3rd Battalion passed through and reached the Blue Dotted Line, the 1st Battalion would immediately take over the flank between the first and second objective facing Le Quesnoy on the south. North of the town, it was obviously convenient that from the 2nd Rifles' posts on the Blue Line at the Valenciennes road onwards the whole of the investment should be done by the 1st Brigade.
In addition to artillery support, it was provided that the attack over the railway should be covered by the 2 medium trench mortar batteries and by 2 batteries of light trench mortars, whose barrages would conform with and advance 300 and 100 yards respectively in front of the field artillery barrage. After completion of the barrage task, the 1st and 2nd Rifles would be allotted 2 light mortars and the 4th Battalion 1. The attacks of the flank battalions would similarly be protected by barrages provided by 2 machine gun companies conforming with the artillery barrage up to extreme range and sweeping the outskirts of the town. In addition, 8 other machine guns were for half an hour after zero to enfilade the streets and ramparts. This task accomplished, these last would pass to their own company, which was attached to the 2nd Infantry Brigade, while the company co-operating with the 2nd Rifles on the north would be added to the company supporting the 1st Brigade.
Certain adjustments had to be effected in the line. During the evening of 3rd November the Rifles extended their right 500 yards to secure elbow room south of Le Quesnoy. In the more intricate ground to the north, the left was drawn in to the Level Crossing, the 62nd Division taking over our page 573former positions thence northwards. On the same night the support and reserve field artillery brigades moved a section per battery into position about Bcaudignies. The remaining sections followed on the eve of the attack. Advanced Divisional headquarters was at the same time established at Beaudignies. that of the Rifle Brigade at the Ferine du Fort Martin, and that of the 1st Brigade in a house on the Ruesnes road. The 1st Brigade troops, clearing Solesmes about 4 p.m., marched to orchards about Beaudignies, where they bivouacked for the night.
In the evening rain set in and lasted till about 3 a.m. Shortly before the attack our outlying' posts were withdrawn to clear our barrage. Even now no indications pointed to an extension as far south as Le Quesnoy of the enemy's withdrawal opposite the VI. Corps front. Patrols reported his garrisons still in their posts. At intervals during the early hours after midnight he fired double red flares and periodically shelled with some intensity that area immediately behind the 2nd Rifles' assembly positions, from which his tormentors had been lately so active. A single shell, landing right in the sunken road, caused us 11 casualties. But he did not apparently anticipate an attack. At 5.20 a.m. 2 orange-coloured flares were fired as an all-clear signal.
Ten minutes later our guns and mortars opened together in a stupendous crash. The medium mortars alone fired a tornado of over 500 projectiles on the embankment. Drums of burning oil were projected on the ramparts. A display of the enemy's red and golden rain S.O.S. flares from the railway immediately followed. The German artillery's response was less severe on our front than on our battery areas. The 9th Battery had 2 and one of the English batteries 5 guns knocked out.1
1 The 11th Battery's wagon lines were also heavily shelled in the parly morning, 52 horses being casualtied.
In the orchard also some resistance was offered by a nest of machine guns. Lt. H. J. Thompson, who commanded the company concerned, disposed his platoons with such skill that all the machine guns, with a 77-mm. gun, fell into our hands, the artillerymen being shot down by Rflmn. J. R. Mason, who brought a Lewis gun round to the left flank. In the clearance of the orchard material assistance was given by the attached section of our own machine guns under 2nd Lt. A. W. Reynolds. Here an officer and 40 men were taken prisoners. The line then pressed forward towards their final objective. Near it Coy.-Sergt.-Major E. Olsen, when his company was held up by machine gun fire, acting on his own initiative, worked a section round behind the machine gun garrison. Then at a given signal the party rushed in and bombed 3 machine gun teams in succession, enabling their company to reach its objective. Elsewhere the 1st Battalion line was established with inconsiderable trouble.
After the forward companies had passed on to their objective, the reserve company moved forward to the railway, and to it was given the most piquant adventure that befell the battalion during the day. The 37th Division on our right had been temporarily checked in the vicinity of the chapel at the cross-roads on the Ghissignies-Le Quesnoy road, and between 7 a.m. and 7.30 a.m. a body of enemy, numbering 5 officers and 150 men, attempted to counter-attack about the crossroads. Judging, however, by the sound of musketry and bombs on their right that they were liable to be outflanked, they determined to withdraw. By this time the day, beautifully clear at first after the night's rain, had become misty. The retreating Germans, not realising the extent of the New Zealanders' progress, thought to get back along the railway to Le Quesnoy. In the fog the reserve 1st Rifles' company, page 575then resting on the railway line, received short warning of their approach. A platoon was immediately detached to deal with them. An admirably handled flank section under Cpl. C. Taylor turned a dangerous situation into a brilliant success, and within a few moments the whole body surrendered, with 2 machine guns. In all, the 1st Rifles' casualties amounted to 80, of whom 20 were killed.
In the centre of the line the 4th Battalion attack was also delivered by 3 companies, 1 from the hedge east of the Ferme de Beart, I from the high ground due west of the ramparts, and another down the Ruesnes road. All reached the objective of the railway line to the minute, and patrols at once pushed forward across an open stubble field towards the bank of trees which fringed the moat. What difficulties met them there and what progress they made will be narrated presently.
In the old troublesome ground of the railway triangle the 3 companies of the 2nd Rifles encountered stubborn opposition. In the darkness, a slight gap was created between the centre and left companies, and just opposite this gap unfortunately was an enemy machine gun, posted near the railway junction. It caused considerable casualties in the centre company before they stormed it. This company was engaged, too, in further fierce fighting in the railway triangle. "When the right attacking platoon was put out of action, Sergt. J. Grubb, in the platoon on its left, covered its frontage with his own section and maintained touch with the right company. After clearing 2 machine gun posts he encountered a nest of 3. "With the assistance of a light trench mortar he destroyed these and took the objectives of the casualtied platoon, with a large number of prisoners and several machine guns. On the rest of its front, owing to its casualties, the centre company had become disorganised, and some of its men passed on into our own barrage. Seeing the hard straits of this centre company, the reserve company (Lt. L. H. Denniston) had come forward of their own accord to strengthen the line, and their timely assistance facilitated the capture of the objective on the remainder of the central sector.
