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

Operation at Flers, 15th September, 1916

Operation at Flers, 15th September, 1916.

During the night the battle opened on our extreme left where the Fifth Army attacked and took the "Wunderwerck," a super strong point in the Hohenzollern line, so freeing the left flank of the Canadians and by 5 a.m. on the 15th the four tanks allotted to the New Zealand Division were moving out to show the way to the Infantry. The morning broke in perfect Autumn weather, a slight mist lying in the valleys, the two Battalions of the Second Brigade and the Rifle Brigade were waiting the signal in their assembly trenches. At 6.30 a.m. the engagement opened, the intensive bombardment, and the creeping barrage crashed out from thousands of guns of all calibres. The two New Zealand Battalions advancing in waves passed over the Crest trench without difficulty, later suffering considerable losses from machine guns in the Highwood, attained their objective beyond the Switch trench in 30 minutes and on time, but it was not until some hours later that they had completed the clearing out of desperately fighting fragments of the Bavarian Division who still clung to portions of the broken trench line. The Rifle Brigade was now pressing on to the second and third objectives.

At 6.45 a.m. the first of the walking wounded were filing into the bearer relay post at Thistle Dump, and were being directed on to the A.D.S. Stretcher cases coming down a little later were conveyed by wheeled stretchers or by horsed ambulances to Flat Iron Copse. The 2nd Otago Battalion had had heavy casualties, losing nearly half its effectives, and as their wounded began to come in, extra ambulance waggons were required at the A.D.S.

Before ten o'clock, the 3rd Battalion of the N.Z.R.B. had been held up by uncut wire in front of their sector of the Flers trench and a considerable accumulation of wounded was growing in a position in the rear of the right flank of the Division; the walking wounded coming straight back in line with the Flers-Longueval road to Green Dump had reported the matter. But just at this time the 41st Division had met also with opposition and heavy shell fire in or about the village of Flers, so that most the bearers of that division were withdrawn from Green Dump and moved forward to the south east of Flers. At 10.30 a.m. tanks came to the rescue of the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle page 199Brigade, and with their assistance our line was able to advance; the 1st and 2nd Battalions were already moving to the final objective, north of Flers—practically the whole of the second objective was now in our hands.

Wounded, lying and walking, were coming freely through the A.D.S., Lieut. Col. Murray had explored his front about this time, and found that as far as the Switch trench the ground was. practically clear of wounded of the 2nd Brigade and the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade with whose R.M.O., Captain Brown, N.Z.M.C. he was in touch. Captain Duncan, N.Z.M.C., of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion was wounded and had been evacuated. Green Dump was reported not busy and the Quarry A.D.S. practically clear of wounded. By noon it was becoming clear that the wounded of the remaining battalions of the N.Z.R.B. were not coming down at all freely, although all were now in the third line of the attack, and our right flank was well out beyond Flers. The enemy had put down a barrage in front of the Switch trench on the crest which it was very dangerous for bearers to pass through. It was also known that these battalions had sustained substantial losses. The A.D.M.S. now directed the A.D.S. parties to push the bearers ahead as far as circumstances would permit in order to clear this flank. By 1 p.m. it became known that the R.M.O. of the 1st Battalion, N.Z.R.B., Captain Bogle, had established his R.A.P. earlier in the day at a point south-west of Flers, that there was some congestion of wounded at this post and that some of his cases were coming through Green Dump and the Quarry A.D.S. Up to 2.30 p.m. approximately 500 British and 120 New Zealand patients had passed through the corps collecting station, wounded mainly from the 2nd Otagos, the 4th, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the N.Z.R.B. Captain Aitken, N.Z.M.C. was ordered to relieve Captain Duncan with the 2nd Canterburys. At about 3 in the afternoon the Flat Iron A.D.S. was heavily shelled—near 100 wounded were in or about the station at the time—some of our bearers were killed or wounded, and had it not been for the prompt action of Captain A, V. Short, N.Z.M.C., who rallied the bearers, and himself assisted in bringing the stretcher cases under cover, many more lives would have been lost.

By 5 p.m. the advance had ceased. Martinpuich and Coureelette had been carried by the Canadians and the Scottish Division on their right. Highwood had at last been cleared, but with grave losses to the 47th Division; the New Zealand and 41st Divisions were linked in a salient covering Flers, but Morval and Les page 200Boeufs, which were so important to the French, held out, the Guards losing heavily. Some of the objectives had been attained, not all, we had broken through three lines of defence on an average depth of one mile. The 24 tanks co-operating had met with some success. It was determined to push on with the attack the following day.

