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

Chapter III — Cordonnerie and Houplines.

page 142

Chapter III.

Cordonnerie and Houplines.

When the Regiment marched out of the Somme Battlefield on October 3rd, 1916, it withdrew behind the lines in order to rest and regain some of its lost strength and vitality, immediately prior to trekking north again. The 1st Battalion spent three days at Pommiers Redoubt, between Montauban and Mametz, and the 2nd Battalion marched back to the Base Camp at Fricourt. On October 3rd rain fell for the greater part of the day, and the succeeding days saw very little improvement in the general conditions. The intervening time was now devoted to reorganising the battalions, posting reinforcements to the various companies, cleaning equipment, and resting.

On October 4th a Divisional Order was issued that the New Zealand Division (less Artillery, which was to remain on the Somme for a further period) would be transferred from the Fourth Army to the Second Army, and temporarily was to be transferred from the XV. to the X. Corps from midnight 6th-7th October, and was to move to the Hallencourt area, thereafter entraining at specified points with a view to proceeding northwards.

The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment accordingly marched out from Fricourt to Dernancourt on October 6th, and entrained for Longpre. Then followed a march of eight miles to Erondelle, and during this stage of the journey the completely exhausted state of the men was very much in evidence. The 1st Battalion followed on October 7th. Leaving Pommiers Redoubt it marched to Albert, which was still being intermittently shelled by the enemy, and there entrained for Longpre, arriving there on the 8th, and thence marching to Airaines. On October 11th the 1st Battalion entrained at Longpre for Caestre, reaching there in the early page 143 evening and proceeding by motor lorries to Estaires, where reinforcements were received. On the same day the 2nd Battalion marched to Pont Remy, where it entrained for Bailleul, which was reached shortly before midnight. From this stage there was a march of ten kilometres to Strazelle. The Regiment remained at these two points over the succeeding two days, and on the 14th the 1st Battalion was transferred to billets near Bac St. Maur, and the 2nd Battalion to Armentieres.

Orders had now been issued for the relief by the New Zealand Division of the 5th Australian Division in the Sailly sector and the Houplines sub-sector. The 1st Infantry Brigade and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade were to take over the Sailly sector and relieve the 15th Australian Brigade (Cordonnerie sub-sector) and the 14th Australian Brigade (Boutillerie sub-sector) respectively; while the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade was to relieve the 8th Australian Brigade Group (Houplines sub-sector), and was to be attached for tactical purposes to Franks's Force, a Composite Division commanded by General Franks, and comprising three brigades, one of which was now to be the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade. Command of the new divisional sector was to pass on October 14th.

The Cordonnerie sub-sector taken over by the 1st Infantry Brigade was but a short distance south-west of Armentieres, and was overlooked by the high ground on which was situated, at a point about midway in the sector, the partially ruined village of Fromelles. It was against the ridge on which Fromelles stood that an attack by Australian troops had been directed a few months previously with such tragic losses, many of their dead still lying unburied in No Man's Land. The ground along which the front line breast-work of the Cordonnerie sector extended, and for a considerable distance to the rear of it, was exceedingly low lying and flat, and drainage, more particularly during the winter months, was a source of constant anxiety and labour. The sector when taken over from the 5th Australian Division was in a very neglected state of repair and defence, and although it could never be regarded as anything but a very quiet part of the line there were sufficient discomforts during the wet season, owing to the lack of decent accommodation and the flooded state of the page 144 line and its approaches, to make it one of the most unpleasant. With the first heavy rainfall a great many of the sandbag shelters collapsed, and the duck-boards along the communication trenches were always more or less afloat. During the winter months conditions on the Houplines sub-sector were not very much better. Persistent hard work and sound organisation during the succeeding months of occupation of these parts of the Western line effected an appreciable though very gradual improvement in conditions. The breastworks were strengthened and a vast amount of wire entanglements constructed along the selected lines of defence, as well as some fairly substantial shelters for the garrisons of the front and support lines, while large numbers of men were kept constantly employed on the drains and waterways in the rear in order to clear the area of water; but the fall was too negligible to produce any material improvement.

