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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter V — Back in Flanders — Period 12th October, 1916, to 6th June, 1917

page 59

Chapter V
Back in Flanders
Period 12th October, 1916, to 6th June, 1917

The Division relieved the 5th Australian Division on 13th and 14th October in the Sailly Sector, just below the Bois Grenier Sector, the Division's right in July. The 1st and 3rd Brigades, with their respective Machine Gun Companies, went into the line, the 1st into the Cordonnerie subsector and the 3rd into the Boutillerie subsector. The 2nd Brigade and 2nd Machine Gun Company became detached from the Division, going up to the old Houplines Sector, which they had first occupied after their arrival in France.

The 2nd Company came back with the 2nd Brigade to the Division early in December, and after three weeks rest in Divisional Reserve at Estaires, went into the line; the withdrawal of the 4th Division necessitating the Division again taking over the Bois Grenier Sector.

After the withdrawal of the Division from the Somme, Capt. R. D. Hardie was appointed to command the New Zealand Machine Gun Depôt at Grantham, and to form and train the new Divisional Company that had been added to the Divisional establishment. Early in November a number of officers were taken from the companies in France for service with the new company.

It is not necessary to dwell at length on the work of the companies during the winter months. The defence of the line had been organised in depth, on comparatively short frontages. The Companies kept two sections in the line and two in reserve, which were changed round every week.

Winter conditions in Northern France called for extra care of the machine guns, owing to the danger of the water in the casing freezing. Besides the prescribed solution, the firing of occasional short bursts kept the water liquid, and page 60throughout the whole of the winter months no gun was unable to fire when called upon owing to its water being frozen.

The period under review remained very normal, except for the raids undertaken by the Division, with which the machine guns co-operated. The creeping machine gun barrage was now coming into prominence, and the gunners did a lot of useful work in their daylight shoots, commencing on the enemy front line, and gradually lifting back.

About the beginning of 1917 it was decided to employ machine guns to deal with enemy aeroplanes flying low over our trenches. The new dial sight for aeroplane shooting had been introduced and issued, also the special mounting that enabled the gun to fire into the air. Steel-piercing bullets and tracer bullets1 were issued to the anti-aircraft guns, and another task was added to the duties of the Machine Gun Company in the line.

Although the anti-aircraft guns were frequently called upon and undoubtedly hampered the enemy airmen, only one 'plane was brought down by the gunners of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps. Airmen seemed to hate machine gun fire as much as anyone else, and frequently upon one or two guns opening fire the prying airman changed direction homewards.

In the second and third weeks of February, 1917, the Division moved north, taking over the famous Ploegsteert Wood Sector; the Divisional front extending from the River Lys (immediately north of the Houplines Sector) to St. Yves, a distance of about four miles. The 1st Company moved into the right subsector ("Le Touquet"), and the 3rd Company the left subsector ("St. Yves"), the 2nd Company remaining in reserve.2

The left subsector took in on its left flank the high ground on which were the ruins of the St. Yves Post Office. A gun position was established on the high ground among the ruins

1 The tracer bullet when fired was followed by a short stream of illuminated substance that enabled the gunner to watch its flight and to adjust the direction of his fire. This bullet was only used when firing against aircraft.

2 On the 27th February the 2nd Company was inspected at its camp near Romarin by Lieut.-General Sir Alexander Godley, commanding II A.N.Z.A.C., and on the 9th March General Godley made another inspection, accompanied by Mr. Walter Long, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

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Ghastly Slaughter caused by Enemy Airmen to 1st Company's Transport.

Ghastly Slaughter caused by Enemy Airmen to 1st Company's Transport.

Captured Light German Machine Gun in action against Enemy.

Captured Light German Machine Gun in action against Enemy.

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Lieut.-Col. J. B. Parks, M.C.

Lieut.-Col. J. B. Parks, M.C.

Major A. C. Finlayson.

Major A. C. Finlayson.

Major L. S. Cimino.

Major L. S. Cimino.

page 61of the Post Office, from which excellent observation could be obtained. As small parties of the enemy within machine gun range were frequently observed from the position to pass along the road near Grand Haie Farm, two guns were placed further back on the reverse slope of the hill, and laid to fire upon the portion of the road that was under observation. The signallers connected the two positions by telephone. It was arranged that immediately an enemy party was observed, two buzzes should be sent by telephone; two guns would then open fire. On five occasions during the period the 3rd Company was in this subsector the two guns caused casualties to the observed enemy parties.

The 1st Company remained in the Le Touquet Sector until the 15th March, when it was relieved by the 11th Australian Company, and went back into Divisional Reserve with the 1st Brigade. On this date the Division relinquished the Le Touquet and St. Yves subsectors, and took over the adjoining northern subsectors; the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade and 3rd Machine Gun Company took over the right subsector "the Douve," and the 2nd Brigade and 2nd Machine Gun Company the left subsector, "the Wulverghem."

By this time it was known that the Division was again to take part in offensive operations in the early summer, the main objective of which would be the capture of the Village of Messines, situated on the high ridge overlooking the new Divisional front, and directly opposite Hill 63, one of the most important points in the Second Army front.

The new Divisional Machine Gun Company joined the Division on 12th February, and took over the Le Bizet subsector from 1st Company on the 1st March. This company was formed on 18th December, 1916, at Grantham, and arrived in France on 11th February, 1917. Capt. L. C. Chaytor was in charge during its training in England, but relinquished the command to Capt. R. D. Hardie prior to embarking for France, and became Second-in-Command. The officers of the new company were:—

  • O.C. Company: Capt R. D. Hardie.
  • Second-in-Command: Capt. L. C. Chaytor.
  • Section Officers: Lieut. J. B. Mawson, M.C., Lieut. C. M. Smith, Lieut. A. H. Preston, M.C., 2nd Lieut. E. J. McGregor, page 622nd Lieut. A. B. Fordyce, 2nd Lieut. R. E. Bibby, 2nd Lieut. R. B. Davies, 2nd Lieut. C. E. H. Naylor, 2nd Lieut. L. Allan.

