The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Chapter X. The Third Battle of Ypres
Chapter X. The Third Battle of Ypres.
Part 1.—Digging in the Ypres Salient.
First period—Appreciation—Second period—Appreciation—Condition of the troops.
After the exhausting tour in the trenches of the Warneton Sector, the Brigade rested in the camps in the neighbourhood of De Seule until the 27th August, on which date a move was made to the Waterlands-La Creche Area, north of Steenwerck, where we became reserve Brigade to the New Zealand Division. On the 30th a further move was made to the Borre Training Area, near Hazebrouck, the 1st Battalion being quartered at Caestre, Brigade Headquarters and the 2nd Battalion at Borre, the 3rd at La Creche, and the 4th at Pradelles. By this time the men, whose cheerfulness had never entirely deserted them, were beginning to regain their wonted appearance of physical fitness, and were looking forward to a comparatively enjoyable period of training. Their hopes, however, were doomed to disappointment, for a long month's digging under fire, and mostly by night, was about to commence.
On September 1st, the 2nd and 4th Battalions moved by motor-'bus to the Xth Corps Area to bury cable for the Second Army in the vicinity of Zillebeke, south-east of Ypres, going under canvas at Ridgewood Camp, near Diekebusch Lake. Three days later the 1st and 3rd Battalions went by 'bus to the 25th Divisional Area near Ypres, for cable-burying under the Director of Signals, 1st Anzac Corps. These battalions went into camp, the 1st at Chateau Segard, and the 3rd at Swan Chateau, and were employed laying cables between Hooge and Ypres.
The 2nd and 4th Battalions returned from the Xth Corps Area on September 16th, moving from Ouderdom to Caestre by rail, and thence by road to billets in the Vieux Berquin Area, the 2nd Battalion at Stein-Je and the 4th near Doulieu. They were followed on the 19th by the 1st and 3rd Battalions, page 228the former going into billets at Vieux Berquin, and the latter at Outtersteene.
As continuous work at digging hardly tends to the maintenance of general military efficiency, that "little leaven," the Brigade School, continued in operation. Remaining with Brigade Headquarters at Vieux Berquin and later at Brandhoek, it commenced a new term under Capt. D. C. Bowler, and through it small drafts from the battalions, generally the less fit men, were passed from time to time.
The following letters of appreciation and thanks were received and their contents communicated to the troops of the Brigade:—
From the G.O.C., Xth Corps:
"It is difficult for me adequately to express to you my gratitude for the splendid work of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade, and the IInd Anzac Cyclists, in burying cable on my Corps front during the last three weeks. Their achievement in digging over 13,000 yards of cable-trench, laying the cable, and banking it from three to four feet, is an extraordinary one. The keenness they displayed is universally admired, and their skill is acknowledged to be an example to any troops. Will you please tell these gallant men how much, while I deplore the casualties they suffered. I appreciate both their valuable work and their soldierly spirit."
From the Second Army Commander:—
"The Army Commander wishes to place on record his appreciation of the work done by the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade in burying cable to assist in yesterday's operations.* The success of the operations was in great measure due to the good communications established, to attain which results the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade played such an important part."
After a short rest the Brigade resumed its arduous labours in the Ypres Salient. On September 21st the 2nd and 4th Battalions moved up again by motor-'bus, the former being attached to the Xth Corps Signals, and going into camp near Dickebusch Lake; the latter, working for the Ist Anzac Corps, being quartered in a camp close to Ypres. On September 26th the 1st and 3rd Battalions went up by road and rail via page 229Bailleul and Poperinghe. They occupied bivouac camps, the 1st at Watou Camp, the 3rd at Hill 55, and were employed burying cable for the IInd Anzac Corps in the Vth Corps Area in the vicinity of Ypres. From the 2nd of October, the 2nd and 4th Battalions were employed with the IInd Anzac Corps, the former constructing gun-emplacements for the heavy artillery, the latter being engaged at road-making. The work went on steadily until October 7th, on which date we were relieved of this duty by the 1st Brigade and commenced preparations for active operations in the line.
In addition to miscellaneous work, the four battalions had within the whole period laid 50,000 yards of cable seven feet deep, and 10,000 yards three and a half feet deep, and had thrown up 30,000 yards of banking three to six feet high. All the cable used had to be carried by the men for an average distance of a mile.
