New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
Chapter III. Fleurbaix
Chapter III. Fleurbaix.
Two days after the Artillery withdrew from the Somme, Major J. M. Richmond, Brigade Major of the Divisional Artillery, proceeded by car to Sailly to make arrangements for the relief of the artillery of the 5th Australian Division, then supporting the New Zealand Infantry, which was by this time established in the line at Fleurbaix, on the right of the 2nd Anzac Corps, which was then in the Second Army. Units remained a day or two in their billeting areas at Bonnay and Corbie before setting out on the road, and spent most of the time endeavouring to get rid of the accumulated mud. A number of horses were evacuated on account of their extremely poor condition, and more had to be evacuated after the first stage of the journey to Sailly, the whole of which was done on the road by easy stages. The days were drawing in, and the weather was cold with a good deal of rain, and, as a consequence, the trek was attended with some discomfort. On the second day's march two brigades, which were to be billeted for the night at Amplier had to wait for several hours in the rain after reaching their destination, owing to the difficulty which was experienced in negotiating the only entrance to the lines, which were in such bad condition that the iron shelter huts in Which the men were billeted stood out like islands in a sea of mud. On reaching their billeting areas behind Estaires, brigades and the D.A.C. rested for a day or two, after which on the nights of the 7th-8th and 8th-9th November, three brigades took over positions at Fleurbaix from the 5th Australian Divisional Artillery. The 2nd Brigade No. 3 Section D.A.C. and "X" Battery Trench Mortars went back to Armentieres where they relieved the 13th Australian Field Artillery Brigade in what was known as "Franks' Force," holding the left sector of the front occupied by the 2nd Anzac Corps.page 153
The brigades which went into Fleurbaix were formed into two groups. The right group comprised the 1st Brigade and one battery of the 4th Brigade (the 8th) under Lieut.-Colonel Symon, and the left group comprised the 3rd Brigade, with the 10th and 14th Batteries of the 4th Brigade, under Lieut.-Colonel Standish. Most of the pits were in fairly good condition; but the season had been wet for some time, and the roads even were under water in places when the batteries marched in, so that a great deal of work required to be done to drain the pits of the water which seeped into them from the saturated ground, and generally to put them into a more workable condition. Where the pits could not be drained by ordinary methods, a sump hole dug in a corner collected the water which was then baled or pumped out. The sector was a fairly quiet one, however, and there was plenty of time to be devoted to the improvement of conditions in both the gun-pits and the men's shelters. Many of the latter were in half-ruined farm houses Which stood near—by the positions, and it was possible in these cases to do a great deal to make them more comfortable. Some of the batteries had their waggon lines as much as seven or eight miles in rear, but this was not a matter of such consequence, in view of the good condition of the roads, and the small demands made on transport for the cartage of ammunition. The state of the different waggon lines naturally varied a good deal; but though some of them were in very exposed positions, and the approaches were axle deep in mud, a few week's work wrought wonders.
The cold weather, and the not over-generous horse ration, made it difficult to effect anything but the most gradual improvement in the condition of the horses, many of them indeed never fully recovering from their gruelling experiences on the Somme. Advantage was taken of every opportunity for grazing, and units themselves bought straw and cut it into chaff to supplement the ration; but it was an uphill fight As at the guns the men at the waggon lines were able to make themselves comfortable enough, and everyone rapidly recovered from any ill-effects of the hard campaigning. New issues of clothes were page 154made available, and the Divisional baths at Estaires provided facilities for the first thorough bath and change of underclothing that had been enjoyed since leaving Armentieres months before. Estaires, seven or eight miles behind the line, was a busy little market town to which the country people came weekly with their eggs and produce, but it was the only place within striking distance of the line that had any pretensions to cleanliness or comfort. Sailly, through which passed a great deal of the traffic to and from the line, was nearer at hand, but it boasted nothing better than a few frowsy-looking estaminets. Fleurbaix, yet nearer to the trenches, was almost in ruins, but even there one or two purveyors of "eggs and chips" still valiantly hung out their signs. A good many of the men walked across to Armentieres to renew acquaintances they had formed there, but the practice ceased when the town was put out of bounds for men not in possession of a pass.
