New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
The Third Battle of Ypres had opened on the last day of July, two months before the New Zealand Division was moved into the fighting; but it had not continued without interruption during the whole of that time. On the afternoon of the day on which the first attack was launched rain commenced to fall, continued all night and for the four following days, and speedily transformed the battlefield into a vast morass, in which movement became so limited that a resumption of active operations was impossible until better weather permitted of more freedom and ease of movement underfoot. The slight improvement that took place in the weather towards the middle of August allowed of a second attack being launched on August 16th; but unsettled conditions again followed, and efforts for the remainder of the month were confined to a number of small operations east and north-east of Ypres. Desperate fighting was the rule during September, the enemy's positions having been attacked on a front of eight miles on the 20th of the month and again on the 26th, on a slightly reduced front. The enemy did not abandon the positions that were wrested from him in these attacks without a severe struggle, and his frequent counter-attacks led to fierce fighting; but except at one or two points the attacking troops succeeded in holding on to their gains. Very considerable but costly progress had been made by the end of September; but the enemy was still in possession of the main line of the ridge at many points. The advance was to be renewed on October 4th, when the main effort was to be directed against a front of about seven miles, extending from the Menin road to the Ypres-Staden railway, and preparations for this attack were being completed when the New Zealand Division relieved the 59th Division in the St. Jean sector east of Ypres.page 185
The Division was still in the 2nd Anzac Corps which also included the 3rd Australian Division, and two attached Divisions, the 49th and 66th. In the attack on October 4th the New Zealand Division was to be on the extreme left of the 2nd Army. On its right was the 3rd Australian Division and on its left the 48th Division, XVIII Corps, Fifth Army.
A tragic experience befell the Artillery at the very outset. In accordance with orders received by the Division, both the 1st and 3rd Brigades went into certain positions near Frezenberg; but no sooner had they been occupied than further orders were received for their withdrawal and transfer to new positions south of St. Julien. During the brief interval, however, the locality had been subjected to a continuous and destructive fire, and both brigades suffered heavy losses in men and guns. The opinion that the orders were issued to the Division in error may not have been correct, but it was difficult to conceive of any circumstances by which they could be justified. Headquarters of the Divisional Artillery were established at Watou on the 28th of September, and the same night batteries commenced to go into the positions at Frezenberg in relief of batteries of the 42nd Divisional Artillery, the 1st Brigade relieving the 210th Brigade and the 3rd Brigade the 211th Brigade R.F.A. Batteries came under heavy fire from the moment of taking over, and the losses in men and guns were very severe. The 15th (Howitzer) Battery lost some of its guns, and the 11th Battery lost five guns before the artillery of the 3rd Australian Division relieved both Brigades, guns being exchanged. On withdrawal. a move was made to new positions which had been reconnoitred by Lieut.-Colonel Falla, south of St. Julien and east of the Steenbeek.
The new positions were situated in a locality which was at once innocent of cover or protection, and where the best was very little better than the worst. The whole area occupied by the Division was in a very bad state; it had been devastated by shell fire, and had become water-logged by the heavy rains, and during the early days of the month a tremendous amount of necessary work had to be done in repairing roads, tracks, and bridges, the existing conditions of which very seriously increased the already considerable difficulties of transport. Gas shells page 186were thrown over by the enemy all through the night the batteries went in, and a few casualties were suffered; but there was subsequently not much hostile shelling on the positions and detachments were able to go ahead with the work of constructing gun-pits. As has been remarked, the countryside was completely stripped of natural cover, and in the confined space to which the selection of positions had been limited, there were few features that offered any degree of concealment for the guns. The positions were so close to the line, that in order to escape observation the guns were jammed together, wheel upon wheel, in order to get the shelter of a small hill. The disadvantages of concentrating all the batteries in such a circumscribed area were obvious enough, but it was the only alternative to placing the guns out in the open under the very eyes of the enemy only 800 yards off. The Steenbeek, swollen with the rains, ran in between the batteries, and had to be crossed on bridges of sandbags or any material that could be collected.
