The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 - 1919
The March to the Somme—The Battle of the Somme — New Zealand Division's Share — Flers — Rain, Mud and Slush — Factory Corner — Goose Alley Gird Trench — Eaucourt l'Abbaye.
On the 2nd September, 1916, the two battalions marched out of their billets for the Somme in great heart and in a state of efficiency never at any time exceeded during the campaign.
The 1st Battalion marched to Allery, a distance of about five miles, going into billets, and next day marched to Belloy, a distance of about twelve miles, passing en route through Airaines, Bourdon and Yseux. It spoke well for the condition of the men on this march that, notwithstanding many had been supplied with new boots and that, on account of the necessity of keeping the roads clear, it was impossible to halt for lunch, yet very few men fell out of the march.
The next day the 1st Battalion rested and, on 7th September, marched through to Poulainville a distance of about ten miles, and then next day another fifteen miles to a bivouac near Dernancourt.
The 2nd Battalion left Airaines on the early morning of the 2nd September and marched to Cavillon. The next day that battalion marched to Breilly-sur-Somme. Here it was possible to hold a bathing parade, followed by a church parade. The next three days the battalion spent in the same village.
On the 7th September, the 2nd Battalion marched via Bertangles and Cadonette to Rainneville, and next day marched to a bivouac camp next to the 1st Battalion. From this camp the heavy firing of the guns could be heard most page 112distinctly and, at night time, the flares of the Very lights on the Somme front could be distinctly soon.
The 2nd Battalions was inspected by Major-General Godley on the morning of the 9th, while the 1st Battalion continued its march to Albert. The 1st Battalion, while in bivouac outside Albert was inspected by General Godley.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions held their last joint church parade prior to the Battle of the Somme on the 10th September and in the afternoon the battalions independently marched on to Fricourt Wood. General Godley, who was present at the march past, congratulated the 1st Battalion on the magnificent appearance of its transport, remarking that there was no finer transport in the whole of the New Zealand Division.
On the 12th, the 2nd Battalion moved into Carlton and Check trenches. By the 13th the New Zealand Division had taken up its allotted ground preparatory to playing the great part it was destined to play in the Battle of the Somme.
We may here mention shortly the position of the line when we arrived at the Somme. The advance of July had carried the first enemy lines on a broad front, but the attack had failed between Gommecourt and Thiepval causing the anticipated breach in the enemy lines about eight miles short. The second attack of July 14th gave the Army Commander a yet narrower margin from Bazentin Le Petit to Longueval, and it was realised that, if the allied thrust were continued, a, sharp and precarious salient might result. It will be remem bered that to meet this Sir Douglas Haig broadened the breach by striking both to left and right of Pozières, and ground at Moquet Farm was taken and the outer flank of Guillemont and Ginchy. The result was that the British Front in this locality rested largely on high ground giving direct observation over the lower slopes of the valleys.
As a result of these successes the Germans prepared a strong line of defence and fortified the villages of Courcelette Martinpuich, Flers, Lesboeufs and Morval. Beyond this line of villages lay the fortified posts of Le Sars, Eaucourt L'Abbaye and Gueudecourt with the further line lying West of the Bapaume and Peronne Road.page 113
Since the battle began in July, the Germans had, up to the second week in September, brought 61 divisions into action on the Somme. Men had been refitted and sent in again and, on the 14th September, the enemy was holding the line with 15 divisions.
Opposite the New Zealand Division, and, indeed, along the whole front about to be attacked a comprehensive bombardment now began stretching from Thiepval to Ginchy.
The 4th Army was to attack under the command of Sir Henry Rawlinson. On the left of the Main Front a Canadian Division had Courcelette as its objective, a Scottish Division had for its task to clear the remains of the old switch line and encircle Martinpuich. The Northumbrian and London Division —two Territorial Divisions—were to clear High Wood, while, immediately on their right, the New Zealand Division had Flers as its objective. Delville Wood lay on the right of the New Zealand Division and two divisions of the new English Army were ordered to take the ground East and North of Delville Wood in immediate line with the New Zealand Division. The Guards Division lay on the right of these divisions.
