Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
La Signy Farm
La Signy Farm.
On April 17th, the 1st Battalion of the Regiment relieved the 2nd Battalion of Wellington in the front line sector extending over a length of about 1,200 yards from Waterloo Bridge, left of the Serre Road, along the hedge line overlooking La Signy Farm to the northern boundary, south of Hebuterne. The dispositions were as follows: 8th and 14th Companies in the front line from right to left, and 4th and 10th Companies in support in the same order. Battalion Headquarters was established in the sunken road near Euston Corner. It was at the latter point that, prior to our taking over the line, an extensive dump of trench mortar ammunition had been exploded by enemy shell fire. There was still a great deal of ammunition and explosive there and in the vicinity, and further explosions occurred at a later date. The front line trenches of the new sector were shallow, and extending towards the enemy's lines were several old communication trenches which were either eventually filled in or were utilised for establishing advanced bombing posts. On the left company sector there were two such posts approximately 250 yards in advance of the main line, and garrisoned by a strength of one platoon. The weather at this stage was fine, and as soon as the trenches were drained it was possible to proceed with the improvement of the defences all round. There was little or no wire in front, which was a matter demanding immediate attention, while the trenches required deepening and traversing. All this called for the expenditure of much time and labour; but it was a fortunate circumstance that the enemy was apparently anxious for peace and quietness and consequently work was not interrupted to any extent.page 291
During the early evening of the 18th three of the enemy were observed approaching a forward post occupied by 14th Company, evidently having lost direction. On being fired upon, two effected their escape, but the third was chased and captured. The prisoner explained that his battalion was further north, but that his party had lost its way when carrying rations to the front line. The outcome was that one of the party and some of the rations fell into our hands. Enemy artillery fire on the 19th was confined to spasmodic bursts. Our own artillery heavily engaged enemy battery positions in the locality of Pendant Copse and Miraumont.
At 8 o'clock on the morning of April 20th a party of five other ranks from 14th Company, under Lance-corp. J. Frew, carried out a most effective raid into the enemy's lines to the left of La Signy Farm. Working down an old communication trench, they reached a block 60 yards in advance of our forward post, and there surprised and captured first the German sentry and then four others who were asleep in the post. The five prisoners were sent back to our lines with an escort, and the remainder of the party advanced along the enemy trench to a suspected machine gun post at the Mound. No Germans were encountered there, but further along a superior force was met with, and unobserved the party of three returned to our lines without being fired upon. At 4.30 p.m. the same day a bombardment by heavy and light trench mortars was opened over the locality visited by the morning's patrol, and a further patrol of eight men under Sergt. J. R. Lyall, M.M., left our lines with the object of determining the damage done to the enemy post, and if possible, capturing its occupants. The bombardment unfortunately broke down at an early stage, and the patrol, on approaching its objective, found the garrison very much alert and "standing to." Our men engaged them with bombs, the enemy vigorously replying. Sergt. Lyall was wounded, and as the enemy was being reinforced, the patrol withdrew under cover of Lewis gun fire and rifle grenades from our post behind. At least six casualties were known to have been inflicted on the enemy. The Mound and adjoining trenches were effectively bombarded again on the following afternoon with 6in. trench mortars, and when three men subsequently went out and examined the position page 292they found that it was badly battered, that the enemy had evacuated it and was occupying a trench some distance off.
Early on the evening of the 22nd the Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, and moved back to support, occupying a series of posts about 1,000 yards behind the front line, north and south of Colincamps and astride the Serre Road. During the tour just completed, over 1,200 yards of wiring had been erected, and a considerable length of trench deepened and traversed.
A Divisional Order was issued on April 21st announcing that the right sub-sector was to be handed over to the 12th Division, which was coming into line on the right. At the same time the New Zealand Division took over the Hebuterne sector on the left from the 4th Australian Brigade, temporarily attached to the 42nd Division, which had on the 15th relieved the 37th Division. These new dispositions were complete by the night of the 24th-25th. On the 26th the New Zealand Divisional Lewis Gun School was established at Louvencourt, parties being periodically despatched there from the Regiment for instruction.
