Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
Chapter XV — Rossignol Wood.
The activities of the Regiment were shortly to be centred in the locality of Rossignol Wood, which lay within the enemy's lines to the north-east of Hebuterne.
On July 9th the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade relieved the 1st Infantry Brigade in the left sub-sector of the Divisional front, which extended from a point opposite Bucquoy in the north to near Hebuterne in the south. This brought the 1st Battalion of Otago to support positions on the eastern outskirts of the sorely battered village of Gommecourt, with a frontage of about 1,700 yards, comprising old trench systems provided with very deep and spacious German dug-outs. At the same time the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment moved into the Gommecourt reserve trenches to the right. The system taken over was in a neglected state; and there was in consequence a steady demand for working parties from the two Battalions for the strengthening of existing trenches and the construction of new lines. Practically the whole of this work required to be carried out under cover of darkness, as the enemy enjoyed many advantages in respect of high ground and observation.
On July 15th a minor operation was carried out by the New Zealand Division, resulting in the general line being advanced a short distance in front of Hebuterne and in the vicinity of Rossignol Wood. This was succeeded by considerable activity on both sides, and when it fell to the Regiment to relieve Canterbury in the front line of the left Brigade sector on the night of the 17th, the situation was still very unsettled. The inter-battalion boundary was at Green Street, at the northern point of Rossignol Wood, where by means of a series of posts held by the two Battalions in conjunction a footing was maintained on the edge of the Wood. page 310 The enemy was very close at this point, being established in Rossignol Wood in concrete "pill-boxes" with blocks constructed across the old communication trenches which connected the opposing lines. To the left the front extended along Railway Trench for about 250 yards to the south-west of the Wood, with further to the left a line of outposts about 300 yards in advance of Bass Trench, fronting the enemy's main line of resistance to the south-east.
It was soon to be disclosed that one effect of the minor operation carried out by the Division on the 15th was to force the enemy to the conclusion that his retention of Rossignol Wood was undesirable or impracticable. About midnight on the 19th several explosions were heard from the interior of the Wood, subsequent investigation disclosing the fact that the enemy had blown up his concrete "pillboxes" prior to evacuation. At an early hour on the 20th a reconnaissance was effected by Sergt. Travis, when it was definitely learned that the enemy had evacuated the Wood entirely. All posts were now advanced and preparations made for regaining touch with the enemy and determining the extent of his withdrawal.
On the left the 1st Battalion proceeded to push forward patrols from the outpost line in front of Bass Trench to the sunken road west of Fork Wood, at the same time extending the move in a south-westerly direction to Railway trench in order to gain touch with the right Company, the 14th, a party from which was pushing up from Railway trench to make good the high ground in the vicinity. Further parties operated in the direction of the south-eastern fringe of Rossignol Wood. Similarly, the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment had established posts on the south-western edge, and patrols were pushing forward in the direction of Owl trench, with Auckland troops co-operating still further to the right. The trenches east of the Wood were found to be filled with wire, which forced the patrols on to the top and retarded their progress. Furthermore, trenches east and south-west of Rossignol Wood were strongly held by the enemy, who offered considerable resistance to any attempt at advance beyond the limits of his deliberate withdrawal overnight. Thus there were several bombing encounters at close range, and minenwerfer fire was employed by the enemy to dislodge page 311 our patrols. The enemy appeared to be holding the lines of Moa and Shag trenches in strength; while the sunken road running at right angles to the head of Railway trench was also strongly manned. This was evidently his selected line of resistance; and it was found a difficult task to persuade him to retire beyond it. Intermittent fighting continued throughout the greater part of the day, and a fairly large number of casualties were inflicted on the enemy across the front of operations; our own casualties being comparatively light. The enemy left behind some material, including one minenwerfer gun.
The line established at the close of the day, the result of gruelling work in a hot sun, was well in advance of Rossignol Wood on the southern and eastern sides. During the night a new trench was cut by the 1st Battalion from the junction of Auckland and Railway trenches to a point about 200 yards to the right, thus giving access to the new line from right to left without having to pass through Rossignol Wood. During the afternoon there was increased artillery fire over Rossignol Wood and the new ground; also a certain amount of machine gun fire from Fork Wood and the high ground in the vicinity. Artillery fire developed considerably during the night and continued for some time; our own artillery retaliating strongly.
