The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 - 1919
Chapter XXV. — Trench Warfare after Messines
Trench Warfare after Messines.
Hill 63 — Mustard Gas—Exploits of 2nd Battalion's Patrols—Activity in the Air—Observation Balloons —The "Archies" — Midsummer Days —The Duke of Connaught at Bailleul—3rd Battalion at Nieppe
The New Zealand Division was now taking over the front on the right of the 4th Australian Division from Post Office Corner to the Warnave River, and, indeed, some of the New Zealand Brigades were already in the line. Within a few days, the First Brigade was to relieve the Second Brigade in the trenches.
At dusk on the 18th June, after a hot day with a heavy thunder-storm, the 2nd Battalion relieved 1st Canterbury in the front line immediately opposite La Basse Ville, with Wellington-West Coast Company in the posts, and front line (an old German trench near Au Chausseur Cabaret), Taranaki Company in support, Hawkes Bay and Ruahine Companies in reserve, the former in Bunhill Row, and the latter in the Catacombs, Captain W. H. McLean now assuming command of Hawkes Bay Company in place of Capt. R. F. C. Scott, who had died of wounds at Messines.
On the same day, the 1st Battalion relieved 1st Otago in brigade reserve at Hill 63, with Battalion headquarters first at Limavady Lodge and, after being shelled out of that, at Fort Garry. The 1st Batlalion remained at Hill 63 until the 23rd, nearly the whole strength of the battalion being employed on working parties. Every night Hill 63, was page 176heavily shelled with gas and H.E. and some casualties were sustained.
At this time, the enemy had not quite recovered from the disorganisation resulting from the Messines-Wytschaete battle. Artillery action on both sides was fairly violent, although most of our heavy guns were now being withdrawn.
The 2nd Battalion in the line was fairly active, Wellington-West Coast Company sending out several patrols, one under Lieut. A. G. Melles, exploiting part of La Basse Ville. Another, consisting of Sergeant Fisher and Private Goddard from No. 3 Post, coming upon a German machine-gun, called upon its crew to surrender, and shot two. The enemy gun at once opened fire, forcing our two men to withdraw. Goddard managed to get back to his post in safety; but, unfortunately, Sergt. Fisher did not return, and it was ascertained from one of the German prisoners taken by us a few nights later that he had been wounded and was a prisoner.
Here also, Lieut. H. Simmonds, M.C., 2nd Battalion Intelligence Officer, had a most trying experience. Early one morning, he and Corporal Taylor came right on to a German machine-gun post. Corporal Taylor shot one of the crew; but, the Germans opening fire, Lieut. Simmonds and he were obliged to disperse. Taylor worked his way down tin-hedges back to our lines; but Simmonds was obliged to take refuge in a shell hole, where he had to remain for twelve hours. So close was he to the Germans, that he could hear them talking and digging all day. After dark, Simmonds ran the gauntlet of the Germans rifle fire. It was a very exhausted Intelligence Officer that returned to our lines; but-the battalion was very relieved to have him back.
Hawkes Bay and Ruahine Companies in reserve supplied the working parties, digging a considerable portion of the travel trench for the new front line.
After a few days, artillery fire noticeably decreased on both sides. The 2nd Battalion now received orders to carry page 177out certain patrolling operations in co-operation with 1st Auckland, supported by Artillery barrage For this purpose, on the night of the 21st June, Wellington-West Coast Company provided two platoons, No. 3 under Lieut. A. G. Melles on the right, and No. 1 platoon under Lieut. P. D. Healy on the left while First Auckland provided a third platoon. The object was to clear the ground to the immediate front of all enemy posts. Night operations such as this, undertaken with but the scantiest preparation, are extremely difficult and apt to miscarry. Our No. 1 platoon and the Auckland platoon were, unfortunately, delayed and unable to take any real part in the operation. It was, therefore, left to our No. 3 platoon under Lieut. A. G. Melles to carry out their job by themselves.
The main and only street of La Basse Ville ran parallel to and between the railway line and the River Lys. Melles divided his four sections into two parties, and with one crossed the railway at a spot near the Messines Road, which strikes the main street at right angles at the southern end of the village. The sugar refinery, at that time merely a skeleton of twisted girders and broken iron, was situated on the river Lys side of the junction of the Messines Road and the main street. Melles led his men into the street at this point and they fought their way northwards along it. Bomb, bayonet and rifle were used, in hand to hand fighting. We were to learn afterwards from prisoners, that there was a considerable German garrison in the cellars of the buildings of La Basse Ville, and great must have been their surprise as they struggled out into the darkness of the night, to find a daring enemy in possession of the village.
