Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter III — The Journey to the Somme — Period 22nd August, 1916, to 13th September, 1916

page 35

Chapter III
The Journey to the Somme
Period 22nd August, 1916, to 13th September, 1916

The movement of the New Zealand Division to the Lower Somme Area was completed by the 22nd August, and all ranks were informed that a solid period of training was ahead of them, to fit them for the part they would be called upon to play in the great Somme Offensive.

It is probable that if the troops of the Division had been asked, they would have unanimously declared that the most delightful period they experienced in France was the fortnight's training among the glorious wooded valleys of Picardy in the autumn days of 1916. Beautiful weather was experienced most of the period; the air on the hills seemed so clear and pure after the variated stenches that permeated the trenches of low-lying Flanders. Truly does Lieut.-Col. Stewart say in his History, "Health improved rapidly, and at no time were more energy and keenness thrown into the training."

Something got into the blood; the inexplainable something that nature so often supplies to support her sons in times of crisis; and surely the ordeal through which the Division was so soon to go for twenty-three days was a crisis that justified a something greater than merely human support.

The Companies of the Corps became full strength, and deficiencies in equipment having been satisfactorily explained to D.A.D.O.S.1 were made good. The Companies co-operated with the Brigades in their practice attacks, which were made to resemble as nearly as possible the actual attack the Division was so soon to deliver.

page 36

The officers commanding the Machine Gun Companies had the privilege of witnessing a practice attack by the tanks early in September, while this new and terrible weapon of attack was still veiled in the greatest of secrecy. It was a thrilling sight, and was witnessed by most of the Army and Corps Commanders, and by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.

It is perhaps regrettable that Lieut.-Col. Stewart omitted in his History to refer to the revival of "Oratorical exhortation to troops before battle," which formed part of the preparation of the Division for the Somme offensive; but it is excusable when the stupendous undertaking of his work is realised.

Just prior to the Division leaving its pleasant surroundings for the great battle, each Brigade was lectured en bloc by Major Campbell, upon the art of bayonet fighting. To address 4000 soldiers in an open field was no light task, as those who have had experience in open-air speaking can testify; but Major Campbell knew his subject, and he knew how to speak in the open, and he knew his audience. Not a man in the three Brigades of the Division who had his faculties could have missed a word that was said in a memorable address, which lasted longer than half an hour. "Bayonet fighting" may have been his subject, but "killing Huns" and "seeing blood run" was his message to the troops. He prefaced his remarks by saying: "No Hun is good unless he is dead; it is therefore our bounden duty to make as many 'good Huns' as possible." The eloquent Major then exhorted the New Zealanders to pledge themselves "to see Hun blood run" and to keep it running, and at all times to use the thrust that would ensure the creation of another "Good Hun." He gave many illustrations during the exhortation of the best places for quick killing, and finally, after he had completely imbued his listeners with the fervent desire to at once get to work to make good Huns at the point of the bayonet, he asked if anybody had any questions. No questions were asked, and Major Campbell said he had only once been asked a question at the close of his address, and that was by a nervous looking individual. The question was, "Please, sir, can you tell me how I can get transferred to the Army Service Corps?"

The 3rd September brought to a close the happy days page 37spent in training for the Great Battle, and saw the Machine Gun Companies march off with their Brigades along the Valley of the Somme towards the never-ceasing roar of the distant guns. A halt was made for four days in the march, to carry out a further series of manœuvres and to enable G.O.C. Division to inspect all units.

When the Division again moved forward it found itself proceeding along the main roads that served the Battle Area. The most thrilling spectacle was the Main Amiens-Albert Road, with four continuous streams of traffic upon it, so perfectly controlled that the slower moving columns did not hold back the faster.

On the 8th September the officers commanding the Machine Gun Companies made a reconnaisance of the battle front with the commanding officers of the Brigades. Fortunately the storm had somewhat abated at this time, but the wreckage had not been cleared away. There had been several German counter-attacks during the early hours of the morning, accompanied by the usual heavy artillery fire; the attacks had been repulsed, but the toll the artillery had exacted in our trenches showed the ghastly slaughter that attended even a comparatively small operation, under modern conditions.

The 3rd Company relieved the 1st (British) Company on the 9th September, and remained in the line for several days. On being relieved by the 2nd Company it returned to Fricourt. where the 3rd Brigade was bivouacked. The 1st Company was also at Fricourt, but the 2nd Company remained in the line. The 1st and 3rd Companies, during the few days that elapsed before the Great Attack, were kept busy at the guns and overhauling the belts of ammunition. The commanding officers completed and issued their orders, and on the evening of the 14th September the 3rd Company moved up to the line in readiness for the attack that had been timed to begin at 6.20 a.m. on the morning of the 15th. The 1st Company moved to Mametz Wood, where it remained as Divisional Reserve until it went forward with the 1st Brigade on the 16th to continue the attack.

1 Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services—the chief ordnance officer of a Division. This officer is usually spoken of as "Dados."