The New Zealand Division issued its operation orders on the 13th September for the attack that was to take place two days later. Two of the Divisions had been allotted four tanks. Already rumours had spread among the troops that a new engine of war was to be allotted to the Division. No one appreciated what this new machine was capable of, or how precisely it was meant to function, and it was inevitable that, in its first brush with the enemy, it should play a single- handed part until it was seen how it should fare and how best the troops could co-operate with it.
Our 2nd and 3rd Brigades were first to attack, while the 1st Brigade was to be in Divisional reserve. The 2nd Brigade was to attack and capture as its first objective what was called the Green line, while the 3rd Brigade was to go through and capture the remaining objectives which included the formation of a defensive flank facing North-west. The 2nd Brigade assembled with two battalions just forward of Worcester and page 114Tea Trenches, while the remaining two battalions occupied Savoy and Carlton Trenches. The 3rd Brigade, to which for the purpose of these operations 2nd Wellington was attached, occupied a certain part of Carlton Trench. Of the 1st Brigade two battalions remained in Mametz Wood and two at Fricourt Wood.
The ground over which the troops were to operate had been shelled first by our own guns in July and later by the enemy guns, so that with the addition of rain it was now a matter of great difficulty to move out into position prior to attack.
On the night of the 14th, all officers inspected the trenches to be occupied, and obtained as good an observation as possible of the locality over which we were to attack. Our own shell fire had become intense from the 12th September, and this was increased into a bombardment on the 15th prior to the advance.
The 1st Battalion on the 14th September was in Carlton Trench in Brigade reserve. The Canterbury Regiment in support of the 2nd Wellington Regiment was ordered to move up.
At 6.20 a.m. (zero hour) on the 15th September, the attack began. The artillery bombardment had been gradually growing more intense and now increased to a degree not comprehended before by our troops. The air seemed full of flying shells and bursting shrapnel, and it appeared some time before the Germans realised that the great attack, which had been foreshadowed, had actually begun. When they did realise this, they placed a barrage along the whole line attacked and along the Switch trench over which our men were advancing.
The 2nd Battalion moved forward from Carlton Trench. Wellington-West Coast Company moved to Dorset and Pear Trenches; Hawke's Bay to Worcester Trench; Taranaki Company to Seaforth Trench and Ruahine Company to Rifles Trench.
By 8.15 a.m., the Brigade had captured its second objective and the companies of the 1st Battalion moved for-page 115ward. That battalion had been ordered to be ready to assist the 3rd N.Z. Brigade when they moved forward.
On the afternoon of the 15th 1st Wellington moved forward to Check Trench and look up its position about 1,500 yards north of Montauban. Meantime the 2nd Battalion, at 2 o'clock, moved forward, Battalion Headquarters moving with the last company to the trench in front of Switch Trench, and which was subsequently known as Otago Trench.
Wellington-West Coast Company went through the village of Flers with the Rifle Brigade and occupied the trench in front of the village with Hawke's Bay Company on its left and Taranaki Company in support 100 yards behind. Ruahine Company occupied Flers Trench. Immediately this objective had been taken, all companies dug in. Battalion Headquarters took over a part of Otago Trench and occupied a huge shell hole a few yards in front of the trench, while the runners and others knelt in imperfectly-formed Otago Trench. At this time the shelling from the Germans increased into an intense bombardment. At the bottom of the huge shell hole occupied by Battalion Headquarters lay a huge unexploded shell. The view of the ground in frontoccupied by the Germans was clear and uninterrupted. At one stage of the bombardment, preparatory to what transpired to be an abortive counter-attack, a full battery of German artillery dashed down a sunken road which debouched at the edge of a small wood, unlimbered the guns and started shelling furiously. It was a brave and gallant action on the part of the German gunners.