The portion of the Corps front for which the New Zealand Division was responsible extended over a length of approximately 5,600 yards. Within the area allotted to the Division the defensive system comprised the front breastwork, which was continuous; the 70 yards line which was continuous but out of repair; and the support line which comprised a series of small posts, joined laterally by a continuous fire trench and breastwork combined; while slightly in rear of this line further posts existed. The subsidiary line consisted of a series of defended localities or posts, none of them of a very substantial nature. The normal distribution of troops in the Sailly sector was that to each of the two sub-sectors was allotted one infantry brigade, and in each brigade sub-sector two battalions were allotted to the front line system and subsidiary line, with two battalions in brigade reserve. In the forward system the garrison of the front line trench was reduced to a minimum, sufficient men, together with Lewis guns and a small proportion of Vickers guns, holding it so as to ensure the repulse of a surprise attack unaccompanied by bombardment; the strength of the garrison approximating 150 men per 1000 yards. The defence of the system was thus organised in depth, and the governing principles on which action, in the event of hostile attack, were based were that no body of troops to whom a portion of a defensive line or post was entrusted would give it up under any circumstances; while hostile page 145 penetration at any point was to be met by immediate counterattack while the enemy was still disorganised and had not had time to establish himself.

On October 13th the front line of the Cordonnerie sector was taken over by Canterbury and Wellington troops, and on the following day the 1st Battalion of Otago relieved the 58th Australian Battalion in reserve. Three platoons of 4th Company occupied strong-points known as Winter's Night, Junction and Croix Blanche, in rear of the subsidiary line, the remainder of the Battalion being in billets still further in rear and within close range of Bac St. Maur. In the Houplines sub-sector, in accordance with the dispositions of the 2nd Infantry Brigade on being attached to Franks's Force, the 2nd Battalion of Otago was established as brigade reserve in billets at Armentieres, 4th and 8th Companies being billeted at Barb-wire Square, 10th Company at Tissage, and 14th Company at Lock House. During the several succeeding days the Regiment supplied working parties for the front and support lines of the two sectors. On October 20th the 2nd Battalion moved into the front line and took over from the 2nd Battalion of Wellington.

The Battalion remained in the line for a period of six days, the enemy displaying very little activity during the tour. The only incident of note occurred during the night of the 25th. At 8 p.m. one of our listening posts sighted a party of six Germans at a short distance from our wire. They were challenged, but no reply being received, were bombed; subsequently machine gun fire was brought to bear on No Man's Land. Search failed to discover any further signs of the enemy, until at 8.20 p.m. a second and larger party were sighted approaching our wire. On being challenged they deployed and advanced on the listening post. One of the two men of the post ran back to give the alarm, when the remaining man shot one of the enemy dead, and after throwing bombs at the others withdrew to our lines. Lewis gun fire completed their dispersal, and later the body of the dead German was brought in and identification established. On the following day the Battalion was relieved and moved back to the subsidiary line. Here it was fitted out with the much improved small box respirator for protection against gas attacks. It remained in occupation of the subsidiary line page 146 until the close of the month, the daily routine consisting chiefly in supplying working parties under the direction of the Divisional Engineers.

The 1st Battalion of the Regiment commenced its initial tour of the front line of the Cordonnerie sub-sector on the afternoon of October 26th, when it relieved the 1st Battalion of Wellington in the left of the Brigade sector, extending from Mine Avenue to Devon Avenue. The enemy's attitude, generally speaking, remained passive, while our main activity was directed to battering down his front line and wire entanglements by means of concentrated trench mortar bombardments. The mortars employed were the heavy 68-pounders, the projectiles of which were commonly known as "plum puddings," and light Stokes, and by these means considerable damage was caused to the enemy's front line breastwork without, however, evoking any serious retaliation. These trench mortar bombardments became an almost daily performance, and from our point of view provided an inspiring spectacle; but owing to the fact that the enemy, as subsequent investigations disclosed, was not holding his front line in any strength, our demonstrations must have occasioned him very little real concern, apart from the material damage sustained.

