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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Armentieres

Armentieres.

Armentieres, where it had been decided the Division should serve its apprenticeship on the Western Front, had for long been a quiet sector, undisturbed by any of the fierce contests which had raged along other parts of the long battle front. It was a good breaking-in ground for a Division which had seen no previous fighting, and it was a suitable place in which to "spell" a Division which had been heavily engaged. The New Zealand Division, fully reinforced and rested and strengthened after its hard but splendid service on Gallipoli, came to France confident in its strength and vigour, and eager to prove its quality in the new arena; but there was yet much to be learned of the complexities of a system of warfare which, new in itself, was subject to changes almost every day. Without this necessarily accurate knowledge and the perfection and thoroughness of organisation insistently demanded as a primary condition of success, valour and endurance would avail but little.

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The Sector on which the New Zealand Division first went into Action on the Western Front

The Sector on which the New Zealand Division first went into Action on the Western Front

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The Division was now attached to the 1st Anzac Corps as part of the Second Army, commanded by General Sir Herbert Plumer and about the middle of May orders were received to move up to Armentieres to relieve the 17th Division in the line. Artillery units made a two days' trek of the journey from the billeting area to Armentieres, and experienced fair enough weather, although it was still somewhat cold. Batteries had previously sent forward by motor 'bus small advance parties, who had quartered for a week with the outgoing batteries, and whose business it had been to familiarise themselves with the area covered by the guns of the battery they were to relieve, with the location of its observation posts, the system of communications, and all else that was essential. The relief was completed between the 16th and 19th of May, the greater part of it being carried out in daylight. Command of the artillery on the sector passed to New Zealand Divisional Artillery Headquarters at 10 a.m. on May 19th.

The new guns which had been drawn at Havre were not retained, but were handed over to the outgoing batteries, whose guns were taken over as they stood in the pits. This system of exchange, though often rendered necessary by circumstances, never came to be acceptable to the New Zealand gunners.

The 6,500 odd yards of front line trenches which constituted the sector was held by the New Zealand Infantry in two sections. At the outset the 1st Infantry Brigade held the right sector and the 2nd Infantry Brigade the left sector, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade being in divisional reserve. For artillery support purposes the front was divided into three zones, right, centre, and left, each being covered by an Artillery Group. The 4th Brigade, as such, did not go into the line, its three batteries having been, apportioned one to each group. Thus the Right Group, commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Sykes, consisted of the 2nd Brigade and the 10th Battery; the Centre Group, commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Symon, of the 1st Brigade and the 8th Battery; and the Left Group, under Lieut.-Colonel Standish, of the 3rd Brigade and the 14th Battery. Lieut.-Colonel Falla, being thus without a command, was entrusted with the charge of the Divisional page 108Artillery Intelligence branch. This work was carried out in conjunction with a Field Survey Company, and as it included the collection and recording of all data which could be of use to brigade and battery commanders, especially as regards the positions of hostile guns, it naturally had a strong influence upon the effectiveness of the Division's shooting.

In attempting to describe the conditions at Armentieres the first thing that might be said, so far at least as the artillery were concerned, is that they in no sense approximated to anything that had been expected or imagined. All preconceived notions relative to the place and the people under the existing conditions of war were dispelled on a first introduction to the new environment. After the active preliminaries of taking over the positions had been completed, attention was at once held by the calm, philosophic, but yet active and businesslike attitude of mind with which the people had accepted the conditions that suddenly confronted them. Nothing in the experiences of active warfare afforded a study so impressive and in many respects so interesting. The mind does not readily associate peaceful agrarian industry with the activities of war; but here in the open country, day by day, entirely regardless, or perhaps utterly oblivious, of danger, were the peasantry, men and boys too old or too young for war service, and even women, engaged in the labour of the fields in front of the British gun positions, and within close range of the guns of a merciless enemy.

