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The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 - 1919

Chapter XXVII. — La Basse Ville

page 188

Chapter XXVII.
La Basse Ville.

Hawke's Bay (2nd Battalion) Capture La Basse Ville; but are Driven Out—The 2nd Battalion Captures La Basse Ville and Holds It—Andrew Wins the Victoria Cross —Lieut. Nicol's Gallantry.

[Practically the whole of this chapter has, with the kind permission of the Author, been taken from "Three Years with the New Zealanders," by Lieut.-Col. C. H. Weston, D.S.O.]

The 2nd Battalion stormed and captured La Basse Ville on two occasions. On the 27th July, Hawkes Bay Company had little difficulty in taking the village, but the Germans, a few hours afterwards, counter-attacked in comparatively great strength, and drove out the posts left by us as a garrison. On the 31st July, Wellington-West Coast Company, with two platoons of Taranaki Company, again seized the place, and this time all the attackers remained and held it against the counter-attacks that followed. This operation was made conjointly with Ruahine Company, clearing the hedge row system on our left between our posts and the railway line.

The week preceding the attack by Hawke's Bay Company was one of busy preparation. The Company trained hard at Kortepyp Camp, and every evening its officers and N.C.O.'s in turn, went up and patrolled the area between No. 1 post and the Railway Line, and sometimes across the line towards the village. Two patrols were out on the night of the 21st, and one of them, under Sergeant

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L. W. Butler, encountered a Hun Post on their side of the Railway and had a brush with it. Two nights later, an enemy patrol came into our country and hiding in a ruined cottage in front of No. 2 Post, surprised our patrol on its return journey. In the fight that followed. 2nd Lieut. B. Brookes was wounded and Sergeant L. Murnane killed. It was understood that the 2nd Battalion was to tackle the job of clearing the hedgerows also, and preparations were made for that as well. We afterwards learned, from the prisoners captured on the 27th, that the garrison numbered about 200 and that, curiously enough, the middle of the village formed the boundary oil two sectors; a company from one sector holding the Sugar Refinery, and another company from an adjoining sector occupying The buildings at the northern end. The latter sector included the hedgerows, which were garrisoned by still another company; and the hedgerows formed the front line. So the Germans could not be said to hold the line lightly.

Since Lieut. Melles' exploit of the 21st June, the enemy had been busily wiring the land between the railway and the village. This our patrols and the aerial photographs told us. It was left to Ruahine Company to discover on the night of the 21st July, what wiring he had been doing in the hedgerows. We knew there was a machine-gun post behind the hedge, in a corner of the field opposite No. 3 Post, and at midnight a detachment of the First Light Trench Mortar Battery, under Lieut. R. K. Nicol, fired sixty Stokes bombs into the position, and at ten minutes past twelve, the 15th Howitzer Battery N.Z.F.A., placed three salvos at a point about 200 yards behind. The machine-gun was evidently hit by the Stokes, because it was not brought into action by the enemy. The Stokes gun is liable to fire so rapidly that eight bombs are in the air together, and the effect of sixty bombs exploding in a very short space of time can be imagined. Directly Lieut. Nicol ceased fire, Lieut. G. A. Robbie led forward his fourteen men and struck the hedge about 150 yards from the corner. They found it heavily wired, and exchanged bombs with some Germans on the page 190other side; apparently with some effect, for groans were heard. Here, unhappily, Lieut. Robbie was mortally wounded by a bullet from a rifle fired through the hedge. Lance-Corporal N. G. Harding, the senior N.C.O. present, led the party along the hedge in a north-westerly direction towards the corner where the machine-gun was. He could hear an officer or N.C.O. endeavouring to rally the garrison on the other side, but a few more bombs being thrown at them, they made off. Wire was met with all along the hedge. The object of the party had been attained, and Harding, sending a man back to No. 3 Post for a stretcher, withdrew, carrying Lieut. Robbie with him. The latter, however, died before they reached the post. We buried this gallant officer next day at the Military Cemetery at Prowse Point, 3,000 yards south of Messines, on the northern edge of Ploegsteert Wood.

