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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter VI — The Battle of Messines

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Chapter VI
The Battle of Messines

"No operation of the war was more deliberate than that which led to the occupation of the Messines Ridge by General Plumer's Army, which opened the Summer Campaign of 1917 on the Flander's front as a preliminary to Sir Douglas Haig's forthcoming offensive at Ypres. The preparations for the Second British Army's attack had been built up with the science and forethought that are usually associated—not with battles, but with the construction of a work of engineering such as a giant dam or railway."

The Messines Ridge had been held by the enemy since the end of 1914; it commanded the Ypres salient and gave the enemy perfect observation of the British trench system, as well as of a great depth of the back areas and villages.

The ridge, with its two chief points at Messines and Wytschaete, lies midway between Ypres and Armentieres. It had been converted into a veritable fortress. For two years the Germans, in anticipation of our possible offensive, had developed the natural defences of the position; the villages, the woods, the farms, the hamlets were bristling with defensive ingenuities.

The object of the offensive was to deprive the enemy of the ridge which commanded the Ypres salient, which would enable the British to strike later at Ypres. The front of the attack extended from Mt. Sorrell in the north to St. Yves in the south—a distance of about nine miles.

The Division's task in the offensive was to advance on a front of 1500 yards to a position 500 yards beyond Messines. The Division's right flank was, at the opening of the attack, the River Douve, and its left flank a point just north of Wulverghem-Messines Road. The 3rd Australian Division was on our right, and the 25th Division on our left. The length of the Division's advance was about 2000 yards, ending page 66upon a line to be called "the Black line," the flank divisions also advancing up to the same line.

The 4th Australian Division was then to advance through the Black line and the line of forward posts that were to be established ahead of it, to capture and consolidate a line to be called "the Green line."

The first phase of the battle comprised the taking and consolidating of the two front line systems of the enemy trenches, which were to be called the "Blue" and "Brown" lines; the capture of the Village of Messines and the capture and consolidation of a line beyond the village to be called the "Yellow" line. The first phase was to be carried out by the 2nd Brigade and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade.

The second phase comprised the advance to and consolidating a line 500 yards east of the village, to be called the "Black" line, and then the pushing forward of small parties to establish a line of strong posts 300 yards farther on to be called the Black dotted line. The 1st Brigade was selected to carry out the second phase.

The third phase already mentioned was the advance by the 4th Australian Division to capture and consolidate a line 1000 yards beyond the Black dotted line, to be called the "Green" line.

The map of the Messines Battle Area, opposite page 76, will help the reader to readily follow the three phases of the attack.

The machine gun organisation was very comprehensively arranged, and the whole five companies of the Corps were employed on the New Zealand divisional front. The task of the Machine Gun Companies was divided into two separate operations; one was to create a formidable creeping barrage to protect the advancing infantry and to keep them covered after they had consolidated their objectives, and the other was to provide the Battalion Commanders with guns and personnel to assist in the consolidation of the captured objectives. The 4th Company and the Divisional Company and two sections from each of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Companies were allotted to the barrage work, and the remaining sections of the three companies were left with their brigades to assist the assaulting battalions.

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The barrage guns were divided into three groups: No. 1 group was on the right and comprised sixteen guns under Capt. C. S. Geddis of the 3rd Company (eight guns from the 1st Company and eight guns from the 3rd Company formed the group).

No. 2 group was in the centre, and comprised twelve guns under Capt. L. M. Inglis, being three sections of the 4th Company.

No. 3 group was under Major R. D. Hardie, and comprised twenty-eight guns (the whole of the Divisional Company, eight guns from the 2nd Company, and four guns from the 4th Company formed the group).

The barrage guns went forward to their positions during the night 5th/6th June, and remained under cover during the day. After dark on the night of the 6th the gunners at once began the important task of mounting and laying the guns for opening at Zero hour. The map (facing page 68) shows the positions and work of all the barrage machine guns on the Army Corps front during the first phase.

The remaining sections of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Companies moved into the line on the evening of 6th June and experienced the inconvenience of having to move along the thickly congested trenches, carrying guns and equipment, wearing their gas masks. The enemy kept up a very steady gas shell bombardment during the whole evening, which caused much inconvenience, but the Companies of the Corps had practically no casualties. Although the small box respirators were extremely efficient, the blistering heat upon the covered face on a hot summer's night was agonising.

The eight remaining guns of the 1st Company were detailed to advance with the reserve company of the 1st Brigade and after the Black line had been captured to establish a line of guns that could form a belt of fire in front of it.

