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

Vertigneul and Salesches

Vertigneul and Salesches.

The Third and Fourth Armies combined were to launch an attack over a wide front on October 20th.

Over the front of the IV. Corps, which embraced the New Zealand Division, the 42nd Division, starting from Briastre at 2 am., advanced across a frontage of 1,500 yards, pushing forward and capturing Marou, a small village about a mile to the east of Solesmes. Subsequent to the capture of Marou, the enemy counter-attacked from the direction of Beaurain, but was repulsed by artillery fire.

On the 21st the 2nd Brigade of the New Zealand Division was notified that it was to be prepared to relieve the 126th Brigade of the 42nd Division on the following day, and to be in support to that Division. The Otago Regiment, in accurdance with this development, moved from Beauvois on the afternoon of the 22nd, and headed for its concentration area. The 1st Battalion proceeded through Bethencourt, Viesly, page 365 and Briastre, and assembled in the sunken roads south of Solesmes; the 2nd Battalion followed the route of Aulicourt Farm, Viesly and Briastre, and took up positions on the line of the railway and the Chateau. During this operation the Regiment encountered the seemingly interminable forward traffic of guns and transport preliminary to attack; and in consequence progress was very slow. Throughout the day there had been fairly heavy rain; but later the weather cleared and the night was fine.

The two Armies, the Third and Fourth, were simultaneously to continue the great sweep east and north-eastwards on the 23rd. Orders were that on the front of the IV, Corps, the 5th Division on the right and the 42nd Division on the left, were to attack and capture the ridge west of Beaurain; the 3rd Division, of the VI. Corps, on the left, was to effect the capture of Romeries, north-east of Solesmes. One hour later the 5th and 42nd Divisions were to advance on the line of Beaurain village, to the south of Romeries. This having been accomplished, the New Zealand and 37th Divisions were to pass through the foremost troops of the IV. Corps, and in conjunction with the 3rd Division on the north, continue the north-eastward movement.

In this last-named undertaking, the 2nd Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General R. Young, was to carry out the opening stages of the New Zealand Division's task. The 1st Battalion of Otago and the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, disposed from right to left. were selected to open the Brigade's attack.

The general assault, supported by an overpowering weight of artillery, was launched at 3.20 a.m. on the 23rd. Immediate and important success was gained. The 1st Battalion of Otago moved in the wake of the attack behind an advanced guard thrown well forward as a precautionary measure. The 10th Company covered the flank of the leading Companies. A patrol sent forward to reconnoitre the high ground west of Beaurain ran into an enemy pocket which had escaped the observation of the leading troops owing to the mist. The occupants of this post were not taken prisoners on account of their treacherously wounding the officer (2nd-Lieut. F. Jenkins, D.C.M.) in charge of the patrol after throwing up their hands as a sign of page 366 surrender. The Battalion continued its forward move under the cover of a smoke barrage, passing en route through the valley at Marou, previously deluged by the enemy with gas. By 8 a.m. assembly in the sunken roads had been completed. A few minutes later shell fire caused several casualties in 8th Company. The time had now arrived for the Battalion to pass through the troops of the 42nd Division and take up the advance. The dispositions for the attack were as follows: 4th Company (commanded by Major G. H. Ferguson) and 8th Company (commanded by Captain J. Gillies) from right to left; 14th Company in support, and 10th Company in reserve. A mobile section of Field Artillery and one section of Vickers guns were again attached to the Battalion for the operation.

At zero hour, 8.40 a.m., our artillery barrage opened, and the leading companies advanced through the 42nd Division. Machine gun fire was encountered from Hirson Mill on the right front and from the railway embankment skirting the southern side of Vertigneul. Under the pressure of our infantry, the enemy retired from the Mill. The railway embankment was gained and 47 prisoners and several machine guns accounted for. The enemy resistance up to this stage had not been of a very determined order, and Vertigneul was reached and passed through in the course of the advance. The River Harpies was crossed under fire, and the road north of Vertigneul quickly reached. The advance was then temporarily checked by machine gun fire from the ridge east of the village. Also, the outskirts of Vertigneul apparently still sheltered a few enemy snipers, aid two sections of infantry were detailed to clear the village. The opposition encountered to the east of Vertigneul was overcome by the accurate fire of Lewis guns and rifles, but when the crest was gained, the advance attracted further machine gun fire from the vicinity of the Crucifix and the hedges near the cross-roads. 2nd-Lieut. J. Wilson, M.M., leading forward a platoon of 8th Company, delivered an attack against the flank; of this stronghold with such force and skill as to effect its immediate capture. The sunken roads in the vicinity were then cleared of the enemy, and the two leading Companies consolidated on their objective. The 10th and 14th Companies, following in rear, consolidated in page 367 the orchard on the eastern side of Vertigneul. Later, our positions were subjected to intermittent artillery fire. Gas shelling of the area of the Chapelle des Six Chemins was responsible for three casualties among the officers of 4th Company.

