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

The Regiment in Action

page 118

The Regiment in Action.

The weather broke fine on the morning of September 15th. Zero hour was fixed at 6.20 am., and by 6 o'clock all ranks had breakfasted and were fortified by a stout issue of rum. In order as far as possible to conceal from the enemy the hour of attack there was no increase of our artillery fire immediately before the assault was timed to commence. Shortly after 6 o'clock three distinct lines of troops of the 2nd Battalion of Otago, which in conjunction with the 2nd Battalion of Auckland was to open the New Zealand Division's attack, had formed up in front of the new Otago Trench at intervals in depth of about 50 yards, and a fourth line was in Otago Trench itself.

Zero hour, 6.20 a.m., was the common signal for a mighty effort on the part of infantry and artillery. An intense and hurricane-like barrage of field artillery instantaneously broke out along the line; the great howitzers in the rear, hitherto firing but intermittently, now burst forth in extreme violence, and the anxiously awaiting lines of infantrymen stepped forward as in one accord and moved straight to their task. But the advancing waves had not proceeded far before officers and men began to drop from the ranks, for heavy machine gun fire was coming from the left and from the front of High Wood. It had been strongly impressed on everyone that the leading waves must hug the barrage, but the pace of the barrage and the pace of an anxious infantry barely coincided, and even before Crest Trench had been reached two distinct halts had been made to allow of the barrage lifting. During these intervals men took snap-shots at machine guns which were observed on the line of Crest Trench. When it was possible to move forward again not a few in their eagerness worked their way through gaps in the barrage and were caught up in our own fire. On the left the 140th Brigade was temporarily held up outside High Wood, the result being a considerable and dangerous gap on our left flank, and from this quarter enemy machine guns and snipers enfiladed and swept our advancing waves with disastrous effect.

On the right of the Battalion the position was quite secure, and close touch was maintained with the 2nd Battalion of Auckland. which in turn was in touch with the 122nd page 119 Brigade of the 41st Division on its right. Thus, with Otago and Auckland Battalions attacking on a combined frontage of approximately 950 yards, Crest Trench was stormed and its garrison quickly dealt with. Those of the enemy who chose to remain in it and confronted the Otago men hurled bombs and fired their rifles at the advancing infantrymen almost up to the last moment, and then threw up their hands and called for mercy. Two hundred or more of the enemy had previously elected to turn and run towards the shelter of Switch Trench in the rear, and a considerable number of them were shot down by our Lewis gunners in the third wave before they reached it. Crest Trench was in point of fact thus left lightly held, the leading wave quickly rushed it, fiercely brushed aside the enemy's foolish presumption of mercy to be bought so easily, and when Crest Trench was finished with there was a grim significance in the fact that the only enemy left alive in it were two stretcher bearers and two wounded men.

Sections from the fourth wave, now up in line, were left to mop up the trench, and the three leading waves swept on towards the more formidable Switch Line, a distance of about 250 yards ahead. Up to this stage the Battalion had suffered severely from the machine gun fire from the left previously referred to, but the 140th Brigade had now come up more into line and the trouble from that quarter diminished accordingly. On arrival at Switch Trench the four waves, according to programme, had merged into one, and when they jumped into the trench there was not much work left for the bayonet. Switch Trench had been strongly held by machine guns, but the speed with which the attack was delivered, and the manner in which it was pushed forward, prevented the enemy bringing these weapons into action once the barrage had forced him to run to cover. It was a case of point-blank rifle fire, a sudden rush, a liberal use of the bomb, and Switch Trench was clear of the enemy and in our hands. This was at 6.53 am., or half an hour after the attack had opened. The only prisoners taken were four German officers. Our slightly wounded were left as guard over deep dug-outs which, although already well bombed, possibly still contained lurking enemy.

The Battalion, in company with Auckland, then went forward a distance of 70 yards, and the siting and digging page 120 of a new line in front of Switch Trench was at once commenced. Major W. G. Wray and Captain D. E. Bremner, although both had been wounded, marked out the line along Otago's front. By midday, as the result of desperately hard work, the new line had been dug to an appreciable depth. The enemy's artillery had now determined our line of consolidation, and commenced shelling it with most destructive precision. This continued until well after dusk, and in places the new trench was completely blown in, necessitating a great deal of re-digging; but our men, working with extraordinary vigour, had by evening dug into a depth of six feet over all. Following upon the capture of the objective one company of the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury came up and commenced the construction of strong-points and otherwise ensured the safety of the refused left flank from the possibility of attack from the direction of High Wood; while the placing of four additional Vickers guns along the front gave still further security. During the night this Canterbury Company continued its task and connected up with the line of the 140th Brigade to the left.