The 2nd Battalion thought it necessary, as part of the preparation for the attack, to occupy the railway line before the village, and also to establish a new post on the eastern corner of the field in which No. 3 Post was situated. The latter was not done until the second attack on the 31st July, but, three more groups of sentries were placed on the railway. If the Hun had forestalled us there, perhaps his posts would have escaped our artillery barrage, and might have caused a check to the advance before our men had got into their stride.

For assembly trenches we dug a new sap along the Messines-La Basse Ville Road, which we named Cabaret Road, and opened up an old trench (Unnamed Sap) that ran from No. 1 Post to the railway. We dared not take either of these two trenches as far as the railway for fear of raising suspicions of a projected attack, and so dug them only half way. Unchained Avenue was a German communication trench leading from the Au Chasseur Cabaret to the railway and passing to the north of No. 1 Post, and this we opened right up to the line. No 1 Post was enlarged to hold another platoon, and a communication trench, which we called La Truoie Sap, was dug to provide a shorter route page 191from the Power Buzzer Dugout to No. 1 Post and to the village, via Cabaret Road or Unchained Avenue. All these saps would serve the further purpose of communication with the village after its capture, and, indeed; the telephone wire to the place where company headquarters was to be situated during the action, was laid down Unchained Avenue two nights before.

Dumps also had to be made. Stokes bombs were needed in front of No. 2 Post to feed the guns that were to bombard the Estaminet, a two-story detached building at the northern end of the village. We suspected the existence of a machine-gun in the second story of the Estaminet, and our suspicions proved correct. A larger general dump was made in La Truie Farm buildings on the Cabaret Road, containing S.S.A., rations, water, flares, etc., for the use of the future garrison of the village.

The 2nd Battalion's preparations were all completed by the night of the 25th, when Hawkes Bay Company came up from Kortepyp and relieved Taranaki Company on the right of the front Line including No. 1 Post. The whole company thus had twenty-four hours in which to view the approaches to the village and to study, through the glasses, the portion of it allotted to them in the attack. Unfortunately, the Hun put down one of his favourite artillery barrages on the right of the line next morning, and Hawkes Bay Company lost four killed and eleven wounded.

At 1.30 on the morning of the 27th, Hawkes Bay Company (3 officers and 136 other ranks) was in position waiting for zero hour. Lieut. J. S. Hanna, with No. 7 platoon, was on the right in Cabaret Road ready to seize the Sugar Refinery. Sergeant C. N. Devery, with No. 8 platoon, in the centre in Unnamed Sap to attack the heart of the village, and Lieut. W. G. Gibbs, with No. 6 platoon, on the left, lay in Unchained Avenue, his objective being the Tissage. Captain W. H. McLean held No. 5 platoon in reserve, and made his headquarters in a trench parallel to the railway running from Unchained Avenue to the Cabaret Road. At 2 a.m. our barrage came down, like a thunderclap, and page 192under its cover the three platoons stormed the village. Lient. Hanna's party had but little difficulty in taking the Sugar Refinery, probably owing to the fact that its garrison of forty Bavarians, so we learned from a prisoner, was concentrated in a large cellar underneath the building. Into this cellar incendiary bomb were thrown, causing an explosion of ammunition and not one of its garrison emerged. Sergeant Devery's platoon cleared the centre part of the hamlet, and met with considerable opposition, that was overcome with severe loss to the enemy, thirty bodies being counted in the street alone, apart from any killed in the buildings. To capture the Tissage, Lieut. Gibbs had to fight hard, but nothing could stop the men, and they swept the place clear of its defenders, of whom a number where killed by our Lewis guns, as they fled towards Warneton. Cellars and dugouts were bombed. Ten bodies lay near the Tissage. Four posts of seven men each were left behind, two on the banks of the Lys and two facing towards Warneton, and the remainder of the company withdrew from the village as ordered, to avoid casualties from shell-fire. It was considered most unlikely, that the enemy would counter-attack during the day, and it was intended to reinforce the posts at dusk to meet any stroke in the night.