On the 21st both Battalions carried out inter-company reliefs. With the 1st Battalion, 14th Company on the right of the front line was relieved by 10th Company, and 8th Company on the left by 4th Company. With the 2nd Battalion, 10th Company relieved 4th Company in the front line; 14th Company went into support; 8th Company remained at Salmon Point; and 4th Company moved back to reserve. On the 22nd slight improvements were made in the general line, and our patrols were again active in front of the newly won ground.
A review of the new positions showed that it was highly desirable that the line should be advanced still further, which would secure the higher ground, afford improved observation and field of fire, and at the same time effect a more complete clearance of Rossignol Wood. A minor operation to effect this purpose was decided on and set down for 5 p.m. on the 23rd. Meanwhile preparations were commenced for estab-page 312lishing forward dumps and continuing the Biez switch thro ugh Rossignol Wood. Heavy shelling of the area continued at intervals, causing considerable interruption to parties journeying to and from the line. Stormy weather now intervened, flooding the trenches and approaches, and compelling the postponement of the operation for 24 hours. The attack was originally to have been carried out under a. light trench mortar barrage, with the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the New Zealand Field Artillery and the Corps heavy artillery co-operating; the 37th Divisional Artillery creating a diversion by bombarding Bucquoy on the left, and establishing a smoke barrage in that locality.
At the revised time, 5 p.m. on July 24th, under a brief light trench mortar bombardment only, the two Companies of the Regiment committed to the operation, 10th Company of the 1st Battalion on the left and 10th Company of the 2nd Battalion on the right, advanced to the attack. The enemy being busy with his evening meal was taken completely by surprise; there being also evidence that he was on the point of being relieved. His resistance was accordingly weaker, and his posts were either rushed or bombed in quick succession. On the left of the attack, the first post yielded two prisoners and a machine gun to the 1st Battalion; while further ahead at the junction of a communication trench with Shag trench another post was encountered and bombed, the enemy being driven out, leaving one killed. The left platoon met with temporary opposition from a machine gun position in Shag trench, from which quarter 2nd-Lieut. A. M. Rhinesmith and his orderly were shot down on entering the trench. Right parties, working from the flank, drove the post out; the enemy abandoning a machine gun in his flight. The left attacking platoon, after establishing a block in Railway trench, worked its way across the open to the sunken road and rushed a position, which we then took over and established a block at the junction of the sunken road and Railway trench. A number of the enemy were killed, and three prisoners, two machine guns, and a quantity of equipment captured. The assault over the left portion of the selected front had thus achieved distinct success.
Severe fighting marked this stage of the operations; and standing out above it all was the splendid gallantry, determination and resourceful daring of Sergt. Dick Travis. It was his crowning effort on this day that won for him the coveted Victoria Cross. An extract from the official narrative of events will show the stuff he was made of:—
"A bombing party on the right of the attack was held up by two enemy machine guns, and the success of the whole operation was in danger. Perceiving this, Sergt. Travis, with great gallantry and utter disregard of danger, rushed the position, killed the crew, and captured the guns. An enemy officer and three men immediately rushed at him from a bend in the trench and attempted to retake the guns. These four he killed single-handed, thus allowing the bombing party, on which much depended, to advance."
It was estimated that approximately 50 of the enemy were killed during the course of the operations. The captures amounted to four prisoners (all identifications being of the 73rd Fusilier Regiment, 111th Division), six machine guns and two trench mortars. The greater portion of the trenches captured were in good order and contained dug-outs and shelters. We were now afforded direct observation into Puisieux. In the actual operations our own casualties were page 314 light, but they increased considerably when the enemy artillery retaliation came down 14 minutes after zero on Rossignol Wood and adjoining trenches, and along the valleys. During the night the enemy maintained almost uninterrupted artillery fire over our area, the majority of the shells falling in rear of the new front line.
