The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter III — The Battle of the Somme, 1916
The Battle of the Somme, 1916
The expansion of their armies and armament made it at length practicable for the British to undertake, in accordance with the general Allied policy, an offensive campaign on a large scale in the summer of 1916. It was decided that the French should co-operate and that the thrust, should be made up the valley of the Somme. In his despatch of 23rd December 1916 the British Commander-in-Chief has defined the objects of the offensive as threefold: to relieve the pressure on Verdun, where the German assault, had been designed partly to frustrate the impending blow; to assist the Allies in the other theatres of war by stopping any further transfer of German troops from the Western front; and to wear down the strength of the enemy forces. The British would have preferred a somewhat later date in the summer, which would have permitted of an increase of men and munitions and a period of further training for the new levies, but the continually increasing strain at Verdun forced their hands. It was agreed therefore that the combined attack should be launched not later than the end of June. The British share in the joint operations was committed to the Fourth Army under General Rawlinson. Arrangements were also made for a subsidiary attack on the northern flank of the selected area by troops from General Allenby's Third Army, and a skeleton Reserve Army was formed in rear under General Gough.
Owing to their commanding situation and bare glacis, destitute of cover for assaulting infantry, the enemy positions which confronted the British on the watershed between the Somme and the rivers of South-Western Belgium were in themselves of immense strength and had been converted by unremitting and skilfully directed industry, and by every technical device known to modern military art, into fortifications as nearly impregnable as any in history. Against them, indeed, along a considerable part of the front, British valour was on 1st July to dash itself in vain, for not merely was the subsidiary operation abortive, but in the northern sector of the main blow, from Thiepval to Serre, the assaulting lines withered away under page 62the deadly combination of artillery, machine guns and wire. At the end of the day the Commander-in-Chief made up his mind perforce to cut his losses and not persevere for the moment with the attack in this sector. The 2 northern Corps of the 5 which formed General Rawl-in-son's command were handed over to General Gough. The latter's augmented Army was directed to act as a pivot on which our advance on the right could swing, and for the meantime to confine itself to a steady and methodical pressure. In the southern half of the British area, however, the first defence system, including trench lines, redoubts, woods, and villages, for a frontage of over 6 miles to a depth of a mile or more, was in our possession by 15th July. Of the second system, which ran along the southern crest of the main ridge from Guillemont through Longueval and the two Bazentins to Pozieres, some 3½ miles were captured in the middle of July. For the remainder there ensued a stern and prolonged struggle (the second phase of the battle), in which the British troops, not without being mauled in the process, satisfactorily fulfilled the main object of the offensive. As they strained forward, the role of the Reserve Army became one of more active co-operation. By the second week of September, not merely had the enemy's Second Line been won, but at certain points very considerable penetration had been effected beyond. "Practically the whole of the forward crest of the main ridge from Delville Wood to beyond Pozières was now in our hands."1 Meanwhile on the right the French had carried their lines by a series of brilliantly conceived and vigorously executed operations to within striking distance of Péronne.
1 Despatch of 31st December, 1916, para. 25.
Area of the Somme Battlefield (1916)
For all the gigantic preparations necessary there was, in view of the lateness of the season, little time to lose. Plans mere immediately drawn up for a grand attack at the earliest possible moment, which could not well be before the middle of September, with the aim of overwhelming the enemy at the outset and following up the advantage won with the utmost rapidity and vigour. Once the enemy was driven from his prepared positions into the open, it was hoped to abandon the snail-like progress of trench warfare and employ cavalry on a large scale. The other British Armies to the north were instructed to be prepared to assist in exploiting n decisive success. Preliminary attacks were made in the beginning of September to afford suitable assault positions or to deny observation. For the main operation, arrangements were put in hand for the employment of rested Divisions with their morale at its bloom. Among these it was the privilege of the New Zealand Division to be included.
The New Zealanders, meanwhile, were recuperating from their arduous work on the Lys amid the delectable wooded valleys of the lower Somme. Health improved rapidly, and at no time perhaps were more energy and keenness thrown into the training, which was itself based on the assumption of participation in a renewed offensive on the Somme. In the artillery work, therefore, it was natural that fire discipline should be a paramount feature, and that emphasis should be laid on the principles governing the close barrage. There was fortunately some fair manoeuvre ground, and the drivers, exercised in so-called "refresher " courses in field movements, speedily regained the proficiency which had been in some degree impaired by the prolonged conditions of trench warfare. Guns equipment and harness were minutely overhauled. The Engineers paid particular attention to the construction of Strong Points and to rapid wiring. Specialists in all branches intensified and widened their page 64theoretical knowledge and practical skon, Above all, the infantry were familiarised with the new methods of assault, and great importance was attached to the thorough appreciation by every private soldier of the principles involved and the general scheme of each practice operation. The efficacy of these new methods had been proved over and over again, and it was vital to diffuse a complete comprehension of them. The lesson was hammered in, therefore, that infantry, trained to hug the protective curtain of shrapnel, which advanced in front of them and prevented the manning of the enemy's machine guns, would have all the odds in favour of success; that the risk of casualtics caused by an occasional short burst must be faced, and that in any case these would be few compared with those to be expected on an unsueccssful attack, or in an attack driven home in the face of effective machine gun fire. So, too, stress was laid on the necessity of absolute punctuality.Experience had already shown that while an assault delivered immediately the artillery fire lifted from the objective was, humanly speaking, assured of victory, the delay of even a fraction of a minute might be fraught with disaster.
By night as well as day, all over the meadowlands and the stubble of the harvest fields, battalions in fighting kit incessantly practised the advance of assault waves in extended formation, the avoidance of crowding, the progress of small columns of supporting troops in rear, and the methods of communication with co-operating aeroplanes.1 The different objectives were represented by different coloured flags, and the lifts of the creeping barrage by lines of men waving branches to indicate the fall of shrapnel, or by horsemen galloping forward in succesive "bounds " in accordance with a prearranged timetable. The planning and execution of these operations constituted invaluable training.2
1 Contact patrol work by aerop1anes was designed to keep Headquarters of formations informed as to progress of troops, to report on the enermy's positions, the advance and movement of his immediate reserves and the state of his defences, and to transmit messages from the troops engaged. They were specially marked and carried Klaxon horns and Verey lights. On their part the infantry lit flares at specified times and places in their most advanced positions, and if they carried Klaxon horns sounded them on their own initiative. Brigades and battalions indicated their position and identity to the aeroplane by ground signal sheets and stripes and sent messages by ground signal panel arranged to represent letters. Thus, in a later development, a succession of G's meant "further bombardment required," of N's "short of ammunition," of Z's "held up by wire." The aeroplanes communicated with headquarters of Corps and Divisions by dropping marked maps and written messages. See also footnote, p. 28.
2 It may be noted that during this period of training the Division formally adopted the method of wearing their felt hats with brim horizontal and crown peaked.
1 On the senior C.R.A. being wounded, Brig.-Gen. Napier Johnston assumed command on 1st September of the artillery eventually destined to cover the New Zealand Division's front and remained in command ton relieved on 25th September.
1 In this conncxion may be quoted Mr. L. Binyon's too little-known lines:—
The Distant Guns
Negligently the cart track descends into the valley;
The drench of the rain has passed, and the clover breathes;
Scents are abroad; in the val1ey a mist whitens
Along the hidden river, where the evening smiles—
The trees are asleep the shadows are longer and longer,
Melting blue in the tender twilight; above.
In a pallor, barred with lilac and ashen cloud,
Delicate as a spirit, the young moon brightens.
And distantly a bell intones the hour of peace,
Where roofs of the village, gray and red, cluster
In leafy dimness. Peace, old as the world
The crickets shroning in the high wet grass
And guats clouding upon the frail wild roses
Murmur of you: but hark! Like a shudder in the air,
Ominous and alien, knocking on the farther hills
As with airy hammers, the ghosts of terrible sound—
Guns! From afar they are knocking on human hearts
Everywhere over the silent evening country,
Knocking with fear and dark presentiment. Only
The moon's beauty, where no life nor joy is,
Brightening softly and seeing nothing, has pear.
While the 1st and 2nd Brigades remained for a day here, visited by General Godley at training or on parade, and bathing in the deep wonow-fringed waters of the swift-running Ancre, the 3rd Brigade set out on 9th September, marching past the varied scenes of astounding activity along the main road to the Moulin du Vivier and thence by the dry-weather track to Fricourt. On all the slopes tens of thousands of British troops were bivouacked under the eyes of the German balloons. The twinkling of their camp fires at night was like the lights of a great, city, and in the morning the smoke from a thousand cookhouses rose up and spread a hazc over the honsides.
On the following day and night the Rifles relieved a brigade of the 55th Division towards Delvone Wood and a portion of the 1st Division on the left nearer High Wood. The lst1 and 4th Battalions went into the advanced trenches, and the 2nd and 3rd2 into the old German Second Line (Carlton and Savoy) in rear, where the dugouts were ston full of German dead. Brigade Headquarters occupied a cellar in Bazentin-le-Grand.
1 Major (Temp. Lt.-Col.) J. G. Roache, vice Lt.-Col. Austin, woundcd 20th July.
2 Major (Temp. Lt.-Col.) A. E. Winter-Events, vice Lt.-Col. Cowles, invalided to New Zealand; later in the year appointed to command it.
1 Foureaux is the spelling of maps. The Maire of Flers assured us (Sept. 1919) that the correct spelling as given in title deeds and official documents, etc. is Fourcaults. Fooreaux no doubt, however, won persist.
Pending the day of attack, the Rifle Brigade improved their trenches and dug a new line through the shellholes in front, first constructing a chain of posts 100 yards apart and each 20 yards long, with flank trenches of 5 yards, then connecting these posts together and the whole with the original line.
On the 10th (Sunday), after a joint service by the 2 sister battalions of each regiment, the 1st and 2nd Brigades marched up to the rear of the battle area. The 1st Brigads went to Fricourt, the 2nd to Fricourt Wood and Mametz Wood, where they lay in bivouac among the trees ton the morning of the 12th. On the llth, at 9a.m., the command of the sector passed to the New Zealand Division.
Long ere now the Fourth Army plans had been crystallized. While the French would continue their pressure on the south, the Reserve Army would attack on the north in conjunction. An attempt wou1d be made to seize Morval, Les Boeufs, Flers and Gueudecourt, through which lay the nearest avenue to the open country beyond. On their capture, the cavalry, supported by the XIV. and XV. Corps, who would follow up at once in rear, would be pushed through the outposts. With n flank guard of all arms established on the general line Morval-Le Transloy, the cavalry would seize the high ground east of the Péronne road, and establish a line in country later to become familiar to the New Zealanders, from Rocquigny through Voners-au-Flos and Riencourt-les-Bapanme to Bapaume itself. They would moreover assist in rolling up the enemy's lines to the north-west by operating against his flank and rear in conjunction with the attack which would be continued against his front. The cavalry would not enter the villages, so fire would be maintained on them. Corps and Divisional Commanders, with whom it lies to feel the pulse of a battle and turn favourable opportunities to account, were admonished of the need of boldness and determination.
The XV. Corps was now composed of fresh Divisions with their fighting spirit at its zenith. All 3 Divisions were to be put in the line, each on a frontage of about 1000 yards. This formation was preferable to keeping 1 Division in rear, as facilitating the more rapid advance of reserve troops with page 69a view to paralying the enemy defences and producing panic. On the right was the 14th, in the centre the 41st, and on the left the New Zealand Division. On its left again on the right flank of the NI. Corps, the 1st Division had been relieved by the Londoners of the 47th.
In the forthcoming battle the Corps objectives were 4 in number, marked in accordance with custom in different tints on the maps and referred to by these colours; firstly the seizure of the Switch Trench with the intermediate defences on the crest (the Green Line); secondly the establishment of a Brown Line in German trenches on the far slopes; thirdly the passage of the Flers System, the capyure of Flers village and the consolidation of a Blue Line in front of it; and lastly the carrying of Gueudecourt and establishment of a protective Red Line beyond it, bending back to the north-west to the junction with the NI. Corps, whose advance would ston leave the XV. Corps in a marked salient. Flers fell within the zone of the 4lst Division, in the centre of the Corps, and Gueudecourt within that of the 14th Divisioin, on the right. In addition to monor trench elements the advance would involve the capture of 3 formidable trench systems the Switch, the Flers Line, and the Gird Line that protetated Gueudecourt. Opposite the New Zealand sector the German positions were held by Bavarians.
The first 3 objectives set before the New Zealand Division, the Green, Brown, and Blue Lines, lay square to its front, but its section of the Red line, forming as it did the Corps' north-western flank ran across its front diagonally. The left of the Red Line thus coincided with the left of the Blue in the Abbey road which ran from Flers to Eaucourt I' Abbaye, and the area to be secured in the final advance was roughly triangular. For the actual Red Line, which would mark the limit of advance and cover the exposed left flank of the Corps, there was conveniently situated a strip of high ground which extended back towards a sugar factory halfway between Flers and Ligny Thonoy. Along this high ground lay the important trench called Grove Alley which connected the Flers and Gird systems, and just beyond it was a shallow valley down which the North Road led to the Factory. The ridge on the other side of the depression simi1arly had a communication trench along its crest called Goose Alley. Both Alleys were to be scenes of epic fighting, but for the present attack the high ground about Grove Alley was selected as the final objective.page 70
For these operations General Russell decided to employ the 2nd and 3rd Brigades, and hold the 1st Brigade in reserve. Two battalions of the 2nd Brigade, who would duriug the interval relieve the Rifle Brigade and be in the line, would seize the Switch. Passing through them, the Rifle; Brigade would capture the remaining objectives. 1 battalion would leave the Green Line for the Brown an hour after zero, 2 battalions the Brown for the Blue Line 2 hours after zero, and 1 battalion the Blue for the attenuated Red Line 4½ hours after zero. Should the fourth objective be reached without undue difficulty, it was intended to exploit success in a northerly direction, with the cooperation of tanks. The Rifle Brigade were accordingly instructed to push out strong offensive patrols and the 2nd Brigade to be prepared to support them.