The following communications were now received and passed down:—
From A. D. Signals, to Headquarters, Ist Anzac Corps:
"I should like to bring to the notice of the Corps Commander the splendid work accomplished by the battalions of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade during the time they have been employed in burying cable for this Corps.………All battalions have had an exceptionally heavy task to perform, and have got through the digging at what must have constituted a record pace. The work has frequently had to be carried on under heavy shell-fire, but the completion of each day's or night's task has never failed.
"I am particularly indebted to the commanding officers and other officers of the battalions for the great personal interest they have taken in the work, especially as regards the preliminary reconnaissance of the routes to be dug. These officers have always surveyed the routes themselves in daylight, in addition to going up with the working parties at night, and have thus given the greatest possible assistance to the Signal Officers responsible for the construction of the lines. I much regret the casualties these battalions have suffered during the time they have been working for this Corps."
From Lieut.-General Birdwood, Commanding Ist Anzac Corps, to Headquarters, IInd Anzac Corps:
"In forwarding to you the enclosed memorandum by the A. D. Signals of this Corps, I would like to express my grati-page 230tude for the invaluable services of the battalions of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and my admiration of their gallantry and devotion to duty."
It would be idle to pretend that the prospect of an engagement within a few days could be regarded with absolute equanimity. Battalion commanders knew only too well how much their men were in need of both rest and training. After the three weeks spent in the Warneton Sector under appalling conditions they had had a few days' respite; but since September 4th they had been almost continuously employed at the trying and wearing work of cable-burying and road-making, well up in the Ypres Salient. These duties had entailed long marches over difficult shell-hole country; and most of the work had been done at night, and sometimes in gas-masks under shell-fire. Exactly 200 casualties had been sustained. The weather, at first fair, became bitterly cold, and as the men had neither blankets nor warm underclothing, they had got little sleep. Throughout the period they had literally slaved at their tasks, and now they were almost worn out and certainly unready for immediate combative action.
It was expected that we should be taking part in the final assault on the Passchendaele Ridge on the 12th, following upon the capture of Bellevue Spur, which formed part of the general objective of a preliminary attack to be launched on the 9th. That would give little enough time for preparation and still less for reconnoitring, but in the sequel the conditions were to prove much more difficult than those now anticipated.
* 20th Sept. See page 233.
Part 2.—Progress of the British Offensive Operations.
Opening of the summer campaign—First phase, July 31st—Second phase, August 16th—Third phase, September 20th—New Zealand Division at Gravenstafel, October 4th—Attack continued, October 9th.
It will be remembered that Sir Douglas Haig's plan of operations for 1917 comprised a spring campaign against the Ancre-Scarpe Salient and the Vimy Ridge, to be followed by a great blow on the Flanders front in the summer and autumn. The latter thrust was to be carried out by Gough's Fifth Army, page 231supported on the right by the Second Army under Plumer, and on the left by the First French Army under Anthoine. Its object was to secure the high ground stretching north-east from Wytschaete to the Ypres-Menin Road, and thence past Passehendaele to Staden on the Ypres-Thourout-Bruges Railway. The capture of this rising ground would pave the way for a later advance on Roulers and Ghent, thus menacing the enemy's positions towards Lille and south of it, and possibly also turning his right and forcing him to give up Ostend and Zeebrugge.
We have seen that the spring operations were successful, and that the Battle of Messines had resulted in the capture of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, a necessary preliminary to the major attack towards the north-east.
The summer campaign proved to be a long and bloody struggle. Opening on July 31st, 1917, it continued almost without interruption till the end of the first week in November, and is officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
In the first phase of the battle the Fifth Army attacked on a frontage of over seven miles from the Zillebeke-Zandvoorde Road to Boesinghe, but the subsidiary attack by the Second Army on the right, together with the covering movement of the French on the left, extended the frontage from the Lys River opposite Deulemont northwards to beyond Steenstraat, a total distance of more than fifteen miles. The general objective was the crest of the high ground east of Ypres.
On July 31st, the first day of the battle, the most stubborn fighting took place in the vicinity of the Ypres-Menin Road where it crosses the crest of the Wytschaete-Passchendaele Ridge, this being the key to the enemy's position. Nevertheless the British troops pressed steadily forward through Shrewsbury Forest and Sanctuary Wood and captured Stirling Castle, Hooge and the Bellewarde Ridge. The railway- bank running towards Roulers, as well as the western outskirts of Westhoek, was also taken, but on the morning of August 1st the enemy was still clinging to Clapham Junction, Inverness Copse and part of Westhoek. Farther north the British advanced with greater ease, securing the Steenebeek ahead of Pilkem, and taking Alberta Farm, St. Julien, Pommern Re-page 232doubt and Pommern Castle. The French on the left, keeping step with our advance, took Bixschoote and Kortekeen Inn. The Second Army on the right had also progressed well in spite of fierce resistance, Hollebeke being secured by English troops, and La Basse Ville by the 2nd Wellington Battalion of the New Zealand Division after a brilliantly-conducted fight.
