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

An Enemy Withdrawal

An Enemy Withdrawal.

Following upon the Battle of Amiens, warning advice was issued of a probable withdrawal by the enemy opposite the New Zealand Divisional front. Patrols were commanded to display added activity in maintaining touch with the enemy in order that any attempt in this direction should be detected immediately. Demolitions were reported to have been carried out in Albert; abnormal movement in rear of the enemy's lines strengthening the belief of an intended withdrawal at certain points as the result of the deep penetration of the line further south in the Battle of Amiens.

Across the front occupied by the 1st Battalion of the Regiment the enemy was holding an outpost line extending along the high ground of Louviere Alley, about 300 yards in advance of our line. On the morning of August 13th these posts were still occupied, and enemy movement was observed throughout the day. At 4.45 a.m. on the 14th, however, a patrol from 14th Company, under Sergt. W. A. McMillan, which had been out over night, discovered that the enemy had evacuated his positions along our front. This patrol and a party from 8th Company which had moved out at 3.30 a.m., pushed over the ridge and down the reverse slope towards the railway line in the direction of Star Wood; but still failed to gain contact.

Upon receipt of information at Battalion Headquarters disclosing this important development, Major Hargest immediately put into operation the plans which he had prepared for exploiting to the utmost such a contingency. The reserve Company, the 10th, under the command of Lieut. K. Scott, M.C., at once moved up from its position in rear and occupied the line Kaiser's Lane, Fritz Avenue, and the eastern edge of Box Wood. The remainder of the Battalion conformed to the advance. Fighting patrols were pushed page break
2nd-Lieut. J. H. Wilson, M.C., M.M., Bar To M.M.

2nd-Lieut. J. H. Wilson, M.C., M.M., Bar To M.M.

2nd-Lieut. P. T. Moir, D.C.M., M.M.

2nd-Lieut. P. T. Moir, D.C.M., M.M.

2nd-Lieut. W. P. Morrin, D.C.M., M.M.

2nd-Lieut. W. P. Morrin, D.C.M., M.M.

Sergt. L. R. Dickinson, D.C.M., M.M.

Sergt. L. R. Dickinson, D.C.M., M.M.

page 325 out and gained contact with and actively engaged strong enemy rear-guards at several points beyond Kaiser's Lane. It now became clear that the enemy was carrying out a withdrawal of his forces over the Brigade front; but the real extent of it was as yet difficult to determine. With the Battalion organised and established on the line of Kaiser's Lane and adjoining trenches, about 750 yards in rear of the Serre-Puisieux Road, an advance of considerably over 1,000 yards had already been accomplished. Our patrols continued to maintain active touch with strong enemy rear-guards; but the advance of the Battalion was temporarily embarrassed by the fact that the troops of the left Brigade were apparently at this stage unaware of the enemy's withdrawal. On the immediate right of Otago, and on the 2nd Brigade front, was the 2nd Battalion of the 317th U.S.A. Regiment, attached to the New Zealand Division, and on the left the 1st New Zealand Brigade. To the left of the New Zealand Division, the 37th Division had made little or no progress, owing to the fact of Bucquoy, which was the northern pivot of the enemy's withdrawal, being strongly held.

At 4 p.m. one Company of the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury passed through the line held by the 1st Battalion of Otago, with the intention of establishing posts in the trench system beyond the Serre-Puisieux Road. The reason for this was not quite clear, because Otago was still strong and full of fight; and moreover the movement occasioned delay and temporary loss of touch with the enemy. At 6 p.m. the Canterbury Company was held up by strong machine gun and rifle fire from the left. Two further Companies of Canterbury Regiment were then moved forward; the objective being gained only after encountering and breaking down considerable opposition. The line was now firmly established in advance of the Serre-Puisieux Road, with patrols operating to the front. The first serious shelling of the day was experienced about 8 p.m., when the enemy put down a heavy barrage between Kaiser's Lane and the Serre Road.

During the night Otago moved forward and relieved Canterbury in the newly advanced positions. The dispositions of the Battalion at that stage were: 8th Company on the right and 10th Company on the left, occupying the trench system west of the sunken road, and thence by a line page 326 of posts on the western edge of Puisieux village. The right flank was refused and held by posts established in the trenches immediately south-east of Serre village. The 14th Company was disposed in Kaiser's Lane in support, and 4th Company in Louviere Alley in reserve; with the Composite Company located in Snuff Alley and supplying ration and water carrying parties for the front line troops.

