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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter XIII — The Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line — Period 28th September, 1918, to 15th October, 1918

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Chapter XIII
The Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line
Period 28th September, 1918, to 15th October, 1918

After the Division went into rest on 14th September, a number of important "local" actions had been fought, in preparation of the momentous, the all-important attack on the "breast plate" of the Hindenburg Line.

"The extended preliminaries, though they had raised by their success the spirit of the British Armies to a mood in which doubt of victory had no place, had none the less taken toll of the numbers and of the reserves. The successes had been won at a loss trifling in proportion to the results, but, in the most victorious fighting, losses mount up, especially in battles where the machine gun has to be beaten down. Was it possible, with numbers dwindling, and with men who had been pushing for seven weeks, to break through a line which in face of all the world had been exalted as a line that could not be broken."

The Allied General Staff determined to strike at once. It felt confident the troops of Britain, France and America could finish the main task in the same way as they had completed the necessary preliminaries.

The IV Corps, to which the New Zealand Divison still belonged, had advanced its front beyond the Trescault Ridge; the formidable obstacle that the Division had partially succeeded in capturing on 12th September. The main attack on the 27th had been to the north of IV Corps, and on the 28th the 42nd Division had advanced beyond Couillet Valley, with patrols pushing towards Welsh Ridge.

The New Zealand Division began to move forward to be in readiness to exploit the success of the 42nd Division. The Companies of the Battalion split up on the 28th, to become attached to the infantry brigades. Wellington Company joined 1st Brigade, Otago Company 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and Can-page 149terbury Company 2nd Brigade, while Auckland Company with Battalion Headquarters became Divisional Reserve.

The plans for the Division's operation were to push through from the 42nd Division's front in a south-easterly direction, beyond La Vacquerie on the right and Bon Avis Ridge on the left, to the canal between Crêvecœur and Vaucelles, then across the canal to establish posts to deny the enemy observation of the river bed. The 1st Brigade was given the left sector and the 2nd Brigade the right sector.

Owing to the failure of the 42nd Division to effect the capture of Welsh Ridge, the Division's task was greater, but there was no time for regrets, as the two Brigades came forward after dusk to assemble for the attack between the high banks of the Surrey Road. As it was anticipated that a deep advance would be made, it was decided that both Wellington and Canterbury Companies should give a complete section to each Battalion, and not take part in the barrage.

There was very little work for the gunners to do, as our attack made such rapid progress, their chief concern was getting their guns and equipment forward quickly enough. The attack opened at 3.30 a.m. on the morning of the 29th, and by daylight the 1st Brigade on the left was over Bon Avis Ridge and approaching the canal near Crêvecœur.

The advance of the 2nd Brigade had not been so rapid, and it was not until 1 p.m., after very heavy fighting, that it reached the forward slopes of the ridge that ran down to the canal. The enemy machine gun fire was so intense across the forward slopes that further advance was impossible for the day.

The guns of the Wellington Company were quickly in action after the 1st Brigade had made its rapid advance. From the forward line of the Brigade observation was possible far beyond the canal; the whole countryside was seething with enemy movement Such a chance was not to be missed, and with great boldness the guns of the Wellington Company pushed forward beyond the line of the Brigade, to take full advantage of the occasion. At first the targets comprised transport lorries, later limbered waggons, and still later field guns in action. Never before had the machine gunners such a day; frequently one gun with a few bursts, traversing page 150fire knocked out horses and drivers. A motor lorry would capsize, its driver killed, wounded or "winded." One gunner aptly remarked, "It's like shooting tame ducks."

Lieut. A. W. Brown found a well made concrete dugout about 200 yards from Lateau Wood, from which he could see five enemy field guns in action. He lost no time in bringing a gun up to the dugout and completely silenced the field guns at the comparatively short range of 1000 yards. Not one of the enemy gunners was left.

Lieut. E. G. Stubbs made a very bold reconnaissance of the Crêvecœur and Rue des Vignes bridges, and subsequently placed his guns in a position to cover them.

The Canterbury Company did not have the same opportunity as the Wellington Company, but nevertheless its gunners played havoc on large bodies of German infantry on the forward slopes of the ridge.

Towards dusk the guns took up defensive positions, where they remained throughout the night. Early on the morning of the 30th the 2nd Brigade advanced its line to the western banks of the canal, and the guns of the Canterbury Company were brought up and grouped to cover the canal bridges. Throughout the day both Companies improved their positions and kept active against enemy movement, getting good observation and inflicting casualties.

