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The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 - 1919

Chapter XXXVII

page 247

Chapter XXXVII.

The Germans Break Through on the British Front in the South—We Go Down to the Somme— Filling the Gap—Mailly Maillet—Colincamps—Some Hard Fighting.

Ever since December, the British Command had been aware that a mighty thrust by the German Armies would not be long delayed. The difficulty was to know where that thrust would be made. By the end of February, however, there were unmistakeable signs that the enemy's initial attempt would be made against the British Front in the south. It therefore became necessary to withdraw many divisions from the northern Armies and place them at the disposal of the Fifth and Third Armies in the southern sector of the British Front. The New Zealand Division was one of the divisions so held in reserve to be thrown in wherever necessary.

On the 14th March, a warning order had been issued throughout the Division providing for rapid movement in case of emergency. On the 21st March, when the Germans were found to be attacking in such strength on the Somme, the New Zealand Division was ordered to be ready to entrain for the south at short notice. On the 22nd, the Division was under orders to transfer to the Third Army and to start entraining on the afternoon of the 24th. Both 1st and 2nd Wellington entrained at Cassel on the morning of the 25th March. At Ailly-sur-Somme, both battalions detrained. The 1st Battalion bivouaced for the night there, and awaited motor lorries. The 2nd Battalion marched to Pont Camon, bivouacing there at 3 o'clock the following morning. A few hours' rest there, and at 9 a.m. page 248on the 26th, the 2nd Battalion was on the march again. Hedauville was reached at 5 p.m., and the battalion billetted there for the night. By 7.30 a.m. on the 26th, only four motor lorries had materialised for the 1st Battalion, and the Commanding Officer (Major W. F. Narbey) with one Wellington-West Coast Company platoon, five Lewis gun sections and some details, ninety in all, went forward and reported to Divisional Headquarters at Hedauville. The remainder of the 1st Battalion, including Ruahine Company, which had detrained at Amiens, was later conveyed by lorries to Pont Noyelles and then marched to Hedauville, arriving there at about 8.30 p.m. The night was spent in bivouac, ready to move forward at a moment's notice.

Other elements of the New Zealand Division had reached Hedauville early in the day, and had been thrown into the ever-widening gap between the V and IV Corps. The situation was one of the greatest anxiety and danger. At all costs the enemy's advance had to be arrested. The 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade was the first to go into action, moving forward at 6 o'clock in the morning of the 26th March, to be followed later by the two Canterbury Battalions and a machine-gun company.

During the afternoon, 1st and 2nd Auckland, 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, and a machine-gun company had arrived, and, at 5.30 p.m., this force went into action under the command of General Melvill, advancing north and south of the Serre Road.

On the night of the 26th, a serious gap in the line between the New Zealand and the 4th Australian Divisions near Hebuterne was reported to the New Zealand Division. It was vital to fill this gap without delay. By this time, further troops had arrived at Hedauville, viz, 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade, 2nd Wellington, 2nd Otago, 1st Wellington and 1st Otago. 2nd Wellington was the only Battalion thrown into the action which had not the assistance of transport by motor bus from the detraining point. The more rested troops, comprising the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade,page break
Support Line near Colincamps.

Support Line near Colincamps.

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Dinner at Solesmes.

Dinner at Solesmes.

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2nd Battalion Headquarters' officers at Estaires.Left to Right—Standing: Capt. H. M. Goldstein, Medical Officer; 2nd Lt. R. L. King, Signal Officer; 2nd Lt. F. c. Chaytor, Lewis Gun Officer; 2nd Lieut. A.A. Browne, Quartermaster; Lt. H. Simmonds, intelligence officer.Seated: Major W.H. Fletcher, 2nd in Command; Lt.-Col. W. H. Cunningham, commanding; Lt. C.A. L Treadwell, Adjutant.

2nd Battalion Headquarters' officers at Estaires.
Left to Right—Standing: Capt. H. M. Goldstein, Medical Officer; 2nd Lt. R. L. King, Signal Officer; 2nd Lt. F. c. Chaytor, Lewis Gun Officer; 2nd Lieut. A.A. Browne, Quartermaster; Lt. H. Simmonds, intelligence officer.
Seated: Major W.H. Fletcher, 2nd in Command; Lt.-Col. W. H. Cunningham, commanding; Lt. C.A. L Treadwell, Adjutant.

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Our Field kitchens near Grevillers.

Our Field kitchens near Grevillers.

page 2492nd Wellington and 2nd Otago were at once formed into a composite force under Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart and ordered to extend the line northwards up the. Hebuterne Road. 1st, Wellington and 1st Otago were to remain in divisional reserve for the time being.

