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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter XV — The Final Battle of the War — Period 4th November, 1918, to 11th November, 1918

page 164

Chapter XV
The Final Battle of the War
Period 4th November, 1918, to 11th November, 1918

The final operation in which the New Zealand Division took part was fixed to begin at 5.30 a.m. on 4th November. The scheme of the attack was a general advance by the First, Third and Fourth Armies along a front of about thirty miles, between the River Sambre in the south and Valenciennes in the north. The objective of the attack was the centres of communication that served the enemy forces operating against the French and American Armies, which, if gained, would cut off the German avenue of escape.

The task set the New Zealand Division can be readily understood with the assistance of the map that appears opposite to page 170. The front line immediately prior to the opening of the attack extended from the level crossing on the left to the "E" of Ghissignies on the right and the line of the advance ran due east from these two points. The Division's task was divided into five phases, as follows:—

  • First Phase (to commence at 5.30 a.m.): The capture by the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade of the Blue line.
  • Second Phase (to commence at 7.29 a.m.): The capture of the Blue Dotted line south of Le Quesnoy by the 3rd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. On the north of the town the 1st Auckland Battalion would pass through the Blue line, partly beyond the Divisional flank, at 7.51 a.m., and establish itself on the Blue Dotted line forming a flank facing Le Quesnoy as it progressed.
  • Third Phase (to commence at 8.56 a.m.): The capture of the Green line by two Battalions of the 1st Brigade on the left and the 3rd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade on the right. This phase would complete the invest-page 165ment of Le Quesnoy by the 1st Brigade joining up with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade at the cross roads just east of the lake marked on the map "Etang au Mayeur." On reaching Green line the 1st Brigade would extend along the whole Divisional front in preparation for the fourth phase.
  • Fourth Phase (to commence at 10. 20 a.m.): The capture of the Red line by the 1st Brigade.
  • Fifth Phase: Exploitation 3000 yards eastwards by the 2nd Brigade.

The distance to Red line from the front line occupied at Zero, was approximately four and a half miles.

Le Quesnoy is an ancient historic town, strongly fortified according to old-time principles. Although the fortifications could not stand against a concentrated modern bombardment, they presented an almost impregnable position without such a bombardment.

The fiendish dogs of modern warfare had already destroyed many of the finest gems of ancient architecture; not even the most sacred had been spared; and so in the final stages of the Great World War it was decided to save this historic old town from destruction, and achieve its capture by the enveloping movement of the New Zealand Division just described.

The Machine Gun Battalion was ordered to support the attack with covering fire to be co-ordinated by the O.C. Battalion in consultation with the Infantry Brigadiers. Major Parks was temporarily in command of the Battalion at this time.

Auckland and Otago Companies, with two sections of Canterbury Company, were detailed to provide the covering fire for the first phase. The remaining sections of Canterbury Company were attached to 2nd Brigade and Wellington Company to 1st Brigade.

On the evening of 3rd November Otago Company concentrated its guns in preparation for its work the following day, and Auckland Company and the two sections of Canterbury Company moved up for the same purpose. It was decided to use the Otago and Auckland Companies to put down barrages along the southern and northern outskirts of the town res-page 166pectively, creeping eastwards until the capture of Blue line, and to use the Canterbury guns to enfilade the important streets of the town, with one gun fixed to fire upon Place D'Armes.

The dispositions of the Battalion were complete soon after dark on the night of 3rd November; the barrage guns were in position, two sections of Canterbury Company had joined 2nd Brigade, and Wellington Company was with 1st Brigade. The night was very normal; our artillery did not increase its activity at all before Zero, and nothing happened to warn the enemy of the ambitious scheme the early morning would disclose—the scheme that was to sound the death-knell of "German Hopes."

There was no possibility of mistaking the hour of the attack; in one second the waiting guns belched forth, and the New Zealand Division leapt forward to the assault for the last time.

The creeping barrage machine guns maintained intense fire throughout the first phase, in spite of the heavy shelling that came down round about the positions. Fortunately there were no direct hits, and the excellently constructed emplacements and shelters prevented serious casualties.

The infantry encountered very severe opposition in its fight towards the Blue line, but with great gallantry performed its task in the scheduled time.

Auckland Company and the two sections of Canterbury Company immediately after the completion of the first phase withdrew from the barrage positions and proceeded to and became attached to the 1st and 2nd Brigades respectively. A section from Otago Company then moved to Blue line to be in readiness to go forward with 3rd Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in its advance to Green line. Reynolds led his section to cross the Le Quesnoy-Cambrai railway immediately south of the large orchard in the 1st Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade sector. The troops on the right of this sector had been held up by the fire of enemy machine guns located in the railway cutting. Reynolds decided to engage these guns, and mounted a gun on the edge of a mine hole between the rails. Rapid enfilade fire was poured into the enemy posts, causing severe casualties. This prompt action assisted the infantry to continue its page 167advance. The section at once pressed on, but found that a pocket of enemy guns and a 77m.m. gun were still holding out in the orchard. By careful and skilful handling, Reynolds got his guns in position. They opened fire, silenced the enemy guns, and enabled the infantry to capture forty prisoners.

Before this section reached Blue line it had the unpleasant experience of being mistaken in the smoke and mist for Germans by one of our tanks, and being peppered by its six-pounder guns. Fortunately no casualties resulted before an infuriated gunner was able to let the crew of the tank know the section's nationality.

The remaining sections of Otago Company, on the completion of the first phase, switched their fire on to the southern ramparts of the town, and also enfiladed some of its streets. As the enemy machine guns on the walls were causing a great deal of annoyance, a section under 2nd Lieut. A. J. Billington advanced with pack horses to a position, shown on the map as "Drill Ground." These guns beat down the enemy fire in remarkably quick time and made movement on the southern outskirts quite safe. In the afternoon the rest of Otago Company moved up with its limbers to positions north and north-west of the town to cover its main exits, but were not required to carry out any further firing.

