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

Tragedy and Heroism

Tragedy and Heroism.

The hour of zero, 5.25 a.m. on October 12th, signalled the commencement of the tragedy of Bellevue Spur—a day of tragedy and heroism combined. The inadequacy of our artillery barrage, by reason of the conditions explained, was at once apparent, and its inaccuracy was responsible for wiping out many of our men while still in their assembly positions. On the left, for example, a number of men of 10th Company of the 1st Battalion were killed by our own shell fire when one hundred yards behind the starting tape. This, combined with the inevitable confusion created, prejudiced the success of the operation from the outset. Concrete blockhouses and deep rows of uncut wire, from the security of which German machine gunners delivered a terrific volume of fire, confronted our infantry as they moved forward to the assault. The enemy was only too well prepared for an attack in which the elements and the deadly inefficiencies of the supporting artillery conspired to help him.

At the moment the attack was launched the enemy dropped an artillery barrage along a line about 50 yards on the western side of the Ravebeek and in the vicinity of Waterloo Farm. Simultaneously, from the block-houses and fortified shell-holes on the crest of Bellevue, there burst forth the most intense machine gun and rifle fire, which swept the ranks of the assaulting infantry with terrible effect from page 216 front and either flank. The advance was on the point of being immediately checked. The greater proportion of officers and men comprising the leading waves were shot down almost as they left their trenches. On the left 14th Company in particular made practically no headway. But there were groups of leaders and men who were to persevere even against this stress of fire, until they came up against great belts of uncut wire, in places 30 and 40 yards deep, and against concrete block-houses hemmed in and completely surrounded by barbed-wire entanglements. The artillery barrage in one of its lifts had completely missed the "pill-boxes" on the left of the advance.

Repeated gallant and desperate attempts were now made by officers and men to work round these strongholds from the flanks, or to approach them through gaps in the wire. A request for trench mortar assistance disclosed the fact that these weapons had been knocked out; though Lewis gun fire and rifle grenades were brought to bear with effect on enemy machine gunners stationed in shell-holes outside. Increased machine gun and sniping fire, directed from known and concealed positions all along the crest, disputed every attempt at advance. On the right Major Turner, whose Company, the 10th, had made the most gallant efforts to get forward, personally succeeded in advancing some distance through the wire before he was shot down. To the left, 2nd-Lieut. C. B. McClure, accompanied by Pte. A. E. Greene, by crawling through the wire, achieved the temporary success of reaching a point within ten yards of two block-houses on the crest. At that stage he was wounded and his companion killed. Working his way back, Lieut. McClure gathered together several men with the intention of renewing the assault on these two "pill-boxes," but the whole of his party was almost instantly knocked out by a single shell. It was the concentrated fire of these two block-houses that practically smashed up a reinforcing company of 3rd Brigade troops as it moved forward in artillery formation, a distance of over 1,000 yards away to the left. To all this volume of machine gun fire was added that of enemy snipers posted in shell-holes and behind the stumps of blasted trees.

The 1st Battalion of Otago now pressed into the breach and renewed the struggle. Officers and men, temporarily page 217 unseen by the enemy, crawled through the belts of wire in an almost forlorn endeavour to get at the enemy block-houses and the machine guns which they sheltered. 2nd-Lieuts. J. J. Bishop and N. F. Watson had got so far forward as to be killed in the act of hurling bombs through the loop-holes. On the left 10th Company had all its officers either killed or wounded, and a small group dug in at Wolf Copse, away to the left. Only 28 other ranks of this Company were left unwounded. Captain C. H. Molloy pushed forward his reserve Company, the 14th, and was himself killed, as were also all his officers, excepting one who was wounded; and the Company was thenceforward ably commanded by Sergt.-major Bunbury. So, in succession, waves of infantry moved forward to the attack, but were unable to make any definite impression, and finally wilted away under the storm of fire. But away on the extreme right, after all this expenditure of gallant effort, it seemed as if a wedge was at last to be driven into the defences of Bellevue.

