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

The Attack Launched

page 177

The Attack Launched.

Punctually to time the great series of underground mines were fired, the effect instantly being a premonitory heaving and trembling of the earth, as if Nature, in some mad freak of hideous sympathy with the prevalent human wickedness, was preparing to launch an assortment of horrors on her own account. Simultaneously with the rending of the blood-soaked Ridge, again to be the scene of desperate conflict, the dark and sullen sky, as yet untouched by the sleeping dawn, was suffused with a red glow as the fire of the massed artillery broke out along the line, its thunderous reverberations rolling over the distant spaces of the battlefield. The infantry were at once in motion, and in splendid unison were now sweeping over the foremost German defences.

The first trench system offered comparatively light resistance to our advance, and the attacking troops pressed on up the slopes of the Ridge to the assault of their main objectives. Within the hour the New Zealanders had captured Messines; before midday Irish troops had fought their way through Wytschaete; and then the attackers commenced to move down the eastern slopes of the Ridge. It was not long before our guns were being pushed forward. The final part of the Second Army's attack developed soon afterwards; by evening the advance had reached the approximate line of the final objective; and over 7,000 prisoners, 67 guns, 94 trench mortars, and 290 machine guns had fallen to the possession of the Second Army. The terrible and overwhelming destruction caused by the explosion of the underground mines, the pulverising blows of the artillery, and the rapidity with which the attack had been carried through by the infantry, left the enemy at the close of the day beaten and bewildered and the great stronghold of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge in our hands.

The assaulting waves of the 1st Battalion of Otago Regiment, side by side with Canterbury troops, moved forward to the attack across No Man's Land at the appointed time. Seven minutes after zero, and before the enemy's counter-barrage came down, the whole of the 2nd Brigade troops were clear of the forward assembly trenches. The rapidity and ease with which this was accomplished, and the page 178 subsequent comparative absence of indecision in the matter of assigned duties and direction were to be attributed to the frequent rehearsals of the attack during the period of training prior to the offensive. Moving in extended order, and closely following the barrage, the Otago Infantry crossed the valley of the Steenbeek and commenced the attack of the slopes in front. The German front line they had taken in their stride, and with almost incredible speed had captured and were consolidating the first objective. The two great strongholds, Moulin de l'Hospice and Birthday Farm, were surrounded and captured before the garrisons could do any material damage with their machine guns; and in and around these localities five machine guns and 50 prisoners were taken and a number of the enemy killed. The two platoons committed to the capture of the Moulin de l'Hospice, in consequence of casualties to officers, were led to the final assault by Sergt. J. H. Wilson. A single machine gun had continued firing even up to the point when the position was surrounded, until it was finally put out of action by Sergt. J. Mason. Immediately this objective was gained consolidation was commenced over a line 80 yards in advance of the enemy strong-point; and it was at this stage that Pte. C. A. Fitzpatrick on jumping into a shell-hole encountered an enemy machine gun which he forthwith attacked single-handed, bayoneting five of the crew and capturing the gun and one of the enemy.

The 10th Company and two platoons of 14th Company, under the command of Captain E. F. Selby, which were committed to Otago's portion of the second objective, moved forward and similarly quickly overwhelmed the opposition. Continuing their advance, they established themselves on a line approximately 200 yards in rear of Swayne's Farm, and there commenced consolidation. A machine gun now came into action from Swayne's Farm and threatened to interfere with operations. This new development was, however, countered by the arrival of one of the two tanks (the second having been ditched on the way up) detailed to cooperate with 10th Company and the two platoons of 14th Company. Captain Selby directed the tank commander's attention to the enemy opposition at Swayne's Farm, and the tank was headed straight for the redoubt, demolishing the page 179 superstructure and compelling the surrender of the garrison and large numbers of the enemy who had apparently collected there for shelter.

Consolidation on the line gained now continued without interruption; but it was found necessary to construct and garrison about 100 yards of trench towards the left in order to connect up with the troops of the 25th Division, this actually being beyond the New Zealand Division's boundary. Lieut. Freed, in immediate command of the two platoons of 14th Company, had materially assisted with his formation towards the success of operations, though wounded early in the attack.