Part of the left company also came under heavy machine gun fire at close range, which inflicted casualties and held up the advance. Rflmn. C. Birch, a member of a light trench mortar team attached to the battalion, promptly volunteered to go forward and locate the machine gun. This he did with great coolness, and his comrades destroyed it with their page 576mortar bombs. Birch thereupon, completing his reconnaissance of the locality, captured a German officer and 27 men. The remainder of the left company reached the Le Quesnoy-Orsinval Road at 6.20 a.m. without any great resistance, and took a fair number of prisoners. Here they were joined shortly afterwards by the 62nd Division. The right company, like the centre, had a hard struggle before they cleared their sector of the railway triangle. They then threw out patrols to the sunken road on the north-western edge of the town. It was at this stage of the attack that a notable feat of arms was performed by Sergt. W. P. McGillen. His men encountered heavy fire from a German machine gun. In an exposed position McGillen skilfully got his Lewis gun into action, silenced the enemy gun and compelled the crew to retire to a house in rear of the German position. Quickly following up, McGillen personally rushed the house, killing 5 of the enemy with a bomb and capturing 14 more.
Despite the resistance offered and some short shooting on the part of our own guns, the 2nd Rifles accomplished every part of their task. Thus all along the Division's front the Blue Line was taken up to time,1 large hauls of prisoners and machine guns falling into our hands.
On the capture of the Blue Line the 4 British field artillery brigades advanced by batteries to the railway south-east of Le Quesnoy and to the Ferme de Beart Wood, the Precheltes valley and the Level Crossing in order to carry on the barrage supporting the 1st Infantry Brigade to the final objective of the Red Line. While each battery moved forward, continuity of fire was maintained, the remaining batteries being distributed over their brigade's front and increasing the rate of their fire to compensate for the loss of the battery on the move. Each battery as it arrived resumed its task from its new position. The New Zealand artillery brigades remained in their present positions, 2 firing the smoke screen on Le Quesnoy and the third carrying the barrage on to the Green Line to the limits of the guns' range.
1 A nest in the Factory in the railway triangle was not completely cleared by the 2nd Rifles till 9.30 a.m.
2 Major (Temp. Lt.-Col.) G. W. Cockcroft.
The Sluice Gate Bridge
[Phote Capt. S. Cory Wright
The New Zealand Flag Presented to Le Quesnoy
At 7.29 a.m., just as the reserve company of the 1st Rifles were dealing with the Germans on the railway, the second phase of our attack was initiated by the 3rd Battalion south of the town. The assaulting companies, with Advanced Battaliou Headquarters, had already gone forward, and Major Cockcroft, with his intelligence officer, 2nd Lt. E. C. Drummond, were waiting for receipt of word from advanced headquarters to follow, when a curious and unlooked-for episode occurred. The morning mist was heavy, and it was difficult to see more than 40 yards. All at once Cockcroft and his party discerned a large number of men who, looming indistinctly through the mist, crossed from the south into our area in rear of our advancing front line companies. For a moment it was surmised that these were troops from the right Division who had lost their direction. Then the amazing truth asserted itself. They were Germans! Either as part of the counter-attack down the railway1 or in an independent operation, the enemy force now threatened to intercept our supports from the assaulting companies. The Germans halted. They failed to notice the little group of riflemen. They were just preparing to place their machine guns ready for action when Drummond charged forward and fired his revolver into their midst. Completely bewildered, they surrendered, although fully armed, without more ado. They were found to number 4 officers and 70 men. No other noteworthy incident marked the 3rd Rifles' progress to the Blue Dotted Line, which before the scheduled hour was in their possession.
1 p. 574.
North of the town, in co-operation with the VI. Corps' attack, the enveloping movement of 1st Auckland from the Orsinval road was timed to commence 22 minutes later than the 3rd Rifles' advance about the Landrecies road. In touch with the 62nd Division the two 1st Auckland assaulting companies started forward at 7.51 a.m. As in the assembly position, so now in the advance, to avoid exposure to fire from the direction of Le Quesnoy, a full 500 yards' distance was maintained between our right flank and the railway. The attacking troops were shrouded also by the mist as well as by our smoke-screen on the ramparts. Ramponeau, in which were a certain number of civilians, was cleared about 8.30 a.m. The battalion captured some 300 prisoners, and 50 machine guns. Their casualties were under 50. Throughout the attack Sergt. C. G. Buckworth had done fine work on the left flank by personal reconnaissance and by bombing attacks which resulted in the capture of several machine guns. By 8.40 a.m. the second phase, the establishment of the Blue Dotted Line, was complete.
The sun was now well up in the east, the mist had dispersed, and the day was bright and warm. At 8.47 a.m. the 3rd Rifles continued their main advance south of the town with the support companies. One of these had already passed through the left flank on the Landrecies road and established strong points along the southern edge of the 2 lakes in continuation of the line of investment begun by the 1st Battalion. This movement was now continued along the road to Villereau, and at the same time the right company advanced straight on the Green Line. At the far corner of the more easterly lake the 2 barrages sweeping round Le Quesnoy north and south joined, and already through the dust and smoke of the bursting shells glimpses could be caught page 579of the right flank of the 1st Brigade converging southwards. In the clearer light opposition was encountered from German posts and machine guns, which it was most difficult to locate. Rflmn. N. Coop, a No. 1 of a Lewis gun team, worked forward into the open to draw the fire of these guns and thus induce them to betray their exact positions. His fearless behaviour had the desired effect, and the No. 2 was enabled to bring his gun forward and put the enemy guns out of action.