Four guns of the 2nd Company were allotted to the 1st Canterbury Battalion and four guns to the 1st Otago Battalion. The sections were to advance with the last wave of the battalions to which they had been allotted until the final objective of the first phase had been captured, when they would help in its consolidation and afterwards from their positions assist in covering the advance of the 1st Brigade towards the Black line.

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One gun of the 3rd Company was allotted to each battalion of the 3rd Brigade to move forward to assist in consolidation and the remaining four guns were kept as Brigade Reserve.

The hours of waiting preceding Zero hour were uncanny, the enemy shelling gradually slackened off, and at times a deathly silence came over the whole battle front. The attack which had been planned for so long, the preparations for which had been watched and followed from the beginning, and seen to reach maturity was about to take place. Did the enemy suspect that the threatened blow was about to be delivered, would a murdering devastating fire suddenly descend on our thickly filled trenches and destroy the most brilliantly conceived and prepared operation of the campaign in France? No wonder tension almost reached breaking point during those long-drawn-out hours on the night of the 6th June. Slowly but surely the watches ticked away the seconds, minutes and hours until at last the Zero hour was heralded with the greatest thunderbolt the world had ever heard. The greatest concentration of artillery ever known in one second belched forth, the string of mines carefully prepared through long and strenuous months were fired, the earth quaked, but no human ear could measure the volume of noise. The sight the spectacle presented can hardly be described, the myriad lightning flashes of the roaring guns behind, the huge geysers of flame from the exploding mines, and the thousands of coloured rockets fired from the German lines in every direction to warn their waiting artillery that the dreaded day had arrived too soon, impressed a picture on the eyes of our forces, grand, glorious but awful, and across the darkened stretch of no mans' land, our first waves began to move. The great attack had commenced.

The machine guns of the three barrage groups opened on Zero, although it must be recorded that the guns of No. 1 group opened about a minute too soon, owing to the commander's watch not being properly synchronised. The guns continued firing until forty-five minutes after Zero, during which time they had gradually lifted forward their fire at the rate of 100 yards every two minutes until it was falling 500 yards beyond the Brown line, which was captured at that page break page 69time. The guns then ceased, giving the gunners an opportunity to oil and adjust their guns, ever keeping ready to open fire again if the S.O.S. appeared. An officer from No. 1 group and from No. 3 group with a small party went forward to ascertain from the infantry whether the machine gun barrage guns had been firing short and also to reconnoitre positions for the groups to occupy during the second phase. The barrage gun teams, on the whole, had been very fortunate during the first phase. Unfortunately, however, 2nd Lieut. F. W. Watson, D.C.M. (3rd Company), a very gallant soldier, who had won his commission in the field, and who had fought continuously since the landing on Gallipoli, was killed by a stray shell a few minutes after Zero. Capt. Inglis was wounded about the same time.

The second phase of the machine gun barrage was the moving forward of No. 3 group (less the section of the 4th Company) and No. 1 group on to the Messines Ridge to take up positions which would enable the guns to bring a standing barrage down 500 yards beyond the Black line. The guns of No. 2 group remained in position and became Divisional Reserve. the guns for the second phase were not to be in position until three and a half hours after Zero. In the meantime a number of gunners were organised to carry ammunition up to form a forward reserve. Corp. W. N. Thorn displayed great gallantry and leadership with his party, which took forward 10,000 rounds of ammunition to the third barrage position without a casualty.

At 6.30 a.m. the two groups moved their guns forward towards the second barrage positions, which were reached with slight casualties at 7.30 a.m. By this time the enemy shelling had increased, and it was found that the positions selected were enemy barrage lines. Major R. D. Hardie decided that it was impossible to carry out the second phase without heavy casualties. As this phase was for the purpose of protecting the Black line in the event of enemy counter-attack, and was not to assist a forward advance, Major Hardie gave orders for the group guns to move on to the positions from which they could carry out the third phase. The work of the officers and men of both groups in the pushing up to the new positions through the heavy enemy page 70barrage was admirably done. At about 8.30 a.m. Major Hardie received a nasty wound in his eye, and Lieut. E. J. McGregor, a pioneer machine gun officer, who had at one time been the New Zealand Mounted Brigade M.G.O. on Gallipoli, was wounded. Major Hardie was forced to go back to a dressing station for attention, and handed over the command of No. 1 group to Lieut. A. H. Preston. Major Hardie, with splendid devotion to duty, and in spite of his injury, returned to the group early in the afternoon.

