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

Chapter VI — St. Yves.

page 186

Chapter VI.

St. Yves.

The Regiment remained at Mahutonga Camp, in the Waterloo Road area, resting and reorganising, until June 12th, when orders were issued for the 2nd Brigade of the New Zealand Division to return to the line, and take over the St. Yves sector, lying between Messines on the north and the Bois de Ploegsteert on the south, and bounded by the River Douve on the left and Westminster Avenue on the right. In compliance with this order the 1st Battalion entered into occupation of the trenches of the left sub-sector, extending from the Douve to Ash Avenue, and relieved the 36th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces. Since our leaving the line at Messines on June 9th the Australians had pushed forward to a line opposite the village of Warneton, and had there established a series of outposts. The system of trenches known as the Potteries, in the same locality, had been captured, and the general advance accomplished represented a distance of approximately half a mile beyond the Green Line, which was the final objective of the attack of June 7th.

The new sector taken over by the 2nd Infantry Brigade was divided into two sub-sectors, each held by one battalion distributed in depth. It comprised flat, undulating country, with a low spur lying between the River Douve and Ultimo Avenue, about 1,500 yards to the south, and extending from La Hutte through St. Yves to a point approximately 1,000 yards west of Warneton, which was held by the enemy. South of this spur, between the eastern edge of Ploegsteert Wood and the Armentieres-Warneton railway, the country was slightly lower and nearly flat, wet in places, and difficult to drain. East of the railway the ground fell gradually to the River Lys, with sufficient slope for the drainage of trenches in the vicinity. Along the western bank of the river the ground was marshy in places.

page 187

The dispositions of the 1st Battalion of the Regiment on entering the line were as follows:—4th Company holding the outposts in front of the Potteries; 10th and 14th Companies in the support trenches; and 8th Company in Battalion reserve. During the course of a preliminary reconnaissance of the sector by Company Commanders, Captain D. Rae, commanding 8th (Southland) Company, was wounded, and evacuated. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, in Brigade support, was billeted at the Catacombs, a system of deep tunnels under Hill 63, on the northern edge of the Bois de Ploegsteert. On the afternoon of the day on which the line was taken over, the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, which was in line on the right, and was then attached to the 3rd Australian Division, had found the German front and support lines south of St. Yves evacuated. These positions they occupied during the night, thereby straightening out our front over the old German support line and removing the salient of the Birdcage. On the 2nd Brigade taking over its part of the line on the night of June 12th, patrols were sent forward from various points in order to determine if the enemy still held the adjacent strong-points. These patrols moved out in the direction of Sunken Farm, Knoll 30, and Flattened Farm, and also down the River Douve. Owing to the early dawn not much information could be gained; but there was something definite in the fact that the patrols were fired upon from Flattened Farm and Knoll 30. Later on a patrol was sent out in the direction of Trois Tilleuls Farm to the south, but returned without information; though when another patrol was sent out it was fired upon when approaching this point. Patrols also worked along Ultra Support and Ultra Lane, but no enemy was encountered.

During the night battalions in the line consolidated and strengthened their front trenches and advanced posts, which had been handed over in a very poor state, especially those in the Potteries system, where we were supposed to take over five posts at a strength of 20 men in each, but where actually there were only three posts with a garrison of seven men in each. Certain points on our front occupied by detachments of the Corps Mounted Troops were also relieved by the 1st Battalion of the Regiment. As the Brigade sector had been taken over on a night of intense darkness and no previous page 188 knowledge of the ground existed, successful patrol work was exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

On June 13th instructions were issued for the 2nd Infantry Brigade to advance its front to a depth of 1,500 yards, and to seize the enemy's forward posts, with the intention of eventually linking them up. This line was to run approximately from the road near La Truie Farm, and then north through Sunken Farm, to the Douve River, thus extending along the western side of Warneton Village and connecting with a similar advanced line thrown forward on our left by the 75th Brigade, and on our right by the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade. The operation was to be carried out during the evening without the assistance of an artillery barrage. It was calculated that the undertaking was a comparatively simple one; that it was merely a question of dribbling forward small parties unobserved by the enemy and seizing successive objectives on the way, each objective affording support and covering fire for the capture of the next. It was further presumed that the enemy had withdrawn his main strength. The task, however, was really beset with many difficulties, and was by no means as easy of accomplishment as was anticipated.

