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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

The 2nd Brigade at Nieuport

The 2nd Brigade at Nieuport.

Three weeks after the battle of Messines the 2nd (Army) Brigade was withdrawn from the front then covered by the New Zealand Division, and concentrated at waggon lines at Le Veau, near Steenwerck. The brigade did not rejoin the Division until the first days of December, 1917, when in company with the 1st and 3rd Brigades it went into the Ypres sector in support of the New Zealand Infantry. During almost the whole of the intervening months the Brigade was in action on the Belgian coast, where, about the end of June, British troops had relieved the French on the sector from St. Georges to the sea. This relief was effected in accordance with an arrangement by which the French should take part in the Third Battle of Ypres, by extending the British flank northwards beyond Boesinghe, on the left of the 5th Army. Though the 2nd Brigade was not in consequence in the fighting at Passchendaele, its experiences on the coast were strenuous enough. The enemy had on the sector a strong concentration of artillery which pursued an extremely aggressive policy during the period from July to mid-November, when the Brigade marched south again. From an artilleryman's point, of view the sector was remarkable for the amount of labour which the French had devoted to the construction of strongly-protected, almost shell-proof, battery positions. The New Zealand batteries, however, had to build their own pits, as well as those for half-a-dozen other batteries, and were not afforded the shelter of any of these reinforced positions until a few weeks before their departure.

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After withdrawing from the line near Messines, on June 26th, batteries spent until 10th July in refitting and general training, after which the Brigade and Brigade Ammunition Column marched off en route for the coast, where the brigade was to go into the line near Nieuport, under the 1st Divisional Artillery. The first night was spent in billets in the Staple area, whence the march was continued on successive days to Wormhoudt, Ghyvelde, and finally Coxyde, where waggon lines were established. The long warm days were, in a measure, pleasant enough for trekking; but the midday heat on a dusty road was likely to be trying to both horses and men, and a welcome departure from the ordinary routine was made by travelling in the cool of the early morning. The column was on the road by 4 a.m., and the day's journey was generally completed by 10 or 11 a.m.

On arrival at Coxyde the Brigade learned of the attack which the enemy had made on the British positions on the Yser Canal, near Lombartzyde, a few days previously, and the batteries were ordered to go into the line next day. The positions were situated on the sand dunes, and guns fired across the Yser Canal. Positions were partly prepared, the pits being camouflaged and provided with platforms. A good deal of work was, however, required to render them satisfactory; but the Brigade was unable to concentrate its efforts on the improvement of its own positions. Working parties had to be furnished for the construction of positions for three batteries for the 330th Brigade, R.F.A., which, with the New Zealand batteries, were to compose "C" group. Positions had also to be prepared for three batteries of "E" group, and one battery of "D" group, and the Brigade was occupied with these extra labours for two weeks. There were big concentrations of both British and German artillery along the front, and the liveliest activity was displayed on both sides; the enemy's shelling of battery areas became more and more a feature of his activity, until it gradually came to be regarded as a normal part of the day's events. The flat country afforded very little cover; and by the end of July the brigade had suffered a good many casualties, six other ranks having been killed and two officers and twenty-six other ranks wounded. Batteries had embarked on a policy of harassing and page 202destructive fire, immediately they had completed their registration, and programmes of shooting on these lines were arranged almost every day, the daily allotment of ammunition for this purpose at one stage being 600 rounds per battery.

Ammunition and rations were brought up by the road from Oost Dunkerke, which ran straight towards the line for about two miles, until it reached the canal, providing a perfect enfilade for the enemy guns. It was almost continually under fire from guns of all calibres and, to avoid the shelling, supplies were packed up to the guns by devious routes. Occasionally trainloads of ammunition were taken forward a certain distance and dumps formed, but this was not always possible. Bad weather was experienced in the early part of August, and much discomfort was caused, by the heavy rains; the flats became flooded, increasing the difficulties of transport, and the gun-pits in the low-lying dunes were under water for some time. In digging the pits, water was generally struck about two feet below the surface of the ground, and it was accordingly a case of building up rather than digging in. Conditions were not improved by more violent shelling of battery areas. A trial barrage on August 5th, on the opening line of a projected operation in conjunction with the 66th Divisional Artillery, was answered by heavy retaliation; but the only battery which the enemy succeeded in locating was B Battery of the 330th Brigade, where a gun was put out of action, and a number of casualties inflicted. The 6th (Howitzer) Battery experienced a bad day on the 12th, when three of its guns were put out of action, and on the following day Brigade Headquarters and the vicinity were shelled with what were afterwards discovered to be 17in. shells from one of the big coast guns along by Ostend. The brigade's counter-activity took the form of harassing fire programmes and practice barrages in company with other brigades and the destruction of an active hostile battery by the 6th Battery; support was also lent to two projector gas attacks.

