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

Chapter VII — La Basse-Ville.

page 194

Chapter VII.

La Basse-Ville.

On the successful conclusion of operations against Messines and fronting Warneton, the final dispositions for the main Allied offensive east and north of Ypres were entered upon. Although driven from the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, the enemy still possessed direct observation over the Ypres Salient from the east and south-east, as well as from the north. By the middle of July preparations were well advanced for this, the Third Battle of Ypres. The front of the Allied attack decided upon extended from the Lys River opposite Deulemont northwards to beyond Steenstraat, a distance of over 15 miles; but the main blow was to be delivered by the Fifth Army on a front of about seven and a-half miles, from the Zillebeke-Zandvoorde Road to Boesinghe, inclusive. Covering the right of the Fifth Army, the task of the Second Army (which included the New Zealand Division) was to advance a short distance only, the main idea being to extend the threatened area of attack, and by that means force a distribution of the enemy strength.

The attack was launched on the morning of July 31st, and on the greater part of the selected front the resistance of the German infantry was quickly overcome and good progress made. At the close of the day, after fierce fighting, the British Fifth Army had carried the German first system of defence south of Westhoek, and except at Westhoek itself, where they were established in the outskirts, had gained the whole of the crest of the ridge and denied the enemy observation over the Ypres Plain. Further north the enemy's second line of defence had been captured as far as St. Julien, and north of that again the British held the line of the Steenbeek to our junction with the French, who had gained all their objectives. Meanwhile the attack on the Second Army front had also met page 195 with complete success, A period of stormy weather now intervened, quickly transforming the battlefield into a vast and almost impassable bog, and rendering the further immediate development of the offensive impossible. We now turn to the participation by the Regiment in the Second Army's share in this Battle of Ypres and the incidents leading up to it.

On July 15th orders were issued for the relief by the New Zealand Division of the 4th Australian Division in the La Basse-Ville Sector, east of the Bois de Ploegsteert. The relief was to be accomplished on July 18th and 19th, and the attached troops of the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade were to remain in the line. The Australian Division was holding the front with the 13th Brigade, of which two battalions were in the front line, and two in close support. The New Zealand Division was to hold the front with two Brigades, differently disposed, each having two battalions in line as far back as the subsidiary line inclusive; the third battalion of each Brigade to be under Hill 63, and the fourth at Kortepyp and Romarin respectively. The 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades were to carry out the relief, while the New Zealand Divisional Artillery was to remain in the line covering the Divisional front. The 2nd Battalion of Otago, in accordance with the above relief, took over from the 49th Australian Battalion on July 19th. The two front line Companies were 4th and 10th, with 8th and 14th Companies in support. Active patrolling was immediately commenced and carried out nightly without encountering any definite enemy movement, while working parties constructed a new front line trench and generally improved the system of communication trenches. On the 22nd Major W. W. Turner returned from leave and temporarily assumed command of the Battalion. On the 23rd the Battalion was relieved by the 3rd Battalion of Canterbury, and marched to Regina Camp, on the Ploegsteert-Romarin Road. Two days later a move was made to billets at Nieppe. Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Smith returned to his command on the 30th.

The sojourn, from July 19th to July 28th, which the 1st Battalion spent at the Catacombs, was not free from hard work nor from enemy shelling. On the 20th casualties were sustained numbering five killed, including 2nd-Lieut. G. Richardson, and eight wounded, including Major E. S. page 196 McIntyre, who subsequently died of wounds. The death of Major McIntyre, who was at this stage temporarily commanding the 1st Battalion, occasioned deep regret in the Regiment. Captain W. F. Tracy now assumed command of the Battalion until Major Hargest returned from the 2nd Battalion on the 22nd of the month. Large working parties were supplied for the forward area until the 29th, when the Battalion relieved Canterbury in the line. On the same night a series of new forward positions were established. On the following afternoon and during the evening the enemy artillery displayed a great deal of activity, and our heavy batteries effectively shelled La Basse-Ville and Deulemont. The former village was, in fact, to be the objective of the operations planned for July 31st as part of the Second Army's contribution to the Fifth Army's attack further north, and previously referred to. La Basse-Ville had actually been in our hands for a brief period on the morning of the 27th. A company of the 2nd Battalion of Wellington attacked and cleaned up the village in the early hours of the morning; but the small garrison left there was at 5 a.m. forced to withdraw under the pressure of a heavy counter-attack. In the course of this operation the enemy suffered rather heavily; and it was also made clear that his tenure of the village was not to be a lengthy one.