Colonel Cunningham immediately tried to telephone to our heavy guns; but all the telephone lines had been broken, and the only way in which to send the information back was by runner. Accordingly, three runners were handed copies of the same note giving information of the battery and map references to where it was located. In about three-quarters of an hour, a battery of our heavy artillery concentrated on the spot, and our heavy shells fell amidst the battery, blowing men and guns to bits. The shelling became too intense, and Battalion Headquarters were moved to a small trench to the page 116right of Switch Trench, called Ferret Trench. A few minutes later, on one of the runners returning, it was found that a German shell had exploded in the hole immediately before occupied by Headquarters, apparently exploding the "dud" lying at the bottom, with the result that the shell hole was now a small crater.
In the afternoon the Germans massed for their counter- attack. On the slopes and undulating country opposite, thousands of Germans could be seen marching, at about eight paces apart, along the front as far as could be seen and for a great depth, slowly advancing to the counter-attack. Our artillery was at once advised, and an intense bombardment of the advancing troops was begun, shrapnel bursting overhead with effective results and, to the amazement of all who watched the approaching attack, it, seemingly, disappeared into thin air. It was noticeable how much more accurate the bursts of our shrapnel were than those of the Germans. Our casualties would have been much heavier in the attack had not the German shrapnel burst too high in the air, and most of the troops experienced the rattle on their steel helmets of shrapnel bullets from a height too great to do any damage, while the heavy 5.9 shells, dropping almost perpendicularly, penetrated into the deep mud at a great distance before exploding; the result being that the explosions were circumscribed in effect and lateral bursts comparatively few.
The 1st Battalion moved up next morning to Flers, but experienced the greatest difficulty on account of the darkness and shell fire and the broken ground, for there had been no opportunity of previously reconnoitring the route.
At 6.30 a.m. the Battalion took up its position on a line from the N.W. end of Flers to Abbaye Road—Flers Trench— Cross Roads.
The 1st Battalion from this position carried out a further advance to improve the position of the two lines and the attack, which was exclusively that of the 1st Battalion, began at 6.30 a.m. Hawke's Bay Company was on the right flank, Ruahine Company on the left with Wellington-West Coast Company in support in Fort Trench and Taranaki Company page 117in reserve in Flers Trench. The enemy counter-attacked with two companies against the Hawke's Bay Company; but was easily repulsed with rifle and machine-gun fire.
No. 1 Machine-gun Company, under Lieutenant Kibble- white, and the tank, which was moving into position to help the advance of the troops on the Battalion's right, joined in and played an important part in repulsing the enemy. The 1st Battalion then attacked—the two leading companies moving in four waves with two waves from the Wellington-West Coast Company in support behind each of the leading companies. During the attack, the two waves behind Ruahine Company were withdrawn to supporting trench, while the two waves behind the Hawke's Bay Company joined up with that company. The objective was a certain part of Groove Alley, which turned out to be lightly held by the enemy and was taken without resistance.
Shortly after the trench had been taken our right flank was exposed to an attempted attack from the enemy which prevailed for a short time only, and the position was consolidated.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hart, in reporting on the position after its capture, said: "It is considered the enemy's advance just before our attack was an independent attack by them, and this probably accounts for the heavy barrage our men had to cross.
This made our casualties heavy, and we suffered also from machine-gun fire on both flanks.
The two waves of the Wellington-West Coast Company still in support of the Ruahine Company stopped at the support line, a trench running 250 yards behind the front line but ceasing before it reached Ligny Road.
A simultaneous attack on Gird Trench and Guedecourt was to have been made by the 123rd Brigade on our right. They failed to advance although the tank detailed to support this advance moved forward about 300 yards, where it was struck by a shell and abandoned.
The next day the 2nd Battalion was relieved, and moved back to Wood Lane and T Trench in rear of Switch Line.page 118
There was intermittent shelling all the day, and the weather, which had been gradually growing worse, now set in very wet, making the conditions very unpleasant. It was almost impossible to move about without sinking up to one's knees in slush and mud. In spite of this, however, the fatigue parties detailed for bringing up hot food from the cookers at Green Dump, displayed wonderful persistence and succeeded in supplying warm soup to the famished troops.
