Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Success Denied

page 234

Success Denied.

By a set of circumstances, in the course of their development curiously alike those which marked the tragic failure of Passchendaele, the attack against Polderhoek Chateau was from the outset destined to fall short of its mark. The fixed starting line of the artillery barrage for the operation was 150 yards in advance of that on which the foremost infantry were assembled. By some fatal miscalculation or influence a considerable part of the entire weight of the barrage fell across the area occupied by the first waves of the assaulting troops. The immediate outcome was that the two leading Companies, 4th on the left and 10th on the right, became seriously involved in the destructive fire of our own artillery. The losses incurred were at once severe. To move forward was accepted as the quickest method of escaping our own fire, because more appeared to be falling to the rear than to the front. Captain Hines, commanding 4th Company, accordingly gave the order to advance, and 10th Company on the right almost immediately followed suit. But the irregularity of the barrage was such that some distance had to be covered before it was cleared, and by that time casualties, now increased by enemy machine gun fire, were so heavy as to seriously prejudice the success of the attack. It was during this stage of the advance that 2nd-Lieut. F. Marshall, of 4th Company, was killed, and that Captain Hines was wounded, though he continued to lead forward his Company. Approximately 150 yards beyond our old front line the second wave merged into the first. Captain Bryce, commanding 10th Company, was at this moment severely wounded, and while making his way back was killed. Command of 10th Company was taken over by Lieut. H. Digby-Smith.

Intense machine gun fire was now being directed to practically every point of the attack from the enemy blockhouses and the locality of the Chateau, and from the commanding ground of Gheluvelt to the right. The enemy's artillery barrage, which had opened out four minutes after zero, had added to the destruction. Reinforcements were sent forward to fill the gaps and press on with the assault, but they came under the same heavy fire as they moved up, and, suffering badly, were unable to make any impression page 235 when thrown into the breach, Continuation of the advance was seriously threatened, and despite many individual efforts of gallantry and leadership, it was not long before it was definitely held up.

But despite all this intense fire and the initial disorganisation and certain inevitable confusion caused by short shooting, there were determined elements of both attacking Companies who had succeeded in penetrating to a point which brought them abreast of the Chateau, and in some instances even beyond it. On the right, Lieut. Digby-Smith and a handful of men reached a position which was actually in advance of the Chateau ruins, but were forced to withdraw for a short distance, and there hung on until blown out by shell fire, On the left of the attack a small proportion of 4th Company's strength had pressed on until they also were abreast of the main Chateau buildings, and in a position which gave them observation to the rear. Further advance was impossible against the heavy machine gun and sniping fire which the enemy, in considerable force, directed from the shelter of the ruins, from fortified shell-holes, and from a trench about 60 yards in length sited to the left rear of the Chateau. Our artillery barrage had some time since outstripped the infantry, and the smoke barrage was on the final line of the attack. Captain Hines was now wounded a second time and could only be carried out under cover of darkness, one of the stretcher-bearers being killed on the journey. Command of this advanced group, numbering 12 in all, was taken over by Sergt. J. H. Wilson, M.M., who organised the party in shell-hales and set up a definite and determined stand against the enemy. Snow had now commenced to fall. Throughout the afternoon repeated attempts were made by enemy parties to cross the swamp of the Reutelbeek and envelop this small post from the left flank, but an each occasion they were shot to pieces at close range by the fire of the one Lewis gun possessed by the garrison. All of these attacks were delivered with great persistence and bravery by troops of an obviously fresh Division, which, there was reason to believe, was newly arrived from the Russian Front. By dusk the supply of ammunition, most of which had been collected from the dead, had almost given out, but there were sufficient bombs left to successfully beat page 236 off two attacks made during the night. It had been apparent towards evening that the enemy was being reinforced from the direction of Becelaere as large parties could be observed moving along the ridge towards the Chateau.

During the night Lieut, McAuley reached the post, and its disposition in relation to the other advanced elements of the Battalion was ascertained. Thereafter digging operations were commenced across the front, but it was not until the early morning of the 5th that Sergt. Wilson and his small party were relieved from the position, which, isolated and unsupported, they had so gallantly held for practically two days and nights.