On November 8th the 1st Battalion was relieved in the line by Wellington troops after a fairly long tour, and moved back to billets formerly occupied in the locality of Rue de Quesnoy, near Bac St. Maur. On November 12th the Battalion relieved the 1st Battalion of Auckland in Brigade support, a series of five posts being occupied in the subsidiary line, with the strength of the garrison of each post at one platoon. On November 16th the Battalion moved into the front line system, 14th, 8th, and 10th Companies occupying the front and support lines in that order from right to left, one platoon of each company being in the front line and three in support, with the 4th Company in reserve. On the night of the 22nd a patrol led by Corporal G. Vincent, who was well supported by Pte. R. Bett, entered the enemy's trenches at a point known as the Tadpole, and examining it over some length found it unoccupied. This patrol definitely established the fact that the enemy, in consequence of the breached and broken state of the trenches as a result of our sustained trench mortar bombardments page 147 and the difficulties of drainage, was holding his front by means of isolated posts, and had presumably withdrawn the major part of his garrison to the higher and less disturbed area of Fromelles. The tour ended on November 24th, the Battalion returning to billets in Rue de Quesnoy and locality.

The 2nd Battalion had returned to the line in the Houplines sub-sector on the opening day of November in relief of Wellington, and continued in occupation there until the 7th. Two days later, when in billets at Armentieres, over 170 reinforcements arrived and were posted to the different companies. When the Battalion returned to the line on the 13th the tour then commenced proved by no means as uneventful as those that preceded it. On the 14th portion of the front line trench system was badly damaged by minenwerfer fire; and on the following day at 5.20 p.m. the enemy commenced an intense bombardment of our front line, extending from Hobb's Farm to the River Lys. Minenwerfers were again largely employed by the enemy, resulting in serious breaching of the parapet. The bombardment was maintained for half an hour, and on ceasing the enemy, to the number of about 30, penetrated our line and worked along in the direction of 14th Company Headquarters and the entrance to our underground workings, where they appeared in some numbers. Five minutes afterwards they returned to their trenches on a given signal, leaving behind two demolition charges. Very considerable damage was occasioned to our trenches, which was increased by a second bombardment commencing at 6.5 p.m. and lasting until 6.20 p.m. Several huge craters were left in our lines and Irish Avenue was badly blown in. Our casualties, due mainly to the severity of the bombardment, were unfortunately heavy, amounting to nine other ranks killed, one officer and 25 other ranks wounded, and two other ranks missing. One of the raiders was shot by a company cook, and the body being left in our lines was identified as belonging to the 9th Bavarian Regiment. There were several aspects of this raid which, from our point of view, were considered as unsatisfactory. An inquiry held subsequently disclosed the fact, among other things, that the S.O.S. signal had not been put up, and that the wire between Company and Battalion Headquarters had been cut, and that no artillery support was available.

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On the following night a raid was attempted against the enemy's lines. At 6.45 p.m. a party of ten other ranks under Lieut. W. Chapman left our trenches and advanced across No Man's Land in single file. On reaching the enemy's wire the party halted, and a reconnaissance was carried out over a distance of 70 yards. At one point the enemy's trench extended back in the shape of the letter V, with a distance of 50 yards from point to point. A machine gun opened fire from either extremity, and it was considered inadvisable to attempt an entrance over this locality. The wire over the area reconnoitred was thick and strong, our artillery fire having had little effect on it. The party accordingly returned to our lines.

