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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter XIV — The Battle of the Selle River — Period 18th October, 1918, to 3rd November, 1918

page 159

Chapter XIV
The Battle of the Selle River
Period 18th October, 1918, to 3rd November, 1918

With the exception of the Auckland Company, the Battalion rested until 22nd October, during which time phenomenal progress had been made by the Allied Armies. North and south of the Third Army Area the German line had been driven in; if only the pressure could be maintained the collapse of the once Great Army would not be long delayed. To enable the Third Army to deliver its thrust an operation by IV Corps was necessary to push our line beyond the River Selle. The 42nd Division accordingly prepared to carry out the task, and to assist it the Auckland Company left the Battalion on 18th October to join 42nd Machine Gun Battalion. On 20th October the 42nd Division, after hard fighting, obtained its final objective. Auckland Company took up positions from which a barrage could be sustained during the operation along the flank of the attack; this barrage worked splendidly and won high praise from the Battalion Commander whose flank was protected. Directly the final objective was captured, and the exposed flank line consolidated, Auckland Company was withdrawn to Viesly, when it became part of Divisional Reserve.

The grand attack by the First, Third and Fifth Armies along a front of fifteen miles to a line running from Mormal Forest to Valenciennes was fixed for 23rd October. IV Corps divided its task into two phases, the first being the capture of the village of Beaurain and the establishment of a line east of the village with the left flank resting on the village of Romeries and facing the village of Vertigneul. This phase was to be carried out by 5th and 42nd Divisions. The second phase was the capture of the watershed between the St. Georges and Ecaillon Rivers by the 37th and the New Zea-page 160land Divisions—the 37th being on the right and the New Zealand Division on the left. The direction of the attack was now north-eastwards. The 2nd Brigade was entrusted with the Division's task, assisted by Canterbury Company. To carry out the attack, the G.O.C. 2nd Brigade decided to employ two Battalions to capture and consolidate the first objective, which was fixed along the Neuville-Escarmain Road. The remaining two battalions were to pass through the first objective battalions, and advance to and capture the final objective on the watershed between the St. Georges and Ecaillon Rivers.

On the 22nd October Canterbury Company became attached to 2nd Brigade and moved with it from Beauvois beyond the Selle River, south-east of Solesmes. Canterbury Company divided its sections among the 2nd Brigade Battalions, the gunners jubilating greatly because the Company's fighting limbers were with them. No longer were they required to carry their guns, equipment and ammunition. Throughout the many engagements in which the gunners had taken part, none had permitted of real open warfare tactics, and now they were all eagerness to demonstrate what they had been so long and carefully instructed in—coming into action from the limbers.

Auckland Company also moved up with the 2nd Brigade, to give covering fire to the attacking troops.

The 42nd Division, through which the New Zealand had to pass, completed the capture of its objective by 8 a.m. on the 23rd, with the leading battalions of the 2nd Brigade well up and in position to continue the advance at 8.40 a.m. Auckland Company quickly formed its barrage positions and opened with the artillery as the assaulting infantry jumped forward.

The two sections of the Canterbury Company had not long to wait before they were given an opportunity of showing the infantry what they could do. The enemy, making a hurried, disorderly retreat from Romieres and Vertigneul, was sighted, and the limbers quickly rushed to a forward position, from which after a speedy "action" a devastating fire opened on the retreating enemy.

After the first objective had been captured, Auckland Company came forward to join with Canterbury Company in its shock tactics. The guns of both Companies were very boldly handled, the limbers frequently being galloped forward page break
Captain Robin HarperRobin Harper, D.S.O., M.C., D.C.M.Commanding the Machine Gun Squadron

Captain Robin Harper, D.S.O., M.C., D.C.M.
Commanding the Machine Gun Squadron

Lieut. Gordon HarperGordon Harper, M.C., D.C.M., Machine Gun Squadron

Lieut. Gordon Harper, M.C., D.C.M., Machine Gun Squadron

page break
The Road down to Ghoranich Crossing over Jordan River.

The Road down to Ghoranich Crossing over Jordan River.

Gunners going down into Jordan Valley.

Gunners going down into Jordan Valley.

page 161to firing positions from which retreating bodies of infantry could be engaged.

By 2.15 p.m. the Division's main objective was reached, but the right flank was unprotected, owing to the 37th Division being held up in Solesmes. Two sections of the Auckland Company were sent forward at 5 p.m. to assist the infantry in the protection of the dangerous flank.

The enterprising infantry did not stop at the final objective, but sent forward a Company, which succeeded by 9 p.m. in capturing the village of Beaudignies and the bridges on the north and south sides of it.

