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

Operations on 16th September, 1916

Operations on 16th September, 1916.

The first New Zealand Brigade was entrusted with the task of completing the work of the division, and by 7 o'clock, the R.A.F. reported the Gird trench for which they were bound, to be not then occupied by the enemy. While yet in their assembly trenches the 1st Wellington Battalion met and repulsed a counter attack launched by the 6th Bavarian Division, and shortly after moved out to the assault of their objectives.

At 7.35 a.m. Lieut.-Col. Murray reported Carlton trench to be clear of wounded at 5 a.m. He had visited Thistle Alley which now became an advanced A.D.S. and had proceeded along the road to Longueval in order to ascertain if a better route page 203of evacuation could be devised, but he found the whole road to be under observation and subject to shell fire. He had sent Captain A. V. Short, N.Z.M.C. to Carlton trench; no wounded were found there: he also despatched a message to the 3rd Brigade Headquarters indicating the location of the Thistle Dump, A.D.S., in case they had any difficulty in evacuating wounded through Carlton. In any case before this time, say at 5 a.m., the bearers of "C" section, 3rd Field Ambulance had reached Montauban. It is easily understood that the bearers moving from Mametz to Montauban would be much delayed. The intense congestion of traffic on the road led to prolonged blocks; there were repeated delays, movement was impeded and for very long periods at a time ceased altogether, so that the time expended in traversing a few miles often ran into as many hours. By instructions of the 41st Division Medical Officers the New Zealand bearer subdivision were employed at the "Shrine" a small post on the Longueval-Flers Road, where they were in touch with Green Dump. But Green Dump was not a well defined locality, and Carlton trench had considerable length; part of the troops were in the trenches, part above ground. We have also seen that all the first line transport of the division was moving out to Green Dump during the night. Movement through the eastern end of Caterpillar Valley was slow, the ground soft, and in places very muddy. The valley was packed with artillery of all calibres constantly in action; the noise was very confusing. All these factors tended to beget misunderstandings and delays.

By 10 a.m. a very clear account of the medical situation on the right flank came to headquarters from the 2nd Brigade, who reported that Captain Bogle, R.M.O. of the 1st Battalion of the N.Z.R.B. had 120 stretcher cases in an exposed position about 650 yards west of the south end of Flers, near some old German dugouts, the position now definitely located by a map reference. Something of this had already been reported by the 3rd Brigade at midnight, and again at 6 a.m., but owing to a misunderstanding, two officers sent to Carlton trench by Lieut-Col. Murray did not report to 3rd Brigade Headquarters—not easily found, as they were in a deep dugout—but had reported to the 41st Divisional A.D.S. with the results already shown. Now bearers were asked for at a definite locality, the matter seemed clearer. The A.D.M.S. sent an officer to report to the 3rd Brigade Headquarters. This was done, and, promptly a small party of volunteers, mainly transport details, under Captain Grant, N.Z.M.C.—transport officer of the 3rd Field Ambulance, who had arrived at Green Dump—set out page 204with guides for Bogle's post; sometime later, the "C" section bearers of No. 3 Field Ambulance were withdrawn from the 41st Divisional A.D.S. and were instructed to clear Bogle's Post as expeditiously as possible.

By midday wounded were coming in freely to the A.D.S. at Flat Iron Copse: serious cases—mostly compound fractures and severe head injuries; the wounded of the previous day had shown a preponderance of machine gun casualties. Owing to the heavy barrage on the trench on the Crest, the work of the bearers was difficult, dangerous and slow, the ground was very badly cut up; the bearers were suffering casualties. Thistle Alley, the communication trench, leading to the Crest was heavily, shelled with H.E. and lachrymatory gas; a few shells containing what was deemed to be some other type of gas compelled the parties at the advanced A.D.S. to work in goggles and helmets for a time. By 1.30 p.m. stretcher cases were coming in from Bogle's Post to Thistle Dump, the A.S.C. party of No. 3 Field Ambulance having arrived. One of them acted as a guide for the bearers now sent forward from Thistle Dump, "though," as Lieut.-Col. Murray says in his diary, "evidently from the fact that the wounded of the 1st N.Z.R.B. were coming through [prior to this] our bearers were already in touch with this R.A.P." 50 details drawn from the reinforcements were now put at the disposal of Lieut.-Col. Murray as additional stretcher bearers to sweep the ground in front of and behind the most advanced R.A.P.'s.

Shortly after 2 o'clock, orders were issued cancelling all further movements of the 1st Brigade, the advance ceased; we did not attack the Gird system, but heavy trench fighting still persisted in attempts to clear a communication trench called Drop Alley, which marked our left flank, and which was still held by the Bavarians. By 3 o'clock the forward evacuating officer, Major Martin, had cleared most of the wounded from his front, but an impassable barrage had now fallen like a curtain on the Crest impeding the work of clearing Bogle's Post, which could not be resumed until the barrage lifted or until dusk. The Switch trench was very heavily shelled during this afternoon, all traffic had to pass over the spur of the main ridge, on which Crest trench and Switch trench were sited. The high ground was under observation by the Germans, our new communications were not as yet completed, the New Zealand Pioneers were engaged in the work of digging an avenue leading into our forward positions. The open ground over which the bearers had to carry was pitted by deep shell holes page 205closely set, so that the going, even in dry weather was very slow: the carry was nearly 3000 yards from Bogle's Post, which was extremely exposed. By 5 p.m. Major Martin reported to Lt.-Col. Murray, that he was in close touch with all R.A.P.'s and that with the exception of about 100 stretcher cases at Bogle's Post, all were fairly clear. Captain Brown, N.Z.M.C., R.M.O. to 2nd N.Z.R.B., was brought in about this time wounded, Capt. McCormack, N.Z.MC. of the No. 3 Field Ambulance relieved him, temporarily, and proceeded to his R.A.P. in a sunken road near the Flers trench.