Armentieres before the war was a fair-sized and busy manufacturing town, with a population of about thirty thousand, drab and uninteresting in many ways, and wearing an air of industry rather than of affluence. But what a contrast between this and that other theatre of war in which the Division had last figured—between Armentieres and Anzac. Gallipoli was bare, barren, and unpeopled, an inhospitable place in which the heat and cold and all the attendant hardships of the campaign were suffered without any of the alleviations which contact with a civilised community offers. In leisure times at Armentieres the soldier could go shopping, though the selection was limited and prices were high, and before returning to the guns or the billet enjoy afternoon tea, page 109or sit in one of the numberless little estaminets and drink the pale beer or vin ordinaire which formed their stock-in-trade. At odd places in the Square and in the principal streets shopkeepers still plied their business, estaminets kept their doors open, subject to restrictions imposed by the military authorities, and did a brisk trade in the evening, when many of the troops in the town were freed from duty. Still more venture-some were others, women mostly, who kept their estaminets open at Houplines and across the Pont de la Targette, almost within sight of the German lines, and within easy range of their light field guns. These had escaped the occasional shellings which the town had undergone; but many of them were to pay dearly for their boldness in later days, when the town was subjected to savage bombardments by the enemy. In the meantime, however, they were led into an assumption of deceptive security by the periods of immunity which they had enjoyed in the past. For long the sector had been extremely quiet, little or no aggressiveness being displayed by the artillery on either side. The advent of the New Zealand Division, however, was marked by the institution of a policy of active shooting which had as its only limitations the exigencies of the ammunition supply. Even in the early days at Armentieres the expenditure of gun ammunition seemed prodigal after the jealous manner in which supplies had been husbanded at Anzac; but the question of ammunition supply was, no doubt, still a cause of concern and anxiety to the High Command.

The first duty of battery commanders on taking over their new positions was to register the enemy front line and all salient points within their group zone, and also an S.O.S. line on which a barrage could be laid down at any point on the Divisional front threatened by the enemy. Measures of defence having thus been decided on, a policy of active shooting was at once adopted. Exercises in concerted shooting were carried out with the dual purpose of obtaining proficiency in their execution and of harassing the enemy. One of the first of such shoots was the bombardment of a building reputed to be an enemy headquarters, by two Artillery Groups, each battery firing fifty rounds of high explosive. Whether headquarters page 110or otherwise, the place had certainly been a centre of much activity, with many comings and goings; and after the welter of smoke and dust which shrouded it during the shooting had slowly drifted away it was seen to have suffered very severely, and was never again so much frequented. A programme of retaliatory fire was drawn up by Groups and distributed to batteries for use when required. This programme comprised a list of selected targets, each lettered for purposes of reference, and all carefully registered, upon one of which fire was promptly opened when the enemy's artillery became too active on any part of our forward areas. The method often worked quite well; but on occasions it provoked heavy bursts of shelling and counter-shelling. The enemy made no attempt to conceal his annoyance at this disturbance of his comparative quiet. He shelled the town, even battered the churches, and very assiduously he sought out the battery positions. Here it became a game of hide and seek with much at stake. Concealment was a battery's chief protection, for once a position was definitely located few of the gun-pits or shelters could withstand the impact of the heavy shells which were used in counter-battery work.

The study of the art of camouflage was at that time more or less in its infancy, but the majority of the battery positions in and around Armentieres were placed in positions which themselves afforded a good deal of concealment. As activity became more marked, both as regards normal shooting and the preparation and support for the frequent raids by the infantry, so the enemy developed his counter-battery work, and redoubled his efforts to reconnoitre positions by aeroplane, or to pick up the gun-flashes by balloon observation. The aeroplanes were the most to be feared. The balloon observer, riding high in the blue miles behind his own front line, could do little more than locate gun flashes; but the flying men, swooping through the frantic shelling of the anti-aircraft guns, could see a good deal, and, more dangerous still, carry away photographs, to be enlarged and microscopically examined by experts. To reduce the risks from this quarter a look-out was kept on duty at battery positions from break of day till dark. Equipped with binoculars and whistle he carefully scanned page 111the sky for any signs of hostile aircraft, and gave shrill warning of their approach. On this warning signal of three blasts all movement would be suspended, and even shooting would cease if it were not of vital importance. The enemy scouts were apparently seldom challenged by our own 'planes, at least on that particular sector at any rate, and were consequently able to practice all manner of ruses, as for instance, making wide detours in order to approach from an unexpected quarter, or planing down from the distant clouds with their engines shut off.