On April 17th the 2nd Battalion of Otago moved up to positions of Brigade reserve west of Colincamps, and from there supplied parties for the improvement and extension of the defences of the Purple Line and switches. On the 22nd it proceeded into the front line sector immediately south of that recently occupied by the 1st Battalion. Considerable work confronted the garrison owing to the lack of stability of the system, which the periodical fire of light and heavy minenwerfer did not tend to improve. During the night of the 23rd a wounded German was brought in, and early on the following morning a party of about fifteen of the enemy attempted to rush one of the forward posts. They were beaten off with rifle fire and bombs, leaving one of their number dead in front of our wire, while evidence was afforded of further casualties. On the 25th there was considerable artillery activity. Our 8in. howitzers heavily pounded La Signy Farm, in conjunction with the heavy trench mortars, the enemy retaliating over our forward system.
A remarkable incident occurred at this period, when two horses attached to a wagon broke away from the rear of the enemy's lines, and galloping down the Serre Road, page 293 came to an abrupt halt in front of our wire. The enemy at once opened fire, but Corporal McDonald went out and cut the animals free, when they crossed our lines and continued along the Serre Road to the Sugar Factory, where they were caught and despatched to the transport lines. The horses were in fair condition, and the harness new but inferior in quality. The limber, which contained timber for the construction of dug-outs, had presumably been drawn up in readiness for unloading when the animals were started by the firing of our 6in. Newton trench mortars, It was at first stated that the wagon was loaded with minenwerfer shells, and this, it was humorously suggested, was merely the method adopted by the enemy of delivering them in bulk.
On being relieved the Battalion moved back to support positions near Colincamps, and on the last day of the month withdrew to the Purple Line, with Battalion Headquarters at the Windmill, on the high ground east of Bertrancourt.
The 1st Battalion continued in support positions in the locality of Colincamps until April 27th, On the 25th the area occupied by 10th Company was subjected to a bombardment with 5.9in. and 4.2in. howitzer shells, presumably intended for batteries in that locality, and a few casualties were sustained. On the evening of the 27th the Battalion returned to its old sector overlooking La Signy Farm, 4th Company being on the right and 10th Company on the left, with 8th Company in support and 14th Company in reserve. The tour was a brief one, and except for a certain amount of enemy trench mortar activity was uneventful. On the night of the 30th April the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, and trekked back to Divisional reserve at Rossignol Farm, in rear of Bayencourt.
The Regiment remained in reserve until May 6th, on which date the 2nd Infantry Brigade relieved the 1st Infantry Brigade in the left sub-sector of the Divisional front, adjoining Hebuterne, and immediately north of the previously held sector. On that evening the 2nd Battalion of Otago relieved the 1st Battalion of Wellington in the front line; the 1st Battalion of Otago moving from Rossignol Farm and relieving the 2nd Battalion of Wellington in the locality of Sailly-au-Bois; the four Companies being disposed around the eastern and north-eastern edges of the village.page 294
Heavy rain on the night of the 6th-7th had caused the front line trenches to become badly water-logged; but the perfect weather on the succeeding days and the almost complete state of inactivity on the part of the enemy afforded every opportunity for draining and improving the system. Enemy artillery activity was for the most part confined to bombardments directed to the villages of Hebuterne and Fonquevillers, and on the night of the 11th gas shells were poured into the ruins of the latter place for a period of about four hours. On the night of the 12th-13th the 2nd Battalion handed over the sector to the 1st Battalion of Canterbury, and proceeded into support positions on the western side of Hebuterne; while the 1st Battalion of the Regiment relieved the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury in the front line sector on the right of Hebuterne. The two forward companies were the 8th and 14th from right to left. The activities of the support and reserve companies were mainly directed to improving the defences of Fort Grosvenor, a tactical point near the front line.