On November 19th Otago was relieved in the line by Wellington, and moved back to the subsidiary line where it remained until the 25th, supplying working parties and carrying out a certain amount of training. On the 26th, the day following the Battalion's return to the line, the enemy heavily replied to a brief trench mortar "shoot," resulting in considerable damage to our trenches. During the next few days officers of the 10th Australian Brigade, 3rd Australian Division, visited the line in view of an early relief. This was commenced on the last day of November, when the Battalion returned to Armentieres as Brigade reserve.

There were occasions, particularly during the Regiment's earlier periods in France, when the S.O.S. call was sent out to the supporting artillery without there being sufficient justification for the expenditure of ammunition which it involved, simply because the purpose of the S.O.S. call was not fully appreciated at the time. The S.O.S. (Save our Souls) was a call from the infantry to the artillery for immediate assistance by covering with fire any portion of the front line which was being threatened or attacked. The call could be given by any officer on duty in the front line, and to that end every company, platoon and forward observing officer in the front line was required to carry at all times a message signed and ready to hand in to the signal office for immediate and priority despatch when an enemy attack appeared probable. Simultaneously with the handing in of the message the S.O.S. rocket was to be sent up, and the signal repeated at short intervals until it was clear that it had been observed and the page 149 necessary support was forthcoming. The sending out of the S.O.S. call had really to be decided upon by the officer on the spot, and there were occasions when it was considered that the situation could be handled without the support of the artillery, and if such did prove to be the case there was more merit in the achievement. If, on the other hand, the responsible officer failed to correctly appreciate the situation, and the enemy profited by the fact of the S.O.S. not being sent out, there were unpleasant consequences. But the making of a quick and accurate decision in this, as in all other questions, in time became a matter of intuition. It was laid down that on receipt of the S.O.S. message, or on observation of the S.O.S. rocket, or on the enemy heavily bombarding our front or No Man's Land, or when heavy rifle or machine gun fire was heard from the front and the enemy's parapet could not be observed, the batteries covering the front would open fire. The 18-pounders would place a shrapnel barrage as near to our trenches as safety permitted, gradually creeping forward over No Man's Land until it reached the enemy's front line trenches, when high explosive would be substituted wholly or in part for shrapnel, while howitzers would open fire on the enemy's front trenches. Fire would thus be directed and maintained until the situation was reported clear. In order to test the efficiency of the arrangements for obtaining immediate artillery support, it was open to battalion or company commanders of the front line, and this opportunity was on occasions availed of, to call for a test round at any time of the day or night, the time taken between the acceptance of the message and the arrival of the round being expected not to exceed 30 seconds. There were also circumstances under which requests could be made for the fire of our artillery to be directed to any special locality or target; but in cases where the fire of the heavier howitzers was required, and the locality to which it was to be directed was in close proximity to our own lines, the limitations to the accuracy of guns and howitzers and the variations to be expected at different ranges had to be taken into account, in view of our garrison being brought within the danger zone.

An order issued on November 30th stated that gaps had been cut in the enemy's wire, and that during the night of November 30th-December 1st strong patrols were to be sent page 150 out along the whole Divisional front with the object of discovering the dispositions of the enemy's most advanced troops, and the condition and disposition of the wire in rear of his front line breastwork to the depth penetrated. If resistance was met with, no attempt was to be made to force an entry. Fighting was to be avoided, and the investigations were to be carried out secretly and silently so as not to allow the enemy to know that his lines had been entered. The capture of prisoners, it was pointed out, would probably do more than anything else to clear up the existing obscurity of the situation.