We will now follow the advance of the 1st Brigade, this day accompanying the 1st Canterbury Medical detachment in the narrative of Capt. Johns, N.Z.M.C., the R.M.O. "The battalion got into action on a Saturday [September 16th], going through an enemy barrage which started as soon as we showed our noses over the crest of the hill. It was a perfect rain of shells, high explosives, which fortunately were very local in their effects and did not cause as many casualties as would have resulted had the Huns used shrapnel. They also turned machine guns on us as we got nearer the village. I followed the battalion up with the corporal medical orderly and my batman, and while we were patching up some of our wounded, we lost sight of the battalion. The ground was covered With dead and wounded New Zealanders and Germans, as our fellows of another brigade had attacked the previous day and cleared the Germans out of the village; we were supposed to be going up to relieve them. What between shell dodging and patching up wounded on the way, it was well on in the afternoon before we caught up with the battalion in Flers. The village was knocked to pieces. That night I got a sort of aid post fitted up near headquarters; our battalion had taken over trenches in advance of the village. We then had a good look round the village, nearly everyone was drinking soda water and smoking cigars, and bad collected some sort of souvenir. I got into the German doctor's dugout where I found cigars galore and several things that I wanted— drugs and dressings, any amount. These dugouts are great places, dug in some cases down to 100 feet below the surface and made jolly comfortable and safe from artillery fire."

As darkness came the bearers of "C" section No. 3 Field Ambulance under Captain Robertson finally reached Bogle's Post from Green Dump. They lost two men killed and eight wounded going up. There was a very large number of wounded collected about this post. Captain Bogle at the time when the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade was hung up the previous day—his own battalion being the last—received a large number of wounded from page 206the three battalions in front, the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st (his own) and was obliged to dress and tend these wounded where they had collected. Now it so happened that this locality, by reason of a small bank some 12 feet high and about 150 yards long running north and south, gave shelter from machine gun fire coming from the high ground on the left of our advance, and although the position looked out openly towards Flers, there was little fire coming from that direction, at least while the enemy were shifting their guns. There were a few dugouts in the bank, one of them had a sandbagged porch and had already been used by one of the German R.M.O.'s. Two trenches scored the bank at right angles, opening out on the post, both leading to Fish Alley, a name given by us beforehand, to the German communicating trench, which led from Flers trench to the Switch. Good cover for the Bavarians— as to the south, the ground rose sharply to the crest and there was protection under the bank from our fire coming from the south-westward—where our chief gun positions were—and as we have seen the hollow in which the post lay gave some protection to our own people. Here the wounded drifted or were carried all during the day and night of the 15th. Some of the walking wounded and a few stretcher cases found their way to Green Dump or Thistle Alley. The tendency for bearers or walking wounded would be to follow the direction of the Longueval-Flers road parallel to the bank, but some 600 yards away to the left of returning parties. The night of the 16th was extremely dark, most of the serious cases had been collected and were lying on stretchers about the post as there was not room enough in the dugouts to shelter them. As the 3rd Brigade was being relieved by the 1st Brigade, volunteers to carry stretchers were called for from the 2nd Battalion of the N.Z.R.B. now returning. All the wounded who were lying on stretchers were carried out, but many remained for want of more stretchers. While tending these wounded Captain Bogle was hit by a shell which burst immediately behind him, killing him instantly. His body lay that night at the post where he had worked so heroically for 36 hours, and which had now become his mortuary chapel. Captain Robertson remained on and later was joined by Captain Prior, R.M.O. to the 1st Otago Battalion. The slow evacuation of the wounded went on uninterruptedly, a fresh party of bearers had been despatched by Lt.-Col. Murray at about 9 p.m.; all the evening wounded had been coming in freely to Flat Iron, but some of the bearers from Bogle's Post took the Longueval-Flers road to their left returning. By 9.45 Lt.-Col. Murray reported that further parties were being sent on to Bogle's page 207Post and that he hoped to have the whole area clear by the morning.

That night, about the same time, the A.D.M.S. had decided to establish a new dressing station at Longueval in order to assist the parties coming down from our right flank positions in and in front of Flers; to this effect he instructed Lt.-Col. Hardie Neil, N.Z.M.C., to collect his bearers and to proceed to Longueval forthwith in order to establish himself there. Again the A.D.M.S. had occasion to stress the importance of having telephonic communication with the A.D.S. as much time was lost by messengers on foot who frequently went astray at night or were delayed by shell fire. Curiously enough, the same idea had occurred to General Sixte von Arnim commanding the Bavarian Corps at the Somme in June, 1916. In his report of that date he says:—"Telephonic communications also assumed great importance in consequence of the wide distribution of the medical arrangements. It is desirable that the regulations should emphasise the importance of having adequate telephonic communications between all medical units in the line so that these units are not overlooked until all the other telephone lines have been provided." In order to get over the difficulties of intercommunication runners from the A.D.S. at Mat Iron Copse were detailed to the Brigade Headquarters of the 3rd and 1st Brigades situated in Carlton trench.

At midnight a very heavy close barrage was put down along the crest from Delville Wood to Highwood which completely interrupted our evacuations from Bogle's post for four hours; the curtain, calculated to prevent the division from bringing up supplies and supports was, at least for bearers carrying wounded, impassable. The vicinity of Thistle Dump was drenched with lachrymatory gas and heavily shelled by large calibre guns searching for our batteries; a most unpleasant night for the bearer relay post; the weather, too had broken; occasional showers were falling; one of the horsed waggons was lying ditched by the roadside.