The canal still lay ahead of the Division, and to effect its crossing the 1st Brigade undertook an operation on 1st October. The scheme of the operation was to cross the canal in VI Corps sector (immediately north), where a bridgehead had been established beyond the canal, and to attack Crêvecœur south-eastwards. The 3rd Division on its left was to attack simultaneously. To cover the operation, Otago Company came forward, to augment the fire of Wellington and Canterbury Companies—one section of Wellington Company under Lieut. C. H. Marks was attached to the 2nd Wellington Battalion, that had been given the task of capturing the village.

The attack opened at 6 a.m., the guns of the three Companies carrying out a co-ordinated harassing fire scheme on the enemy positions across the canal. The village was captured by 8 a.m., and by noon our lines ran solidly all round the eastern outskirts, thus establishing a bridgehead on the Divi-page 151sional front. The fighting to the north of the village was very bitter, especially when the enemy made his desperate counter-attack at 8.30 a.m. Marks had by this time got his section of guns to the 2nd Wellington's left flank, and assisted the hard pressed and greatly reduced Ruahine Company in beating off the attack, thus saving the whole line. The gunners stood to their guns, working them like demons, and with their short range grazing fire inflicted heavy casualties at the total cost of six gunners wounded. The gallant conduct of Lieut. Marks during this operation earned for him great gratitude from his men, and praise throughout the whole Battalion.

During the day the Otago Company successfully engaged a number of enemy parties, but apart from this the day was spent in co-ordinating the Otago and Wellington guns to barrage in front of the newly won positions. Marks kept his section in the forward line, disposed along it in defensive positions. The next three days saw no change in our positions from a movement point of view. New gun positions were reconnoitred, and a number of guns moved forward. On 3rd October three sections of Canterbury Company were relieved by an English Company, and Otago Company relieved Wellington Company, the latter going back to Divisional Reserve with Auckland Company. During this relief Lieut. E. G. Stubbs was mortally wounded.

General Hart, commanding 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, was of opinion that it was necessary to hold Crêvecœur in strength, as our grasp on that position was of vital importance to enable an advance to be made from the line of the Escaut. He anticipated that if any hostile counter-attack was made before our next forward move, the main blow would be delivered at Crêvecœur. Major Inglis was therefore ordered to dispose Otago Company with two sections round the front and flanks of the village, so that they could fire against any enemy attack at its outset. Two sections under Lieuts. H. M. Preston and G. D. Lochhead were accordingly disposed. Two guns were placed in the roofs of two houses on the extreme eastern edge of the village with excellent field of fire against the hill, on which stood the Mill of Lesdain, thickly defended by enemy machine guns.

These guns did excellent work with observed fire. The page 152remaining sections of Otago Company were disposed in depth west of the village.

Unfortunately, on the 4th October the Battalion's Adjutant, Lieut. A. B. Fordyce, while making a reconnaisance of the forward positions, was wounded. Fordyce had served as a gunner on Gallipoli and with the Corps since its inception. His work as Adjutant to the Battalion had been admired and appreciated by all ranks. He was succeeded by Lieut. G. R. Buttle.

Immediately the line became settled, Otago Company and the one section of Canterbury began the old trench warfare scheme of keeping all enemy approaches harassed by machine gun fire, and frequently by day inflicted casualties on parties of Germans.

The 5th October brought signs of enemy withdrawal from his positions across the canal, and in a short time the 2nd Canterbury Battalion was across the canal at Vaucelles. The high ground about Cheneaux Wood was cleared, and with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade also moving forward, the Masnières-Beaurevoir Line was approached. A defensive flank was formed along the spur to the south of Cheneaux Wood, the section of the Canterbury Company being moved forward to assist in its consolidation. As the 4th Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade moved across the canal opposite Les Rues des Vignes and advanced towards Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line, the Otago Company opened covering fire, which did not cease until the new gains had been consolidated.

The work of Sergt. D. H. Taylor during the operation was very meritorious. He directed and controlled the fire of two guns from the attic of a small cottage, which was quite exposed and was twice hit by shells.

Private J. Donaldson, one of Taylor's party, performed a very gallant act. During some heavy shelling a comrade was pinned down by the débris of a fallen wall, and his leg shattered. To free the unfortunate man, Donaldson had to amputate the shattered leg with a jack-knife. This was done under heavy shell fire. Seeing that his comrade must have medical attention at once, Donaldson carried him to an aid post 400 yards away, through an absolute inferno of shell fire, and then at once returned to his gun team. It is interest-page 153ing to record that the wounded man eventually recovered from the effects of his injuries and the impromptu jack-knife operation.

The Battalion suffered its first "hate" casualties on the 5th October. A party of gunners of the Wellington Company, then in Divisional Reserve, were on their way to the baths, when someone caught a trip wire which was attached to six stick bombs. The enemy booby trap exploded, wounding twelve men.

Events were now beginning to move with great rapidity, the enemy had been severely shaken in the south by the French and American Armies, and in the north the British had more than deprived him of the successes he gained in March. It became very urgent that further operations be undertaken before the enemy could recover his weakened morale and before the winter impeded us.

