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

Preparations for Battle

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Preparations for Battle.

A brief study covering the period of the early part of 1917 will throw some light on the Allied situation then existing on the Western Front, and the relation which the Battle of Messines was to bear to the general scheme. In accordance with the plan of campaign adopted by the Allied Armies for the year 1917, a series of offensives were to be launched an all fronts, so timed as to assist each other by depriving the enemy of the power of drawing upon any one of his fronts in order to reinforce others. One of the fronts selected for these operations was Flanders, where an attack was to follow immediately upon one at Arras. The positions held by the Allies in the Ypres Salient since May, 1915, were under the direct observation of the enemy and at the mercy of his well-placed artillery. Their defence under such unequal conditions imposed a long and exhausting strain, It was maintained that our positions would be vastly improved by the capture of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, and of the high ground extending thence north-eastwards for several miles, and trending north through Broodseinde and Passchendaele. Subsequently, certain modifications were made in the general plan, due to unexpected military and political developments in the early weeks of the year, and to new proposals for action submitted by the French. The principle of the Spring offensive was, however, adhered to; and it was agreed that if the full results hoped for from the combined British and French operations were not achieved in a reasonable time the main efforts of the British should be transferred to Flanders, as originally intended.

On April 9th the First and Third Armies, which were entrusted with the main British attack, opened the Spring Campaign with the Arras Offensive, and later the Fourth and Fifth Armies co-operated. At the close of six days fighting distinct successes had been achieved, measured in captures, ground gained, and the number of German divisions attracted to the area of the attack. Our front had been advanced four miles further east, and all the dominating features of the landscape, including the well-known Vimy Ridge, were in our possession. On April 16th the French followed with their main attack on the Aisne, and on April page 170 23rd the British reopened the ball on a front of nine miles from Croisilles to Gavrelle. Obstinate resistance and strong counter-attacks at first stemmed the British tide, and the advance had to be renewed on the following day, this time with more definite success. The final attacks of the Arras Offensive were launched at Monchy-le-Preux and at Fresnoy, the former on April 28th, and the latter on May 3rd. The French attacked at Chemin des Dames on May 5th, and brought to a close the Spring Campaign and the first half of the Allied general plan. The Campaign had been successful at many points; but it was not as decisive as had been hoped.

Attention was now directed to the development of the Northern plan of operations. The first phase of this, the Summer Campaign, was the delivering of a blow by the Second Army, which embraced the New Zealand Division, against the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge. The capture of this dominating geographical feature was an essential preliminary to the completion of the preparations for the offensive east and north of Ypres, which was to follow. Meantime activity was maintained on the Arras front in order to cover intentions. The immediate preparations for the Messines attack were as elaborate as those that preceded either the Somme or Arras Battles; but in view of the manner in which the enemy overlooked us it was doubtful if our intentions were long concealed; and as time advanced the only real uncertainty for the enemy was when the attack would actually be launched.

The preliminary work involved a big programme of road and railway construction, the assembling and registering of artillery, the establishment of forward dumps, the erection of dressing stations, and the problem of water supply. There was also the deep mining offensive, which had, in fact, been carried on for many months in face of stupendous difficulties of construction and the dangers of active counter-mining by the enemy. Along the original Second Army front there were 24 mines, which had involved the driving of 8,000 yards of galleries. Of these four mines were outside the front finally selected for the attack and one other was lost as the result of a mine blown by the enemy. This left 19 mines charged with over one million pounds of explosives as one of the terrible and unparalleled forces to be employed against the enemy in the Messines Battle.

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A brief topographical explanation will assist the reader to visualise the situation and appreciate the task involved. The Messines-Wytschaete Ridge lay almost midway between the towns of Armentieres and Ypres. Situated at the eastern end of a chain of abrupt, isolated hills which divided the valleys of the Rivers Lys and Yser, it linked up with the rising ground which stretched north-east from Wytschaete to the Ypres-Menin Road, and then northwards past Passchendaele to Staden. The village of Messines, situated on the southern spur of the ridge, commanded a wide view of the Lys Valley and enfiladed the British lines to the south. Northwest of Messines was the village of Wytschaete, situated at the point of the salient and on the highest part of the ridge and commanding even more completely the town of Ypres and the whole of the British positions in the Ypres Salient. The Messines Ridge had many great natural advantages, and these the enemy during his long tenure had developed to the utmost. Messines and Wytschaete villages stood as the main centres of resistance, with numerous farm-houses and buildings, outwardly innocent looking shacks, as strong-points of great tactical strength. The German front line skirted the western foot of the ridge in a deep curve; the second line system followed the crest of the ridge and formed an inner curve. The forward defences consisted of an elaborate and intricate system of well-wired trenches and strong-points, forming a defensive belt approximately 2,000 yards in depth. The many farms and woods were well prepared for defence, and the face of the ridge was liberally punctuated with strongly constructed and well concealed machine gun emplacements, with concrete dug-outs designed to protect the garrisons against the effects of our artillery fire. The enemy had fortified these naturally strong positions in a manner calculated by him to form an impregnable barrier to any attack on the part of the Allies.

