Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Chapter V. Passchendaele

page 184

Chapter V. Passchendaele.

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
" On Trek " [Official Photo

" On Trek " [Official Photo

A British Tank Going into Action [Official Photo

A British Tank Going into Action [Official Photo

page break
page 193

The Tragedy of October 12th.

The front of attack for the 12th was between the Ypres-Roulers Railway and Houthulst Forest, and the attack was to be made by troops of the Second and Fifth Armies, the latter being on the left. The objectives included Passchendaele Ridge and the village of Passchendaele itself. The New Zealand Division, with the 3rd Australian Division on the right, and the 9th Division of the Fifth Army on the left, was to attack with two Brigades disposed side by side. The two brigades chosen for the attack were the 2nd Infantry Brigade and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, the 4th Brigade being in Divisional Reserve. The Division's first objective was the Red Line which extended from the Ravebeek to the left across the Bellevue Spur, and the second objective was the Blue Line one thousand yards further on. When the New Zealand Infantry came into the line on the night of the 10th, there was only a very imperfect and confused understanding as to the general condition of affairs, but reconnaissances that night and early the following morning disclosed the fact that the enemy blockhouses were still intact and the wire uncut. A request was sent in for heavy artillery fire, but the amount of fire supplied entirely failed in its purpose, and another urgent, request for heavy artillery fire was sent in on the afternoon of the 11th. Some time later the heavy artillery opened fire on Bellevue Spur, but the fire was of brief duration, and the damage to the enemy defences small.

The assembly of the infantry for the attack commenced at 6.30 p.m. on the 11th and, continuing through the night, was satisfactorily accomplished before daylight on the 12th, despite the darkness and the heavy condition of the ground. Rain held off during the night, but commenced to fall in the early hours of the morning. Zero hour was at 5.25 a.m. and about 5 o'clock the enemy commenced to shell the assembly areas, and a number of casualties was suffered. The attack was met with heavy machine gun fire, though the enemy's barrage was weak; with indomitable courage and tenacity the attackers pushed on until brought up by the pill-boxes and the uncut wire. The attack failed before it had reached the first objective. The artillery barrage proceeded according to programme, until messages were received that the infantry advance was held up, page 194when fire was brought back to the protective barrage for the intermediate objective. At mid-day orders were received by the artillery that a fresh attack would be made at 3 p.m., when the barrage would recommence from a point slightly beyond the line Cemetery-Wolf Farm. But representations were made by responsible infantry commanders as to the inadvisability of attempting to continue the attack; they pointed out the exhausted condition of the men, the heavy casualties, the state of the ground, and the fact that the infantry were so close up under the enemy wire that they could not be extricated during daylight without incurring casualties, thus rendering reorganization impossible. Fortunately any further effort to advance was abandoned, and at 2.35 p.m. the Artillery were informed that the afternoon operation was cancelled, and orders were received to make the Red Line the S.O.S. line. Fire on S.O.S. lines was called for at 3.50 p.m. and at 6.15 p.m.; no further calls were received during the night.

Very heavy casualties had been suffered by both Brigades of Infantry which took part in the attack; the losses in killed and wounded numbered 2730. Communications were utterly disorganised, the greatest difficulty was experienced in getting rations and water to the men in the forward areas, and the condition of the wounded was pitiable in the extreme. Many lay all night in the mud, exposed to the hail and rain and the bitter cold. On the night of the 12th-13th 1,200 men of the 4th Infantry Brigade, and every spare man from the Artillery and the Army Service Corps were engaged in getting out the wounded, a battalion of the 147th Brigade having been also loaned to the Division for the same purpose. Six or eight men were required to carry a wounded man on a stretcher over that veritable morass, and it took hours for each party to flounder down to the dressing stations.

From the moment the attack opened, the artillery barrage was weak and patchy as a direct result of the conditions under which the guns had to shoot; but this deficiency, though serious in itself, was not the chief factor in the tragic failure. The primary causes of the failure of the attack were the deep and continuous belts of uncut wire which faced the attacking infantry, and the massive concrete blockhouses, or pill-boxes, from which the page 195enemy machine gunners shot down everything that moved. In short, it was lack of preparation. The Division was supported in the attack, in addition to heavy artillery, by eight brigades of field artillery, which totalled one hundred and forty-four 18-prs. and forty-eight 4.5in. howitzers. Some of these were still blocked on the road when the attack opened, and in the case of those that had reached the forward positions, the ground was so soft and water-logged that the guns simply sank up to the axles after the first few shots had been fired, and in some cases before a shot had been fired. The provision of stable platforms is an essential to good shooting at any time; but on the 12th it was only by desperate expedients that guns were kept in action at all. All the New Zealand batteries fired in the barrage; the gunners secured logs, odd bits of timber, anything, in fact, that would provide a foundation, and so contrived to keep their guns in action. The results of the day indicated nothing more clearly so far as the Artillery is concerned, than that if reliance is to be placed upon the adequacy of their support under such conditions provision must be made both for getting the guns forward and for the construction of platforms. The experience gained in the Messines operations in the use of light railways for the supply of ammunition might usefully have been applied in these operations even to a limited extent; besides being economical in point of time and in man-power such a system would have considerably relieved the congestion of traffic on the roads and been the means also of saving the lives of a great many horses.