In conformity with this order patrols, each of one officer and 20 other ranks, went out over the front at midnight, some of them succeeding in penetrating the enemy's front line, and to a point 200 yards beyond. In only two instances were challenges received. The enemy's trenches were found to be so blown about as to be unrecognisable, representing merely a series of craters and shell-holes, emitting in places a strong smell, pointing to the presence of enemy dead. The conclusions to be drawn from the joint observations were that the enemy's forward trenches were too seriously damaged and water-logged for occupation; that no attempt had been made to repair the damage done; that the enemy had one or two small isolated posts stationed in his front line with ready exit available by means of communication trenches; and that an appearance of holding the front line was simulated by firing flares from posts some distance in the rear. During the early hours of the morning an enemy patrol came over as far as our wire, indicating a certain anxiety on his part as to the meaning and purpose of our enterprise, while machine gun fire was for some time directed to one of our sally ports. The fact that the enemy had adopted the wise plan of getting out of the mud and going back to the higher and drier ground in rear for the period of the winter months, was now fully confirmed. It was, however, becoming increasingly evident that he was carrying out a considerable amount of constructive work in that more favourable tactical position.

Towards the close of November instructions were issued for the reorganisation of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery. The effect of this, it is interesting to note, was that the Divisional Artillery, then consisting of four Brigades, was page 151 converted into two Brigades, each of one six-gun howitzer battery and three six-gun 18-pounder batteries, the surplus batteries to form an Army Field Artillery Brigade of the same number of batteries and guns, and to be under the orders of the G.O.C. Army.

On December 2nd the 1st Battalion of the Regiment returned to the line in relief of Wellington, and continued to garrison the trenches until the 10th. The weather was now exceedingly wet and cold, hard frosts alternating with rain and snow. The issue of gum boots and frequent changes of socks considerably alleviated the hardships of the winter months; but nevertheless the parades of sick on returning to billets became increasingly large and for some time occasioned grave concern. The low-lying, fog-laden country of Flanders, and the never-ending mud doubtless contributed to this condition of affairs; but for the major portion of it the primary cause was to be found elsewhere. It was now that the severe strain and exposure to which the Regiment had been subjected during the course of the Somme fighting was making itself felt among those who had come through it, but had never properly recovered from the effects. Thus many had been reduced to a state which left them unable to withstand the severity of the winter months, and when this was realised a more generous policy in the matter of timely evacuations was decided upon and given effect to.

The 1st Battalion made another tour of the line before the close of December, and on the 23rd, when it was relieved, went out to new billets at Bac St. Maur, on the banks of the River Lys, and was then placed in Divisional reserve. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, on being relieved at Houplines and leaving Franks's Force at the close of November, had marched down to Bac St. Maur, and entering into billets there, commenced a course of training which extended over the succeeding three weeks.

On December 22nd Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, paid a visit to the New Zealand Divisional area, and the Regiment was included in his tour of inspection. A fairly generous bill of fare was provided for Christmas Day, the first spent by the Regiment in France; and both Battalions having the good fortune to be out of the line the day passed very quietly. The general attitude of page 152 the troops in line on this occasion was one that could not have been mistaken by the enemy, and the deliberate harassment of his lines and billets throughout the day and night by the New Zealand Divisional Artillery must have convinced him that there was no goodwill or desire for fraternisation on our side of the line.

A Divisional Order was issued on December 28th to the effect that the 1st and 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigades were to be reorganised as follows:—1st Infantry Brigade: To be comprised of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Auckland Regiment, and the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Wellington Regiment. 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade: To be comprised of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Otago Regiment, and the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Canterbury Regiment. It was notified that the reorganisation was to take effect as from January 1st, 1917. This, in brief, meant that where formerly the 1st Infantry Brigade was comprised of all 1st Battalions, and the 2nd Infantry Brigade of all 2nd Battalions, the 1st Infantry Brigade would in future comprise the four battalions which represented the North Island of New Zealand, and the 2nd Infantry Brigade the four South Island battalions. The system of distinguishing units by the wearing of regimental patches was at the same time extended, the patch of Blue and Gold (Otago Regimental colours) on a background of Black (Divisional colour), as worn by the 2nd Battalion of Otago from its formation in Egypt, being adopted by the 1st Battalion, with a distinguishing difference in the adjustment on the two colours which formed the diamond-shaped centre of the patch.

