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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter II — The Companies in the Line — Period from 13th May, 1916, to 18th August, 1916

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Chapter II
The Companies in the Line
Period from 13th May, 1916, to 18th August, 1916

The sector of trenches taken over by the New Zealand Division extended from the River Lys in the north to a place known as Pear Tree Farm in the south, a very short distance from the Lille-Armentières railway; the length of the line was about four miles. The sector was divided into two subsectors—the Houplines on the north and the L'Epinette on the south. The 1st Company relieved the 51st (British) Machine Gun Company in L'Epinette subsector on the 13th May, and the 2nd Company relieved the 52nd Company on the 14th May. The 1st Company suffered casualties on the first day in the line—Private R. J. Autey was killed, and Sergt. W. J. Bartlett wounded by rifle fire. The 3rd Company moved into Armentières with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, as part of the Divisional Reserve.

The sector had been occupied by British forces since the tide of the German invasion had been stemmed in 1914. Although a great deal of work had been continuously carried out in the improvement of the trenches, the winter that had just passed had left them in a state that called for urgent attention. The gunners rejoiced that they were exempt from duty in the large working parties that nightly went forward to dig revet and lay down the indispensable duck-walks.

The services of the engineers were given to improve the machine gun emplacements, and to build new ones in concrete

Before a month had passed, the whole sector was satisfactorily cleaned up and renovated, and both infantrymen and machine gunners m the fine were able to live in comparative comfort.

The town of Armentières-although barely a mile and a page 30half from the line—was a thriving "War Town," with shops of all descriptions carrying on business to supply the wants of the troops at fairly reasonable "War Prices." The restaurants were a special feature; it really seemed grotesque that officers and men could sit down to a well-appointed dinner table and a well-appointed menu in less than half an hour after leaving the front line trenches.1 The swimming baths and cinema were also great attractions to the men out of the line, and were patronised to the fullest extent.

Each of the Companies had a permanent Headquarters in the town, also quartermaster's stores, to which supplies were brought to be prepared for distribution among the gun teams in the line. The Division quickly accustomed itself to its surroundings, and settled down to a well ordered routine.

The low lying country surrounding Armentières, with water close to the surface did not permit of deeply dug trenches; in fact, the word "trenches" is a misnomer; they should be called "breastworks."

The 3rd Company relieved the 2nd Company in the Houp-lines Sector on the 23rd May, and remained there until the 2nd June, when the 2nd Company again took over the sector, and the 3rd Company went back into reserve in Armentieres.

The O.C. 3rd Company was detailed to report on the machine gun defences of the town of Armentières and found them in a very bad state, as they had been overlooked for a considerable period. The 3rd Company was thereupon employed in putting the emplacements in order, and as the garrison company, was trained and practised in taking over and manning the defences in case of alarm.

The Companies changed over several times as the Brigades relieved each other, until about the end of June, when the Divisional front was extended, necessitating the three Brigades and Companies being in the line at the same time.

Sufficient machine guns were placed in the front line trenches to enable them in case of attack to open fire along lines so set that the continuous belts of fire would be formed page 31in No Man's Land. These guns were housed in concrete emplacements, and proved their effectiveness in the raids that were made against our trenches. Guns were similarly placed in the support and subsidiary lines. The guns in the subsidiary lines were employed for night firing, which soon became largely used. The officers of the various Companies became proficient in working out suitable targets for indirect fire and each night an extensive programme was carried out.

When the gunners began night firing as a regular thing, they were naturally very anxious to know what effect it had on the enemy. They realised how unpleasant the enemy machine gun fire was, although it was spasmodic, and not co-ordinated. The gunners were highly delighted when a German prisoner captured towards the end of May made a statement that our night firing machine guns caused a great deal of confusion, and that a number of casualties had been inflicted on troops coming up to the trenches.

The extension of the divisional front, and the increased activity that was ordered for the purpose of harassing the enemy as much as possible during the period immediately preceding and after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, threw upon the machine gunners, as well as the other arms, a tremendous strain. Indirect fire was carried out by the Companies by-day as well as by night; practically all the guns that were not in fixed positions in the front and support lines were used for the purpose.

In the early part of July the 1st Company had a trying time. On the 3rd July a number of guns were engaged carrying out their firing programmes, when at about 10 p.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment on L'Epinette with 5.9's and minnenwerfer. A raiding party came over against our trenches, and the machine gun under 2nd Lieut. W. Benzies was cut off. By a stroke of good fortune the raiders missed the emplacement, so Benzies ordered the gunners to remove the gun and equipment to the rear. While getting the gun back, Private White, who was carrying it, ran against a German. White, although handicapped by the weight of the gun, managed to let off a bomb, which wounded the German and himself. White's action was very gallant, for he must have known that he would suffer as badly as the Hun. His action page 32enabled the Hun to be captured, and resulted in valuable identification information being obtained. It was found that the gun could not be used from the rear, owing to our infantry and the raiders being mixed together, so It was hidden in a patch of thistles, and the gunners returned to help bomb the enemy. Unfortunately, Benzies was severely wounded in this operation.