At 1 a.m. on the 27th, Col. Stewart's force left Hedauyille and marched through Mailly Maillet reachingColin- camps at 4 a.m. Here 2nd Otago was thrown mil as a screen to protect the advance of 2nd Wellington and the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade. The two latter battalions rested a little in the shelter of the buildings, and then at daybreak moved forward, covered by advance and flank guards, with 2nd Wellington on the right and 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade on the left, towards Hebuterne. 2nd Wellington advanced with Taranaki Company on the right, Ruahine Company on the left, Wellington-West Coast Company in support and Hawkes Bay Company in reserve. On the left, the 3rd Rifles met with but little resistance. On the right, 2nd Wellington ran right into enemy machine-guns firing from near La Signy Farm. During the operation, Wellington- West Coast Company (Capt. A. G. Melles, M.C. attacked an enemy post, killing 14 and capturing I officer and 52 other ranks, Lieut. J. T. Thomas doing great work, and showing a fine personal example. Enemy machine-guns forbade further progress, and 2nd Wellington was obliged to dig in 400 yards short of its objective, the Hebuterne Road. Touch was, however, established with the battalions on both flanks and the gap in the line filled.

The enemy made numerous attacks against the New Zealand line during (the day (27th) and, striking against its position about 7 o'clock in the evening, on a front of 1500 yards mid-way between the refinery and Hebuterne, 2nd Wellington was forced to give ground. Hawkes Bay Company (Captain G. H. Hume, M.C.) which had lain in reserve all day, was now called upon to counter-attack. That company advanced shortly before, 9 p.m.; but, hardly had it gone any distance at all, than it ran into a large party of the enemy armed with machine-guns. Hawkes Bay page 250fought well, killing about sixty of the enemy and capturing five machine-guns; but that company's own casualties were heavy, and it was unable to re-establish 2nd Wellington's line, ln this counter-attack, three officers of Hawkes Bay Company, viz., Lieuts. J. K. E. Jackson, D. H. Donaldson and E. C. Clifton were, wounded, while earlier in the day, Lieut. D. L. Robertson (Wellington-West Coast Company) had been killed. Altogether 2nd Wellington that day had the following casualties; 4 officers, 69 other ranks. Lieut. Jackson died of wounds the following day to the great grief of the whole Regiment. Poor old Stonewall! Starting as a private in the Main Body, he had had a long innings. It was a queer thing. Some went into action supremely confident, only to be struck down before they had gone five yards; others had a presentment that death was near. For months, yea years, Jackson had flirted with death: he had laughed at shells: scoffed at bullets. Yet in the train going down to the Somme, the gay and debonair "Jacko" was quiet and thoughtful. He made no secret of it; he felt he would be killed. And so it was to be. We shall not hear his merry sallies again: nor see him play cricket or football: nor watch him box; nor cheer him on in a cross country race. Still he will never grow old in our memory.

Late in the afternoon of the 27th, 1st Wellington marched two miles to Mailly Maillet, going into Brigade Reserve in billets there, relieving 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade.

Early in the morning of the 28th, 2nd Wellington was relieved by 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade and moved back into Divisional Reserve near Courcelles. After dark that evening, 1st Wellington relieved 1st Auckland in the line. There was spasmodic shelling over the whole front; otherwise, next day was quiet. A curious thing happened here. While the ration limbers were being unloaded at the Sugar Refinery they were shelled, and one of them, loaded with rations and bombs, bolted along the road leading to Colincamps via Euston, which was held by the enemy. It was page 251not stopped until it reached Colincamps, from where it was brought back to 1st Wellington's headquarters.

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the 30th (Easter Sunday), 1st Wellington co-operated with 2nd Auckland on its left in an attack on certain high ground with a view to improving the position north of the Serre Road.

Taranaki Company stood fast. Wellington-West Coast Company in the centre, and Ruahine Company on the left, advanced their line with complete success from One Tree Hill on the right, to the southernmost point of the hedge on the high ground just above the Serre Road. Sergeant R. Hatton led a party three times against an enemy post before capturing it. On. the left flank, Lieut. F. E. Ashby's platoon was faced by a position held by a force of forty or fifty Germans and six machine-guns. Ashby organised bombing attacks and then led his men with splendid dash in final rush which captured the machine-guns and twenty-five prisoners. Our whole attack was successful. Seventy-four prisoners and twenty-two machine-guns were captured, while our casualties were, two officers wounded, twenty others ranks killed, fifty-five wounded, and three missing. During the consolidation of the captured position, the enemy was seen twice concentrating for a counterattack; but each time his parties were broken up by our artillery fire. Once the enemy tried to bring a machine-gun into action; but Sergeant M. Macaskill, at once, rushed the gun and put it out of action, killing all the team, and by his prompt and courageous action preventing many casualties.

In the centre, 2nd Auckland was equally successful, and four platoons from 2nd Wellington were placed at the disposal o£ that battalion for carrying purposes and as a battalion reserve.

On the left, however, the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade met determined opposition and, only after hard fighting all day, did the enemy fall back under cover of darkness.

page 252

With our 1st Battalion, the night passed quietly. The weather turned very wet; but, although the going was heavy, all wounded were clear by 3 a.m.

Major F. K. Turnbull, M.C., now took temporary command of the 2nd Battalion, vice Lieut.-Col. J. L. Short, who left for England on duty, and, on the 31st March, that battalion moved into the line at La Signy Farm, relieving 2nd Auckland.