Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
Following hard upon the Battle of St. Quentin, the enemy had opened the Battle of the Lys on the morning of April 9th and made substantial progress; on May 27th a formidable attack was launched against the French Sixth Army on the Aisne, forcing the line of the Aisne River along a wide front and finally reaching the Marne in the centre of the attack; on July 15th there followed a further great drive east and south-west of Rheims, in which the crossing of the Marne was again effected. All this was startling evidence of the ability of the enemy to embark on fresh offensives and prosecute them with great vigour and strength, notwithstanding the enormous expenditure of effort which the Battle of St. Quentin had involved.
But more startling still, and more damaging and dramatic in its consequences, was the great counter-stroke launched by Marshal Foch on July 18th between Chateau Thierry, at the apex, and Soissons, on the northern flank, against the deep German salient which resulted from the Battle of the Aisne two months previously. From this master stroke might be said to date the turning point of the War, and the commencement of a sequence of events, following in rapid succession, which signally and completely changed the whole complexion of the conflict.
The British Forces had now almost entirely recovered from the shock sustained in March and April, and the American Army was growing rapidly in numbers and efficiency. The sweeping successes which attended Marshal Foch's counter-offensive, and the fact that the German reserve of strength had been largely drawn upon in these several great attacks, presented overwhelming argument in favour of a broad Allied scheme of offensive. The first phase was the Battle of Amiens. The plan of operation decided upon was page 322 to strike in an easterly and south-easterly direction, with the primary object of gaining the line of the outer defences of Amiens and thereby disengaging the main Paris-Amiens Railway. The attack was then to be pushed forward in the direction of Roye, with the object of capturing the railway junction of Chaulnes, which would have the effect of cutting the communications of the enemy forces in the Lassigny and Montdidier areas, south-east of Amiens.
The attack by the Fourth Army was launched early on the morning of August 8th, on a front of over 11 miles, the Australian Corps operating in the centre, the Canadian Corps on the right, and the III. Corps on the left. Over 400 tanks supported the attack. One hour later the French First Army advanced on a front of five miles between Moreuil and the British right. The success achieved in this five days' battle was represented by the capture of close on 22,000 prisoners and over 400 guns, the complete disengaging of Amiens and the converging railways, and the penetration of the enemy's defences to a depth of 12 miles. This deep advance, combined with the operations of the French on the right, compelled the immediate evacuation by the enemy of considerable territory to the south. August 8th, the day on which was accomplished the delivery of this swift and decisive stroke, has been referred to by Ludendorff as "Germany's Black Day."
There followed a series of great battles and enforced enemy withdrawals north and south, in which, in three months of continuous fighting, our Armies advanced without check from one victory to another until the enemy was finally overwhelmed and fell back in utter confusion and disorder.
On being relieved in the line at Rossignol Wood on July 25th the Regiment marched back to reserve, the 1st Battalion to Couin Wood, and the 2nd Battalion to Rossignol Farm, above Coigneux village. These positions were maintained until, in the opening days of August, the 2nd Infantry Brigade relieved the 1st Infantry Brigade in the right subsector of the Divisional front, which extended between Gommecourt and Hebuterne.page 323
The Regiment now moved into new positions. The 1st Battalion was disposed along the valley between Sailly-au-Bois and the Chateau de la Haie, and in the eastern edge of the village itself; the 2nd Battalion in support trenches at Hebuterne village.
At this stage the Regiment received a complement of selected troops, about 100 to each Battalion, from the American Expeditionary Force; these being merged into the different Companies with a view to obtaining a knowledge of the line and its conditions under the guidance of experienced troops.
For several days the activities of the Regiment were confined to trench construction and improvement; while the 1st Battalion, by reason of being further back from the line, found it convenient to carry out modified training. On August 7th Major Hargest assumed command of the 1st Battalion on Lieut.-Colonel Charters proceeding to the United Kingdom on leave.
On the night of August 10th-11th the 1st Battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury in the line to the east of Gommecourt as the left front line Battalion of the right Brigade. The two forward Companies were 14th and 8th from right to left, with 4th Company in support and 10th Company in reserve. A Composite Company, formed of men surplus to the establishment consequent upon the additional strength given to the Battalion by the inclusion of 100 Americans, took up its quarters in Patricia trench, in Gommecourt Park, and was made responsible for the major portion of the work carried out in the front line area.
The new sector extended across the front of Hebuterne and the southern extremity of Gommecourt, and was immediately south of the sector at Rossignol Wood previously occupied. From the slopes of the high ground of the front line back to Battalion Headquarters in Gommecourt Park there was still remarkable evidence of the grim and protracted struggles which were waged round the Gommecourt salient during the Somme Offensive of 1916—trees riven and blasted by shell fire, derelict tanks, the ground pitted with great shell-holes, densities of heaped-up wire entanglements, wooden crosses, and even trenches still lined with grinning skulls and bones and the litter of broken paraphernalia of page 324 war. And perhaps more remarkable still, as exemplifying the almost impregnable nature of the defences of the salient, were the maze of deep trenches still undestroyed, the belts of wire still intact, the iron-plated machine gun loop-holes which commanded every approach, and the scores of dugouts of extraordinary depth and size.
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.
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.page break page break