The enemy was very thorough in his methods once he had marked his quarry, but the fact that these methods seldom varied was the saving of many lives. First came a deliberate and careful registration by aeroplane; so deliberate that there was generally ample time to withdraw the crews to a flank before the range was found and the "5.9's" which he favoured so much for this work began to stream in. The protecting fire, which might have been expected on these occasions from the heavy artillery in rear, was never available when it was most required—another consequence of the compulsory economy in ammunition. A bombardment of a battery position would last several hours, and if the range were effective would wreck pits and shelters and turn order and strength into chaos and ruin; but direct hits on the guns were extraordinarily few, and batteries were never put completely out of action. During the fiercest shelling communication was always maintained with Group Headquarters, from either the usual control post or an improvised one, and the personnel were always ready to man the guns on an emergency call. In the three months in which the Division held the sector battery after battery was shelled out by the enemy heavy guns; immunity was enjoyed by none, and often the shelling was so destructive that the pits and shelters had to be rebuilt or fresh positions sought. As instancing the persistence of these efforts to destroy the guns, the 3rd Battery positions was subjected to a three hours' bombardment from batteries of 77's, 4.2's, and 5.9 howitzers on the morning of July 9th. Over 2,000 rounds were dropped in and around the position. Three men were killed and seven wounded, but only one gun was put out of page 112action, despite this terrible hail of shells. Attempts to locate the hostile batteries were unsuccessful. A British 'plane went up to reconnoitre and the firing ceased; but anti-aircraft fire forced the 'plane down with a broken wing, and the shelling recommenced with added fury.

Apart from the repairing of positions damaged by shell fire, or work on reserve positions which batteries had been ordered to construct, a great deal of energy was directed towards the strengthening of gun pits and the provision of better storage for ammunition, as well as in making the shelters for the crews safer and more habitable. Some diversity of opinion existed at that time as to the type of pit or shelter which would best stand the concussion of a heavy shell; the chief ambition seemed to be to devise something that would withstand the smashing impact of a 5.9in. howitzer shell. Handbooks on the subject were issued for the guidance of battery commanders; but the confidence which they expressed in various types of shelters was not always shared by the people who had to put these theories into practice.

The pits at Armentieres were of the two designs then most commonly followed. Two stout cupolas of heavy corrugated iron locked together in an arch and built over with sandbags to a good depth and width formed a fair shelter which could be further improved by a layer of "bursters" of concrete blocks. The bursters, of course, were designed to detonate the shell before it had penetrated, and so lessen its disruptive effect. More interior space was afforded by the square pit in which the roof of iron rails, sandbags, and bursters was supported by stout pit-props. In addition, the sandbag outer walls could be built high enough to support another superimposed roof, constructed in the same manner as the first roof, but raised sufficiently to leave an air space between the two, which, it was thought, would absorb much of the concussion of the bursting shell. In carrying out constructive work, whether on new or established positions, consideration had always to be given to the vital question of concealment, and obviously too many liberties could not be taken with positions that were more or less in the open. To alter their appearance substantially would be to court destruction.

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Batteriess were situated in all manner of places: in halfruined dwelling houses, in factories in which they fired through the doors or camouflaged breaches in the walls, and in some back gardens of houses on the outskirts of the town. One 4.5in. howitzer battery for some time had its guns set just inside the big cemetery on the west side of the river, while an 18pr. battery had a gun dug right in under the railway embankment on the river's edge.