In view of the impending attack the trench mortars did not go into the line, and the personnel were attached to the D.A.C., which was concentrating all its energies on the task of coordinating arrangements for the supply of ammunition to the guns. It had taken over a dump near the railway at Ypres, and a more forward dump in Oxford Row, near Wieltje. Orders were issued on the 1st October stating the amount of ammunition to be at battery positions by the night of 3rd-4th October, at 960 rounds per gun for the 18-prs, and 760 rounds per howitzer. As the positions continued, fairly free from shelling, the task of getting this ammunition up was made much easier, and Battery Commanders were able to register and calibrate their guns. The fact that the registration in some cases was carried out by direct observation from the battery positions will convey some idea of their proximity to the line and of their exposed nature.
Preparations for the attack on the 4th were speedily completed and detailed orders for the work of the artillery in the advance were issued to batteries. In addition to the heavy artillery on the front there was a strong concentration of field artillery. Brigadier-General Johnston had under his command ten brigades of artillery, five of which constituted the Right Main Group, and the remaining five the Left Main Group; in all there was a page 187total of one hundred and eighty 18-prs. and sixty 4.5in. howitzers on a frontage of approximately 2,000 yards. The 1st and 3rd Brigades, N.Z.F.A., formed "E" sub-group in the Left Main Group, and were under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Falla. As the New Zealand Batteries were the most advanced in the group they were ordered not to fire, except for purposes of registration, so that the positions might not be given away prior to the attack. The scheme of artillery support provided for five barrages which were to take the infantry forward, break up counter-attacks, and afford protection after the objectives had been captured, and while they were being consolidated. The first of these barrages consisted of an 18-pr. creeping barrage, behind which the infantry were to advance, and which was to be laid down by 132 guns; a "B" barrage to precede the "A" barrage by a distance of 200 yards, and consisting of 48 18-prs. and 60 4.5in. howitzers; a "C" barrage of 65 machine guns to precede the "B" barrage by 200 yards; a "D" barrage of 6in. howitzers to precede the "C" barrage by 200 yards; and, finally, an "E" barrage made up of 60-prs., 8in., and 9.2in. howitzers to precede the "D" barrage by a similar distance. The "A" barrage was to advance in exact conformity with the infantry, moving as they moved and staying its progress as they reached their objectives, so constituting a constantly protecting wall of fire. It was also arranged that as each battery arrived on its protective barrage in front of each of the two objectives, its left hand gun would fire only smoke shell for five minutes to indicate to the infantry that the protective barrage was being formed.
The task of the Division was divided into two parts—the capture of the "Red Line" sited on the reverse slopes of the Abraham Heights Spur, and the "Blue Line," approximately 800 yards further on, and extending from Kronprinz Farm, through and including Berlin Wood, to near Hamburg. The attack was made by the 1st and 4th Infantry Brigades, with the 2nd Infantry Brigade in reserve. Zero hour was 6 a.m., and though the infantry met with strong opposition all objectives were captured and consolidated. The barrage was good, and counter-attacks were broken up by gun-fire. The Division secured over a thousand prisoners in the attack, and captured about sixty machine guns, besides gaining a deal of very valuable ground page 188which gave excellent observation on to the north end of the Passchendaele Ridge. During the evening after the attack several S.O.S. signals were sent up on the Divisional front, but no serious counter-attack followed. When the sub-group replied to these signals the practice was for the "A" barrage guns to fire on the protective barrage in front of the final objective, and the "B" barrage guns and howitzers, 200 yards beyond it. This fire was continued until the infantry reported "all clear." Throughout the night prior to the attack the enemy shelled the forward areas vigorously, and at 5.15 a.m. he put down a heavy barrage which lasted until about 5.50 a.m. There was not much hostile fire directed on to battery positions, and casualties during the day were not heavy in either brigade. Most of the casualties were caused by a solitary high velocity gun, which fired from the direction of Houlthurst Forest, and directly enfiladed the long line of batteries. Every shot literally raked the position, and the shooting afforded a sufficiently convincing demonstration of true enfilading fire. A good many casualties were suffered, several guns were knocked out, and one or two batteries were temporarily put out of action. The gun fortunately ceased fire towards evening.