For the purposes of the attack our artillery barrage in its various phases had proved wonderfully accurate and effective. The enemy's wire was practically smashed up all along the line, whilst his trenches were almost entirely demolished and in places quite obliterated. That the Germans up to the point when this avalanche descended upon them had lived with some degree of luxury was evidenced by the discovery of hot coffee, wine, and good cigars in some of the deep dug-outs—all spoils for the victors. Thus the first objective in our first attack on the Somme was carried and held. But our casualties were heavy. The Battalion went into action with 20 officers and 816 other ranks, and the losses for the day in killed, wounded and missing, were 15 officers and 445 other ranks; but the advance had been magnificently and determinedly carried out from start to finish. It was from the left flank that the Battalion suffered most; and in view of the volume of machine gun fire which came from that quarter during the advance, and the fact that our left had not then been linked up with the right of the 8th Regiment of the 140th Brigade, and that High Wood had not at that stage been cleared of the enemy, Lieut.-page 121Colonel Smith, who had gone forward to personally reconnoitre the position, naturally for a time viewed the situation with a good deal of uneasiness. His left companies had suffered very severely. The 10th Company, after losing all its officers, was, for example, reduced to 36 men, and was commanded with much skill and judgment by Sergt. H. Bellamy. The arrival of the company of the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, however, fortified the exposed left flank, and it was finally made quite secure.

At midnight on the 15th Otago was relieved by Canterbury, and the remnant of the Battalion marched back during the early hours of the morning to Savoy and Carlton Trenches. It rested there until 3.30 p.m. on the 16th, and during that interval men who had been wounded or got adrift in the confusion of attack were coming in from all quarters wet and weary beyond description. In the afternoon the Battalion moved up again to Worcester, Black Watch and Seaforth Trenches, with an effective strength of 17 officers and 466 other ranks; and later in the evening took in hand the task of consolidating and making its position on the left flank secure against a threatened counter-attack from the direction of High Wood. The Battalion remained there over the 17th and the greater part of the 18th.

In resuming the narrative of the day's operations, it will be necessary in order to gain some fairly clear idea of the general course of the attack to remember that after a lapse of one hour from zero the troops of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade were to advance to the assault and capture of the remaining objectives. At the appointed time the artillery barrage reopened with all its former intensity, and the men of the Rifle Brigade, passing through Otago and Auckland troops, now settled on the Switch Line, moved forward to the second objective, which was practically the trench system extending along and defending the south-western side of Flers village. Simultaneously, as these troops advanced from their assembly points, the 2nd Battalions of Canterbury and Wellington moved into the positions thus vacated. The Rifle Brigade, in face of heavy machine gun fire, captured the second line, then advanced to the assault of the third objective, and finally swept through the western edge of the village of Flers. About 1 p.m. advice had been received that an enemy counter-page 122attack was developing from a point north-west of the village, and the 2nd Battalion of Wellington was ordered to move forward and meet it and afford support to the 3rd Brigade troops. The enemy was now heavily shelling the Switch Line and sweeping the areas between there and Flers village. The two leading Companies of Wellington, however, pushed on through Flers and beyond to the north-western side of the village. The capture of Flers was not actually in the New Zealand Division's programme, but to that extreme point, the north-western side, three platoons of 3rd Brigade troops had forced their way. The Wellington men were distributed along the shelter of the sunken road in rear, and a return was made to reconnoitre and search the village; but so grim had been the earlier fighting there that only dead and maimed and dying men were found in the streets and among the shattered ruins. A continuation of the search along the road leading from Flers to Factory Corner, and to the right of the village, located two further platoons of 3rd Brigade troops. The Wellington troops were immediately called upon to fill the gap between these isolated right and left parties, and by connecting up the front the northern side of Flers village was secured. It was during this stage that one of the four tanks allotted to the Division, having nosed its way through the ruins, performed valuable work, lumbering along the Flers-Factory Corner Road and covering the infantry's task of consolidation with broadsides of machine gun fire and blasts from its forward gun. Later in the evening the position encircling Flers was made more secure by the arrival of additional men and machine guns, and before midnight the line was well dug in and protected by the cross-fire of Vickers guns. When a systematic search of the village was made, most of the cellars were found to contain enemy in numbers. Several prisoners had been taken when an enemy party came out with a machine gun and raked the clearing party, killing three and wounding four; thereafter no prisoners were taken.

At the close of the day the XV. Corps consolidated on the line held, which was approximately that of the third objective. There was further grim work ahead for the morrow.