The country behind the line offered few natural advantages for observation, being flat and featureless. For shooting on the enemy front line or for wire-cutting, observation was naturally from the front line or support trenches, but observation posts there gave a restricted view, and were of little use for engaging targets at any considerable range. For this work recourse was had to the upper stories of buildings, or to one of the tall chimney stacks which stood in groups among the factory buildings in Houplines. This elevated post was gained by means of a perilous climb up the iron rungs set inside the chimney. To the uninitiated it was a trying experience. One seemed to be climbing for hours in a darkness as profound as night, and the slender rungs set at generous intervals rattled disconcertingly in the bricks. A small trapdoor gave on to the platform set just below the chimney top, and from there, seated on a stool, with his map on his knees and the telephonist at his elbow, the observer could command through peepholes set in the wall of the chimney a wonderful stretch of enemy country. Here at night, also, a sentry was posted to give instant warning over the telephone of the S.O.S. rocket from the Division's own lines. Doubtless the enemy suspected the existence of these eyries; sometimes he shelled them, and at least one observer suffered the experience of having the chimney beneath him "holed" by a shell which struck it as he sat aloft directing the fire of his guns.

The trenches taken over by the infantry on coming into the line had been in such a bad condition that a tremendous amount of labour had had to be expended in effecting an improvement; but this had not been allowed to interfere with a policy of unchanging aggression which found expression in page 114many ways. Chief amongst them were the frequent raids made on the enemy's trenches, the almost invariable success which attended these ventures being in a certain measure due to the preliminary preparation by the trench mortars and artillery, and to their support during the operations. Of all the forms of minor aggression practised in trench warfare, raiding is one of the most hazardous, but yet the most profitable in its results if carried to a successful issue.

The issue of a raid depends on many factors, each vital to success, but none more vital than the human factor—the quality of the men who go over. The New Zealand infantryman possessed the qualities that make the ideal raider. He was disciplined and composed under shell-fire; he had initiative and intelligence to meet emergencies; and he had an adroitness and strength and desperate courage that made him feared at close quarters. The raiding party was always carefully selected, and the men were thoroughly schooled in their task. They were familiarised with every detail of the locality to be raided, and careful instruction and rehearsal made each individual perfectly familiar with his part in the scheme. From the outset the planning of the raid was marked by the closest co-operation between the infantry and artillery staffs, and detailed orders as to wire cutting and barrages were issued to Artillery Groups and the Divisional Trench Mortar officer. The registering of the guns was usually carried out as quietly as possible a day or two before the raid, every effort being made to avoid rousing the enemy's suspicions. Most of the wire-cutting was done by the trench mortars, assisted by the 18prs. The usual scheme of support provided for the barraging by both 18prs. and 4.5in. howitzers of the portion of trench to be raided, a vigorous bombardment under cover of which the infantry crept out from their own lines, their faces blackened, and some of them carrying knives, knobkerries, or such other weapons as seemed most suitable for close fighting in a trench. At the appointed time the barrage lifted, and the raiders rushed the trench, while the guns laid down a semi-circular curtain of fire about the scene of operations, closing all avenues of support for the raided enemy. Fire was maintained until groups had been notified of the page 115raiding party's safe withdrawal. A howitzer battery from the group or groups supporting the raid was usually detailed for counter-battery work, and further to neutralize the enemy batteries known positions were engaged before and during a raid by the corps' heavy artillery.