The suddenness of the assault and the fact that our attacking infantry had broken into the hostile defences almost at the moment the barrage lifted, afforded the enemy small chance of bringing his machine guns into action. Without our effective barrage and swiftly attacking infantry the German strongholds encountered, with their two or three machine guns and their garrisons varying in strength from 15 to 40 men, would have presented expensive propositions. Consolidation having been commenced over the new ground, it was not long before sufficient depth had been dug to afford comparatively good cover. Digging operations were vigorously pushed ahead throughout the day, and the positions strongly fortified against possible counter-attack. The two reserve platoons of 14th Company were directed to assist with the consolidation of the second objective, and Battalion Headquarters was established in a concrete emplacement on the Wulverghem-Messines Road, above the Moulin de 'Hospice.

On the right Canterbury troops had also made quick progress, capturing their first objective after meeting with inconsiderable opposition and securing 17 prisoners and three machine guns from the redoubt known as Au Bon Fermier Cabaret.

The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment (Major McCrae in command), less 10th Company, moved forward at zero from its assembly positions in artillery formation, and reached the position assigned to it at 3.16 a.m., where the troops dug in on a line named New Oyster Trench, and at 4 a.m. Battalion Headquarters was established there. The 2nd page 180 Battalion of the Regiment constituted the Brigade reserve, and was to assist in the capture of the forward objective if required. Accordingly, at 5 a.m. the 14th Company, commanded by Captain Bremner, went forward to act as support to the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, while No. 14 platoon joined in the mopping-up of Messines Village, afterwards assisting in conjunction with Nos. 13 and 16 platoons in the consolidation of New Oxonian Trench forward of Messines; No. 15 platoon digging in as a reserve in rear of the village. One platoon of 4th Company received orders to construct a trench connecting Canterbury's left flank with the right flank of the 25th Division east of Swayne s Farm. This was accomplished by 2.30 p.m., though not without casualties, for fairly heavy shell fire was now being experienced. The 4th Company, commanded by Captain P. Spiers, advanced to reinforce the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, but after halting and taking cover on the crest of the ridge found that its services were not required, and moved back to New Oyster Trench. Two platoons of 8th Company went forward and assisted Canterbury in the work of consolidation. By 6 p.m., the 4th, 8th, and 14th Companies had returned to New Oyster Trench, and by 10 p.m. had completed consolidation over a distance of 600 yards.

Under the command of 2nd-Lieut. (Temp.-Captain) J. Rodgers, M.M., 10th Company of the 2nd Battalion of Otago, which was attached to Canterbury and was entrusted with the task of capturing October Support from its junction with Oxonian Trench to the left Divisional boundary, carried out its task with the 25th Division in line on the left, and under heavy shell fire dug in about 200 yards in advance of its section of the Yellow Line. Practically no artillery fire had been encountered until the enemy's support line was passed, and no heavy fire until the objective was occupied. The earlier successful intervention of a tank had practically disposed of Swayne's Farm as a serious obstacle to progress, and there remained but a few stragglers to round up. The Distinguished Conduct Medal was conferred upon Company Sergt.-major J. C. Fothergill for his fine service during the period of consolidating the captured position. The same distinction was won by Pte. T. J. Beck, Battalion runner, who, though twice wounded, had remained on duty.

page 181

The 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, in clearing the village of Messines, was temporarily held up south of the Square, but the process of envelopment from left and right relieved the situation. Here a large number of the enemy were killed, several machine guns knocked out, and 180 prisoners taken. Opposition from enemy trenches in the cemetery was dealt with, and the capture of the Yellow Line was completed. The enemy's shelling of the forward area became increasingly heavy as the day advanced, and the gradual withdrawal of troops of the 2nd Battalion of Otago relieved the congestion and appreciably minimised casualties. At 8 a.m. Major McCrae had gone forward to the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury and found that unit's Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel H. Stewart, badly wounded, and at his request assumed command until the arrival of Major Starnes shortly afterwards.