Unfortunately, heavy rain came on during the afternoon, and continued for several days without cessation, and this, owing to the boggy nature of the soil, brought the first phase of the Third Battle of Ypres to a close. The results, however, were so far quite satisfactory, the most important being the capture of the whole of the ridge that had for so long over- looked the British positions in the Ypres plain.
The second phase opened on August 16th, on a front extending from the north-west corner of Inverness Copse to the junction with the French south of St. Janshoek. The French were to co-operate by taking the Bixschoote Peninsula, a tongue of slightly-rising ground almost surrounded by an extensive flooded area. In this our Allies were entirely successful, and on our own left the British captured Langemarck, but elsewhere little progress could be made against the concrete forts situated in the midst of seas of mud, and protected by the swollen Hanebeek and Zonnebeke streams. It was evident that the enemy was tenaciously clinging to Nonne Boschen, Polygon, Glencorse and Inverness Woods, in order to safeguard Passchendaele Ridge, and though the British penetrated as far as the Racecourse in Polygon Wood they were unable to make good their hold at this point. Once again bad weather came on and, continuing for the remainder of the wettest August that had been known for many years, brought about a compulsory termination of the second phase of the great battle.
In making preparations for the third attack, due consideration was given to the stubborn resistance that was being maintained by the enemy on the extreme right of the Fifth Army front, and it was decided to extend the left of the Second Army northwards, the attack on the high ground crossed by the Menin Road being entrusted to General Plumer as a self-contained operation in conjunction with the advance of the Fifth Army farther north.page 233
The weather conditions had so far improved, and the necessary rearrangements and preparations were so well advanced, as to permit of the reopening of the battle on September 20th. Ill-luck, however, still followed us, for it rained steadily throughout the night of 19th/20th, but nevertheless the attack went well. On the Second Army front the woods north of the Ypres-Comines Canal, the Tower Hamlets Spur, Inverness Copse and Veldhoek were taken. Australian troops captured Glencorse Wood and Nonne Boschen, the hamlet of Polygonveld, Black Watch Corner, and the western portion of Polygon Wood. On the front of the Fifth Army our troops captured Zonnebeke, Bremen Redoubt, and Zevenkote, and everywhere gained their objectives. During this and the following days the enemy launched an unusually large number of counter-attacks, but with the exception of temporary successes at isolated points they were repulsed with great loss.
A renewal of the advance of the Second and Fifth Armies commenced on the morning of September 26th. Australian troops carried the remainder of Polygon Wood and established themselves beyond the Becelaere-Zonnebeke Road; and British battalions captured Zonnebeke village and church, as well as strong points on both sides of the Wieltje-Gravenstafel Road. Fierce and repeated counter-attacks along the whole line of our new positions engaged attention until October 4th, when the advance was once more renewed, again in rain, after a spell of fine weather. The frontage of the attack extended some eight miles from a mile south of the Menin Road to the Ypres-Staden Railway. Reutel, Joist Farm and Noordemd- hock were captured by British regiments. Australian troops stormed Molenaarelsthoek and Broodseinde, and established themselves well to the east of the crest. The 1st and 4th Brigades of the New Zealand Division carried Gravenstafel, swept the enemy from a network of trenches and strong points on the Gravenstafel Spur, and took 1,200 prisoners from no fewer than four different Divisions. It transpired that in addition to the two German Divisions already in line in this sector, the enemy had brought up three fresh Divisions for the purpose of making an attack in strength, but our own assault anticipated his intended attack by ten minutes.page 234
The weather continued bad, and the ground was in a deplorable condition; but balanced against this were the symptoms of confusion and discouragement in the ranks of the enemy, and the necessity of continuing operations in order to hold his reserves on this front with a view to assisting the French in their attack in the neighbourhood of Malmaison on the 23rd. It was therefore decided to deliver the next combined French and British attack on October 9th.