Late in the afternoon information was received that the 25th Division, on our left, had no intention of moving forward that day without artillery support, and that therefore the New Zealand Division was committed to the operation alone and without artillery support. It was accordingly undertaken, but was only partially successful. Troops of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade on our right reached their objective, but those of the 2nd Infantry Brigade came under heavy fire from the enemy artillery, which doubtless, as the result of a reconnoitring visit from several low-flying aeroplanes, anticipated our advance. Instead of going forward at 9 p.m., Otago in consequence did not move until 11.30 p.m. The night was intensely dark, the troops committed to the attack did not know their country, and there was great danger of losing direction. This was actually what happened to Otago on the left. They completely lost their way, and finally arrived back at where they had started out from without accomplishing anything. Canterbury was in a sense more fortunate and did slightly better. Troops of that battalion occupied page 189 Flattened Farm, and established a strong-point to the right of it, but considerably in rear of the intended objective. After weathering the enemy artillery barrage, heavy machine gun fire was encountered; there were some mistakes in the matter of recognition of points, and when daylight broke and put an end to operations Canterbury had reached and was holding an exposed line approximate to Unchained Trench. The operation was a costly one and could certainly not be regarded as successful.

The original intention was that this undertaking should have been carried out by the two battalions of the 2nd Brigade which had suffered least during the attack on Messines. With this object the 2nd Battalion of Otago and the 1st Battalion of Canterbury had been placed in the Catacombs, prior to being brought up during the hours of darkness for the advance; the 1st Battalion of Otago and the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury meantime holding the Brigade line. It had been further understood that the attack would take place at dawn, when the assembly could have been accomplished under cover of darkness. It eventually turned out, as already stated, that the attack was to take place in the evening, and it being impossible to assemble in daylight without announcing our intentions, the two battalions holding the line had perforce to be committed to the attack. Thus weariness was added to a certain unpreparedness.

On June 14th steps were taken with a view to making a second attempt on this advanced line. At half-past seven in the evening the operation was launched under a heavy artillery barrage. The objectives were the same as previously, excepting that Otago was detailed to deal with Sunken Farm in order to relieve Canterbury, who had suffered severely from the enemy's shelling on the previous night. The 10th (North Otago) Company, commanded by Captain C. Bryce, made an advance of approximately 800 yards, and established a series of three strong-points overlooking Warneton from the west. Subsequently, one of these strong-points, on the left, was evacuated by our garrison under the stress of heavy shelling, thereby leaving the right flank dangerously exposed until it was later restored. One platoon of 8th (Southland) Company, under 2nd-Lieut. A. R. Cockerell, captured Sunken Farm, and dug in about 50 yards beyond. To the right of page 190 Sunken Farm, and now in rear of our outpost line, was a position which the enemy, apparently unaware of our new dispositions, about an hour later came out to reoccupy, but with disastrous results to themselves; for being allowed to come within close range, they were shot down to the last man. Our casualties during the operation, due mainly to machine gun fire from the direction of the railway line west of Warneton, were two killed and 34 wounded; but the advance, despite many adverse conditions, was carried out with dash and skill. Canterbury, on the right, encountered the enemy in considerable strength in places, and after brisk fighting captured Au Chasseur Cabaret, and La Truie Farm. The enemy retreated along the La Basse-Ville Road, and there vainly endeavoured to rally. The left strong-point established by Otago at a point adjoining the River Douve linked up with the 75th Brigade, which, now operating in conjunction, had also carried its objectives. The enemy still held the Warneton railway line, and occupied many of the houses in rear of it, but the pushing forward of posts had actually been successful along the whole Army front, and brought us up against the Warneton line. This was as far as it was then desirable to advance.

Over the succeeding 24 hours there was heavy enemy shelling, a great deal of which was directed to the Potteries system of trenches. Retaliation was asked for from our heavy artillery on several occasions, and but spasmodically granted. At about 9 p.m. on the 15th the S.O.S. signal appeared on our left, and our field batteries maintained an intense fire for an hour. No counter-attack developed. During the day our Sunken Farm outpost accounted for two enemy snipers and drove a third from his position. At 10.30 p.m. on the 15th the Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, after which companies moved back to the Catacombs for a rest.