The guns of No. 3 group reached the third phase positions at 9 a.m., and those of No. 1 group at about 9.30 a.m. The gun teams were heavily shelled, and had great difficulty in digging in. The positions were finally completed by 10 a.m., and the guns laid ready to open fire to cover the advance of the 4th Australian Division to the Green line, the final objective for the day. This attack was timed to begin at 3.10 p.m. During the five hours the gunners had to wait they were able to build up a large supply of ammunition. No praise is too great for the n.c.o.'s (especially Corp. J. Fisher) and men who went backwards and forwards through the enemy barrage, some as many as six times, to get the ammunition forward.

At midday Lieut. A. H. Preston was killed, the Corps thereby losing one of its bravest officers, one who had served from the landing at Gallipoli, who had won his commission in the field for gallantry and who for his distinguished conduct during the Battle of the Somme had been awarded the Military Cross. Immediately Preston was killed, Corp. P. S. Bridson, who was with him, and who knew his plans, at once set to work to have them carried out, but was killed while visiting a gun position. Bridson was an Auckland boy of great promise. He was studying in England when war broke out, but immediately enlisted. He was posted to the 1st Machine Gun Company when it was formed at Moascar, and was placed in charge of the scouts. His work in the Armentières Sector in 1916 was very meritorious. He had a quiet, unassuming nature, was studious, tireless and fearless, and was always watchful to help his comrades. His death was deeply regretted throughout the whole Company. Capt. L. C. Chaytor came up to the position at 2 p.m. from the Group page 71Headquarters to take command of the group until Major Hardie's return.

The position taken up by the guns of the two groups was on the reverse slope of the Messines Ridge, from which the whole countryside beyond the German line was visible, a view that had been obstructed since the first month of the war by the formidable Messines Ridge, which now was ours.

At 3.10 p.m. the last phase began, and the barrage guns opened fire, forming a curtain beyond the Green line. From their elevated position the gunners could observe their fire, and cheered loudly when they observed a large body of retreating Germans receiving the full effect of it.

At 3.30 p.m. the Green line was captured, and the guns ceased fire, remaining ready to open in the event of the counter-attack developing. The guns remained in position until the 9th and 10th, when they were relieved by the 4th Company, and went back to rest. After ceasing fire at 3.30 p.m. on the 7th, there were many calls upon the guns by the infantry, and the results of the observed fire on the evening of the 7th, when the enemy collected to deliver his grand counter-attack, were phenomenal. Although the gunners cannot claim the whole honour of smashing the counter-attack so completely that it withered away before it reached our advanced lines, they can nevertheless say that their fire played a large part in producing the wonderful success.

Before dealing further with the barrage guns and the lessons learned during the attack, we will follow the action of the guns that were retained to assist the infantry battalions.

The two sections of the 1st Company allotted to the 1st Brigade moved forward and reached the Black line at 5.30 a.m. with very slight casualties. The guns were quickly dug in and an advanced Headquarters established. Telephone communication was opened between the guns and Headquarters, but as the day cleared visual signalling was carried on. Sergt. A. W. Brown was responsible for the 1st Company's communications, and deserves great praise for the manner in which he kept them up throughout the day. Private N. B. Balfour, another signaller, did very gallant work, but was unfortunately killed when mending a wire that had been page 72broken by shell fire. The guns of this Company successfully engaged numerous targets during the day with direct fire, and were able to assist the barrage guns to smash the enemy counter-attack that has been previously referred to.

The two sections of the 2nd Company detailed to assist the assaulting battalions of the 2nd Brigade moved forward across No Man's Land and entered the German front trenches close in the wake of the infantry.

Capt. Parks decided to keep his sections close up to the infantry, and justified his action by the extraordinary achievement of suffering no casualties during the forward movement. When the Blue line was captured, the guns were placed "in action," but did not fire. When the Brown line was captured, the guns went forward, and took up positions until the Purple line was captured, when two guns were taken forward to it. Immediately Messines was captured by the Canterburys, Capt. Parks pushed six guns beyond the village to bring direct fire to bear down the reverse slopes of the ridge, but the poor visibility prevented the guns firing for some time. At 6.15 a.m., when the atmosphere had cleared, the guns were able to engage a number of good targets with effect. Four captured guns were manned and brought into action, as a large quantity of German gun ammunition was handy. The spare parts of these guns had been destroyed, but fortunately there were no breakages. The guns were co-ordinately placed in the consolidation of the Yellow line and were able to join with the other guns when the enemy made his counter-attack.