We may now turn to the 1st Battalion of the Regiment, which we had left in Fricourt Wood when the attack opened page 123 early in the morning awaiting developments and ready for any emergency. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon the Battalion moved up to Mametz Wood and again bivouacked. The 14th Company was then detached and ordered to proceed to Green Dump to act as ration carriers, and the Battalion was thus left with three Companies. Shortly after midnight it moved out from Mametz Wood and proceeding through Thistle Alley worked its way up to the allotted point of assembly, which comprised trenches prepared for the troops concerned in the attack of the 15th. Heavy rain, the darkness of night, and the strangeness of the surroundings did not tend to make this operation an easy one.

The general attack of the XV. Corps on Les Boeufs and Gueudecourt was to be resumed on the following morning, the 16th. The III. Corps on the left was engaged with the high ridge west of Flers and the village of Martinpuich. It was later discovered that bombing parties had reached the neighbourhood of Gird and Gird Support trenches on the right of Flers and found that they were lightly held. Further reconnaissances also pointed to Grove Alley being vacated. It was accordingly decided to suspend the heavy artillery bombardment of Gird and Gird Support trenches, and the 14th and 41st Divisions were ordered to push forward strong patrols and if possible occupy these lines. The New Zealand Division was to co-operate by guarding the left flank and occupying the line of Grove Alley originally allotted to it, which was on the left and in advance of the line then occupied. The 1st Infantry Brigade was ordered to carry out this operation, to move one Battalion up to near the third objective and concentrate the remainder of the Brigade between the Switch Line and the road leading thence to the south. It was decided that after this, the fourth objective, had been gained, further objectives would be attacked; the New Zealand Division's share in this extension of operations to be the capture of Goose Alley, stretching from Flers Trench to Gird Support and representing a front of approximately 1,750 yards, and joining up with the III. Corps. This actually meant for us swinging the attack round to the west from the northerly direction previously followed.

At 10.20 a.m. on the 16th the 1st Battalion of Wellington occupied Grove Alley with ease, and pushed forward patrols page 124 in the direction of Goose Alley. By 10.45 a.m. the 1st Battalion of Otago, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Charters, commenced to move forward to Switch Trench, and before 1 p.m. had reached and settled down there. In order to reach this position the Battalion had been forced to pass through a heavy barrage of fire, extending right along Switch Trench and from there back over the reverse slope to Tea Trench and its left extensions. The casualties incurred in effecting this change of positions for the attack were fairly numerous.

But the intended attack on Goose Alley, timed for 1 p.m. on the date mentioned, did not take place, owing to the attack of the 41st Division on the right not having advanced sufficiently far north of Flers. It was accordingly announced that the general attack would be renewed on the 18th, with the 55th Division in relief of the 41st, and the 21st Division in relief of the 14th. On the 17th it was notified that a further postponement to the 21st was necessary. But subsequently it was definitely postponed until the 25th owing principally to the severity of the weather and the ever-accumulating mud and accentuation of difficulties of movement and traffic.

During the night of the 16th-17th the 1st Battalion had moved up to Fat Trench in relief of the 4th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, and the deepening and improvement of this line which was then effected materially assisted in keeping down casualties later. With the Battalion established in Fat Trench, the situation had continued fairly normal up to 1 p.m. on the 17th, when the enemy opened and maintained for some time a heavy bombardment of our left sector, occupied by 8th and 10th Companies. This intense bombardment of our lines was renewed at 3.30 p.m., and continued until 6 p.m., at which stage a message that the enemy was barraging Cough-drop Line necessitated steps being taken to watch the left flank closely in view of possible enemy action. There was a further resumption of this heavy shelling at 9 p.m., but it was not so severe over our area as formerly. The ultimate result of these periods of extreme artillery activity was an increasing toll of casualties and a necessity for constantly effecting repairs to our trenches.

At two o'clock on the morning of the 18th a message was received from Brigade that the Battalion of the page 125 London Rifles on our left was making an attack on that part of Flers Trench and Flers Support adjoining the left of the line held by the 1st Battalion of Auckland and extending to Goose Alley, and that Otago Battalion was to take over the position when it had been consolidated. Previous to this, the 10th (North Otago) Company, commanded by Captain J. Hargest, had been in touch with the 8th London Regiment in Fat Trench, and because of the latter's numerical weakness had taken over about 200 yards of its line. When the 8th London troops attacked at 5.30 a.m. the Lewis guns of 10th Company, together with two Vickers guns under Lieut. R. B. Caws, were thrust forward in readiness to support their right flank, and for the material assistance thus given an appreciative letter of thanks was received from the G.O.C. 47th Division. The 8th (Southland) Company, commanded by Major S. Rice, now proceeded to take over the new line, but the enemy in Goose Alley harassed our men with bombs from the high ground at the junction of Flers Trench and Goose Alley, the locality of many grim struggles, and endeavoured to work their way down from it. It was therefore necessary to bomb the enemy back in the direction of Goose Alley and establish protective blocks. The work accomplished on this morning by our bombers, under Lance-corp. W. Murray, against almost overwhelming odds, was of a very gallant order. The enemy resorted to volley firing, and in addition to being more liberally supplied with bombs, had the advantage of position on the high ground. However, our party succeeded in accomplishing its task of establishing and maintaining a block, notwithstanding the fact that every bomber of the Battalion who had been engaged had become a casualty.