Prior to effecting this relief the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, after leaving the Messines Sector on the 9th, had enjoyed a period of rest at Vauxhall Camp. On the 11th Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Smith returned from Morbecque and reassumed command of the Battalion. On the evening of the 12th a move was made to the Catacombs under Hill 63, and on the following day 8th and 14th Companies commenced page 191 the construction of a communication trench in rear of the Potteries system, and on the succeeding night completed the work. The remaining two companies of the Battalion on the night of the 14th constructed a second communication trench towards the Potteries. When the 2nd Battalion proceeded to take over the line on the 15th, it came under enemy shell fire, and several casualties were incurred. The 8th (Southland) Company occupied the advanced posts, 14th (South Otago) Company the second outpost line, and 4th (Otago) Company the main line in rear. The 10th (North Otago) Company occupied the reserve trenches at Prowse Point, and acted as carrying party for the forward troops during the period of garrisoning the line.

A great deal of work was necessary in order to consolidate and strengthen our recent gains. A new support line extending over a considerable distance required to be constructed, existing trenches to be deepened, and the forward posts to be wired. The whole of the Battalion, less those who garrisoned the advanced posts and a small garrison in each company sector, was engaged on these works during the two following nights, the whole of the available strength of the 1st Battalion being similarly employed. The tour of the line, brief though it was, was exceedingly strenuous. On the day of taking over the line, the enemy artillery heavily shelled our advanced posts and trenches, particularly the Potteries system. Our own batteries had previously retaliated at intervals, but the enemy apparently was not disposed to slacken off. Accordingly, shortly after midnight a heavy barrage and counter-battery fire was opened by our artillery and maintained for 15 minutes. This proved fairly effective in silencing the enemy. Low-flying German aeroplanes also displayed considerable activity, searching out our forward posts and trenches and firing their machine guns on the garrisons. Our casualties over the period, in consequence of this repeated hostile activity, amounted to 13 killed and 33 wounded.

At this period there were circumstances which seemed to indicate a German withdrawal from Warneton and the River Lys, There was no intention of advancing our line beyond the railway; but in order to maintain touch with the enemy it was deemed advisable to send out a patrol as far as the page 192 railway line. Accordingly Otago established a post which commanded the railway and overlooked the village of Warneton. Later on, however, it became evident that the enemy had not withdrawn from Warneton as anticipated, as he was observed to be constructing strong-points which must serve to protect the village.

The 1st Battalion moved out of the Catacombs early on the morning of the 18th, and before noon was established in Kortepyp Camp. The 2nd Battalion was relieved in the line by the 1st Battalion of Auckland on the same day, and by 5.30 the following morning the last company had reached and settled down in camp at De Seule.

The total casualties sustained by the Regiment between June 6th and June 19th, a period of great activity and many hardships, were 23 officers and 544 other ranks, made up as follows:—1st Battalion—14 officers and 289 other ranks; 2nd Battalion—9 officers and 255 other ranks. This total included, of course, the casualties sustained in the Messines operations.

Events in the line following upon the Otago Regiment going into rest area may be briefly summarised. Patrols entered La Basse-Ville, and further south Pont Rouge on the night of the 18th-19th June was found to have been evacuated by the enemy; but he was still holding and covering Warneton by a series of trenches and fortified shell-holes and hedgerows. By June 30th the New Zealand Division had handed over the front to the 4th Australian Division.

The Regiment now turned its attention to reorganising and training. On the 21st, as part of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade, it was inspected by the Corps Commander, Lieut.-General Sir A. J. Godley. Later there was an inspection by the Divisional Commander, Major General Sir A. H. Russell, while a small detachment proceeded to Bailleul for inspection by H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught. The time spent during the tour in reserve afforded much desired rest, and an opportunity for attending to many necessary details which came under the comprehensive heading of interior economy. On the 28th the Regiment moved to a new camping area close to the Neuve Eglise-Wulverghem Road.

On July 5th Major J. Hargest assumed command of the 1st Battalion, Lieut.-Colonel Charters having temporarily page 193 taken over command of the 2nd Brigade. On July 12th the Regiment struck camp, the 1st Battalion proceeding to the Berquin area, and the 2nd Battalion to Doulieu near by. On July 15th Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Smith proceeded to the United Kingdom on leave, and Major J. McCrae assumed command of the 2nd Battalion, On the 17th, however, he was evacuated sick, and Major Hargest, of the 1st Battalion, filled the vacancy, Captain (Temp.-Major) E. S. McIntyre in turn taking command of the 1st Battalion, and continuing in charge when Lieut.-Colonel Charters left for the United Kingdom on leave. On the 18th the 2nd Battalion having vacated its billets in the Doulieu area moved to Romarin Camp, and on the following day the 1st Battalion marched to the Catacombs under Hill 63.