At the close of the month the personnel at the guns was withdrawn for rest to the waggon lines, which were situated in particularly pleasant quarters in the sand dunes at Coxyde-les-Bains. During this brief spell all ranks were able to enjoy page 203bathing and football on the beach nearby, which was also used for exercising the horses. The town of La Panne, with some civilian population and open shops, was within easy distance, and was provided with a bathing establishment well equipped, and with an abundance of hot water.

On September 2nd the Brigade went into action again under the 42nd Divisional Artillery at Nieuport Bains, but five days later came under the orders of the 32nd Divisional Artillery, and as the projected operations had been cancelled offensive shooting was reduced to normal limits. The enemy, however, was apparently still fearful of some offensive action on the part of the British forces, and kept his guns aggressively active. Brigade Headquarters and battery positions were shelled both day and night, and on fine nights the congested camps and waggon lines in the back areas were bombed. Emplacements were destroyed and guns damaged, and on one occasion an eleven inch shell demolished the headquarters mess—fortunately unoccupied at the moment. Even some time after the fire of the brigade had been reduced to moderate limits the enemy fiercely retaliated in response to anything that suggested a departure from the normal; and his observing aircraft were always active when conditions permitted. Casualties in the brigade during the month totalled thirty-three.

October, ushered in with broken weather, brought no diminution in the enemy's shelling; "shell storms" or violent bursts of fire on some selected area were of frequent occurrence, and on occasions were of such duration and intensity that the heavy artillery had to be called on for neutralising fire. On October 16th the brigade took part in a bombardment of the Palace Hotel, Westende Bains, the enemy retaliating with a series of shell storms round and about batteries and on the east dunes, causing several casualties in the brigade. During severe shelling on the 8th the 2nd Battery had seven casualties, one of the two who were killed being 2nd Lieutenant T.S. Grant, who had only that day joined the unit, after passing through an Officers' Training College in England.

French troops commenced to take over the sector again in November, and on the 17th of that month a brigade of French Field Artillery marched in to relieve the 2nd New Zealand page 204Brigade. The following day the French batteries conducted their registrations under covering fire from the New Zealand batteries, and on the 20th the relief was complete, and guns were removed to the waggon lines. Some time before this the brigade had received instructions to prepare winter quarters for men and horses; material had been issued and the erection of very fine stables, and the making of dug-outs had almost been completed when the brigade left the sector to rejoin the New Zealand Division. Before its departure from the coast, Lieut.-Colonel F. B. Sykes left the brigade, in order to take command temporarily of the Divisional Artillery, Major R. C. Wickens assuming command of the brigade in his absence.

The column marched out from the waggon lines at Coxyde at 3 a.m. on the 21st, and spent that night in the Ghyvelde area, proceeding the following day to Winnezelle and so to Morbecque. Bad weather was experienced on the march, and conditions were in unpleasant contrast to those experienced on the way to the coast. The movement northwards of so many British troops, and the marching to the coast of the French, threw an enormous amount of traffic on the roads, and also made billeting accommodation both scarce and inferior, while good waggon lines were not to be had. At Morbecque, where the Brigade received orders to rest and carry out training and refitting, the vehicles and horses had to be parked on the roads about the Nieppe Forest. The roads were narrow and edged with deep ditches, which were a danger to the horses, but after strong representations had been made on the subject, permission was obtained to use some open fields as waggon lines. All guns and howitzers were handed into the 2nd Anzac Corps "gun pool" at Reninghelst, necessitating the borrowing of a few 18-prs. and 4.5in. howitzers from a nearby English brigade for training purposes.

On December 5th parties were sent forward to take over the guns of the 3rd Australian Field Artillery Brigade in the line at Ypres, and the following day the Brigade, which was rejoining the New Zealand Division after having been detached for five months, marched by way of Boeschepe to its new waggon lines near Dickebusch.