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


page 202


Ypres is a name that will always live for soldiers of the Regiment for its indelible memories of the fighting in October, 1917, on the slopes leading up to Passchendaele, and the weary winter months during which they held the line on the ridges in front of Westhoek and Zonnebeke. Ypres itself was but the ghost of a city when the Regiment first saw it. The famous Cloth Hall and the stately old Cathedral, with all their grace and mellow beauty, had gone; in their stead were but naked ruins, enough, merely, to tell the eye what beauty had been theirs. The successive agonies that the town had endured since its streets first echoed to the crash of bursting shells had left no place whole or undamaged, and the gaunt ruins and deserted streets suggested some city of the dead. There was a very small population, purely military, which existed in cellars and dug-outs under the tumbled bricks, or in the more secure burrowings under the ramparts behind the town. It was very silent by day, but at night the cobbled Square woke to the rumble of transport and the tread of marching men as they went up to the line or passed back, weary and mud-spattered. The town was not shelled very often during the winter, but it was a place where few cared to loiter, so sinister was its quiet and so complete its desolation.

Behind the town the road ran past Chateau Segard, where Divisional Headquarters was located in a collection of Nissen huts, on to Dickebusch, within a mile or so of which were the Artillery wagon lines and the big camps where the Infantry Brigades were quartered while out of the line. It was all typical Flanders country, flat and featureless, and besides being bombed by clear nights was shelled on occasions with the high velocity gun with which the enemy swept the whole area right back to Poperinghe. Nearly all the traffic to the page 203 forward areas went through Ypres and out by the Menin Gate on to the Menin Road; a fine thoroughfare in the days of peace, straight and broad and lined with tall poplars. Of the poplars only the ragged stumps remained; and the significance of the names which had been given to the corners and cross-ways on the road was evidenced by its battered appearance and the destruction on either side.

Forward of Birr Cross Roads, some distance up the Menin Road from Ypres, the whole countryside had been so completely devastated by weeks and months of shelling that it had become merely an expanse of shell-holes in which the water almost brimmed over on to the surrounding mud. It was a drear prospect; the drab coloured earth showed no single trace of vegetation, and where had been pleasant woodlands were but the blackened and naked remnants. On every hand was evidence of the bitter struggles of the late summer and autumn, and derelict tanks lay scattered about the slopes like petrified monsters of some prehistoric age. The only things that seemed to have escaped destruction and to be still intact were the squat "pill-boxes" to take each one of which so much human life had been sacrificed. They were freely distributed all along the ridges, and as they afforded protection against everything but very heavy shells they were always occupied and sometimes contended for. The ground was so water-logged that it was impossible to dig good dugouts unless they were properly engineered, and timbered and drained; they had been constructed in some places, the biggest of them, like those at Halfway House and Cambridge House, being down at the foot of the slopes on either side of the Menin Road; but they were damp and evil-smelling, and constant pumping was necessary to keep them habitable.

There were two means of communication to the forward zone—the plank road and the duck-board track; but off these footing was not to be had. The plank roads provided good going, but they showed up very clearly on an aeroplane map, and the enemy gunners knew their every turn and angle. Off the roads the duck-board tracks seemed to wind interminably until they disappeared from sight over the slopes or down into the valleys, where sometimes they traversed bogs formed by the choked and overflowing streams which had once trickled along the bottom. Over by the remains page 204 of Polygone Wood the Butte de Polygone, a big long earthen mound which had been covered with trees and foliage but was now bare and pitted with constant shelling, made the most striking landmark on the whole sector. Inside it was a perfect honeycomb of passages and dug-outs which were occupied by the headquarters of one of the Infantry Brigades in the line, the headquarters of Battalions, and a variety of individuals. The Butte was a hub from which tracks radiated in all directions, and the enemy shelled it at odd intervals during the day or night, so it was a place to be approached warily and entered with all possible speed.

Beyond all this was the forward zone, foul and waterlogged, tortured by shell fire, and forbidding in its every aspect. Across this waste the men of the Infantry, heavily burdened, and deep in thought, slowly struggled up to the front and support lines, where under the meagre shelter of those sinuous ditches they maintained their ground throughout the long months of a dreadful winter, contending against the inexpressible misery produced by the elements and the constant destruction wrought by the enemy. On that account alone the name of Ypres will always recall a long series of hardship and suffering; but it is because of the unexampled bravery, and the agony endured along the tragic slopes of Bellevue in the heroic though unavailing struggle for Passchendaele that Ypres above all must ever stand as a place of revered but yet sinister memories.

It was on September 24th that the New Zealand Division, then in training in the Lumbres area, received short notice to relieve the 59th Division in the holding of the Saint Jean sector, situated in the ill-favoured Salient of Ypres. At 3.30 a.m. on September 25th the Otago Regiment, after hurried preparation, moved out from its training area and headed for the forward zone.