Notwithstanding heavy rain on the 7th and 8th, the advance commenced at 5.20 a.m. on October 9th as planned. French and British troops captured Koekuit, Veldhoek, Mangelaere, and St. Janshoek, and established themselves on their final objectives on the outskirts of Houthulst Forest. The British troops on the left were successful in taking Poelcappelle, and on the extreme right retook Reutel and captured Judge Cottage, though they could make no headway against Polderhoek Chateau, a formidable strong-point upon which, some two months later, the New Zealand troops were to try their skill with little better result.
Opposite Passchendaele the success achieved fell far short of expectations. Here the 66th and 49th Divisions operated, their section of the objective being the high ground on both sides of the Ravebeek, including Bellevue Spur. The troops of the 66th progressed satisfactorily, their advance being carried well beyond Keerselaarhoek, but the 49th on their left got no further than the first objective. The 66th, being thus exposed, were enfiladed from Bellevue, and had to fall back to a line in prolongation of that reached by the 49th. This was some 500 yards in advance of the jumping-off positions and ran roughly from the Ravebeek, through Marsh Bottom, Peter Pan, and Yetta Houses, joining up near Adler Farm with the line of the Corps on the left, where progress had been no more extensive.page 235
Part 3.—Passchendaele, October 12th.
Attack to be continued, October 12th—General objective—New Zealanders and Australians put in—2nd Brigade and the New Zealand Rifle Brigade detailed for the attack—Brigade objectives— Concentration—Into assembly positions—Attack opens— An early cheek—Wire, concrete forts, and machine-guns-Stubborn fighting—4th Battalion troops reinforce—3rd Battalion companies come np— Line stationary except on the left—Consolidation ordered—1st Battalion up to support—Position—Situation on the flanks—Counter-attack—General conclusions— Stretcher-bearers and wounded in the bogs of Passchendaele— Casualties—Brigade Pack Train.
Prior to the action of the 9th, plans had been drawn up for a general attack on the 12th, which again was to extend from the Ypres-Roulers railway to Houthulst Forest. These plans, with such modifications as the new situation demanded, were now adhered to, and accordingly the relief of the 66th and 49th Divisions by the 3rd Australians and the New Zealanders commenced on the 10th. The New Zealand Division took over the left sector, and was thus on the extreme left of the Second Army. On its left it had the 9th Division of the XVIIIth Corps, Fifth Army.
The southern boundary line of the sector over which the Division was to advance passed some 500 yards north-west of Passchendaele Church, and the final objective was about 2,500 yards from our front line posts. Thus the capture of the village itself was included in the task set the 3rd Australians, while the main objective of the New Zealanders was the spur about Goudberg.
The 2nd Brigade and the New Zealand Rifle Brigade were detailed to carry out the attack opposite our Divisional front, the former on the right and the latter on the left.
In our own Brigade sector the capture of the successive lines, the Red, the Blue, and the Green, was allotted to the 2nd, 3rd, and 1st Battalions, respectively, and the attack was to he carried out on the "leap-frog" system. The 4th Battalion was to follow in rear of each battalion in succession, rendering assistance in the advance where necessary, and forming defensive flanks where these should be required.* On our page 236left the Black Watch were to advance with us to the first objective, the Seaforth Highlanders to the second, and the 6th Royal Scots to the third. The corresponding units on our right were 2nd Otago, 1st Otago, and 1st Canterbury.
During the morning of October 9th, in miserably wet and cold weather, the Brigade concentrated at "X" Camp, near St. Jean, north-east of Ypres. The Brigadier, in company with his Brigade Major and the four battalion commanders, went up to the 146th Brigade Headquarters at Gallipoli for information, and then reconnoitred the front line to be taken over. It was now learned that in the recent operations the 146th Brigade had not been able to reach the first objective. The ground conditions were awful beyond description, enemy machine-guns and snipers kept up a continuous fire on the forward positions, and the troops in the line were completely exhausted.
From the camp at St. Jean, where they had been subjected to shelling and bombing, especially during and after the action of the 9th, the battalions of the Brigade moved up on the evening of the 10th to the relief of the troops of the 146th Brigade. This in itself was no easy undertaking. The 4th Battalion, which had been detailed to hold the front line posts, had to march over five miles before reaching its destination, and the latter part of the march, carried out in pitch darkness, Was an ordeal of the utmost difficulty, for there were neither tracks nor "duck-walks," and shell-holes and mud seemed to cover the face of the earth. Lieut.-Col. Puttick personally taped routes as far as that could be done under the conditions prevailing, but at the most optimistic estimate he did not expect to get more than three-fourths of his men into position before daybreak. The companies, however, completed their movements by means of compass-bearings carefully prepared and checked beforehand, and so satisfactorily, in the circumstances, was direction maintained that the front line of posts and shell-holes was sufficiently secure by 1 a.m. on the 11th, though the adjustment of the dispositions could not be completed until the evening. As an indication of the general confusion that reigned in the sector, it is sufficient to mention that the 4th Battalion took over from troops of no fewer than six different units. In order to allow for the open-page 237ing barrage of the 12th, the line finally held was placed slightly in rear of that taken over. On the whole the shelling on the forward area during the relief was not severe, but one of the 4th Battalion companies had several casualties from shell-fire on the way up. Following upon a reconnaissance of the front line by low-flying aeroplanes on the following afternoon the enemy's artillery registered on the position.
