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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

A Diversion

A Diversion.

The 2nd (Army) Brigade was withdrawn from the front of the New Zealand Division on September 15th, in consequence of orders having been received the previous day instructing the Brigade to be prepared to move to a new area under the V. Corps. The Brigade was on the march on the 16th, moving during the afternoon to new waggon lines which had been reconnoitred that morning south of Equancourt. Batteries were settled down in their new quarters by 6 p.m., but the night was disturbed by heavy enemy bombing and shelling. One man was killed, and about twenty others were either wounded or gassed. Orders had been received that the brigade was to be grouped in action with the 95th Brigade, R.F.A., and so on the morning of September 17th, gun positions were selected south-east of Heudecourt. As these positions were within plain view of the enemy in his trenches only five hundred yards away, arrangements were made to move the batteries in under cover of darkness. The guns were got up, and positions were stocked before dawn with 300 rounds per gun and 250 rounds per howitzer. Operation orders had been received detailing the part to be played by the brigade in assisting to support an attack to be made on the morning of the 18th by the 21st Division, and final preparations for this attack were completed in the early hours of the morning. Meanwhile battery positions were being heavily shelled with gas and high explosive, the 2nd and 5th Batteries suffering most severely. The brigade fired in the barrage, behind which the infantry advanced and took all their objectives, and spent the remainder of the day in harassing various points on the enemy's front. The following day an observing officer was sent forward to the infantry holding the line in front of Villers-Guislain, with permission to employ the fire of the whole brigade, if necessary. Observation was good, and there was a tremendous amount of movement behind page 284the enemy's front. This was engaged with brigade fire throughout the day, and though a great deal of ammunition was expended, its effect was such as to evoke enthusiastic comment from the infantry commander whose troops the brigade was supporting. Batteries withdrew to their waggon lines the same evening, and spent September 20th in cleaning up equipment and vehicles.

On September 21st, at 2.30 p.m., the Brigade was ordered to move northwards into the Lagnicourt area under the XVII. Corps, where it would be attached to the 40th Divisional Artillery. The column moved out about 7 p.m., and marching via Bus, Beugny, and Morchies arrived at its waggon lines in the new area north of Lagnicourt about daybreak. The Brigade was attached to the 57th Division for administration, but was tactically under the command of Headquarters, 40th Divisional Artillery. Positions were reconnoitred and stocked with ammunition, but were not occupied until the evening of September 25th. The brigade was to support an attack by the 57th Division on September 27th, and as it was required to advance its guns during the course of the barrage, forward positions were selected immediately in rear of the front line. After dawn on the 25th, all batteries essayed to get two hundred rounds per battery on to these forward positions, but when a total of six' hundred rounds had been dumped the enemy attacked under cover of a heavy barrage, and teams had to get clear of the area at the gallop. They returned at dusk, however, and succeeded in dumping 1,800 rounds on to the position, a performance which was regarded with a great deal of satisfaction, as the ammunition had to be taken almost to the front line.

Zero hour on the 27th was at 5.20 a.m., and after firing in the barrage until 5.50 a.m., one section from each battery moved forward, the remaining guns increasing their rate of fire. The route over which the guns had to advance was being heavily shelled, and before the sections had got into action one man had been killed and eight wounded. Notwithstanding this, the four sections were in action by 6.30 a.m., and as soon as they opened fire the remainder of the brigade advanced at the trot. Heavy page 285hostile shelling still persisted, but by 7.50 a.m. the whole brigade was in action, and firing in the barrage of the second phase of the attack. The infantry were held up on the Canal du Nord by heavy machine gun fire, so the engineers were not able to commence the cutting of passages for the advance of the artillery until about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The Brigade Commander, accompanied by his battery commanders, reconnoitred positions west of Anneux, several thousand yards east of the Canal, but orders were received that in the meantime the brigade would remain in its positions in defence of the Canal. Shortly before midnight orders were received that the brigade would rendezvous east of the Canal on the following morning.

The brigade was early on the move next morning, and by 6 o'clock was at its rendezvous east of the Canal. Instructions were then received that the brigade was attached to the 89th Infantry Brigade of the 63rd Division, which was to pass through the troops of the 57th Division after they had gained their objective by crossing the Escault Canal. Two officers of the brigade were sent out to reconnoitre the route forward, and, if possible, report on the Canal crossings. At 8.30 a.m. word was received from the reconnaissance party that the infantry had not succeeded in crossing the Canal. After a conference of infantry and artillery Brigade Commanders with the G.O.C. 63rd Division, the brigade was ordered to rendezvous west of Anneux, and very shortly after got into action in the valley south of Fontaine-Notre-Dame. The 63rd Division, however, whose attack the brigade was to support, found that the 57th Division had not taken the Escault Canal, and therefore decided to await developments. Meanwhile the Brigade Commander endeavoured to obtain permission to open fire on the eastern side of the Canal, and drive the enemy from his positions, but the brigade was not allowed to fire. Later in the afternoon the 5th Battery got two guns into action, and engaged enemy movement on the Cambrai-Masnieres Road. Shortly afterwards the brigade received orders to bring its guns into action in the valley south of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, and a barrage was put down just east of the canal; this barrage was repeated after a brief interval, but the infantry were unable to force the passage of the Canal.