In view of the check received and the situation prevailing over the front, orders were issued by Brigade at 5.20 p.m. to consolidate the ground gained, but in a later message, timed 5.35 p.m., emphasis was laid on the urgent necessity of capturing under darkness the line of block-houses on the right of the Chateau, and the Chateau itself, an enveloping movement from the north being suggested. In reply to this communication, both Battalion Commanders, Major Tracy (Otago) and Lieut.-Colonel Mead (Canterbury), strongly urged that any attempt at further advance was inadvisable on account of the heavy casualties, which now amounted to 50 per cent. of the total strength and included many officers and senior non-commissioned officers; the activity and alertness of an enemy who had been reinforced at dusk, the uncertain situation on the left flank, and the necessity of keeping in hand a force to counter any attempted enemy action. In this view they were supported by Lieut.-Colonel Charters, who was stationed at forward Brigade Headquarters and had himself reconnoitred the situation. It was therefore reluctantly decided to abandon the offensive and consolidate the line held, which was approximately from 200 to 250 yards in advance of the original front line.

During the night of the 4th-5th the advanced line held by Otago was taken over by 8th and 14th Companies, from right to left, and the remnants of 4th and 10th Companies moved back to the locality of their original assembly positions. The consolidation of the line was now advanced to such purpose that by the morning of the 5th an almost continuous trench had been constructed across the Brigade sector.

page 237

The attack, while certainly failing to achieve its objective, had resulted in the gaining of certain high ground which commanded the Chateau to such an extent as to seriously embarrass the enemy's occupation of that stronghold.

For every success registered and for every failure admitted, there are certain definite causes which contribute to or influence the result. In this instance the misdirected fire of the supporting artillery was both demordising and damaging. The Officer Commanding the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade, in the course of a report on the Polderhoek operations, expressed the opinion that the main cause of failure was inadequacy of training. Though several days were devoted to practice over ground specially marked out, all reports served to show, he stated, that the men were not "intensively" trained to the necessary standard. They started off with considerable élan, and there was no lack of natural courage and grit once a he was formed and the course of action obvious. But a large proportion were reinforcement drafts, quite unfamiliar with hostile shelling or our own barrage fire. When the experienced officers and other ranks became casualties, many falling in the most gallant efforts to push forward, the new hands, "already to some extent demoralised by the short shooting of one 18-pounder battery," were at a loss and failed to show the necessary qualities of dash, determination and readiness for self-sacrifice which were indispensable factors for success. A glaring instance, he continued, was shown by the troops of the right Battalion leaving their assembly trenches too soon, by their returning to them, and on their starting forward again by their pressing into our own barrage. "All competent observers lay stress on this lack of training, and there is no question but that this is the main reason for the failure." Two further contributing causes were advanced as follows:—"(1) The mutually supporting block-houses were mostly undamaged by our artillery. The volume of machine gun fire from in front and from Ghehvelt was heavy. (2) The isolated nature of the attack drew intense artillery and machine gun fire, and its limits were still more clearly defined by the smoke barrage. It merits consideration as to whether a further attempt should not be part of a joint enterprise to include an attack on Gheluvelt, and possibly Becelaere."

page 238

Little further need be added to the above observations, save, perhaps, to emphasise the disadvantages of an isolated attack against a position the strength of which, great in itself, was not tactically confined within its own boundaries. There was little doubt but that the enemy regarded Polderhoek Chateau as an extremely important point. He had fortified the position with innumerable "pill-boxes" and machine guns. The Chateau itself, by reason of the unceasing artillery poundings to which it had been subjected, was on the surface little more than a pile of bricks and rubble, but underground it was capable of sheltering a numerous garrison. The existence of this stronghold, at such close range and overlooking our defences to the north, was no doubt regarded as a menace to the safety of our line, and there were sound arguments for its seizure. But any such undertaking must have revealed the tactical importance to the enemy of Gheluvelt, immediately to the south and across the swamp of the Scherriabeek. An isolated attempt on Gheluvelt with Polderhoek Chateau in the way would doubtless have proved a dangerous undertaking; and the same might reasonably have been said of an attempt on Polderhoek with Ghehvelt in the way.

The casualties which the '1st Battalion of the Regiment sustained in the Polderhoek Chateau operations were as follows:—Killed, two officers and 43 other ranks; wounded, seven officers and 153 other ranks; missing, 26 other ranks; total, 231. The officers killed were Captain C. Bryce (commanding 10th Company) and 2nd-Lieut. F. Marshall (4th Company). Lieut. C. D. Gabites, of the 2nd Light Trench Mortar Battery, and formerly of 8th Company, 1st Battalion, also fell in action. Every officer of the Regiment who went into the attack became a casualty, and at the same time the Battalion lost some of its best senior non-commissioned officers. Among the latter were Sergt. J. Hoff and Sergt. J. Guthrie, two Main Body soldiers, who were killed in the van of the attack. For his splendid work throughout the operations in maintaining the Battalion Signal Communications under the very greatest difficulties over an area swept by heavy fire, Sergt. G. Hayton, M.M., was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

page 239

It remains to be stated that the New Zealand Divisional Artillery was not in line for the Polderhoek attack.