The New Zealand Division prepared its portion of the general scheme, which would begin on 8th October, our final exploitation objective being the establishment of a line from beyond the village of Esnes towards Wambaix, when we would join up with the 3rd Division after it captured the latter village.

The whole Battalion was brought into the operation, two Companies to take part in the creeping barrage, and two Companies to move forward with the assaulting Brigades. Auckland and Wellington Companies were allotted the barrage work, the Auckland guns covering the left Brigade to extreme range, twelve guns of the Wellington Company barraging the southern outskirts of the village of Lesdain, and four guns the northern outskirts. Canterbury Company was attached to the right Brigade (2nd Brigade) and Otago Company to the left Brigade (3rd Rifle Brigade).

The transport of the barrage Companies was moved up in anticipation of these Companies being called upon to push through, if it were possible, to further exploit the results of the projected attack.

At 4.30 a.m. the Division opened its attack, and the barrage guns carried out their programme without a hitch, expending 140,000 rounds. The Otago and Canterbury guns moved forward, and as daylight came they were continuously page 154ordered "action." Lieut. A. R. Curtis, with a section of the Canterbury guns, protected the right flank of the 2nd Brigade, and rendered invaluable service to the infantry. The handling of this section was perfect. By careful reconnaissance, enemy machine guns were located and knocked out; frequently were parties of enemy trying to work round our flanks spotted and engaged. Special mention of Curtis's work is made in "The New Zealand Division" (at page 523).

The whole of the forward guns were boldly handled, being pushed well forward, and silencing enemy field and machine guns. The 8th October stands out as a red letter day of success in the history of the New Zealand Division. It reached and held its exploitation objective line.

The nature of the ground over which the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade advanced gave the gunners of the Otago Company a fine chance to afford valuable assistance to the Brigade. East from Crêvecœur there ran in the direction of the attack a pear-shaped ridge, from which good observation of the country far to both flanks could be obtained. During the first stage of the attack the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade was to push out along this ridge about 1500 yards ahead of the 2nd Brigade on the right, and of the British Division on the left. A splendid opportunity was thus presented for delivering machine gun fire from commanding positions along the flanks of the Brigade. The orders issued to the gun section commanders were that they should advance by bounds, dropping guns in pairs at certain commanding positions along the sides of the main ridge, so as to take full advantage of targets presenting themselves on the lower ground on the flanks, and at the same time be so distributed as to provide an adequate machine gun defence in depth at each stage of the advance.

The accuracy with which the section officers found the pre-arranged positions was most commendable.

Pack horses and limbers with filled belts and bulk ammunition were sent forward to the gun positions as the advance progressed. The Company Sergt.-Major (J. Rowney) was responsible for the work of despatching the pack horses and limbers, and completed it without a hitch. This n.c.o.'s work, which was continuous from the formation of the Corps, was always marked by its excellence.

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No. 1 Section (tinder Lieut. H. M. Preston) advanced with 1st Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. Preston brought his guns into action on a number of occasions during the advance against parties of retreating enemy until he reached his positions. It was the guns of this section that prevented the limbers of four field guns reaching the battery position. The drivers and horses of two limbers were shot down, but the other waggons made their escape. This left the field guns isolated, and enabled them to be captured later by the infantry.

No. 2 Section (under Lieut. G. D. Lochhead) advanced immediately in rear of the leading waves of the 2nd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade until a temporary fire position was occupied on a spur during the pause after the capture of the first objective. The section again advanced with the infantry towards the second objective, and established two guns along a sunken road, and two guns in a captured trench south of Seranvillers. About 9 a.m., while the guns along the sunken road were being dug in, an attack on our infantry posts established across the main Cambrai Road was made by two German tanks. A British tank opportunely came along and put the two enemy tanks out of action. The gunners had their guns in readiness and with the help of the infantry Lewis guns and rifles very quickly cut down the crews of the tanks as they tried to make their escape. About an hour later the sunken road guns engaged an enemy machine gun at 700 yards range, knocking out the whole gun team.

No. 3 Section (under 2nd Lieut. G. A. Booth) and No. 4 Section (under Lieut. J. J. Kernohan) acted independently of the Battalions. No. 3 Section spent most of the day until the enemy counter-attack was launched sniping small parties.

No. 4 Section had much excellent shooting at the enemy retiring in front of the 2nd Brigade advance. At 7.15 a.m. a large party of enemy, estimated at 250, left a trench to retire. Two of Kernohan's guns opened in enfilade, inflicting about seventy casualties. The rest of the enemy got back to the shelter of the trench, which was kept under a steady enfilade fire until captured by 2nd Brigade troops. The other two guns of the section were under the command of Sergt. W. Rugg. This n.c.o. was severely wounded in the thigh at the outset of the attack, but carried on in command of the sub-section page 156until he was sent to the rear by his Company Commander later on in the morning.