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The Canal was eventually crossed under cover of barrage fire at half-past six the following morning, and some hours later the infantry were observed making their way up the slopes towards the Cambrai-Masnieres Road. The 9th Battery sent one gun forward to engage any fleeting targets, and carried out some effective shooting. The bridge across the Canal was badly damaged, and was still being bombed and shelled by the enemy; the Brigade Commander crossed the Canal to reconnoiter positions for the batteries, but was driven back by machine gun fire after having advanced a short distance on the eastern banks. Two battery commanders were wounded during the day—Major R. A. Wilson, 6th Battery, and Major A. B. Williams, 5th Battery. Command of the 6th Battery passed to Captain L. Gardner, and of the 5th Battery to Captain W. H. Jones.

The advance did not progress very rapidly on the 30th; the artillery carried out heavy harassing fire during the day, and fired a barrage at 5.30 p.m., but the infantry were unable to make any headway. The brigade moved its guns forward about a thousand yards during the afternoon, and brought 250 rounds per gun on to the new positions.

On October 1st the brigade was transferred to the 57th Division which took over the line from the 63rd Division. By evening only four guns, from the 40th Divisional Artillery, had been moved forward across the Canal, but ultimately they were withdrawn, as no positions could be found for them where they could clear the steep crest which flanked the Canal banks on the eastern side. The brigade carried out normal shooting during following days, and at dawn on October 5th withdrew to the rest area in the valley east of Louverval. Some casualties had been suffered the previous day by heavy shelling of gun and waggon lines, extending throughout the afternoon and late into the night, and necessitating the withdrawal of the waggon lines to the Sugar Factory on the main Cambrai Road.

The brigade's rest was of the briefest possible description; twelve hours after the guns had been withdrawn from the line, orders were received for the support of an attack by the 63rd Division on October 7th. On the 6th, positions were selected just east of the Canal, north-east of Noyelles, and these were page 287occupied and stocked with ammunition by 6 p.m. Word was then received from 57th Divisional Artillery Headquarters, under which the brigade was grouped, that the attack had been postponed for twenty-four hours. The 9th Battery had been heavily shelled, and had lost one gun, and as the shelling of batteries became general, all the personnel at the guns, except one man per gun and one officer per battery, were sent back to the waggon lines for the night. The day before the attack was spent in improving the positions. Hostile artillery was consistently active, and every night enemy aeroplanes came over and bombed the whole area.

The 63rd Division's final objective in the attack was Niergnies, a small village about two miles south of Cambrai, and the road to the east. Zero hour was at 4.30 a.m. on October 8th; the enemy's reply to the barrage was light, and the infantry made good progress, Niergnies being reported taken within a few hours of the opening of the advance. Beyond that point the advance was held up by heavy machine gun fire. The enemy counter-attacked towards Niergnies about 11 a.m., using some captured British tanks, but the attack was met by artillery fire and stopped. At noon batteries were ordered to move forward east of the Noyelles-Cambrai road, in order to take part in a barrage to cover an attack on Awingt at 3 p.m. The move was carried out without delay, and all preparations made for the barrage, but the attack was postponed.

The brigade moved into a position of readiness the following morning, waggon lines were established on the eastern bank of the Canal, and headquarters was located at Rumilly. The brigade was now attached to the 57th Divisional Artillery, in support of the 19th Division. On October 10th, while the brigade was still in its position of readiness, it was ordered to move to the south-east of Cambrai. This move was carried out on the 10th, and the two following days were devoted to cleaning up the harness and equipment, and giving the horses as much grazing as could be obtained. Positions of readiness were occupied south-west of Rieux on the 13th, where batteries remained for almost a week, making the most of the precious opportunity of resting the horses and overhauling equipment.

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On October 19th batteries went into action east of St. Aubert, in order to fire a barrage at 2 a.m. on the 20th, to assist the 19th and 24th Divisions in an attack on Haussy. After firing in the barrage, orders were received to withdraw the guns to the waggon lines in readiness to move to the IV. Corps on October 21st, when the brigade was to rejoin the New Zealand Division.

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The Guns going forward [Official Photo

The Guns going forward [Official Photo