A second attack by troops of the 1st Brigade against La Basse-Ville and the adjoining defence systems was timed for 3.50 a.m. on July 31st. In conjunction with this operation certain tasks were entrusted to the 1st Battalion of Otago, which were to be carried out on the night preceding the attack on the village, and included pushing out and establishing a post still further in advance of those secured on the previous night and overlooking the Lys River south of the Sugar Refinery. The object was to prevent the enemy crossing the river at or south of the Sugar Refinery and attacking the troops of the 1st Brigade once they had established themselves in La Basse-Ville. This was successfully accomplished during the night, when 2nd-Lieut. S. Cook and a party of 17 other tanks of 8th Company moved out through the front line and Vulture Post and established themselves as directed. An additional post was established further south near the railway line. The two support Companies were fully engaged page 197 effecting communication through the medium of trenches between the front line and the several posts.

The attack of the Fifth Army, and the minor operations of the Second Army, were opened on the morning of July 31st with the results already outlined. In conjunction therewith, and co-incident with a diversion by the 3rd Australian Division north of Warneton, an attack was delivered by North Island troops against La Basse-Ville, and notwithstanding considerable resistance the village was finally left in our possession. One effect of this operation was to draw heavy shelling over our trenches and forward posts in the early morning. There was also a great deal of shell fire throughout the day, so much so, in fact, as to result in the entire garrison of one of our left posts becoming casualties. Generally speaking, the system received a severe battering, and the casualties at the close of the day had mounted to eight killed and 13 wounded. Our own artillery was mainly occupied in countering the enemy fire on our left.

The weather at this stage was exceedingly bad, and the difficulties of maintaining forward communications were greatly accentuated by the rain and mud. It was not until August 2nd that the enemy's artillery fire had slackened off appreciably after the excitement of the few preceding days. Our patrols now covered a wide range of ground by night, down to the River Lys and up as far as La Basse-Ville, and nothing was seen or heard of the enemy; but low-flying hostile aeroplanes were active over our lines during the early mornings. On the night of the 3rd an inter-Company relief was effected, 14th Company relieving 8th Company, and 4th Company taking over the positions occupied by 10th Company; and as before the two supporting Companies carried out the exhausting work of maintaining supplies of rations and water to the front line garrison. Owing to the low-lying nature of the ground and the difficulties of drainage, the trenches and approaches were in places almost thigh deep in mud and water, all movement calling for the expenditure of a great deal of energy. On the 5th the enemy threw a considerable number of lachrymatory shells over our forward posts during the hours of darkness. Relief on August 7th was provided by Canterbury, and Otago marched out of the line at La Basse-Ville after a strenuous tour, 8th Company being quartered in page 198 the Catacombs, and the remainder of the Battalion in Regina Camp, on the Ploegsteert-Romarin Road. It was on August 7th that Brigadier-General F. E. Johnston, C.B., who had commanded the New Zealand Infantry Brigade on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and was at this date in command of the 1st Infantry Brigade, was killed in action by an enemy sniper.

The 1st Battalion was now in Brigade support, but ahead of it lay a heavy programme of front line trench improvement and construction work. As the result of a Divisional Commander's conference held on August 6th orders were issued for the consolidation of our line of forward posts, and the digging of a new trench system throughout the sector. The establishment of a new post or position required to be followed immediately by measures of consolidation if its security was to be maintained and the garrison provided against counterattack or shell fire. Accordingly, there was a call for large wiring, digging and carrying parties, and on the night of the 14th the full strength of the Battalion was so employed. The wiring of the left front of the Brigade sector having been completed, the Battalion constructed a new front line trench from the Sugar Refinery to a post named Zero, approximately 700 yards south. The tape-line for this trench was laid by Lieut.-Colonel Charters and Captain S. C. Greer, who had proceeded ahead for the purpose, and under whose supervision the work of digging was carried out. This represented a highly successful undertaking, and special commendation was accorded the Battalion by the Brigadier on its conclusion. There was well-merited rest on the following day, and the same tranquillity might have been enjoyed on the 16th had not the enemy during the morning shelled the camp enclosure and caused casualties to the number of two killed and eight wounded. On the same day the Battalion shifted camp to Canteen Corner. Again at night there was a demand for 500 men for working parties, and for 350 men on the following night. Early on the morning of August 21st the Battalion marched out from Canteen Corner to the La Motte area, and reached its new billets at Cautescure, where a pleasant time was spent until the 27th. On the 28th the Battalion left Cautescure, and after marching to Caestre, entrained for Wizernes. On arrival there the journey was continued by road to Seninghem. The weather was page 199 anything but favourable, and the march was a lengthy one, but the Battalion stood the test well.

Towards the close of July, the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment was resting at Nieppe, and the first day of August saw it back in the line. This was in relief of the 1st Battalion of Wellington at La Basse-Ville, and consequent upon the 2nd Infantry Brigade taking over the right battalion front of the 1st Brigade, including La Basse-Ville. The 8th and 14th Companies supplied the garrisons of the forward posts. All reliefs had been completed by 11 p.m., but the men were wet through with the heavy rain which fell all day. A patrol from 8th Company was immediately sent out, but no enemy was seen or heard across the front.