Stupendous weight of artillery was behind the infantry to neutralise the advantages given by modern warfare to the defence. In addition to overwhelming heavy artillery a field gun was available for every 12 yards of enemy front opposite the New Zealanders. German newspaper critics might growl fiercely in terms like these: "Anyone would think that the object of the French and the English was simply to kill so many Germans every week or every month. They have no tactical ideas; they are simply butchering us. "Their soldiers knew, however, that no other alternative was feasible. The experience of Neuve Chapelle, Loos, and Verdun had established firmly the principle of demolishing trenches saps had machine gun emplacements, cutting communications, and in a word destroying the enemy's physical and moral powers of defence by a heavy bombardment preliminary to the operation and continued during the attack up to the time of the arrival of the infantry at each objective. The actual advance of the infantry was covered by stationary and rolling barrage of field guns. Normally the rolling barrage commencing in No Man's Land would move back steadily and evenly at a rate calculated by the infantry advance, lifting, say, 50 yards at a time and halting on certain defined lines for definite periods to enable the infantry to reorganise. The stationary barrage on the other hand remained an the position to be assaulted ton joined by the rolling barrage when it lifted at one bound to the next objective. While the heavy guns did counter-battery work, the field howitzers co-operated with the siege howitzers in bombarding objectives in advance of the stationary barrage.page 71
The front held by the Division was, as we have seen, covered by the 14th Divisional Artonery and the 1st aid 2nd New Zealand Field Artonery Brigades, the other half of the Divisional artillery assisting the Division on the right. The New Zealand batteries were disposed on the northern slopes of the valley running from Caterpillar Wood to Bernaifay Wood as close to the front as could possibly be arranged. Forward positions in the event of success were selected. The initial bombardment commenced on 12th September. Sunken roads and road junctions, headquarters and villages as well as trenches and battery positions were subjected to a steady fire. Particular attention was given to the Switch line and above all to its extensive wire entanglements on the smashing of which the success of the operation largely depended.
On the same day (12th September) the Rifles were relieved by the 2nd Brigade and marched back for a short period of rest to Fricourt and Mametz Woods. 2nd Aucklard and 2nd Otago took over the front line, 2nd Canterbury went into support, and 2nd Wellington into reserve. Brigade headquarters was established in a tunnelled dugout built by the Pioneers in Turk Lane, just, south of Carlton Trench. The assembly trenches initiated by the Rifle Brigade were extended and further ones constructed. All other preparations were being pushed on with vigour both in front and in rear.
The 14th was a squally day of rain which cleared off towards evening. Throughout the day the enemy shelled the areas of Caterpillar and Marlbornugh Woods and Bazentin-le-Grand but refrained from harrassing our front trenches. During the daylight the German outposts appeared to have been withdrawn over the crest, and our infantry to their equal astonishment and gratification were able to work openly in No Man's Land, and to complete their jumping-off line and assembly trenches unmolestd. The 1st Brigade moved up to Fricourt and Mametz Woods, and after dusk the Rifle Brigade marched up from their bivouacs there to the assembly area in front of the 2 rear battalions of the 2nd Brigade. In accordance with the sound principle already laid down by the General Staff, all battalions sent to the Reserve Camp, as so-called "B Teams, " the proportion of officers non-commissioned officers and specialists, who would in the event of heavy casualties serve as a framework on which the renewed unit could be built. Parties were told off for all the heterogencous duties of the battlefield, to police the page 72trenches, to bury the dead, to salvage abandoned equipment, to act as ammunition carriers for trench mortar sections or machine gunners, to assist the Engineers, to carry up stores from prearranged advanced dumps-ammunition bombs water and tools, in that order of importance.
After darkness the tanks, male and female, crawled forward to their assembly area by Delvone Wood. They were still in the first stage of development. Their pace was not more than on an average 33 yards per minute, or 15 yards per minute over badly shelled ground. They carried a crate of pigeons for communication with Headquarters and different coloured flags to denote to the infantry that they were out of action or had arrived at their objective. Their mission was, roughly, to move in front of the infantry, attack certain positions at which particular resistance war expected, and assist the infantry in clearing difficult places if called on. There had been, however, little opportunity of practising co-operation, and it was to be expected that they would act largely as freelances of the battlefield. The tactical experience of the officers in command was naturally not at this time equal to their gallantry. Of the 4 allotted to the Division, 1 broke down in Longueval.
The hour of attack had been fixed for 6.20 a.m. on the 15th. Before midnight the troops were all in position. Each man was in light fighting order. Two gas helmets were slung over his shoulders. Over 200 rounds of ammunition were contained in his pouches and bandoliers. In his pocket he carried 2 bombs, and behind on his belt were tied the precious sandbags for consolidation. His greatcoat was left with his pack in the regimental dump, but he retained his waterproof sheet with cardigan jacket rolled inside His waterbottle was filled, and in his haversack was a day's rations and "iron" ration. Fastened down the centre of every other man's back was a shovel or pick. Each platoon carried so many smoke bombs for rendering enemy dugouts untenable and so many flares for signalling to our contact aeroplanes that, marked by white streamers and at black band under the left plane, would hover over them at prearranged hours on the following day and after dawn on the 16th.
German aeroplanes had noted the tanks and reported them as heavily armoured cars; and on our left a German officer wrote in wrath and despair an unheeded report on the suspicious massing in the British trenches and the inactivity page 73of the German artillery. If the enemy anticipated an attack, he took no counter-measure. Opposite the New Zealand sector he proceeded with the relief of the 3rd and 4th Bavarian Divisions by the stout 6th Bavarian Division from the Argonne and the fibreless 50th from his Greuier. His mood appears to have been one of confidence, inspired by the repeated repulses of the British attacks on High Wood. A captured Brigade Order, dated 10th September and relating to the defence of High Wood and its vicinity, stated categorically that the German positions in Crest and Switch Trenches were so strong that they might be relied on to resist the fiercest attack.
In the New Zealand trenches the infantry, trained to the last degree of physical fitness and with the fine edge of morale undulled by exposure to artillery fire, snatched a little sleep. The sentries on duty, without either excitement or the boyish insouciance of the English soldier, but in stern and serene clation of spirit, waited for the coming of the dawn and whatsoever fortune might bring them.
By 6 a.m. they had breakfasted, and drunk their rum. A ghostly pallor was now creeping into the sky, and the Otago left could just faintly discern the silhouettes of the gaunt trees in High Wood, whose silence was unbroken by German shells. The watch hand crept slowly and as it were reluctantly toward the appointed time. The weather held out every hope of a fine day.
To the second our guns broke out into thunderous uproar, and to the second the leading infantry waves of Auckland and Otago, with bayonets fixed and rifles sloped, clambered out of their assembly trenches and advanced straight up over the hummocks and between the shellholes. The 8 companies moved abreast in 4 waves about 50 yards behind each other. Each wave was made up of 8 platoons in single rank, some 3 yards separating man from man. The advance was marked by admirable direction pace and alignment. To those watching in the Carlton System the long line of sombre figures was visible for a few moments ton obscured by thick clouds of smoke and dust. Trudging up the hill, the men hugged the barrage which lifted 50 yards a minute. They twice knelt down in the shellholes to let it precede, firing as they knelt at the machine guns in Crest Trenrh. An advanced outpost line called Coffee Trench, which lay in front of the Aucklanders, was crowed in their stride. On reaching Crest Trench more Germans were found page 74than had been expected. On the left in front of Otago some 200 turned and ran over the open for the Switch. Many of them never reached it, for our Lewis Gun teams, waiting for the barrage to lift, raked the fugitives with fire.
One machine gun on the Otago sector was, however, most troublesome Sergt. Donald Forrester Brown with another non-commissioned officer, J. Rodgers, crawled forward at the utmost risk to their lives to within 30 yards of the position and then rushed it, killing the crew aid capturing the gun. Otherwise little resistance was met with all along Crest, Trench. Sections from rear waves were detailed to “mop” it up, and the leading troops, with their zest for killing whetted, swept on without delay to the Switch 250 yards in front.
Just before the Switch, the leading waves of Auckland in their eagerness overstepped the barrage and suffered casualties. The troops on the right were advancing in line, but on the left the Londoners had been delayed, after a premature start, by the peculiarly bad going in High Wood and by heavy machine gun fire. Hence there was a gap beyond the left of Otago, and the enemy machine guns and rifles enfilading down from the corner of High Wood tore some holes in the khaki line. The tanks, for which predetermined lines had been left in the barrage, so that they could reach the Switch 5 minutes before the infantry, had been delayed by the broken ground and had not yet arrived. As the storming lines lay under the final halt of the barrage on their objective, the 2 leading waves and the individuals who had pressed on in the avenues left for the tanks all wedged into 1 solid wave, which the instant the barrage lifted—almost before it had lifted—poured through the smashed entanglements towards the trench. Again Sergt Brown and his comrade rushed a gun and killed the crew. The Switch had been terribly battered and wrecked, but many of the garrison were still alive. There were also several machine guns, but such was the speed of the assault that the enemy was generally unable to use them, and those on the flank and in rear were masked by his own troops in the Switch.
A letter written by a soldier, who took part in the storming of the Switch, to his relatives in New Zealand affords an interesting record of detailed adventure and emotional experience:—
“On the 15th September our platoon went over in the second wave, and I could see the Germans' heads above page 75the trench firing at us when we got about half way across. Even when we joined the first wave I could see that our ranks were pretty thin. We lay down and watched for the third and fourth wave to join us before rushing them. The four waves combined made up about as many as one of the original waves. While we were lying down waiting for the rush, Fritz was rattling away with his machine gun for all he was worth, and for a few seconds he ripped up the ground about a yard in front of me. It gave me a bit of a fright, and I wasted no time in wriggling back a few yards. I also yelled out to the man on my left to get back, but when I looked at his face I saw that he was dead. When we stood up and started to run, their fire slackened off a lot, and soon stopped altogether. Half of them put their hands up and ran towards us; some of them took to their heels, and a few of the fools kept firing at us. We all wanted to get at them with the bayonet, but some of us were faster than others, and those behind were so anxious to do something that they started firing at the Huns, at the risk of hitting their own men in front. I jumped into the Hun trench and found that it was so deep that I could not climb out at the other side, so I pulled a dead Hun into a sitting position at the side of the trench, stood on his shoulders, and managed to climb out. When I think of it now, it seemed a horrible thing to do, and I am not quite sure whether he was dead or not, but I did not notice it in the excitement of the moment. I was chasing one fellow and almost had him, but I soon found I was not too safe, as the fellows behind were firing, so I lay down, took steady aim, and shot him. Another poor beggar came stumbling towards me with a shower of bullets flying all round him. I knew that if I let him come too near me I would stand a good chance of getting hit by one of our own bullets, as he was drawing a lot of fire, so I gave him a bullet in the chest when he was about 15 yards from me. They are the only two Huns I can claim to have put out of action, although I may have killed or wounded more that I did not see.”
While some of the occupants made a poor fight, others stouter-hearted, threw bombs and fired rifles till our lines were atop of them, and then oil the greater part of the front, throwing down their weapons, they held up their hands, and with calculated presumption called for mercy. Mercy, how-page 76ever, was shown only to the Red Cross men and the wounded. Where further resistance was made, the enemy in the trench itself were disposed of after a little point-blank shooting and a short struggle with bombs. The dugouts were cleared similarly. On the right, where the enemy were thicker, the Aucklanders used their bayonets freely. With this weapon Pte. A. R. Johnson showed magnificent courage and agility, killing one after another of the enemy who were throwing bombs at his comrades. It was here that 2nd Lt. A. C. Cooper, already wounded, continued to fire his revolver with great effect at the German bombers. Otago found a Headquarters dugout some 100 yards down the forward slope, and its 6 occupants were bombed. By 6.50 a.m. the Switch was completely in our hands, and its captors looked down on the new country where the greenish-brown fields seemed unscarred and the villages unshattered.
Be1ow them, immediately on their right, lay the houses and kitchen gardens of Flers, and in a straight line, 1000 yards beyond, one got glimpses of Guendecourt. On their left, about a mile and a quarter to the north-west of Flers, Eancourt I' Abbaye could be distinguished with the picturesque ruins of the old monastery and the 2 orchard-surrounded farms built of its masonry—all enclosed by a high wall. It lay in the III. Corps front, and from it stretched a road to Ligny Thilloy, on which glasses defected the limbers of German transport. Between these villages in the middle distance lay the solitary group of buildings of the sugar refinery at Factory Corner, close to which the Rifie Brigade would thrust the line, if all went well, later in the day. In the background, the eye travelled over gentle wooded slopes on which the roofs of Ligny Thilloy and Le Barque stood out among the trees.
1 A quite unusual feature but reported on reliable authority.
All this time the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Rifle Brigade had been advancing immediately behind the 4th Battalion. Till they reached the crest, each section wound its way in Indian file up over the shellholes, each platoon group being separated about 100 yards from its neighhour to minimise the dangers of artillery fire. The 2 battalions were each in depth on a 1-company frontage of 400 yards. One company of the right battalion for a time got in front of the 4th Battalion, but this was remedied without confusion. German heavy artillery laid a barrage in High Wood and along the crest, but the shells kept falling in much the same spots, and a passage through was not difficult for seasoned soldiers.1 The German field guns presumably were moving back, for there was little or no shrapnel, but with characteristic tenacity an overlooked machine gun in the Switch blazed into activity for a few thrilling moments and caused some casualties before the crew were destroyed. The battalions reached their assembly position in rear of the Brown Line well up to time.
