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Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918



The first stage of the Allied attack in the Third Battle of Ypres, launched on the morning of July 31st, extended over a front of 15 miles, from the River Lys opposite Deulemont (at which point the 3rd Battalion of Otago was then holding the line) northwards to beyond Steenstraat; but the heaviest weight was thrown against the enemy by the Fifth Army on a front of about seven and a-half miles from the Zillebeke-Zandvoorde Road on the south to Boesinghe in the north, east and north-east of Ypres. At the close of the first day's fighting between these two points, the enemy's foremost system of defence south of Westhoek (east of Ypres) had been carried; north of this point the enemy's second line had also been captured as far as St, Julien; and north of that again the attacking troops held the line of the Steenbeek to the point of junction with the French. Stormy weather now broke over the battle area, desperate conditions of rain and mud preventing any serious development of the offensive for several days. On August 16th the second attack was launched east and north-east of Ypres.

On the left of the British attack, practically the whole of that part of the Langemarck-Gheluvelt line, which formed the final objective, was gained; but in the centre and on the right the main enemy resistance was encountered, and, save for a few small gains, the situation south of St. Julien at the close of the day was unchanged. Minor operations followed, but owing to the state of the ground it was September 20th before the third main attack, planned to penetrate to page 253 an average depth of approximately 1,000 yards, could be launched On this occasion the left of the Second Army was extended northwards, and the assault upon the whole of the high ground which was crossed by the Menin Road entrusted to it. The attack of the Second Army penetrated to Veldhoek, and to the western side of Polygone Wood; while to the north the Fifth Army, operating on both sides of the Ypres-Roulers Railway, reached the points of its objective along the kngemarek-Gheluvelt Line.

Persistent and heavy counter-attacks were now delivered by the enemy, but on September 26th the advance was renewed by the two Armies north and south of the Menin Road. The outcome of this attack was that the whole of Polygone Wood was cleared, the village of Zonnebeke was captured, and numerous strong-points north and south of the Wieltje-Gravenstafel Road wrested from the enemy. Again the enemy was not slow to deliver a series of determined counter-attacks. On the morning of October 4th the British reassumed the offensive, the selected front of the principal attack, which was directed against the main line of the ridge east of Zonnebeke, extending from the Menin Road northwards for a distance of about seven miles. It was at this stage of the protracted series of operations conducted during the closing months of 1917 against the deep enemy defences east and north-east of Ypres, that the 3rd Battalion of Otago Regiment was committed to its first offensive action.

The two Armies concerned in this operation were, as before, the Second and the Fifth; and along the Second Army front the attack was to be delivered with two divisions disposed side by side; the 3rd Australian Division on the right and the New Zealand Division on the left, with the 48th Division of the Fifth Army on our immediate left. The task of the New Zealand Division was entrusted to the 1st and 4th Infantry Brigades, each attacking on a two battalion frontage. The 4th Brigade, disposed on the right of the Divisional front, was committed to an advance of approximately 1,700 yards, with a frontage of 800 yards; the operation also including the capture of the village of Gravenstafel, and a small subsidiary spur running in a north-westerly direction from the main Passchendaele Ridge, known as the Abraham Heights. The first of the two objectives into which page 254 the advance was divided was approximately on the line Boethoek-Gravenstafel-Abraham Heights Spur, which was to be captured by the 3rd Battalions of Otago and Auckland Regiments, from left to right; while the second or final objective, the capture of which was allotted to the 3rd Battalions of Wellington and Canterbury in the same order, extended across the northern edge of Berlin Wood. Special mopping-up parties were to be detailed by each of the assaulting Battalions, and in the case of Otago Battalion these were to deal with Otto Farm and Wimbledon, and the dug-outs in that locality.

The attack programme provided for five barrages to take the infantry forward, to break up counter-attacks, and to protect the infantry when on their objectives; these being constituted as follows:—(a) 18-pounder creeping barrage under which the infantry advanced; (b) 18-pounder and 4.5in. howitzer; (c) machine gun; (d) 6in. howitzer; (e) 60-pounder and 8in. and 9.2in. howitzer. The depth effected by these barrages was over 1,000 yards, and in addition to the above, the super-heavy guns and howitzers were to engage special points of enemy defence. Arrangements were made for a total of 64 machine guns to barrage the Divisional front; and exclusive of heavy guns and heavy and medium howitzers, the attack was to be supported by 180 18-pounders and 60 4.5in. howitzers. After the capture of the first objective there was to be a halt of one hour and a-half before the 3rd Battalions of Wellington and Canterbury Regiments moved forward to the capture of the second or final objective.