The guns of the 3rd Company that were allotted to the 3rd Brigade were unfortunate. The gun attached to the 1st Battalion was smashed by a direct hit at Zero, and the whole gun crew were either killed or wounded. The gun team attached to the 4th Battalion was similarly knocked out of action when it reached the German front line. The guns attached to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions reached their objectives without casualties, and were placed in strong points selected by the Battalion Commanders. These guns were not called upon to fire. The reserve section remained at Brigade Head-quarters and was not brought into action.

The 4th Company took over the forward positions on the page 739th June, and the remaining Companies of the Corps went back to rest. On the 11th June the Australian Companies relieved the 4th Company, and it returned to a camp on the Bailleul-Armentiéres Road.

The work of the Corps during the Battle of Messines was very effective, and won high praise. The barrage had been well prepared and well carried out. Perhaps the quick response to the S.O.S. calls and the deadly havoc the responses caused was the most commendable work of the Corps, and did most to help establish the confidence of the infantry in the machine gun and the gunners.

The Companies of the Corps, with the exception of the Divisional Company, were not able to rest for long. The 4th Company relieved the 6th Motor Machine Gun Company in the Le Bizet sector on 12th June, and the 2nd Company and one section of the 3rd Company on the same day went forward to assist the 2nd Brigade and the 4th Battalion 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in the advance that was planned to clear the low-lying land north of the River Lys as far as La Basseville. On the night of 13th June these guns kept up a protective barrage as the infantry pushed forward, and were fortunate in escaping the effects of the heavy enemy bombardment that fell soon after the infantry advance began.

Throughout the day of the 14th the gunners maintained their positions, but were moved forward to again assist the advance planned for the 15th. The 2nd Company had heavy casualties on the 15th in consequence of the heavy enemy shelling, but maintained their positions. The situation having become more settled on the 16th, a defensive scheme was prepared, and after approval by Brigade, the guns were moved to the new positions.

The 1st Company relieved the 2nd Company on the night of the 18th/19th June, thus enabling the 2nd Company to go back for a complete rest.

The 3rd Company was again brought into the line on 17th June, and remained with the 1st Company until the 30th June, when they were relieved by the 4th Australian Company. The 3rd Company while in the line carried out extensive firing programmes, and was busily engaged against low-flying enemy aircraft. The improvised emplacements were gradually im-page 74proved so that when the Australian Company took over the sector there was a complete machine gun defence system.

The 1st July saw all the Companies of the Corps (except the 4th Company) out of the line, ready to enjoy two or three weeks of well-earned rest.

Capt. L. M. Inglis was wounded on 7th June, but rejoined 4th Company the day before it took over the Le Bizet sector. The machine gun defences of the new sector were not very satisfactory, and the living quarters of the gun teams were most rudimentary. The enemy had, in consequence of the Battle of Messines, withdrawn east of the River Lys in front of Le Bizet, which necessitated a complete reorganisation of the machine gun defence system. Capt. Inglis formulated a plan to the G.O.C. 4th Brigade to meet the situation, which was finally approved. One section was detailed as a group to cover the clearest approaches in the network of the old British and German front trench system. The other three sections became three groups in positions sited in the open country between the front and subsidiary systems, from which they could place a frontal overhead barrage on selected portions of the River Lys that ran between the enemy and British front lines along the whole Brigade sector, and also could form a line of self-contained strong points that would sweep the whole of the flat meadow country in rear of the front network of trenches.

The machine gun defence scheme formulated was somewhat unusual and novel, but justified, for three reasons:—

1.The River Lys ran along the whole of No Man's Land on the Brigade front, forming a natural obstacle. To cross the river the enemy would be completely exposed to our fire for an appreciable time.
2.The network of old British and German trenches in the forward area provided numberless covered approaches, and rendered almost ineffective the ordinarily used belts of fire.
3.The amount of field artillery supporting the Brigade was very small, owing to its presence being required elsewhere. This meant that the whole of the machine guns had to be sited to give effective support to the front line at the outset of a hostile attack. To pre-page 75serve the essential of defence in depth and to give the necessary support to the front line, there was no proper alternative to the scheme formulated.

The gunners did the whole of the work required to construct the new positions for the defensive scheme, and successfully concealed them and their approaches, which generally ran under cover of hedges or consisted of duckwalks carried on piles along existing drains. Alternative positions were also prepared, and the four groups were connected to Headquarters by telephone.