During the clearing of Messines our artillery had placed a "box" barrage round the village. The task of the 1st Brigade troops, following upon the capture of Messines, may be briefly described. Their particular operation was the establishment of the Black Line and the Black Dotted Line ahead, which was to serve as a jumping-off place for the 4th Australian Division in its attack on the foremost lines of the day's advance, the Green Dotted and Green Lines. Following in the wake of the 2nd and 3rd Brigade troops, they had established themselves on the Black Line by 5.30 a.m. Stubborn resistance was encountered at several points, and two 77 mm. guns, several machine guns, and many prisoners were captured. There was a pause in the attack for about three hours, and at 8.40 a.m. parties moved forward under cover of the barrage, captured one 77 mm. field gun, established posts on the Black Dotted Line, and sent out patrols to reconnoitre the ground ahead.

Shortly after 1 p.m. the enemy were observed from various points to be heavily massing for counter-attack, and soon were advancing in several waves along the whole of the Divisional front, preceded by an intense barrage over our forward lines. Similar reports of a counter-attack developing came from the 25th Division on the left. Our artillery barrage was immediately called for and brought down; many machine guns joined in the firing and the counter-attack was effectively stopped and crushed.

page 182

At 3.10 p.m., following upon a further pause in the attack, the 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division advanced through the New Zealand troops on the Black Dotted Line. In this operation, representing a continuance of the day's battle, the Australians apparently met with much resistance and heavy fire from newly prepared gun positions, which the long break in the attack time-table had afforded the enemy every opportunity of establishing. The right Battalion was reported to have been held up by concrete machine gun emplacements, and later in the evening the left Battalion was reported to be on its objective. About 8.30 p.m. there were reports of a further enemy counter-attack, and during the evening several S.O.S. calls were received by the artillery, which opened up at S.O.S. rates; but beyond the enemy's heavy shelling it was doubtful if there was any real justification for the vast expenditure of ammunition which these calls involved. There were counter-attacks, both threatened and launched, at various points of the Australian front on the following day, when the enemy shelling was persistently heavy; while our aeroplanes reported considerable enemy movement over the back roads, all of it in a westerly direction. However, the forward line was definitely established by 10 o'clock on the morning of the 8th, and at 9 a.m. on the 9th the 4th Australian Division assumed command of the front held in advance of the New Zealand Division as far back as Messines and including that place. The New Zealanders then went into Corps reserve, and at midday the 2nd Infantry Brigade was ordered to commence dribbling its battalions back to billeting areas.

We now return to the troops of the Regiment. On the night of June 7th-8th arrangements were made for the 2nd Infantry Brigade to carry out within 48 hours a relief which involved holding the Purple Line and all ground west of Messines and east of the original No Man's Land, Accordingly orders were issued for the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Otago to remain in the trenches they were holding and complete consolidation. The headquarters of all battalions were moved back to their original places in the assembly trenches, whence it was much easier to maintain telephone communication with companies and with Brigade. Throughout the night the enemy artillery heavily pounded Messines and the trenches page 183 east and west of it; the infantry over this area suffering severely, particularly from enfilade fire from the direction of Frelingien and Deulemont. During the early hours of the morning of the 8th, 10th Company of the 2nd Battalion of Otago was withdrawn from the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury, and rejoined its own unit in reserve. The 1st New Zealand Infantry Brigade was still holding the Black and Black Dotted Lines.

About 8.45 on the night of the 8th the enemy sent up the S.O.S. signal all along the line, evidently under the impression that we were about to make a further advance. The enemy's artillery barrage and our counter-barrage were intense; but there was a certain wildness about the German shooting. This artillery duel lasted for about two hours, and finally as the fire of our guns slackened off, that of the enemy died down. About 11 p.m. a report was received from the 25th Division on the left that they were being attacked, and that a mixed force of New Zealanders, Australians, and English troops were falling back; but the alarm was apparently occasioned by the fact that a relief was being effected to which the troops referred to belonged. Thereafter, there were no further alarms, and comparative quietness prevailed.