Following in immediate rear of the main advance, the 8th (Southland) Company of the 1st Battalion gained the first slope only to find that few men of the leading Companies were left. But it was also apparent that the trend of the general advance had been too much to the north, one result of this divergence being that the right flank was left completely exposed to the fire directed unrestrainedly from two "pillboxes" established near the Ravebeek, and with an interval of approximately 100 yards between them. Captain R. H. Nicholson, commanding 8th Company, was killed almost as his Company commenced to move forward, and the advance was thereupon continued under the direction of 2nd-lieut. A. R. Cockerell. It was at once evident to this officer that if the left of the attack was to achieve any measure of success, these two block-houses, so far quite un-assailed, must be attacked and dealt with. But the force at his immediate disposal, at a nominal strength of two platoons, had progressed but an inappreciable distance when it was disorganised and had almost entirely disappeared under the fire encountered. A few more yards and its weight was spent. 2nd-Lieut. Cockerell now found himself alone and unsupported in this wilderness of shell-holes, in front the forbidding spectacle of enemy block-houses and broken trench lines still sheltering page 218 their garrisons, and to the rear seemingly none but dead and wounded men. Recorded in plain, unvarnished language, the experiences which befell this young officer as, undaunted by the peril of his isolation, he now went forward alone, must rank among the strangest set down in the pages of history. Continuing his advance, he was ultimately confronted by a short length of trench which extended across the front of the foremost block-house, Along this trench line approximately 40 of the enemy were established, but so rapid and so continuous had been their fire against the flank of our attack that their ammunition was completely expended, and when confronted and called upon to surrender they filed out of their post with hands above their heads and slowly trekked back as prisoners through our lines. A distance of but 20 yards ahead was the first block-house, into which those of the enemy who were without had rushed for shelter. Reaching this "pill-box" still unscathed, this single officer bayoneted six of the garrison as they emerged from it at the rear, and then forced the surrender of the remainder and sent them back as prisoners. Lieut. Cockerell was now joined by Pte, G. Hampton, of 8th (Southland) Company, who, carrying with him a Lewis gun, had struggled forward out of the confusion of 8th Company's shattered attack. With valorous determination both advanced to the attack of the second and larger block-house, approximately 100 yards distant. This concrete stronghold was found to contain a garrison of two officers and 30 men with two machine guns. Their guns had ceased to fire, the apparent reason, remarkable as it may seem, being that they also had expended their last round of ammunition, a further indication of the unceasing destruction directed against our troops from the time the attack opened until it had been effectively smashed, The whole of this garrison were also made prisoners, and the two machine guns destroyed. This represented a total capture of over 80 prisoners, two block-hous2s with their machine guns, and a length of enemy trench.

To the immediate right of the Regiment, troops of the 3rd Australian Division, when thrown into the attack at the break of day, had encountered the same withering blasts of fire, the same tremendous difficulties of uncut wire and barriers of destruction which the enemy's block-house system represented. page 219 An Australian officer and six men who, almost in like manner had penetrated to a point far beyond the limits of their main advance, were now met with, and after a consultation this handful of resolute Colonials decided that the purpose of the attack could best be served by pushing forward and round to the rear of the defences of Bellevue. The first necessity was to establish a defensive point in the large block-house from which the enemy had last been cleared and to send a runner back in an endeavour to reach Battalion Headquarters and acquaint the Commanding Officer of the situation. Pte. Hampton was the first to attempt this almost forlorn task, but he had only covered a distance of 200 yards when the open space was swept by enemy fire and he was killed. Three Australians in turn as bravely endeavoured to make their way through, but each met the same fate. It was now agreed that it was impossible to get word back, and the garrison, reduced to two officers and three men, with one Lewis gun, directed all their energies towards consolidating the position. When darkness came down, Lieut. Cockerell, leaving the Australians in possession of the "pill-box," struggled back over what was now virtually No Man's Land to the rear, and there took command of and organised the remnants of the Battalion, now scattered along a line which was but a short distance in advance of where the attack had started from in the morning. Fox his extraordinary individual effort, and the very gallant work which he accomplished from the commencement of the attack until the Battalion was finally relieved, 2nd-Lieut. Cockerell was awarded the D.S.O., a rare Order for an officer of his rank.

