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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter VII — La Basseville—Before and After — Period 1st July to 1st October, 1917

page 78

Chapter VII
La Basseville—Before and After
Period 1st July to 1st October, 1917.

The Companies of the Corps (with the exception of the 4th Company, which continued in the Le Bizet sector), remained out of the line until the 18th July. During this time they were able to recuperate, and spent the glorious summer days in recreation and training. On the 2nd July it was announced in orders that Major R. D. Hardie had been appointed Divisional Machine Gun Officer, an appointment that was thoroughly well earned and was popularly proclaimed by all ranks. More pleasing still was the announcement that this gallant officer had been awarded the first D.S.O. won by the Corps for his splendid work during the Messines offensive.

Although Major Hardie nominally remained in command of the Divisional Company, he became stationed at Divisional Headquarters, and the immediate command of the Company devolved upon Capt. L. C. Chaytor.

The 1st, 2nd and the 5th (Divisional) Companies moved into the line on the 18th and 19th July, and at once began active firing programmes, which were continued in co-operation with the artillery in preparation of the new offensive to be commenced at Ypres. The Division again occupied the line in front of Ploegsteert Wood, and to create a diversion was allotted the task of attacking and capturing the Village of La Basseville. The 1st Brigade had been allotted the task of the assault, and a machine gun barrage was arranged to cover the advance.

The attack on La Basseville, which was the right flank of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, was delivered firstly to improve our line, and secondly as a feint to delude the enemy into the idea that we were about to cross the Lys. This delusion was to entice the enemy to concentrate large forces of troops page 79and artillery opposite the portion of the line held by the New Zealand Division.

The Division was very poorly supported by the artillery, which, with the exception of a few batteries of 18 pounders and an odd 4.5 and 6in. howitzer, had gone north to assist in the preparations for the opening of the main battle.

This meant that the attack on La Basseville was an almost purely machine gun show.

The handling of the machine gun scheme was undertaken by G.O.C. 1st Brigade, instead of being co-ordinated in the normal manner by the D.M.G.O. At a conference held the day before the attack the Brigadier gave it as his opinion that after the village had been captured the enemy might be expected to counter-attack up to as late as 6 a.m., but if he failed to counter-attack by that time, nothing need be feared until the evening.

Two barrage groups of twelve guns each were formed; the left group under Capt. A. C. Finlayson, and the right group under Capt. L. C. Chaytor. The attack opened at 2 a.m., and the barrage guns commenced their work, the fire creeping forward at the rate of 100 yards every three minutes for the left group, and 100 yards every minute for the right group, until a point of 300 yards beyond the final objective was reached, when the fire became stationary.

At 2.35 a.m. the barrage guns ceased fire, remaining laid on their S.O.S. lines. The guns remained in position until 4.40 a.m., and were then withdrawn to Advanced Machine Gun Headquarters.

At 6.30 a.m., when the enemy began his unexpected counter-attack, which took back from us the gains we had won, the barrage guns were again sent forward, and continued in action until late in the afternoon, when they were finally withdrawn.

During the Messines offensive it was thought that the barrage guns had been kept too long in position after objectives had been gained, and that needless casualties had been sustained. It is probably correct that the guns remained too long in position at Messines, but it is certainly correct that the barrage guns should not have been withdrawn two and a half hours after Zero at La Basseville. The operation at page 80La Basseville was not a deep penetration that would disorganize the whole enemy defence system, and thus prevent an immediate counter-attack. The machine gun barrage groups are always well advanced, and are generally able to observe what is happening in front. They are peculiarly adapted for bringing down a sudden curtain of fire, and it seems impossible to understand why the groups were not kept in position throughout the day.

The first attempt upon La Basseville unfortunately did not succeed. It was captured and then lost, but on 31st July at the same hour as the great Third Battle of Ypres commenced, the Division again repeated the attack and won and held the village.

This operation was again dependent upon the support of machine guns. Major Hardie decided to employ forty-four guns to provide a creeping barrage to cover the advance and to protect the objective line after it was captured. Owing to the approaches from Warneton being suitable for an enemy counter-attack a larger number of guns were concentrated in that direction. The barrage guns were divided into two groups, the right group under Major J. H. Luxford comprised twenty guns, and the left group (which had to deal with the approaches from Warneton) comprised twenty-four guns under Capt. L. C. Chaytor. The plan on the opposite page illustrates the scheme.