At daylight on the 25th a heavy barrage descended over the sector occupied by the 1st Battalion, and about 10 o'clock in the morning this was repeated with increased activity and over a much wider area. The fire from this concentration of artillery, embracing guns of various calibres, was of exceptional severity, and for close on an hour swept over the front and forward positions of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, No infantry action developed and the fire gradually died down. At 3 p.m. there was a further outburst. At 7 p.m. the enemy artillery broke out in still greater fury; and on this occasion heavy machine gun fire was added. The enemy was observed massing in the valley to the south of Rossignol Wood, and as an attack appeared imminent the S.O.S. signal was sent up by the 2nd Battalion; but it was some time before artillery support was forthcoming. Following upon this intense preparation the enemy launched an attack across the front of the two Battalions of the Regiment. The assault against the 1st Battalion was delivered by two distinct parties. The left party, consisting of one officer and 20 men, took as its objective the post commanded by Lieut. H. Holden at the junction of the sunken road and Railway trench. After working down the shelter of the communication trench the enemy crossed over the open, but were immediately met with Lewis gun and rifle fire and successfully beaten off, a number being killed. The right assaulting party of about one officer and 25 other ranks similarly worked their way down the old communication trenches, and on their barrage lifting divided into three sections. When within 60 yards of our line they commenced throwing stick bombs, at the same time advancing on the post. The garrison of this section of the line, commanded by 2nd-Lieut. A. Macdonald, at once assailed them with Lewis gun fire and bombs, and beat them off with deadly effect. Our artillery barrage came down at this juncture and added to the destruction.page 315
Along the front of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment the enemy attacked in much greater strength. Here again, after taking advantage of the cover provided by the several disused saps, they advanced over the open as their barrage lifted from our line, and delivered their assault in three sections, each at an estimated strength of 40. On the right flank the enemy overwhelmed the garrison and penetrated the line. At all other points the assault was most effectively smashed. The platoons held in readiness in Moa trench were at once organised for counter-attack against the invasion. Under the command of Lieut. C. F. Atmore they advanced against the enemy, supported by a small party under 2nd-Lieut. E. Malcolm, which crossed over the open and went straight to its objective with the bayonet. This combined counter-stroke was driven home with such determination and skill that the whole of the enemy who had penetrated our trenches were either killed or wounded, allowing the line to be firmly re-established. The determined leadership of Lieut. C. B. McClure, M.C., throughout the two days' operations had contributed largely to the success achieved.
Altogether about 30 prisoners, the majority of whom were wounded, were left in our hands; and along the front of the 2nd Battalion, where the weight of the attack fell, close on 60 enemy dead were counted. In addition to the casualties inflicted by the trench garrisons, the enemy when retreating undoubtedly suffered from our artillery fire.
Subsequently enemy troops were reported to be massing in the locality of Fork Wood, east of Rossignol Wood, a development which was effectively dealt with by our heavy artillery. This was followed by a brief period of retaliatory shelling, directed mainly to High Street, after which the situation became entirely normal. Had the bombardment and counter-attack opened but a few minutes later the Regiment would have been caught in the middle of a relief; a process involving a dangerous congestion of troops in the forward system. Fortunately there was time to despatch orders to the approaching relief to stand fast until the situation had cleared. When relief was accomplished an hour or two later the Regiment handed over to the incoming troops of the 3rd Brigade a system of trenches in many places completely flattened out by the weight of the bombardment.page 316
The enemy's casualties in the concluding operation were clearly heavy; our own losses, due to the exceptional severity of the several bombardments directed against our lines, were by the close of the day also severe. Among the morning's total was 2nd-Lieut. C. A. Kerse, of the 2nd Battalion, who was killed by shell fire; and among those who fell later in the day, Lieut. D. J. Beechey, also of the 2nd Battalion, who was bayoneted when valiantly holding his ground at the point where the enemy penetrated our line.
The Regiment had on this day suffered one other loss, the tragedy of which left it overwhelmed with grief. Sergt. Richard Travis, after a long series of exploits of unexampled daring and courage, and at the moment when the greatest of all military honours had been conferred upon him, had been struck down in the storm of the morning's bombardment. The hero of countless gallant deeds had passed across to the silent legion of unreturning and honoured dead.