The situation generally had remained practically unaltered. Canterbury troops had followed in the wake of Otago, and as they crossed the swamp and flood of the Ravebeek came under heavy shell and machine gun fire; Lieut.-Colonel G. A. King, in command of the 1st Battalion, being killed within a few minutes of crossing the stream. Progress beyond the limits which Otago had reached over the main front of the attack was impossible against a hail of machine gun and rifle fire. Gaps in the enemy's wire had long since been discovered to be deliberate avenues for the fire of machine guns. The creeping barrage had ceased to be of any service to the attackers. Further advance was out of the question page 220 until the "pill-boxes" and wire entanglements had been effectively dealt with. Those of the attackers who were left alive had perforce to dig in where they were, or seek shelter in the shell-holes. Baulked of their first objective, they lay there throughout the day at the mercy of enemy snipers and machine gunners. Any attempt at movement was fatal, and nothing could be done until darkness came down and permitted the remnants of the infantry to be reorganised.

While this tragedy was being enacted, little or nothing of it was known at Battalion or Advanced Brigade Headquarters owing to the interruption of communications. The route between the front line and Waterloo Farm was heavily barraged by the enemy, and all attempts by runners to get through this difficult and shell-swept country to report the situation had failed. The absence of direct telephone communication between Waterloo Farm and the Capitol similarly left Brigade in the dark as to the situation. At 6.15 a.m. 2nd-Lieut. Halliwell, Intelligence Officer to the 2nd Battalion of Otago, was sent up to report on the position, and under great difficulties effected a reconnaissance of the line. A runner succeeded in getting through to Headquarters with a message which confirmed the fact that the whole advance had been held up. Information was at once despatched to Brigade Headquarters, and was received there at 7.20 a.m. Shortly afterwards Lieut.-Colonel Smith went forward himself to see what could be done in the direction of reorganising the remnants of the attacking troops and resuming the advance. After consultation with the remaining officers of Otago and Canterbury on the spot, the unanimous opinion expressed was that it was impossible to gain the crest of Bellevue under existing conditions, and that any attempt to renew the attack would be suicidal. There were now so few effectives left that a fresh attack, launched in broad daylight, could not have progressed. Individual effort was the utmost that could be expected. The only possible gap was by a road on the right, and this was covered by machine gun fire from either flank. Lieut.-Colonel Smith succeeded in getting back to Battalion Headquarters at Waterloo Farm, and there conferred with Lieut.-Colonel Charters (1st Battalion of Otago) and Lieut.-Colonel Mead (2nd Battalion of Canterbury). These two Commanders shared his opinion, page 221 and messages were sent forward by runners instructing the advanced elements to dig in where they were. Advice to this effect was despatched to 2nd Brigade Headquarters, to the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and the 10th Australian Brigade. Lieut.-Colonel Charters, with his Intelligence Officer, 2nd-Lieut. W. A. Stuart, had attempted to get forward to view the situation for himself, but was driven back by machine gun and sniping fire, his Intelligence Officer being wounded. The difficulties of maintaining communications were greatly accentuated by the large number of casualties among runners.

To the left, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had fared no better, except that it was in occupation of the Cemetery near Wallem-olen, a position of some tactical importance. To the right, the 3rd Australian Division was at one time in possession of portion of the Red Line, the first objective, but although an attempt was made to continue the advance, the leading troops were finally obliged to fall back to positions approximately 300 to 400 yards in advance of their original front line. The 9th Division, on the left of the New Zealand Division, had also failed.

It was now suggested to Brigadier-General Braithwaite, Commanding the 2nd Infantry Brigade, that the barrage should be brought back to the Red Line, the first objective, in order to enable the attacking troops to make another attempt on the spur. In the meantime the Divisional Commander had arranged for the general advance to be resumed under the barrage at 3 p.m., with the intention of taking the first and second objectives only. The 1st Battalion of Otago on the right and the 2nd Battalion on the left were to capture the first objective, and the two Battalions of Canterbury Regiment the second objective after an hour's halt. Arrangements were being made to bombard with heavy artillery the whole of the block-house system west of the Red Line. Orders were accordingly received by Commanding Officers to reorganise their units preparatory to launching another attack.

