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

The Hindenburg System

page 348

The Hindenburg System.

In the whole of the sweeping operations in which the Regiment had become engaged since its discovery of the first German withdrawal on the morning of August 14th, the tactics employed were almost essentially those of open warfare. Trench-to-trench fighting had suddenly given place to a war of movement. Within a month the Division had advanced to a depth of close on 20 miles. Many villages of size and a great area of country had been liberated. The whole machinery of war, the cogs of which had long been stationary, was working swiftly and with telling effect. The enemy, now withdrawing everywhere, had been thrown off his balance. On the one side, terrific artillery barrages delivered by guns massed almost wheel to wheel, the infantry, flushed with victory, exerting relentless pressure or in full pursuit, an ever-increasing toll of prisoners and enemy dead, piles of booty, and, as a spectacle never to be forgotten, a bewildering and enormous stream of men, guns, tanks, ammunition supply, transport, and all the vast essentials of a great Army, ceaselessly rolling eastward; on the other side retreat, stubborn rear-guard actions, counter-attacks to save time and artillery or in a vain endeavour to snatch back a vital position, the abandoning of guns and material, the blowing up of roads and bridges, disorganisation, and the lowering moral that comes of defeat. It was the debacle of March over again, but with the positions reversed.

After those strenuous days and nights of battles and pursuits, the New Zealand Division, on being relieved by the 5th Division, withdrew to Corps reserve for a brief rest. On September 14th the Regiment marched back to the area of Bihucourt, where it was established in huts and under-page 349ground shelters. Later, several officers and over 100 other ranks were received by each Battalion as reinforcements, and training, principally in open warfare tactics, was proceeded with. During the night of the 17th a heavy thunderstorm broke over the camps and flooded the underground shelters. The 2nd Infantry Brigade was held in readiness as the leading unit of the Division to move at two hours' notice, in the event of sudden counter-attack by the enemy and support being required. On the evening of the 18th, during a performance by the Divisional Entertainers at Bihucourt, the announcement was made that the enemy had heavily attacked the 37th Division north of Havrincourt Wood, and the entertainment was abruptly closed in order that units should at once prepare to move. Advice was subsequently received that the attack had been repulsed, and after standing to for some time the Regiment was ordered to stand by at half-an-hour's notice until the following morning.

While the Regiment was in the Bihucourt area, several changes were effected in Battalion commands. Lieut.-Colonel Charters, C.M.G., D.S.O., had returned from the United Kingdom, where he had been on leave, and reassumed command of the 1st Battalion. Major J. Hargest, D.S.O., M.C., was appointed to command the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, with promotion to the rank of Lieut.-Colonel. By this step he terminated a long and distinguished connection with the 1st Battalion of the Regiment. The posts of Second-in-Command were filled by Major L. M. Scott, M.C., appointed to the 1st Battalion, and Major W. Ward, to the 2nd Battalion.

On September 24th the 2nd Battalion was inspected by General Russell, G.O.C. New Zealand Division, and on the following day the 1st Battalion came in for similar attention. The tour in reserve was drawing to a close.

Units of the 2nd Infantry Brigade received orders on September 26th to move forward to the Bertincourt area. The Regiment marched out of camp in the cool of the evening, and the 1st Battalion proceeded to Barastre and the 2nd Battalion to Haplincourt Wood, On the 27th an attack was launched by the 5th and 42nd Divisions, and subsequently the enemy was reported to be retiring eastward. It was further reported that the 42nd Division had occupied Welsh page 350 Ridge, and troops of the New Zealand Division were ordered to pass through and continue the pressure. The report of the capture of Welsh Ridge proved to be premature. The Regiment accordingly remained comparatively inactive throughout the 27th; but on the morning of the 28th, a dull and stormy day, the two Battalions advanced to a point of rendezvous in the neighbourhood of Havrincourt Wood.

The New Zealand Division received orders to take over the front held by the 42nd Division and part of that held by the 5th Division, preparatory to a resumption of the general attack on the 29th. At 5.30 p.m. the two Battalions commenced their approach march, but the congested state of traffic on all roads forward, which preceded every attack, made progress slow and difficult. When the head of the 2nd Battalion reached Beaucamp, the enemy commenced to shell the village and roads, but fortunately the straffing was of brief duration. The appointed rendezvous was reached at 11 p.m., and the guides met. The reconnoitring parties sent forward by the 2nd Battalion had been unable to gain any definite information as to the situation in front, except that Welsh Ridge was still held by the enemy, and that the 42nd Division occupied a line approximately 400 yards west of it. Major W. G. A. Bishop, who was commanding the 2nd Battalion in the temporary absence of Lieut.-Colonel Hargest, proceeded to 2nd Infantry Brigade Headquarters for information, and it was decided that in the meantime the Battalion should go back through Beaucamp to the sunken road directly west of it. This was accomplished with very great difficulty, as the roads were blocked not only with troops but with long lines of ammunition limbers temporarily held up. The sunken road was reached just after midnight, and at 1 a.m. Major Bishop returned and announced that the attack was to be carried out in the morning as originally ordered. Zero hour was 3.30 a.m., which left little time for Companies to make their dispositions and to get into positions of assembly in the darkness and over unknown country. Assembly, despite these difficulties, was accomplished by 3 a.m. In the meantime the 1st Battalion of the Regiment had moved through Beaucamp to Plough reserve and support trenches, Highland Ridge, the selected point of assembly.