On the 7th the Germans bombarded Flers heavily and threatened a counter-attack, but the threat did not materialise, except feeble local attacks against the right flank of the 1st Battalion, which were easily repulsed.
As soon as the bombardment ceased, the positions were consolidated and deep trenches dug, ensuring the holding of the ground captured.
To the credit of the battalion signallers, in spite of the fact that the telephone wires were repeatedly broken by shell fire, communication was almost continuously maintained from Battalion Headquarters to Brigade Headquarters until towards the evening of the 17th September, when a heavy bombardment irreparably destroyed the wire. A new wire was run out soon after midnight, and this wire was maintained while the battalion held the position.
The next day, in the afternoon, the 2nd Battalion moved into Flers. Battalion Headquarters took over a deep German dug-out at the junction of the cross roads of the village. Hawke's Bay Company moved out and took over the right sector; Ruahine Company the left, with Taranaki Company and Wellington-West Coast Company in support and reserve respectively.
An enemy strong point was causing a great deal of trouble and some casualties, and as soon as it was dark enough, an attack was made first by one officer and sixteen other ranks. This attack, however, failed on account of the great resistance of the enemy and the exposed ground over which the men had to move. The next day a second attack was again made which again failed. The Germans realised that this strong point was of considerable tactical value to them, and they manned the point in overwhelming force.page 119
The next day, as already said, the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade relieved 2nd Wellington, which moved back to Wood Lane Trench and Switch Trench.
On the night of the 18th, the 1st Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Batlalion, the former moving back to Cheek Trench. The march was very trying, the track being a sea of mud, more than ankle deep in some places, and owing to this and the darkness, the move took a long time. Ruahine Company was shelled heavily while moving out, and had to disperse, with the result that the whole company was not collected until the following morning. The ground allotted was very muddy and had few waterproof bivouacs. The battalion had the misfortune to lose heavily in officers that day (16th). Major F. Ross, commanding Ruahine Company, 2nd Lieutenants W. Kirkley and S. O. Esam, both of Hawke's Bay Company, and 2nd Lieutenant L. W. Meuli, of Wellington-West Coast Company, being all killed in action. Captain H. S. Tremewan and Lieutenant R. H. Dodson died of wounds, while Major C. H. Weston and 2nd Lieutenants M. S. Galloway and A. R. McIsaac were wounded but stayed with their battalion. At this time the casualties ot the 1st Battalion were 10 officers and 282 other ranks. The strength of the Battalion when it went into action on the 15th September was 25 officers and 784 other ranks.
The 2nd Battalion, having moved into Flers, set about improving the trenches and making them habitable. The work was, however, fraught with difficulties. The shelling, although intermittent, was very heavy at times. The enemy knew all the roads and routes that, of necessity, the battalion had to use. These he shelled, making communication between companies and Battalion Headquarters difficult. The weather played its part in making the lot of the troops difficult. Heavy rain with intense cold made work by day and night most difficult. To the great credit of the battalion transport, however, the men in the line on the night Flers was occupied by the Battalion were supplied with a hot meal. At that time, 2nd Lieutenant R. E. W. Riddiford commanded the battalion transport, and, in spite of the fact that the road had been shelled out of recognition, and was still being shelled, page 120and notwithstanding the extreme difficult of bringing horses and transport through the muddy track at Delville Wood and Flers, as soon as darkness supervened, this gallant officer with the grit and determination, a sample of which he had given in Armentieres, led safely into the village and drew up at Battalion Headquarters the transport with the rations. Having unloaded he imperturbably led the transport back again.