During the morning of the 9th arrangements were made for the 2nd Infantry Brigade, then in close battle reserve, to be relieved that night by the 4th Australian Brigade; but at 2 p.m. orders were received to withdraw into Corps rest area without being relieved by other troops. Instructions were accordingly issued for Battalions to withdraw independently to the Waterloo Road area, and at 5 p.m. the 1st Battalion of Otago left its trenches and marched back to rest billets at Mahutonga Camp. The 4th, 8th, and 14th Companies of the 2nd Battalion had on the previous night commenced digging a communication trench from the junction of Oxonian Trench and October Support to connect with the extension of Calgary Avenue, and completed the work at 10 a.m. on the 9th. At 2.30 p.m. the Battalion moved back to Vauxhall Camp, arriving there late in the evening. Here over the succeeding days the Regiment secured that rest which it had so splendidly earned.

page 184

The extensive and careful preparations over the period immediately preceding the attack, the splendid unison in which all arms worked, the wonderful co-operation of a mighty array of artillery, and the incomparable work of the infantry, combined with the splendid leadership of officers and noncommissioned officers, made the Messines Battle a decisive and sweeping success. The operation was a set piece in which everyone knew his duty intimately and well; an important factor in the execution of a scheme of attack so superlatively vital in its issue, so vast in the range of its unavoidable complexities and the multiplicity of its interdependent detail, and depending so largely for its success on the clock-like precision of responsive and cohesive action throughout the whole of the large force employed; on its readiness in meeting and overcoming unexpected difficulties and beating down resistance; on its intelligence, courage and dominating will power; all of which were most brilliantly in evidence in this memorable combination of leadership and fighting man. Needless to say there was abundant reason for the elation which followed the capture of Messines and its dominating and seemingly impregnable ridge. The casualties suffered during the actual attack were not heavy. The initial blow dealt the enemy was so sudden and so overwhelming as to leave him little time for recovery before the infantry were upon him. It was subsequent to the capture of the Ridge, under the enemy's intensely heavy shell fire, that our casualties commenced to mount up. Enfilade artillery fire from the southeast proved particularly damaging to us, and with so many troops in a congested area heavy losses were inevitable. From about 250 casualties during the actual attack, the 2nd Infantry Brigade's list had increased to 900 before relief was effected on the evening of the 9th.

Twelve tanks were allotted to the New Zealand Division for the attack. It was intended that eight of these should co-operate with the 2nd Infantry Brigade, but were to work independently, each to have its particular objective laid down. Strong protest was made by Brigadier-General Braithwaite against the tanks being brought up too close over night, because of the danger of their noise of movement giving notice of our time of attack to the enemy. In this he was finally successful, although it was understood that the page 185 delay would prevent the tanks from getting up in time to assist the attacking troops in taking their earlier objectives. As anticipated, their work was of comparatively small value, as six of them never got out of No Man's Land.

The list of captures made by the 1st Battalion of the Regiment included 160 prisoners, two 77 mm. field guns, and nine machine guns. The prisoners captured during the operation seemed to have lost all power of effective resistance as a result of the terrific artillery bombardment they had been subjected to, and apparently submissively resigned themselves to the attack and the irresistible power behind it.

The losses sustained by the Regiment in the Messines Battle were as follows:—lst Battalion—Killed, three officers and 30 other ranks; wounded, three officers and 189 other ranks; recorded as missing, 17 other ranks. The officers who fell in action were: Lieut. N. L. Forsythe, and 2nd-Lieuts. C. F. Wilkie and A. J. Tiddy; among the list of other ranks killed in action was Lance-corp. J. P. Egan, D.C.M., who as stretcher-bearer had rendered long and splendid service to the Regiment. 2nd Battalion—Killed, 24 other ranks; wounded, five officers and 113 other ranks; recorded as missing, five other ranks. 2nd-Lieut. (Temp.-Captain) J. Rodgers, M.C., M.M., who displayed fine qualities of leadership during the operation, subsequently died of wounds received in action.