1 The instantaneous fuse, which caused the shell fragments to fly much further, was not yet employed, and the system of "crashes " was yet to be evolved: see p. 320. The Germans never at any time used much shrapnel, and almost invariably burst it too high.
On the right the 2nd Battalion did not find much difficulty in Flers Trench, where they captured over 80 prisoners, but as soon they began to move out of it, a machine gun from the hedges at the corner of the village in front caused several casualties, among whom fell Major A. J. Childs. By short rushes, however, the platoons pushed their way to Flers Support, which was found empty. From there to the Abbey Road the support companies, who now took up the struggle, met stiff fighting. Hidden in the plantations, the road had a sheer 20-feet drop, undetected by our aeroplanes and full of dugouts, and there the Germans resisted stubbornly. Part of the 1st Battalion, which followed in rear, joined in the conflict, and a platoon of the 4th which had been in battalion reserve was sent forward to assist. About 9.30 a.m. the road and plantations on the western half of the village were cleared of the enemy, and the 4th Battalion platoon returned to the Brown Line.
Partly to fill a gap on their right and partly drawn by the magnetism of the village, the 2nd Battalion had swung somewhat into the area of the 41st Division on their right, to whom all Flers, except this north-western corner, had been assigned. These English troops had had less distance to cover in the initial stages of the battle, and for them the Brown Line had coincided with the Flers System where it was contiguous with the village. Thus they were among the houses and saw the Germans retiring in disorder towards Gueudecourt, while the New Zealanders, according to programme were still mastering Flers and Fort Trenches. At 8.40 a.m. an aeroplane saw a crowd of them following a tank up the main street. Ere the Germans retired, however, they released pigeons with a report of their disaster, and the congested troops of the 41st Division in the village were soon heavily shelled and lost most of their officers. Only a handful page 79penetrated to the Blue Line beyond, till the Brigade Major1 of their left brigade, a fine fighting soldier, personally collected parties and brought them round to the north-eastern side. Owing to these casualties it was fortunate that the 2nd Rifles was in a position to give substantial assistance in filling up the gap on its right and so securing our hold on Flers. By 10 a.m. it was on the Blue Line in its own area on the New Zealand front and had its right thrown well over into the 41st Division's sector, and covering the village.
On the left, with the 3rd Battalion, progress was much less marked. As no barrage accompanied this stage of the attack, it was most desirable that the wire in front of the Flers System should be found well broken. It was a matter, therefore, of grave anxiety to the 3rd Battalion troops to find themselves confronted by a practically intact barrier of rusty entanglements. Machine guns and rifles chattered from the trench beyond, and it was obvious that their hope of surmounting the barrier of Flers Trench without trouble was doomed to disappointment. No tanks were yet visible. Bombing sections, led by 2nd Lt, R. A. Bennett and others, worked up the communication trenches which ran forward from the Brown Line, and succeeded in putting one machine gun out of action, but all their effort were unable to force an entry. Other parties, utilising the dead ground on the left, made some progress under cover of supporting machine guns. The 1st Battalion coming up joined in the fighting here as they had joined in the fighting in the village, but the barrier remained unbroken. Attempts at a frontal rush to reach the wire and break it with wire-cutters were effectively checked by the stream of lead pumped from the trench.
But the new British weapon was thus carly to prove its value. About 10.30 a.m. the men lying in sullen discomfiture in the shellholes, with their rifles trained on any movement in the Flers Line, became aware of 2 tanks, one of which rolled over to the left boundary by the North Road, while the other smashed the wire and stamped out the machine guns. In their wake followed a party of 10 riflemen and bombers of the 4th Battalion, who had pushed forward to add impetus to the 3rd Battalion's attack. This little party, commanded by Major Pow, coming on top of the dismay inspired by the tank actually captured 100 prisoners. The 3rd Battalion then pushed up through Flers Support to Abbey Road to join the 2nd.
1 Major Gwyn Thomas.
There now remained the final task of capturing Grove Alley. This objective had been allotted to the 1st Battalion, which till now had constituted the brigade reserve. The fighting in the village and before Flers Trench, in which parties of this battalion had become involved, made reorganisation necessary. When the leading companies therefore reached Abbey Road, they paused for a time under cover of the 2nd Battalion and part of the 3rd, now on or close in rear of the Blue Line, to straighten out their units. It was about 11 a.m. Owing to the delay at the Flers System the progress of operations now lagged behind the timetable, but as there was no covering barrage this mattered little. Advantage was taken of the halt to arrange with a small party of English troops in Flers that these should establish a Strong Point in an isolated German system known as Box and Cox, 300 yards north of the village, so as to furnish a defensive flank.
At about 11.30 a.m. the 2 assaulting companies moved off. On their appearance, 200 of the German troops garrisoing Grove Alley turned and fled north-eastwards towards Gueudecourt. Our advance was covered by the fire of the machine guns attached to the 2nd Battalion, which had taken up prearranged positions in Strong Points in the vicinity of the Blue Line. This checked opposition in front, but severe machine guns fire, admirably directed from the Goose Alley ridge beyond the North Road on the left, caused several casualties. Somewhat reduced in numbers by this fire, the 1st Battalion pushed steadily forward and captured the centre of the position without overmuch trouble. Particularly, fine qualities of leadership were shown by Coy.-Sergt.-Major G. H. Boles, who, when all the officers and most of the n.c.o.s of his company had been put out of action and the men began to falter under the fire, took command, organised the renmants, and led them forward to the objective. Two guns of a German field battery, one of which was in action, were assaulted by 2nd Lt. J. R. Bongard with a party of 7 men, and the crews bayoneted.
Thus the final objective of the Division, except for a portion on each flank, was in our hands. It was now, however, after midday. The tanks had gone over to the right or had been destroyed. No troops were visible in the 41st Division's Red Line, and even at Box and Cox in the right rear, the party that had undertaken to form the Strong Point had been prevented from carrying out the arrangement. page 81The left or south end of Grove Alley, which the depleted companies were not strong enough to cover in their assault, was still occupied by the enemy. This force was hemmed in by the 1st Battalion and the 3rd, and no doubt could have been trapped. A more pressing danger, however, lay on the 1st Battalion's unguarded right flank, where large numbers of the enemy were beginning to advance from the north-east, and threatening to cut off the thin line of our troops, stretching out here "into the air. " The officer in command in the front line had to make up his mind rapidly. He decided to withdraw steadily to Box and Cox and the Blue Line. Bongard's party destroyed at least one of the field guns.
Generally, in such circumstances, it is the duty of troops that reach an advanced position to hold their ground and facilitate the advance of their comrades on the flanks, but sometimes situations arise which are frankly impossible, and to stay then means useless waste of lives. On this occasion, as a matter of fact, the neighbouring troops were not in a position to effect further progress without an interval of at least some hours, and the tactical correctness of the decision to withdraw, however relnetantly made, was confirmed by the orders received shortly afterwards from Corps, that no advance beyond the Blue Line would be made that day. It was now about 2.30 p.m. The 1st Battalion troops set to work at once to consolidate their line. Of the 2 light trench mortars at their disposal 1 was destroyed by a direct hit. The other took up a defensive position. The right flank round the north-east corner of Flers was drawn further back to protect the village from this direction, and to connect up with the handful of English troops on the right. 2nd Lt. N. L. Macky, who was in command of the 1st Rifles' reserve of 2 platoons, moved forward, engaged the enemy with fire and arrested his advance. Thus, though it was impossible to maintain a hold on that last objective, the Rifle Brigade achieved further progress than the troops on either flank. In the course of the day's operations they had captured over 400 prisoners, 6 machine guns and a mitrailleuse.
To meet the threatened counter-attack on the forward position, the 2nd Brigade was ordered to send up a battalion in support of the Rifle Brigade. General Braithwaite accordingly gave instructions to this effect over the telephone to his reserve battalion, 2nd Wellington, which, previously warned for such action, moved off at once with 5 machine page 82guns. They met a considerable barrage on the Switch and heavy shelling between there and Flers, but advancing in splendid order suffered few casualties. Passing through the western part of the village, the 2 leading companies found that the enemy's attack had been finally smashed by artillery fire and had not developed into a serious danger.1 After reconnaissance of the Rifles' position they filled up a gap north of the village, where, owing to the necessary overflow into the right Division's front, the line was distinctly thin. As the infantry dug in, they were covered by the tank “H.M.S. Diehard,” commanded by a gallant young officer of the Highland Light Infantry. It had already done strenuous service, though none of its adventures so impressed its cheerful crew as the sight of passing Bavarians hurriedly adjusting their respirators, under the impression that the smoke from the exhaust pipe was some novel kind of lethal gas. It now moved forward along the road towards Factory Corner, protecting the digging parties with its broadsides and at the same time firing up the road with its forward gun.
At 3.30 p.m., enemy reaction seemed to swing against the left flank, where a previous attempt had been crushed by our machine guns. Reports reached Divisional Headquarters of skirmishing lines of enemy north of High Wood and west of Flers. The 2nd Rifles moved a composite party of a company strength across from right to left to meet this new threat, and a third 2nd Wellington company was also rushed up, but this attack, too, failed to materialise.
1 This German attack presented to the New Zealand gunners perhaps their best moving target in France and even, with the possible exception of the Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair operations on Gallipoli, in the whole war. Forward observation officers, already in Flers Support, observed a force of Germans, about a battalion strong, in close formation in the open. For a moment they were mistaken for our cavalry who were expected to be seen dismounted. When their identity was realised, practically every field gun in the sector opened well-directed fire on them.
The position in the evening was that the north-east approaches to the village were barred by the 41st Division troops on the Blue Line, and the north and north-west of the village secured by the 1st Rifles, with the three 2nd Wellington companies, 200 yards in front of the Blue Line and connected back with the 3rd Rifles and the other 2nd Wellington company, who were consolidating the Blue Line on the left of the sector. On their left, again, in the III. Corps area, the 47th Division had been very severely engaged in High Wood and been unable to take their objective in the Flers System. The 3rd Rifles, therefore, who had themselves lost nearly half of their effectives in the fight for Flers Trench, placed machine and Lewis guns to command the North Road valley. A further section of machine guns was sent forward in the evening. Blocks and bombing posts were established in Flers Trench and Flers Support, and a defensive flank was manned in a convenient sap which ran from Abbey Road to Flers Support.1
About the Abbey Road, during the afternoon, conspicuous gallantry was shown by Rflmn. J. R. Walter, of the 3rd Battalion, who under direct machine gun fire and heavy shell-fire went into No Man's Land, where he dressed the wounds of 8 men and carried them into shelter.
1 This was later continued to the main left communication trench forward of the Switch. Fisli Alley, which led back to the 4th Battalion in the Brown Line and thence into French Lane.
While these events were happening in the front of the battle, in rear there was mcessant activity on all branches of the service, above and below ground and in the air. As an instance of the work of Staffs and Signallers, it is interesting to note that for the first 24 hours of the action Divisional Headquarters dealt with 700, and the 2nd Brigade Headquarters with 400 telegrams. The formation of forward dumps, the carrying forward of munitions and food the supply of water, the extension of roads and approach trenches, the evacuation of wounded, The movement of troops and guns, the development of signal communication, all necessitated urgent and considered effort. The rear battalions of the 2nd Brigade moved up to close support as soon as the Rifle Brigade crossed the Switch. Soon after midday the 1st Brigade also marched up nearer the battle. 1st Canterbury and 1st Wellington occupied the old German Second Line in Carlton and Savoy Trenches, and the remaining battalions went forward from Fricourt Wood to Mametz Wood. Batteries were hauled up over the shellholes to new positions under the Switch, between High and Delville Woods, and to Devil's valley, some 500 yards north-east of the latter mood.
In the Switch itself, 2nd Auckland and 2nd Otago, with the Engineers' assistance, had, immediately after capture, begun to consolidate a new trench some 70 yards in front, with Strong Points on either flank. They had seen enough of war to realise that the lost Switch would certainly prove a ranging mark for German guns. This assumption proved correct, for an hour and a half after capture a heavy and accurate bombardment was opened on it, which continued throughout the day and night. It was not till the afternoon that the German observers noted the new trench, which thereafter came in for its share. Men were continually being buried, and portions of the trench had to be redug. But by evening it was complete. On account of the shelling, the Switch itself was left severely alone, except for exploration in search of souvenirs. For 2 days after, dazed and ghastly pale Germans, whose pockets were being rifled on the assumption that they were dead, would suddenly come to life in its dugouts. From if the battalions brought for-page 85ward 4 undamaged German machine guns to the new line. The capture of the Switch had cost Auckland nearly 300 and Otago 400 casualties. The left Otago Company had lost all its officers and had been reduced to 34 men. L.-Sergt. H. Bellamy and Cpl. V. W. Shirley handled these with conspicuous ability.
In their new positions Otago were harassed not only by artillery fire but also by considerable enfilade machine gun fire and sniping, which came from their left, where the troops of the 47th Division, heavily engaged and, it appears, indifferently handed, had failed to reach their objective. These snipers were dealt with by the redoutable Pte. R. C. Travis, whose exploits on the Lys have already been mentioned, and who now went out voluntarily on to the open and silenced them. Every effort was made to consolidate and strengthen the position, but the uncertainty of the situation in front of High Wood and the fact that our left was seriously exposed gave grounds for anxiety. A company of 2nd Canterbury was therefore moved early, before the Germans had been cleared out of High Wood, to fill the dangerous gap on the left. Later in the day also this flank was strengthened by 10 machine guns, and in the evening 1st Canterbury was brought up from Carlton Trench into close support. During the night and the following morning 2nd Canterbury took over the Switch.