On this occasion, at least, the gunners had reason to be rather thankful that the ground on which they fought was so yielding, for the high velocity shells, hurtling in with frightful rapidity plunged deep into the mud before exploding, and thus were robbed of much of their effectiveness. Had these shells been detonating on hard ground they would have annihilated the whole line of batteries.
The barrage in this attack gave general satisfaction, Brigadier-General C. W. Melville, Commanding 1st Infantry Brigade, reported on it in the following terms:—"The barrage was excellent, and all ranks were full of praise and admiration for it. It was easily followed, and very few shorts were experienced." The Divisional Commander, Major-General A. H. Russell, also congratulated Brigadier-General Johnston on the work of the artillery, which he described as splendid.
The success attained by the New Zealand Division was almost uniform on the whole front of the main attack in spite of strong opposition and the nature of the ground, sodden with the rains page 189of the previous twenty-four hours. The enemy losses were very heavy for, in addition to the troops in the line, three fresh divisions which had been brought up for counter-attack purposes were also engaged in the fighting, and suffered badly at the outset from the barrage fire. These divisions were forming up in readiness for a counter-attack on the positions which had been won in the fighting on September 26th at Zonnebeke and Polygon Wood, but the British advance anticipated this stroke by ten minutes. The success of the day's operations marked a definite step in the development of the advance; it meant that the line had now been established along the main ridge for a distance of nine thousand yards from the starting point near Mount Sorrel.
The eastern approaches to Passchendaele were shelled with gas on the night after the attack, and harassing fire was continued the following day. On the evening of the 5th the New Zealand Division was relieved by the 49th Division, but the Artillery remained in the line under the command of the C.R.A., New Zealand Division. It had become necessary to move the batteries forward in preparation for the next stage of the advance, and positions had been reconnoitred a little east of Winnipeg by Brigadier-General Johnston and Lieut.-Colonel Falla, who had gone forward for that purpose on the 5th. The ground forward was found to be in a terrible condition, however, and it was at once seen that it would be impossible for the batteries to move forward till a road of some description had been made. This work was at once undertaken, and orders were issued for the positions to be prepared in the meantime, and supplies of ammunition sent forward in readiness for their occupation. Packing was, of course, the only possible method of supply, and the Divisional Ammunition Column was detailed to assist battery transport; each 18-pr. position was to be supplied with 600 rounds per gun, and each howitzer position with 450 rounds per howitzer. Rain had fallen again on the night of the 4th, and so bad had the weather become that it seemed as if the heavens and the earth had conspired to stay the forward flow of guns and ammunition. The terribly congested roads were rapidly churned into a condition that rendered them wellnigh impassable. The guns had to be fed, however, and the drivers struggled forward with their packs, at every step page 190encountering obstacles that would have brought despair to all but the most resolute. There was one main road, which ran from Ypres through Wieltje, and on past Kansas Cross to Gravenstafel, and this had to feed the Division for practically all purposes; it had been almost destroyed by shell-fire before the rain, and the traffic had put the finishing touches on it.
On the night of the 4th-5th, two Brigades (the 295th and 296th Brigades, R.F.A.) were withdrawn from the line, leaving eight brigades supporting the divisional front. Following on this the Right Main Group was ordered to move three brigades up to forward positions, and the Left Main Group was ordered to move forward two brigades. An endeavour was to be made to adhere to the principle that at least two-thirds of these guns should always be in action covering the front whilst the moves were in progress. On October the 6th heavy rain fell again, and a visit to the forward areas revealed a most depressing scene; the roads were blocked by heavy howitzers, caterpillars, lorries, and field guns and under the rain and the shelling, men, so coated with mud that they moved with difficulty, were endeavouring to get them forward or off the road out of the way. Dead men and horses lay about; and a hostile long range gun was patiently searching for the battery positions.