page 351

The New Zealand Division's share in the attack fixed for September 29th was allotted to the 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades. The 5th Division was to co-operate on the right of the New Zealand Division, and the 62nd Division on the left. The dispositions of the 2nd Infantry Brigade were as follows: On the left, the 2nd Battalion of Otago, with the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury in support; on the right, the 1st Battalion of Canterbury, with the 1st Battalion of Otago in support. Briefly, the object of the attack was the capture of Welsh and Bon Avis Ridges, in the heart of the Hindenburg system, the former to the north of La Vacquerie and the latter to the east of that village.

The assault was delivered behind an effective artillery barrage at 3.30 a.m. on September 29th. Within the hour the leading waves of the 2nd Battalion of Otago, comprised of 10th and 14th Companies, had gained the top of Welsh Ridge, and considerable numbers of the enemy had been killed or captured. On the right, Canterbury troops had also gained their first objective, but experienced considerable delay in the vicinity of La Vacquerie. Progress now became much more difficult, and consequently slower, owing to the volume of machine gun fire being encountered from the front and from the right flank. Bombing parties proceeded to work down the maze of trenches, and after some heavy fighting succeeded in reaching the sunken roads on the forward side of the ridge. Here touch was gained with Wellington troops, but there was as yet no evidence of Canterbury on the right, and enfilade fire from that direction was causing heavy damage to Otago. In face of this, the two forward Companies, 10th and 14th, pushed on towards the forward slopes of Bon Avis Ridge. When within about 400 yards of the crest, the enemy's resistance became so determined as to temporarily hold up the advance. At 11 a.m. orders were received for Otago to resume the attack on Bon Avis, 8th Company from support to form a defensive flank to the right. By 1 p.m. the task had been accomplished, and 10th and 14th Companies took up positions in Royal Avenue, overlooking the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai Road, with 8th Company on the right flank, and 4th Company in the sunken road in rear. On the right the 1st Battalion of Canterbury cleared La Vacquerie after stiff fighting, and subsequently made good the ridge to the southeast.

page 352

The advance was now approaching the formidable obstacle of the Canal de l'Escaut, parallel to which and converging at certain points, was the River Scheldt. Patrols endeavoured to work down to the Canal, but on each occasion they encountered heavy machine gun fire and were forced to come in. It was therefore decided to wait until darkness before making any further move in this direction. Up to this stage the attack had been most successfully driven home. An advance of over 3,000 yards had been accomplished, 600 prisoners, including 30 officers, had been captured, also 30 machine guns, four 77 mm. field guns, one 4.2 cm. gun, two trench mortars, and a considerable amount of material.

During the afternoon of the 29th orders were received to the effect that on the following morning the 1st Infantry Brigade would launch an attack against the line Esnes-Esnes Mill-La Targette Road, the 2nd Infantry Brigade first to push across the Canal de l'Escaut and establish posts on the high ground east of it. At nightfall patrols were again sent out by Otago, but the enemy was still holding the ground in front in some strength, and up to midnight nothing material had been accomplished. At 3 o'clock on the morning of the 30th a strong patrol under the command of Lieut. R. D. Douglass, though twice driven back by direct fire, succeeded in reaching the Canal at a point near Vaucelles, where the bridge was found to have been destroyed. Orders were issued for 4th Company to move at once and occupy the bridgehead, and a request was also made for the Divisional Engineers to be sent forward to repair or rebuild the bridge. The 4th Company reached the bridgehead at 6.30 a.m., but was unable to cross owing to the approaches being swept by machine gun fire from the opposite bank. Vaucelles was apparently also strongly held by the enemy. The Engineers, who had now arrived, endeavoured to reconstruct the damaged bridge, but were driven off, and it was then decided not to make any further effort for the time being. Troops of the 1st Battalion of Canterbury had by dawn on the 30th, with the assistance of the 5th Division's artillery barrage, definitely gained the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai Road, and later advanced to the banks of the Canal, touch being gained with Otago at 9 a.m. During the morning two platoons of Canterbury troops effected a crossing of the Canal, and then of the River, page break
Cookers of 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment.N.Z. Official Photograph.