It was some days before apprehensions about this exposed flank towards High Wood were finally relieved. Prisoners captured on the 16th from different Regiments stated that a strong German counter-attack was to drive in from the north-west on High Wood before dawn on the 17th. Further Strong Points and machine gun emplacements were therefore established and manned, and the 2 supporting battalions of the 2nd Brigade were moved to assembly trenches in rear the threatened attack did not actually materialise, and after the position was secured on the left, the garrison of the Switch, in order to minimise casualties from shell-fire, was reduced to a nucleus of 50 men, with numerous machine guns.1
1 Till our communication trenches passed the Switch, parties moving over the skyline inevitably attracted fire.
A resumption of the general attack by the Fourth Army had been planned for the morrow (16th September), and orders had been received on the evening by the Division from Corps for co-operation with the troops oil either flank with a view to the completion of the objectives of the 15th. At midnight further instructions were issued that in the event of success the advantages won on the XV. Corps front should, in accordance with the general tactical scheme, be exploited in a northerly direction. In that case, the 41st Division would make a distinct change of direction, swinging north-west to capture the Gird System as far as Goose Alley, and the New Zealand Division similarly inclining to the left would seize Goose Alley from the Gird to the Flers System. This second movement, however, was conditional and would not take place before 1 p.m.
At 9.25 a.m., 1st Wellington attacked with 2 assaulting companies in 4 waves at 35 yards' distance, followed by the 2 supporting companies, each in 2 waves. Though the hostile barrage accompanying the enemy's attack was heavy, and his machine guns on either flank took their toll, the assaulting companies had little difficulty in seizing the lightly manned Grove A11ey, from just short of the Flers-Factory Corner Road to the point where it joined the Blue Line. The further section of some 400 yards on the right extending north of the road was not taken. The troops on the right had not succeeded in getting forward: and our men, had they reached it, would have almost certainly found it untenable. As it was, on this right flank enemy bombers for some 10 minutes pushed the line slightly back, till L. Cpl. E R. F Searfe and his Lewis gun section rushed up and prevented their further advance. He then followed the enemy down the trench, assisting materially in recapturing the lost ground, and continued, although wounded, to work his gun till the situation was cleared up. Pte W. S. Brown then led a small party of bombers to clear a further stretch of trench while a block was being constructed. The battalion took 22 Bavarian prisoners, but the guns destroyed by the 1st Rifles on the previous day had been pulled back under cover of darkness. The captured trench commanded an uninterrupted view of the valley along which ran the North Road to Factory Corner, and, contrary to expectations, it was not found necessary to dig a new line in front of it. Unfortunately, the 41st Division, with a longer distance to go and faced by heavier opposition, so far from being able to capture the Gird System or Gueudecourt itself, made only a little progress north of Flers. The tank accompanying them, which had rendered such good service in the German counterattack, pushed on by itself some 300 yards, when it was struck by a shell and abandoned. Thereupon a platoon of 1st Wellington's right support company was used to reinforce the right flank, while the left support company was with-page 88drawn to battalion reserve. In the early morning aeroplanes had reported Gird to be held lightly, but it was strengthened ere the 41st Division's attack developed. In view of the failure to carry Gucudecourt, the second operation was necessarily cancelled, though notification did not reach the batteries in time to prevent their delivering the barrage. As it turned out, Gucudecourt was not to be captured yet, nor this second objective to be taken till 12 days later.
The 1st Brigade supporting troops destined for this second attack remained where they were till dark, when they began to relieve the Rifle Brigade. 1st Canterbury, in rear of 1st Wellington, occupied the Blue Line, now well consolidated, from Box aid Cox to the Abbey Road. Despite the heavy shelling on Flers and its neighbourhood, they also dug and occupied a new sap from Box and Cox to Grove Alley, thus linking up with 1st We1lington. 1st Auckland took over from the 2nd and 3rd Rifles the whole of the Flers Trench System, and secured their left by digging another supporting flank trench connecting Flers Trench and Flers Support. In reserve, 1st Otago relieved the 4th Rifles on the Brown Line. On relief, the 3rd Brigade moved back at dawn on the 17th into Divisional reserve; 2nd Wellington similarly returned to the 2nd Brigade area behind the Switch, having lost 3 officers and over 200 men as the price of their service.
Though the full objectives of the Army had not even now been attained, the success won by the British on these 2 days none the less constituted a notable achievement. “The result of the fighting of the 15th September and following days,” wrote the Commander-in-Chief on his despatch, “was a gain more considerable than any which had attended our arms in the course of a single operation since the commencement of the of the offensive.” To the south, the strong position known as the Quadrilateral, east of Ginchy, had held up the attack on Morval and Les Boeufs, and Gucudecourt, as we have seen, was not yet captured. But 2 main lines of trenches had been stormed and the advance pushed a mile forward dong a front of over 6 miles. Westwards, the Reserve Army had seized Courcelette and Martinpuich. 3000 prisoners were captured by the Fourth Army. As far as the Division was concerned, it had taken all its objectives and captured 500 prisoners, with 15 machine guns and a mitrailleuse, and 3 mortars. Of these prisoners the 1st Brigade had taken 22, the 2nd Brigade 50, and the 3rd Brigade page 89nearly 450. The losses on the 15th had been approximately: Rifle Brigade, 1,200; 2nd Brigade. 800. The Division was gratified to receive a cordial te1egram of congratulation from the Commander and Staff of the Second Army. Sir Henry Rawlinson, the Fourth Army Commander, who wrote similar letters of appreciation to the other troops engaged, sent the following message to the Corps Commander:—“Please convey to all ranks New Zealand Division my congratulations and thanks for their successful attacks on the 15th and 16th September. They showed a fine fighting spirit, and admirable energy and dash.” In a covering letter, Sir Henry Horne wrote:—“The Corps Commander has great pleasure in forwarding above, and desires to add his own appreciation of their good work.”
In the evening of 16th September the weather broke. Occasional showers fell on the 17th, but by midnight 17th/ 18th heavy rain set in, which continued without cessation for the rest of the night and the whole of the 18th, dying away in fitful squalls on the morning of the 19th. Now, as later on October, the weather robbed the British of the fruit of their efforts and gave a breathing space to the enemy to prop up his tottering line. Difficulties of communication and movement forced the postponement of operations. A modern army lives by its communications, and in the Battle area these were inadequate in number and undermined and pitted by shell-fire. On the New Zealand area there was but the one avenue of approach for limbers, up the Longueval-Flers valley. By day it was commanded by German observation, and by night, naturally enough, heavily shelled. Reinforcements in the camp at Fricourt were employed on the rearward roads, but those nearer to the trenches became bogs of liquid mire. The supply of rations water wire sandbags flares ammunition and other necessities from the great Thistle and Green Dumps on and in rear of the Longueval-Bazentin road presented problems of acute difficulty, and relief was felt when the Engineers reported the 6 wells in Flers safe for drinking and fitted them with windlasses. Limbers had to be replaced by pack animals. Despatch riders from Divisional headquarters, 8 miles from Flers, found the road beyond Pommiers Redoubt impassable for their motor cycles. Signal wires, always subject to breaks by shell-fire and the passage of infantry and guns, were now affected also by the weather, and though Corps took over the responsibility for maintenance up to the Bazentin ridge, an page 90ever increasing strain was imposed on the already overworked but uncomplaining personnel of the Divisional Signal Company.
The clayey trenches became ditches, everywhere ankle-and in many places knee-deep in viscous mud which clogged every step. Cases of “trench feet” caused anxiety. The task of consolidation and drainage became a hundredfold mare onerous. None the less the consolidation of fighting and communication trenches was pushed on despite all difficulties, and the Pioneers left an abiding memorial of their stay on the Somme in the magnificently constructed continuation of Turk Lane, At the same time the Engineers made dugouts for machine gun crews and medical personnel. In Ferret Trench, near the cross-country track which led downhill from the Switch to Flers, they excavated, with the assistance of a Tunnelling Company detachment, a deep shell-proof dugout which German skill could not have bettered, and which was destined to serve as advanced brigade headquarters till the close of the Division's operations.
The advance of the artillery also was seriously impeded by the deep mud. Already on the 15th the 3rd Brigade batteries had moved forward. The 1st followed on the 16th, and the 2nd after the weather had broken. The 10th Battery of the 4th Brigade, moving to Flers before dawn on the 19th, harnessed 20 horses to each gun, and even then, after many hours of labour, reached their positions with only 2 guns. At the pits conditions were almost as wretched as for the soaked, mud-bespattered infantry in the front trenches, and in several instances the depth of water put the guns temporarily out of action. The struggling animals taking up even the curtailed amount of ammunition in the 18-pounder wagon-baskets, strapped to the saddle for the field guns or in improvised canvas carriers for the howitzers, were terribly overworked.
Throughout this time of ceaseless rain some half-hearted attacks, easily repulsed, were made on Capt. F. K. Turn-bull's company on the right flank of 1st Wellington in Grove Alley. Only at one moment was the situation critical. The block at the extreme right of the position was held by a Lewis gun team. A heavy burst of shelling had put the whole team out of action. At this moment, Pte. W. A. Gray, who had come forward under heavy fire with other volunteers carrying ammunition to the front line, was approaching up the trench. He took over the gun and, with page 91the help of 2 other men, served it for more than 12 hours, effectively preventing an attempted enemy entry. Occasional violent bombardments fell on Flers and our trenches, which were all under observation from the church tower of Le Barque and other vantage points. An intense bombardment was carried out on the evening of the 17th on all the front trenches and on the Switch, more particularly on our left sub-sector. The shelling continued from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. on the 18th. In this bombardment Major Fleming Ross, of 1st wellington, was killed, with many others.1 NO assault, however, followed.
During this period the sector allotted to the Division was divided in depth into 3 areas, the forward one, north of the Switch, occupied by the brigade in the line, the inter-mediate, from the Switch inclusive to the Longueval-Bazentin Road, for the occupation of the supporting brigade, and the rear area, from the road southwards, for the reserve brigade. As each brigade went into reserve, it incorporated reinforcements from the Fricourt camp and was utilised for work on gun emplacements, roads, and the continually extending railway. During this interval, too, a beginning was made with the relief of the 47th Division in the III. Corps by the 1st Division, and the places of the 14th and 41st Divisions in the XV. Corps were taken by the 21st and 55th Divisions respectively. In preparation for the continuance of the attack on the 18th, which was to be frustrated by atrocious weather, 1st Canterbury handed over the position held at Box and Cox outside the New Zealand area to troops of the 55th Division. On the left, 1st Auckland cleared a breathing space for themselves by bombing some distance up the Flers System.
This renewed enterprise was carried out in the early morning of the 18th. The actual trench junction on the ridge was not won, but both the Flers System and Drop Alley were captured up to within 100 yards of this Strong Point. Before midday, in accordance with the arrangements made, 1st Otago troops relieved the London Regiments in Flers Support. The section of Flers Trench itself remained for the moment, owing to difficulty of relief, in the custody of the III. Corps. In the afternoon of the 18th a further effort made by the 47th Division to win the junction and secure touch with the troops in Drop Alley failed. That night (18th/19th September), the 2nd Brigade relieved the 1st under intensely disagreeable conditions of rain and shelling. The 1st Brigade moved back to the reserve area vacated by the Rifle Brigade, which came up to the intermediate area. 2nd Wellington took over the right of the, line, 2nd Auckland the left, and 2nd Canterbury and 2nd Otago went into support and reserve in the Flers System and the Brown Line respectively. Up to this date the Division had lost in casualties over 100 officers and 3000 other ranks.
After darkness on the evening of the 19th bombing parties of 2nd Auckland, in co-operation with a III. Corps attack on the left up Flers Trench and Drop Alley, endeavoured to work up F1ers Support to the crest and seize the southernmost extremity of Goose Alley. They were supported by 2 Stokes mortars, arid the trenches beyond the objectives were barraged by the III. Corps heavies and field artillery. The English troops' attack on the left was unsuccessful, and in a determined German counter-thrust down Drop Alley the ground won on the previous morning was lost. In Flers Support 2nd Auckland made considerable ground towards the crest. In the course of their attack Pte. W. P. Middle-page 93miss, leading a bayonet charge, killed no less than 7 Germans single-handed, bringing the total number of the victims of his bombs or bayonet since our arrival in the battle to 23. The shells of the supporting artillery, however, unfortunately fell among The Auckland stormers. Numerous casualties were sustained, and the continuance of our barrage on the upper part of Flers Support made a prosecution of the attack impossible. Our line, however, had been pushed forward to within 40 yards of Goose Alley. Sergt. W. B. Gilmore, blown off his feet by a German grenade, continued to throw bombs till a block had been made and the position rendered secure. Before dawn on the 20th, 2nd Auckland took over from the British their part of Flers Trench which was held up to within much the same distance of Goose Alley. For the moment, the blocks and bombing posts were consolidated, while the hammer swung back in preparation for' a heavier blow. On the same evening of the 19th a small party of 2nd Wellington endeavoured to capture a Strong Point on the right of the line at the junction of the Flers-Factory Corner Road with Grove Alley, but as soon as our light trench mortars opened, a heavy-barrage fell plumb on the party who suffered severe losses and were forced to withdraw.
On the 20th the weather cleared, and observation improved. A long string of German horse ambulances was distinctly visible on the road from Le Barque to Eaucourt L'Abbaye. Our artillery shelled the continual traffic on the Ligny Thilloy road. When they registered on the Thilloy church, a conspicuous Red Cross flag was hoisted on a house east of the village. Our aeroplanes reported great train activity in rear. Taking advantage, like our own gunners, of the better weather conditions and with the observation of balloons and aeroplanes, the German artillery shelled our trench positions and batteries with high-explosive, shrapnel, and lachrymatory gas.