The company came to France thoroughly equipped and trained. Its work was solid from the commencement, and the firing programmes that its sections carried out prior to the Messines offensive were of a high order.

During the month of April each company went back to the Tilques Area to go through a period of special training. The ground selected for training resembled the scene of the real operations, and the training consisted of practising the actual part the Division would be allotted in the offensive.

About twelve days were occupied by each Brigade and Machine Gun Company in its training programme; the gunners had had continuous trench duty since the middle of October, 1916, and benefited greatly from the training.

Upon the companies again returning into line their work was heavy; the activity of our artillery, as well as that of the enemy, had become greatly increased; the machine guns were kept busy to prevent the enemy repairing the trenches and wire that our artillery had damaged; they also took part in the many practise barrages that were undertaken during the weeks preceding the attack.

The Companies of the Corps were at last to be co-ordinately grouped to assist in the creeping barrage that was to protect the advancing infantry. The positions from which the guns would deliver the barrage were selected, and the gunners worked very hard forming firing emplacements and ammunition stores.1

The 1st Company's transport had the misfortune to lose a number of its horses in the heavy enemy bombardment on the evening of the 6th May. The effect of the bombardment and of our retaliation on the following night is described in "The New Zealand Division" (page 162).

It is interesting to note the phenomenal luck that had attended the horses of the 3rd Company. From the lime the horses landed in France to the commencement of the Battle

1 Although the employment of the overhead machine gun barrage was not extensively used in France until the beginning of 1917, it had been thought of and even employed for some time before. Major J. A. Wallingford used massed machine guns for this purpose on Gallipoli with splendid results, especially in the August operations.

page 63of Messines—fourteen months later—only one horse was "Killed in Action." This casualty took place in the horse lines near Romarin in April, 1917, and was caused by a dud "anti-aircraft shell." The enterprising gunners quickly skinned the animal, in accordance with General Routine Orders and disposed of the body. The disposal of the body was effected by an ex-butcher driver, quartering it and carting the portions to a butcher in Bailleul, who made a purchase for the modest sum of 200 francs, which no doubt was subsequently utilised for suitable purposes.

When it is remembered that the horses of this Company were actively employed throughout the whole period taking rations and supplies to the gunners in the line, including the perilous work in the Somme Battle, their immunity from casualty is the more remarkable.

The companies were back in concentration area for a few days prior to the 7th June, the date of the attack. During this time, however, parties of gunners went forward at night to complete the barrage gun emplacements.

The new machine gun company that was formed to serve the 4th Brigade joined up with the Division to take part in the formidable machine gun scheme that had been planned to co-operate in the offensive.

The 4th New Zealand Machine Gun Company was formed in May, 1917, at Grantham. Capt. L. M. Inglis, M.C., a great student of the machine gun and its tactics, who, unfortunately for the Corps, had been kept for over twelve months with the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, left France in April, 1917, to form and command the new company. The officers chosen for the company were:—

  • Officer Commanding: Capt. L. M. Inglis, M.C.
  • Second-in-Command (temp.): 2nd Lieut. Hosking.
  • Section Officers: 2nd Lieut. D. O. Williams, 2nd Lieut. R. B. Steel, 2nd Lieut. C. F. Forsdick, 2nd Lieut. B. P. Hopkins, 2nd Lieut. L. A. Hill, 2nd Lieut. J. Carswell.
  • Transport Officer: 2nd Lieut. E. D. McRae.

Capt. Inglis was extremely fortunate in having such a keen set of young officers—all of whom (with one exception) had been promoted to commissioned rank in the field. Most of the n.c.o.'s and leading gun numbers were old hands, who page 64had been returned to the depot from hospital after convalescing from wounds or sickness. These "old hands" were of immense service in the rapid formation and training of the company, which enabled it in less than a month from its formation to be engaged in active operations in France.

All the companies in France had horses for their transport work, but the new company was supplied with mules—a lot of real "hairies." At first some of them had to be roped and thrown before they could be groomed. However, under the care of 2nd Lieut. E. D. McRae, who became famous as one of the best transport officers in the Division, the mules were transformed into a well-conditioned and serviceable lot of animals.

The reinforcement drafts at Grantham, from which the rank and file were drawn for the new company, had had a considerable amount of elementary and individual machine gun training; most of the time before embarkation was therefore devoted to welding the component parts of the company into a smooth working unit.

The company proceeded from the training depôt at Grantham to Southampton, and sailed from that port on 28th May for Le Havre. After spending a day at Havre the company entrained for Bailleul, which was reached on 1st June.

One section, under 2nd Lieut. D. O. Williams, became detached to join the 5th (Divisional) Company, the day after arriving at Bailleul, remaining with it until the completion of the first phase of the Battle of Messines.

The remainder of the company moved to the concentration area, and the officers reconnoitred the positions they would occupy at the opening of the attack.

The appointment of an Army Corps Machine Gun Officer had been authorised some time previously, marking a further advance in the progress of the Corps, and making possible the concentration and co-ordination of the machine guns of the Army Corps in both, offensive and defensive operations. The Machine Gun Officer attached to II A.N.Z.A.C. at this time was Lieut.-Col. R. V. K. Applin, D.S.O., whose pre-war book on the employment of machine guns showed that he had then foreseen the invaluable uses the gun could be put to in modern warfare.