New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
On the night of the 14th-15th November the New Zealand Division relieved the 21st Division in the line at Ypres, on a sector extending from the Reutelbeek, northwards to Noordemdhoek. The Divisional Artillery did not go into the line, but the C.R.A., Brigadier-General Johnston, with his headquarters staff, moved into the Ypres area to take command of the artillery supporting the Division. This command comprised the 3rd Australian Field Artillery Brigade and two Army Brigades R.F.A. The C.R.A. established himself at Chateau Segard, between Ypres and Dickebusch, where the headquarters of the Division was to remain during the winter months. On November 26th the front held by the Division was extended southwards to the Scherriabeek, thus embracing Polderhoek.
The Divisional Trench Mortars, which had accompanied the Division when it first took over the sector, and had since been engaged in preparing positions, assisted in the support of the unsuccessful attack made on Polderhoek Chateau by the New Zealand Infantry on December 3rd—two days before the New Zealand batteries came on to the front. In this attack the Divisional Trench Mortars used for the first time the 6in. Newton trench mortars with which they had just been equipped. Some 850 rounds were fired, and one mortar was destroyed by hostile shell-fire. On the night of December 5th, the Division was relieved by the 30th Division on that portion of its front south of the Reutelbeek. Four days later the Divisional sector was extended northwards to a point approximately one thousand yards north of Noordemdhoek.
The New Zealand Field Artillery moved into the line in support of their own troops in the first week in December. Batteries being still without guns, the gunners were taken up from Boeschepe in motor lorries, and took over the guns of the artillery then covering the Division. In this manner the 1st page 206Brigade (less the 15th Battery, which did not go into action until some few days later) relieved the 14th Brigade, R.F.A.; the 2nd (Army) Brigade, which had returned from the Belgian coast at the end of November, relieved the 3rd Australian Field Artillery Brigade; and the 3rd Brigade relieved the 18th Brigade, R.F.A. The relief was completed by December 6th. The Brigades covering the Division were grouped as follows:— "B" Group—2nd Brigade and 52nd Brigade R.F.A., under Lieut.-Colonel Sykes; "C" Group—3rd Brigade, under Lieut.-Colonel Falla; "D" Group—1st Brigade, under Lieut.-Colonel Symon. Headquarters of "B" Group were at the Tuilleries, of "C" Group at Halfway House, and of "D" Group at Hooge Crater.
The prospect of wintering in the salient was faced with the philosophic acceptance of events that becomes a characteristic of the soldier. The men were nearly all quite familiar with the nature of the country, but the scene that unfolded itself as they left the lorries at the Birr Cross Roads, and proceeded on foot to the battery positions, was forbidding in the extreme. The way lay through the country over which the attacking divisions had fought their way in the Third Battle of Ypres, and on every hand the fighting had left its indelible impress. Nothing had been left untouched by the shell storms that had swept up and down and over every inch of the land. The roads, so busy through the long hours of darkness, were deserted by day and were littered on either side with broken waggons and limbers and ambulance carts, and all the wreckage of transport and material that accumulates along a road line during heavy fighting. Batteries of the 1st Brigade were situated about the slopes forward from Hooge Crater; the 9th and 6th (Howitzer) Batteries of the 2nd Brigade were near Glencorse Wood, and the 2nd and 5th, with the 12th Battery of the 3rd Brigade, were on the left of Westhoek; the remaining batteries of the 3rd Brigade, the 11th, 13th, and 4th (howitzer) were very close together near the Westhoek Cross Roads.
Captured German blockhouses situated near the positions were used as battery headquarters and sleeping quarters, but like the gun positions themselves, they were in a very bad condition. Some of them were feet deep in dirt and debris page 207of every description, and even German dead were unearthed in the cleaning-out process, but the blockhouses were tremendously strong and afforded complete protection against anything but a direct hit from a very heavy shell. Few there were indeed who did not feel grateful for their shelter at some time or other as they sat inside and counted the familiar "5.9's," as they poured in on a terrifying crescendo, making the stout walls and even the very earth quake. Their chief weakness lay in the position of the entrance, which faced the line, and on one or two occasions a shell found its way through the door and wiped the inmates out of existence.
Many of the gun positions were in an indescribable condition; the pits were water-logged and innocent of approaches or decent platforms, and were littered about with empty charge cases, and odd piles of ammunition which seemed on the point of sinking out of sight in the mud. Too much could not be expected in an area where a prolonged period of heavy fighting had been followed by persistently bad weather; but improvements were possible, and steps were at once taken to have them effected. Pits were drained, cleaned up, and provided with weather-proof ammunition racks and stable platforms, and splinter-proof sleeping shelters were built for the crews. Before the hard weather came and bound the surface of the earth in its iron grip, nearly all the ammunition lying about the positions had been cleaned up, and most of the charge cases salved; little of the ammunition was used, however, as it was found to have seriously deteriorated by exposure and damp. All this was achieved, not in a day or a week, but after long and patient toil during the short daylight hours, and subject to the interruptions of enemy shelling. An immense amount of salving was done by the Division during these months, and the value of the material and ammunition collected from all parts of the sector ran into very big figures. Every waggon or ration cart that visited the forward areas returned with a load of material of some description, and every man in formed parties marching down from the line carried some small thing back to the "dump," where, in striking letters, was displayed a notice which queried of the passer-by what he had salved that day.page 208
The front offered excellent facilities for observation, but communications were hopelessly inadequate at the outset, and improvements were not effected until the Division had been some considerable time in the sector. Shooting a battery under decent conditions as regards observation and communication has a strong fascination for an observing officer, but it is more exasperating than fascinating when communication is constantly being broken, and orders take minutes to filter through to the battery. At Ypres a message had often to go through four or five stations to reach the guns, and a telephonist had constantly to be on the alert to ensure that another station did not "cut in," and take the wire. Shooting suffered under such conditions, and opportunities for effective fire were frequently lost. It was only after long endurance of these difficulties that buried wires were run to the headquarters of infantry battalions, whence batteries linked up their observation posts with ground wires which were laid on the bottom of the communication trenches or pegged to the sides.
Encouragement was given to every form of sport during the winter, and a variety of amusements and entertainments were promoted to brighten the tedium of existence. Rugby football took pride of place among the sports, and the most fervid enthusiasm was aroused by a series of matches between batteries and brigades in the final of which the 1st Brigade defeated the 3rd Brigade. A Divisional Fifteen was selected after a series of trial matches, and after defeating the Welsh Division's Fifteen at Merville by 14 points to 3 journeyed to Paris, and there defeated a team representative of the French Army. The most popular and successful entertainment ever presented by any party of entertainers from the Division, was the pantomime which was produced on a really elaborate scale in a big marquee near Dickebusch, and attracted crowded "houses" for a lengthy period. At the Artillery lines a commodious recreation hut was erected by the Y.M.C.A. for the use of the artillerymen; its construction was long delayed by the non-arrival of necessary material, and it was not till early in February that it was officially opened by Major-General A. H. Russell. In addition to reading and supper rooms, there was a big hall, in which entertainments ranging from Pierrot shows to debates were held almost every evening.