The remainder of the Brigade was disposed in depth, the rearmost battalion being over 2,000 yards from the front line. The move was completed by 6 a.m. on the 11th, and then ensued the long wait of twelve hours of daylight in such cover as could be afforded by the nature of the shell-hole positions occupied. To our weary men the prospect generally was not cheering. The shell-holes were water-logged, the weather cold, and the sky grey and threatening. Out in the open, especially in the forward area, many British wounded lay where they had fallen on the 9th, while at the aid posts were others still awaiting evacuation. Such attention as could in the circumstances be given to these unfortunate men was cheerfully rendered, our stretcher-bearers and volunteers dressing their wounds, providing them with food and water from their own rations, and, where it was impossible to pass them to the rear, placing them in less exposed positions in the shell-holes. Yet amidst all this discomfort the morale of the men remained distinctly good, though their spirits, as may easily be conceived, could not be said to have reached that high state of buoyancy which had marked their entry upon previous engagements.
During the afternoon of the 11th Brigade Headquarters moved forward from Gallipoli to an old German pill-box at Korek, just north of Gravenstafel, and at 5 o'clock next morning reports were in from all four battalions that they had reached their appointed assembly positions. As if to accentuate the hardships already sufficiently great, rain had come on at 2 a.m.
Promptly at zero hour, 5.25 a.m., the opening barrage commenced, and the 2nd Battalion moved forward towards the first objective. Within fifteen minutes it became abundantly evident that the barrage, so pitifully weak as to be barely perceptible, would be quite ineffective. It had no appreciable effect upon the German machine-guns, for these, page 238operating for the most part from concrete "pill-boxes," immediately opened a fierce and withering fire which continued without abatement, and even increased in intensity at times, in spite of all our artillery could do. The enemy's artillery barrage was thin, and consisted almost entirely of high-explosive shell, the effect of which was to a great extent nullified by the softness of the sodden ground. Though it caused casualties amongst both the troops attacking and also those coming forward from the rear, it was nowhere as serious as it might have been had shrapnel been used in the same proportion by the German artillery as by our own. The enemy's reliance on his machine-gun barrage, however, was not misplaced, for here was a perfect example of the use of machine-guns in the defence, an intense and deadly grazing cross-fire sweeping the front of both the New Zealand Brigades.
In the meantime, the main advance of the 2nd Battalion troops was becoming more and more difficult, and presently they were directly confronted by a line of German concrete "pill-boxes," heavily wired, surrounded by a sea of mud, and strongly manned. Beyond these, again, and on slightly higher ground, stood other concrete fortresses, and the grazing fire coming from this frontal position some 500 yards ahead, as well as enfilade fire from Bellevue on the right and from Source Trench well off on the left front, was now so intense and well- directed that the general forward movement practically ceased. The centre of the line had suffered most heavily, and in consequence the left had swung up towards the Wallemolen Cemetery.
By 8 a.m. all three forward battalions were engaged, for, in addition to the two platoons of the 4th Battalion put in to cover the gap on the right, the two leading companies of this unit had, when the first serious check took place, each sent a platoon round the flank in order to help the line on, and the left of these companies had also pushed up a platoon to establish connection with the Black Watch. The line, however, still remained practically stationary except on the extreme left. Here Sergeant A. K. Coley, leading a composite platoon of men from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, carried out a brilliant assault on an enemy strong-point still holding out in the Cemetery. Twenty-five of the garrison were killed and three prisoners and four machine-guns captured. In this sharp fight Sergeant H. J. Langwell and Corporal J. Calderwood led their sections with great dash and skill. The whole of Calderwood's section became casualties, but, though he himself was wounded, he gathered a few more men from neighbouring shell-holes, and with this handful continued to assist till the position was won. The taking of the last strong-point in the Cemetery enabled some further general progress to be made in this quarter, and the position became of considerable importance in connection with the consolidation of the line finally held.