The tactics employed on these occasions were naturally varied at times in order that the enemy might not be able to anticipate what was coming. On the occasion of a raid undertaken by the Pioneer Battalion, eager to emulate the achievements of the infantrymen, it was decided to have no artillery support during the raid, but to create a diversion at another point in the enemy's line. During this diversion, created by the Centre Group, the raiders proceeded to cross No Man's Land. The guns and howitzers of the Left Group were laid to cover them but the gunners awaited the ascent of a green rocket as the signal to fire. Apparently the raiders had some difficulty in clearing the enemy wire, which had been cut during the afternoon by 18prs. and trench mortars. On finally passing through the last belt the disposition of the enemy in some force on either flank led the raiders to suspect a trap, and they withdrew without casualties, calling on the Left Group to fire immediately they were inside their own wire. The soaring green rocket was answered by a simultaneous crash from the waiting batteries, and the enemy, who had been clearly visible from the trenches at one time, were believed to have suffered heavy casualties.

It could hardly be expected that a uniform degree of success could attend enterprises of this nature against an enemy who was himself brave and skilful, and strongly backed by artillery. Sometimes also the raiders found that the gaps in the broad belts of wire protecting the enemy's trenches had been imperfectly cut, or that repairs had been carried out under cover of darkness. There were risks and contingencies which it was not possible to provide against. A raid attempted by the 1st Battalion Otago Regiment on July 13th failed because of the totally unexpected and withering fire which the enemy brought to bear on the party, and which heavy guns were quite unable to neutralize. All three groups of page 116artillery lent their support. The Centre Group directly supported the raiders; Right Group was engaged in counter-battery work; and the batteries of the Left Group were given counter-battery work, the engagement of any searchlights used by the enemy, and the shelling of his trenches north of the point to be raided. Hostile batteries responded very promptly to signals for assistance sent up by the German infantry, and their heavy shelling was supplemented by the fire of a number of machine guns, which batteries were unable to locate and silence. Over twenty active enemy batteries were "spotted," and no possible disposition of the means at the disposal of the C.R.A. could have succeeded in appreciably reducing their fire. It was during this raid that Captain J. L. H. Turner, M.C., Commanding 4th (Howitzer) Battery, was killed while fighting his Battery. The guns had been dragged from the pits into the open in order to obtain the necessary switch, and during the height of the firing the enemy sprayed the position with shrapnel. Captain Turner was the first battery commander in the New Zealand Division to lose his life. Command of the battery passed to Captain D. E. Gardner.

The observation balloons which the enemy kept up all day long behind his lines when the weather conditions were favourable were a source of anxiety and annoyance to everyone, and it is hardly necessary to say that an organised attempt to destroy them made by the R.F.C. on the afternoon of June 25th was watched with an eager and sympathetic interest. At 3.30 p.m. all guns stood by ready to engage hostile antiaircraft batteries which might endeavour to impede the effort. The only batteries reported active, however, were in the areas to be covered by the heavy artillery and the guns of the 2nd Australian Divisional Artillery. On our own front the attack was very successful, three of the balloons being set on fire and destroyed.

At the beginning of July, orders were issued for the five batteries of the Centre Group to withdraw and relieve eight batteries on the left of the 2nd Australian Division, the Right and Left Groups to be responsible each for half of the Centre Group zone. On the night of the 2nd July the guns of four page 117batteries of the Centre Group were withdrawn and handed over to the 2nd Australian Division, whose guns in position were taken over by the New Zealand gunners. The following night the procedure was completed in the case of the remaining battery, but the change-over was not allowed to pass uneventfully. A bombardment by the enemy of the Epinette trenches shortly after 10 p.m. heralded the advance of a small raiding party. Some confusion might possibly have been caused by the fact that the raid occurred on the zone which had just been taken over from the Centre Group; but, fortunately, on the commencement of the enemy's barrage battery commanders had made their dispositions in anticipation of the orders which were immediately issued, and within a couple of minutes from the enemy's first round a barrage had been put down. Simultaneously the enemy opened fire on Armentieres with guns and howitzers of all calibres, ranging up to 21 c.m. The heavy artillery were at once called on, and responded by counter-battery work and strengthened the barrage by shelling the enemy's supports. The town was subjected to heavy shelling, and the 11th Heavy Artillery Group retaliated by firing round for round into Lambersart; but it was early morning before the normal quiet of the night had settled down on the sector again. Such heavy bursts of shelling on the town itself were fortunately not of frequent occurrence, though about this time the enemy's artillery was being more than ordinarily active, and there was no indication that the desperate fighting on the Somme had caused the withdrawal of any of his guns from the front. The activity which had characterised the Division's holding of the sector doubtless formed a good argument against any such step.