So far the affair had been a wonderful success, and our losses were insignificant. But, in a very short time, the position was reversed. Fifty minutes after zero the German gunners put down a box barrage along the railway that completely cut off the village from the rest of the company, and drove Captain W. H. McLean and his reserves out of the position they had taken up. Two small counter-attacks were beaten off by the two northern posts, to be followed, however, by one from the same direction in the strength of about 250 rifles, and later identified as a whole support battalion of the 6th Division. No appeal for artillery help came from the posts by means of the very pistols that they carried, and the Germans, by sheer weight of numbers, overwhelmed them. They attacked and drove back to the railway, the left of the two northern posts, and then con-page 193centrated on Sergeant Devery's posts, one the right of the northern end, and the other on the river bank. Some of the attackers climbed on to the roofs of the houses in the main street and kept up a galling fire on our men, who retaliated as best as they could: but the latter's chief efforts were directed to stemming the main tide of the attack. These two posts fought to the bitter end, one man, besides Devery, surviving. Lieut. Hanna made an effort to assist Devery, and he and his men went some distance down the main street, and only when they saw the posts had gone and the numbers were against them did they withdraw across the railway to face a further advance upon No. 1 Post, if such were attempted. Communications went a short time after the Hun barrage came down, and the first news of the events in the village was brought to Captain McLean by one of Devery's wounded. McLean promptly led two platoons forward, and a platoon of Ruahine Company followed him, but by the time he reached the railway the enemy was in full occupation, and he wisely decided to accept the position and withdraw. Time was given to the enemy to remove his and also we hoped our, wounded, and the heavies were then turned on to the ill-fated village. Our losses were four killed, fourteen missing and thirty-one wounded, and, in the circumstances, can only be regarded as extraordinarily light.

Had it been a raid our success would have been complete; but it was our intention to hold the village. Plainly, the enemy's strength had been under estimated. It was a pity that our four posts had not been concentrated at the Warneton end of the village, for it was really only from there that the enemy could have delivered a counter-attack. Be that as it may, the performance was an extremely gallant one. Hawkes Bay Company had worked magnificiently and the work of that company reflected the greatest credit on Capt. W. H. McLean. McLean was shortly afterwards to receive the M.C., and Sergeant Devery and Pte. M. Vestey the D.C.M., while for their share in the operation the Military Medal was awarded to Corpl. R. P. Northe, Pte. A. page 194E. Still, Pte. T. Chirnside, Pte. A. A. Rossiter, Pte. D. H. Larsen and Pte. H. Blakemore, the last named a very gallant stretcher-bearer.

A few days later, the 2nd Battalion received the following letter from General Godley, the Commander of II. Anzac Corps;—

"The Corps Commander has read this report with much interest and thinks that the action reflects great credit on Capt. McLean and all ranks of his company. It also proves the value and thoroughness of their previous training."

Ruahine Company relieved Hawkes Bay Company in the afternoon of the 27th, and the latter withdrew to Kortepyp Camp to bind up its wounds. Next night, the rest of the 2nd Battalion moved back, its place being taken by the 1st Battalion. While the relief was proceeding, the S.O.S. went up from our front and from the 1st Auckland on our left, and our guns started in, "Hell for leather." It was an anxious time, as the system of small posts is a standing invitation to a determined enemy to mop one or two of them up in a raid. The German raiders made a valiant effort to reach the Auckland posts, and were successful in driving one advanced post back temporarily with flammenwerfer. Against the Wellington front, little determination was shown and the enemy was driven off.

The enemy was not to be left in enjoyment of his success. A few hours later, Major C. H. Weston was summoned to Brigade Headquarters and at a conference there. General Melvill notified that, as part of a big advance in the Ypres Salient, the 1st Brigade would make another attempt to take and hold La Basse Ville, capture the hedgerow system as far as the railway, and, on the left of that, raid the enemy posts and advance our line. On the left of the 1st Brigade, the Australians were to carry out a similar operation. 1st Auckland would make the raid, 2nd Auckland establish the new line of posts, and 2nd Wellington was to seize the village and hedgerows, and would thereby be the extreme right battalion of the "big push" in the salient.