It was now becoming abundantly evident that our troops page 242were being brought to a standstill. The casualties, which included practically the whole of the 3rd Battalion Headquarters, had been extremely heavy, and many of the companies and most of the platoons were without officers. The men of three units were inextricably intermingled, and even some of the Scottish troops found themselves scattered amongst our sections. All ranks were drenched to the skin and plastered with shell-hole slime from head to foot; a large proportion of the rifles and Lewis guns were choked with mud; and, taking advantage of the decrease in the volume of our fire, the enemy was rapidly reinforcing his forward line and even placing machine-guns on the top of bis "pill-boxes." To Lieut.-Col Puttick, who made a personal reconnaissance of the position soon after 8 o'clock, the definiteness of the check and the utter futility of attempting to make further gains at once became apparent, and, being the senior officer on the spot, he ordered a cessation of the attack and gave instructions for the consolidation of the position secured. This consisted in the main of an old German trench on the farther side of the road running south-east from the Cemetery to a point slightly beyond Wolf Farm, with a few small groups of men in shell-holes about 100 yards in advance of the general line. It was thus roughly parallel to the main band of wire crossing Bellevue Spur, the lesser entanglements having been passed.
A situation report was sent to Brigade Headquarters and also to the 1st Battalion, the latter being now on its way up from its assembly position, which, in accordance with the timetable for the day's action, it bad left at 8 a.m., and it was suggested that this battalion on its arrival should take up a support position in rear of the road. One of the German machine-guns captured at the Cemetery was posted on the left of the forward line covering the Brigade front, while a second was sent round to the right flank near Peter Pan to strengthen the command of the gap between us and the 2nd Brigade. At about 10 a.m. the 1st Battalion came up, and after obtaining further information and reconnoitring the position, Lieut.-Col. Bell established a support line about 150 yards in rear of the front line, and also a strong-post with eighteen men and four Lewis guns on the right of the main position, some 200 yards east of Peter Pan.page 243
The position now was that a more or less defined line was held, on the left 500 yards and on the right 200 yards from our original line. Practically all the advanced posts had ceased to exist, their garrisons having been withdrawn or else swept away by the withering fire. Both flanks were well held by 4th Battalion platoons placed so as to establish touch with neighbouring Brigades or to form defensive flanks. Some platoons of the 4th Battalion were in close support, while the 1st Battalion was holding a main support position, with a reserve company in readiness to move to any point. On the left we were in close touch with the Black Watch, whose commanding officer specially reported on the fearless reconnaissance work of Corporal A. McDonald of our 2nd Battalion, then on liaison duty with him. It appears that two companies of the Black Watch commencing the attack side by side had lost touch, and though both bad been held up, neither knew the position of the other. Information to this effect had reached the battalion commander, and McDonald volunteered to go out to locate the companies. He conducted a perilous search in the face of our own and the enemy's fire, but succeeded at last in reaching the separated flanks in succession. He then assisted the companies to establish touch, and when this had been completed made his way back through the storm of bullets, bringing to the Black Watch headquarters a detailed report as to the situation on this part of their front.
Soon after 9 a.m. the German artillery ranged fairly accurately on the new line, and kept up an intermittent fire upon it from that time onward. The enemy machine-gun fire now decreased in volume, but any movement on our part immediately drew heavy bursts from the many commanding positions above.
The situation on our immediate flanks was no more satisfactory than with us. The 2nd Brigade's jumping-off line had been closer up to the enemy's main defensive line than ours had been, and their advance had brought them up at once against the heavy belts of wire, here, as elsewhere, broad and intact, and covered by the machine-gun positions on all the vantage-points of the slopes beyond. Further progress was found to be impossible. On the left flank, where our advance had been least unsatisfactory, the Black Watch had made a page 244correspondingly deeper thrust, but here, as we have soon, they were no more than in touch, with us.
Reports had come in, however, to the effect that farther off on the left the troops of the same Brigade had reached a position in the vicinity of their final objective, and that the Australians beyond the right flank of the New Zealand Division had also progressed well. The New Zealanders were therefore instructed to renew the attack at 3 p.m., and at one o'clock our battalion commanders were called to a conference at Kronprinz Farm. These, with their first-hand knowledge of the situation, were unanimous in their opinion as to the fruitlessness of any immediate attempt to get forward, but the orders were definite, and it was for them to carry those orders into execution to the best of their ability. By the time they had returned to their commands only half an hour remained to issue the necessary instructions. Preparatory reorganization was out of the question. Even if there had been time for this no general movement was possible, and it was arranged that the dispositions should be effected as well as might be when our barrage opened, and completed during the advance itself. At the last moment, in consequence of later reports that the general advance had been successful only on certain isolated sectors, the orders for the renewal of the attack were countermanded, and instructions were issued for holding the line.