The route followed by the 1st Battalion lay through Renescure, St. Marie Cappel, and Watou, the Ypres North area being reached on September 28th. The 2nd Battalion proceeded through Hallines, Wizernes, and Arques to the Renescure area, thence via Staples to St. Marie Cappel, and via T?rdeghem and Steenvoorde to the Watou area, which was reached on the 27th, the Battalion finding quarters at Hill Camp. From here the Battalion proceeded by motor-page 205lorries to Goldfish Chateau, west of Ypres, and during the evening continued its forward move and entered into occupation of the old German front and support lines at Wieltje, north-east of Ypres, On the night of September 29th-30th the 2nd Battalions of Otago and Canterbury took over the front held by the 178th Brigade of the 59th Division. Prior to taking over the new sector, Lieut.-Colonel Smith and the Company Commanders made a tour of the line, and while engaged in this preliminary reconnaissance Captain L. M. Scott, M.C., was wounded. Otago relieved troops of the 6th North Staffordshire Regiment. The changeover was completed shortly before midnight, and attracted considerable machine-gun fire, the enemy having apparently detected the movement. The position taken over by the Battalion was on the extreme left of the Second Army Front, and the issued instructions were that it was to be held at all costs. Battalion Headquarters was established at Cornhill Farm. On September 29th the 1st Battalions of Otago and Canterbury marched from the Ypres North area and relieved two battalions of the 177th Brigade in the support line of the right sector of the 59th Divisional Front, Otago's frontage extending from the Wieltje Road on the left to Pommern Castle trenches (exclusive) on the right, with Battalion Headquarters at Bank Farm. On the following morning Otago relieved the 2nd-5th Leicester Regiment in the holding of the front line. The 2nd Infantry Brigade had now completed the taking over of the whole of the 59th Divisional front, and on the morning of October 1st the G.O.C. New Zealand Division assumed command of the Saint Jean sector. The 1st and 4th Brigades constituted the Divisional reserve, with two Battalions of each Brigade in the vicinity of the old German front line trench system as reserve to the 2nd Brigade.

The new sector represented the line reached in the renewal of the offensive on September 26th, in the Third Battle of Ypres; and in view of the fact that it had been wrested from the enemy but a few days previously, the area presented every phase of the devastation caused by concentrated shell fire maintained over a period of several weeks. No regular or continuous trenches marked the line of the forward system; the whole sector was in a badly damaged and waterlogged condition, and the entire area and its approaches bore page 206 remarkable and gruesome evidence of the havoc created by the violence of modern warfare. The line taken over extended north-west and south-east, and was approximately 1,000 yards west of Gravenstafel.

Between five and six o'clock on the morning of September 30th the enemy's artillery assumed an activity which grew in intensity as our retaliatory fire developed, until their combined aggressiveness reached the stage of a fierce artillery duel. By 6.15 a.m. the enemy's guns had been silenced; but another form of hostile activity presented itself when enemy aeroplanes hovered over our lines almost continuously during the remainder of the morning. In fact, the whole day was marked by considerable aerial activity, during the course of which one of our aeroplanes was forced to land after an engagement with four hostile machines. Following upon the morning's outburst, our artillery continued intermittently active throughout the day and night.

On October 2nd orders were issued for the relief of the 2nd Infantry Brigade by troops of the 1st and 4th Infantry Brigades; on the following night the 1st Battalion of the Regiment was relieved by the 3rd Battalion, marching back to the old British front line by way of the Wieltje Road, and remaining there over the 3rd in reserve to the 1st Brigade. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment was relieved at the same time by the 1st Battalion of Auckland. Relief was accomplished shortly before midnight, and after bivouacking for the night, the Battalion moved back to the Ypres North area and into Divisional reserve. Wieltje was persistently shelled by the enemy throughout the day of the 3rd. The same evening troops of the 1st and 4th Infantry Brigades took up their positions for the attack against Gravenstafel and the Abraham Heights, which was launched on the following morning. It was in this attack, dealt with elsewhere, that the 3rd Battalion of Otago Regiment was committed to its first big effort. The operation was extraordinarily successful. All objectives were captured and consolidated, 1,160 prisoners and 60 machine guns were accounted for by the two Brigades concerned, and the enemy suffered a very serious set-back. At 2.30 p.m. on the 4th the whole of the 1st Battalion of Otago was ordered forward to Capricorn Keep in close support to the 1st Brigade, which was threatened with a counter-page 207attack. The Battalion was finally relieved at midnight by West Riding troops, and on the 5th moved to the Winnezeele No. 1 area. The Regiment now prepared to move back, and surplus fighting material was returned to stores. At noon on the 5th the 2nd Battalion marched to the Vlamertinghe-Reninghelst Road, from which point it was to proceed to the Winnezeele area. The lorries did not arrive until 8 p.m., the result being that the Battalion did not reach its destination until 3 a.m. on the 6th. The Regiment rested there over the day, and on the 7th moved to the Eecke area in order to be near the railway line in the event of the Division being called upon to exploit the success of the 49th Division in the operations of the 9th. The night of the 7th-8th was exceedingly wet and stormy.