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The New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-1918


page 403

Prior to the British counter attacks of August, 1918, there was a six weeks period of semi-open trench warfare on the front held by the IVth Corps. On July 3rd, the New Zealand Division took over a new sector of defence in a maze of trenches between Gommecourt and Hebuterne, and became the centre division of the IVth Corps with the 42nd Division on our right the 37th on our left. General Russell moved into Headquarters at Couin, two miles north of Bus en Artois; the troops were billeted about Bayencourt and Coigneaux. The local tactical situation was as yet a defensive one. Our line was held in great depth, with outpost positions so sited as to give mutual support and well in advance of the main position which was on the heights of Gommecourt Ridge facing south-east towards Puisieux-au-Mont.

Fine weather and roads but little damaged by shell fire made for ease of intercommunication behind our lines and greatly facilitated the medical arrangements. No. 3 Field Ambulance took over an A.D.S. at Fonquevillers behind Gommecourt with a tent subdivision stationed at Bayencourt, the two connected by a car post at La Haie Chateau—midway between—on a good road. The chain of forward medical posts in the right subsector was based upon a bearer relay called Bull's Hotel in dugouts at the western extremity of Hebuterne which served the R.A.P. "Peryman's Post," in Hebuterne, by wheeled stretchers or hand carriage. A track called by us Pipi track, operable.by wheeled stretchers, led back over a distance of a mile and three-quarters to the car post at La Haie Chateau. In the left subsector there were two bearer relay posts, one, in Gommecourt to which Ford cars had access, and in front of it in an advanced bearer relay "Mathew" connecting up with the R.A.P. at Salmon Point about 1200 yards in front of Gommecourt. From "Mathew" a trench tramway was available but could not often be used on account of shell fire. Between Gommecourt and Hebuterne in a trench named Guiness by some bibulous division—whose trench names were variously representative of well known British liquors, rum, beer, gin, whisky and stout—the R.A.P. "Guiness's Post," was evacuated by "Stout" trench to the Gommecourt B.R.P.

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In such a labyrinth of trenches, the monstrous product of British and German industry expended during three years of underground warfare, there was little difficulty in finding suitable positions for R.A.P.'s

The network of defences in Gommecourt had served the Germans well in 1916, during the early days of the Somme offensive, as all our attacks failed to dislodge them from their positions, the most northern embraced by our lines of assault. After the first day the battle was broken off in this sector and it was not until Beaumont Hamel had been taken and the German retirement to the Hindenberg line had commenced in" 1917, that we entered into the Gommecourt fortresses. The lines of evacuation for wounded from our new sector were secure but as our outposts advanced, and that fairly rapidly, the R.A.P.'s were soon left far behind, so that towards the end of the month it became necessary to advance them to a closer proximity to our extended positions.

The M.D.S. opened by the 1st Field Ambulance was at Souastre about three miles west of Fonquevillers. The A.D.M.S. in his medical arrangements had provided for the administration of A.T.S. and the recording of casualties to be carried out at the M.D.S. exclusively. The divisional rest station under the 2nd Field Ambulance, at first established in tents and huts at Couin, moved later to Authie mill where it became the corps rest station commanded by Lieut.-Col. Murray, D.S.O., and accommodating about 150 patients in all. The medical tactical scheme included the selection of alternative posts in rear of our stations and detailed instructions to medical officers as to the action to be taken in case of a retirement and as to the alternative routes of evacuation for wounded already determined.

The early part of the month was chiefly taken up in nursing the influenza patients in the Isolation Camp: in all some 4000 cases were treated there during the summer epidemic.

Meanwhile our outpost line, far from adopting a passive attitude, was aggressively pushing out into the labyrinth of trenches which formed part of the old German front system of 1916. Our left battalion occupied a salient about half a mile deep, a situation which was rectified on 9th July by the 3rd Brigade in a successful operation; the casualties treated at the A.D.S. were one officer and 40 O.R. But the number of wounded passing through our posts was below the average of the previous month and, had it not been for the constant trench fighting of the division, would have been unusually small. Hostile artillery fire page 405appeared to be below normal and although the German outposts resisted vigorously enough at times, their policy was in the main a defensive one.