Soon after 3 p.m. an enemy attack developed on the left flank, but this, after we had had the number of our casualties greatly increased, was driven off. Rifleman C. E. Town with his Lewis gun, and the trench mortar section under Corporal H. S. Leighton, rendered conspicuous service in this emergency. It would seem from the statements of two Germans who gave themselves up to a 4th Battalion post on the right at 7 p.m., that this attack was part of a general counter-stroke, but that for the most part their men had refused to advance in the face of the barrage, now much more effective than that of the early hours of the day, which our artillery, owing to the non-receipt of cancellation orders, had put down to cover the afternoon's attack.
After dark the adjustments required were carried out. The 3rd and 4th Battalions were withdrawn to support and page 245reserve, respectively, and the 1st and 2nd, now occupying the forward positions gained, continued the work of consolidation.
We had come so far short of achieving our object that the attack of October 12th must be considered a failure. The direct cause of the frustration of our efforts was the presence, along the whole of the enemy front, of the exceedingly strong band, or, rather, field of wire, the existence and nature of which had not been known until the evening of the 11th, after the Division had taken over the line, it having been left to our own patrols to make the discovery. The difficulties experienced by the artillery brigades in bringing forward the batteries, though all concerned had laboured with the utmost devotion and self-sacrifice, had in most cases proved to be insuperable. The result was that a large proportion of the guns never reached their positions. Again, for many of the pieces solid platforms could not be provided, and on being fired they rapidly sank into the oozy ground and became for the time being useless. Hence the advance of the infantry was insufficiently supported, but even in the face of this disadvantage we should doubtless have won through if the wire had been dealt with. It is true that von Arnim's system of strengthening the defence by means of concealed "pill-boxes" had by now reached the last stage of perfection, and that the concrete fortresses on the Passchendaele slopes had been most skilfully sited; but positions of this nature, as we proved often enough, are not necessarily impregnable provided the infantry are able to attack them at close quarters, especially if this can be done within a reasonable time after the heavy artillery has played its part.
The failure of the attack of three days earlier had been disastrous, and now we in our turn had failed; but though downcast we were still unashamed, for surely to the New Zealanders might be applied the words of Sir Douglas Haig concerning certain earlier operations: "There was no position which the Germans chose to hold and fortify which our men could not take, even by frontal attack, when the guns had exercised their full power in the preparatory stages of the battle."
Owing to the wet weather, the broken nature of the country, and the almost entire absence of duck-board tracks, the page 246evacuation of the wounded was a serious matter, six, and sometimes eight men being required to bring out one stretcher-case; and as the task usually took six hours to accomplish, the bearers were exhausted after one journey, and rest was imperative. As an indication of the state of the country over which these duties, sufficiently difficult even where properly-formed tracks exist, had to be performed, it may be mentioned that Riflemen W. C. Turner and M. Hennessy were specially reported upon as having, while still under fire, rescued wounded men from drowning in the shell-holes. If ever the devoted stretcher-bearers were worthy of thanks and praise, it was doubly so on the sodden field of Passchendaele, and with others Riflemen J. L. Keogh. F. K. Judd, B. Booker. F. A. Clark, F. Backholm, S. G. Stirling. D. Stevenson, F. Smith, H. F. Orpwood, F. A. Meurant and C. J. Arnold are gratefully remembered for their devotion to duty through the long dreary days and nights from the 11th to the 14th; while the bearers as well as the wounded owe much to the personal efforts of the Revd. H. Clark, Chaplain to the 2nd Battalion, who with the utmost gallantry laboured untiringly amongst them in all parts of the field. To add to our difficulties, large numbers of wounded men of the Division that had been engaged in the fighting of the 9th were still in the lines and in the regimental aid-posts. So serious, indeed, had the congestion at the aid-post at Kronprinz Farm become that early in the day word had to be sent to the advanced troops that the wounded would be safer for the time being if placed behind any sort of cover in the forward area. At one time there were as many as sixty cases, English, German and Colonial, at this one post, and as the dugout, an old German "pill-box," could hold only a comparatively small number, the rest had perforce to be laid in the open. Amongst the wounded here, now within and now without, the medical officers of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Captains R. H. Baxter and P. B. Benham, slaved unceasingly, caring naught on their own behalf for the cold, driving rain and frequent shelling from which they were powerless to protect so many of their helpless charges.