Despite the fact that the artillery was almost reduced to total immobility and that even movement on foot was a matter of extreme difficulty, orders were actually issued to certain batteries about this time regarding the provision of mobile sections of 18-prs. in readiness to co-operate in case of a rapid advance on the front by cavalry. And this at a time when even unburdened animals became so hopelessly bogged that extrication became impossible and they had to be destroyed. Obviously Corps Headquarters must have possessed a better knowledge of the conditions prevailing in forward areas than such an order would seem to suggest; needless to say the opportunity of assisting the cavalry in a "rapid advance" never arose.

page 196

Notwithstanding the adverse conditions with which they had to contend, the shooting of the New Zealand batteries was not allowed to suffer, and careful checking of registration was frequently carried out in order to obviate any risk of inaccurate shooting. Several complaints were made regarding short shooting, however, and on the afternoon of the 14th October reports of "shorts" were received from one of the brigade observers; but it was ascertained that the New Zealand batteries had not been in action at any of the times stated, the officer commanding the sub-group having visited the infantry in the afternoon for the purpose of having the matter cleared up. On the 16th all 18-pr. guns on the Divisional front fired two rounds per gun on the S.O.S. line, and an hour later a report was received that some of the shells had fallen short. Lieut.-Colonel Falla expressed his conviction that none of the batteries of the New Zealand sub-group was responsible, and asked that they should be permitted to fire alone on the same lines. Permission was granted, and the shooting was reported to be quite satisfactory. This test exonerated the batteries from any suspicion of blame; but it also did more in strengthening the confidence of the infantry of the Division in their own Artillery.

At 11 a.m. on the 13th batteries were ordered to reduce fire to thirty rounds per gun every twenty-four hours; but this made matters little easier for the drivers, as supplies of ammunition had to be got up to the forward positions yet to be occupied; it was almost impossible for horses to get into the positions, and the ammunition had often to be dumped at the side of the road and carried to the guns by hand. The decision having been come to that all guns were to be moved forward to the positions near Winnipeg-Kansas Cross Roads with as little delay as possible, a company of New Zealand Pioneers was detailed to help repair the roads and assist in extricating the guns from their positions, and moving them forward. This was on the 15th of the month, but nothing was done towards moving the guns that day, owing to the condition of the roads. On the following day two 18-prs. and three 4.5in. howitzers were brought forward; but on the 17th, when the day was fine and the ground was drying fast, the roads were so heavily shelled that considerable delay was caused, and by the evening page 197rain had set in again. The movement of the guns was continued, however, in the face of almost incredible difficulties. The whole countryside was one vast quagmire, and the roads were little better. The employment of horses was out of the question, as they sank up to their bellies at almost the first step, and some even were submerged and lost in the seemingly bottomless mire. At times even the guns threatened to sink out of sight; and tracks for the wheels had to be contrived from lengths of planking, which were taken up as the guns went on and laid down in front again, so that progress was by short and toilsome stages. The Pioneers, two hundred strong, and the gunners devoted their whole strength to each gun in turn, and it required the united effort of this powerful team to drag the gun along foot by foot. It was a task which only men of powerful physique and great endurance could have faced, and on which the Pioneers expended every ounce of their strength. Their hands became blistered and cut with the wet ropes, and often they were waist-deep in the mud; but they hung on, heaving in unison to the Maori cries of their leader, and very, very gradually the work progressed.

