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With the Trench Mortars in France

Chapter VIII Off to the Somme Once More

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Chapter VIII Off to the Somme Once More.

Instantly obeying the call of duty, we soon were on the march to aid in stemming the tide of Germans now sweeping into the heart of La Belle France. After two weary days and nights, one night of which was spent in crowded cattle trucks, we came within striking distance of the Hun, not knowing quite how far he was away, and he being in the same case, not knowing our exact whereabouts. The 42nd Division had last been reported on the Bucquoy-Puisseaux Line, but the situation was obscure. However, the New Zealand Division had to push on and close the gap in the Allied line. This was successfully done by a composite brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Auckland Battalions, the 2nd Wellington Battalion, and the 2nd Battalion of the N.Z. Rifle Brigade.

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The 2nd Battery had moved with their brigade to Mailly-Maillet to await ammunition after having marched from Morlancourt. This was a march that one is never likely to forget. The roads for many miles were almost blocked with thousands of troops, transport, and homeless civilians fleeing from the advancing Huns. These civilians were carrying their household goods, and accompanied by dogs, pigs, cows, fowls and, in fact, everything they could possibly take with them. Mailly was entirely deserted, though the inhabitants had left most of their belongings behind. The 2nd Battery remained at Courcelles till ammunition arrived. The presence of 14 chickens and a luscious pig in the vicinity set the men's mouths watering, and the battery butcher did neat execution, but in the middle of the feast the return of a refugee desiring to turn the battery out of his home caused some excitement.

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When ammunition arrived two guns went into the line with the right battalion and two with the left battalion. The line ran in front of Beaumont Hamel, and a couple of good "shoots" on to the Hun line were promptly carried out. At this time Captain Barton was in charge of the 2nd Battery, and this battery here put in some very good work.

The following four days—the 26th-30th March—were the hardest and most nerve-wracking for many of us in the whole war.

Where we made contact with the Hun was in a line of old trenches in front of Maillet, which were the old trenches the British used before the commencement of the Somme Battle in 1916.

As soon as the Hun found that he was meeting with opposition he attacked these trenches furiously and knocked about terribly the battalion that was holding the line, and our casualties were unfortunately heavy.

Our men were very tired after the long page 82and arduous march of two days from Hangest Sur Somme, where most of the battalions were detrained, but the fighting put new life into them and made them even keener than fresh troops, as they knew that a very important task had been allotted to them, which was no less than to stop the Hun from breaking through to Doullens.

The 1st Battery had moved to Mailly-Maillet with the 1st Brigade at 2 p.m. on the 26th March, but no Stokes Mortar ammunition was available in the whole surrounding district, so that this battery was unable to assist the infantry in their attack on the enemy. At 3 a.m. on the 27th the battery was sent out to form three small outposts near the village of Englebelmer, but these posts were brought in at 8 a.m. There was still no Stokes Mortar ammunition available. The Stokes Mortars were continually asked for by battalions holding the line to blow out enemy machine guns that were troublesome, and as page break
Aeroplane Photo, of Position at Mailly, where there was heavy fighting, 26th-30th March, 1918.

Aeroplane Photo, of Position at Mailly, where there was heavy fighting, 26th-30th March, 1918.

page break page 83no ammunition was available by the afternoon the battery moved back to Courcelles to await the arrival of ammunition. At last, on the afternoon of the 28th, the battery was ordered to rejoin the brigade immediately, as ammunition had at length arrived. We at once proceeded to Mailly Mallet. On the following morning six guns were in position on our front and 200 rounds per gun were placed on each gun position during the night.

On the 30th March one of the most important actions fought during the whole of these operations was the very successful attack on La Signy Farm, and the high ground in the vicinity. The Stokes Mortars played an important part in this action.

The attack was a well-conceived idea, in that it caught the Hun unprepared to a certain extent, as he never for a moment expected us to attack at 2 p.m. on a fine afternoon.

The Rifle Brigade, on the left, and 1st Brigade, on the right, were allotted the task page 84of capturing the objectives. The attack was all over in a few minutes.

Much ammunition was taken forward, and two additional guns were placed in position in readiness to assist the Infantry in the attack. Six guns were on the 2nd Auckland Battalion front and two guns on the 1st Welligton Battalion front. The guns fired for three minutes and then advanced to support the Infantry. Corporal G. L. Stuart, with the extreme left gun, having found the 2nd Auckland held up, quickly came into action, and, after a few well-placed shells, about forty of the enemy surrendered. Six machine guns were captured in this post.