Throughout the 2nd the forward garrisons had to contend with heavy shelling, but it was not until strong retaliation had been insisted upon that the supporting artillery subjected the enemy to an hour's bombardment. This had the desired effect for a time, though during the night the enemy resumed his activity. Our casualties for the day were six killed and 17 wounded. Rain continued to fall steadily, and the trenches and posts were in a wretched state. There was a recrudescence of hostile shelling early on the following morning, and although artillery retaliation on our part had a quietening effect for a time, the enemy continued to open out at intervals during the day. This involved a further casualty list of two killed and 21 wounded. During the evening, and again towards midnight, the enemy fire was particularly violent over our outpost and front lines. On the 4th the enemy was as aggressive as ever. At 2.30 p.m. a party of 30 of the enemy was observed to leave a building at the south-western corner of Warneton, but no action developed. A few minutes later, however, an advanced group of our left Company, holding a post across the Warneton railway line, was blown out, all excepting two of the garrison being casualties. The enemy's artillery now remained quiescent until 10 p.m., when a heavy bombardment of our posts commenced and lasted for an hour, accompanied by a gas-shell bombardment of St. Yves, Prowse Point, and Ploegsteert Wood. The casualties for the day were one killed, one missing, and 14 wounded.

page 200

During the night a patrol under 2nd-Lieut. C. B. McClure, and comprising Sergt. Travis and six others, reconnoitred the western bank of the River Lys. Along the line of the embankment were several dug-outs, in the locality of which were many enemy dead, evidently the victims of our shell fire. During the course of a search some papers and maps were secured from the body of a German who was either a Company Commander or Intelligence Officer, and on the return of the patrol to our lines these were taken to Brigade Headquarters by Sergt. Travis and were found to contain information of considerable value in reference to enemy dispositions and intentions.

Early on the morning of the 5th an intense box barrage was placed over our sector. The retaliation of our artillery silenced the enemy an hour later, but there was subsequent intermittent shelling, the casualties for the day totalling five killed and 12 wounded. When the Battalion was relieved on the night of the 5th it had completed a tour which was remarkable for sustained and destructive shell fire, to say nothing of the almost unceasing rain and consequent depths of mud. The fact of the New Zealand Division being on the right flank of the northern attack had contributed to persistent artillery activity, so much so that during the first fortnight of August the Division lost the equivalent of more than a battalion, almost exclusively from shell fire. In addition to these losses the wretched state of the trenches, caused by the almost incessant rain, resulted in a considerable number being evacuated on account of sickness.

On relief the Battalion trekked back to Le Romarin Camp, the last Company reaching there at 2.30 a.m. on August 6th. Then followed a period of rest of a kind, interrupted by stormy weather and frequent heavy demands for working parties. Over this period, extending to the 21st, some important work was accomplished, including the digging of several hundred yards of new front line and communication trenches. Heavy rain frequently interfered with or caused operations to be entirely suspended, but when the programme had been completed, the Battalion earned the congratulations of the Brigadier for its efforts. On the 17th a change of location was effected from Le Romarin to Canteen Corner. On the 22nd the Battalion again struck camp, and following page 201 in the wake of the 1st Battalion marched out to Puresbecque, in the La Motte area, and settled down to preliminary training in view of approaching events. On the 28th a move was made to Seninghem, which was reached at 2 a.m. on August 29th. Two days later training operations were resumed.

During the greater part of the month of August our heavy artillery had daily carried out concentrated bombardments of the enemy's back areas, this being mainly in connection with operations to the north. Much of this fire was directed to the village of Warneton, where several blockhouses were exposed, disclosing the enemy system, in evidence elsewhere, of stout concrete emplacements within the shells and under the cover of old buildings. There was frequent hostile retaliation over our own rear areas, including the locality of Hyde Park Corner, where reserve troops were invariably quartered. The relief of the New Zealand Division by the 4th Australian Division and the 8th Division was completed by August 27th.

The Regiment remained in training in the Lumbres area over the greater part of September. In the course of training operations particular attention was paid to practice in trench and open warfare, wood fighting, attack and counterattack, and musketry. In view of the changed methods of defence adopted by the enemy, and his new system of shell-hole defences, the principle of extreme depth in attack was adhered to during practice operations, while the formations used were in the nature of "worms" rather than waves and lines. New enemy methods of attack or defence demanded the introduction of new counter-measures.

On September 14th, at a point half a mile east of Harlettes, the Regiment participated in a review of the New Zealand Division by Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, who expressed his appreciation of the smart and business-like appearance of the troops of the Division. Among those who were present on the occasion of this review was Mr. Winston Churchill.