With the Trench Mortars in France
Chapter VII Ypres and the Battle of Gravenstafel
Chapter VII Ypres and the Battle of Gravenstafel.
After just over three weeks of training in delightful Picardy, where the Division was billetted in villages within a radius of about 16 kilometres from Boulogne, all our batteries were anxious once again to show what the Stokes could do, and we moved up to positions handy to our jumping-off place, two nights before the battle.
It had been found by experience that the greatest number of shells that could be carried in the advance was six. The conditions, however, in the battle for the Gravenstafel Ridge were abnormal, owing to the long carry over very boggy ground, which was a mass of shell-holes. The shell carriers of some batteries were men lent from the Infantry, and carried page 56some six shells and some four, but it was found that those batteries whose carriers carried four shells were the most successful, as 45 pounds of dead weight, besides a man's equipment and rifle, was as much as any man could be expected to carry under such trying circumstances.
During the Battle for the Gravenstafel Ridge on 4th October the lst and 4th Batteries went over with the lst and 4th Brigades, two guns in support of each battalion respectively, but owing to the extremely long carry for ammunition, and heavy casualties, after firing several times during the advance the guns were withdrawn after the objectives were taken, as there were no men to spare in reserve for keeping the guns supplied with ammunition.
Although the conditions were exceptionally bad for the Stokes, the lst Battery's guns were able to render good service to the Infantry. Two guns under Lieutenant Oxen-page 57ham went over with the lst Wellington Battalion and two guns under Lieut. R. K. Nicol, M.C., with lst Battalion Auckland Regiment advancing at zero behind the first wave of the attack, one gun on each company front. On the capture of the Red Line these guns advanced again with the leap-frogging battalions to the final objective, the Blue Line, the remaining two sections being held in brigade reserve. Each battalion provided shell-carrying parties of two N.C.O.'s and 16 men. The four guns were placed in position, one each with Taranaki and West Coast Companies of the lst Wellington Infantry Battalion and one each with the 6th and 15th Companies of the lst Auckland Infantry Battalion.
Lieut. Nicol, with the Right Battalion, was wounded and had one gun crew knocked out soon after zero. The other gun, under Corpl. W. Brierly, carried on over the whole battalion front and came into action on several occasions. As the Infantry were digging in page 58on the Red Line, that non-commissioned officer silenced a machine gun firing on our troops, and as soon as the barrage lifted (30 minutes after the capture of the Red Line) he worked over to within 150 yards of Albatross Farm and joined the Taranaki Company, working forward with them to ahead of Kronprinz Farm, where he dug his gun in behind the Blue Line (final objective), covering the left flank in the direction of Alder Farm. Lieut. Oxenham, with the right battalion's two guns, worked forward to the Red Line without any trouble, and on leaving there, after the barrage had lifted, Corpl. Robinson, with the right gun, came into action against an enemy machine gun in a dug-out. He then worked forward to get observation of an enemy machine gun which was firing short bursts on to the right battalion advancing, and picked up its position, and after a few well-placed shots the enemy put up the white flag. At this point Lieut. Oxenham, who had page 59been busy against snipers and machine guns in shellholes, came over and got Corporal Robinson to open fire against a position that was holding up the other gun. The enemy machine gun had killed Corporal Jeffries and two men, but its crew surrendered on Corporal Robinson's gun coming into action against it. Just past the final objective a machine gun was observed firing from a position. Our right gun fired five rounds, and the Huns put up the white flag and began to retire back over the ridge, but a few well-placed shots behind them turned them about, and they came in and surrendered. The total casualties of this battery were: Killed, four men; died of wounds, three men; wounded, one officer and three other ranks; missing, one.
At 6 p.m. the guns were ordered to be withdrawn, and this battery had finished its good work for this attack and came back to Spree Farm to its headquarters. Two days later it was relieved by the 147th Brigade page 60Light Trench Mortar Battery and went back to bivouac at Goldfish Chateau, just behind Ypres, and the day after left for New Camp, near Poperinghe, for a few days' rest.