On the 15th a more important advance under barrage was made by the 3rd Brigade between Rossignol Wood and a point just in front of Hebuterne, known as "Fusileer" trench. Special preparations were made by the A.D.M.S. for this operation: the bearer relay at Bull's Hotel was strongly reinforced by bearers from No. 1 Field Ambulance and the car posts doubly manned. By arrangements with the officer commanding the Corps "shock centre" provision was made for the administration of preserved blood at the A.D.S. at Fonguevillers. The attack was wholly successful and carried our outposts much beyond the objectives originally traced. Our casualties were light: 3 officers, and 66 O.R., including 8 wounded Germans, passed through the M.D.S. during the day. The following morning the Germans counterattacked but without effect: they lost 39 prisoners and 15 machine guns. We had singularly few casualties, the wounded coming down in very good condition on account of the satisfactory chains of evacuation and the intensely warm weather which did much to minimise shock.

The very day that we engaged in our modest trench offensive, the final German offensive in the Great War was being delivered against the French bastion at Rheims. It failed: and on the 17th Foch's winning campaigns opened with vigorous assaults on the Marne salient by three French Armies reinforced by United States and British Divisions. The 15th, 34th, 51st and the 62nd British Divisions under our old commander, General Godley of the XXIInd Corps, with the New Zealand Cyclist Battalion won honourable distinction in these battles which were to convert the German advance into a disastrous retreat.*

Already on our front there were suspicious signs of a German withdrawal: explosions heard on the 20th in Rossignol Wood seemed to indicate the blowing up of dugouts; other unusual movements in the enemy's lines were observed. As yet, the prospect of a German retirement on a large scale did not seem at all clear, but it was imperative to keep close observation on any local withdrawals; to which end, cooperating with the 42nd Division, we pushed on, meeting with some resistance. We had 76 casualties through the A.D.S. as the result of an advance of several hundred yards which penetrated the communication trenches in front of Hebuterne and in Rossignol Wood, now definitely abandoned by the Germans. The advanced party of the page 406317th Regiment of the 80th Division, United States Expeditionary Force joined us the same day and by August 4th, two stout battalions of Yankees with their machine guns were sharing our trenches. Colonel Rhoades of the United States Hospital Corps, divisional surgeon of the 80th Division, visited our medical posts and sent us 4 medical officers and 4 N.C.O.'s to be attached to the A.D.S. at Bayencourt for a period of instruction. Again on the 24th and 25th July we pushed our front line forward, gaining prisoners, machine guns and trench mortars, while the wounded tended in the M.D.S. numbered about 150 up to midnight on the 26th. These rapid advances, which were continued during the first weeks of August with little loss, necessitated a corresponding advance of the R.A.P.'s as they were now, in some instances, 1500 yards behind our front line, but they were not pushed forward until clear signs of a German withdrawal were evident.

The 8th of August 1918, is stated by Ludendorf in his Memoirs to have been the black day of the German armies, and on the evening of that day he realised that further offensive operations could not be undertaken by the Central Powers. The failures at Amiens, in Flanders, on the Marne, and at Rheims and the vigour and skill of the French counter-offensives had used up most of the German Reserves. The locking up of many good divisions in the Marne salient negatived the original plan of a resumption of the Flanders battle, and the surprise attack, south of the Somme, conducted by the Canadians, Australians and British Divisions with 400 tanks on the "Black" day was a victory of such magnitude as to be decisive and final in the Amiens battle. German morale was weakening, their effectives dwindling, while the Allies, daily growing stronger by the accretion of American Divisions, had already attained numerical superiority. To their greater numbers were added preponderance of artillery and a new weapon, the light tank, which was the most effectual counter to barbed wire entanglements. And foremost in the causes leading to a German débacle was the united command, the harmonious rhythm of the Allied attacks, making pressure at many points so timed as to harry the German reserves from one field to another, only to engage breathless in a lost encounter. It was already the twilight of the Gods—the great Valhalla of the Wotan, Siegfried, and Brunhilda lines was still untouched—but Foch had foretold its doom. Ludendorf frankly advised Peace negotiations, but Hindenberg, still hopeful, determined to shorten his line by falling back behind his steel and granite walls. The battle of the Roman roads page 407east of Amiens had cleared the Paris railway, but brought our troops to the threshold of the old German lines of 1916 and in front was a wide crater area unsuitable for tank manoeuvres. General Foch desired the British Commander in Chief to clear the German salient south of the Somme so as to assist General Mangin in his operations against the left of the Aisne heights and the St. Gobain massif; but Field Marshal Haig, pursuing his own plans, determined to attack north of Bapaume in country favourable to the tanks, so as to turn the old battlefields of the Somme from the north-west above Bapaume. The success of this campaign would give effect to the desires of Foch; as Bapaume once held by us, the line of the Somme south of Péronne would be turned. And Haig's strategic aims were more ambitious still: he intended, if the preliminary battle of Bapaume succeeded, to storm the Wotan line in front of Arras and to turn the right of the Siegfried positions, whose southern extremity, the St. Gobain fortress defied Mangin in his efforts to envelope the Aisne heights.