Meanwhile energetic preparations were in progress for a simultaneous repetition of the 2 enterprises at either flank of the line. At 8.30 p.m., 2nd Wellington, in the light of their experience on the previous evening, planned to surprise the enemy by a "silent" attack. They found him, however, in too great strength in No Man's Land, and were unable to make headway. Better fortune attended the larger attack made by 2nd Canterbury against the trench junction on the ridge and the lower end of Goose Alley. Like the 'Wellington troops on the Factory Road, 2nd Canterbury were to attack page 94without preparatory bombardment. On their left the 1st black Watch of the 1st Division, who had replaced the Londoners, were simultaneously to recover Drop Alley, The frontage to be assaulted by Canterbury was some 650 yards. The password was "Success." Three companies lined up on the North Road in the darkness, and guided by the wire, crossed the valley and moved stealthily up the hill, from which only an occasional flare or machine gun burst told of occupation. The attackers reached within 50 yards of the trench before being discovered. Immediately a shower of bombs was hurled into the wire, and Machine guns spat viciously. Many officers and men fell on the glacis, but the attackers fought their way in, and cleared the position. The Highlanders also successfully moved up Drop Alley and joined hands. Punctually a quarter of an hour after the attack was launched our artillery began to barrage accurately Goose Alley and the Flers Trenches beyond the points defined for the capture. The enterprise had achieved its aim, and some 20 prisoners and 4 machine gun were captured. With Engineers' assistance blocks were constructed in Flers Trench and Flers Support beyond Goose Alley.
But the 13th Bavarian Reserve Regiment were too stouthearted to lose this important position without a struggle. At 10 p.m they launched a strong and resolute counter-assault up the Flers Trenches. The daring and skill of their bombers were equally high, and the little egg-shaped bombs outranged our own and dealt havoc. The handful of Black Watch bombers, who had not yet been reinforced, were driven back down Drop Alley, and the enemy swarmed round and in rear of our left flank. Others pushed us back steadily from the blocks. Assistance was sent from the reserve Canterbury company, and supplies of bombs were carried up by parties of the other battalions, but Ihe fighting continued to rage bitterly. No quarter was asked or given. Now a storm of-bombs would kill or maim the defenders, now the tide would flow once more up the bloody trenches amid the dead and mutilated and dying. In this soldiers' battle many gallant deeds were done of which no record survives. Pte. J. D. Ross led a bombing party which finally retook a sap that had changed hands repeatedly during the night and was blocked with dead. Pte. H. Anderson held one flank when all his companions became casualties, then, forced back, reported to a sergeant at another point and continued to do magnificent work. In the end, however, the enemy had won page 95Drop Alley and parts of the Flers Trenches, and encircling both flanks, threatened to cut off the whole force. Our men were dogtired and the Bavarians becoming increasingly aggressive.
It was at this juncture that Capt. F. Starnes, the commander of the reserve Canterbury company, arrived. He at once organised the defence for further resistance. He rallied the disheartened and imbued the resolute with fresh fire. He led the counter-attack with unsurpassable determination, and to his personality and leadership eventual success was due. Just before dawn the enemy effort slackened, and his "sturmtruppen" were beaten off. The 1st Black Watch thereupon again moved up Drop Alley, which they took over as far as the junction with Flers Trench. In the morning light it was found that close on 200 dead Germans lay in and about the position, many of whom had fallen in the course of the night.
With the respite brought by the dawn Canterbury toiled throughout the day with pick and shovel to improve their position and field of fire towards the Eaucourt valley, which now lay open to view. Blocks were manned by bombing posts. While thus consolidating they were surprised in the afternoon by a sudden and well-organised fresh attack. This time all 3 approaches were used by the Germans, who pressed up the 2 Flers Lines and along Goose Alley. Fresh troops, about 50 strong in each party, were employed. They were of staunch quality, and once more their bombers were formidable. But Canterbury, though the grim all-night struggle and the hard toil of consolidation had drawn heavily on their moral and physical reserves of strength, clung desperately to their hard-won gains. Forced again by the German bombers to yield fist one bay and then another, the left company at length climbed out of the saps and, facing the risk from snipers, crept along the F1ers Trench parapet, whence they-hurled bombs with deadly results at their assailants. Ultimately these turned to fly over the open, and a bayonet charge, led by Capt. Starnes, drove them with many casualties down the slope. On the hillside they left a machine gun and near1y 100 corpses.
On the right, in Goose Alley, a handful of Aucklanders, under Pte. A. McClennan, coming to Canterbury's assistance, adopted with success the same tactics. Here, too, Cpl. H. J. Pattison, Pte. II. Joll, and other machine "miners displayed characteristic courage, stimulating our hard-pressed infantry and enfilading the enemy. An intrepid page 96Canterbury sergeant, J. Macdonald, who was killed 10 days later, led repeated bombing attacks: and rushed a German machine gun detachment, jabbing his bayonet the few fatal inches into each man in turn aid capturing the gun. Thus, the Goose Alley attack, as that in the Flers System, failed, and pursued by fire, the Germans fled down the shallow trench northwards.
2nd Canterbury took into action 18 officers and 500 men. 7 officers and 80 men were killed, 4 officers were wounded and over 150 men. A half-dozen men were surrounded and made prisoners. Capt. Starnes was recommended for the V.C. and awarded an "immediate" D.S.O. No operation in which the Division took part in the battle called for such tenacity and grim determination on the part of the individual soldier. From this engagement, at least, the German infantry, gallant as it was, could not return "filled with the conviction of its superiority."1 The successful issue of the struggle, coining as a crown to the New Zealand assistance on the III. Corps flank, elicited the following telegrams of appreciation:—
From the III. Corps Commander:—
“The Lieut.-General Commanding III. Corps has requested the [XV.] Corps Commander to convey-to the New Zealand Division his appreciation of the good work done by them on the right of the III. Corps and of the assistance rendered by them to the III. Corps during the last few days.”
From the Fourth Army Commander:—
“Please congratulate the New Zealand Division from me on their excellent work in Flers Line and Drop Alley. They deserve every credit for their gallantry and perseverance.”
From the XV. Corps Commander:—
“The Corps Commander congratulates Major-General A. H. Russell and the New Zealand Division on the success gained last night, (20th/21st inst.) by the 2nd Battalion Canterbury Regiment. The repeated attacks, renewed and delivered with such energy and determination speak highly of the fine fighting qualities displayed by all ranks. The Corps Commander particularly desires to express to Lt.-Col. Stewart his high appreciation of the sound conception of the plan, and to Capt.page 97Starnes his admiration of his gallant and courageous leading.”
1 Sixt von Armin's Report on Experiences of the IV. German Corps during the Sommo Battle.
On the night 21st/22nd September the 3rd Brigade relieved the 2nd Brigade, which moved back to support. The portion of Flers Trench west of the Divisional boundary on the North Road valley was taken over by the 1st Division. Under a spell of good weather the ground rapidly dried. Artillery activity was intensified. The New Zealand batteries that had by now moved up to south of Flers in Devil's Valley were heavily bombarded by explosives and drenched with gas and lachrymatory shell. West of Flers the gun-pits towards the North Road valley were not less exposed. Our own guns, too, were now able to bring ammunition up more freely, and their fire unceasingly burst on the German positions or harassed his communications.
The destructiveness and influence on morale of the British artillery fire were described with remarkable frankness in the German Press, and exercised the rhetoric of war correspondents on either side, but their most highly coloured description does not convey a more effective picture than the temperate and truthful language of this German diary, found near Drop Alley on the 22nd:—
“The enemy understands how to prevent with his terrible barrage the bringing up of building material, and even how to hinder the work itself. The consequence is that our trenches are always ready for an assault on his part. Our artillery, which does occasionally put a heavy barrage on the enemy's trenches at a great expense of ammunition, cannot cause him similar destruction. He can bring his building material up, can repair his trenches as well as build new ones, can bring up rations and ammunition, remove the wounded, &c. The continual barrage on our lines of communication makes it very difficult for us to ration and relieve our troops, to supply water, ammunition, building material, and to evacuate wounded, and causes heavy losses. This and the want of protection from artillery fire and the weather, the lack of hot meals, the continual necessity (owing to aeroplanes) of lying still in the same place, the danger of being buried, the long time the wounded have to remain in the trenches, and chiefly the terrible effect of the medium and heavy artillery fire, controlled by In excellent air service, have a most demoralising effect on the troops. Only with the page 98greatest difficulty could the men be persuaded to stay in the trenches under these conditions.”
The improvement of the weather and ground at last permitted the resumption of the delayed offensive. It was again to be on a grand scale, a French Army moving in co-operation, and the whole of the Fourth Army completing and extending the operations of the 15th. On the right, the XIV. Corps was commissioned to capture Morval and Les Boeufs. On the left, the III. Corps was to take some 300 yards of Flers Trench from Goose Alley, and then to establish itself on the high ground westwards, joining up at Courcelette with the Reserve Army, which would swing its right flank forward on the following day. The XV. Corps' principal task was to seize Gird Trench as far west as its junction with the Gueudecourt—Factory Corner Road and capture Gueudecourt. In the event of its fall, the 1st Indian Cavalry Division was to take Ligny Thilloy with a view to threatening the enemy westwards and in rear. The right. Division of the Corps (the 21st) was to capture the village of Gueudecourt, the centre (the 55th) to make good a sector of the Gird System west of it, and the New Zealand Division on the left to take Factory Corner and establish a line thence over the Goose Alley Spur to meet Flers Trench a little way above its junction with Goose Alley. There they would join the right of the advancing III. Corps. At a conference held on the 19th at Vivier Mill, a proposal was put forward by General Russell that his objective should be extended to include the remainder of the Gird System and Goose Alley to their point of intersection. This, however, was negatived on the grounds that the artillery necessary could not be spared without unduly weakening the barrage on the other 2 Divisional sectors where the main task of the Corps lay; and also that should the attack on Gueudecourt fail, the New Zealanders would be left in a most awkward position. The final objective of the Division, amounting to somewhat over a mile, was not an entrenched position, but the capture of high ground. The attack was fixed for the 25th, and the preparatory bombardment commenced on the 24th.
Sergt. D. F. Brown, V.C.
The assaulting companies of the 3 attacking battalions assembled in Grove Alley. The 1st Canterbury objective amounted to 500 yards, that of 1st Auckland to 750, and that of 1st Otago to 500, excluding the flank which they would form down the Abbey Road to the North Road valley. It was arranged between the 2 Corps that as soon as the New Zealanders were established in their objectives they should take over from the 1st Division the whole of Goose Alley from the Abbey Road down to its junction with the Flers System, and whatever further ground should be gained in Flers Support.
The 25th dawned beautifully fine, and only a few puffs of white cloud broke the steely blue of the sky. Early in the day the enemy bombarded our trenches for 2 hours, causing several casualties, and opened a searching fire with shells of all ca1ibres on the battery positions in Devil's Valley. The gunners of one battery were forced to withdraw, but just prior to their returning to the gun-pits before zero, the bombardment fortunately slackened. In the course of the morning an enterprising feat was performed by 2nd Lt. L. S. Carmichael and a few men of the 13th Battery, which was supporting the troops on the right. They went forward to a captured group of German guns cast of Flers and fired 80 rounds of high-explosive at one of our abandoned tanks which was being used as a Strong Point in the German front line some 700 yards away. Most of the shots were direct hits. The tank was rendered useless before the party were obliged to withdraw by a concentrated relation which destroyed one of the guns and its detachment.
The moment fixed for the infantry attack was 12.35 p.m. The creeping artillery barrage was excellently steady, and the infantry, leaving their trenches at the appointed time, page 100followed within 25 yards of the bursting shells. At the beginning of the assault, the enemy's artillery fire was not heavy, and though later it intensified with particularly marked violence on Flers, at no time were the advancing lines exposed to any considerable volume. Nor did the German infantry show their wonted resolution.
As 1st Canterbury advanced on Factory Corner, about 60 of the enemy attempted to retire towards the Goose Alley ridge, but were practically exterminated by our machine guns. Considerable anxiety had been felt about the Strong Point, which had twice repulsed 2nd Wellington, at the junction of Grove Alley with the sunken Flers-Factory Corner road. It was subjected, therefore, to a severe bombardment by light trench mortars prior to the assault. Its capture was effected without difficulty. The enemy garrison was found to have suffered heavily, and 2 machine gun crews had been put out of action. The guns themselves, however, were undamaged, and were subsequently used in our line. In an intermediate trench connected with the Strong Point some: resistance was offered, but for the most part the enemy ran, not a few falling in our machine gun barrage which, as the infantry approached their goal, lifted on to Gird and Gird Support. All the battalion's objectives were Secured without trouble, and among the prisoners captured in the German headquarters at Factory Corner was a battalion staff of the same 13th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, another unit of which had disputed so obstinately with 2nd Canterbury the possession of Goose Alley. The German colonel was wounded, and while being attended to in the advanced dressing station was killed by one of his countrymen's shells. Factory Corner had been artillery headquarters, and one of the buildings also had been used as an Engineers' dump, so that the quantity of useful war material captured by 1st Canterbury was very considerable. In the centre and left, 1st Auckland and 1st Otago established the line of the Road with very few casualties.