Hostile fire was especially heavy on our right. Here Capt. F. E. Greenish's company had reached the line of the Chateau Montout, where they came into country devoid of cover and swept by machine guns from a commanding ridge directly in front of the Chateau. Greenish and his men without hesitation fearlessly went forward. The Germans withdrew from the position or surrendered, and the ridge was gained with surprising ease.
The Rifles' left met the 1st Brigade at the prearranged cross-roads beyond the far lake, and their right swung on with certainty and rapidity to the southernmost half mile sector of the Green Line. In the latter stages of the advance casualties had been negligible. In addition to the officer and 3 men killed at the outset the total losses for the day were only 45 men wounded. A field gun, a mortar, 17 machine guns, and over 300 prisoners were counted among their spoils.
1st and 2nd Wellington had left Beaudignies shortly after 6 a.m. and marched forward through a hostile barrage falling on the line of the Precheltes stream. With some difficulty in the fog and dense smoke barrage near Le Quesnoy, they reached their preparatory assembly position on the sunken Orsinval road north of the Level Crossing, where a week previously the Rifles had experienced such bitter fighting. Nine minutes after the 3rd Rifles' advance on the other side of the town the northern movement was resumed (8.56 a.m.) in close touch with the 62nd Division. 1st Wellington attacked on the right, and 2nd Wellington on the left. As they moved out in front from the 1st Auckland positions, Auckland commenced to trace the northern line of investment assigned to the 1st Brigade. The Auckland companies wheeled to the right to face Le Quesnoy, on the one hand linking up with the 2nd Rifles and on the other swinging up their outer flank towards the railway station on the north-east. The fortress was now almost surrounded. There remained only the narrowing gut due eastwards, rapidly being filled by the converging movements of the 3rd Rifles and 1st Wellington.page 580
The two 1st Wellington assaulting companies were, as it happened, largely composed of men who had not been in action previously. Effectively assisted by machine guns, they moved at first parallel with and north of the Aulnoye railway. As they progressed, their right flank extended over the railway and met the Rifles' left on the cross-roads by the lake. Their country was for the most part open, but apart from a short fight on the Villereau road they had little trouble. At one point a brave action was performed by Sergt. R. Charteris, who rushed a machine gun post single handed, putting the gun out of action and capturing the crew. The two 2nd Wellington1 companies, though moving through the woods on the steep Rhonelle bank, also went forward without opposition as fast as the barrage would permit. In Villereau they found some 50 civilians and a small German nest of 2 officers and 22 men. By the appointed time of 9.25 a.m. both battalions were on the Green Line, where 1st Wellington immediately extended their right with a company under Capt. E. Whyte to the southern boundary occupied by the 3rd Rifles. Thus all along our line, now connected continuously throughout, the 1st Brigade troops were in position to carry out the fourth phase of the attack.
1 Major McKinnon, vice Lit.-Col. Cunningham, seconded for duty to New Zealand.
Up to this point the barrages had been of different rates co-ordinated with the advance of the flank Divisions on either side of the town and the converging movements of the 2 streams of New Zealanders. Thenceforward there was to be but 1 barrage moving at the uniform rate of 100 yards in 3 minutes. Forward sections from the 12th and 13th Batteries and a howitzer battery accompanied the 2 Wellington battalions. The barrage itself, as has been noted, was now provided by the 4 English artillery brigades. But the battalions were warned that it would die out on reaching the limit of the guns' range, and that the advance thereafter to the Red Line would be continued without a barrage and supported only by the fire of forward sections or batteries.
1 Reassumed command of 1st Artillery Brigade on 3rd Nov., vice Lt-Col Standish, returning on duty to New Zealand.
Before 2nd Wellington the enemy had for the most part withdrawn. In the close country, however, a few Germans out of touch with their fellows were surprised. Four Wellington signallers under L./Cpl. J. H. Griffiths laying a telephone wire came on four 77-mm. guns still in action and firing over open sights. Griffiths promptly ordered his party to drop their wire and charge the guns. Most of the 10 artillerymen serving the guns fled at once. One or two vainly endeavoured to keep their assailants at bay by rifle fire. The guns with 2 prisoners were captured, whereupon Griffiths and his signallers continued their wire-laying.
It had been arranged that on the establishment of the final objective, should enemy resistance weaken, patrols were to be pushed forward to reach the exploitation Dotted Red Line, where the 2nd Brigade would "leap-frog" through to continue the advance. On the other hand, if resistance should be met in such strength as to check exploitation, a definite line was to be taken up and artillery brought forward preparatory to a formal attack during the afternoon. On the Red Line the Wellington companies were at once reorganised, and in close touch with the 37th Division 1st Wellington pushed forward patrols who about 2.15 p.m. page 583reached the road on the western edge of the Mormal Forest. There was no opposition except from a cavalry patrol which was fired on 4 horses were killed and 2 prisoners taken. The 2nd Wellington patrols were on the left held up by machine gun fire from the flank, but on the right, in touch with 1st Wellington, they similarly were successful in reaching the western edge of the Forest. Scouts of both battalions, Ptes. L. G. V. Loveday and A. D. Anderson, on their respective battalion fronts penetrated deep into it. Loveday passing through a clearing came on 7 of the enemy. He shot 3 and took the remainder, including 2 officers, prisoners.
On the left flank 2nd Wellington patrols had early passed Le Carnoy, where a party under Coy,-Sergt,-Major J. H. Foster, coming under heavy fire from 2 machine guns in a house rushed and captured them. Scouts had actually reached the vicinity of Le Grand Sart, well beyond the exploitation line, but by the time permission had been received from Brigade Headquarters to occupy the village and the main advance was resumed, it was found that the Germans had come back in force to the neighbourhood of Le Carnoy and established strong machine gun posts. Against their obstinate fire little progress could be made in the daylight even with artillery support, and further advance was postponed till dusk. But officers and men were alike determined to set a seal on the day's work by reaching the exploitation Red Dotted Line on the Sarioton road during the night and clearing the high forest still unfelled east of Herbignies.