The 3rd Company, which had been in rest since 1st July, came up to the line on the afternoon of 30th to form part of the right group.1

Zero hour was 3.50 a.m. on the 31st; the guns at once opened and for forty-eight hours from that time undertook what was probably the heaviest firing ever performed by the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps. No fewer than 600,000 rounds were fired in that period.

The infantry was very successful, and won the final objective in a brilliantly performed operation. After the gains were consolidated the guns ceased, but were soon answering an S.O.S. call. Throughout the day and the night that followed it, the warning flares from the front line burst in the

1 Major J. H. Luxford, who was wounded at Messines, rejoined the Company on 28th July.

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Machine Gun Scheme, La Basseville,31st July, 1917

Machine Gun Scheme, La Basseville,31st July, 1917

page break page 81air at frequent intervals, and each time the deafening crackle of the guns filled the air before the flares had disappeared.

The enemy artillery was very active, but its effort to silence the machine guns never succeeded. From the group positions, in old disused German trenches, the regular line of the enemy shells were seen to burst and gradually get nearer; at one stage they were only fifty yards from the right group; then, as if the hand of Providence had intervened, the shelling would cease. The most anxious time was when three low-flying enemy 'planes swept above the guns; it seemed certain that disaster would follow. The guns were all in action in response to an S.O.S. call, and most of them were boiling, throwing up the give-away column of steam. Soon afterwards the enemy put down a heavy barrage, but again failed to reach the groups. The large number of disused trenches in the vicinity had undoubtedly confused the airmen. The left group was worried for a while by shells of an 8-inch howitzer, which caused one gun to shift its position, but as most of the shells were "duds" no harm was done. At one stage eleven consecutive shells failed to explode. After daylight on 1st August the enemy gave up his attempts to dislodge our troops from the newly won line, and in consequence the guns had a very quiet day. The groups withdrew during the afternoon of 2nd August, and the various sections returned to their respective companies. The situation at this time had become clear, and the enemy was apparently resigned to the new line it had been forced to take up in consequence of the New Zealanders' attack.

It is interesting to record the eulogies on the machine gun work at La Basseville by the infantry, Major Urquhart and Capt. Gordon Coates especially making a point of informing the D.M.G.O. how splendidly the infantry had been supported.

Two enemy machine gunners, when questioned, stated that our machine gun barrage was so severe that they had been unable to get their gun into action. The infantry followed the barrage so quickly that they had no chance of stopping them. A very useful piece of information these prisoners gave was that the lifting of the machine gun barrage was not at once noticeable by troops taking cover; the lifting of an artillery barrage is at once noticed, because of the bursting shells, but page 82the noise of the machine gun barrage comes from the firing end and not from the landing end. It was owing to this that our infantry were into the enemy trenches before the Germans realised that the barrage had crept ahead.

About six weeks after the capture of La Basseville, Major Hardie met Sir Douglas Haig when he visited the Division in the Lumbres Area. When General Russell introduced Major Hardie as the officer responsible for the machine gun work at La Basseville, Sir Douglas said he had carefully noted the reports on the work of the machine guns in that operation, and considered it was worthy of "text book repetition." Speaking further, the Commander in Chief, after mentioning that machine gun development was only in its infancy, congratulated the officers and men of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps upon its excellent work at Messines and La Basseville.1

The Division now took the defensive, and extended their front towards the north by relieving the 3rd Australian Division beyond the Douve. The 4th Brigade and the 4th Company remained on the right sector (Le Bizet), the 2nd Brigade and 2nd Company on the centre sector, and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade and 3rd Company on the left sector astride the Douve. The Divisional front comprised newly gained ground, and in consequence the troops occupying the line were without the protection of a developed trench system.

The infantry and machine gunners, assisted by the engineers and pioneers, worked strenuously to get the front into a proper state of defence. The conditions during August became deplorable, owing to the stormy weather and heavy enemy shelling. The enemy artillery was in great strength, and in consequence of what was happening in the north, and not knowing whether some further move was contemplated in the south, the enemy became in such a state of nervous tension that for no apparent reason our positions were constantly subjected to hurricane bombardments. The machine gun defence was arranged in depth with groups of guns

1 The Staff Officers of the G.H.Q. Machine Gun Depôt at Camiers always quoted the organisation and magnificent support given by the guns of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps to their infantry in the Battle of Messines as an illustrative guide to students who attended courses at this school.