A number of raids were carried out during July, and though they were generally successful, at least one was most disastrous in its results. This was the raid previously referred to, by the 1st Otago Battalion on the 13th of the month. On the occasion of a raid by the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade on the following night, supported by the Right Group, two mortars of "Z" Battery, and the 5th, 6th, 9th, and 10th Batteries, the raiders, 100 strong, successfully rushed the enemy trenches, but found them obliterated by artillery fire, page 118the dug-outs destroyed, a good many dead Germans but none living. Two raids were undertaken on the night of July 19th, one by the Rifle Brigade and the other by the 1st Infantry Brigade, some guns and howitzers of the 2nd Corps Heavy Artillery being specially placed under the command of the Division in order to assist in the counter-battery work during the night. These operations were undertaken in order to give support to the Corps on the south in connection with an attack by the 5th Australian Division. Gas and smoke were to have been employed, but, as on previous occasions, the wind was not favourable. The raiders were successful in entering the trenches but found them unoccupied. Little more than an hour later a small party of the enemy entered the trenches at the Rue de Bois Salient, after exploding a mine, which buried about a dozen men. They were driven out by the 3rd Battalion Rifle Brigade, leaving two dead and one wounded behind. Through the night, and up to 3.20 a.m., the Left Group fired salvoes at the enemy's roads and billets; and on the following night the enemy's front line opposite the Rue de Bois Salient was subjected to a destructive bombardment as a form of retaliation for his action in blowing up trenches. Engaged in this shoot were the 106th Siege Battery, 2nd Corps Heavy Artillery, 15th (How.) Battery, and "Y." Trench Mortar Battery, and their combined fire was reported to have been at once accurate and effective.

Recognition of the work of the artillery of the Division on these occasions was contained in the following message sent by the G.O.C. of the Division, Major-General Russell, to Brig.-General Johnston:—

"Please convey to your officers and men the appreciation of the infantry and myself of their work in connection with the raids undertaken by the Division. They have by their good shooting earned the implicit confidence of those whom they support."

The concluding days of the month were quiet on both sides so far as artillery work was concerned. During the night of the 23rd-24th July the 11th Australian Field Artillery Brigade came in to strengthen the artillery on the front, and a week page 119later an order was issued containing instructions for the reduction of the area held by the Division to the original front from Pear Tree Farm to the River Lys. The 11th Australian Brigade, less one battery, was withdrawn from the line on August 4th, and about the same time the 18th Divisional Artillery moved into unoccupied emplacements on our right. The 4th Brigade batteries returned to the command of Lieut.-Colonel N. S. Falla.

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 they came to be regarded as an indispensable factor in almost every enterprise undertaken by the Division. Three batteries in all, X., Y., and Z., each equipped with four medium weight mortars firing a 60lb. 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 was—had obvious advantages over the cutting of the wire by 18prs. 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 of trench being raided, or by creating a diversion at another point. The work was arduous, involving a great deal of hard physical labour; fresh 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. The gunners were usually relieved each week, spending a week in the line and a week in billets.

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When the Division went to the Somme the trench mortars were not required in the line, and the officers were, therefore, in most cases temporarily attached to various batteries, the gunners being distributed between the batteries and the Divisional Ammunition Column, or employed on ammunition dumps. Both officers and men returned to their batteries when the Division left the Somme area, and in the sector to which it then proceeded the mortars carried out a great deal of active shooting.