On taking over the sector it was notified that the ammunition alowance for the period 7th to 17th November would total only 5,500 rounds for the 18-prs. and 2,300 rounds for the 4.5in. howitzers. The two medium trench mortar batteries and the one heavy mortar on the front were, for a while, the principal mediums of activity. In six days they fired over 800 rounds, including 280 rounds for a raid by the Rifle Brigade. This raid was supported by the Left Group Artillery and the trench mortars, which made a clean job of cutting the wire; but on the raiders entering the trenches they were found to be empty. During the whole month the trench mortars continued very active, and besides engaging strong points and other features in the enemy trench system, cut a lot of wire. In one day over 400 rounds were fired into the "Sugar Loaf" salient, doing considerable damage to the trenches and wire. In the early days of December hostile shelling showed something of an increase. At 5.15 p.m. on December 10th portion of the trenches came under heavy shelling, the bombardment being principally directed on Devon Avenue and Abbot's Lane, and a minute or two later the infantry sent up an S.O.S. rocket. Batteries promptly opened fire and frustrated an attempt to raid.page 155
On December 20th, and for a few days following, the guns on both sides of the line were fairly busy; but on Christmas Day, which was cold and bleak, the enemy gunners remained silent, thought the New Zealand batteries carried out a special programme of shooting during the afternoon and evening. It was related that the enemy had sprung a surprise on the troops in line on the sector on the evening of Christmas, 1915, and possibly this activity was designed to provide against a similar occurrence. One day at the front is very much like another, and the only thing that outwardly marked this day as in any way different from the others was the provision of unlimited quantities of the traditional Christmas cheer. The material for these elaborate "spreads" was obtained almost entirely from farms in the back areas, where there was tremendous mortality among the cackling flocks, and from the Expeditionary Force canteens. It can hardly have been said to have been a "happy" Christmas; but at any rate everyone made the best of the untoward circumstances. The remainder of the month was uneventful enough, and batteries marked the passing of the year by a combined shoot on the enemy's roads and communications on the night of 31st December-1st January.
The most severe weather of the season was not experienced until after the New Year. Snow fell early in January, not a heavy fall, but sufficient to cover the ground lightly, and increase everyone's appreciation of the leather and sheepskin waistcoats which were being issued. A hard frost set in immediately after, and the weather continuing cold and dry it was many weeks before the snow had entirely disappeared. The long nights were bitterly cold, and even on the brightest days the cold and watery-looking sun had hardly vigour enough in its rays to pierce or scatter the mists that hung over the low-lying country-side. Pools and open ditches were frozen hard, and every clear piece of ice was the rendezvous for bands of skaters or "sliders" who considered themselves quite well repaid for an occasional bump on the head or for skinned elbows. Precautions were taken against the occurrence of trench feet, not unlike frost-bite in its effects, and despite its name, by no means peculiar to men in the trenches. Whale oil was issued, and it was made compulsory to rub the feet with it each day; on such a sector page 156as Fleurbaix, however, Artillery personnel were generally able to keep themselves dry-shod, and to sleep warmly by night, and the occurrence of the complaint was, therefore, rare and regarded with disapproval. There was firewood of sorts to be gathered in the neighbourhood of most battery positions; and almost every shelter and "bivvie" boasted an improvised fireplace of some description. The cold was so intense from the middle of January to the end of February that braziers were set for an hour or so each day in the gun and ammunition pits, as the ammunition was injuriously affected by the extremely low temperature. The presence of the snow on the ground had one other serious effect, and that was to render it easier for the enemy aircraft, which crossed the line almost every day at this period, to detect signs of occupation around the positions. Movement was accordingly reduced to a minimum, but tracks made in the snow in the course of necessary work led to the shelling of at least one battery position. In order to conceal the tell-tale fan-shaped marks made in the snow by the gun-blast, big white sheets were issued, and these were spread in front of the guns after firing.