A systematic bombardment of the enemy's elaborate trench system and defences and the cutting of wire had commenced on May 21st, and was intensified about seven days later. Night firing on a grand scale commenced on May 27th and 28th, when billets, headquarters and villages in the enemy back areas were shelled by long-range artillery, and a continuous barrage maintained over his communications in page 172 order to make it practically impossible for him to bring up supplies, to relieve or to reinforce the garrison of the Ridge. For ten days and before the assault was launched, our artillery carried out a most extensive and destructive programme of counter-battery fire. In this phase of warfare there was most determined retaliation by the enemy, and over the last few days a great artillery duel raged, in the course of which many of our guns were demolished and great dumps of ammunition blown up.

On June 3rd elaborate orders for the attack and capture of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge were issued. The operation was entrusted to the Second Army, under the Command of General Sir Herbert Plumer, and the front selected for the attack extended from a point opposite St. Yves to Mount Sorrell inclusive, a distance, following the curve of the salient, of between nine and ten miles. The final objective was the Oosttaverne Line between these two points; and the greatest depth to which the attack was to penetrate represented about two and a-half miles. The frontage allotted to the II. Anzac Corps; which embraced the New Zealand, the 3rd Australian, and the 25th Divisions, extended from St. Yves to the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road.

The attack of the Corps was divided into two phases, as follows: 1st—The attack and capture of the Black Line, which extended across the forward side of the village of Messines; 2nd—The attack and capture of the Green or Oosttaverne Line. The first phase was to be carried out by troops of three Divisions disposed side by side, namely, the 3rd Australian, the New Zealand, and the 25th, from right to left. The second phase was to be carried out by the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions; and to this end the 4th Australian Division was to pass through the New Zealand and 25th Divisions and capture the Green Line opposite the fronts of those Divisions. The New Zealand Division, being in the centre of the Corps front, was thus entrusted with the honour of capturing Messines Village. In the allotment of tasks within the New Zealand Divisional area, the 2nd Infantry Brigade and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade were committed to the capture of the first and second German lines on the forward slopes of the ridge and the village of Messines itself. The two Brigades were to attack side by side, the 2nd Brigade page 173 on the left and the 3rd Brigade on the right, the Brigade boundary being represented by a straight line drawn from a point in Hanbury Support, along the line of the Gooseberry Farm-Messines Road, and through the centre of the village.

In the subdivision of the 2nd Brigade task the attack was to be carried out with two battalions in front, namely, the 1st Battalion of Otago on the left, and the 1st Battalion of Canterbury on the right, with the inter-battalion boundary represented by a line running from our new front line at Calgary Avenue to the road junction at Moulin de l'Hospice (inclusive to Otago), thence along the Wulverghem-Messines Road to the cross-roads on the north-western side of the village. The 4th (Otago) Company, commanded by Captain C. H. Molloy, on the right, and 8th (Southland) Company, commanded by Captain J. Thompson, on the left, were detailed to capture that portion of the objective allotted to the 1st Battalion of Otago; and special parties from these two companies were detailed to deal with the two strong-points—the Moulin de l'Hospice on the right, and Birthday Farm on the left. The 10th (North Otago) Company and two platoons of 14th (South Otago) Company, the whole under Captain E. F. Selby, with Lieut. E. V. Freed in immediate command of the two 14th Company platoons, were committed to the capture of the enemy trenches between the Wulverghem-Messines Road and the left Divisional boundary. The Battalion reserve comprised the remaining two platoons of 14th Company, which were to follow the troops assigned to the second objective as far as the German front line, and there under cover await orders. Captain D. Rae was appointed Liason Officer to the Irish Brigade on the immediate left of the New Zealand Division.

After the capture of Oyster Reserve Trench, or Brown Line, by the 1st Battalions of Otago and Canterbury, a further advance was necessary in order to straighten out the line. The 2nd Brigade's main objective, the capture of Messines and the formation of a defensive line round the eastern side, was entrusted to the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, to which was attached one company of. the 2nd Battalion of Otago. This particular company, the 10th (North Otago), was responsible for straightening out the line on the left, and in its path was one of the enemy's formidable strongholds, page 174 known as Swayne's Farm. The 2nd Battalion of Otago, less 10th Company, constituted the Brigade reserve, and if required was to be prepared to assist in the capture of the forward line of objectives within the Brigade area, or to move to any threatened point in the event of hostile counter-attack. The capture of the foremost line, known as the Black Line, the establishment of strong-points on the Black Dotted Line still further ahead, and the capture of enemy guns was to be carried out by troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade.