Four guns of the 4th Battery also went over with the attack on the 4th Brigade front. Two mortars, under command of the author, advanced to the first objective with the 3rd Auckland Battalion on the right of the New Zealand advance. Great difficulty was experienced carrying the mortars and ammunition across the swampy ground, which in some places was almost impassable, and very few of the shell-carriers reached the final objectives with their heavy loads over such awful country; consequently these two mortars only came into action twice. After reaching the final objective it was found that nearly all the shell-carriers were either wounded or missing, but one of the mortars was dug-in and fired on S.O.S. at 6 p.m. The other two guns, under 2nd-Lieut. Marsden, advanced with the page 613rd Wellington Battalion, but, unfortunately, soon after reaching our objectives this officer was killed, and what was left of his gun teams carried on until the order for withdrawal of the mortars was given.
The attack on the 12th October was much worse as regards mud, and it was practically impossible for the 2nd and 3rd Batteries to come into action.
During the long winter months of trench warfare in "The Salient," which Ypres was called, the trench mortars were very active. There were plenty of targets in the shape of enemy machine-gun positions. The following extract from a 1st Brigade intelligence report for a period of 24 hours from 6 a.m. 31st January, 1918, to 6 a.m. lst February, 1918, gives an indication of the kind of daily work of the mortars in this sector:—
"During the night our Stokes Mortars were very active against machine-gun positions in Joiners' Avenue (name of trench), J.6.C. page 62(map reference), Judge X roads, and Cemetery J.1lb; 10 rounds were also fired at Pill-box J17a, 70.65, when excited cries were heard."
The lst February happened to be my birthday, and to celebrate the occasion we gave the Hun a little bigger dose than usual, with good results, for we sent a patrol out afterwards and found a long piece of trench destroyed, a machine gun out of action, and eleven dead.
The Battle of Gravenstafel will ever be remembered by those who took part in it. The long wait behind the assembly tapes (the ground had been marked by tapes where we were to kick-off from, as there was no front line) was terrible. Many of us were within a short distance of the assembly line at 11 p.m., and the night of waiting, wondering what the dawn of the morrow would bring forth, was a long way worse than being in the attack itself. Towards dawn the Hun began page 63an intense fire almost directly on our points of assembly, and a number of men were hit before the attack actually began. Once the attack began, at 6 a.m., and the wonderful barrage crept forward before our troops, raining death on all before it, we felt wonderfully secure. To hear our own guns barking loudly behind us and pouring their deadly missiles on to targets before us, the effect of which could be seen, was a wonderful tonic to our men.
The attack, as far as we could see from the right of the New Zealand advance, went forward as if the men were actually on parade, and the Blue Line (first objective) was taken and consolidated and a continuous front line connected up in the shortest space of time. A pause of half an hour was made here before the barrage went forward again.
The mortars so far had not been able to do very much during the advance to the second objective (Black Line).page 64
Everyone remembers the relief to all ranks the news was that we were going to be relieved after Passchendaele, and towards the end of October three weeks' spell actually came our way.
Everyone was done up, and after getting out of the line on a cold October night we were bivouacked for the night in shell holes near Goldfish Chateau, behind Ypres. The following morning we marched early to the entraining point near Ypres, and after a short railway journey marched for the rest of the day and until late in the evening, until we finally arrived at the little village of Rebercques, which was our destination. Footworn and sore, the Battery quickly got their billets ship-shape, and after a fine meal which the cooks, who had been sent on ahead, had prepared we all forgot the war for some time to come. What a great welcome we had at this village, and, although late at night, the people were very kind. The Mayor, a stately page 65old gentleman with snow-white hair, welcomed us to his home and gave us of the best he could provide, both in food and accommodation, and Madame, his wife, produced a feed of omelettes, coffee, and wine which those who partook of will never forget. This was our first real meal for weeks. We could hardly realise that we were back again in civilisation, and the sight of a bed was almost too good to be true, and several of us made attempts to sleep in them, but ended in curling up on the floor in a rug. We slept very comfortably, strangely enough, because we were not used to beds, as none had been in one for months.
The following day we awoke, not until the afternoon, but were refreshed and felt almost ready for the fray once more. It was astonishing how rest and food restored the vigour and spirit of the troops, almost like magic. How quickly one got over fatigue and exhaustion. Twenty-four hours before this page 66the Battery was so done up that everyone thought it would take us weeks before we felt fit again, and here everyone was playing football and very happy—c'est la guèrre.