The congestion finally became so bad that an absolute impasse resulted; and at 6 p.m. the routes forward were closed for a period so that they might be cleared. This expedient did not avail much however, and efforts to get the guns forward failed in almost every case as a result of the condition of the roads, and the blocks on the Wieltje-Gravenstafel and St. Julien-Winnipeg Roads. So many guns became stranded on the way to forward positions that on the evening of the 7th a reorganisation of zones became necessary; the Right Main Group being given one-third of the front to cover, while the Left Main Group (which included the New Zealand Brigades), having all its guns in action, covered the remaining two-thirds. Guns not in action were in every case either completely bogged or else blocked on the road; but wherever possible they were hauled off the road and got into action on the spot.page 191
The heavy rain which fell on October 7th and 8th was not allowed to interfere with the resumption of the attack on October 9th on a front of over six miles, from a point east of Zonnebeke to the junction of the British line with the French north-east of Langemarck. On the left the French continued the attack to a point opposite Draaibank, minor operations being undertaken on the right to the east and south-east of Polygon Wood. The greatest measure of success was attained on the left, near the junction with the French. On the front which the New Zealand batteries assisted in covering, the 49th Division did not achieve substantial results; the assembly for the attack was carried out in cold, drenching rain, and inky darkness, whilst some of the attacking troops were on the march nearly all night, and arrived at the place of assembly only in time to take part in the engagement. As the infantry were held up at different points the advance did not proceed according to timetable; and finally the creeping barrage was stopped and brought back as a standing barrage on about the line of the first objective. Though the weather conditions continued to become steadily worse, orders were at once issued for a renewal of the attack on the 12th, and instructions concerning the artillery support were received by the New Zealand Brigades on the afternoon of the 10th.
Two days after the unsuccessful attack by the 49th Division it was relieved in the line by the New Zealand Division. The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade moved up to La Brique, north-east of Ypres, on the 9th and the following night commenced to go into the line, in company with the 2nd Infantry Brigade, which had been brought up to Ypres by motor 'buses. Meanwhile the weather continued unsettled and more rain fell. Command of the sector passed to the New Zealand Division at 10 a.m. on the 11th.
While this relief was in progress the New Zealand gunners were struggling to get their guns forward from the positions which they had occupied during the attack by the 49th Division. The night before this attack it was decided that an attempt should be made the next day to move the New Zealand batteries forward to a position near the Winnipeg Cross Roads, and instructions were issued by the C.O. Sub-Group that the 13th and 1st Batteries were to make the attempt with two guns, and page 192the 3rd Battery with one gun early on the morning of the 10th. The Engineers and Pioneers had been working steadily on the roads, and had effected, some improvement; but the material for their work had to be got up by carrying parties, and the consequent difficulty in getting supplies forward quickly proved a serious handicap. However, at 7 a.m. on the 10th, one gun of the 13th Battery was got out of its pit, and hauled to its new position; at 9 a.m. the 1st Battery succeeded in moving a gun on to the road, and the 13th another. Both, however, became bogged, but the men stuck resolutely to their task, and finally got them into position about 2 p.m. At 3 p.m. two howitzers from the 15th Battery were on the road, but just beyond St. Julien became so badly bogged that they finally had to be left till morning. So much, then, had been accomplished by dint of sheer hard endeavour and under a good deal of fire from enemy light calibre guns. Teams were brought up at 3 o'clock next morning by the 15th Battery, but the road was found to be badly blocked by smashed waggons and other transport, and littered with dead men and horses—the terrible aftermath of the night's shelling. The gunners and drivers redoubled their efforts, extricated the howitzers, and by 7.30 a.m. had dragged them to their new positions by the Winnipeg-Kansas Cross Roads. There was much scattered shelling during the day, and batteries suffered a good many casualties; but by 4 p.m. eight 18-prs. and four 4.5in. howitzers had been placed in their forward positions. Apart from the difficulties of haulage, the constant blocking of the roads by heavy guns caused a great deal of delay, and hung up the transport of ammunition as well as the moving of the guns. Only a small percentage of the guns had been brought forward, and they were without platforms to keep them from sinking in the mud. The situation was distinctly unpromising, but all had been done that was humanly possible in the time and under the conditions. The situation was such, however, that Brigadier-General Johnston, C.R.A. of the New Zealand Division, reported to both the Divisional and Corps Commanders that they could not depend on the artillery for the attack on the following day.page break page break