At 7.45 a.m. two six-horse limbers, accompanied by horsemen, attempted to reach enemy guns that were in position on the right flank. Kernohan, after getting the range by reference to the map, ordered his gun to open fire at 2700 yards as the party crossed the Esnes-Walincourt Road. Two horses were brought down and the limbers were driven back at a gallop without being able to reach their guns.

The Otago guns were able at 5 p.m. to help smash the enemy counter-attack against the 3rd Division on the left. The guns were well forward, and so in an ideal position to deliver the most deadly of all fire, the direct enfilade fire. As the lines of the enemy were seen to advance, the artillery and the Otago guns opened, but it can truthfully be claimed that the well directed fire of the machine guns wiped out most of the lines of Germans advancing in short rushes towards their objective. After the infantry had completed the consolidation of the new line the Otago and Canterbury guns took up defensive positions which had been arranged between the Brigadiers and the Company Commanders.

Next day saw a continuance of our progress. Auckland Company moved up to provide a barrage for the infantry, and at Zero hour opened fire with the artillery, but the enemy had stolen away. A large wastage of British ammunition was the only advantage the enemy gained.

This unexpected move left the infantry an easy task in reaching its objective—the Le Cateau-Cambrai Railway Line. To enable the forward move of the Division to proceed, a new line was consolidated about half a mile beyond the railway line, and Canterbury Company was disposed for its defence.

Otago Company concentrated at Esnes, and with Wellington Company became Divisional Reserve; while Auckland Company remained in readiness to quickly move to support the infantry when it advanced.

After dusk on the 9th, patrols reported that Fontaine-au-Pire and Beauvois had been evacuated, and accordingly the 2nd Brigade resumed its advance. The enemy was encountered west of Bethancourt, occupying some old practice trenches. A section of guns from the Canterbury Company page 157was brought forward, and in conjunction with a section of Artillery covered the infantry, who quickly assaulted and cleaned up the enemy. The gunners were similarly called upon several times during the day, and, in addition, lost no opportunity of engaging the enemy, inflicting numerous casualties.

Auckland Company moved up during the day to Jeune Bois, and Wellington Company joined the 1st Brigade as it left on its way to pass through the 2nd Brigade to endeavour to reach the Selle River and establish bridgeheads beyond it.

As the 1st Brigade passed through the 2nd Brigade, Canterbury Company returned to Beauvois to rest—Wellington Company was now advancing with its pack transport.

The 1st Brigade continued its advance unchecked; patrols reached the River Selle about 1 a.m., and soon after parties of the infantry were across the river, but the enemy was still in force on the eastern side. Daylight revealed this fact very forcibly—our positions on the western side were subjected to heavy shelling and machine gun fire.

An amusing but touching episode befell Lieut. E. M. Mackersey. After he had placed his guns in position to deliver covering fire he made his way to reconnoitre the crossing of the Selle at Briastre. As he entered the village the inhabitants that still remained rushed upon him and showered him with kisses. Mackersey was acclaimed the deliverer of Briastre. An engineer officer arrived a few minutes later; the inhabitants then showed both officers a house in which there were five Germans; fortunately they surrendered on demand.

Auckland Company reached the forward area about 8.30 a.m. and at once co-operated with Wellington Company in trying to silence the machine guns across the river.

A new attack was arranged for 5.30 a.m. on the morning of the 12th October, and the main objective was the Belle Vue Station across the river. On the previous 12th October the New Zealand Division was called upon to attack the Belle Vue Ridge at Passchendaele; a most extraordinary coincidence that the attack twelve months later should be upon a place bearing the same name.

Wellington and Auckland Companies were detailed to form a creeping barrage in conjunction with the artillery to page 158protect the infantry on its way. The guns opened with the artillery, and again at 3 p.m., when the enemy made his counter-attack that temporarily deprived us of our gains of the morning. At 6 p.m. our attack was again delivered, both Companies covering it. In this attack the guns fired much lower than usual, but still with a margin of safety. The attack succeeded, and guns from both Companies went forward to assist in the consolidation of the new line.

With its task accomplished, the Division was relieved during the night of the 12th/13th October by the 42nd Division, but the Wellington Company remained in the line until the following day, when it rejoined the Battalion concentrated at Esnes, for reorganisation and rest. The weather was good, and in a day or two the Battalion was cleaned up and thoroughly refreshed. The prospective visit of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales gave the gunners an incentive to make themselves more attractive than usual. The visit materialised on 15th October, and was appreciated with great enthusiasm by all ranks.