It had appeared to Lieut.-Col. Murray that the evacuation of wounded was proceeding satisfactorily; at 5 p.m. he reported that everything was going well and that he had succeeded in getting extra stretchers and blankets up to the R.A.P.'s on his front. He was quite satisfied that the 1st and 2nd Rifle Battalions were evacuating through Green Dump and that the 41st Division were attending to that flank through the A.D.S. at the Quarry. At 6 p.m., however, there was considerable congestion of wounded at Flat Iron Copse, evacuations were delayed by the supplies coming up to the front line through the narrow road from Mametz practicable for wheeled traffic as far as Thistle Dump; the wounded of the 47th Division were coming in freely; our A.D.S. was shared by that Division as it was on the route from the eastern corner of Highwood, where the Londoners had sustained very severe losses, and where their line joined the left of our division. The wounded from our right flank evidently were finding their way in to the 41st area but a few wounded from Captain Bogle's R.A.P., not yet definitely located, were coming into Flat Iron Copse. As evening drew on the bearers of No. 2 New Zealand Field Ambulance were showing signs of great fatigue: the day's work had been heavy and the carries long—the work of evacuation much hampered by the barrage on the crest, through which the bearers must pass as the communication trenches were so badly damaged as to be unsuitable for the carriage of stretchers—all work beyond the crest trench had to be done in the open. There had been some casualties: one bearer killed, several wounded. Lieut.-Col. Murray now requested the A.D.M.S. to send fresh bearers and more ambulance cars, and shortly after, three bearer sub-divisions from No. 1 Field Ambulance under Captain Mitchell, N.Z.M.C., reported for duty, with three motor ambulance cars and three lorries. And by half-past seven p.m., the bearer subdivisions of "A" and "B" Sections of the 3rd Field Ambulance, under Major Martin, N.Z.M.C, had orders to move up to Flat Iron Copse.

Rations and water were, by 7 p.m., on their way up to the front line. In Flers some wells had been located and in many of the German dugouts, bottles of soda water had been found. page 201Our water supply was carried up in petrol tins, it had been chlorinated in bulk in the battalion water carts. By 8 p.m. traffic was diminishing on the Mametz-Bazentin road, and the congestion of wounded at the A.D.S. was relieved. There was the usual call for extra stretchers at about 10 p.m., but as there was an ample reserve at Thistle Dump, and extra stretchers had already been sent forward to the R.A.P.'s it did not appear that there could be any serious shortage. By 11 p.m. the bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance had relieved the bearers at Thistle Dump and Major Martin now took command there as forward evacuating officer.

Evidently there was something wrong with our right flank evacuations as a message reached Lieut.-Col. Murray through the A.D.M.S. at about 11.30 p.m. originating from the 3rd Brigade Headquarters It read:—"3rd Brigade report large numbers of wounded at R.A.P. Carlton trench and elsewhere." To which the A.D.M.S. added:—"Send officer to Brigade Headquarters to investigate. Ensure that close touch is kept with R.M.O.'s and that R.A.P.'s are kept clear." Now the 3rd Brigade Headquarters had moved early in the morning to the junction of "Fat" and "Flag," trenches just in front of the R.A.P. where Bogle was, and it is assumed, and seems probable, that the report sent in by the 3rd Brigade refers to Bogle's post and not to the R.A.P. at Carlton trench.

The night was fairly quiet in the trenches; by midnight corps orders arrived for the operations on the following day, which were timed to take place at 9 a.m. on the 16th: a resumption of the attack at Les Boeufs and Gueudecourt to enable the cavalry to get through. Our Division with the 41st and 44th, were to complete the capture of the objectives allotted to them for the 15th. Tanks again would lead the way: one of the reasons for causing the tanks to lead off before the infantry was that they might avoid wounded men lying on the ground in their track; it was necessary to attach three men to each tank on the 15th for the purpose of shifting the wounded. Fortunately the tanks were very slow, advancing only 15 yards a minute on badly shelled ground. During the night, no doubt in anticipation of a break through, all first line transport moved up to Green Dump including that of the 3rd New Zealand Field Ambulance.

After midnight wounded were coming down in large numbers to the corps main dressing station. The New Zealand Section were working in shifts in the marquees allotted to them. All wounded were receiving A.T.S. injections, the necessary dressings and page 202splints were applied and such surgical interference was made as seemed urgently required. The patients were fed, warmed up and ultimately evacuated to the 36th and the 38th C.C.S., which had been cleared in anticipation. The D.D.M.S. earlier in the after noon had visited the New Zealand Section and expressed satisfaction with the arrangements made.

Shortly after midnight confirmation of the block on our right flank came through from the "A" branch of the 41st Division who reported that large numbers of New Zealand wounded were coming through their A.D.S. at the Quarry, Montauban, and they asked that New Zealand bearers be sent forward to assist with the evacuations. Col. Begg, who was holding one section in reserve now instructed the O.C. No. 3 Field Ambulance to send his "C" section bearers to the Quarry and by 2,35 a.m. on the 16th, Captain G. Robertson, N.Z.M.C., commanding "C" section bearers, had moved out and the A.D.M.S. of the 41st Division was advised of this move. Touch had been established with the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade and through the night, bearers from Thistle Dump were clearing their area, and an officer had been sent to Carlton trench to investigate conditions there, but at 4.30 a.m. the Rifle Brigade Headquarters now returned to Carlton trench, wired to say that so far no officer had reported to them. Colonel Begg, when made aware of this, pointed out the difficulties of getting messages through by hand and the very long delay so incurred, as, for instance, his message to Lieut.-Col. Murray, timed 11.25 p.m. "send officer to Green Dump" the reply to which did not get to Colonel Begg until 2 a.m. It seemed to Colonel Begg that I telephonic connection with the A.D.S. was eminently desirable as it would have saved much misunderstanding.