Twelve hundred men of the 4th Brigade were employed on stretcher-bearer work in the Divisional sector during the night of the 12th/13th, besides a battalion of the 147th Brigade lent page 247to the Division for the purpose. Even parties of the Artillery and the A.S.C. were brought up on this duty. During the 14th an informal truce existed between the British and the Germans, parties from both sides scouring No Man's Land in search of their wounded, and by the afternoon of this day all cases had been brought in.
The casualties sustained by the Brigade were 22 officers and 160 men killed, 25 officers and 873 men wounded, and 1 officer and 133 men missing.
The 3rd Battalion mourned the loss of their commander, who had been struck down early on the morning of the 12th. Lieut.-Col. A. Winter-Evans had come with the unit from New Zealand, and had led his men in all the main engagements in which the Brigade as a whole had taken part. His remarkable genius for organization was only equalled by his extraordinary gallantry under fire. In connection with the Battle of Messines, his plans for training, assembly and attack were not less notable for their minute attention to detail than for the remarkable precision which characterized their execution. When his battalion's objective had been taken on that day he was amongst his men as they laboured at the task of consolidation, and heedless of the bombardment he moved along the parapet of the trench directing and cheering them on. In like manner, at Passchendaele, as soon as it appeared that the check was more than temporary he had gone ahead to endeavour by direct personal efforts to get his troops forward, but moving from shell-hole to shell-hole amongst the scattered groups, he drew upon himself the inevitable bursts of machine-gun fire, under which, fearlessly persisting, he at last fell mortally wounded.
Mention should be made of the fact that supplies of water, rations and ammunition were maintained with excellent regularity. This was in great measure due to the fine work done by the Brigade Pack Train, under Lieut. C. M. Rout, which was employed bringing up supplies to the forward dumps. Owing to the state of the roads, wheeled transport was out of the question. The work of the men with the horses was faithfully done in the face of almost impossible conditions, and the exploits of Lance-Corporal L. C. Aldridge and his little band of volunteers called for in connection with page 248a specially-difficult undertaking in the face of fierce shell-fire were as admirable as they were daring.
* In command of battalions on October 12th:—1st Battalion, Major P. H. Bell; 2nd, Capt. W. G. Bishop, vice Lieut.-Col. Pow, at transport lines (injured); 3rd, Lieut.-Col. A. Winter-Evans; 4th, Lieut.-Col E. Puttick.
Part 4.—Concluding Phase of the third Battle of Ypres.
Opens October 26th—Canadians carry Bellevue Spur—French and Belgians take Merekem Penin sula—Canadians capture Passehendaele, November 6th.
It now only remains to recount briefly the events constituting the fourth and concluding phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, which opened on October 26th, when the Canadians attacked in the Passchendaele sector of evil memory. South of the Ravebeek they progressed well, as indeed the Australians had done on the 12th. They were, however, held up at Bellevue Spur, but made a second attempt later in the day and carried it. Satisfactory progress was also made by the Fifth Army on the left.
By the 2Sth the French and Belgians had taken the Merekem Peninsula in the flooded region, and thus facilitated the advance to Hourhulst Forest. The Canadians made some further progress towards Passchendaele, and by the end of October 30th had taken Crest Farm, reaching to within 500 yards of the village. On the morning of November 6th they attacked and captured Goudberg, Mosselmarkt and Passchendaele.
Thus ended the gigantic struggle that had lasted for nearly four months. The total British casualties amounted to over 250,000, a number approximating the strength of the entire army at the time of the Boer War. The continuance of the conflict in the face of heavy losses and in spite of the fearful conditions of weather was justified by the unfortunate developments in Russia and in Italy. Events in these theatres rendered impossible of achievement Haig's great plan to penetrate into Belgium and act against the rear of the enemy's coast defences, but the persistence and sacrifices of the British, though shorn of their greater reward, proved to have had farreaching and lasting effects. Not the least of these was the fact that the enemy had been compelled to use up no fewer page 249than seventy-eight of his Divisions in the battle, of which eighteen had been engaged a second or a third time after having been withdrawn to rest and refit. It is well to remember that in the operations of Arras, Messines, Lens and Ypres, as many as 131 German Divisions had been engaged and defeated by less than half that number of British Divisions.