After the pause, 1st Otago, gauging their flank by a signal displayed by the English troops in the southern end of Goose Alley, stormed the spur. in an irresistible onrush. They captured 30 Bavarians and 3 machine guns. Under cover of an advanced line of skirmishers, a series of posts was then dug in by 1st Canterbury and 1st Auckland on the high ground from in front of the German cemetery at Factory Corner to page 101the point where Goose Alley crossed the Abbey Road.1 Already, at a few minutes after 1 p.m., and again shortly afterwards, the Division had received reports from aeroplanes of a line of flares along this part of the ridge, showing that our furthest objectives were held in strength. Captured German officers agreed that the attack had been made with great dash. They spoke bitterly of their artillery, and said they were waging the war “on their own.” Many were frankly delighted to be taken prisoners and to be out of the “Hell on the Somme.”
In the afternoon a company of 1st Wellington, in conformity with Corps arrangements, moved up to support the left of Otago, and took over from the British garrison Flers Support and the southern sector of Goose Alley. Through the day, though observation was good, only 10 hostile aeroplanes and 4 balloons had appeared in the sky, and these at different times. In the evening the Indian cavalry trotted up to Flers. On their appearance a German balloon above Le Transloy was lowered in panic haste, and the fitful enemy artillery woke into precipitate activity. The cavalry's turn, however, had not yet come. Gueudecourt still resisted capture. Elsewhere the day had been one of success for the Allied Armies. The French had attained almost all their objectives. The British had seized Les Boeufs and Morval. The early fall of Combles was assured.
A certain amount of bombing exchanges took place between the Wellington sentries and the enemy in Flers Support, but on the whole the night 25th/26th September passed quietly. A gap of 500 yards on the 55th Division's flank to the right of Canterbury was filled by Liverpool troops, and thence to the other extremity-of the New Zealand sector the posts on the ridge were converted into a continuous line by dawn.
1 The 1st Otago left does not appear to have connected in front of Goose Alley with the new III. Corps posts in Flers Support.
Shortly after midday (26th September) heavy shelling in rear of our front line and on Flers village and the Flers System seemed to presage an enemy attack and indicate an attempt to bar the advance of our supports. A brigade of German infantry was also seen advancing from Ligny Thilloy and Le Barque in the direction of Factory Corner and of the 55th Division's line on our right. As they took cover for assembly in the corn and long grass, the artillery supporting the 55th Division and the “heavies” searched the area, and on the Germans advancing into the open in extended order, the guns broke into salvoes of destruction. The attack withered away, and the fleeing remnants were annihilated by the 3rd and 4th Artillery Brigades and the English batteries. By 6 p.m. all was quiet on the right. On the left, the 1st Wellington company, in cooperation with English troops in Flers Trench, bombed some distance up Flers Support.
While no movement of importance took place on the divisional front on the 26th, welcome progress was being effected elsewhere. Westwards, the Reserve Army struck before the enemy had time to recover front the blow dealt him on the 25th by the Fourth Army, and, swinging into line, seized Thiepval and the Thiepval Ridge. On the immediate right, Gueudecourt at last fell. A squadron of cavalry was sent out to the north-east of its ruins, and it was hoped that their action might lead to the evacuation of the Gird System in the neighbourhood and its peaceful occupation. This aim was not achieved, however, and the necessary full-dress attack by the 55th and New Zealand Divisions was ordered for the following day.
For this operation the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade was put under the tactical command of General Earl Johnston from the evening of the 26th, and took over Goose Alley and Flers Support from 1st Wellington. The remainder of the Rifle Brigade lay in the intermediate area ready to move at 15 minutes' notice. The 2nd Brigade, in reserve, were similarly to be prepared to move on 30 minutes' warning. The road from Factory Corner to Ligny Thilloy was fixed as the boundary between the 55th Division and the New Zealanders. The former would seize the Gird System thence to Gueudc-page 103court. The New Zealand Division would capture a further sector of the system from the road to the northern end of Goose Alley, and, in addition, the rest of Goose Alley down to the Abbey Road, from which point southward the success of the 25th had put it in our possession.
During the night patrols inspected the Gird entanglements, which extended on iron standards in 4 rows. Opposite the right of 1st Canterbury they were found considerably damaged, but 1st Auckland reported the wire in front of their objective to be intact. As on the 25th, the 1st Brigade policy was to employ 3 battalions. The right battalion was ordered to seize the Gird System from the road on the Divisional boundary to the parallel road running to Le Barque. The centre would capture the rest of the line to its junction with Goose Alley. The task of the left battalion was to complete the circle by forming a defensive flank from Gird Support down Goose Alley. In each case the frontage to be assaulted was about 500 yards. The enemy trenches were held by Bavarian Reserve Regiments who had relieved other units of their formation during the night. They had suffered heavy losses in the process and were much “mixed up.” They were themselves due for relief on the 27th/28th, and were looking forward to leaving the Somme. Before they left, however, they were still to feel the grit of the New Zealand soldier.
Zero was fixed for 2.15 p.m., but in order to avoid observation the troops were formed up before daylight. The dispositions were the same as on the 25th. 1st Canterbury were on the right and 1st Auckland in the centre; 1st Otago, on their left, assembled 3 assaulting companies in the Abbey Road and 1 company in Goose Alley. 1st Wellington were again in reserve in Grove Alley, and were now completed by the company relieved in Flers Support by the 4th Rifles. The weather on the 27th continued fine, and observation was good. Considerable hostile movement was noted, and effectively engaged, on the ligny Thilloy slopes, where lay the last German line, and towards the roads and hollows behind Gird Support. About an hour before the assault, a party of 150 Germans, apparently relieved in the trenches and carrying full equipment, elected to make for their back area across the open. The batteries fell on them like lightning, and the survivors scattered. The German artillery, which had been active throughout the night on our rear page 104areas, now devoted more attention to the front trenches, and the reserve battalion in particular suffered punishment.
Our preparatory destructive bombardment had started at 7 am., but there was no betraying increase of fire prior to the moment of attack. Then the "heavies" dropped ponderously and devastatingly on the position and searched back quickly for 200 yards. In accordance with programme, the attack was launched 3 minutes after zero. Directly our waves appeared, the enemy field guns opened, but their fire, though heavier than in the last operation, was still inadequate to cheek the assault. On the right, 1st Canterbury made no pause in Gird Trench, and with the 55th Division troops advancing in line, gained their objective in Gird Support with comparative case and few casualties. The left company was for a time held up by bombers and machine guns, but the opposition was beaten down by the initiative and dash of L.-Cpl. G. A. Hewitt and other Lewis gunners. Generally the enemy were demoralised. A considerable party flying eastwards were caught at 300 yards' range by our machine guns and mown down. Some 80 prisoners were captured, who said that before they knew it the New Zealanders were on them. Ten minutes prior to the attack, a battalion of a Reserve Division had started forward to reinforce the weak Bavarian garrison in the line. Only 1 company penetrated the barrage, and immediately on its arrival it was annihilated. The German losses were excessive. When the attack started, some of our old friends of the 13th Bavarian Reserve Regiment came up to reinforce, but were blotted out of existence. Gird Trench had not suffered much. Gird Support, however, which might have served as our front line, was in places only 18 inches deep, and elsewhere obliterated. A new trench was therefore dug on the reverse slope of a shallow depression beyond.
The other battalions were less fortunate. The right company of 1st Auckland gained its objective. The left company met a heavy artillery barrage and machine gun fire and was held up by the uncut wire reported on the previous evening. The enemy barrage fell similarly upon the 3 companies of 1st Otago who, preserving their order despite an awkward change of direction, attacked the northern end of Goose Alley. Only a handful of these companies reached the neighbourhood of the junction of Goose and Gird, where their numbers were still further reduced by a converging enemy fire on this deadly salient in our line. As our barrage lifted page 105by stages up Goose Alley the remaining Otago company in its southern end bombed up 300 yards from the Abbey Road as far as the Factory Corner Eaucourt Road, where a Strong Point was made. The remainder of the sap had been blown to pieces and was little more than a track. NO news coming in of the other 3 companies, the Goose Alley company sent out patrols to clear up the situation. These were, however, held up by the machine gun fire from the junction of Gird Trench and Goose Alley. It was becoming apparent that just as the southern junction of Goose Alley with the Flers System had given trouble, so also trouble was to be given at its northern junction with Gird.
As soon as the assaulting battalions moved, the reserve battalion (1st Wellington) had sent one company to Factory Corner and a second to Goose Alley to take the place of the Otago company working northwards. A call was therefore made on this latter Wellington company at 4 p.m. Bombing its way up the shallow continuation of Goose Alley, it carried the line another 400 Yards north, establishing posts to within 100 yards of the Gird junction, where men fell, struggling in vain to make further progress. Immediately after dusk a platoon of this Wellington company was sent over the open to the right to occupy Gird Trench cast of its junction with Goose Alley and establish connection with the 1st Auckland troops in it. A further Wellington company moved up to the southern part of Goose Alley.
Meanwhile, for Battalion and Brigade Headquarters, the situation on the left long remained obscure. The afternoon was slightly hazy, but enemy movement from Thilloy towards the gullies and roads in front of our positions was repeatedly engaged and several times the good effect of our artillery was observed. Back at brigade headquarters, on the slopes beyond Flers, General Earl Johnston and his Staff strained their eyes to discern signs of movement beyond the spot where our waves had been lost to view. An enemy balloon broke loose and rose to an enormous height in the light-blue vault of heaven. Some German aeroplanes hovered over Ligny Thilloy unenterprisingly. But no news came from the line.
Orders were therefore given in the late afternoon to 1st Wellington to clear up the position at dawn. Only 1 company of the battalion now remained for operations, but it was strengthened by 2 companies of the 4th Rifles, who, as has been noted were at the disposal of the 1st Brigade, and by 2 sections of light trench mortars. An effort was page 106also made to get the assistance of a tank. In the evening, 1st Wellington Headquarters moved to dugouts in the North Road. The Wellington company and one of the Rifles' companies were warned for the attack. The former were ordered to clear up Goose Alley, and the rifleman the Gird Trenches. Of the other companies of the 4th Rifles, one, as has been said, held the left of the line in Flers Support in touch with the 2nd (British) Brigade, and one was held in brigade reserve in Grove Alley.
At 3 a.m. on the 28th, no definite word having been heard of the tank, the 2 companies moved off, but in addition to the darkness a heavy hostile barrage prevented the Rifles' company-from reaching the assembly area, and the operation had to be cancelled. The tank, also, for which a Wellington officer waited some uncomfortable hours at Factory Corner, “failed to materialise.” All through the night stretcher-bearers toiled back with the wounded survivors of the attack. On daylight the Rifles' company was sent to strengthen the left of Auckland, where it made some progress by bombs up Gird Support. It was now established that the 2 Gird Trenches and Goose Alley were all held to within 100 yards of their junction and there “blocked,” but that the junctions themselves were not in our possession. Wellington were therefore ordered to carry out a fresh attack to secure them.
While preparations, however, were being made for this, a personal reconnaissance by Lt.-Col. Hart cleared up the actual position. It was found that the junction lay in an inconsiderable hollow about 150 yards wide, which formed the top of a shallow valley leading towards the Ligny Thilloy Road north of the point where the Gird System crossed it. This depression was not marked on the map and had not been detected on the aeroplane photographs, but, though of slight extent, its local tactical importance was considerable. It was untenable by either side without the possession of all the high ground which rose some 50 feet. on its 3 sides, and formed an incomplete lip to the saucer. Local attacks had already cleared the Gird trenches up to their points of intersection with Goose Alley, but the manning of them would have been costly, and they were commanded by our new positions. For while the Germans still held the northern and most of the western slopes, we were now firmly established on the southern and part of the western lips. Thus the objectives had in effect been gained. The further attack was cancelled, and orders were issued for the construction of page 107trenches to connect our 3 separate lines in Gird Support, Gird Trench, and Goose Alley.
The casualties, especially of Otago, had been severe, and in the late evening General Earl Johnston asked the Division for another battalion. The 2nd Rifles was placed at his disposal to strengthen the left flank, and moved up to the support positions, 2 companies occupying Flers Trench and 2 Flers Support. But if our losses had been grievous, the Germans had been reduced by this succession of deadly blows well nigh to despair. A captured diary had a final uncompleted entry for the 27th, written just before our attack:—
“No relief. Feeling of hopelessness, apathetic, everyone sleeps under heaviest fire—due to exhaustion. NO rations, no drink. The whole day heavy fire on the left. We got heavy and H.E. shells. Everything all the same to us. The best thing would be for the British to come. No one worries about us; our relief said to be cancelled. If one wants sleep, aeroplanes will not let us rest. In the present conditions, one no longer thinks. Iron rations, bread, biscuit, all eaten……”
During the night 27th/28th September patrols were sent out during an arranged interval in our protective barrage to discover any trace of rearward movement induced by these operations and by the fall of Gueudecourt on the 26th. On the right, a patrol moved 300 yards along the Ligny Thilloy Road without gaining touch with the enemy. On the left flank, a reconnaissance penetrated within 300 yards of Eau-court 1'Abbaye. NO enemy was actual1y encountered, but just to the north of the abbey and in Gird Trench beyond were many flares, indicating the presence of strong forces. On the following day (28th) German working parties could be seen in the clear atmosphere feverishly digging trenches some 800 yards south and east of Ligny Thilloy. At various places behind his lines, north-east of Les Boeufs and at Villers-au-Flos, there were explosions and fires. The 2nd Artillery Brigade engaged large bodies of German infantry coming up to the front line north of Eaucourt I'Abbaye. In the afternoon the 1st Brigade infantry captured an officer and his batman of a battalion of the newly-arrived 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, who had come up to reconnoitre the position. This Division had occupied the trenches just south of Armentieres since 1914. Though not marked as assault troops, they had proved stubborn in defence, as the Australians had found in their attack on 19th July. They page 108had left the northern area in the second week of September, arrived in Bapaume 2 days previously, and were now commencing to relieve the exhausted troops in the line.