While at Fleurbaix the Divisional Artillery was subjected to a further and final process of reorganisation which effected big changes in its constitution by the breaking up of one Brigade and the establishment of six-gun batteries in the remaining three. The 4th Brigade was broken up, and its three batteries were apportioned by sections to batteries of the 1st and 3rd Brigades. The 16th (howitzer) Battery, which had been formed and trained in England under the command of Captain J. G. Jeffery, and had just arrived in France at the time, was similarly disposed of. By this means the batteries of the 1st and 3rd Brigades became six-gun units, and the strength of a brigade was increased from 16 to 24 guns and howitzers. The detail of the reorganisation was a follows:—
8th Battery—Right Section to 3rd Battery, 1st Brigade.
Left Section to 1st Battery, 1st Brigade.
10th Battery—Right Section to 13th Battery, 3rd Brigade.
Left Section to 7th Battery, 1st Brigade.page 157
14th Battery—Right Section to 11th Battery, 3rd Brigade.
Left Section to 12th Battery, 3rd Brigade.
16th (howitzer) Battery—Right Section to 4th (howitzer), 3rd Brigade.
Left Section to 15th Battery, 1st Brigade.
It was not until the end of March that the batteries of the 2nd Brigade were brought up to six-gun strength by the absorption of three 18-pr. sections and one 4.5in. howitzer section, which were formed at the Reserve Depôt at Aldershot, and were composed of reinforcements, and men who had joined the depôt on discharge from hospital.
The Left Group, consisting of the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 4th (howitzer) Batteries of the 3rd Brigade, carried out this reorganisation on January 20th. With the exception of the 11th Battery, which moved to the 14th Battery position, no changes of position were involved. Two days later the change was effected in the Right Group, which comprised the 1st, 3rd, 7th, and 15th (howitzer) Batteries of the 1st Brigade. As a temporary measure and for tactical purposes only, the two sections of the 8th Battery, which were being incorporated in the 1st and 3rd Batteries, were formed into a four-gun battery.
About the same time the 2nd Brigade was made an Army Brigade, and as such came directly under corps for all tactical purposes. The principle of the Army Brigade was that they constituted a mobile Artillery Force, which could be moved conveniently by corps from place to place in the line to strengthen the local artillery or to support operations pending or in progress. Army Brigades were subject to frequent moves, often at very short notice, and the 2nd Brigade was often detached from the Division after becoming an Army Brigade; the most extended absence being in the late autumn when the Division was in the Ypres salient. During this period of nearly four months the brigade occupied a sector on the coast near Nieuport.
An extension of the front occupied by the Division took place on the night of January 26th, the 2nd Infantry Brigade relieving an infantry brigade of the 34th Division. That Division's right page 158artillery brigade was also relieved by the 3rd Brigade, whose positions in turn were taken over by the batteries of the 2nd Brigade. The 2nd Brigade bad been relieved in the line at Armentieres by the 8th Australian Field Artillery Brigade on the 18th of the month, and had since been in the reserve area at Doulieu. This was the first occasion on which one brigade had handed its position over to a relieving brigade, and then moved off to relieve another brigade the same night. Everything went smoothly, there was no hostile shelling, and by midnight the reliefs were complete.
About this time artillery activity on both sides of the line was somewhat on the increase, and the enemy commenced to pay a fair amount of attention to the New Zealand batteries; several of them were heavily shelled at various times, but the damage to either guns or personnel was small. Enemy trench mortars also were active, and had frequently to be silenced by the fire of one or other of the batteries. The policy adopted by battery commanders was to locate these mortars as accurately as possible with the assistance of the infantry and to register their position. On word then being received from the infantry or forward observer of the activity of any paticular mortars, neutralising fire was at once supplied. This system worked very well in practice, was prompt in its results, and undoubtedly did much to minimise the effectiveness of hostile trench mortar fire. Infantry activity displayed itself in occasional raiding, these excursions being supported by our guns and mortars with almost uniform success.