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The 31st July, was the day appointed. There were but twenty-four hours clear for preparation. Wellington-West Coast Company (Captain H. E. McKinnon, M.C.), with two platoons from Taranaki Company was given the job of seizing the village, and Ruahine Company (Capt. M. Urquhart) —less one platoon—the hedgerows, and, at the Brigadier's suggestion, nine volunteers from Hawke's Bay Company, who were through the first attack, were attached to Captain McKinnon to act as guides. There was a good deal to bo done and arranged. Unfortunately, our Artillery barrage just missed the hedgerows, and with nothing else being done, the German garrison, with their machine-guns, would face undisturbed our advance in that quarter. Lieut. R. K. Nicol, however, came to the rescue with his Stokes mortars. He provided four guns, and a dump of 200 shells was established for him. A Vickers gun from the 1st Machine- Gun Company and three Lewis guns from 1st Wellington, would fire into the Germans until the 200 shells had been exhausted. Thereupon, Captain Urquhart's men would advance. Nicol, according to the plan, would then take up his guns and make for La Basse Ville, picking up a party of men waiting for him at La Truie Farm with more bombs, and help in the defence of the village against counter- attacks. Captain Urquhart sent up his remaining platoon on the night of the 30th, to dig a post in which he could make his headquarters and keep his reserve platoon near the eastern corner of the field. As can be imagined, this facilitated his task immensely. When his two assaulting platoons left their assembly points, he simply moved forward with his reserve platoon to a trench dug before- hand, and attached his telephone to a wire already laid. The communications with the village constituted a difficult problem. The enemy's box barrage had repeatedly destroyed the wire on the 27th, and the signallers now reconnoitred a route by way of some disused trenches south of the Sugar Refinery, but that was abandoned and a more direct route taken. Lamps, pigeons, telephone and runners were all to be used. In the action the lamps proved a page 196failure, owing to the smoke from the exploding shells shrouding the light, and the wires, although repaired several times, did not hold. The runner, as, often has been the case, was the surest messenger. The dump at La Truie Farm had been set on fire by the enemy gunners on the 27th, and had burned merrily for hours, so that had to be refilled.

The afternoon of the 30th, gave the two company commanders time to have a conference with their section leaders and men, and discuss final details. Zero hour was 3.50 a.m., and the 8 officers and 328 other ranks, apart from Headquarters and medical personnel, marched out of Kortepyp Camp at 11.15 p.m. This allowed three hours for the march, one hour to collect the impedimenta of war at Prowse Point and for unforseen delays, and half an hour for rest in the assembly positions before zero. Lieut. W. Pollock had gone ahead to have the bombs and flares ready for the companies as they passed through. The cooks went with him and took up their quarters at Prowse Point. Headquarters had moved up earlier, and had established themselves in the Power Buzzer Dugout by 10.55 p.m. In the early hours of the following morning, the platoons of Wellington-West Coast and Taranaki Companies could be heard moving through Ploegsteert wood and along the slippery duckwalks of St. Yves Avenue and Ultimo Avenue (for it had commenced to rain early in the day) and out to their assembly points at La Truie Sap and Cabaret Road. All were in position by 3 a.m.

The operation turned out a distinct success, although won at the cost of hard fighting. The casualties out of the 8 officers and 328 other ranks, were officers 1 (2nd Lieut. G. Kinvig) killed, and 4 wounded, and other ranks 36 killed and 93 wounded. As usual, many of the casualties were incurred from Artillery fire after the objectives had been gained.

The Ruahine Company had a difficult task. However, Captain Urquhart's scheme of attack was sound, and he displayed great acumen in making alterations of plan page 197necessitated by the changing conditions as the battle in his quarter swayed to and fro, and further he was assisted by Wellington-West Coast Company on his flank at a critical moment. Lieut. H. R. Biss, with No. 15 Platoon, was to clear the railway near the top end of the village and establish posts. His leading section under Corporal W. Bargh, while advancing towards the line, met with heavy fire from a machine-gun planted in the fence along the railway, and, suffering severe casualties, was hung up, in shell-holes. Lieut. Biss himself went forward, leaving his Sergeant, W. Borlase, to bring on the remainder of the platoon, and got into touch with Corporal Bargh. It is a costly operation charging a machine-gun across the open, and, no doubt Lieut. Biss would have been obliged to stalk it, had not a few men from Wellington-West Coast Company, including Corporal L. W. Andrew, worked along the railway. Seeing them, the Germans wavered, and Lieut. Biss, with all his platoon, for Sergt. Borlase had come up, rushed the position and captured two guns. Biss was wounded, but carried on until the post was on the way to consolidation, In the meantime, on his left, Sergt. S. C. Foot led a party from No 13 platoon (2nd Lieut. C. S. Brown) along a hedge and, in spite of continuous machine-gun fire from the railway and from his left flank, established a post. Thus, along the railway we had gained success.