A light barrage was accordingly put down by the 2nd (Army) Brigade at 9.30 p.m. moving 100 yards every 4 minutes. 1st Wellington, further in advance, reached their goal by 11.30 p.m., meeting only 1 party of the enemy. 2nd Wellington continued the advance with 2 companies, one of the others forming a defensive flank on their unprotected north. By 1.30 a.m. they had reached the Sarioton road. Half an hour later the 37th Division were abreast on our right. It was much regretted that this most successful day was marred by the loss of Major McKinnon, commanding 2nd Wellington, and his adjutant, who were killed by an enemy shell when proceeding in the evening to advanced battalion headquarters. The other casualties in 2nd Wellington for the day amounted to just over 60. 1st Wellington had got off more lightly, an officer and 7 men having been killed, and 2 officers and 20 men wounded.page 584
The Wellington Battalions' operations had yielded important captures. 2nd Wellington had taken 29 field guns, four 8-in. howitzers, 5 trench mortars, 33 machine guns, 400 prisoners. 1st Wellington claimed 45 1 field guns, 7 trench mortars, 60 machine guns, and several hundreds of prisoners, together with limbers water-carts and other material.
1 These appear to include some claimed also by 2nd Wellington.
2 At one time they appear to have been loopholed every 40 or 50 feet, some loopholes being below the level of the ground to cover the moat, but most of them 5 feet above ground-level and capable of offering a good field of fire over the surrounding country. These loopholes were now, however, bricked up.
After reaching the protective line for the first objective (The Blue Line), our barrage had searched the ramparts for 15 minutes and then ceased on the west and north-west faces. Patrols went forward but met stubborn resistance, and to enable the advance of the troops for the further objectives to pass round the town's outskirts, it had proved necessary to execute the arrangements made for putting down a heavy smoke screen. "Under cover of this, Rifle patrols worked forward to the outer moat. Field and machine guns and minenwerfer on strong commanding positions on the ramparts were extremely active, but once the investment had been completed on the north and south the ultimate fall of the town was only a matter of time.
It remained to be seen to which battalion of the Rifles would accrue the distinction of first storming the walls. The 1st Rifles on the south-west, like 1st Auckland on the north-east, were too far distant to vie in the race for this honour. On the south-east, the 3rd Battalion had a chance only if the bridge on the Landrecies road were unguarded. Their reconnaissance patrols encountered hot machine gun fire sweeping down the bridge and suffered casualties. That way was impregnably barred. On the north the prospects of the 2nd Rifles were brighter. About 8 a.m. 4 men secured a footing on the island ramparts, and captured a machine gun which they tumbled down into the outer moat. But machine gun and rifle fire drove them. back. An organised attempt was made later by one platoon covered by the fire of another platoon, but the covering platoon was driven off by fire, and such men as reached the foot of the bastions were pinned there unable to get back or forward till the capture of the town. Other parties worked round the north-east to the railway bridge, where a party of Engineers attached to the battalion withdrew the charges under it. Others again gradually forced a way down the Valenciennes road and over the railway crossing till they approached the cross-roads on the northern outskirts. One man is said actually to have got into the town by climbing up some timber and to have shot a sentry before being forced to withdraw. Lt-Col. Jardine himself went from company to company, personally directing operations and pushing his men forward from one position to page 586another. Thus the 2nd Rifles began gradually to outmanoeuvre the enemy. For several hours, however, the German machine guns in the outer rampart maintained sullen and spiteful activity. To deal with them, our mortars, who had already from 9 a.m. rendered important service, were worked up by stages to the cross-roads. From this point about 4 p.m. they put a fierce bombardment on the northern ramparts. The enemy machine guns were effectually silenced, and it appeared that at last the. 2nd Rifles' untiring efforts were to be crowned by a triumphant entry into the town. In view of their successes on its northern precincts a week previously, no battalion would have grudged them the honour of its capture. They were, however, forestalled.
Fortune had not at first smiled on the 4th Battalion's efforts west of the town. As soon as the railway line was taken, Lt.-Col. Barrowclough with his intelligence officer, 2nd Lt. L. C. L. Ayerill, M.C., and one or two members of his staff left his overnight headquarters at Chapel Farm, 1200 yards west of Le Quesnoy down the Ruesnes road, and came forward to the embankment. He himself with Averill and 2 runners immediately set about locating the companies—no easy task in the fog—and exploring the outer moat. During this reconnaissance they captured 2 Germans whom they bade conduct them into the town. The prisoners professed their readiness to do this, but the route they followed, though ultimately it was proved to be correct, seemed at the time so long and devious that Barrowclough decided it would be wiser to get a stronger party before trusting himself further. By the time the additional men were secured, the enemy machine guns had begun to play, and this bold attempt at a coup-de-main had to be foregone.
All three 4th Battalion companies meantime had also themselves been pushing patrols forward to explore the walls. The left company, "C" (Lt. C. N. Rabone), when nearing the outer moat had come under accurate machine gun and mortar fire and were held up on the sunken road which runs round the north-western side of the fortress. Even apart from this fire the way here was barred by a 40-feet broad expanse of deep water which reflected in an unbroken mirror the rich red of the brick rampart and the russets browns and yellows of the trees. Here the company could make no progress, and here it remained practically isolated for the rest of the day.