There was no doubt that the officers had learnt their part well in the operations on the Somme. With great accuracy each learnt the position of the troops on the flanks. On one occasion this proved most useful. A runner from the left flank burst into Battalion Headquarters that his battalion was being heavily shelled and an enemy attack was expected momentarily and the bomb supply was exhausted. Colonel Cunningham immediately sent forward a carrying party and rushed 750 bombs to our comrades.
On the night of the 21st, the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade relieved 2nd Wellington, which returned to Wood Lane and Switch Trench. The troops, although they had been heavily engaged for six days were, no doubt by their clear superiority over the enemy, in high spirits, and bore the difficulties with composure.
Lieut.-Col. C. H. Weston, D.S.O., V.D.
The Operation Order issued in connection with the attack succinctly explained the duties of all concerned. It read as follows:—
1st Battalion.26th September, 1916.
Wellington Infantry Regt.The following positions will be captured by the Battalion:
a. Gird Support Trenches from left of Auckland at M 26 b.93 to M 24 b.4.6. b. Gird Trench from left of Auckland at M 26 b.9.3 to M 24 b.2.4. c. Goose Alley from M 24 b.6.5 to M 24 c.8.6.
W.W.C. Co. will capture, consolidate and garrison the objectives in B and C.
A Company 4th Battn., N.Z.R.B. will capture, consolidate and garrison the objective in A.
Each company will erect a block 60 yards west of the junction of Goose Alley with Gird Trenches and Gird Support.
One Stokes Mortar and one section of Battalion bombers is allotted to each company.
W.W.C. Co. will attack from Goose Alley and the company of the 4th Battn. N.Z.R.B. will attack from left of Auckland at M.26.b.9.3.
The attacks will be simultaneous and will be made at 4 a.m., 27/9/16. The attack will be preceded by five minutes' intensive bombardment of Stokes Mortars commencing at 3.55 a.m.page 123
A tank may be available, and, if so, it will precede the advance of A Company along Gird Support and there will not then be any bombardment of Stokes Mortars.
R. W. Wrightson.
Captain and Adjutant.
As the tank did not arrive the parties moved off to their assembly points. Wellington-West Coast Company attacked and reached its objective, but the company from the Rifle Brigade came under a heavy barrage and the column was broken and that portion of the attack failed. The party could not be collected before daylight, and the ground covered was held. The situation was not improved and the Brigade, ordered a fresh attack. Preparations were accordingly made, for this, but, in the meantime, Colonel Hart, by making a personal reconnaissance, found that his companies were not connected up, there being about 100 yards distance between each, and they were about the same distance from their objectives. The objective lay in a hollow and neither the company nor our troops could hope to hold without first capturing the surrounding ridges. In the circumstances, Colonel Hart cancelled the projected attack on his own initiative, an action that was later approved of by Brigade Headquarters. The companies were ordered to extend towards each other and form a complete line. Trenches were dug to enable this to be done. Later the same night, the Brigade was relieved by the 2nd Brigade. The relief on account of the proximity of the enemy and the heavy intermittent shelling, was carried out by sections. The 1st Wellington Regiment returned to the comparative comfort of the bivouacs in Carlton Trench.