Wellington Company advanced with the 1st Brigade, sending one section with the 1st Auckland Battalion to assist in the establishment of the Blue Dotted line facing Le Quesnoy. This section performed some very accurate shooting against enemy machine guns.

As the 1st Brigade continued its advance to the Green line and Red line the three remaining sections of Wellington Company pushed to the front of the advance, assisted by infantry carrying parties. It was unfortunate that the limbers did not accompany the guns, as it was found that they could have been used to great advantage. Nevertheless, with the invaluable help of the infantry carriers, guns and ammunition were got forward, and the splendid handling against enemy machine guns and strong posts helped the infantry to advance without serious interruption until the Red line was reached and consolidated. The guns of the Company were then disposed in defensive positions.

page 168

Auckland Company was not further called upon during the day, but advanced forward with the supports to the 1st Brigade, and in the evening returned to Ramponeau, where it stayed during the night.

After the fall of Le Quesnoy the Otago Company prepared and occupied defensive positions in the vicinity of the cross roads previously referred to as the point at which the 1st Brigade joined up with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade during the third phase.

Very gallant work was performed during the day by two n.c.o.'s who had served throughout the existence of the Corps—Sergt. Arthur Coster and Sergt. P. McKellar. They were men, who as non-commissioned officers inspired the utmost confidence in their sections, did their duty and more than their duty on all occasions, cool and unshakable in the tightest corners and under the most trying circumstances, risked their lives continually to do their job thoroughly, and were brought through by amazing luck—after long continued and hard service "in the thick of it" unscathed.

During the day 2nd Lieut. Sands and Lieut. R. D. Boyes were wounded, Sergt. Stockman and five men killed, and twenty men wounded.

Among the casualties was Corp. W. G. Gunn, M.M., who was mortally wounded. He died in England after the Armistice had been signed. He had been a signaller from the formation of the Corps in Egypt, first in the 3rd Company and then in the Otago Company. His work had at all times been of a high order, and was often performed under heavy shell fire. He never missed a fight, and in spite of the dangerous nature of his work he had the remarkable record of reaching his Company's last day of actual fighting without a scratch.

Canterbury Company, after completing its task in the first phase, did not come into action that day, but moved with the 2nd Brigade during the evening to Herbignies, preparatory to the commencement of the fifth phase at dawn the following morning. This phase was extended to an advance of four miles on a front of 3000 yards beyond the Red line instead of the advance of 3000 yards originally contemplated.

The enemy positions did not now require the careful artillery attention preparatory to an advance that the Division had page 169become accustomed to, nor was the protection of the creeping barrage necessary. A barrage was put down along the Divisional front at 5.30 a.m. on the 5th November, remaining stationary for thirty minutes, when it suddenly lifted 500 yards, and the infantry advanced. Ten minutes later the infantry again caught up the barrage, which immediately lifted a further 500 yards, the infantry pushing rapidly on to catch it up. At 6.50 a.m. the barrage ceased, leaving the infantry to fight its own way forward.

Canterbury Company sent two sections forward with 2nd Otago Battalion on the right of the advance and two sections with 1st Canterbury Battalion on the left. Auckland Company left Ramponeau in the early morning, joining up with the support Battalions of the 2nd Brigade to be in readiness in case of emergency.

The advancing sections of Canterbury Company had a very arduous day—more through movement than action, especially the left sections. When the infantry were temporarily held up at the Northern Forrester's House, two guns were worked forward and kept the position under intense fire while two infantry companies manœuvred round it. The accurate volume of fire completely kept down the enemy fire, and enabled the infantry to carry the position with small losses.

The work of pushing through the Forest de Mormal with its thick undergrowth was extremely difficult, and the gunners had to be content with merely keeping up with the infantry; it being completely impossible to use the guns. Lieut. A. R. Curtis worked his section through to the eastern outskirts of the wood ahead of the infantry, and after making a personal reconnaissance brought his section to a position from which the Bavai Road could be commanded. Curtis was rewarded for his bold initiative. Large parties of enemy were within easy range, and the gunners were in a few seconds pouring a deadly fire among them. This section maintained its position without serious interference, although it was frequently engaged in a duel with enemy machine guns. By now the old spirit of the German machine gunner had been broken, and his fire was no longer accurate. Curtis's section dominated in every encounter, and suffered practically no casualties. Soon after dusk the infantry had reached Bavai Road, thus successfully com-page 170pleting the Division's last task. At 9 p.m. Canterbury Company was relieved by a Company of the 42nd Machine Gun Battalion, and in pouring rain the sections moved back to Le Quesnoy to rejoin the Battalion. The casualties on the 5th were miraculously light, only three men being wounded.

The excellent result of the work of the Canterbury Company was recognised by the award of a bar to Lieut. Curtis's Military Cross, and the award of a Military Cross to Capt. G. W. Horn. Horn had proved himself a very capable machine gun officer throughout the campaign, and one who had a very keen conception of his duty.

Auckland Company was not called upon during the 5th, and in the evening marched back to Villereau, where it spent the night.

On the 6th November the whole Battalion concentrated at Le Quesnoy, remaining in billets there until two hours after 11 a.m. on 11th November—the hour that heralded the cessation of hostilities and the defeat of the greatest army that had ever tried to subjugate the nations of the world.

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From the N.Z. Official War History, Vol. II][CopyrightLe Quesnoy

From the N.Z. Official War History, Vol. II]
Le Quesnoy