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

Operations Reviewed

page 138

Operations Reviewed.

An order for the relief of the New Zealand Division, less Artillery, by the 41st Division, was issued on October 2nd, and two days later this had been given effect to. The Regiment thereupon marched out of the Somme Battlefield and turned its back on the devastated region, bringing to a close its first great period of sustained fighting on the Western Front. For 23 days the Regiment had been heavily engaged in fighting of the most desperate kind. It had been pitted against and fought to a standstill the best and most seasoned troops of the German Army, and had acquitted itself in a manner that evoked widespread confidence and admiration. That the enemy regarded the retention of every yard of ground as a matter of the most vital importance, and stubbornly contested it as such, was proved by the contents of a captured German Order, dated September 25th, from which the following is an extract: "The guiding principle during the fighting on the Somme is that no sap-head or shellcrater will be abandoned without the express order of the Supreme Command of the First Army." But the express orders of the Supreme Command of the First German Army, however much they were respected, were found impossible of fulfilment because of the demands of our own irresistible infantry.

The methods of warfare employed in the Battle of the Somme were for the most part entirely new to our men, but they were assimilated and improved upon with an instinctive and ever ready initiative keenly alive to every emergency, backed by an unconquerable determination and a fighting spirit that never hesitated about paying the heavy toll so remorselessly exacted as the price of victory.

The toll levied in dead and wounded, in maimed and missing, and in personal sacrifice and suffering was heavy indeed; but if the Regiment was at times temporarily broken in strength it was never broken in spirit. The appalling mud of the Somme Battlefield; the exertion and terrible weariness of unceasing trekking to and from the line; the prolonged and heavy fighting against a clever and stubborn enemy; the rain and its accompanying miseries; and the difficulties of transport, accentuated by the disappearance page 139 of roads and tracks and the congestion of a never-ending traffic which must feed the insatiable maw of the front line, all multiplied and heaped up what might be regarded as insurmountable difficulties and hardships; but these were overcome with a determination and spirit that made our entry into the arena of the Somme the complete and sweeping success that it was. The gallant conduct in action of Company Sergt.-major Knox (4th Company, 2nd Battalion), who was awarded the Military Cross, was highly typical of the fine courage and leadership displayed by the senior non-commissioned officers of the Regiment throughout the operations.

In reading these only too brief records of the fighting on the Somme, the conclusion arrived at might be that on each occasion on which the Regiment went into definite action, it suffered almost annihilating casualties. Certainly our losses were very heavy, but this fact serves to illustrate the formidable and almost irresistible strength of the enemy defences, even after our stupendous array of artillery had dealt with them. The system of frontal or bludgeon attacks against an enemy strongly entrenched and fortified must invariably prove expensive, and the tasks to which the Regiment was committed on the Somme were of such a nature that less determined and less valiant troops might have faltered in pushing them home to a successful issue. Viewed in this light, and considering the fact that all objectives were ultimately gained, and at times a great deal more, it will be realised that heavy losses were the inevitable price of victory. For example, the general attack on September 15th, in which the Regiment made its debut on the Somme, was attended by considerably greater gains than in any single operation launched since the great offensive had opened; and greater even than in the course of any subsequent operation. The New Zealand Division commenced its operations on a frontage of 950 yards, which was ultimately extended to 2,800 yards. It captured five miles of enemy front trenches, and five and a-half of subsidiary trenches, and effected an advance to a depth exceeding two miles.

A congratulatory message received from Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, ran as follows:—"The New Zealand Division has fought with the greatest gallantry in the Somme Battle for 23 consecutive days, page 140 carrying out with complete success every task set, and always doing more than was asked of it. The Division has won universal confidence and admiration. No praise can be too high for such troops."

General Rawlinson, Commanding the Fourth Army, wrote as follows:—"I desire to express to all ranks of the New Zealand Division my hearty congratulations on the excellent work they have done during the Battle of the Somme. On three successive occasions (15th and 25th September and 1st October) they attacked the hostile positions with the greatest gallantry and vigour, capturing in each attack every objective they had allotted to them. More than this, they gained possession of, and held, several strong-points in advance of and beyond the furthest objectives that had been allotted to them. The endurance and the fine fighting spirit of the Division has been beyond praise, and their success in the Flers neighbourhood will rank amongst the best achievements of the British Army. The control and direction of the Division during these operations have been conducted with skill and precision, whilst the artillery support in establishing the barrages and defending counter-attack has been in every way most effective. It is a matter of regret to me that this fine Division is leaving the Fourth Army, and I trust that on some future occasion it may again be my good fortune to find it under my command."

During these 23 days of fighting the Division had sustained the formidable total of over 6,700 casualties of all ranks. This was, of course, a severe blow, but it was gallant sacrifice freely given. The part which the Otago Regiment played in this grim business may be gained from the following list of casualties:—
1st Battalion.
Officers …5813
Other Ranks4627764387
2nd Battalion.
Officers … 5 24 1 30
Other Ranks 81 334 133 548
Grand Total .. 978.
page 141

The immediate result of these formidable casualties was reflected in the state of Companies, which, though they were 250 strong at the outset and had subsequently received reinforcements, were in some instances now reduced to a minimum of about 30 all ranks. Moreover, the few survivors were in a condition of almost pitiable exhaustion and weariness, and presented a woeful spectacle when contrasted with the extraordinary physical fitness and great buoyancy of spirits so evident when the Regiment marched down to the area of the Somme at the beginning of September.

When the Regiment once more turned its head to the north it left behind it many stout fellows who had paid the supreme price of devotion to duty, but in the hard realities of war, regrets, however keen, had quickly to give place to the serious affairs of the morrow.

As a test of strength the Battle of the Somme was convincing, if terribly expensive. The breaking of the weather in the middle of October so multiplied the difficulties of attack as to make it impossible to exploit the situation in such a manner as to reap the full benefits. The pressure on Verdun had been removed, the transfer of German troops from the Western Front had been prevented, and the enemy's strength had been considerably weakened. The concluding stages of the Somme Battle were slow and tremendously difficult, but at its close the British advance had extended down the forward slopes of the ridge, until from Morval to Thiepval the whole plateau and a considerable area of ground beyond had been wrested from the enemy. The general withdrawal of the enemy in March of the following year to the Hindenburg Line, which, branching off from the original defences near Arras, extended south-eastwards for a distance of 12 miles to Queant, and thence passed west of Cambrai towards St. Quentin, represented the final realisation of the fruits of the Somme Offensive.