The battle of Bapaume was the first great trial of strength of the rallied British Armies and is stated to have been the most anxious, critical and hard fighting battle in the whole war. Mangin had prepared the way by his turning movement of the 18th, 19th and 20th August between Compiegne and Soissons which was calculated to draw German reserves in his direction, but a powerful group of German Divisions, warned betimes of our intentions, stood ready to meet the British advance. The first objective of the Third Army was the Arras-Albert railway.

On the 19th the A.D.M.S. of the New Zealand Division received warning orders for the forthcoming attack. A conference of A.D.'sM.S. of the IVth Corps was held the same day at the office of the D.D.M.S. and when Col. McGavin returned to the Division he summoned his field ambulance commanders to confer. The whole IVth Corps, now consisting of five divisions by the recent addition of the 5th and 37th, would advance to the Ancre Valley from Achiet le Grand to Miraumont. General Russell's orders were for the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade to attack through Puisieux au Mont to Beauregard on the road to Miraumont where our right would cooperate with the 42nd Division in capturing a high point known as the "Dovecote" and push our patrols as far as the river above Miraumont. To the north, passing through the 37th Division the 5th Division on our left and the 63rd Division continuing the line northwards, would press south-eastwards so narrowing the New Zealand front until page 408the 5th Division and the 42nd junctioned, at which time our Division would be withdrawn into Corps reserve. The maximal advance of the New Zealanders would hardly exceed two and a half miles as this preliminary operation was strictly limited in its objectives. The anticipated casualties would not be heavy.

The medical arrangements made by the A.D.M.S. were these: No. 1 Field Ambulance at the M.D.S. in Souastre would continue its duties; No. 2 Field Ambulance at Couin with one officer and 150 Infantry attached as bearers would be in divisional reserve and would receive all sick but would evacuate such as would not be fit under 24 hours; No. 3 Field Ambulance, with headquarters at Bayencourt, would be responsible for forward evacuation. All the bearers of No. 1 Field Ambulance were at the disposal of Lieut.-Col. Hardie Neil. All the motor ambulances less two, with the whole of the horsed ambulance waggons of the Division under the Quartermaster of the 3rd Field Ambulance—Captain Finlayson, N.Z.M.C.—acting as Transport Regulating Officer, were available for evacuations and were to be parked at Souastre. Inter-communication would be maintained by detailing one N.Z.M.C. runner to each R.M.O. and posting motor cyclists at the M.D.S., the A.D.S. at Bayencourt and at "Perryman's Post," now an A.D.S. in Hebuterne, lately a bearer relay post. Telephones connected the A.D.M.S. with the M.D.S. and the dressing stations at Bayencourt and Fonquevillers but the latter was to be handed over to the 5th Division at two hours following zero time, when A.D.S.'s would be established in Gommecourt and at Bull's Hotel in Hebuterne. The car posts would be correspondingly advanced at the same time. The usual provisions for walking wounded were to be made by marking tracks and by installing separate refreshment and dressing accommodation for their reception, while the horsed ambulance waggons were available for their conveyance from the A.D.S.'s to the M.D.S. At the M.D.S. a four hourly report was to be furnished showing the numbers of wounded passed through and the usual returns were to be compiled. The M.A.C. would evacuate the M.D.S. only. These simple divisional arrangements form a contrast to the elaborate corps schemes of the battles of 1917, but we were approaching a period of open warfare in which divisional medical schemes would give greater scope for individuality and self-reliance.

On the night of the 20th/21st, the concentration of the 5th Division behind our lines and the mounting of our attack proceeded without hitch. The ambulance transport, by direction, did not concentrate until after dark as all movements by daylight page 409had been strictly guarded so as not to attract the attention of enemy aircraft. The A.D.S. at Fonquevillers was handed over to the 5th Division that night instead of the following morning, as at first intended, and an A.D.S. was established in Gommecourt.

* Colonel Begg still attached to the XXIInd Corps as D.D.M.S.