The day's operations had resulted in an important and substantial advance well conceived and executed with dash and initiative under conditions which closely resembled those of open warfare. They were the prelude to a series of events which were to have far-reaching results. In the important preliminary phase the 1st Battalion of the Regiment had specially distinguished itself; in the first place by its early discovery of the withdrawal, and in the second place by the rapid and effective manner in which it forced the enemy beyond the limits of his deliberate retirement. The Commander of the IV. Corps, in the course of a congratulatory message to the Division, referred to this operation as "Another example of splendid initiative." It was Major Hargest's sound dispositions and personal leadership that contributed so much to the success achieved.

A high bank and trench oh the eastern side of the sunken road was held by the enemy apparently in strength, and from this quarter was encountered considerable fire. On the morning of the 15th the enemy was forced out of this position by fighting patrols, leaving a machine gun in our possession. At this stage the 1st Battalion of the Regiment was holding practically the whole of the 2nd Brigade front; the 2nd Battalion of the 317th U.S.A. Regiment having sideslipped to the right owing to the 125th Brigade of the 42nd Division not being in line. This position was adjusted during the day by that Brigade capturing Pendant Copse, when touch was restored. At night the 2nd Battalion of Otago moved up from its support area at Hebuterne and relieved the Americans in the right Battalion sector; and subsequently both Battalion fronts were readjusted. In the meantime the activity of the enemy's artillery was increasing, and barrages of varying intensity were periodically directed along the Serre-Puisieux Road, Kaiser's Lane, and the valley of Star Wood.

page 327

On the evening of the 15th an endeavour was made to determine the enemy's position in relation to Puisieux. A search of the village pointed to the fact that it was not occupied. Early on the following morning, however, it was clear that the enemy had returned and was established among the ruins in some force, particularly in the locality of the church, now a pile of bricks and rubble. A hostile covering party was encountered at the road junction on the southern side of the village; and at 6.30 a.m. a strength of one platoon under 2nd-Lieut. R. E. Fyfe worked forward under cover, and at a given signal assaulted and drove the enemy from the southern outskirts of Puisieux. Seven prisoners and two light machine guns were captured; while a number of Germans were shot down by Lewis gun fire directed from the flanks. This operation was quite brilliantly conceived and executed, and was subsequently quoted with approval by General Sir Julian Byng at the Third Army Senior Officers' School.

Throughout the 16th there were periods of intense artillery activity. Our own artillery had rapidly conformed to the forward movement commenced on the 14th; batteries being now established in positions which two days previously had been occupied by the front and support line infantry garrisons. Forward roads, long since in disuse, were being repaired and made fit for wheeled traffic.

Active patrolling was continued over the front, and the closest contact with the enemy maintained. An attack against a post held by 14th Company of the 2nd Battalion was most decisively beaten off. One officer and six other ranks were taken prisoners; and one officer and five other ranks killed. A post immediately to the right, held by the neighbouring Division, was raided at the same time; one other rank and a Lewis gun falling into the hands of the enemy. The persistency of our patrols finally drove the Germans from Puisieux and its environments, and by midday on the 17th the village was under hostile artillery fire. On the same evening the 2nd Battalion of Otago was relieved by the 3rd Battalion of the 317th U.S.A. Regiment, and moved back to reserve positions, on the following night, the 18th, being withdrawn to the Chateau de la Haie switch north-east of Sailly-au-Bois.

page 328

Supported by a considerable weight of artillery, the enemy launched an attack at dawn on August 18th against our positions at Puisieux and along the slopes of the Serre Ridge, occupied by 10th Company, under command of Lieut. K. Scott, M.C. The assaulting party numbered approximately 100 men, including a proportion of what were technically known as storm troops, which had been brought for the purpose from as far afield as Douai. The enemy were apparently completely unaware of our dispositions; for they manœuvred into a position which gave every advantage to our infantry. The immediate result was that the majority of the attackers were shot to pieces by the concentrated fire of Lewis guns and rifles, and the few who succeeded in reaching our lines surrendered. The captures totalled ten unwounded and three wounded prisoners and three light machine guns. The unexpected destructiveness of our fire was exemplified by the fact that the bodies of two officers and 25 other enemy ranks were found dead in one group, and seven in another. The moral of our troops at this period was extremely high; as was demonstrated by the fact that immediately the attack was launched the front line garrison swung forward of its own accord with the object of destroying the enemy's flanks and rear.

After this very severe lesson the enemy remained quiet during the remainder of the day. At nightfall the Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and moving back to Rossignol Farm, now a considerable distance in rear, settled down as one of the units of the Brigade in reserve.

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A Corner of Puisieux-au-Mont. N.Z. Official Photograph

A Corner of Puisieux-au-Mont.
N.Z. Official Photograph

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