The operations in which the battalion had been taking part had been favoured by fine weather but the previous wet weather made it most difficult to move about on the shell-torn territory, and the stench of the dead will live in the memory of all who took part in those famous operations. For the five days in which the battalion had been engaged in the attack it suffered in casualties two officers and 96 other ranks. The 2nd Battalion took over the Gird Trench that had been cap-page 124tured by the 1st Brigade, making its headquarters at Factory Corner. The enemy realised that the Factory Corner would assuredly be made a headquarters of some sort, paid a great deal of attention to the brick structure, at the bottom of which was a cellar containing the Battalion Headquarters. The 2nd Battalion were not troubled in the Gird Trench, and every opportunity was seized for improving the defences and even making the trenches a little more habitable. The spirits of the battalion were wonderfully good. The artillery that had played a great part in heartening the attack were now partly from imperfect knowledge of the distance our troops had gone forward, bursting shrapnel short, to our great discomfort, though, fortunately, without injury. The fatigue parties carrying up the rations, performed their difficult tasks with great determination, and keeping the troops well fed and with a full supply of rum, helped materially to make the situation bearable. The last operation carried out by the battalion in the Somme was on the 1st and 2nd October. The battalion was relieved by the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade to take part in a further advance to the left. Headquarters were taken up at Goose Alley, where part of the battalion also sought cover. The rest of the battalion was accommodated at Flers Supports At 3.15 p.m. on the 1st October the battalion attacked and captured Eaucourt 1'Abbaye. The attack was carried out without much difficulty, though in the night the Germans made a half-hearted counter-attack which did not cause the battalion much trouble in repulsing. Throughout this operation the companies advanced so quickly that resistance was not strong, and a valuable addition to the tactical situation was the reward. In this operation under 2nd Lieutenant R. L. King, the battalion signalling section maintained an almost uninterrupted communication between company and Battalion Headquarters. The linesmen were intrepid to a degree and took great pride in the maintenance of the telephone lines.
The Spell of fine weather broke again and cold and showery weather supplanted it to the intense discomfort of all. All positions were consolidated and, after nightfall of the 2nd page 125October, the Battalion turned its back on the Somme trenches, being relieved by the 1st Battalion of our Rifle Brigade. To assist, if necessary, in the attack on Eaucourt l'Abbaye, the 1st Battalion had moved up from Carlton Trench to Flers Trench and Flers Support. Though this was but a short distance and with no shell fire to cause delay, yet it took the companies from six to eight hours to move up. The ground was by now in an appalling condition—mud and slush to the knees, all tracks obliterated, the troops had to move round shell holes to reach their new position.
The Battalion was not called to play any active part in the attack on Eaucourt l'Abbaye, and on the night of the 3rd the 26th Royal Fusiliers relieved the Battalion. The relief was a part of the relief of the corps. The Battalion slowly made its way back to Pommiers Redoubt, worn, weary, but triumphant. The 2nd Battalion made its way back to Savoy Trench and thence to Fricourt and there gained from the inclemency of the winter the protection of tents.
On the 4th October the Army Corps Commander of the 15th Corps visited the lines of the 1st Battalion and thanked and congratulated them.
So ended the part played by the New Zealand Division in the famous Battle of the Somme of 1916. No division ever better earned the gratitude of its commander, or, indeed, of the nation, than did the New Zealand Division in that famous battle. Engaged continuously from the 15th September to the 3rd October, under the worst possible weather conditions, faced by a great mass of artillery and machine-guns, the division to a man fought with the steadiness of regular troops and with a spirit intrepid and indomitable. With one or two trifling exceptions where parties failed to gain their objectives, the division carried out the tasks allotted to it.
The battalions were faced by regular troops and by numbers far exceeding their own, yet with dauntless valour they drove the Germans back from their selected positions and dominated them in a manner that could not be gainsaid.
Of that division the two battalions representing the Wellington Regiment played their part nobly, and led by commanders of intelligence and bravery, by Company commanders page 126and Platoon commanders in whom the men had implicit confidence, it was no wonder that the battalions showed themselves as equal to any others of the division and gained for themselves and for the Dominion they represented the admiration and gratitude of all.
To mention particular acts of bravery would be unfair to those who performed acts that were omitted to be mentioned. Those whose acts were mentioned would prefer, no doubt, that they should not be singled out from the many others who performed equally brave actions. So it were better, apart from those who were singled out by Divisional commanders as meriting particular praise, not to mention any particular officers or other ranks whose acts, brave as they were, were but the acts of most of the troops of our great Division.
Every member of the Division had a right to be proud of having had the opportunity of becoming a member of that great Division, to be proud of the fact that the Division was such a noble addition to the great Army that represented the British Empire, to be proud of the fact that it played no mean part in ultimately achieving for the betterment of the world the vanquishing of the guilty and of establishing right and justice throughout the world.