Cookers of 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment.
N.Z. Official Photograph.

page break page break page 353 by the partially demolished bridge at the Sugar Factory, north of Bantouzelle; but as there was no sign of the 5th Division on the right, and as the enemy was dribbling back, it was deemed expedient to withdraw to the western bank, and there the line was consolidated.

On the left of Otago troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade had crossed the Canal at Crevecoeur, but meeting with extremely heavy machine gun fire, finally consolidated on the Island between the eastern bank of the Canal and the River. During the night of September 30th Otago troops were relieved in their forward position by a company of the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, and 4th Company returned to Bon Avis Ridge and took over Ripple trench, relief being completed about midnight.

Subsequent to Canterbury's capture of La Vacquerie, in consequence of the neighbouring Division not being in line, two platoons of 14th Company of the 1st Battalion of Otago were placed at Rhondda Post, and later the remaining two platoons of this Company were moved to Cornwall Cut in order to strengthen Canterbury's exposed flank. There were further slight changes in the general dispositions during the night; but when orders were received for the 1st Battalion to proceed into reserve and units were withdrawn, two Companies were established in the locality of the sunken road near La Vacquerie, and two Companies in Surrey Road further forward. A summary of the casualties sustained by the Regiment during the month of September showed that in officers alone two were killed and one died of wounds, and nine were wounded.

The dispositions of the 2nd Infantry Brigade on October 1st were that the two Battalions of Canterbury were holding the front along the western bank of the Canal de l'Escaut, with the two Battalions of Otago in support, the 1st near La Vacquerie and the 2nd on Bon Avis Ridge. During the afternoon there were indications of an enemy retirement along the Divisional front, and with a view to encouraging the opposition to fall back as speedily as possible, an artillery bombardment was put down at 5 p.m. on Vaucelles and selected trenches and suspected machine gun positions in the immediate neighbourhood. Bon Avis Ridge, on our side, was heavily shelled by the enemy for about two hours during page 354 the afternoon; but casualties were confined to four wounded. There was intermittent enemy shelling on other parts of the front, a number of gas shells being directed to the valley north-east of Villers Plough, near positions occupied by 8th Company of the 1st Battalion. At 5 p.m. an order was issued advising an alteration in the limits of the 2nd Brigade front, resulting in the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury holding the front line, with the 2nd Battalion of Otago in support, and the 1st Battalions of Otago and Canterbury in reserve.

Operations for forcing a crossing of the Canal were successfully launched by the 1st Infantry Brigade on October 1st. After very heavy fighting the whole of Crevecoeur on the eastern side of the Canal was cleared and occupied by 12 noon, over 1,000 prisoners being captured. Enemy resistance was still very strong along the line of trenches running east of the road through Bantouzelle, Vaucelles, and Crevecoeur, from which the Germans commanded the low ground west of the Canal, the forward slopes of the ridge behind it, and the Canal bank, There were no definite operations on October 2nd and 3rd. During that period officers of the two Battalions of the Regiment reconnoitred the bridgeheads and the country immediately east of the Canal.

Lieut.-Colonel Hargest now returned from Paris leave and reassumed command of the 2nd Battalion, whereupon Major Bishop proceeded to the United Kingdom on duty.

An aeroplane message received on the evening of October 3rd reported abnormal movement of enemy troops and transport in the back areas across the Divisional front, which suggested intentions of attack. Orders regarding battle stations and the necessary movements were at once issued. The morning of October 4th broke dull and misty, and the enemy's artillery was more silent than on the two preceding days. On the other hand there were indications that he was strengthening his defences east of the Canal. The day passed without any new development. On the evening of the 3rd the 1st Infantry Brigade, holding the line on the left of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, had been relieved by the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, thereupon passing into Divisional reserve.

On the morning of October 5th the enemy commenced to shell the village of Vaucelles, the eastern bank of the Canal, and the western edge of Cheneaux Wood. Fighting patrols page 355 immediately went forward from the 2nd Brigade front, passed through the village of Vaucelles and penetrated as far as Cheneaux Wood without encountering opposition. It was now clear that the enemy had resumed his rearward movement, but the extent of it had yet to be determined. The crossing of the Canal by the pursuing troops was first effected by the aid of a primitive German raft, but later a more dependable one, constructed by a section of the New Zealand Engineers, was provided, and six men were able to cross at a time. Additional troops were thus speedily transferred across the Canal, and by 3 p.m. Cheneaux Wood and Copse had been cleared. Bel Aise Farm and the Masnieres defence line, further to the east, were found to be strongly held and protected by deep belts of wire entanglements. To the north the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had also gained a bridgehead across the Canal, and patrols reached the western outskirts of Lesdain, but were temporarily held up by machine gun fire directed from the village. The day of the 6th passed without special event.