On the right of the attack a platoon of the 1st Wellington Battalion was held up by a German strong post, but Private W. E. Scott, seeing this, brought his gun into action at close range, and the enemy surrendered after a few shots, thus enabling the advance to proceed. Corporal Smylie and Corporal Bain page break
Aeroplane Photo, showing Hedge Line, La Signy Farm, which we captured, 30th March, 1918.

Aeroplane Photo, showing Hedge Line, La Signy Farm, which we captured, 30th March, 1918.

page break page 85also did excellent work in keeping down machine-gun fire with their respective guns. The remarkable feature of this stunt of the Stokes Mortars was that no casualties were suffered by the battery during the attack, but in the evening one man was killed and three wounded. The following day the guns were withdrawn, after doing very excellent work.

Colonel Allen, in his book "2/ Auckland, 1918," after reference to the beautifully accurate shooting of the five Stokes Mortars which put down a barrage in conjunction with the 18-pounders in this attack, goes on to describe the attack, and says:—

For an attack I thought the three factors to consider were the weather, the fatigue of the men, and an adequate supply of Stokes Mortars. I did not want to attack on a wet day, which would impede movement in the trenches, and the men were hourly getting more tired; but, on the other hand, the provision of plenty of Stokes Mortars seemed page 86to me essential in attacking so strong a position. The General (General Melville) agreed with me.

I thought the whole attack had succeeded when, about 2.15 p.m., I got a most illegible message from Captain McFarland, asking for assistance and saying a strong point at the end of Southern Avenue was still holding out. This point was important, because it was at the junction of the 3rd and 16th Companies' objectives, and one platoon of the 16th Company had been assigned for its capture. I sent for a platoon of the 15th Company, which was in readiness to reinforce up Southern Avenue, and immediately went up there myself with Captain Morgan (the officer who commanded the Stokes Mortars and referred to by Colonel Allen as an excellent officer), who volunteered to accompany me. As we got near the hedge we came on what I consider was the most ghastly sight I have ever seen in all my experience page 87in the War: fourteen dead and dying men of the platoon of the 16th Company, all of whom had been shot in the head as they tried to climb out of the trench, and were now lying in heaps at the bottom of it. Captain McFarland himself was standing in the trench with a nasty head wound. It appeared that the Huns were still holding a short length of the hedge and trench along it, at a point where the trench was crossed by a large culvert named Waterloo Bridge. Here the Huns had several machine guns, which had cut up this platoon of the 16th Company. Prompt action was needed, and a Stokes Mortar was the best weapon to dislodge them with, and after getting one of them into action the enemy post promptly surrendered.

This brought the 16th Company in touch with the 3rd Company on their right. Thus, once again, the Stokes played its part well and made the linking-up of these two com-page 88panies possible with the minimum of casualties.

On the 5th April, during the intense bombardment of our lines and back areas when the Hun attacked on that day, Lieutenant O'Connor, of this Battery, a very popular and efficient officer, was killed by shellfire at Auchonvillers.

This Hun bombardment was a terrific one, and started at 5.30 a.m. and lasted until 5 p.m., and under cover of this bombardment he launched a furious attack against us, but we were very lucky, for our casualties were slight and the Huns were driven back with heavy casualties and made no advance. At 10 a.m. 1st Canterbury put up the S.O.S., but the Artillery did not respond. However, the advancing Huns were scattered, and many were killed, by the prompt action of the 2nd Light Trench Mortars, only a few of the enemy getting back to their lines. The Infantry were very thankful for the prompt action of page 89the Stokes, as undoubtedly many lives were saved.

This was the last bit of dash the Hun showed here, and he quietened down after this considerably.

On the 22nd April the 2nd Battery did two shoots on the Mound at La Signy Farm. They were both very successful, and the 12th Nelson Company raided Fritz, and during this tour in the line the 2nd Battery did some good straafing of Hun machine-gun and trench-mortar positions.

The 3rd Battery made its tour of the line from 1st to 6th May. On 2nd May one of this Battery's gun crews was engaged in antiaircraft firing with one of their guns, which prematured and killed two of the gun crew that were feeding it. This was a very regrettable incident, and was hard to account for, as it was very seldom that a "premature" occurred, except in very cold weather.