The day following we commenced training again to get up to scratch before going back to Ypres for three weary months of trench warfare in the middle of winter.
Before we went back to the line a number of us had the opportunity of having leave to England, which was greatly appreciated, and after ten short days back we were in the line with our units once more.
On the 3rd December, 1917, an attack was made on Polderhock Chateau, a famous landmark and a very hard nut to crack, which was on the right of the line we were then holding.
The Trench Mortars, 3rd Battery, and 4th Battery were allotted the task of thickening up the barrage, each battery firing several hundred rounds. The Infantry reached their objectives in some cases, but the casualties being very heavy they were not strong enough to hold their position, and eventually had to fall back on our original line.
After the Christmas of 1917 the salient was very quiet for a time, but one night will stand out in everyone's memory that saw it, and that was the wonderful bombardment of the enemy's line and back areas from the Salient to far north of Houlthurst Forest (a page 68front of about 30 miles) on the night of the 31st December-1st January. This bombard-bardment was a New Year's gift to the Hun. On the tick of midnight every piece of artillery, trench mortar, and machine gun belched forth its New Year message. The whole salient was alight from the gun flashes, and it looked for all the world as if from an enormous dress circle of a theatre thousands of guns were firing as fast as they could on to a stage, and at no other time did one get the outline of this tremendous Ypres salient so vividly flashed before his eyes. What a sight it was! The Hun putting up his many coloured S.O.S.and other lights made the scene for the few minutes that it lasted a grand one. The whole of the snow-covered country seemed to be galvanised into an inferno for a time, and then almost a death-like silence followed. Everyone expected the Hun to reply with a very heavy fire on our lines, but not a shot came back, and dawn broke on a desolate, page 69snow-clad land that looked as if it had been forsaken by man; yet still, thousands of men were there hidden from the eye of the enemy, waiting and wondering what this New Year— 1918—would bring forth for the Allies, for England, and for them.
The Americans had certainly come into the War at this epoch, but what they had done and were doing at this particular time to advance the general cause was not apparent to those who were holding the line. They adopted the Stokes Mortar, and a number of our N.C.O.'s and an officer were sent over from France to America, to one of the big Home depots, to establish a school of instruction in the use of this weapon. The "Doughboys" were quick to pick up the way of handling the Stokes Mortar, but as it was purely and simply a weapon of opportunity in the attack, and our American cousins had not had much experience in attack, many grand opportunities of displaying its usefulness were lost.page 70
I remember once, just before leaving the "Abode of Hate," as some called the vicinity of Ypres, I was urgently sent for by Captain Vercoe, of the 16th Waikatos, to bring up a couple of mortars and enough shells to knock out a machine gun and some snipers in a trench in the Reutel Cemetery that had caused a considerable number of casualties and much annoyance to that company's working parties. We got a couple of mortars and a number of rounds of ammunition up to the most convenient place to straafe from, "tout de suite," and we informed Brigade Headquarters, per telephone, of our intention to fire. At this particular time there was a rule, which used to be carried a bit too far sometimes, that no offensive action was to be taken without informing Brigade. However, our opportunity of demolishing a good target and saving many lives would have been lost if we had not acted promptly, as dusk was fast approaching; so we took the risk and opened fire, and page 71in a very short time the enemy machine gun and most of his trench in the vicinity was "napoo." Both Captain Vercoe and myself were hauled over the coals for this, as we had contravened some signalling orders by using the telephone to inform Brigade of the "shoot," but, instead of a good straafe from the brigadier, as we expected, he turned the supposed censure into some rather eulogistic remarks concerning the Stokes and the effective work we had done. One had to take these chances sometimes, and not keep strictly to the letter of the law in a branch of the Service like ours; otherwise many grand opportunities would have been lost of punishing the Bosche, and both in the Artillery as well as the Mortars our motto was not "Don't straafe the Hun and he won't straafe you," as in some sectors was said to be the case, but "Never miss a chance."