At 8.30 a.m. on the 4th enemy troops had been observed assembling to the east of Polderhoek, but were dispersed by artillery fire. At 6 a.m. on the 5th an attack was delivered on the Brigade front by approximately 80 of the enemy, but was effectively and sanguinarily repulsed by Lewis gun and rifle fire. During the same afternoon our trench system was subjected to a heavy hostile bombardment, in the course of which 10th Company suffered severely. At the same time abnormal enemy movement was reported in the vicinity of Becelaere, to the north-east of Polderhoek, and our artillery developed an intense fire over the area in which this movement was observed. Enemy shelling ceased about 4.30 p.m., and no further attempts at attack developed. During the evening the Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment, and marched out of the Line and back to Howe Camp, near Ypres, in Brigade support. On December 6th command of the Polderhoek sector was handed over to the 30th Division, and the Reutelbeek became the southern Divisional boundary.

Within almost a week of the date on which command of the Poldeyhoek sector passed from the New Zealand Division, the enemy had counter-attacked heavily and regained the ground won by the Regiment on December 3rd.

During this period the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment had not been inactive. On November 20th it vacated the Cafe Belge Camp in the Chateau Segard area, south-west of Ypres, and proceeded to Mic-Mac Camp, within easy marching distance. Three days later four officers and 200 other ranks proceeded to the area of Polygone Wood and completed 400 yards of communication trench from the Butte to the new support line. On the 26th, 4th Company relieved one company of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade at Clapham Junction, on the Ypres-Menin Road; while the remaining Companies of the Battalion proceeded to dug-outs south-east of the Lille Gate, Ypres, in support to the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury. Over the several succeeding days there was a steady demand for large working parties, who were engaged carrying material and ammunition from Hooge Crater to pints on the Menin Road, to Veldhoek, and to the front and support page 240 lines of the Polderhoek sector; while others were engaged burying mules, the unfortunate victims of the enemy's systematic shelling of the routes which our transport followed. On December 2nd, 4th Company returned from Clapham Junction. On December 3rd, the day on which the attack was delivered against Polderhoek Chateau, the Battalion was required to furnish a party of 400 men in order to maintain the stretcher-bearing service between Clapham Junction and Hooge. In consequence of the non-success of the Polderhoek operation, orders were received for two companies to be despatched to Clapham Junction, there to be held in close reserve. The companies detailed moved off in the afternoon, and remained at that point until the 5th. Those who were engaged on stretcher-bearing returned to camp on the 4th, after performing heavy and continuous work throughout the night. Additional numbers were required for carrying water and rations for the front line garrison.

On December 7th orders were issued that the New Zealand Division would on the night of the 9th-10th extend its front for a short distance northwards, and that on the same date the 2nd Infantry Brigade would relieve the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in the sector extending from the Polygonebeek on the right to the new north& boundary. The dispositions of the Brigade on relief were as follows:—2nd Battalion of Otago on the right, 1st Battalion of Canterbury in the centre, 1st Battalion of Otago on the left; 2nd Battalion of Canterbury in support. The 1st Battalion of the Regiment moved into the line via Westhoek Road, 8th Company occupying the forward trenches on the right and 14th Company on the left, with 4th Company in support and 10th Company in reserve. The 2nd Battalion, moving into the line via Chateau Wood Road, had 4th and 8th Companies disposed in the front line from right to left, with 14th Company in support, and 10th Company in reserve. The Headquarters of the 1st and 2nd Battalions were established at the Butte.

From a defensive and constructive pint of view the new sector presented every conceivable weakness, The erection of wire entanglements along the front and the construction of support and switch lines were works of first importance. There was necessity for a readjustment of the forward and subsidiary systems, while communication trenches required page 241 to be deepened to permit of safe passage to and from the front line.

During the afternoon of the 10th the enemy heavily bombarded parts of the front, and to this outburst our heavy artillery retaliated with counter-battery fire. The weather, previously dull and showery, was now fine and clear. A salvo of 5.9in. shells directed to Wattle Dump during the early morning of the 12th, while rations were being delivered, caused casualties to the number of four killed and eight wounded, including two company quartermaster - sergeants wounded and one killed. There was a great deal of artillery activity on the 13th. Our artillery carried out a concentrated shoot at 9 a.m., and repeated the performance at 7.30 p.m. During the night of the 13th-14th the 1st Battalion of the Regiment established three posts in advance of the forward line; while the 2nd Battalion continued to push ahead with the construction of the new front line undertaken at the commencement of the tour, an attempt to connect between the two Companies on the night of the 14th being unsuccessful owing to the trench filling with water. On December 15th the Regiment was relieved by troops of the 4th Infantry Brigade. The 1st Battalion moved back to Halfway House and Railway Wood, and the 2nd Battalion to dug-outs near the Lille Gate, Ypres.