The Battalion Commanders were still of the opinion that such an operation was impossible of achievement. If the heavy artillery was to deal with the enemy wire and block-houses, the infantry would require to be brought back to a position of safety. Heavy casualties had already been caused when attempts were made to reorganise, and any man page 222 who exposed himself was immediately knocked out. Lieut. Colonels Charters and Smith both telephoned and wrote to the Brigadier pointing out the exhausted condition of the men, the state of the ground, the heavy casualties, particularly among officers and runners, and the fact that our men were so close under the wire that they could not be extricated during the hours of daylight without incurring additional and abnormal losses; also that reorganisation was impracticable, and that any attempt at a further advance that day would mean increased loss with nothing to show for it. Brigadier-General Braithwaite then communicated with Divisional Headquarters and advised the G.O.C. Division of the views expressed by the Battalion Commanders. At 2.10 p.m. the Brigadier was informed that the 2nd Infantry Brigade would not carry out the intended attack. In accordance with the original scheme for the resumption of the advance, the 2nd Brigade was to attack Bellevue Spur from approximately the south-west, and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade was to co-operate from the north-west. The 3rd Brigade alone was now to resume the advance. Later, however, this order was also cancelled, and then finally it was definitely announced that no further attempt at advance would take place that day.

At 3.30 p.m. orders were received that the 2nd Brigade was to reorganise and take up a defensive position in depth on a two battalion frontage, with the two rear Battalions escheloned as far back as the Hanebeek. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of Otago Regiment were to hold the front line, with the two Battalions of Canterbury in Brigade support, one on either side of the Gravenstafel Road, their special duty being the defence of the Abraham Heights. The extrication and reorganisation of Battalions could only be accomplished under cover of darkness. The 2nd Battalion of Otago was to hold a line at least 150 yards in rear of the enemy's wire, and extending from the Gravenstafel Road to Peter Pan on the left, and the 1st Battalion from the Gravenstafel Road to the Ravebeek on the right.

After reorganisation, the strength of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment was taken and revealed the fact that only 170 men could be accounted for. The strength of the 1st Battalion was even below that, being estimated at 160 all ranks. During the night additional numbers were reported page 223 to be mixed up with other units. The position along the front remained comparatively quiet throughout the night, except that at about 8 o'clock the S.O.S. rocket appeared on both the right and left, and the usual artillery activity followed. The greatest difficulties were experienced in getting water and rations to the line. Still further back, over the long chain of duck-boards which stretched from near Saint Jean forward to Otto Farm, and thence across the waste of country to the Battalion Dump at Gravenstafel, with everywhere deep craters and shell-holes into which pack mules frequently fell and never rose again, the rear supply system was maintained in face of almost insuperable difficulties and under the constant threat of enemy shell fire.

The second phase of the tragedy now presented itself. Hundreds of badly wounded men lay out over the front and in No Man's Land, exposed to the added miseries of mud and weather. The stretcher service, extended though it had been, was unequal to the task of dealing with such abnormal losses under conditions of movement presenting tremendous difficulties. Over 200 cases which had been carried down to Waterloo Farm had remained there throughout the day awaiting evacuation under intermittent shell fire, and several were killed. Others who had vainly endeavoured to struggle down from the line sank into shell-holes, and, weighted down by the appalling mud and the burden of their wounds, many of them never arose again. Such was the state of the ground and the distance to be covered that six men, working in relays, were required to each stretcher. The task called for more, but the men could not be spared. Representations were made for an additional large number of men, and during the night stretcher parties came up from the 4th Brigade and worked strenuously at evacuating the wounded. Throughout the night of the 12th-13th, 1,200 men of the 4th Brigade were so employed; also all available men of the Divisional Artillery and the Army Service Corps. One Battalion of the 147th Brigade was also loaned to the Division for purposes of stretcher-bearing. The bearers of the Regiment, lurching and blundering with their burdens over this waste, had worked without the slightest regard for rest. But the task was by no means finished, and as darkness came down over the battlefield the stillness of the night was pierced page 224 by the agonised cries of the wounded, many of whom must have died before help could reach them. For them the Hell of Passchendaele was ended.