An exceptional amount of indirect fire was carried out, both by day and night during 4th Company's tour of duty in this sector. The readjustment of the enemy's line across the Lys had left him without covered communications to his forward positions. Many vulnerable targets including transport roads, dumps, light railways, lengths of trench in enfilade, and even some of his field batteries were within reach of the Company's guns.

The firing of the Company on Laundry Wood, near Frelinghem, provides a good exmaple of the effectiveness of concentrated machine gun fire. This wood was occupied at one stage by enemy light trench mortars, firing gas shells. Fourteen of the Company's guns that were within range of the wood simultaneously opened on it when the mortars began firing. The same process was repeated the following night, and after that no more trouble was experienced from Laundry Wood.

One section discovered an excellent night-firing position in a ditch behind a hedge, well out in the unoccupied river flats towards Frelinghem, from which harassing fire could be delivered. One very dark night, when Sergt. C. B. Stewart was carrying out a programme of harassing fire, a large enemy party, accompanied by a light machine gun, crossed the river and attacked Stewart's gun. The enemy machine gun was brought within about fifty yards of the gun when it opened fire—in the hope of knocking the gun out, preparatory to the attacking party rushing the position. The enemy gun opened slightly to the flank. Unfortunately for Stewart's team his gun was unable to swing round to engage the enemy, owing to a heavy beam planted on the right of page 76the gun as a traversing stop. The enemy's burst of fire missed the mark. Stewart thereupon got his team with gun and equipment away from the position. 2nd Lieut. B. P. Hopkins, on hearing from Stewart what had happened, immediately sallied forth with a party of gunners to attack the raiders, but they had made good their escape.

Stewart found a new position for his gun about a hundred yards away. Every time he commenced firing the enemy would shell the old position.

The period in the Le Bizet sector did not cost the 4th Company heavily in casualties, and was invaluable in affording the new men a great deal of experience in handling their weapons and in the construction of machine gun defences. A great deal of solid work had been put into the gun emplacements, living dug-outs and wiring. It was greatly regretted when the Company finally departed from the sector and left others to inherit the serviceable and comfortable defences that were the result of so much hard and solid work.

Before leaving the labours of 4th Company in Le Bizet sector the gallant conduct of Corp. Allan North should be recorded. An intersection relief was in progress one night when the Nieppe-Le Bizet Road was heavily shelled. One four-horse team of the relieving section was knocked out by 5.9 shell, and both drivers were severely wounded. North, who was in command of the subsection, handled the situation with complete coolness, he cleared the road, salved the harness and manhandled the wagon to a safer portion of the road, where the gear and equipment was transhipped. North's work was carried out under continuous heavy shell fire, and enabled the relief to be completed.

Before passing on to the next chapter, it is advisable to consider the main lessons learnt at Messines in connection with the working of the machine gun barrage. To enable this consideration the report made by Major R. D. Hardie, D.M.G.O., to Divisional Headquarters is reproduced.

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From the N.Z. Official War History. Vol. II] [Copyright

From the N.Z. Official War History. Vol. II] [Copyright

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Lessons Learnt at Messines
Being a copy of Major Hardie's Report to D.H.Q.

1.The co-ordination between barrage guns and groups was most satisfactory. There was, however, a slight lack of co-ordination between group commanders of barrage guns and guns operating with Brigades.

It is not considered that it would be preferable for Brigades to control all the machine guns covering their front. Barrage guns are best controlled by D.M.G.O. through group commanders in close co-operation with Brigades. Brigades should control only those guns going forward with the infantry and those co-operating immediately with the infantry. Brigade schemes should be known to all barrage group commanders to ensure complete co-operation.

In the Messines offensive it was found that some group commanders were ignorant of the Brigade scheme for guns operating with the infantry, and after the advance certain consolidating guns were detailed to take up positions which were occupied by barrage guns. This was soon rectified, but it would not have occurred had group commanders been in complete touch with Brigade schemes.

The machine gun scheme for both Brigade and barrage guns should be known to all machine gun officers.

3.The retention of a large number of guns for barrage purposes in a small area for a long period is not advisable unless the operation demands it. The decision should rest with the D.M.G.O.

The general rule for barrage guns should be to withdraw after their job has been carried out and the position is consolidated with the Brigade guns in position. A few guns might be left—say one-third: This however should rest with the D. M.G.O., and should depend on the situation. The guns left should be sufficient to put up a barrage and assist the Brigade guns in case of a counter-attack.

The casualties to personnel and guns which occurred amongst the barrage groups in the recent offensive, after their job had been successfully carried out, renders it inadvisable to keep barrage guns in position for a long period. The barrage guns could have been withdrawn after thirty-six hours.