On the night 28th/29th the 1st Infantry Brigade said farewell to the Somme front line trenches and marched back, 2 battalions to Savoy and Carlton Trenches, and 2 to Mametz Wood. The 2nd Brigade, who took over the line under heavy shelling, garrisoned the Gird System with 2nd Wellington on the right and 2nd Auckland on their left; 2nd Otago occupied Goose Alley, and 2nd Canterbury was placed in reserve in Grove Alley. All these units were now sadly reduced in number, and the 2nd Rifles remained on the extreme left of the line in Flers Trench and Flers Support under the command of General Braithwaite. The 4th Battalion moved back to join the rest of the brigade in the intermediate area, but its place was taken on the 29th by the 3rd Battalion:
The recent progress made had brought the III. Corps within striking distance of Eaucourt I'Abbaye, and a further attack was proposed for 1st October with a view to its capture. In this attack the New Zealanders on the left flank of the XV. Corps would co-operate. The 2nd Brigade prepared its plans accordingly. On the night 30th September/1st October the 3rd Rifles relieved 2nd Wellington on the right of the line, to enable Wellington to be brought into a preparatory assembly position on the left in Goose Alley and Flers Support. Under continued sniping fire, the trenches commenced by the 1st Brigade to connect Gird Trench with Gird Support and with Goose Alley were pushed through to provide the necessary accommodation and communications. Turk lane was extended by the indefatigable Maoris. The enemy persistently shelled Goose Alley and Factory Corner, where a magnificent well, 125 feet deep with 75 feet of water, was kept night and day under his shrapnel and indirect machine gun fire. During the night the 1st and 2nd Artillery Brigades pushed their guns still further up, west of Flers.
The weather was again heavy and foggy, with slight drizzling rain, which made visibility poor but screened parties working in the open. Both sides took full advantage of this, In the early morning of the 30th the light mist cleared away for a moment, and the sentries on the left of our line detected an enemy party of 2 officers and 20 men. The machine gun officer at the spot, Lt. H. M. Preston, had his guns on page 109the unsuspecting Germans in a twinkling. Both officers and all but 2 of the enemy were killed.
In the afternoon at the same point a particularly clean piece of work was carried out in Flers Support by a party of the 2nd Rifles under Capt. H. E. Barrowclough. The 47th Division, who had again relieved the 1st Division on the III. Corps right, were holding Flers Trench west of Goose Alley. On the previous evening they had attempted, by bombing up Flers Trench and Flers Support, to extend their hold towards Eaucourt I'Abbaye, but without success. Their task would be materially lightened if the thrust up the Support Line were made by the New Zealanders. The 2nd Rifles' party therefore, in co-operation, forced a way up Flers Support for 250 yards past a German Strong Point which gave some little trouble, and then, in sheer fighting enthusiasm, pressed for another 100 yards beyond their objective towards Eaucourt l'Abbaye. The Londoners progressed equally well, and a connecting sap was dug between the 2 trenches and held as a front line. Our casualties were few.
A rather more ambitious operation, designed to clear the way for the division's part in the attack to be delivered on 1st October, was allotted to 2nd Canterbury and 2nd Otago. It was the intention that they should capture the northern lip which overhung the depression at the Gird-Goose junction, and thence establish a line in front of Goose Alley down to the Abbey Road. This was, however, cancelled in view of the shortness of time available for preparations and owing to other reasons, and it was decided to take all objectives in the one enterprise.
While the 2nd Brigade battalions prepared their plans at greater leisure for the morrow, the Intelligence personnel were busy ransacking the captured Gird dugouts. In the course of their investigations, Lt. H. Simmonds, of 2nd Wellington, lighted on several German papers which looked important. They were at once forwarded to Brigade Headquarters. The sequel is shown by the following extract from Divisional Routine Orders:—
“The following received from XV. Corps is published for information and is to be communicated to all ranks: (1.) A German Army Order was found by the New Zealand Division in the trenches on 30th September, (II.) The Order, which was of great importance, as it showed the position of the German reserves in the neighbourhood, reached Army Headquarters a few hours after it was page 110picked up. (III.) The Army Commander wishes you to convey to the New Zealand Division his appreciation of the promptitude with which the Order was secured and forwarded to Army Headquarters,”
In its next and final attack the Division was to have on its left the same troops with whom it had co-operated in its first assault 16 days previously. While the 47th Division would capture Eaucourt l'Abbaye, their right would be secured by an advance of the 2nd Brigade to a line across from the Gird-Goose junction to near the abbey. Of the 2nd Brigade troops, 2nd Auckland on the right, east of the junction, would not participate. On their left, 2nd Canterbury, coming up from reserve into the line, would act as pivot for the brigade movement. 2nd Otago, supported by 2nd Wellington, would advance in line with Canterbury on the left flank. The point of junction between the 2 Divisions was laid down in the neighbourhood of a German Strong Point, some 500 yards north-east of the abbey. This redoubt was a maze of concentric circular trenches, which stood out very prominently on the map and won it the name of The Circus. From it a newly-dug line, called Circus Trench, ran to Gird on the northern lip of the saucer, and half way, a further branch fighting trench diverged from the Circus Trench to the Abbey Road. The Circus itself resembled a knot in the long thread of an unnamed communication sap which, like Goose Alley, connected the Gird and Flers Systems. Canterbury would carry the high ground held by the enemy over the depression at the Gird-Goose junction and seize: the Circus Trench as far as the Le Barque High Wood road. Otago, followed by Wellington, would cross the intermediate branch trench and capture the rest of the Circus Trench, linking up with the right of the 47th Division. Of the long communication sap, the section from the Flers System to the Abbey Road fell within the. 47th Division's area. The capture of the part from the Road to The Circus was assigned to the New Zealanders. The northernmost sector from The Circus to Gird lay outside the scheme of attack.
During the night (30th September/lst October) our for ward areas were heavily shelled. At 7 a.m., on 1st October, in fine weather, our preparatory bombardment commenced all along the positions marked for assault and elsewhere. In front, of Canterbury, 4 light trench mortars made a gap in the wire protecting Gird. Soon after midday page 111the 2nd Rifles' company was withdrawn from its most westerly positions in Flers Support to enable the artillery to shell the remainder of the trench towards Eaucourt l'Abbaye prior to the advance of the 47th Division.
The hour of attack was 3.15 p.m. It had been decided that not merely should the positions aimed at be smothered with high-explosive, but also that the enemy's defences on the Corps front not included in the day's objectives should be subjected to an intense barrage, of which advantage was to be taken to gain useful ground for forward movement in the future. The fact, however, that the New Zealanders were the only troops of the XV. Corps actually engaged allowed the use of preponderating artillery an their front. Up to the present the Division had been supported by 88 field guns and howitzers; for the forthcoming operation, 180 field guns and howitzers were behind the attack, and the increase of "heavies" corresponded. A detachment of the Special Brigade, R.E., operated on the 2nd Canterbury sector, and installed 36 oil mortars in Gird Trench. These were fired a minute before zero. 6 were a failure, but the remaining 30 projectiles were seen to reach their objective satisfactorily, bursting about 1 second after landing and covering the German trenches with lurid flame and great rings of black smoke. The moral effect, as testified to by an English-speaking prisoner, was terrifying. Our contact aeroplanes came down at zero and hovered over the scene for 2 hours, after which one "was up" till dark. The enemy's artillery replied to our bombardment within a few minutes of zero. A large proportion of his shells was wasted on Flers and at Factory Corner. His barrage was, however, appreciably better organised than hitherto. A high-velocity gun shelled the area between Bazentin and Montauban in rear.
2nd Canterbury had come into the line during the morning and occupied the south-eastern slopes overlooking the saucer depression in which the northern end of Goose Alley joined the Gird System These slopes sank gradually to the valley below, but on the other side of the saucer the ground rose steeply, with a well-defined terrace on which clustered ragged clumps of bushes. The whole surface of the once grassy slopes was now a churned-up mass of clayey shellholes. From the slopes in our possession which overlooked the hollow, 4 machine guns fired over the heads of the advancing Canterbury infantry at the enemy trenches on the crest and swept the saps and bushes on the terrace opposite. page 112A few minutes after the attack started a large party of Germans jumped out of Gird Support and began to run back across the open country. They were literally wiped out by our machine guns. 2nd Canterbury attacked with 3 companies, holding 1 in reserve. Of these, the task of the right company was to seize the high ground on the north about Gird Support. The centre company was ordered to occupy the slopes overlooking the saucer from the west and capture the 200 yards of Gird Trench to the point of departure of Circus Trench. The objective of the left company was Circus Trench to the Le Barque road. The right and half the centre company of Canterbury in the hollow were exposed only to a moderate amount of hostile fire and bombs from the barraged trenches immediately in Front, but on the hogsback of high open ground further west, the inner flank of Canterbury and the right of Otago were heavily raked by distant machine gun fire from Gird. Despite their losses, however, the left of Canterbury, like the center and right, completed its task after some bitter fighting. The trenches were found packed with corpses, piled in many places one over the other. One or two loathsome groups in the centre of the position lay burned and half eaten away by the oil. The huddled German dead, not a few of whom carried souvenirs of the Australian attack in July,1 looked spick and span in uniforms which made the victors appear ragged in comparison. Their physique, however, was strikingly poor, and many of them were mere boys.
1 p. 49.
Of the 4 companies of 2nd Otago, the 2 on the right had a difficult manoeuvre to perform, first advancing to their front for about 200 yards, and then executing a double change of direction towards the right. This was carried out, however, in cohesion and order, despite the fire of machine guns, which at once began to play as they moved up the slope. By the time they reached the crest, all the officers and a large proportion of the men in these 2 right companies had fallen. The survivors reached and cleared their sector of Circus Trench, but lacking the guiding control of their officers, pressed on further, overrunning their objective, and moved right up to the protective barrage. It was not till the 2nd Wellington supporting company arrived that the gap thus caused on the Otago right, and further accentuated by the Canterbury casualties, was filled. Capt. L. H. Jardine, who commanded the Wellington company and who had already shown himself possessed of rare soldierly qualities, quickly grasped the situation and disposed his men in little groups to hold the line. The remnants of the Otago companies and a Wellington Lewis gun section, which had followed them, were recalled to the proper objective, and Jardine assumed command of the whole line at this part of the front.
Among the gunners of this Wellington section was Pte. K. D. Barr. He had injured his foot previously, and on the morning of the battle it was painful and swollen, so that he could not wear a boot. It was characteristic of the spirit which imbued the New Zealanders at the end of 2 weeks of fighting, that despite intense discomfort nothing would induce him to stay out of the engagement. He wrapped a sandbag round his foot and limped over the top with his comrades. By a caprice of fortune they had all been killed or wounded, and now it was left to him to carry back the precious gun to Jardine's line.
Lower down the hill and consequently more sheltered than their companions on the right from the Gird machine guns, the Otago left companies attacked the branch of Circus Trench which led to the Abbey Road. As the storm-page 114ing line pressed nearer, they were at one point checked by a machine gun. The same Sergeant Brown whose exploits in the Crest and Switch on 15th September have been noted,1 once again similarly saved the situation. Single-handed he rushed at the gun and bayoneted the crew. The checked line of skirmishers at once poured breathlessly into the trench. The garrison were killed or fled. Many of them fell victims to the fire of Lewis guns supported on strong and willing shoulders, others to Otago markmanship with the rifle. It was while sniping coolly at the flying enemy that the heroic Sergeant Brown was killed by long-range machine gun fire. His magnificent conduct throughout the Somme battle and superb daring on all occasions, when unhesitating readiness for self-sacrifice could alone overcome resistance, won the dead soldier the first Victoria Cross which the Division received in France.
In the dense smoke and dust the Otago left had lost touch with the sorely reduced companies on the right, but they advanced, meeting now less opposition, towards their final objective. At the point where they expected to find the redoubt, they came on an insignificant smashed up bit of trench. Could this be the famous Circus? A heavy enemy barrage was falling on the spot and decided their uncertainties. They pressed on to a well-marked ridge some 300 yards ahead across a cutting, whence they formed a line down a road to the north of Eaucourt l'Abbaye. This particular cutting, as it happened, was not marked on the map, and the officers, realising then that they had overshot the mark, believed that they were still further westward at a cutting, which was represented on the map, on the road from Eaucourt to Le Barque.
1 p. 74.
The leading Wellington companies had joined in the later stages of the fighting and cleared the long German communication trench from The Circus to the Abbey Road, The other companies were sent forward in the evening to replace casualties. The 2 battalions proceeded with the consolidation, which was completed by dawn. A Strong Point was made on the Abbey Road. A hostile bombing attack during the night was repulsed. In the morning it was found that the party of Londoners had been cut off from the rest of their Division, and that Germans were still in their rear and to the east of Eaucourt L'Abbaye Arrangements were made to supply the party with food. Eaucourt itself was not finally cleared by-the English till the evening of the 3rd.
In these operations the 2nd Brigade sent about 250 prisoners to the collecting station at Bernafay Wood. Of these, 2nd Canterbury had taken 50, including a battalion commander aid his staff'. The remainder were secured on the left. The Wellington losses were light. In the 2 battalions which had borne the brunt of the fighting the casualties worked out evenly: 2nd Canterbury, going into action with 19 officers and 487 men, lost 11 officers and 164 men, 6 officers and 26 men being killed; 2nd Otago attacked with 19 officers and 314 men, and lost 10 officers and 175 men, 4 officers and 33 men being killed.