During this period of occupation of the line, complaints had been made of short shooting by the supporting artillery at certain points over the Brigade front, The New Zealand Divisional Artillery maintained that its guns were not in action at the times stated, and when the New Zealand group fired alone on the S.O.S. line, as a test on the 16th, the results were such as to make its contention appear justified. However, several conferences were held at this period at which the questions of short shooting, artillery registration, liason, test shoots, and other matters were fully and profitably discussed.

The Regiment remained over the next several days in the camp areas taken over on the 15th. Lieut.-Colonel J. B, McClymont arrived and took over command of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment on December 19th; on the following day Major McCrae left on extended leave to the United Kingdom.

page 242

Unusual movement of enemy infantry was observed between the 14th and the 26th of December at points immediately north and south of, and opposite the Divisional sector. On the first mentioned date, an attack was delivered against the 30th Division opposite Polderhoek Chateau, and the front trench occupied. A counter-attack delivered at night, our machine guns co-operating, restored the line; but a further attack by the enemy left it in his possession. On the 20th there was a threatened attack under cover of fog south of the Scherriabeek, and the New Zealand Divisional Artillery was called upon to fire on the S.O.S. line. On the 22nd abnormal movement in the vicinity of Gheluvelt was dispersed by artillery fire; while attacks were threatened on the Reutel sector on the 25th, and on the Passchendaele sector on the 26th; and though the artillery was required to respond to S.O.S. calls, no definite infantry actions developed.

On December 22nd the Regiment returned to the sectors previously occupied. All available energies were again directed to the erection of wire entanglements, the improving of lateral communications, and the strengthening of the defences generally. During the afternoon of the 24th the sector held by the 2nd Battalion was subjected to a sustained bombardment, resulting in casualties to the number of six killed and 20 wounded. Snow commenced to fall in the evening and the weather became bitterly cold. The observance of enemy movement and unusual machine gun fire at 2.30 a.m. on the 25th suggested the probability of a raid along the 2nd Battalion frontage, and in response to the S.O.S. signal the artillery put down heavy fire. A patrol of three men then reconnoitred the front, and there gained contact with the enemy, one of whom Pte. H. Boreham succeeded in capturing and bringing back to our lines. It was admitted by the prisoner that he was one of a party detailed to demolish a "pill-box" on our front, and as a precautionary measure this block-house was on subsequent nights occupied by a post of seven men.

There was a rather curious encounter with the enemy on the evening of the 26th on the front of the 1st Battalion. A patrol under 2nd-Lieut. E. Newton, while operating near the Cemetery, was fired on from a distance of about 40 yards. Our men lay down and returned the fire, but the cold was page 243 so extreme that after they had been in that position for some time they were unable to use their rifles. Two of the enemy approached the party, evidently under the impression that it was out of action. The officer in charge threw a bomb, which did not explode. The enemy threw a bomb in return, and that also failed to explode. The Germans thereupon returned to their post, but later came out and were observed by the sergeant of the patrol, which had now shifted its ground, to lift one of our men and carry him into their own lines. It was assumed that this man had been killed when the enemy first opened fire.

The Regiment was relieved in the line on the night of the 27th by troops of the 4th Brigade, and thereupon moved back by road and light railway to Walker Camp.

This closes the account of the operations of at least two Battalions of the Regiment for the year 1917, but before entering upon another stage of the Great Adventure, there remains one event to be chronicled. On December 22nd Brigadier-General W. G. Braithwaite, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., Commanding the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade, was evacuated to hospital on account of ill-health, a departure which finally involved his severance from the New Zealand Division after a long association commencing with the earliest days of Gallipoli. It was during the course of the Campaign on the Western Front that Brigadier-General Braithwaite became intimately known to the Regiment. In his capacity of Brigade Commander he exhibited a deep and sincere consideration for the well-being of everyone under his command—a feeling that was reciprocated by a certain affectionate regard, a warm admiration for personal gallantry, and an outspokenness that was oft-times staggering in its directness. His vigorous and uncompromising declarations under all circumstances, and the great force and genuineness of character which uniformly distinguished him, combined to make him one of the striking and outstanding figures in the Division, and assured for him a lasting place in the roll of those whose memories will long be cherished by the Regiment.