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During the period of trench warfare following in this sector the trench mortars were very active, getting some good targets, and co-operated with the Artillery in firing on the Hun positions in Rossignol Wood, on the right of our position at Hebuterne, and they also did some very effective barrage work for the New Zealand Rifle Brigade when the latter made a fine stroke against the enemy in front of Hebuterne when they took Fusilier Trench.

This operation was the beginning of several small advances, ending with the squeezing of the Hun out of Rossignol Wood, which was a favourite target for the trench mortars, as well as the artillery, and entries in captured enemy diaries supplied convincing testimony of the miseries endured by the unfortunate Hun garrison of this wood, which had been shattered to pieces.

These operations against Rossignol Wood and the vicinity were carried out with much skill and determination, and with very few page 91casualties, and were favourably commented on by the Army Commander through General Harper, the Corps Commander of the 4th Corps, to which the New Zealand Division was then attached. In a letter to General Russell, G.O.C. New Zealand Division, the Army Commander wrote:—

"I would ask you to convey to the G.O.C. New Zealand Division my sincere appreciation of the operations of that Division, which have led to the evacuation of Rossignol Wood and the adjoining trenches by the enemy. This operation, lasting over several days, has achieved a result which has reduced the extent of our front line and placed the enemy in an extremely difficult position. That this result has been obtained with few casualties, and without check, is due to the persistent enterprise on the part of all ranks and to thoughtful preparation and skilful leading on the part of commanders. The Division is to be warmly congratulated on its spirit and initiative, and page 92I desire that all ranks should be informed of these few words of commendation and gratitude.

—(Signed) J. Byng, General Third Army."

These expressions of appreciation from the High Command were quite a tonic to the men, many of whom were becoming war-weary, but whenever there was a job of importance to be done they always rose to the occasion and did it to the best of their ability.

In the "History of the New Zealand Artillery" the author describes as follows the Divisional trench mortars, which were Stokes Mortars of a larger type than the three-inch, and were worked by the Artillery and were called six-inch Stokes (medium trench mortar):—

"Little reference has so far been made to the Divisional Trench Mortars, the unit formed almost on the eve of going into the line at Armentieres, but it must now be said that of such value did the Mortar Batteries prove that page break
(1) Taken in Germany. (2) Group of 1st L.T.M.B. in Germany. (3) Some "hard cases" in Germany. (4) Taken at Leicelinger, Germany.

(1) Taken in Germany. (2) Group of 1st L.T.M.B. in Germany. (3) Some "hard cases" in Germany. (4) Taken at Leicelinger, Germany.

page break page 93they came to be regarded as an indispensable factor in almost every enterprise undertaken by the Division. There were three of these medium batteries, each equipped with four medium Stokes Mortars, firing a 60-pound bomb. Their greatest usefulness lay in the very powerful support which they were able to lend to all the raiding and other trench activities of the Infantry, a usefulness to which the courage and devotion of the personnel contributed very materially. The mortars were mounted on solid wooden platforms set in the front line, from where they could be used to greater advantage as regards range and accuracy. They were used principally for wire-cutting and destroying enemy trenches, new works, and strong points. In preparing a gap in the wire for a raid, the spot selected would be ranged on in the daytime, and the same night, very shortly before the raid, the wire-cutting would commence. This method, if successful, and it generally page 94was, had obvious advantages over the cutting of the wire by 18-pounders in broad daylight. In addition, the mortars nearly always directly supported the raid, either by firing on the enemy front line, on either flank of the section or trench being raided, or by creating a diversion at another point. The work was arduous, involving a great deal of hard physical labour; fresh gun positions had frequently to be constructed, and all the ammunition had to be carried from the dump, somewhere near the subsidiary line, although in this latter task the Infantry helped with carrying parties."

Before the invention of the six-inch Stokes these Medium Trench Mortar Batteries used what was well-known to the New Zealand Division as the "plum duffs." These were a medium trench mortar firing a big round iron bomb like a plum pudding, filled with high explosive, and on the base was affixed a steel rod which contained the propelling charge.

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These trench mortars were used for all the purposes mentioned above, but were erratic, and very often the rods came off and flew back when the bomb burst, and were liable to injure our own men. These were abolished as soon as the larger six-inch Stokes was found to be a success.

In addition we had in the Division the 9.45 trench mortars commonly known as the "flying pigs," and these were used also for wire-cutting and destroying strong points and trenches, but they were not mobile, and could not be used in the advance, as they took about six hours to get into position and register, and during the latter stages of the War the advance was too rapid for them to be of any use, but prior to the Battle of Messines they were used in trench warfare in a number of sectors very effectively.