In accordance with the reorganisation of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades, the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, on New Year's Day, 1917, marched out of its reserve billets in the Rue Petillon and took over the Cordonnerie sector in relief of the 2nd Battalion of Wellington, Relief was completed about 12 noon, and one hour later the enemy bombarded the whole area with projectiles of various calibre, including lachrymatory gas shells. Casualties amounted to one killed and six wounded, and the front line and communication trenches suffered badly. There was a recurrence of this hostility at 9 o'clock on the following morning, when about 60 minenwerfer shells were hurled against a front of about 100 yards, adding page 153 considerably to the damage of the previous day. By 11 a.m. the situation had quietened, but at 6 p.m. the area was subjected to further violent shelling for a period of over 40 minutes, and additional casualties resulted. Prompt retaliation by our artillery now followed, and a heavy fire was put down over the enemy's front and support lines.

There was reason for believing that on the occasion of the enemy's evening bombardment it had been his intention to raid our lines. A patrol drawn from Sergt. Travis's special party of scouts, while operating in No Man's Land, encountered an enemy patrol of considerable strength. This party they effectively bombed, and subsequently heavy rifle fire was opened up from the enemy's parapet. The hostile bombardment referred to commenced a few minutes after our special patrol returned, and the probability was that the enemy discovered in No Man's Land were moving into position prior to raiding. One outcome of this continued straffing was an immediate call for working parties from the reserve battalion in order to repair the damage to the defences. Comparative quietness prevailed over the remainder of the tour, although our own trench mortars were by no means inactive, and during the afternoons heavily pounded the enemy's forward system. On January 8th the 2nd Battalion was relieved by the 1st Battalion of the Regiment and moved back to reserve and billets.

During the 1st Battalion's occupation of the line there occurred two or three incidents which served to reveal outstanding individual merit. A small party which was acting as a cover to our wiring operations by night came under enemy machine gun fire. One of the party was killed and the remainder hurriedly driven in. At daybreak on the following morning Pte. J. D. Stark proceeded some distance across No Man's Land, and recovered the body lying there. He then made a return journey and collected the rifles lost by the covering party in its hasty retirement. Stark afforded a further demonstration of his utter disregard of danger when in broad daylight he walked across No Man's Land by way of challenge to an enemy sniper who an hour or so previously was responsible for a casualty in our lines. Remarkable as it may seem, he gained the enemy's line, floundered along in the mud under the shelter of the parapet over a consider page 154 able distance, locating an enemy post at the foot of Delangre communication trench, and then as casually returned to our own lines without a shot having been fired at him. An early morning patrol comprised of Sergt. G. H. Seddon, Lancecorp. W. Hay, and Pte. F. W. Hamill, all of the 1st Battalion Snipers and Observers, traversed the lee side of the enemy's parapet over a distance of 700 yards, finally encountering, though still unobserved, an enemy sentry post. The post was apparently at the point of being relieved, and there being now too much daylight to accomplish anything beyond the extensive reconnaissance already effected, the patrol quietly and safely withdrew, one of the party minus his boots, which had been left fast in the mud.

The Regiment now completed its last period of garrisoning the line at Cordonnerie. The general defensive stability of the sector was considerably greater than when the Regiment first entered into occupation in October. A large number of shelters had been erected for the accommodation of the garrison, the front and support lines and communication trenches had been materially strengthened, and a very extensive system of wire entanglements had been completed over the forward area. In all of this work the Regiment had been hampered by the worst possible conditions of weather. On the 1st Battalion being relieved in the line, it proceeded to billets in the Rue de Quesnoy and neighbourhood, and eight days later, on January 24th, went back to Divisional reserve at Bac St. Maur. On the same day command on the Cordonnerie sector passed from the 2nd Infantry Brigade to the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment had meantime proceeded to billets in the area of Sailly.