At this period it was notified by Division that enemy identification was urgently required. Although the 2nd Battalion of Otago had been relieved from the front line, Sergt. "Dick" Travis at once volunteered to go out through Canterbury's lines and secure the necessary prisoners. This Canterbury consented to only after one of its own patrols had failed to meet with success. Sergt. Travis was now afforded his opportunity, and after a remarkable encounter with the enemy, achieved striking and instant success. At 7.45 p.m. on the 14th, when it was still daylight, and accompanied by Ptes. H. Melville, R. V. Conway, A. D. D. Clydesdale and N. Thomson, he set out for the enemy lines. Leaving from the Warrior Street junction, in front of Hebuterne, he and his party succeeded by the skilful use of cover in reaching the enemy position aimed at without being observed. The post, which contained a machine gun and seven of the enemy, was rushed, and the garrison, who were lying in their shelters without a sentry, were taken completely by surprise. One of the enemy showed fight and had to be shot, and the patrol commenced its return to our lines with the remainder of the prisoners. The commotion, however, had roused a neighbouring post, which immediately rushed to give page 295 assistance, and the patrol experienced the utmost difficulty in getting away with its unwilling prisoners. Sergt. Travis covered the withdrawal by exchanging shot for shot with the. fresh enemy numbers, and in the course of the melee two of the prisoners were killed by their own men. The four remaining prisoners were eventually got to cover, and the whole party safely reached our lines after a most thrilling experience, the prisoners secured affording the identification required. This was a typical example of Sergt. Travis's ability to strike the enemy swiftly and effectively.
On the morning of the 18th a raid was also made into the enemy's lines by a patrol from the 1st Battalion. As a preliminary to this operation active patrolling had been carried out nightly with a view to determining points at which prisoners might be secured. Two such areas were marked down, and it was decided to carry out two silent raids during the early morning. A party from 14th Company was to raid an enemy post in the locality of Jena trench, but was prevented from accomplishing its object by machine gun fire directed from several points. The other objective selected was a machine gun post in Home Avenue, and failing that a point further to the left. A party from 8th Company, comprising 12 other ranks under Sergt. P. McGregor, moved out from our lines at 1.30 a.m., and proceeded down Home Avenue, leaving a covering party of four in rear. As there was not sufficient darkness to carry out the first operation, the raiders moved back along the Avenue, and then crossed north to Jean Bart sap. Here it was decided to lie quietly during the early hours of the morning and wait until the enemy had breakfasted and retired to sleep. On commencing active operations, the trenches west of the sunken road were first searched and found to be unoccupied; the party then crossed the road and pushed further along Jean Bart to a single bivouac which could just be observed. On the flap of the shelter being raised, four Germans were discovered asleep inside. They were immediately secured, and the party thereupon returned to our lines along Jean Bart, and reached it safely with their prisoners.
On the same evening the Battalion was relieved by the 4th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, and moved back to the Purple Line as part of the garrison of that system, held by page 296 the Brigade in reserve. The Battalion here occupied a series of posts between Sailly-au-Bois and Beaussart, and in rear of Colincamps, with Battalion Headquarters established at the Windmill on the Courcelles-Bertrancourt Road. It remained in these positions until the 24th of the month, carrying out a few minor fatigues, and generally enjoying the warmth of sunshine and the refreshing greenness of the landscape. In the meantime the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment had experienced a fair amount of shelling in and around the village of Hebuterne. On the 18th of the month it was relieved and moved back to Rossignol Farm, in rear of Bayencourt.
It was at this period that the wearing of the small box respirator by all ranks, however employed, for periods of time ranging up to one hour, was instituted under Divisional Orders in view of the contingency of a sustained enemy gas bombardment. Considerable inconvenience and discomfort attended these practices at the outset, but after a time it was found that the gas mask could be worn continuously for an hour with comparative ease, the knowledge of which afforded a feeling of confidence which was valuable in itself.
During the early morning of the 29th the enemy attempted a raid against one of our forward posts, occupied by 4th Company to the right of La Signy Farm, but was driven off, apparently with losses. Our casualties numbered six. During the afternoon, our 6in. Newton trench mortars, a most destructive form of weapon, "shot up" the post from which the enemy was believed to have launched his raid.