Owing to the fact that the German trench system swung forward sharply from our line of stepping-off, it was realised that the 25th Division on the immediate left of the New Zealand Division would be considerably in rear of our left flank when the general move commenced at zero. The left flank of the New Zealand Division would thus be exposed to the enemy until such time as the left Division of the Corps had advanced sufficiently far to effect a junction, which, according to the time-table of attack, was expected to take place when in line with Occur Avenue. Thereafter troops of the two Divisions would advance in close touch to the Black Line, when the three attacking Divisions of the Corps should be side by side. In thus leaving our left flank temporarily exposed there was an element of danger, but under the circumstances it was unavoidable; and in order to reduce the attendant risks to a minimum protection was to be afforded by an artillery and machine gun barrage and by a smoke screen.

Twelve tanks were detailed to co-operate with the Division, and eight of these were allotted to the 2nd Infantry Brigade. All plans for the capture of objectives, however, were based on the supposition that no co-operation from tanks would be forthcoming, thus providing against any failure on their part to get forward with the infantry.

The arrangements for the participation of a stupendous array of artillery were most elaborate and complete, and included all the intricate details of barrages, creeping and standing, for the actual attack; for counter-battery work, and the shelling of back areas and communications; and finally for the pushing forward of guns once our objectives had been won, and then reopening on new lines and fresh targets. This page 175 meant an extraordinary concentration of artillery, from rows of 18-pounders established within a few hundred yards of our front line, to siege artillery and long-range guns mounted on rails and concealed in dummy houses. In addition to medium and heavy howitzers, the attack of the New Zealand Division was to be directly supported by nineteen 18-pounder batteries, representing 114 guns, and six 4.5 in. howitzer batteries, representing 36 howitzers. Immediately prior to the assault there was not to be any intensified bombardment, and artillery work was to be carried on as usual until zero as a precautionary measure against affording the enemy any indication of the hour of attack. From the German front line onwards the advance was to be protected and supported as follows:—(a) A creeping 18-pounder barrage moving in advance of the infantry with lifts of 100 yards; (b) a standing 18-pounder barrage to ensure that the infantry as they advanced were not shot at through the creeping barrage; (c) a standing barrage provided by 4.5 in. howitzers, which would lift when the infantry approached to within approximately 300 yards; (d) a medium and heavy howitzer barrage which would lift when the infantry approached to within approximately 400 yards. These barrages were to be established on successive trenches and strong-points within the limits of safety of each gun or howitzer in such a manner that the whole of the area over which the infantry had to pass was kept under fire until the last possible moment. A new feature in attack in the way of barrages was to be provided by 144 machine guns along the Corps front, and of this number 56 were allotted to the New Zealand Division. In addition, eight Stokes mortars were attached to the various battalions as useful weapons for battering down or completing the destruction of any stronghold found to be still holding out.

The leading Battalions of Otago and Canterbury Regiments were to move forward on a two company frontage. The two leading waves were to be responsible for the capture of the first objective, the Blue Line; the third wave for the second or Brown Line; and the fourth wave in the case of Otago was to be used for straightening out the Brown Line on the extreme left. The 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, plus the 10th Company of the 2nd Battalion of Otago, was to page 176 follow the two leading Battalions on a two company frontage at a distance of not more than 50 yards, and the 2nd Battalion of Otago was in turn to move in rear of Canterbury, with its left on the Wulverghem-Messines Road, and form up in a position of readiness in the dead ground in the valley of the Steenbeek.

At eight o'clock on the evening of June 6th the 1st Battalion of the Regiment, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Charters, paraded in full attack order; an hour later the 2nd Battalion paraded similarly equipped. Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Smith at this stage temporarily handed over command of the 2nd Battalion to Major McCrae, and proceeded to Morbecque. The Regiment now moved off from its area of concentration, and commenced the march to the positions of assembly in the forward zone. The allotment of assembly positions was as follows:—1st Battalions of Otago and Canterbury Regiments, in the new advanced trench and Otira Trench; 2nd Battalion of Canterbury Regiment, in Auckland and Canterbury Trenches; 2nd Battalion of Otago Regiment, in Napier and Canterbury cut north of Calgary Avenue. The arrangement of positions was successfully accomplished and to time, although it had to be effected under very trying conditions. The enemy poured gas shells over our communication trenches throughout the evening and the early part of the night, which necessitated the wearing of gas helmets when moving through the affected areas. By 12.30 a.m. on June 7th all troops of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade were in position in their assembly trenches. The 1st Battalion of the Regiment was at fighting strength of 27 officers and 576 other ranks; the 2nd Battalion at 26 officers and 772 other ranks.

Zero hour, the opening moment of the attack, was fixed for 3.10 a.m. on June 7th. The few preceding hours remained comparatively quiet, the intervening time being devoted to rest and sleep or sober reflection and thought. Four minutes prior to zero a section of machine guns opened its barrage, and although this might have led to confusion and alarmed the enemy, it apparently passed unnoticed; and the morning being dark and misty, a premature forward move by some of the troops in the rear assembly trenches was not observed.

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Officers of 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment.(From a Photograph taken before Battle of Messines.)

Officers of 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment.
(From a Photograph taken before Battle of Messines.)