It had not been anticipated that the 3rd Rifles on the extreme right of the line would move, and they received only short warning that they too were required to deliver a simultaneous local attack at 3.15 p.m They were ordered to establish a line of Strong Points on high ground some 300 yards in front, in order to support a forward movement by the 21st Division, who had relieved the 55th on the right. Such hurried efforts are apt to result in failure, but the riflemen secured their objective with the loss of an officer and 15 men killed and 55 wounded. Many enemy were killed by fire and bayonet and lay in heaps in the sunken road leading to Ligny Thilloy. A counter-attack, reported by pigeon message to Division, was repulsed.
During the night (Ist/2nd October) the troops of the 21st Division were relieved and, as sometimes happens during relief in an advanced portion of the battlefield, the incoming platoons of the 12th Division did not go beyond, or far beyond, the Gird System. Intimation of this was received by the page 1162nd Brigade Headquarters, and the 3rd Rifles were ordered to verify the information and, if their exposed position made it necessary, to withdraw. The posts were accordingly withdrawn under cover of darkness. On the following morning, however, the 12th Division moved forward to the advanced position won on the previous afternoon, and in conformity the Rifles again stalked their posts in face of enemy snipers arid reoccupied them, fortunately with but a few casualties. German snipers had filtered in nearly as far as our vacated line, but these were driven off, and the posts were connected up the following night in pouring rain. Under cover of the darkness and storm a thorough reconnaissance was made of the enemy's new positions by Sergt. A. Shearer. The outposts in front of Gird Support were occupied in the early morning (3rd October) by the Rifles' garrison. An enemy aeroplane flying low failed to locate them, and when the German guns opened it was on the now empty Gird System that their fury fell.
In the evening of 1st October the 1st Rifles were put under General Braithwaite's command to strengthen his depleted forces. They moved up into the support positions, whence platoons were detailed to act as local reserves to the battalions in the line or as carrying parties. Thus no less than 3 Rifle battalions lent their support to the 2nd Brigade at this stage. The 3rd held the right flank, the 2nd the left, and the 1st lay in support.
It was clear that the spell of fine weather was over. Heavy showers fell during the night, and 2nd October was a day of strong wind and tempestuous rain. Continuous shelling was directed at our whole front. Telephonic communication was destroyed between battalions and brigade and between battalions and companies, except where the hollow gave shelter to 2nd Canterbury. There was no observation, and only 1 German aeroplane appeared which was brought down near Beaulencourt.
On the following night (2nd/3rd), as the 3rd Rifles toiled at the new trenches, the remainder of the Rifle Brigade took over the line. Rain was now falling in torrents, the trenches were knee-deep in mud, and relief was not competed till dawn. The 3rd Battalion extended its left, the 4th Battalion went into the centre, and the 1st took over the left in front of Eaucourt I'Abbaye from 2nd Otago arid 2nd Wellington. The 2nd Rifles were withdrawn from the Flers System to Goose and Grove Alleys, 3 companies acting as brigade reserve. page 117As with the 2nd Brigade, the Rifle battalions were all depleted to an average strength of 380, and on the 1st Brigade's coming forward into the intermediate area, which had now been extended to include the Flers Trench System, 1st Canterbury and 1st Wellington were put under General Fulton's tactical command.
The 2nd Brigade moved back to the reserve area, and after a rest and midday meal went straight on to the tents of Fricourt Camp. The troops were exhausted by the fighting, lack of sleep, and the long march, and to put a finishing touch on their hardships, many men of Otago had lost their greatcoats, which had been dumped prior to their attack and been blown up by shell-fire.
In the forward areas the conditions were now indescribably miserable for the gunners in their flooded pits and the sentries in their ditches, waist-deep with mud. The mere physical strain imposed on runners stretcher-bearers and all whose business it was to move along trenches or over the open was excessively arduous. The endurance of the infantry, however, was not to be much longer tested. In the evening (3rd October) the 41st Division commenced to relieve the forward units. The command passed on the following morning to the new Division.1 During the relief the enemy artillery was unusually inactive. The weather, however, still remained execrable and it was through miry trenches and slippery shellholes that the battalions wearily plodded back to the camp at Pommiers Redoubt. There they found enough tarpaulins to give overhead shelter, but the ground was a swamp.
1 In accordance with custom the outgoing machine Gun Company (the 3d) remained in the line for some time after relief. At 6 a.m. (4th October) the enemy counterattacked Gird Support, The account of the action, given by the G.O.C. 122nd Infantry Brigade includes the following: passage: "The New Zealand machine Gun team was of particular assistance. All except one man of the team were hit and the machine gun was at length put out of action. This man, L.Col. [C.O.] Samson behaved with the greatest gallantry, working his gun to the end.
“Just as the Lieutenant, who was the last to come back, was getting into our trench, a German machine gun away on the right got to work and just managed to pump five or six bullets into the Lieutenant's back. He lay in the trench in awful pain all the afternoon. It was impossible to get him down to the dressing station before dark. The trench was not wide enough to get a stretcher along, so that meant walking along the parapet, and that again meant the stretcher-bearers and wounded being riddled with bullets, There was an awful strafe going on all along the line all afternoon, and the village of Flers, just about half a mile at the back of us, was getting it hot and strong from the heavy German guns. As soon as it got dark, volunteers were called to carry the wounded officer down to the dressing station, a half-mile away. I was one of the party of four. We started off about 8 o'clock, and I, for one, never thought we should get to the station. First a huge she11, weighing nearly a ton, would come roaring and sereaming through the air. Of course, if one should happen to meet one, there is one consolation—one would never know anything about it. Well, these shells were dropping all round us, some going over our heads and some falling short, and once we got knocked over by a shell exploding about thirty yards away. The explosion made a hole in the ground large enough to bury a horse in. The four of us got up again, and no one was hurt. I think the officer was unconscious, he never said anything. We moved on again, and at last reached a dressing station, but it was the wrong one, of course. Ours was half a mile away on the other side of the village.
“The village was in an awful state. Buildings blown down in the streets, huge trees cut down half-way up and blown down in the street. One half-tree landed in a shell-hole and looked as if it were going to be set there. The whole sky was lit up by shells exploding like continuous page 119lightning. Half-way through the village a gas shell exploded, and the fumes were awful. By the time we had got the officer's gas helmet on, we were nearly choking. We were not long getting our own helmets on. We arrived at the right dressing station at last, more dead than alive, and handed our man over.”
But at the same time the exhausted troops at Pommiers Camp were grimly conscious that they had, as they might have said simply, done their job, that they had not merely performed the, tasks set themselves, but on more than one occasion rendered effective help to formations on their flanks. Commencing on a frontage of under 1000 yards, they were holding at the close a line neark 3 times as long. In the great battle of the 15th, and subsequent advance on the 16th, in which all brigades took part, in the grisly struggle of the 20th in Goose Alley, in the 1st Brigade operations of the 25th md 27th, and in the final assault by the 2nd Brigade on 1st October, they had achieved all but unbroken success, captured 5 miles of enemy front line and 5½ miles of other trenches, and fought their way forward for over 2 miles. Themselves losing under 20 prisoners, they had captured nearly 1000 Germans, with many machine guns and war material. Finally, what only soldiers can appreciate, the-brought out with them their full complement of machine and Lewis guns. On the other hand, they had sustained 7000 casualties. The bodies of 60 officers and 1500 men were left in the cemeteries or battlefield graves of the Somme.1
In the afternoon of the 4th, Major-General J. P. du Cane, who had relieved Sir Henry Horne in command of the XV. Corps, visited the battalions to express his appreciation and say good-bye. On the departure of the Division from the battle the Commander-in-Chief sent the followillg telegram to the New Zealand Government:—
“The New Zealand Divison has fought with the greatest gallantry in the Somme battle for 23 consecutive days, carrying out with complete success every task set and always doing more than was asked of it. The Division has won universal confidence and admiration. No praise can be too high for such troops.”
1 In October 1918 an opportunity was taken fo erect individual crosses and arrange for a memorial cross near Flers.
In addition, he sent later the following tribute:—
"Fourth Army,October 7th, 1916.
"I desire to express to all ranks of the New Zealand Division my hearty congratulations on the excellent work done during the battle of the Somme.
"On three successive occasions (15th and 25th September and 1st October) they attacked the hostile positions with the greatest gallantry and vigour, capturing in each attack every objective that had been allotted to them. More than this, they gained possession of, and held, several Strong Points in advance of and beyond the furthest objectives that had been allotted to them.
"The endurance and fine fighting spirit of the Division have been beyond praise, and their successes in Flers neighbourhood will rank high amongst the best achievements of tho British Army.
"The control and direction of the Division during the operations have been conducted with skill and precision, whilst the artillery support in establishing the barrage and defeating counter-attacks has been in every way most effective.
"It is a matter of reget to me that this fine Division is leaving the Fourth Army, and I trust that on some future occasion it may again be my good fortune to find them under my command.
"H. Rawlinson, General,
"Commanding Fourth Army."
The efficiency of the Work of the Medical Corps was sufficiently attested in the following memorandum:—
“The D.M.S., Fourth Army, and D.D.M.S., XV. Corps, desire to make known to all ranks of the N.Z.M.C. their appreciation of the work done during the recent operations. The arrangements for evacuation of wounded and the successful way in which the arrangements worked met with their special approbation. Casualty clearing stations report that the treatment of all cases evacuated to them page 121had reached a very high standard, and that no case had been evacuated without having received anti–tetanic serum.”
While the artillery remained in the line, the rest of the Division constituted Corps Reserve for the attack proposed for 5th October. The weatheher, however, necessitated its postponement. On the 6th, Divisional Headquarters moved back to Hallencourt, and the 2nd and 3rd Brigades entrained for the X. Corps area in the lower Somme. The 1st Brigade left Albert on the following day for the same destination. On the 10th aid 11th the Division (less artillery) entrained to rejoin 11 Anzac.
The sector held by the New Zealanders and now handed over to the 41st Division had been covered at the beginning of September by the 14th Divisional Artillery Group which comprised the 14th Divisional Artillery and the 1st and 2nd New Zealand Artillery Brigades. At the end of September the 14th Divisional Artillery was relieved by the 21st Divisiollal Artillery. The 3rd and 4th Brigades, which had heen attached to the Group covering the front of the Division on the right, were now transferred to the 21st Group. In the middle of October the 21st Divisional Artillery was rcplaccd by the 12th Divisional Artillery, which gave its name for the time being to the Group, now comprising its own brigades, the New Zealand artillery, and certain other elements. The New Zeland batteries supported the numerous attacks made throughout the month of October, and remained exposed to the enemy counter-battery activity in positions which had been pushed distinctly far forward in anticipation of a further advance. On the 5th, for example, a gun of the 3rd Battery was destroyed by a direct hit which blew up the ammunition and killed the detachment, and an 8-in. shell struck an ammunition pit of: the 15th Battery, causing the shells to explode and killing an officer and 8 men, in addition to inflicting other casualties.
Towards the end of their stay the weather became definitely unpropitious, and constant rain, impeding communications, robbed the British Armies of the full advantages that their achievements might not unreasonably have been expected to yield. No cessation or slackening, however, was made in our bombardment. Day and night, fire continued on the German entrenched positions, batteries, and villages. In view of the hoped-for improvement in weather and the resumption of operations, the enemy's approaches were system-page 122atically shelled. Dead ground was searched by day, and all roads and tracks at irregular intervals and at constantly varied points throughout the night to prevent the bringing up of supplies and material. Indications pointed to the possibility of a counter-offensive, and cover for guns and crews had to be constructed to minimise the danger of loss of gun-power in case of a hostile preparatory bombardment. For this reason, too, the amount of ammunition at the gun positions was augmented, and as the condition of the roads made wagon transport impossible, the unfortunate animals, now in miserably poor condition, "packed" it up through the mud, making more than one trip a day. After 52 consecutive days in the battle the New Zealand gunners were relieved on 25th and 26th October by the 1st Australian Divisional Artillery. By herculean exertions a few Australian guns were actually brought up to positions after darkness on the 25th. Others were bogged on the Flers Road and hauled back to the wagou lines under cover of mist on the 26th. The brigades for the most part exchanged guns. Of those which had been replaced by the Australians and had to be dragged to the wagon lines, some sank deep in the mud, and not all the labour of men and horses could move them.
In this "set-piece" warfare little scope was offered for spectacular performances by the artillery, but their records are illuminated by repeated instances of devotion to duty, as shown, for example, by gun detachments continuing to fire a barrage under a hail of shells, and of initiative, as in the handling of captured German guns close to the front trenches for sniping purposes. Throughout the battle their action exemplified the skilful application of a high standard of technique, and was extolled by the British regiments not less highly than by their New Zealand comrades. Yet it may be doubted whether any, feature of their work displayed greater qualities of resourcefulness and resolution than their never-interrupted success, despite prolonged conditions of the utmost difficulty, in bringing up their ammunition over those forlorn shelled wastes of mud and craters. The batteries had fired approximately 500,000 rounds on the Somme and sustained over 500 casualties. The Divisional Ammunition Column alone had over 70 animals killed and 8 wagons destroyed by shell-fire. The 3rd Battery had lost its gun detachments 3 times during the battle, and had 5 battery commanders casualtied in succession. The following message of appreciation was sent by the Com-page 123mander of the 21st Divisional Artillery Group on his severing connection with the New Zealand gunners:—
“On handing over command of this Artillery Group I wish to convey my thanks and the thanks of the 21st Divisional Artillery to the offieers, n.c.o.s, gunners, and drivers of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery for their hearty co-operation during the recent operations and far the splendid work which they have done.
“The difficulties of ammunition supply, which have been great, have been overcome, and the good shooting of the batteries and the successful barrages have been spoken of in most comp1imentary terms by our infantry.
“Please convey to all ranks under your command my congratulations and best wishes for their future success.”