The Southern Forester's House, September 1919
Photo Capt. S. Cory Wright
Prisoners taken near Le Quesnoy
These movements had brought our lines to the edge of the fortifications. Could we penetrate them? Snipers and machine gunners were still in some numbers on the bastions, but no enemy post appeared to linger now in the broken ground of the outer moat itself. The approaches towards the island ramparts afforded admirable cover and reasonable freedom of manoeuvre. Under Barrowclough's personal directions the centre company deluged one of the outer bastions with rifle grenades, the light trench mortars not being for the moment available, and Evans' platoon clambered up its wall by a scaling ladder and occupied it. From here page 588Evans himself, with 4 men and a Lewis gun went forward to reconnoitre further. They reached the obvious gap which Averill and Lummis had seen, climbed some 3 feet of broken steps on to the buttress of another outer bastion and then scrambled through the trees on its narrow top towards an inner bastion.
It was close on 9 a.m., and the fog and smoke were lifting. The explorers were discovered and fired on by a machine gun post on their right flank from the top of a projecting salient of the final rampart. They jumped into a shallow hole. After a moment, on the machine gun's ceasing fire, E vans tried to scale the steep side of the inner bastion. He was immediately shot through the brain and rolled back dead into the hole. One of his men in trying to get the Lewis gun into action against the machine gun was similarly shot through the head and killed instantly. The other 3 men were pinned to this very inadequate shelter in the heart of the fortifications for 6 hours with their dead companions. The latter were subsequently buried close to where they had fallen.
With the dispersal of the fog the German machine guns became at once more active, firing from all along the inner rampart. A nest harassing "A" company from a copse in their right rear was cleared up by the 1st Battalion, but all three 4th Battalion companies were unable to achieve further progress, and any movement was now extremely difficult. The Battalion had already done more than was asked of it, and with the fate of the town sealed by our successful advance round its flanks Barrowclough was too seasoned and competent a soldier to throw lives away in a "heroic" frontal assault.
While for the moment his men regained touch with each other, reorganised and confined themselves to reconnaissance and returning hostile fire, the influence of propaganda on the stubborn enemy was being tried elsewhere. Shortly after 13 a.m. 3 captured Germans were sent by the 3rd Battalion through the Landrecies Gate into the town to explain the hopelessness of the garrison's position and to invite surrender. There was no reply to the message, and sniping and machine gun fire continued well into the afternoon from the ramparts on all sides of the town. The 2nd Battalion also from the north sent forward one of their prisoners through the Valenciennes Gate without result, and the 3rd Battalion again (3 p.m.) sent 2 more Germans, who this time returned page 589within half an hour saying that the men were willing to surrender but that the officers refused. About the same time the following message was dropped by one of our aeroplanes:—
An Den Kommandanten Der Garntson Von Le Quesnoy:—
Die Stellung Le Quesnoy ist jetst völlig cingcsehlossen. Unsere Truppen sind weit östlich von der Stadt. Daher werden sie ausgefordert sich mit Ihrer Garnison zu ergeben. Die Garnison wird als ehrliche Kriegsgefangene behandelt werden.
Der Kommandeur Der Englischen Truppen.1
No white flag, however, appeared on the ramparts in answer. Machine gun fire continued active, harassing both the investing troops and movement on all roads within range. The Maoris of the Pioneer Battalion, early set to work on improving communications, had been subjected all the forenoon to bursts of this long-range fire. Artillery officers anxious to move up guns and ammunition without the necessity of a long detour were continually, if not impatiently, seeking information as to the prospects of the town's early fall. Shortly after noon, therefore, Barrowclough decided while avoiding unwarranted risks to make another attempt.
1 To the Commander of the Garrison of Le Quesnoy:—
The position of Le Quesnoy is now completely surrounded. Our troops are far east of the town. You are therefore requested to surrender with your garrison The garrison will he treated as honourable prisoners of War.
The Commander of the British Troops.
By 2.30 p.m. indeed the hostile machine guns gave practically no sign, and very little opposition was offered to our parties, mostly of the right company, in the broken outer moat and about the first line of the island bastions. The top of the main rampart appeared deserted. Barrowelough accordingly ordered Averill to take a Lewis gun section of the centre company and reconnoitre the inner line of island walls. Carrying the scaling ladder with them the party climbed without difficulty one of the outer bastions, pulled the ladder up after them, walked down an. easy grassy slope on the far side unmolested, and along an 8-foot high bank to the second line of demilunettes Scaling this also successfully they were now able to view the sheer face of the final rampart. The Lewis gun team was placed in a commanding position well screened by trees, whence they could provide directly covering fire. Averill himself picking up the ladder scrambled down the far side of the inner island bastion to a third somewhat ill-defined wall studded with trees. Here he met 2nd Lts. Lummis and E. P. Canavan who with a dozen men had reached the same spot from the obvious gap in the transverse wall. They were now on the western bank of the deep inner moat. The final rampart rose before them in an uncompromising cliff of red brick, completely unclimbable except at 1 spot. Here, midway between the 2 prominent and projecting salients, mentioned above, a narrow stone bridge, about a foot wide, spans the moat and is connected with the sluice-gate which controls the volume of the stream at the foot of the rampart. On the far side of the moat an inconsiderable ledge ran for some 10 yards along the side of the rampart to an arched opening which gives access to a stone stairway running up inside the rampart to the interior of the town. This opening had been blocked with timber by the faint-hearted enemy posts who had retreated from their isolated positions on the outer grass bank and the island ramparts. Only from the bridge could the 30-foot scaling ladder reach the top of the final wall.
After a careful scrutiny of this very unpromising problem Canavan followed by the others left the ill-defined wall and proceeded towards the sluice-gate bridge. Their approach page 591was watched by a well-concealod German post which had returned to the top of the rampart. A shower of stick grenades fell about our party, causing no casualties but necessarily forcing them to drop the ladder and withdraw from their exposed position. They returned to the transverse wall to report in person to Lt.-Col. Barrowclough.