It was a great fight, and to hear it recounted afterwards was to bring back to memory the stories of the way in which British sailors in days gone by, boarded enemy ships and swept their decks with pistol and cutlass. The explosion of the bombs of both sides, the British Mills' bomb being distinguished by its metallic ping, could not drown the noise of the sweating, fighting men, the groans of the wounded, and the screams of those in their death page 178agony. Our men were out-numbered; but indomitable. They cleared the street, and drove the Huns out of the end of the village behind a tall hedge which ran at right angles down to the river. Here, Melles was joined by his other two sections, which had crossed the railway line higher up, and had struck the Tissage* at the top end of the village. As they found it impossible to enter this building from its northern side, they worked round it to its southern side, and, after killing a few Germans there, joined Lieut. Melles, whose party was engaged bombing the enemy sheltering behind the hedge.
Melles very wisely chose this opportunity to withdraw his party. His casualties were already severe, and no good purpose could be served by staying longer. He, accordingly, got his party together, and moved down the street. There again they met some of the enemy, who had probably come up out of the cellars in the meantime. Some of these were killed by our men, others taken prisoner. No further opposition being encountered, Melles' platoon withdrew across the railway line and returned to our lines. Our casualties were, one killed, one wounded and missing, and sixteen wounded, out of a total of forty-two. The missing man had been so badly wounded that he could not be shifted and our men had had to leave him. He fell into the hands of the enemy and had to have one of his legs amputated in a Jerman Hospital. Not many months afterwards, he was repatriated to England.
* A large spinning factory.
Our left platoon got disorganised on its way up to the point of assembly, two sections losing their way, and was, therefore, unable to take any real part in the operation. The commander of this platoon, 2/Lieut, P. D. Healy, was so badly wounded in the foot, that a few days later, he had to have his foot amputated.
In view of the failure on the left, a similar operation was undertaken the following night, again in conjunction with 1st Auckland. On this occasion, it was confined to clearing the ground between our posts, and the Armentieres- Warneton railway line, our men on the right having only to patrol towards La Basse Ville. A very effective barrage was put down by our artillery, and, under its protection, three platoons from Taranaki Company (then holding the front line) under Lieuts. A. T. White, C. T. Natusch and N. F. Little, did the work. The garrisons of several enemy posts were destroyed, and identification obtained, after which our men withdrew to our own lines. In the meantime, Ruahine Company had come up from the Catacombs, and occupied our front posts, so that Taranaki Company were then able to go right back to the Catacombs. Our casualties were, two killed, one missing, and twenty-five wounded, mostly slight. For his courage and leadership that night, Lieut. N. F. Little was shortly afterwards to receive his M.C., and for other acts of gallantry during these operations, Military Medals were awarded to the following:— Sergeant L. J. Rannie, Pte. J. A. Coombes, Pte. M. Nielson, Pte. T. Bullick, Pte. G. A. Ward, Pte. F. Wright, Pte. S. J. Venning.
On the evening of 23rd June, the 1st Battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion in the line and the 2nd Battalion moved back to bivouacs and dug-outs on the wooded slope of Hill 63. It had been noticed the enemy was now disposed to shell every night Hyde Park Corner and Mud Lane, through which we had to pass. For that reason, the relief was commenced early, and while it was yet light. That turned page 180out to be fortunate, because, later that night, the enemy opened a heavy bombardment with H.E. and gas shells on Hill 63, and on all roads in the vicinity; yet the relief was made with hardly a casualty.
Before Messines, the Germans' guns seemed unable to range on the Southern Slope of Hill 63, and, troops being comparatively safe, as many as four battalions used to bivouac there, some feeling particularly happy and altogether safe under the shelter of a sheet of corrugated iron, not proof against even an army biscuit. After Messnies, losses on the Hill began to mount up and it was not long before the numbers there were reduced.
The 1st Battalion in line made the same dispositions as before, and concentrated its efforts on consolidating and improving the positions held, the 2nd Battalion sending up working parties to dig trenches during darkness, returning at daybreak. The 2nd Battalion's first two nights on the Hill were the essence of discomfort. For nearly two weeks, the enemy had been using his new mustard gas, and he now bombarded the Hill with H.E. and gas shells—(mostly lachrymatory, but some phosgene and some mustard). There was nothing to do but to endure it, and we would all seek such shelter as was available if possible, in this trenches towards the top of the hill, and there spend the night, weeping copious tears into our respirators from inflamed and streaming eyes.