Arrangements were made at dawn on the 13th to organise bearer parties from the Canterbury Regiment, one half being detailed to cover the whole of the front and carry the remainder of the wounded down as far as the Regimental Aid Post at Waterloo Farm, and the other half from there to Bank Farm. These parties worked without interruption from the enemy until 5 o'clock in the evening, moving over No Man's Land as far forward as the German wire. The enemy was also engaged removing his dead and wounded under cover of the Red Cross flag, and thus a sort of armistice prevailed. It was during this period that a German medical officer admitted in course of conversation that they too had suffered heavily, a fact which was evidenced by the exertions of their stretcher-bearers. Close on 500 cases required to be carried from the Regimental Aid Post at Waterloo Farm to the Advanced Dressing Station at Spree Farm, on the Wieltje-Gravenstafel Road, a distance of about two and a-half miles, and so torn with shell-holes and deep in mud was the whole of the area that six and sometimes eight men, working in relays, had to be attached. to each stretcher.

The congestion that resulted at Waterloo Farm can well be imagined. All attempts to relieve it were for some time unavailing, and by the early morning of the 14th there were still many cases there which had not been evacuated. All the available resources had been taxed to the utmost, and yet the situation was bad in the extreme, so bad as to impel the following message, despatched at 5.45 a.m. on the 14th, by Brigadier-General Braithwaite to the G.O.C. Division: "In spite of frequent appeals to every branch of the Staff, and the A.D.M.S. three times, the 75 stretcher cases at Waterloo which I asked the A.D.M.S. to arrange the removal of at 12 noon yesterday, are still lying there; 40 of them have been lying out in the open under shell fire the whole night. I am powerless to do more than I have done. As a last extremity I appeal to you personally." Further large stretcher parties were again immediately organised at the instance of Division, and by noon on the 14th Waterloo Farm was clear of cases.

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2nd-Liuet. A. R. Cockerell, D.S.O., (d.)

2nd-Liuet. A. R. Cockerell, D.S.O., (d.)

page 225

The situation over the front on October 13th, the day following the attack, was quiet. The reorganisation of Battalions had for the most part been completed, and during the evening two companies of the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury were brought up to fill a gap existing between the left of the 2nd Battalion of Otago and the 3rd Brigade. Arrangements were now made to withdraw our advanced troops at dawn on the 14th to a distance of 600 yards from the enemy's "pill-box" system in order to allow of those defences being systematically bombarded by heavy artillery. This was effected, and on the bombardment ceasing the original line was restored. When darkness set in that night the Regiment was relieved by troops of the 4th Brigade, and, exhausted and depleted in numbers, slowly trekked out of this area of death and desolation.

The casualties sustained by the Regiment in the course of these operations reached a total of 22 officers and 787 other ranks, made up as follows:—1st Battalion: Killed, 7 officers and 98 other ranks; died of wounds, six other ranks; wounded, six officers and 230 other ranks; missing, 56 other ranks. 2nd Battalion: Killed, five officers and 85 other ranks; wounded, four officers and 241 other ranks; gassed, six other ranks; missing, 65 other ranks. The following were the casualties among the officers of the Regiments:—1st Battalion: Killed, Captains R. H. Nicholson and C. H. Molloy, 2nd-Lieuts. W. A. French, N. F. Watson, T. R. B. Macky, J. J. Bishop, and A. L. Smith; wounded, Captains S. C. Greer and G. H. Allan, 2nd-Lieuts. C. H. Fyffe, W. A. Stuart, F. J. Traynor, and A. Martin. 2nd Battalion: Killed, Major W. W. Turner, Lieut. K. G. Smith, 2nd-Lieuts. G. B. Knight, N. Tompsett, E. M. Ryburn, A. S. Coatman; wounded, 2nd-Lieuts. C. B. T. McClure and S. D. MacPherson. In respect of the large number of men who at the first estimate were officially recorded as missing, this did not imply that they had become prisoners of war, but that after the battlefield had been cleared there was no direct evidence afforded of their death.