Before leaving Ypres the Stokes was used on many occasions in its new capacity against page 72enemy aircraft, and many of those who were in the line at Ypres will remember some very exciting moments when one of the German flight commanders of Baron Richthoven's famous circus used to come over the line flying very low and, to a certain extent, "putting the wind up" the Infantry with his machine gun. On these occasions the men of the detachment whose guns were set up for anti-aircraft firing were very keen to bring down the Bosche "king pin," as they called him, and on one occasion the fire of two of our guns with shells bursting above and below him injured his 'plane and brought him almost to the ground, but he managed to right himself in time to make off home. This fellow did not make his appearance on the sector again for a number of days, and so we concluded that we had done his 'plane a considerable amount of damage.
These experiences were very exciting, and kept the men on the alert during the short page 73period of daylight that we had during those long winter months.
During the turn of each battery in the line in the Ypres Salient, which usually was week in, week out, about a thousand rounds used to be fired on to enemy machine-gun and trench mortar positions located by the companies in the line and verified by the intelligence reports of the battalions. In this way very often a great deal of enemy harassing machine-gun and trench-mortar fire was kept down, and prevented from disorganising our Infantry, and our mortars continually blew out their positions as soon as they were discovered. However, the "carry" of ammunition over rough country from "Wattle Dump" near Westhoek Ridge to the front line, a distance of about two miles by the Duckwalk Track, was very hard on the men, and it was not until after Christmas that our ammunition was brought right up to "The Crucifix Dump" near the "Butte de Polygon" by a light rail- page 74way. This was a great convenience to us, as it meant we could then do more firing, as the "carry" to the front line from the dump was a comparatively short one after the long two miles mentioned above.
At this time the "Yukon Pack" had been issued to the batteries, and we found that a man could carry more than double the load of shells on one of these packs than he could carry ordinarily by any other means. This meant that a man could carry from twelve to fifteen shells weighing approximately 10¾ pounds each for a fairly long distance. This, as can readily be seen, effected a great saving in time and labour. The carriers using the "pack" had long sticks to balance themselves with, and when a large party were going up the line strung out in single file they looked like a party of gold-hunters hitting the trail for the Yukon. This pack was a splendid invention, and might well be adopted by the farmers in the back blocks of New Zealand for carry-page 75ing moderate weights over country where horses cannot be employed.
Gun positions were very important, but in the salient, owing to the very swampy ground and the consequent bad drainage conditions, our emplacements were not of the best, and as the whole country for many miles around was simply a mass of shell-holes it was difficult for us to make emplacements where the guns would not sink into the ground when they were fired. The French and the Germans had engineers attached to all their trench mortar batteries, and were therefore able to construct very solid emplacements, but the British were not so fortunate in this respect. Our men generally had only time to keep out of the rain. When one speaks of gun "positions," what is meant is the defensive positions or "battle emplacements," and these were never used for offensive purposes, but only for repelling enemy attacks or trench raids. These positions were usually about page 76two hundred yards behind the front line, and as far away from a communication trench as convenient, and not near any points plainly marked on maps. The reason for this was that the enemy usually shelled communication trenches and any prominent land marks. On special occasions, however, the battle emplacements were used when the Hun became offensive with his trench mortars at night and worried the Infantry. On these occasions a screen of sandbags was erected in front of the gun pits to hide the flash of the gun, and fire was opened on his communication trenches and his support line. A slow barrage of a round every minute or so generally silenced him.
The co-operation between the Infantry and the light mortars in the line was greatly developed by the trench warfare during the winter months at Ypres.
By the end of February, 1918, the New Zealand Division had had a surfeit of holding the line in the salient, and old hands were beginning to say that the first five and the last three years of the War were the worst! However, our men took it all cheerfully, saying, philosophically, "C'est la guerre." Our relief when at last it did come was very welcome.
After practically four months of continuous duty in the Ypres Salient, when we came out of the line it took some time to smarten-up the different units of the Division once more, page 78and we must have looked a pretty rough lot when we went back to the area in the neighbourhood of Cassell and Staple to rest and to train. How useful that training was, and how needful that rest, was proved when we got the sudden call, in March, to go south to the Somme in order to stop the oncoming Hun, who almost in a flash had broken the Allied line in a weak spot and was rushing forward with his hordes and re-occupying in a day as much country as it had taken us months to win from him in 1916.page break