A council of war was at once held. To attempt to cross the knife-edge over the moat, rear the ladder against the wall in face of hostile resistance and mount 1 man at a time was at best a most hazardous enterprise. But it was obvious that here and here only was the wall assailable. Barrowclough therefore summoned Lt. Birch, the commander of the reserve company, and bade him detail a platoon to make a fresh attempt. The platoon would be divided into 3 parties, 1 to establish a footing at the top of the ladder, and the other 2 to seize the salients on either hand. Three or four men only would mount at a time owing to the flimsiness of the ladder. Birch detailed No. 14 platoon under 2nd Lt. H. W. Kerr, who selected 3 of his best men to climb the ladder with him. Averill was to accompany the party. The rest of the battalion waited by the transverse wall.
Everything that might help the scaling party in their desperate undertaking was done. A light trench mortar was brought well into the outlying ramparts, whence it poured in a brief sharp fusillade at the salients and the bombing post above the sluice-gate. The Lewis guns swept the whole of the parapet visible with heavy bursts of fire. Meanwhile Averill and Kerr were already working along the tree-covered bank to the edge of the inner moat. They picked up the ladder, and stepping on the knife-edge bridge in single file reached the sluice-gate. The whole place was ominously still but for the low gurgle of water in the moat below them. They hardly dared to hope that they would be left undisturbed by grenades. But no grenade fell from the empty silent rampart. Quietly they raised the ladder against the wall. It reached the top of the bricks with a foot to spare, resting against a 2-foot high grassy bank which crowned the rampart and prevented the projecting top of the ladder from being seen from the interior of the town. Two of the riflemen steadied the ladder on its insecure perch, and Averill started to mount it, telling the others that he would shout down to them from the top if all was quiet.page 592
It was now about 4 p.m. Averill quickly reached the top of the brick-work, and stepped over the coping on to the grassy bank. Crouching behind it, he peered over. It was one of the most dramatic moments in the Division's history. There was an instant crashing through some brushwood on the far side, and Averill saw 2 Germans of the bombing post running off panic-stricken. He sent a revolver bullet after them. Kerr was now on the topmost rung. The 2 officers could see a pair of machine guns on the salient on their right pointing into the moat but abandoned. They stood up and walked over the top of the grass slope and down the other side towards the boulevard. They were greeted by a great jabbering of German. Kerr fired a shot at the man who appeared to be leader, but missed. The whole enemy party bolted at once into an underground cavern under the rampart.
By this time the remainder of the battalion were swarming up the ladder. They were led by Barrowclough himself, who took with him a signaller and signalling apparatus, in order to open communication with brigade headquarters from Le Quesnoy and establish the 4th Battalion's claim to the honour of the town's capture. The Germans recognising the fait accompli threw up the sponge, and some 15 minutes later the 2nd Rifles marched in through the Valenciennes Gate.
As the different bodies of our men passed up the various deserted streets to round up their prisoners, a door would open cautiously, a head of some civilian, would peep out and immediately disappear again. In a few seconds the whole household would rush wildly into the streets, and in a few seconds more the whole street would be a tumultuous mass of indescribably excited townsfolk. The services of an English-speaking prisoner proved useful in extracting the numerous Germans who had sought refuge in the underground caverns below the wall and elsewhere. They were congregated in the Place d'Armes and sent back to the Divisional cage in batches of 50. Two or three houses had been fired by the enemy, and a large party of the prisoners was used to assist in extinguishing the flames. Others were employed in removing mines and booby-traps. The 2nd Battalion took in the northern outskirts of and in the town close on 200 prisoners, two 77-mm. guns, 3 mortars, and 27 machine guns. Their losses were 3 officers and 19 men killed, and 4 officers and 100 men wounded. The 4th Rifles lost 2 officers and a page 593dozen men killed, and 40 men wounded. They captured 2 field guns. 8 mortars and 18 machine guns. In all some 700 prisoners were taken in Le Quesnoy itself.1
In the process of mopping up the town, the riflemen were at once assisted by civilians, eagerly indicating the lurking places of their late masters. They were also not a little embarrassed by the warmth of the welcome extended by the populace to their liberators. To the description given in the 4th Battalion diary nothing need be added:—"The civilian population gave the troops a wildly enthusiastic greeting, thrusting flowers cakes and flags upon the men. Old men and women, and not a few of the Mademoiselles pressed forward eager to shake hands with or embrace the Diggers." Within an hour of its fall the 4th Battalion cookers came steaming into the town.
At 11 a.m. the next morning an inevitable photograph was taken of the 4th Battalion formed up in the Square; "and then, preceded by the Mayor and Town Councillors and the band of the 2nd Battalion, the parade marched past the Brigadier and down a long lane of wildly applauding civilians across the ramparts and back to billets in Solesmes. There was not a vehicle in the transport but was flying the tricolour, and each platoon had its loads of flowers and flags and souvenirs from the delighted people."2
On the 10th President Poincare paid an official visit, the New Zealanders forming a guard of honour on the Place d'Armes, and 4 days later General Hart and the Rifle Battalion commanders went back to Le Quesnoy from rest billets to receive a flag from the town and present in return a New Zealand flag.3
1 The figure, 1000 in the Official Despatch, appears an over-estimate.
2 In the same way when the 3rd Field Ambulance found the Hospital to have been left by the Germans in a filthy condition, "the Maire sent the Town Crier round for assistance, and a multitude of women children and boys appeared armed with rush brooms to clean the wards and rooms." The yards were later cleaned by prisoners.
3 Local legends have already grown round the circumstances of the capture of Le Quesnoy. In Sept. 1919 an elderly quidnunc pointed out with assurance the tree which Averill's party had cut down against the rampart to effect the ascent.
From Herbignies the attacking battalions (2nd Otago on the right and 1st Canterbury1 on the left) moved forward at 3.30 a.m. to the Wellingtons' positions, along the road on the north-western edge of the Forest. The assembly was complete at 4.30 a.m. The early morning was fine, but about 9 a.m. heavy rain began which continued all day, adding greatly to the troops' difficulties in the dense forest, and making roads and tracks impassable for motor cyclist despatch riders and transport, and all but impassable for artillery.