The 3rd Battalion of the Regiment, quartered in the area of the old British and German front lines, completed all details of equipment during the day of October 2nd, and Company officers visited the front line and made a reconnaissance of the country. On the same evening the Battalion moved forward and took over the front line from the 1st Battalion of Otago, which had been in occupation since the morning of September 30th, relief being completed by 10 p.m. Otago troops on the left and Auckland troops on the right were now holding the 4th Brigade front, each on a two-company frontage escheloned to a depth of 500 yards, the remaining two companies escheloned to a further depth of 600 yards. The 10th Company occupied the front line below page 255 the Abraham Heights, and two platoons from 4th and 14th Companies were established at the Kansas Cross Roads, with the remainder of the strength on the slope behind, and 8th Company at a point known as Gallipoli, to the right rear. The 3rd Battalions of Canterbury and Wellington were located in the old British and German front line systems and in the Ypres north area to the rear. The weather was still holding fine, but the general devastation of the Ypres area, the countless shell-holes and the yielding mud accentuated the difficulties of transport and movement. During the day of October 3rd two trial barrages were put down by the supporting artillery. On the occasion of the first, at 7.30 a.m., there were several short bursts; on the second occasion, at 1.45 p.m., further "shorts" fell on the support line.

On the night of October 3rd the. positions of assembly for the attack, from 200 to 300 yards in rear of the existing front line, were arranged and taped out by Captain M. Watt (14th Company) and Captain N. H. Arden (4th Company), as also were the approaches for a distance of 300 yards.

Zero hour was 6 am. on October 4th. Rain fell overnight and the morning broke cheerless and drizzly, with the sky heavily overcast. The early stages of the night had passed fairly quietly, save for intermittent shelling, but after midnight enemy artillery fire gradually increased in intensity, until at about half an hour before zero it assumed the fierceness of barrage fire and extended heavily to the south. This, it was subsequently learned, was the preliminary to an attack in force which the enemy was about to launch in an endeavour to regain the positions wrested from him during the British attacks of September 26th, and which our own attack but briefly anticipated. An hour and a-half before zero all companies had reached their assembly positions, and under increasingly heavy shell fire awaited the moment of attack. The two front line Companies selected for the assault were, from right to left—-4th, commanded by Captain N. H. Arden, and 14th, commanded by Captain M. Watt; 8th Company, commanded by Captain E. H. Sharp, was detailed for mopping-up purposes, and in that capacity was to assist the leading Companies; whilst 10th Company, commanded by Captain C. M. Littlejohn, constituted the Battalion reserve. Fifteen minutes Wore zero hour the troops of 10th Company who page 256 had been holding the forward line were withdrawn and rejoined their Company in reserve.

At 6 a.m. our artillery broke out in thunderous concert with the enemy's guns, and moving behind a splendid barrage the Battalion advanced to the assault. The attack, once hunched, moved forward without check until the main enemy resistance was encountered, consisting of "pill-boxes," machine gun emplacements, and fortified shell-holes along the slopes of Abraham Heights. The locality of Otto Farm, the first enemy stronghold, fell to the determined attack of one section of 8th Company, and yielded 33 prisoners. Forward of this point the quagmire of the Hanebeek rendered progress exceedingly difficult, many of the attacking troops sinking almost to their thighs in the slime and filth. Van Meulen Farm and dug-outs constituted one of the main defensive points of the ridge, and with strongly emplaced machine guns and a considerable garrison, offered a resistance which eventually broke before a determined attack organised and personally led by Captain N. H, Arden, resulting in the capture of over 50 prisoners and machine guns. On the objective being gained, Captain Arden, who had been wounded early in the advance, went forward to determine the most suitable line for consolidation, and was there grievously wounded, dying. a few moments after he had given his instructions. In the death of Captain Arden the Regiment lost a brave and capable officer. Command of 4th Company was now taken over by Lieut. M. Rohan.