On the closing day of the month a small patrol led by Sergt. Travis, and including Sergt. Swainson, Pte. Conway and Pte. Ballantyne, left our lines at 7.30 p.m. from near Waterloo Bridge for an enemy post about 300 yards in front. The party worked its way down the shelter of an old communication trench, and when about 25 yards from the post was held up by a stout wire block. Getting out of the trench the raiders crawled to within ten yards of the unsuspecting enemy, and then suddenly swarmed over the post. The two sentries, completely surprised, threw up their hands when ordered, on which an old dug-out close by was investigated and found to contain several of the enemy. They poured out of their shelter and a desperate melee followed. Three were shot dead; others succeeded in escaping, and Sergt. Travis and his party proceeded to make back to our lines with their prisoners. Further numbers of the enemy, now thoroughly aroused, rushed up from the rear and immediately opened fire with bombs and rifles. The party was obliged to make for the shelter of Newgate Avenue, Sergt. Travis deliberately covering its withdrawal. During this development one of the prisoners made his escape; but there was good reason for believing that he was subsequently caught by our Lewis gun fire. The party had now gained the communication trench, but while hurrying along with his reluctant prisoner, a German officer, Sergt. Travis narrowly escaped disaster from the explosion of several bombs attached to a trip-wire. The party finally reached our lines in safety with page 298 two prisoners. This dramatic invasion created considerable stir in the enemy sector, and a party of Germans, two of whom were officers with revolvers drawn, were subsequently observed to enter the post in a belated investigation of what was for them a costly espisode.
At this stage the Regiment had attached for experience several officers from the 74th Division, recently arrived from Palestine. The month closed with considerable artillery activity on our part, in the course of which a great deal of damage was caused to the enemy's defences.
Early on the morning of June 1st the S.O.S. signal appeared to the north and south of the Divisional sector, which was then repeated over a wide area. Our own artillery joined in the general response, but no enemy attack developed. On this occasion there was certain short shooting across the front, resulting in several casualties in our lines. During the evening the 1st Battalion of the Regiment relieved the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury in the La Signy Farm sector. At the same time the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment completed its tour of the front line, and moved back to the defences of Colincamps. Casualties during the period had amounted to five killed and 25 wounded.
The opening days of the 1st Battalion's tour in the line were quiet and the weather perfect. Frequent daylight reconnaissances of the enemy's lines were being carried out by Pte. Stark, until when single-handed he rushed an enemy post near La Signy Farm and was grievously wounded; his adventurous career thus abruptly terminating for a time at least. The Battalion completed the construction of a number of solid dug-outs for platoon and company headquarters, and the general defences of the sector were materially strengthened.
On the afternoon of June 5th Corporal Moir and Lance-corp. Falls, of 10th Company, left our trenches for the enemy lines, and surprised and entered a German post to the left of La Signy Farm. The enemy sentry was engaged perusing his correspondence, and paid the penalty of his remissness by being captured, along with one other German. A shower of bombs assailed the party as it commenced the return journey, and Lance-corp. Falls was wounded and one of the prisoners page 299 killed. The remaining prisoner was safely brought in to our post at Central Avenue. At 10 o'clock on the following morning a second party from 10th Company raided the enemy's lines at a point still further to the left, and met with remarkable success. The raiding party, which comprised Sergt. Scott, Corporal Stewart, and four other ranks, worked its way along the shelter of a hedge line, crossed the wire entanglements, and then suddenly jumped into an enemy post. Two Germans were surprised and captured. A search of some bivouacs 15 yards further along the trench yielded an additional five prisoners. The party then made its way back and reached our lines without casualties, and with only a single shot being fired at it. The effect produced on the German moral by these several incursions into his lines in broad daylight by parties of the two Battalions, and the impunity with which his garrisons were being carried off, can well be imagined, to say nothing of the information and identification which the prisoners afforded. During the afternoon of the 6th, following upon information obtained from the prisoners, a bombardment by 4.5in. howitzers and heavy trench mortars was directed against the enemy posts, and considerable material damage occasioned at points where machine guns were reported to be located.
Relief of the New Zealand Division by the 42nd Division was now at hand. On the morning of June 5th General Sir Andrew Russell, accompanied by the G.O.C, 42nd Division, inspected the front line system, expressing his pleasure at the state of the defences and the bearing of the garrison. On the 6th several officers and n.c.o.'s of the 10th Middlesex Regiment visited the line in view of the pending relief. The change-over was commenced the same evening, and was preceded by a sudden burst of enemy shelling, which lasted for some time and delayed the approach of the relieving troops. As soon as the sector had been handed over, the 1st Battalion started a weary march back to the locality of Authie. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, on being relieved in the defences of Colincamps by a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, had already moved out to the Bois du Warnimont, overlooking Authie Valley. The camps occupied by the two Battalions comprised tents and shelters, established among ideal surroundings.