The casualties incurred by the New Zealand Division in the Passchendaele operations were approximately 2,730. The 2nd Brigade's proportion of this number was 54 officers and 1,529 other ranks, this being inclusive of the losses sus-page 226tained by the No. 2 Machine Gun Company and the No. 2 Light Trench Mortar Battery. The number of prisoners who were received through the lines of the New Zealand Division was three officers (including one battalion commander), and 89 other ranks.

Seldom, if ever, has an attack operation in which the Regiment has been concerned been marked by so many individual acts revealing high courage and determination. When officers were shot down, non-commissioned officers and men alike showed remarkable qualities of leadership; no fewer than five senior n.c.o.'s, namely, Company Sergt.-majors T. A. Bunbury and A. L-. Wibbs, and Sergts. W. D. Evans, I. D. Guy, and E. C. Jacobs, being singled out for special honour in being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

In the course of his report on the operations which aimed at the capture of the Passchendaele Ridge, Brigadier-General Braithwaite, Commanding the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade, attributed the failure of the Brigade to reach its objectives to the following causes:—" (a) Enemy uncut wire:—This held up the whole of the advance on the Brigade front, and although plainly, marked on the map, had been left practically untouched by our artillery fire. In some places it was 50 yards in depth. The attention of the Artillery Liason Officer was called to this by the Brigade-Major and myself on the day previous to the attack, and the co-operation of the heavy artillery asked for, but without any apparent result. All gaps in this were completely covered by machine guns in ' pill boxes.' (b) ' Pill boxes':—These also had not been properly dealt with by our artillery, as they were all practically undamaged and fully manned with numerous machine guns, which caused our troops severe casualties. (c) Enemy snipers:—These were extremely active when once our barrage lifted from the enemy's system of trenches. Their shooting was most accurate, and appeared to be specially directed on those in authority. (d) Weakness of our artillery barrage:—Everyone is agreed as to the poor and inadequate barrage. It is understood that owing to the difficulty in communications, only about one third of the guns were able to get up into position. The 108th Field Artillery Brigade only managed to get eight out of their 18 guns up, and they page 227 were supposed to have been rather fortunate. The barrage itself was remarkable for its weakness and inaccuracy, many casualties among our troops being caused by our own shells. This was the result of want of proper registration, as some batteries did not register until zero hour. It has also been reported that some of the heavy batteries were not informed that an attack was to take place, being under the impression that it was a practice shoot. (e) Communications:—These were in a very bad state owing to the weather. The Artillery had much difficulty in moving their guns forward, many guns becoming absolutely bogged on the way, and consequently were unable to be brought into action. (f) Signal Communications:—These were far from satisfactory, as owing to the heavy shell fire and the rough ground, service wires could not be maintained between the Brigade and the Battalion Headquarters. In fact, the whole operations appeared to have been far too hurried, sufficient time not having been given to preparations by the Artillery, or to the proper construction of roads, tracks and approaches, and signal communications." In conclusion, Brigadier-General Braithwaite paid a high tribute to the gallantry and devotion to duty displayed by all ranks during the operations.

In his review of the operations, Major-General Sir Andrew Russell, G.O.C. New Zealand Division, gave expression to some salient points. The direct cause of failure, he stated, was the strong and continuous wire entanglements. The formidable nature of the entanglements in Bellevue was not known until the 11th, when a patrol report fully disclosed it; and it was not known to Division before for the reason that it had only taken over command of the sector a matter of a few hours before zero. This information 24 hours earlier would have been invaluable. Continuing, General Russell stated: "When the success of the attacking infantry depends on good artillery support, provision for moving forward the guns and stable platforms for them is essential, otherwise the conditions of success are absent. In the operations of the 12th the barrage was inadequate."

At a conference of Commanding Officers held subsequent to the Passchendaele operations, General Russell, referring to the fact that the Division had had no definite and timely information in regard to the state of the enemy's wire and page 228 defences across the Divisional front, stated, in effect, that even if the position had been known earlier, and it had been possible to make representations to G.H.Q. on the subject, he doubted if the likelihood of the non-success of one Division would have effected any alteration in the programme already determined upon in respect of the fronts of two Armies.