On the other hand, Lieut. C. S. Brown's centre party was almost wiped out in a frontal attack against the hedge where poor Robbie had met his death on the 21st July, Brown himself being wounded. His left party made excellent progress, almost reaching the road by an advance along the Northern hedge; but they too were reduced to three from the rifle and machine-gun fire of the Huns lurking behind their wire. However, the enemy's flank had been turned from the railway, and soon Sergeant Foot noticed they were beginning to trickle back towards Warneton. He immediately sent the best shot he had (Private Stumbles) right round to their northern flank, and both he and Stumbles kept up a rapid fire. Several Germans dropped, page 198and the remainder, totalling twenty-four, held up their hands. Four of them were sent to carry out a wounded Auckland officer, and the remainder escorted to Battalion Headquarters. Before they departed, Sergeant Foot extracted the information that they were part of a Prussian Company garrisoning the hedgerows. They had only taken over the line an hour or two before our attack commenced. Foot then pushed on and established another post in a commanding position. In a concrete dugout he found the Prussian Company Commander's batman, a mere boy, who volunteered the information that the officer had hastily retreated, directly our barrage had opened.

Meanwhile, Captain McKinnon's men had taken the village with a rush, half an hour's work with bomb, rifle and bayonet being sufficient to clear it. This time, the more difficult fighting was encountered in the shell-holes between the railway and the top end of the village, in the buildings there, and in the hedges and ditches nearer the river. Many Germans were killed in these defences, and those that broke and fled were shot as they ran along the river bank or in the open towards Warneton.

Two sections from Wellington-West Coast Company under L.-Cpl. Andrew, were detailed expressly for the destruction of the occupants of the estaminet on the Warneton Road, which had been so troublesome to Sergt. Devery and his men on the 27th. As they moved forward, they found a machine-gun post on the railway line to the north, holding up Ruahine Company. They moved across to this gun, killed several Germans and captured the gun, and so enabled Ruahine Company to continue its advance. They then turned upon their special mission. The machine- gun in the estaminet fired continuously. Andrews and his men moved round to one side, and crouching and crawling their way through a patch of thistles, they crept within striking distance of their prey. They flung a shower of bombs, waited, and then rushed, some of the Germans were killed; others fled towards the river. The gun was ours. While some of his men carried back the captured gun, page 199Andrews himself and Pte. L. R. Ritchie went further afield, in pursuit of the enemy until, some three hundred yards along the road, they came to the Inder Rooster Cabaret, where some Germans were hiding. Besides the Inn our men found a machine-gun post in an open trench. They at once rushed the post, and then turned their attention to the cellars and dugouts which they thoroughly bombed. For his leadership and gallantry that day, Andrew was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first in the Regiment.

This time, the 2nd Battalion was well prepared for counter-attacks. At 5 a.m., the enemy counter-attacked in force, from the direction of Warneton between the river and the road. He was observed at the Inden Rooster and was caught in our S.O.S. barrage. Those that got through our barrage were shot by our Lewis guns and rifles before they could reach our trench.

During the day, La Basse Ville was subjected to an exceptionally severe bombardment. One would hardly believe its defenders could live through it. All McKinnon's officers were killed or wounded (Lieut. J. G. Kinvig had been killed early in the attack), and that brave fellow, Nicol promptly handed over his Stokes guns to his Sergeant and took charge of the front line. Shortly afterwards, at about 3.15 p.m., a party of about fifty of the enemy collected under cover of the river bank and attacked the right flank. Nicol, at the moment, was near the centre of the line, and, taking a few men with him hurried down to the spot. His party grew to ten as he went, and with a shout they left the trench and fell on the enemy with the bayonet. It was estimated that twenty were bayonetted: the remainder fled. It was firmly believed that Lieut. R. K. Nicol's exceptional bravery during the whole of that day, would be marked by the award of the V.C., but, he was rewarded with Military Cross and never was one more gallantly earned. The enemy was not even now prepared to accept defeat, for, at about 7.30 p.m., he was observed by our observation posts, massing near Inden Rooster. The S.O.S. was at once sent up. The enemy came forward in a very determined manner through our barrage to within page 200about 100 yards of our line, when they were dealt with by our Lewis guns and rifle fire.