There was now considerable activity in the air, and, looking up and down the line from Hill 63, it was no uncommon thing to see close on a hundred aeroplanes in the sky at the same time. Early morning or in the evening was the time. Many an aerial duel did we watch and many a plane did we see come hurtling to earth. Here in the early mornings, we could sometime see a squadron of German aeroplanes with yellow bodies. These "yellow bellies" were understood to be in Richthofen's Travelling Circus. One of the most famous of German airmen was Baron Richthofen. His squadron never remained in any particular sector; but page 181whenever an attack was made at any part of the line, his squadron would appear.
From Hill 63 also, during the daytime, we would watch many attacks against our observation balloons by enemy aeroplanes. Often those attacks would be fruitless; because, as soon as the enemy plane appeared, our "Archies"* would put up round the balloon in jeopardy, a protective barrage, which, as a rule, the German aircraft would not venture to penetrate. Sometimes, however, the enemy would meet with success—for instance, one hot midsummer day, when large billowy clouds were blowing over from the enemy lines, a German aeroplane suddenly emerged from one of these clouds, within a short distance of one of our balloons and, before our "Archies" had spotted him, the enemy airman had fired his rocket into the balloon, and down it came in flames, our observers only just escaping in their parachutes. Encouraged by this victory, the enemy plane returned by the same artifice again and again, and, within an hour, had brought down in flames before our very eyes, no less than four of our huge observation balloons.
In midsummer, the days can be as hot in Belgium as in New Zealand. In June, the wood on Hill 63, was wearing a thick green cloak, so different from its chilly nakedness of April. It seemed sacrilege that shells should tear its beautiful limbs to pieces. Even to us, it brought a feeling of sadness; but what angry bitterness must have welled up in the heart of its owner, and the owner of the chateau, for there was hardly a fragment of the chateau left. It is true the Lodge was there, and on the Maori Pioneer Battalion moving out, our 2nd Battalion made Red Lodge its headquarters.
* "Archies"—anti-aircraft guns.
Work was now the motto of the whole division, and all ranks fell to digging, in furtherance of an ambitious programme of improving the sector. However, our spell of work was short, as the 4th Australian Division was shortly to come over from the Messines sector and relieve us and we were to move out once more to billets.
While yet on Hill 63, the 2nd Battalion was able to be represented at the Parade of representatives of the II. Anzac Corps before H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught. Major C. H. Weston attended on behalf of the 2nd Battalion, and with him went Sergeant Ward (Ruahine), Segeant C. Gore (Hawkes Bay), Private Watt (Taranaki), and Private Coombes (Wellington-West Coast), while Cant. F. S. Varnham, Lieuts. C. G. Stewart and E. Edwards and six N.C.O.'s represented the 3rd Battalion. The Parade was held in the square at Bailleul, and was intended as a compliment to the Corps for the capture of Messines. Many trophies of victory were parked before the Town Hall, and British troops lined the four sides of the ancient square. General Plumer (Commander of the Second Army) was there; but he seemed to wish General Godley, the Corps Commander, to be the chief figure before His Royal Highness, and contented himself with pottering about the parade ground looking at the men and the captured guns.
On the 28th June, the 2nd Battalion left Hill 63, and marched back to De Seule, occupying the same ground as page 183on arriving back from Tatinghem, before Messines. The day was spent in resting and bathing. In the evening, there was heavy thunder and a rain storm.
On the following night, the 1st Battalion was relieved, the 15th Brigade A.I.K taking over front, support and subsiduary lines from both 2nd Auckland and 1st Wellington. By relieving the rear companies in daylight, and getting the front line company forward by sections before dark, the relief was made smoothly, and quickly, and was complete before 11.30 p.m. The bombardment of Hill 63, Hyde Park Corner, and Prowse Point being heavier than usual that night, the 1st Battalion was fortunate in sustaining no casualties during its relief, or on its march back to De Seule.
June had been a gruelling mouth for 1st Wellington. From the 24th to 30th alone, it had had six killed and ninety one wounded, while the total casualties for the whole month were,—
Officers—Killed 2, Wounded 11.
Other ranks—Killed 78, Wounded 426, Missing 8. Total 575.
That of course, included the battle casualties at Messines.
On the night of the 22nd June, our 3rd Battalion had been relieved in the trenches by 3rd Otago. Already, the sector had noticeably quietened down, and the enemy artillery activity was daily growing less. No casualties were sustained during the relief, and the 3rd Battalion went back into rest billets in Nieppe', there to remain for the rest of that month, and during the first week of July. The only noteworthy happening during that time, was the inspection of the rations by the Q.M.G. Second Army, and the Q.M.G. U.S.A. Army.