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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

La Basse Ville

La Basse Ville.

Although the New Zealand Division did not go into the line again for nearly three weeks, the Artillery remained in rest for little more than a week only. Brief as it was, this period of rest proved beneficial to all ranks. A good deal of time was devoted to recreation, and a combined sports meeting proved a pronounced success. On July 8th the two Brigades, the Divisional Ammunition Column, and the Divisional Trench Mortars, commenced the relief in the line of the 4th Australian Divisional Artillery. Batteries took over the guns, which they had handed over a week earlier to the Australian batteries. On the night of the 16th-17th July the 311th Brigade, R.F.A., went into action on the front, which was then covered by three brigades of field artillery. By the 20th the New Zealand infantry had returned to the line in relief of the 4th Australian Division.

By the time the whole Divison had returned to the line preparations for the third battle of Ypres were so far advanced that the lengthy and careful artillery preparation which was to precede it had already been commenced. Although the enemy had been driven off the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge he could still page 180overlook the Ypres salient from the high ground to the east and south-east, as well as from the Pilckem Ridge to the north. The attempt about to he made to dislodge him from those heights was to constitute the main summer offensive of the British armies, for which the Battle of Messines had been an important and, indeed, indispensable preliminary.

The front involved extended from the River Lys opposite Deulemont northwards to beyond Steenstraat, a distance of over fifteen miles; but the main blow was to be delivered by the Fifth Army on a front of about seven and a half miles, from Zillebeke-Zandvoorde Road to Boesinghe, inclusive. The Second Army, in which the New Zealand Division was still included, covered the right of the Fifth Army; it was required to advance a short distance only, the main idea being so to increase the area threatened by the attack that the enemy would be forced to distribute his strength and his gun-power. The First French Army was to co-operate on the left of the Fifth Army. The New Zealand Division, in the La Basse Ville sector, was on the extreme right of the front affected by the attack, and during the closing days of the month assisted the Second Army in its part in the scheme of operations by local operations, and an apparently significant increase in its artillery activity.

When the artillery first returned to the line the allotment of ammunition for all purposes was reduced to fifty rounds per gun per day for the 18-prs. and thirty-five rounds per day for the howitzers; but on the 21st of July it was raised to 75 rounds per gun and howitzer. Much of this fire was directed against enemy roads and approaches, and bombardments and practice barrages were also carried out. The enemy replied by severely shelling battery areas and bombing back areas by night. The batteries of the 3rd Brigade suffered heavily, and had a number of guns destroyed. The 11th Battery was shelled intermittently over a period of six or seven days; on the 13th it was shelled with 5.9in. and 8in. shells; on the 16th, some hundreds of 8in. shell were put round and about the position; more material damage was inflicted on the 17th, and an ammunition dump was exploded on the 20th; and finally, on the 22nd, the battery was shelled from 1 p.m. till dusk with 11in. shell, the battery page 181in consequence being unable to take part in a practice barrage, which had been ordered for that day. On the 23rd another gun was destroyed and two others were badly damaged and the enemy shelling was so persistent and heavy that the position had to be temporarily evacuated. This battery was the target for a great deal of hostile fire, probably owing to the fact that it was at the time the only 18-pr. battery covering the infantry fronting Frelinghien, the remaining 18-pr. batteries on the divisional sector having moved further to the left, in order to support the attacks on La Basse Ville.

Some idea of the violence of the shelling to which the New Zealand batteries were subjected during the period that followed the Battle of Messines may be gained from the fact that the 15th (howitzer) Battery, which was fortunate to go through both the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Messines without losing any guns by shell fire, lost a total of eight guns in this manner during the two months following the Battle of Messines.

At 2 a.m. on July 27th troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade attacked La Basse Ville, which had been heavily shelled by the artillery at intervals during the previous week. The infantry attacked under cover of a barrage which the infantry commanders described as entirely satisfactory. The village was captured, but at 5 a.m. the small garrison which had been left in possession was driven out by a strong enemy counter-attack. The enemy's counter-battery guns were very active during the operation, and during the remainder of the day the front and support lines were heavily shelled at intervals.

A second attack was launched against La Basse Ville at 3.50 a.m. on the closing day of the month, and enemy posts in front of Warneton were also raided at the same time. Strong opposition was encountered in La Basse Ville, but the place was taken and held, an enemy counter-attack being repulsed. As from the 20th of the month artillery groups had ceased to exist, and tactical control was now by brigades, but for the operation against La Basse Ville a special group commanded by Lieut.- Colonel Symon, was formed of the 1st, 7th, 13th, and 15th (howitzer) Batteries and D Howitzer Battery of the 11th Brigade. Although the barrage was necessarily a thin one, it page 182proved to be sufficient, and captured prisoners testified to its effect. Thirty-two 18-prs supplied the barrage for the minor operation, which was also successfully carried out.

The weather at the beginning of August was bad and the low visibility restricted the activity on both sides of the line, although the enemy gunners continued to devote a fair amount of attention to La Basse Ville. On the 10th the weather improved, and the sector became more lively. Our howitzer batteries commenced to carry out gas shell bombardments, chiefly with asphyxiating shell on selected points, such as suspected headquarters, etc. Retaliation was fairly prompt and in kind, 3rd Brigade Headquarters being twice shelled with poison gas shell on the night of the 13th. Although hostile fire showed a slight decrease during the month the enemy had continued to pay some attention to counter-battery work, and most of the New Zealand batteries had been shelled at one time or another. Though casualties had been light several guns had been destroyed, and the Division had the misfortune of losing one of its ablest battery commanders in the person of Major Horwood. As a sergeant-major in the R.N.Z.A., Major Horwood joined the Expeditionary Force shortly after the outbreak of war, and was commissioned in 1914, just before leaving New Zealand. He rose to the rank of Major, and commanded the 7th Battery, and was recognised as a capable officer and a skilful battery commander. On one occasion during the month also, the enemy shelled the ammunition dump at Romarin, killing one man and wounding five others.

On the night of September 4th the Artillery of the 8th Division, with its attached Army Brigades, commenced to relieve our artillery, following the usual method of relieving one section the first night and the remaining two the following night. Command passed to the C.R.A. of the 8th Division at 10 a.m. on the 6th. The same day units marched to the Morbecque area, via Steenwerck, Le Verrier, Vieux Berquin, and La Motte. After three days spent in this area Divisional Artillery Headquarters moved to the Thiembronne area, the 1st Brigade trekked to Flechin, the 3rd Brigade to Estree Blanche, and the D.A.C. to Laires. The trench mortar personnel proceeded in motor page 183lorries to Thiembronne. On the 10th the two brigades and the D.A.C. completed the journey to the Thiembronne area. Little more than a week was spent there in training and recreation, the 19th of the month being devoted to a Divisional Artillery sports meeting near Merck St. Levien; the championship for the highest aggregate of points was secured by the 1st Battery.

On September 14th Lieut-Colonel Symon proceeded to England for a course in artillery staff work, and on his departure command of the brigade was given to Lieut-Colonel J. A. Ballard, R.F.A.

On September 20th the whole of the Divisional Artillery left Thiembronne at very short notice, and trekked to Wallon Cappel, the C.R.A. and staff moving to Hazebrouck. The following day the 1st Brigade moved to Boeschepe, and on the 26th the 3rd Brigade and the D.A.C. moved to Busseboom, After having been out of the line for little more than three Weeks, orders were now received that the Division was to return to the line, to engage in the struggle which had been desperately raging for two months for the possession of the heights overlooking the salient.