The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment was now due to pass through the foremost troops of the 1st Battalion in continuation of the advance. Starting at 8.30 a.m., the Battalion moved along the Belle Vue-Marou Road to the cross-roads south of Vertigneul. Before reaching this point the Lewis gun limbers had unloaded in the shelter of the low ground. At 11.30 a.m. the four Companies, now extended, moved round to the south of Vertigneul, and then over the rising ground to their allotted positions of assembly. The greater part of the area was being shelled; but the operation was completed without incurring casualties. The 4th Company was in position on the right in the sunken road, with its flank resting at the Crucifix; 8th Company occupied the continuation of the sunken road to the north, where a junction was effected with the 1st Battalion of Canterbury; 10th Company was in support in the low ground east of Vertigneul; and 14th Company was disposed on the outskirts of the village.

At 12 minutes past 12 o'clock noon the artillery and machine barrages opened the attack. On account of the lengthy advance in the morning the artillery was not at full strength, and the barrage provided was weak in consequence. As the right Company, 4th (Otago), advanced over the crest of the ridge west of Salesche it came under heavy machine gun fire. The Lewis gun section, commanded by Corporal Stewart, materially contributed to breaking' down this point of resistance, and the advance was resumed. The left Company, 8th (Southland), reached the vicinity of Mesnil Farm, and there similarly encountered strong opposition from enemy machine guns. The enemy was speedily overwhelmed, and a complete German battalion headquarters made prisoners. In this successful operation Sergt. J. J Blackburn particularly distinguished himself; it was at about the same stage that 2nd-Lieut. J. C. Fothergill, D.C.M., was killed, The 8th Company now advanced beyond the farm buildings, crossed the St. Georges River, and commenced the ascent of the slope on the eastern side. Progress was again checked by page 368 fire delivered from a series of strongly defended posts established along the slope and extending from the rear of Bernier Farm. The posts were wired, and each group contained an approximate strength of 25 of the enemy. A section of 8th Company, commanded by Sergt. F. C. Fergusson, acting as advanced guard, crept up to a hedge on the left, and at close quarters delivered destructive bursts of fire against the enemy's flank, killing several of the garrison and forcing the surrender of others with their machine guns. Across the front of 4th Company, which had effected the crossing of the St. Georges River in line with 8th Company, an attack was host simultaneously delivered against the same series of posts by a platoon commanded by 2nd-Lieut. W. Murphy. Corresponding success was achieved; and those of the enemy who were not killed or captured gave themselves up.

It was now possible for the leading Companies to continue their advance. Further ahead, what was apparently the main enemy resistance disclosed itself. This was centred on the high ground north-east of Salesches and actually clear of Otago's front; but the situation demanded that it should be crushed. At this stage 2nd-Lieut. R. G. Charters (4th Company) was wounded. Assuming command of this officer's platoon, 2nd-Lieut. W. Murphy at once swung the two formations now at his disposal to the right, and attacked the enemy's strongly entrenched position in enfilade. Once more our infantry were equal to the occasion. The enemy were completely overwhelmed, many of them were killed or captured, and the remainder driven from their stronghold. One platoon moved through and cleared the northern half of the village of Salesches. The operation set the Battalion had been attended by complete success. By 2.25 p.m. the whole of the high ground aimed at had been gained; heavy losses had been inflicted upon the enemy and substantial captures made in prisoners and machine guns. For their fine conduct in this operation 2nd-Lieuts. Murphy and Charters were awarded the Military Cross.

The artillery barrage, moving at the rate of 100 yards in four minutes, had proved somewhat slow, and at times retarded the pursuit of the retiring enemy. On account of the troops of the adjoining Division not being in line with page break
German Prisoners carrying out Wounded.N.Z. Official Photograph.

German Prisoners carrying out Wounded.
N.Z. Official Photograph.

page break
In the Track of the Advance.N.Z. Official Photograph.

In the Track of the Advance.
N.Z. Official Photograph.

page 369 those of the Otago Regiment, adjustments were required in the direction of protecting the right flank to a depth of 1,500 yards. At 5 p.m. there were indications that the enemy was disposed to return to Salesches, a development which was accompanied by heavy shelling and machine gun fire. No definite infantry action followed. Still, the likelihood of attack presented sound reasons for stiffening the right flank.

At 7.30 p.m. Battalion Headquarters moved up to Mesnil Farm. At the same time the reserve Company, the 14th, took up new positions. in the sunken road west of Salesches. At 10.30 p.m. the support Company, the 10th. advanced through the front line and established itself on the Salesches-Beaudignies Road. The reserve Company again moved, on this occasion to the road on the northern side of Salesches, with headquarters in Bernier Farm. These represented the final dispositions for the night. The day had been productive of definite and important results.

The casualties sustained during the course of these operations were as follows: Killed—one officer and seven other ranks; wounded—two officers and 54 other ranks. The Battalion's captures included 204 prisoners, 14 machine guns, and one 77 mm. field gun.

On the evening of the 24th the Battalion was relieved in the line by the 1st Battalion of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and moved back to billets in Neuville.

On the left of Otago, the 1st Battalion of Canterbury reached its objective on the high ground approximately 1,000 yards to the north-east of the St. Georges River. When patrols moved out and penetrated to the southern edge of Beaudignies without encountering the enemy, it was decided to occupy the village and secure the bridges of the River Ecaillon which flowed through it. This was accomplished without opposition. It was at one of these bridgeheads that Sergt. J. H. Nicholas, V.C., M.M., was fatally shot when challenging a party of the enemy who approached his post during the night. The village was now under machine gun fire from the high ground west of Le Quesnoy; but patrols advanced along the Beaudignies-Le Quesnoy Road and drove the enemy from his outer positions.