While these counter-attacks were in progress, the enemy clapped down a heavy barrage on our original front line trenches and posts held by the 1st Battalion, and during these bombardments, Taranaki Company (1st Battalion) in the posts were subjected to very heavy shell fire and sustained several casualties, Lieut. W. T. Doughty in charge of No. 2 Post being killed and 2/Lieut. S. M. Hobbs in charge of No. 3 Post wounded. During the day, in response to an application for reinforcements, Lieut. E. Malone in No. 1 Post sent up ten men of Taranaki Company, under Sergt. Wasley, to 2nd Wellington in La Basse Ville.

On the night of the 31st July, the 1st Battalion relieved the 2nd Battalion in La Basse Ville. It was raining steadily now, and probably no troops ever handed over their responsibilities more cheerfully than the 2nd Battalion did that night. A piping hot meal had been provided for them at Prowse Point, and warm blankets and a comfortable camp awaited them at Kortepyp Happily, Capt, H. M. Goldstein was again able to evacuate all the wounded before withdrawing from his improvised dressing station, not far from Au Chasseur Cabaret.

During the day of 1st August, no further counter- attacks were made by the enemy against 1st Wellington and that night our 1st Battalion was relieved by 2nd Otago, and moved back to billets in Nieppe. It was not very inspiring for 2nd Otago, for nearly two days of steady rain had reduced the trenches to a quagmire and all work and movement were attended with the greatest difficulty.

While the 1st Battalion was in the forward posts, one who showed extraordinary valour was Pte. Daniel Murphy.* On three occasions, he passed through very heavy shell-fire to bring up stretcher-bearers. The last time, though buried by a shell burst, he completed his, errand and, failing to obtain bearers, returned to the shelled area and carried out a badly wounded comrade on his back. During the same period, half the post being destroyed by shell-fire, and all page 201rations with it, Murphy volunteered to go back and bring up food. Finally, when the post was relieved after a terrible ordeal, he remained behind to look after the wounded until stretcher-bearers could be sent up.

During the day we buried Lieut. J. G. Kinvig at Prowse Point Cemetery, the Rev. Mr. Dobson reading the service. Never more would Gordon Kinvig, that sterling athlete, take his place on Wellington football or cricket fields. La Basse Ville claimed many athletes. Here Wellington-West Coast Company lost Sergt. C. Sciascia, M.M., a well known Horowhenua Maori footballer, and a gallant soldier, While, a few days later, that doyen of Maori footballers, Lieut. A. P. Kaipara (Pioneers), was killed in the same locality.

For their services at La Basse Ville, Capt. H. E. McKinnon received a bar to his Military Cross, while Capt. M. Urquhart and Capt. H. M. Goldstein (R.M.O.) were awarded the Military Cross. Company Sergeant Major W. McKean, whose gallant conduct throughout, had been invaluable to Ruahine Company, received the Distinguished Conduct Medal as also did Sergt. S. C. Foot of the same company; and whose gallantry we have already noted; and Pte. J. E. Ryan (Wellington-West Coast Company), a very brave runner who had never spared himself throughout the operation, and had shown the most utter disregard of the intense enemy shelling. Sergt. P. A. Gordon was to receive a bar to his Military Medal for the skill with which he had organised communications and for his own personal bravery and devotion to duty. Corpl. W. H. Jacques was awarded the Military Medal for untiring energy and determination as a stretcher- bearer, while others to be recommended for awards for notable acts of gallantry were:—Corpl. W. Bargh, Sergt. W. W. Borlase, Sergt. A. N. Tod, Pte. A. N. Coombes, Corpl. Alex McCully, Lance-Corpl. O. H. Johnson, Pte. A. J. Steadman, Pte. R. J. Ure, Lance-Corpl. W. C. Hannan, Corpl. E. A. Tuke, Pte. G. H. C. Hart, Pte. A. E. Johnson, Corpl. W. B. Overden, Pte. N. Knight.

* D. Murphy subsequently died at Te Puke.