page 83placed to enable them to barrage in front of our forward posts. The Divisional Company was employed throughout August in the defence of the sector, and also undertook a number of organised firing schemes. The 2nd Company remained in the line until the 17th/18th August, when, on relief by the 1st Company, it returned to rest, shifting back to the pleasant surroundings of La Motte. The 3rd Company had an extremely arduous time on the forward slopes of the Messines Ridge down towards Warneton. The forward gun positions were practically isolated, and could not be visited by day as they were in full view of the enemy. No communication trenches had been constructed, so it became necessary for the forward and intermediate gun teams to remain in their positions for forty-eight hours at a stretch. The casualties were heavy, and the terrible climatic conditions increased the evacuations to hospital. The reserve section had to reinforce the depleted gun teams, and all spare men from rear Headquarters and the transport lines were requisitioned. The night barrage guns were busily employed on anti-aircraft work all day, as the enemy airmen became very active. Nearly every night they were called upon to cover the infantry; one night there was almost continuous fire for three hours. On the 16th August a great demonstration was planned to create a diversion, and the whole of the available guns of the Companies in the line were detailed to co-operate with the artillery in a concentrated bombardment of the enemy's lines. Although Lieut.-Col. Stewart, in "The New Zealand Division," at page 245, makes reference to the artillery on both sides remaining active, it is suggested that during the first two weeks of August the Division had its worst experience in France of enemy shelling without having the satisfaction of proper retaliation being administered. Day and night our positions were shelled, and the retaliation from our artillery was so meagre that it only seemed to accentuate the position. This fact, coupled with the uncomfortable conditions caused by the heavy rains, undoubtedly had an effect on the morale of the Division. The demonstration on the 16th August, however, restored the Division, and gradually thereafter the conditions improved, and the enemy quietened down.

Zero hour on the 16th was fixed for 4.45 p.m. The machine page 84guns opened with the artillery, and heavy firing was continued for sixty minutes by both, over 100,000 rounds being fired by the machine guns.

All the Companies of the Corps were away from the line by the 31st August, and on the move to the friendly back areas, where peace and quiet reigned for four happy weeks, while the Division prepared itself to deliver a further blow against the enemy.

While the other Companies were having their unenviable ordeal in the line, the 1st Company suffered a severe loss. About 2 a.m. on the morning of the 11th August the enemy night flying 'planes made a bombing attack against our back areas. Five bombs fell in the 1st Company's transport lines, two of which landed on stables, killing one man and fifty-two animals. Five men were wounded. This reduced the transport of the 1st Company to one horse and two mules. The ghastly spectacle the daylight revealed of mangled animals, twisted and contorted, was as horrible as is possible to be seen.1

Before passing on to the resting days of September, reference should be made to the splendid way in which the rank and file stuck to their job during the trying month of August. When the barrage guns were being taken back after their work at La Basseville had finished, the 3rd Company transport came along to Canpac Dump to load up the equipment; while one section was loading up, a number of shells fell near the dump, bringing down several trees across the road to the front and the rear of the waiting limbers. Sergt. W. Watkins gallantly organised a party to clear the obstruction, which he accomplished in spite of the continued shelling and enabled the limbers to get clear.

Corp. G. Fisher, of the Divisional Company, rendered valuable assistance when the guns of his Company were being taken out through Ploegsteert Wood on the 5th August, and were caught by the enemy shelling; with complete disregard for his own safety he returned through the shelled area and directed the gun teams along a route that brought them safely to the waiting transport.

During the time the 3rd Company was experiencing its difficulties, the casualties among the officers were heavy,

1 See photographs facing page 60.

page 85throwing much additional work upon the n.c.o.'s. Sergt. H. W. Price took charge of the group of six barrage guns that protected the strong posts held by the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and kept at his post for eighteen days without relief. During this time the guns were called upon to fire at frequent intervals. On one occasion there was constant fire for three hours. Price set a wonderful example to his men, and kept the group in a high state of efficiency in spite of the trying conditions. For his work at this time he was awarded the D.C.M.

The 1st. 2nd, 4th and Divisional Companies went back to the Lumbres area, where they remained until the 25th September, when they commenced their return march to the Ypres area, preparatory to again resuming offensive operations. The 3rd Company undertook the Second Army antiaircraft defences, and so enjoyed the work that it would have been happy to have continued it "for the duration." This Company was recalled to the Division on the 30th September, and after two days forced march rejoined the other Companies of the Corps at Goldfish Château, near Ypres.

The month's rest had worked wonders, and throughout there was a feeling of delight at the prospect of once more making an attempt to break the enemy lines and enable that mythical but much-vaunted force—"the Army of Pursuit"—to pass through.