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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Chapter X. The Enemy in Retreat

page 264

Chapter X. The Enemy in Retreat.

On the 2nd of September the front occupied by the Division extended from a point west of Haplincourt, in the south, to the Fremicourt-Le Bucquiere Road, near Delsaux Farm, in the north. The results of the Battles of Amiens, Bapaume, and the Scarpe rapidly declared themselves, and during the night of September 2nd the enemy fell back rapidly along the whole front of the Third Army and the right of the First Army. By the close of the day he had taken up positions along the general line of the Canal du Nord from Peronne to Ytres, and thence east of Hermies, Inchy-en-Artois, and Eaucourt St. Quentin to the Sensee, east of Lecluse. Plans had been made overnight for the 3rd Brigade and the 317th Brigade, R.F.A., to assist in supporting the 5th Division in an attack to be made shortly after dawn on September 3rd on Delsaux Farm and the high ground east of Beugny, but shortly after the time fixed for the opening of the attack, word was received that the 5th Division had lost touch with the enemy. Practically the same position obtained on the front of the New Zealand Division. Fires were observed behind the enemy's lines during the night and infantry patrols found in the morning that Haplincourt had been evacuated. The 2nd Brigade N.Z.F.A. was at once ordered to move forward, and keep in touch with the 2nd Infantry Brigade; the remaining artillery brigades reverted to the control of Divisional Artillery Headquarters.

The Commander of the 2nd Brigade, whose orders were to push as far forward with the infantry as possible, at once went forward with the infantry Brigade Commander to the latter's new headquarters at Bancourt. There word was received that the infantry had got into touch with the enemy at Bertincourt, and that the advance was temporarily held up by machine guns and 77mm. guns firing at point blank range from near the railway page 265junction north of Ytres. Battery positions were at once reconnoitred, and the brigade, which had been awaiting orders at the rendezvous near Haplincourt, was brought into action in the valley north-west of Bertincourt. The guns were got forward and into action by 2 p.m. In the meantime, the 1st and 317th Brigades had been ordered, shortly after 1 p.m., to take up positions north and east of Haplincourt, and at 2 p.m. the 3rd Brigade was ordered to a position of readiness on the eastern outskirts of Fremicourt. The 123rd Brigade was ordered to rejoin its division. The 2nd Brigade was now covering the forward or outpost line, and the three remaining brigades covered the main line in depth. After the 2nd Brigade batteries had got into position it was found that the infantry had pushed the enemy back to the railway line east of Bertincourt and west of Ytres, and at once fire was brought to bear on this area, driving the enemy back into the village of Ruyaulcourt. As the advance was to be continued next day, arrangements were made overnight for the 2nd Brigade to continue in close support of the infantry, and for the 3rd Brigade to be in a position of assembly, and report to the group commander by 7 a.m. on the 4th. Batteries of the 1st and 317th Brigades were to remain in action, with teams ready at hand for a move.

The Division was now drawing near to Havrincourt Wood, where the close growth and dense foliage provided good cover for enemy machine guns and light field batteries. Havrincourt Wood lay west of the Canal du Nord, but the canal at this point did not offer any obstacle to the Division's progress. North of Ruyaulcourt it ran into a deep tunnel, and continued its course underground for a distance of about five thousand yards, breaking ground again at a point south of Ytres. It was decided that if opposition was met with in Havrincourt Wood it would be turned from the north and south by flanking divisions. The policy to be followed was to keep touch with and engage the enemy's rearguard with the Division's advance guard, but not to undertake any attack on a large scale if strong opposition was encountered. The infantry continued the advance at an early hour on September 4th, and passed through Ruyaulcourt after the guns had dealt with opposition which was encountered east page 266of the village. At 11 a.m., the 3rd Brigade, which had been maintained in its position of assembly pending developments, moved slightly forward to its front and went into action near Bertincourt. The 2nd Brigade batteries effectively dealt with large numbers of the enemy seen advancing towards Neuville shortly after mid-day, as also with enemy machine guns and artillery in Havrincourt Wood. At 3.40 p.m. the enemy was reported to be coming from Havrincourt down into the wood, and the whole area was subjected to intense and searching fire from both field and heavy batteries. At 7.15 p.m. a concentrated barrage was put down on Neuville, and the place was cleared of the enemy.

The headquarters of artillery brigades and battery areas were heavily shelled during the night of September 4-5th, the enemy using high velocity guns and a great quantity of gas shell. Hostile fire remained fairly heavy and continuous throughout the following day. The New Zealand batteries confined their activities to ordinary forms of harassing fire until the evening, when, at the request of the infantry, a strong barrage was put down on the road running north and south on the western edge of Havrincourt Wood. Attacking in the wake of the barrage, the infantry cleared the road, and reached a line skirting the western edge of the wood. During the day all batteries of the 2nd Brigade moved into positions about the railway line south-east of Bertincourt, and the 7th Battery took up a position in front of Ytres.

At midnight on September 5th the IV. Corps front was readjusted to a two-division front, with the New Zealand Division on the right and the 37th Division on the left. The readjustment involved some change respecting the constitution of the Royal Field Artillery Brigades attached to the Division; when the change was completed the artillery supporting the Division consisted of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Brigades, N.Z.F.A.; the 210th and 211th Brigades of the 42nd Divisional Artillery; and the 223rd Brigade of the 63rd Divisional Artillery. The 56th Brigade R.G.A., consisting of three batteries of six-inch howitzers, and one battery of 9.2in. howitzers, was affiliated to the Division. The heavy guns of two other brigades which page 267were primarily employed for counter-battery work and long range harassing fire, could also be called on for bombardment purposes. The 2nd, 3rd, and 210th Brigades, grouped under the 2nd Brigade Commander, covered the three battalions in line; the remaining three field artillery brigades were in divisional reserve, but were maintained in action for S.O.S. purposes, and were available for operations at an approximate range of 4,500 yards from S.O.S. lines.

On the morning of September 6th the Division pushed on to the edge of Havrincourt Wood, and the trench system to the south; a little later reports were received at Artillery Headquarters that the enemy was withdrawing. In the early afternoon the 2nd Brigade, which was acting advance-guard artillery, reported that the enemy was retiring over the high ground towards Metz-en-Couture. The remaining brigades were ordered to reconnoitre positions to cover the trench systems on the eastern outskirts of Havrincourt Wood, Metz and the roads along which the enemy was retiring being vigorously shelled meanwhile. There was practically no hostile fire on artillery areas throughout the day, the indications being that the enemy was making big efforts to get his guns safely away to the rear. Soon after midday, the 2nd Brigade batteries were in action west of Neuville, with an advanced section pushed out on the enemy's side of the village. The enemy appeared to be suffering a certain amount of demoralisation, and shortly before dark the roads north of Gouzeaucourt Wood were black with enemy troops and transport retreating under heavy fire from the corps heavy artillery and the 92nd Brigade, R.G.A. The 1st Brigade had carried out some useful shooting during the day from the positions near Ruyaulcourt which it had occupied early in the morning; by midnight the 3rd Brigade was in action in the neighbourhood of the village.