During the night of the 8th July the enemy made a determined raid against the Mushroom, which was held by the 1st Canterburys. An intense bombardment preceded the raid, which inflicted serious casualties—the two infantry officers in charge of the Mushroom were both killed. Lieut. E. H. T. Kibblewhite, who was in command of the machine gun section in the Mushroom, quickly realising what had happened, collected his gunners and bombers, and led them forward. He rallied those of the Canterburys that were left, and with the utmost gallantry led an attack which drove out the raiding party. This raid had been carefully planned by the enemy, and was intended to penetrate some depth into our trenches. Kibblewhite's prompt and gallant action prevented this, and won for him the Corps' first Military Cross in France.

The 3rd Company relieved the 5th Australian Machine Gun Company in the Bois Grenier Sector on the 4th July; unfortunately the relief was in progress when the heavy enemy bombardment of Armentières commenced, which caused much inconvenience; but the relief was accomplished without casualties. The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade also moved into the Bois Grenier Sector, thus extending the Divisional front to an aggregate length of eight miles.

The activity of the Companies did not abate for nearly three weeks during which period a number of raids took place, eleven by our forces, and four by the Germans. The machine guns were used to support the later raids with overhead indirect fire, and rendered valuable assistance to the raiding forces by the barrages they brought down on both flanks of the raid and in the support trenches behind the trench that was being raided.

The front line machine guns had numerous calls upon them during the active period in July, to which they effectively responded. Firing a machine gun from an enclosed con-page break
The Vickers Machine GunAn excellent photograph taken when the working of the gun was being explained to Mr. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward.

The Vickers Machine Gun
An excellent photograph taken when the working of the gun was being explained to Mr. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward.

page break
3rd Company, N.Z.M.G. Corps Major J. H. Luxford commanding. Photograph taken at Armentières, June, 1916.The upper portion of this building was badly knocked about with shell fire.

3rd Company, N.Z.M.G. Corps Major J. H. Luxford commanding. Photograph taken at Armentières, June, 1916.
The upper portion of this building was badly knocked about with shell fire.

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emplacement during a bombardment was a heavy strain on the gunner's nerves, and in some cases he was hampered by the fumes of the ammunition.

Throughout the first three months of the new corps' fighting life, its personnel worked hard to increase its efficiency, both in the fighting and administrative branches. The Company organisations worked smoothly, supplies of rations and ammunition, and replaced equipment were regularly and expeditiously brought forward. The many advantages of the new organisation were realised and used to the fullest extent.

The second week of August saw the Companies out of the line after practically three months continuous work, and moving with their Brigades to the Blaringhem Area for concentration prior to departing to Picardy to prepare for the resumption of the great Somme offensive on the 15th September, 1916.

Armentieres was left with many regrets. In spite of the arduous line work the Companies had had in its vicinity, both officers and men had found time for making acquaintances and associations. In the brief periods out of the line they had taken advantage of the many comforts and attractions the town was able to offer.

During the first six weeks the Division was in Armentieres the Company out of the line conducted a machine gun school, to enable as many infantrymen as possible to be trained in the working of the gun. It is perhaps to be regretted that this scheme was not continued, for there were several occasions in the writer's knowledge when an infantryman who had learned the elementary principles of the gun could have continued working it after its crew had become casualties.

The work of the training depot at Grantham had proceeded, and by this time fully trained gunners were coming forward with the reinforcements. Officers and men were chosen from the infantry reinforcements that arrived in England from New Zealand for training as machine gunners at Grantham, and by this means the Companies with the Division were kept up to strength.

A very well-equipped and stalled machine gun school was opened in Camiers in April, 1916, to which officers and n.c.o.'s were sent for instruction. This school maintained a progres-page 34sive policy; any idea that might assist in the development of the uses of the machine gun was thoroughly probed and tried, and if proved to be good no stone was left unturned to secure its introduction.

Many members of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps will have pleasant recollections of the courteous and efficient manner in which they received instruction at this very excellent school.

1 Most of the officers of the Corps who were in the Armentières Sector will have vivid recollections of the excellent dinner given by Lieut. C. G. Hayter at the "Au Bœuf" Restaurant to celebrate the record price he had received for his wool clip at the then recent London sales.