Both battalions attacked with 2 companies. Each battalion's front was about 1500 yards. The barrage fell at 5.30 a.m. extending 200 yards north of the Divisional sector to protect the exposed left flank. Remaining on its original line for half an hour, it then jumped 500 yards eastwards resting there for 10 minutes. A further lift brought it another 500 yards forward where it played for 10 minutes and then died away.
1 Major Stitt, vice Lt.-Col. Row, on liaison duties.
On the right 2nd Otago pushed forward rapidly to within half a mile of their first objective on the fringe of the southern tract of virgin forest. There, however, the Forester's House at an important cross-roads was held strongly, and the enemy had pushed machine guns some 200 yards down the road westwards. Those machine guns were driven in, and Otago made ground steadily toward the main position where a crater near the House, the trees on each side of it, and rising ground beyond formed very strong positions. They were held by a considerable German rear guard. Here about 7 a.m. an aeroplane, hovering low over the tree-tops, saw little khaki figures making towards the House. The immediate approach to the enemy's defences offered little cover, and his resistance showed no sign of wavering. Speedier results in the long run were more likely to be obtained by a flank attack through the Forest supported by lire from in front. The extreme density of the brushwood and forest about the House made a joint operation impossible.
The first attempt to surround the enemy was made by the right company, but when within 50 yards of the position they were noticed and came under fire. The officer in command of the patrol and a man were killed. From this direction the road and a considerable stretch of bare sward had to be crossed at the closest of ranges in a final assault, and now that no surprise could be looked for, the effort of the right company was suspended. It was decided instead to capture the position from the left. A fresh barrage was arranged. Two platoons, making a wide flanking movement, pushed through the thickets and worked round the rear When about 80 yards away the officer commanding the platoons was also killed by a sniper. But the enemy, now intensely nervous about his flanks and seeing his escape menaced, was satisfied with having checked our advance. Just before the House was rushed, its garrison fled through the trees too precipitately to take their machine guns with them. In the rest of the defences 2 machine guns and 30 prisoners were captured. It was now 11 a.m. The companies reorganised and went forward towards the second objective. Owing to the check at this southern Forester's House 1st Canterbury on the left had passed 2nd Otago on the Obies road. From this point on, however, Canterbury in their turn had heavy fighting in the wet forest, and Otago meeting practically no opposition, overtook and outdistanced them, and secured a page 596lead which they were to retain for the rest of the day. They reached the second objective without delay.
It had been proposed that on it the support battalions should pass through. As resistance, however, now appeared broken, 2nd Otago continued the advance, and 1st Otago followed behind them with a special charge of protecting their right. Troops of the latter battalion, deprived of the excitement of the pursuit that made amends for hardships, had nevertheless the satisfaction of coming across a small German nest and capturing it.
2nd Otago were by this time ahead not only of 1st Canterbury but also of the 5th Division, and additional precautions were taken to safeguard the right flank on the southern edge of the Forest. One of the support companies was brought up for this purpose, and the reserve company and attached machine gunners followed it. The advance from the La Grande Rue road (the Yellow Line) into the final mass of forest was resumed at 1.30 p.m. It was well that precautions had been taken on the right, for whereas the centre and left company moved on at first with little opposition, the flank guard company encountered from the outset heavy machine gun fire and determined resistance.
In this last battle, however, the dash and skill of Otago were not overshadowed by that unlucky star which had frustrated the heroism of the regiment's first essays in warfare on Gallipoli. The more open nature of this part of the Forest gave opportunity for manoeuvre, and each centre of resistance on its fringe was broken in turn. Like the other battalions engaged in these last 2 stirring days, 2nd Otago could record many incidents of epic prowess. Thus Sergt. L. R. Dickinson, M.M., had already during the action led a charge against an enemy position, capturing 25 prisoners and leaving many dead on the field. At this stage, noticing a large party out in the open, and not being sure as to their identity, he went out alone, to find that they were Germans. They opened fire and wounded him severely, but he returned to fetch a Lewis gun, and with it he dispersed the party. Pte. S. A. Noble, who was on the flank, saw through the trees a group of enemy 200 yards ahead. Running from tree to tree he came close enough to rush the party, capturing an officer and several men. At another point, where a well-posted machine gun checked advance, Cpl. E. Oxenbury took command of a Lewis gun section and by skilful manoeuvring brought fire to bear on the flank. He page 597then went back to his own infantry section and under cover of the Lewis gun advanced to within rushing distance of the German post, being all the time under heavy fire. Four of his men were killed on the way, but Oxenbury and the remainder rushed forward unhesitatingly, captured the gun, and killed or wounded the crew. The centre and left companies encountered little resistance till some 200 yards from the Bavai road. Here a strong enemy position inside the eastern edge of the Forest was cleared under cover of Lewis gun and rifle fire. The defenders were mostly killed or taken prisoners, 40 men surrendering under a white flag, and the remainder were driven out of the Forest. The Bavai road (the Brown. Line) was reached at 3.45 p.m., and now that the machine and Lewis gunners had at last clear fields of fire, they inflicted heavy casualties on German parties retiring across the fields towards the Sambre. Pickets were established along the road. Neither of the flank units was yet in line. The necessary defensive measures were taken, and the approaches on the southern extremity of the Forest were guarded by outposts half a mile clear of it down the La Haute Rue road.