The position by the 20th was that about two-thirds of the New Zealand Artillery had been got up to the forward positions, where the simultaneous packing of ammunition had provided 800 rounds per 18-pr. and 450 rounds per howitzer. During this period the enemy had persistently shelled the whole area with guns of every calibre up to 11in., the shelling being particularly heavy round Spree Farm, Nos. 5 and 6 Tracks, Kansas Cross, and the whole of the Gravenstafel Spur. He had also systematically searched for battery positions, both forward and rear, and had made a favourite target of the Schuler Galleries, where the New Zealand batteries had their control posts. Night bombing of the waggon lines and rear areas had become systematic, whilst the enemy bombing planes had also begun to come boldly over by day. bombing battery positions and the traffic on the crowded roads. At 10 a.m. on the 20th command of the artillery on the Divisional front passed to the C.R.A., 3rd Canadian Division, which was relieving the New Zealand Infantry; command of the Left Main Group passed to Brigadier-General Forman, C.R.A., 49th Division, and Lieut.-Colonel Falla remained in command of the sub-group.

page 198

During the six days which elapsed before the Canadian Corps joined in the renewal of the attack, the New Zealand Brigades were occupied in vigorous harassing fire, most of which was carried out at night, and in taking part in preparatory barrages, which were designed to thoroughly sweep the enemy's territory to a considerable depth. Steps were taken to deal with all uncut wire, and vigorous counter-battery work was done along the whole front, the 4th (Howitzer) Battery being attached to a counter-battery group for this purpose. In short, a thorough effort was made to remove the obstacles which had chiefly been responsible for the arrest of the advance on October 12th. The activity of the enemy batteries chiefly found expression in the heavy shelling of battery positions and communications. The attack was launched at 5.45 a.m. on October 26th, on a front extending from the Ypres-Roulers Railway to beyond Poelcappelle, the Canadians attacking on the right on both sides of the Ravebeek, a small stream flowing south-westerly from Passchendaele. On the left bank of the stream they advanced astride the main ridge, and established themselves on the small hill south of Passchendaele; strong resistance was encountered on the Bellevue Spur, however, which was only captured on a second attempt in the afternoon.

The supporting barrage, advancing in lifts of 50 yards every four minutes, went through all its phases till 10.30 a.m. when cease fire was ordered, and at noon the S.O.S. line was given as the line of the protective barrage for the first objective. Hostile fire throughout the day was mostly directed on forward areas, but back areas and battery positions were heavily shelled throughout the night with howitzers of all calibres and high-velocity guns. Batteries were subjected to equally heavy fire practically every night until the next attack on the 30th. On this occasion the front of attack extended from the Ypres-Roulers Railway to the Poelcappelle Westroosebeke Road. On the right the Canadians continued their advance along the high ground, and reached the outskirts of Passchendaele, but the village was not finally captured until November 6th, some days after the New Zealand batteries had been relieved. Zero hour on the 30th was 5.50 a.m., and the supporting barrage was entirely satisfactory. Fire ceased at page 1999.10 a.m., but the enemy counter-attacked several times during the day, and S.O.S, calls were answered at 9.45 a.m., 11.30 a.m., and 5 p.m.

On November 1st batteries of the 1st Canadian Divisional Artillery commenced the relief of the New Zealand batteries, taking over the guns as they stood in the pits. The relief was completed the following night, when the personnel of the New Zealand batteries, which had not received any guns in exchange, withdrew to the waggon lines. Both Brigades and the Divisional Ammunition Column moved out for the Watou area at 9.30 a.m. on the 3rd. While the relief was in progress waggon lines were heavily bombed, and casualties to men and horses were suffered, the 15th battery having twenty-six horses killed on the night of the lst-2nd November.

After the New Zealand Artillery had withdrawn from the line the following letter was received by Major-General Russell, G.O.C. the Division, from Major-General L. J. Lipsett, Commanding 3rd Canadian Division:—"I must thank you very much for the great assistance given to us by your artillery during the Passchendaele battles. They have been very highly spoken of by all our people. They worked hard, and were keen on producing results."

The following letter was also received from Brigadier-General P. A. Mitchell, C.R.A., 3rd Canadian Division:—"Now that the New Zealand Artillery are leaving my command, I wish to place on record my appreciation of the high standard of efficiency maintained by them while they were assisting to cover the offensive operations of the 3rd Canadian Division. In spite of the difficulties of bad weather, and almost impassable roads, they kept their guns in action and their ammunition dumps filled with a regularity which would have been impossible without a high standard of discipline, energy, and efficiency. I should be glad if you would convey my thanks to all officers, N.C.O.'s, gunners, and drivers of the New Zealand Artillery for their gallant and faithful work in trying circumstances."

After spending three days in the Watou area, the artillery marched to the Wallon Cappel area on November 7th. For several days the weather was wet and disagreeable; but both page 200men and horses were thoroughly exhausted after their prolonged and, tremendous exertions at Passchendaele, and the rest, despite the unfavourable conditions, was much appreciated. On the 25th of the month both the 1st and 3rd Brigades and the Divisional Ammunition Column marched to waggon lines in the Boeschepe area, under orders of the CO., 3rd Brigade, moving viâ St. Sylvestre-Cappel. In this area units remained until they received orders to return to the line in the Ypres salient.

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.

page break

page break page 201

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.