At 11 p.m. the Battalion was relieved by Companies of the 2nd Battalions of Otago and Auckland, and moved back to Carlton Trench, reaching there at 4.30 a.m. on the 19th. The weather was now extremely bad, and the floundering in the deep mud and ooze of the Somme made a change-over a most exhaustive process. A hot meal was served at Carlton Trench, and subsequently there was a slight improvement in the weather. But the troops were in the worst possible state of wretchedness and exhaustion. The period just completed, though it had passed without page 126 an actual attack being delivered, represented one of the very worst the Regiment had experienced. Incessant rain had fallen for 60 hours; the men were standing or moving knee-deep in mud the whole of the time; they were soaked in rain, and no hot food was procurable owing to the long distance to be covered from the dump. Furthermore, the effect of the enemy shell fire on congested trenches made the conditions simply appalling. On arrival at Carlton Trench, where the Battalion bivouacked over the succeeding few days, the state to which everyone was reduced was that of the deepest misery and exhaustion. Major Colquhoun at this time rejoined the Battalion, officers who had been left at the Rest Camp arrived, and the 14th Company returned from Green Dump, where it had been providing carrying parties. All available roads, such as they were, were taxed to the utmost by the constant stream of wheeled traffic with material of war for the artillery and front line, and with the heavy rain on top of all this, were in an almost impassable state. But repairs must be kept going; new roads must be formed as the Army advanced; and the demand for large working parties under these circumstances was inevitable. Still, the period represented a short respite of a kind and allowed for the gathering of new strength for a further effort before many hours.

When the 2nd Battalion of Otago moved up to Flag and Fat Trenches on the 18th in conformity with the relief of the 1st Brigade, the position on the left still remained obscure. The enemy was apparently determined not to be ousted from Flers Trench and Flers Support in the locality of Goose Alley, nor to be denied his hold on the junction of Drop Alley. The 4th and 8th Companies were sent up in support of Auckland troops who were endeavouring, though unsuccessfully, to push the enemy out by bombing attacks; and in the interval 10th Company was concerned with the digging of a new assembly trench. It was imperative that a footing should be gained on the high ground in order to facilitate our further advance and the ultimate capture of the Gird trenches. On the 20th Canterbury troops made a most determined assault on the enemy at this point under cover of darkness in an endeavour to definitely settle the ownership of the disputed locality of Goose Alley and Drop page 127 Alley. The attack, in which the fighting was of the fiercest order, was successful, but was followed by a well organised counter-attack up Flers Line, which drove back the bombing post and the garrison of the strong-point, regained the whole of Drop Alley and threatened the left and left rear. Rallying to the attack once more Canterbury overwhelmed the enemy in a fierce encounter, drove him off the crest, and finally held and consolidated the position against a further counter-attack launched on the evening of the 21st. Canterbury Regiment naturally suffered heavily in this bitter struggle; but the ground was strewn with German dead, of whom it was estimated 300 had been killed in the fighting just concluded.

On the evening of the 21st there was an intense bombardment of all our lines. We were now in touch on the left with the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch, who had relieved the London Regiment, and at about 10 p.m. we were in turn relieved by the 4th Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and companies went back independently to Worcester and Seaforth Trenches. On the 22nd welcome reinforcements arrived to the number of eight officers and 140 other ranks. The Battalion was being seriously weakened in strength, but in spite of the gruelling work, the heavy and almost incessant shelling, and the mud of seemingly unfathomable depths, there was no diminution of the fighting spirit. So it was, indeed, with the whole of the Regiment.

On September 24th the 1st Battalion moved out from Carlton Trench, via Turk Lane and Fat Trench, and the 2nd Battalion took up its quarters in the positions thus vacated. By 3 a.m. on the 25th the 1st Battalion had relieved Rifle Brigade troops in Flers Trench. The order of the day was quick reliefs, for it was only in this way that the hardships imposed by the weather and the unfavourable conditions generally could be successfully overcome. At 6 a.m. our trenches were heavily bombarded, and it was not until about 8.30 a.m. that the situation had quietened down. It was thought during this bombardment that the enemy was about to launch an attack, but no infantry action developed.