Canterbury Company and two sections of Auckland Company quickly prepared defensive positions after the final objective was gained and laid their guns to cover the right flank in case of an enemy attempt during the night.

As the attack proceeded, Otago Company moved forward with the supporting Brigade, while Battalion Headquarters came up to Solesmes. 2nd Lieut. Ward (Canterbury Company) was wounded during the day.

During the night the support Companies of the advanced Battalions made a further advance, and at daylight had established themselves along the sunken road that runs from Beaudignies to Ghissignies. The enemy were in force beyond our line, and no further progress could be made until the 37th Division on the right came into line. As dawn broke, Auckland Company was withdrawn to Solesmes and Canterbury Company was in readiness to cover the 2nd Brigade when it resumed the advance. Daylight revealed much enemy movement within easy machine gun range, and the gunners began the day by inflicting heavy casualties.

The 24th saw the line further advanced approximately 1000 yards beyond Beaudignies, with the flank divisions abreast.

Otago Company moved up during the afternoon, and at dusk relieved Canterbury Company, which at once went back to billets in Neuville. Otago Company placed eight guns in position and kept eight guns in reserve. Wellington Company was still at Solesmes, but in readiness to move at one hour's notice.

The old fortress town of Le Quesnoy was now barely a page 162mile ahead of the Division, and was plainly discernible from the line. The enemy was not yet ready to yield more ground; his new line along the Cambria-Valenciennes Railway was not complete, and he must at all cost arrest the over-fast British advance.

The 25th October saw little movement by the Division until late in the afternoon, when the 4th Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, on the left of the line, advanced to capture the railway line north-west of Le Quesnoy. Otago Company during the day received orders to consolidate the main line of resistance with its guns, which task was accomplished by nightfall. A further distribution was made in the early morning of the 26th to enable the Company to more actively assist the infantry in its attempt to force its way forward. The attack by the 4th Battalion on the previous afternoon had not secured the final objective, owing to the heavy enemy machine gun fire. The 2nd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade attacked at 5.15 a.m. on the 26th, but was immediately met with heavy machine gun fire from the railway embankment nearer to Le Quesnoy. Our machine guns then began to concentrate upon the embankment, and although unable to completely silence the troublesome enemy guns, lessened their volume sufficiently to enable the infantry to cross the line.

By 10 a.m. there were evident signs of an enemy counterattack; his artillery and machine guns increased their fire. Otago guns were kept in readiness and promptly opened when the S.O.S. signals went up. The enemy's attempt was finally broken by 11 a.m., and with the exception of sudden bursts of vicious shelling, the infantry were left alone to consolidate their gains.

The machine guns at once became active with harassing indirect fire, and spent the next few days and nights keeping the roads behind the enemy's line under fire.

The great advance had now reached its limits, and pending the resumption of the offensive the whole line was organised for defence. The Companies came under Lieut.-Col. D. B. Blair's immediate command, to whom had been given the organisation of the machine gun defences. Lieut.-Col. Blair decided to keep Otago Company in its positions in the forward area. After strengthening it with two sections from page 163Auckland Company, Major L. M. Inglis, M.C., assumed command of the whole of the forward area guns. Canterbury Company took over the defences of the support line system, and Wellington Company the Divisional Reserve line system.

The Companies maintained their positions until 3rd November, when they prepared for the next and final operation of the Division in France. During the intervening days and nights the forward guns remained very active and twice co-operated with the artillery in an organised shoot over the enemy's positions. Our low flying 'planes went over the enemy lines and drew fire from the enemy machine guns, to locate their positions. The effect of the organised shoots and the constant harassing fire of the guns greatly reduced the enemy's activity and brought a lull before the final storm opened on the 4th November.

On 31st October the forward guns assisted a raid by the 1st Brigade, sending forward two gunners with the raiders for the special task of dealing with any enemy machine guns that were captured. The two gunners, the only two that actually accompanied a raiding party in the campaign in France, destroyed one enemy gun and brought back two with them when they returned to our lines.

Major L. C. Chaytor relinquished the command of Wellington-Company on 31st October, to proceed to Grantham for a tour of duty, Capt. L. S. Cimino temporarily assuming command in his place. Lieuts. J. J. Kernohan (Otago Company), P. C. Ashby (Canterbury Company), E. M. Macker-sey (Wellington Company), and B. P. Hopkins (Auckland Company), accompanied Major Chaytor. These officers had been continuously employed in front line work for a considerable period, and were despatched to England on duty, to obtain a well-earned rest and relief from "war-strain."