Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
Holding the Line
Holding the Line.
Lieut. Colonel James Hargest, D.S.O., M.C., (d.), [f.]
Minor attacks were made during the day by the left Brigade in line of the Division; the main success achieved being the capture of the Quarries, immediately south of Hebuterne, a position which commanded a field of fire in a south-easterly direction for a distance of about 3,000 yards. At all points of the line tested the enemy was found to be holding it in strength; and considerable movement was reported to be still taking place across the Divisional front. The weather, hitherto fine, now showed indications of breaking; and in view of the fact that great coats and blankets had been dumped during the forced march from the north, the prospect was not very cheerful.
On the morning of March 29th orders were issued to the 1st Battalion of the Regiment to relieve the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury in the front line of the left sub-sector of the 2nd Brigade. Relief commenced at 9 p.m., and was completed by one o'clock the following morning. The position taken over extended north and south, with Auchonvillers in the immediate rear and the site of the village of Beaumont-Hamel to the front. The trenches comprised those of the old British front line before the Somme Offensive of 1916, which though in a moderate state of repair when first taken over, reached a deplorable condition when the weather broke. The front line and communication trenches then fell in badly, and drainage was difficult or impossible. Sentries stood at their posts for two and sometimes four hours during the night thigh-deep in mud and water, and when relieved, indifferent to all else but sleep, crawled exhausted into filthy, shallow holes scooped out of the slime of the parapet. With the exception of one or two dug-outs which were in a dangerous page 282state of collapse, the system contained no shelters. Wrapped in an old bag or blanket or dead German's ground-sheet, unshaven, and caked with mud and filth, men lumbered heavily along the trenches by night or lay huddled in these holes in the ground, more resembling beasts than human beings. The written impressions of a French correspondent during a visit by night to a front line trench fairly describe the conditions obtaining in this unwholesome place. "A sinuous ditch bottomed with mud, and foul with human refuse. There are holes in its sides from which as you lean over there comes a foul breath. Misty, shadowy things are emerging from these side caverns, and moving about in shapeless bulk like bears that shamble and growl. They are the squad." With the substitution of the word platoon for squad, the description stands.
So passed several days, with no change in the outlook, except with the rum issue in the early morning, when for a space of five or ten minutes more optimism, more pugnacity, and more grim humour were exhibited than in the whole of the preceding 24 hours. The ration carrying parties, drawn from the support platoons, soon found it impossible to struggle along the communication trenches, and finally took a course over the open. The trenches on the enemy's side were obviously in the same terrible state; and for a time it seemed as if a mutual understanding existed on the point that ration parties would not be fired upon from either side, until this limited form of armistice was abruptly terminated when a German carrying some sheets of iron attempted to avail himself of the same privilege, and was shot by one of our sentries.
At two o'clock on the afternoon of the 30th a minor operation was carried out by troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade, one Battalion of the 3rd Brigade co-operating, with a view to improving the line and gaining better observation. The objective aimed at was the line of the hedge from near the Serre Road on the right to a point about 1,000 yards to the left, which was also the line of the ridge overlooking La Signy Farm. The flanking Battalions were to conform to the movement. The main attack met with instant success; and it was only over a short stretch on the left that the enemy held his ground behind heavy machine (gun fire. This pocket page 283 was cleared on the following morning, and the new front, affording good observation over a wide stretch of country, was consolidated. The captures in this highly successful operation were 290 prisoners, five light minenwerfer guns, and the extraordinary total of 110 machine guns. Over 200 enemy dead were counted on the front attacked. Our casualties amounted to 43 killed and 100 wounded. The presence of such a surprising number of machine guns over the front attacked served to indicate one of the phases of the tactics employed by the enemy during his offensive; which was to push forward machine guns with great boldness to successive commanding points, and under cover of their sustained fire, allow the infantry to filter through and encircle their objective. The attack on the 30th was delivered behind a protective barrage, and almost immediately our artillery had opened fire considerable numbers of the enemy left their trenches and scampered over the face of the ridge in rear of their line. These were engaged by Lewis gun and rifle fire from Otago's sector, and there was little doubt that many casualties were inflicted. At 6.15 p.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment over our sector, evidently in retaliation for the 1st Brigade's success.
At this stage there were several changes in commands. On the 28th Lieut.-Colonel D. Colquhoun, D.S.O., proceeded to the United Kingdom on duty, prior to leaving for New Zealand. On the 30th Major W. G. A. Bishop, M.C., left the 1st Battalion to take over command of the 2nd Battalion. Captain R. Fraser assumed command of 8th Company, vice Major Bishop; Captain J. P. Hewat was wounded and evacuated, and command of 10th Company fell to Captain D. J. Walls. Major Hargest, commanding the 1st Battalion of Otago, was a few days later granted the temporary rank of Lieut.-Colonel.
Our artillery was now becoming more firmly established along the Divisional front, and as the difficulties, at first very acute, of obtaining adequate supplies of ammunition were overcome, hostile movement was subjected to harassing fire. On the other hand the enemy was undoubtedly utilising captured British guns as well as the great ammunition dumps that had been left in his possession; immediate and unpleasant proof being afforded of the effectiveness of our own artillery page 284weapons. Some of these abandoned guns could still be observed on the ridge in front, repeated efforts by the enemy to get them away to a less prominent position being ultimately successful.
On April 1st, the last day of the Battalion's tour, a daring daylight incursion into the enemy's lines was carried out by Major Hargest and Corporal R. Marshall, of 8th Company. This patrol proceeded out from the left of 8th Company's sector, and worked its way for a distance of 300 yards along a communication trench leading to the enemy's lines. A number of other communication trenches were successfully reconnoitred, until a block was reached. Here an enemy sentry was caught unawares and shot. The patrol then moved a considerable distance further ahead, and finally returned safely to our lines after having accomplished a daring and useful reconnaissance of the enemy's area.
On being relieved by night by the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, Otago moved out of this area of mud and filth to support positions in front of Auchonvillers, Englebelmer, and Mailly Maillet, previously occupied. The extreme darkness of the night, the heavy going, and the unfamiliar country, made the relief an arduous operation, and daylight had broken before some of the companies had settled down. Under such conditions the carrying out of a relief was more to be dreaded than the actual garrisoning of the line. During the strenuous tour just completed, the 1st Battalion sustained casualties to the number of two killed and 34 wounded.
Throughout this period the 2nd Battalion had been contending with the same difficulties of mud and movement, and enemy activity. On March 29th it moved from the Purple Line and relieved the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Brigade as reserve to the 2nd Brigade, the companies being disposed in bivouacs in rear of Englebelmer. On the night of the 30th the Battalion relieved the 1st Battalion of Canterbury in the front line between "Y" Ravine and Hamel, on the extreme right of the Divisional sector. The conditions there were no better than those experienced by the 1st Battalion. The trenches were deplorably muddy, there was an almost entire absence of shelters; and owing to the great length of front held the posts were very scattered, even with the four companies in line and one platoon of each in close support. page 285 The enemy frequently harassed the garrison with trench mortar fire; and although the tour was comparatively brief, it was by no means free of hardships. On the night of April 3rd, when the reorganising of the Divisional front on a two-brigade frontage was commenced and part of the northern extremity near Hebuterne was taken over by the 4th Australian Brigade, the Battalion was relieved and moved back to positions at Englebelmer, There was a considerable increase in enemy artillery activity on April 4th. The village of Englebelmer was consistently shelled, and companies were forced under stress of casualties to quit some of their bivouacs. This was but a prelude to much more furious events.