On February 14th advance parties of the 285th Brigade, R.F.A., 74th Division, arrived to prepare for the relief of the 1st Brigade. The relief was commenced the same night, one section of each battery being relieved, and was completed the following night, the outgoing sections proceeding to waggon lines at Steenwerck. However, a raid on a big scale had been planned to take place on the 21st of the month, and on the 17th, the 15th. (howitzer) Battery, two guns of the 1st Battery, and four guns of the 7th Battery moved back into the line near Bois Grenier to assist in the artillery support for the operation. Commencing at 8 p.m. on February 16th, the Left Group carried page 159out a dummy raid, which consists of all the settings in the way of artillery preparation and support without the raid itself. The enemy barrage came down three minutes after the guns opened; most of his fire, which was directed on to the support trenches, consisted of 15cm. shells. Three batteries of the 152nd Brigade R.F.A. came in for this raid, which was to have been undertaken by the 101st Infantry Brigade, but the infantry action was cancelled.
The raid in force, for which the 1st Brigade guns had returned to the line, took place at 5.35 a.m. on the 21st, and was supported by the whole of the Divisional Artillery in the line, the 285th Brigade, R.F.A., and the 2nd Anzac Corps Heavy Artillery. The raiding party consisted of 18 officers, 500 other ranks of the 2nd Battalion Auckland Regiment, and a party from the 2nd Field Company Engineers. The infantry moved forward in three waves at 30 seconds intervals; the plan being that the first wave should deal with the enemy front line, and the second and third with the supports; the Engineers were to make use of the time during which the trenches were held by demolishing dug-outs, etc. The Right Group 18-prs. and some howitzers of the 285th Brigade created a diversion on the right of the raiders, and the Left Group, specially composed of batteries from the 1st and 3rd Brigades and five trench mortars, created a diversion to their left. The raid was directly supported by thirty-nine 18-prs., ten 4.5in. howitzers, eight trench mortars, and certain guns and howitzers of the 2nd Anzac Heavy Artillery. The barrage came down like a dropped curtain, and was paticularly accurate and even. Severe casualties were inflicted on the enemy and forty-three prisoners were taken. Cease fire was ordered at 6.55 a.m., and the remainder of the day was very quiet. During the progress of the raid a shell landed close to one of the mortars of "Z" Battery, Trench Mortars, killing one and wounding three of the detachment.
Immediately following on this raid the headquarters of the 57th Divisional Artillery took over the sector from the headquarters of the New Zealand Artillery, which then moved to Steenwerck, in view of the pending relief of the 25th Divisional Artillery, in line near Ploegsteert. This relief was completed page 160by the 28th of the month, when the 1st Brigade relieved the 110th Brigade, R.F.A., and the 3rd Brigade relieved the 112th Brigade. In the interval the 1st Brigade had gone to Armentieres to assist in supporting a successful raid by troops of the 3rd Australian Division on trenches in the Pont Ballot salient, east of the town. The batteries had now taken over a sector where they were to be called upon to do a great deal more fighting than had fallen to their lot since returning from the Somme. The winter months had passed uneventfully enough in the performance of the more or less routine taske which fall to the lot of the guns when the Division is "holding the line." The men had wintered comfortably, as comfort went in such circumstances; there had been nothing to overtax their energies, and they were in remarkably good heart. But the winter had gone; spring was advancing, and bringing with it the promise of big events. Practically from the taking over of the sector at Ploegsteert the days of quiet were gone. At the outset there was a great deal of labour involved in improving, or sometimes rebuilding, the new positions; and then the coming of the dry weather and the long clear days brought a reciprocal activity that grew with the passing of the weeks, and found its climax in the battle of Messines.page break page break
A New Zealand Battery in Action near Kansas Farm During the Fighting at Passchendaele Official Photo