1st Canterbury on the left had at the outset met slight opposition. The general direction of the enemy's retirement was towards the north-east, and as the German rearguards withdrew before 2nd Otago they crossed the front of Canterbury, whose Lewis guns secured not a few victims in parties exposing themselves in the rides and tracks of the bush. At 8.30 a.m. Canterbury was approaching the first objective on the northern tract of forest. There round the northern Forester's House the Germans were in force with several machine guns. As with Otago, a direct approach could be forced only with losses, but here there were greater facilities for conjoint operations by both companies. About 9 a.m. these had manoeuvred round on either flank and turned the position. Five machine guns, a mortar and a considerable number of prisoners were captured. The VI. Corps were now over a mile in rear on the left, and Otago was for the moment cheeked on the right, but the 1st Canterbury patrols pushed resolutely into the depths of the unfelled forest. Now fighting became much harder. The density of the trees made connection between patrols a matter of the utmost difficulty, and prevented the use of machine guns. 1st Canterbury had to fight from tree to tree against a tenacious defence, and it was now that their necessarily less rapid page 598progress enabled Otago to forge ahead. By 10 a.m. battalion headquarters were established in the Forester's House which about the same time came under minenwerfer fire. At noon it was subjected to an intense bombardment by heavy and medium howitzers. The support companies then moving forward over some low ground west of the House were caught in the outer fringe of the storm but rushed up the slope and escaped severe casualties. Gradually clearing the Forest and driving the Germans before them, the companies at length reached the La Grande Rue road.
In the latter part of this bound progress had been less arduous, and the troops had set their hearts on pushing further than the objective originally allotted them. They therefore entered the main mass of the Forest, penetrated over half a mile and about 3 p.m. reached the edge of the well-defined clearing. Up to this time they had captured 150 prisoners, 16 machine guns, and a mortar. In endeavouring to force the clearing, considerable opposition was met from machine guns, and at length 2nd Canterbury1 prevailed on the leading troops to stand fast and allow them to pass through.
1 Major Wilson, vice Lt.-Col. Stewart, in England on duty.
Meanwhile 2nd Auckland,1 who had spent the night in Villereau, successfully fulfilled their mission by picketing a series of heights on the left flank of the advance along a distance of 2 miles. For a short time they were troubled by German artillery, and there was an exchange of long-range machine gun fire, but no close contact was gained with the enemy who could be seen northwards on the VI. Corps front entering the houses and talking with the civilians. At midnight, 5th/6th November, these 3 battalions, 2nd Otago, 2nd Canterbury and 2nd Auckland, the last New Zealand infantry to be in the line, together with the support troops of the 2nd Brigade began to be relieved by the 42nd Division.
On the following day the 9th Battery, losing touch with the group under which they were working, pushed as far as the outskirts of Hautmont south-west of Maubeuge. The 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades followed over the Bavai road, reaching the high ground north of the Sambre and carrying out a little harassing fire. The 2nd (Army) Brigade came into reserve. On the following day the 1st Artillery Brigade moved near Boussières, and on 9th November the 3rd Brigade went into billets at Hautmont. On that day the Corps line ran south of Maubeuge, and Maubeuge itself fell to the VI. Corps.
The advance of the VI. Corps towards the south-east was now beginning to squeeze out the IV. Corps. The former Corps were ordered therefore on the 9th to take over the command of the whole Army front, the IV. Corps becoming responsible for the defence of the Avesnes-Maubeuge-Mons road. On the 11th the New Zealand batteries moved back to Villereau towards the Divisional area.
The result of the brilliant and final victory of the 4th and succeeding days was to break once for all German resistance. Rawlinson and the French by their advance on the right had turned the pivot of resistance on the Sambre. Opposition had been shown to the First Army on the 5th and 6th, but by the 9th the enemy was in forced retreat along the front of the attack and to the extreme northern limit of the British sector, where the Fifth Army captured Tournai and the Second Army crossed the Scheldt and reached Renaix. On 10th November, with cavalry and cyclists preceding the infantry, the advance of the 5 British Armies had continued, reaching the environs of Grammont and Ath. In the early morning of the 11th the Canadians had captured Mons. "The enemy was capable neither of accepting nor refusing battle. The utter confusion of his troops, the state of his railways congested with abandoned trains, the capture of huge quantities of rolling stock and material, all showed that our attack had been decisive. It had been followed on the north by the evacuation of the Tournai salient and to the south, where the French forces had pushed forward with us, page 601by a rapid and costly withdrawal to the line of the Meuse. The strategic plan of the Allies had been realised with a completeness rarely seen in war. When the armistice was signed by the enemy, his defensive powers had already been definitely destroyed. A continuation of hostilities could only have meant disaster to the German Armies and the armed invasion of Germany."1
Together with the Division and the Otago Mounted Rifles, the Cyclists2 also had since August been engaged in the British offensive partly with the III. Corps (temporarily commanded by General Godley) but mainly with the XXII. Corps. On occasion they had experienced hard fighting. In this last battle also they took an active part, and one of their companies was actually in the outpost line near Givry when hostilities ceased.
If the Division felt some regret that this interesting experience was denied them, they had every reason to feel satisfaction with the result of their 2 days' operations. In their last action they had surpassed even their own high standard. They had seized all objectives assigned, and had driven a deep wedge with unrivalled rapidity into the German line. The passage of the Mormal Forest on the 5th under conditions of aggravated difficulty was in itself a notable performance; and, judged by material gains, the operations on the 4th were the most successful of all the Division's actions during the war. On that day they had advanced 6 miles, capturing Le Quesnoy Ramponeau Villereau Potelle and Herbignies with nearly 2,000 prisoners, 60 field guns, many complete with gunners drivers and horses, and hundreds of machine guns. The German Staff professed a belief in the deterioration of their enemies' morale. They were never more mistaken. The spirit animating the British Armies was of the highest. The élan displayed by every arm and every unit of the New Zealand Division received recognition in a unique order issued by General Russell on the 8th in Le Quesnoy:—“The Divisional Commander wishes to express to all ranks his appreciation of their work during the past fortnight's operations. At no time has the Division fought with more spirit and determination, nor have its efforts at any time been crowned with greater success. The Divisional Commander is convinced that the results achieved are due to the determination of every individual to do his utmost towards the common end.”
1 Official Despatch.
2 Since 28th Sept. 1918 designated the New Zealand Cyclist Battalion.