Four minutes after zero hour enemy machine guns opened fire on the line of Kansas Cross Roads-Douchy Farm, and three minutes later an artillery barrage to meet our attack fell along the same line, causing considerable casualties among the 3rd Battalion of Wellington. Otago troops thus escaped the enemy's retahatory barrage; but as the attack advanced came under the fire of machine guns emplaced along the ridge. Despite this fire and the resistance which the several strongholds offered, all objectives were speedily gained. The proximity of enemy localities at certain points had necessitated the advance being carried a further distance ahead. The battered ruins of Gravenstafel Village, standing on the crest of the ridge and strongly held by the enemy, confronted 14th Company, and it was essential that they page 257 should be cleared. Considerable opposition was encountered in the course of this operation; but it was overcome, and Captain Watt then withdrew his Company to the defined line of consolidation, which was approximately 100 yards down the reverse side of the slope. The Battalion now dug in under the continued fire of the enemy, and connected up with the 3rd Battalion of Auckland on the right and with troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade on the left. On the left flank of the Battalion, one platoon of 14th Company consolidated about 70 yards in advance of the remainder of the Company, joining up with troops of the 1st Battalion of Wellington. The right of 14th Company rested on the Gravenstafel Road, while the right flank of 4th Company was about 40 yards in advance of the line taken up by the 3rd Battalion of Auckland. Between the left flank and the Gravenstafel Road a gap of about 150 yards was bridged by a trench constructed by the attached mopping-up parties.

On the capture of the first objective, the 3rd Battalions of Wellington and Canterbury passed through the line held by Otago and Auckland troops, and forming up under the protective barrage waited until it lifted again at zero plus 130 minutes. Immediately on gaining the Abraham Heights spur a considerable volume of machine gun fire was encountered from the main ridge. At 9.30 a.m. the final objective of the attack was reached by these two Battalions, and touch established with the 10th Australian Brigade on the right; but it was not until later that a junction was effected with the left Battalion. Strong enemy opposition was met with at several points; and when the work of consolidation was commenced it was seriously hampered by machine gun and rifle fire from "pill-boxes" In the direction of Waterfields and from the main Passchendaele Ridge.

The New Zealand Division had on this day achieved a remarkable success. It had gained all its objectives, and captured 1,160 Prisoners (covering four enemy divisions) and a considerable number of machine gum. The 3rd Battalion of Otago Regiment, as its share in the operation, had also achieved substantial and decisive success, which was the more remarkable by reason of being the Battalion's first offensive effort. The Battalion's casualties total six officers and approximately 150 other ranks; on the other page 258 side of the scale, the captures included over 250 prisoners and eight machine guns. The sodden and yielding nature of the ground, while seriously impeding advance, had certainly minimised casualties from shell fire, the shells generally burying themselves well below the surface before bursting. The majority of the casualties sustained were due to machine gun fire. Sergt. D. Sterritt's worthy performance in taking charge of his platoon, though wounded, and consolidating under heavy shell fire was rewarded with the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The attack apparently left the enemy thoroughly disorganised; the only counter-attack threatened having been destroyed at the outset of its assembly near Kronprinz Farm, on the left of the Divisional front.

The ground gained as a result of these operations now afforded excellent observation on to the northern end of the Passchendaele Ridge.

Intermittent though somewhat scattered enemy shelling continued until 4 a.m. on the 5th, when it abated considerably and the situation remained normal over the day. Consolidation of the ground gained and improvement of communications were vigorously prosecuted, and when the time arrived on the night of October 5th-6th for relief of the Battalion by troops of the West Riding Regiment, of the 49th Division, all work was well advanced. Across the Divisional front, two practically continuous trenches had been dug, the construction of communication trenches was well in hand, and duck-board and mule tracks had been pushed forward from the old lines. The single road forward leading to Gravenstafel, which fed the Division for all purposes, was in a bad condition from shelling, which seriously retarded the forward transport of guns and material.

Command of the new Saint Jean sector passed from the New Zealand Division to the 49th Division on October 6th.

On being relieved on the night of October 5th-6th the Battalion trekked back to point of bivouac near Goldfish Chateau. On the 6th the Battalion marched to Vlamertinghe, and from that point proceeded in 'buses to Steenvorde. From there a cold and miserable journey was continued to Eecke, which was reached at 2 a.m. on the 7th, and billets secured in the town. Opportunity was taken by the Commanding page 259 Officer, Lieut.-Colonel Colquhoun, to address all ranks and compliment them on the splendid work accomplished during the course of the operations just concluded.