New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
Chapter VI. Wintering in the Salient
Chapter VI. Wintering in the Salient.
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.
A Defensive Policy.
By the time the Divisional Artillery had settled down in the Ypres sector the general situation in the West had assumed a very different aspect from that which it had worn a few months earlier. The succession of tremendous events which had culminated in the disappearance of Russia as a factor in the page 210Allied cause, threatened the most momentous consequences. The bulk of the German Armies on the Russian front were set free, and as early as the beginning of November, 1917, the transfer of divisions to the Western Front had begun, and continued steadily until it became merely a matter of time when the enemy would have a big numerical superiority and a preponderance in guns. The British Army had suffered severely in the desperate fighting of 1917, and required reinforcing and rest and training to enable it to successfully withstand an offensive on the scale projected by the Germans. A defensive policy was adopted; measures were at once undertaken to prepare for a strong and sustained hostile offensive; and only such minor enterprises were undertaken during the winter months as were essential to secure information of the disposition of the German forces holding the line. The difficulty of resting divisions, and of training them in defensive warfare during a period when all available labour was required for the construction of rear line systems of defence, was not lessened by the extension of the British front at the end of January, 1918, when over twenty-eight miles of the French front were taken over by British troops. On the completion of this relief the British Armies held about 125 miles of active front.
In conformity with this altered tactical situation the New Zealand Division began to take thorough measures for the defence of the Divisional sector in the event of an enemy attack on a big scale. A comprehensive defence scheme, dealing with all the probable phases of such an attack, was prepared and issued to units, which immediately set about making such dispositions as were required of them under the scheme. A reserve infantry line was laid out, and the digging of trenches and communication trenches was at once undertaken. The captured "pill-boxes,'' which were dotted about the slopes, were utilised to the fullest extent in the construction of strong points, and the system was well wired. Reserve artillery positions were selected by each group, and each battery at once set to work on their preparation. Positions were built for six guns, but on completion only one section was to be withdrawn to the rear or reserve positions. The work was done by stages, each in its order of importance. Platforms for the guns were page 211constructed first, then command posts, shelter for the crews, ammunition pits, and, finally, some sort of overhead cover for the guns. The work was, of course, camouflaged as it progressed, and everything possible was done to conceal the positions from observation. Approaches had to be made, and a brigade reserve ammunition dump constructed somewhere in the neighbourhood. Work proceeded slowly owing to the difficulties presented by the ground and the fact that almost all the material for construction had to be salved.
The positions were being constructed on country which had been the scene of desperate fighting, and which was then but a wilderness of shell holes, half filled with water. It was heavy, tedious work, and often as the men dug they found grim reminders of the fighting that had ebbed and flowed on these slopes, in the unburied dead who had gradually sunk into the soft ground or had been half buried by the bursting shells. Always the greatest caution had to be exercised to screen the work from the prying eyes of the German airmen who came over the line on clear days spotting for their batteries or taking photographs. Work on the new positions was frequently suspended owing to hostile shelling in the neighbourhood; their proximity in some cases to the road made them less secure; and the 3rd Brigade reserve dump, which was very close to the plank road that led up to Westhoek, had no sooner been completed than it was seriously damaged by shell fire. Reserve positions were placed in communication with Group or Brigade Headquarters, headquarters of the infantry in the line and forward observation stations, as well as with the main battery position, and after they were occupied by a section of guns an officer always remained in command at the position; though the orders were that the guns were to fire only on S.O.S. call or counter preparation. Counter preparation was one of the measures to be taken in the event of a threatened attack, and was fired only on orders from Divisional Artillery Headquarters. The defence scheme further provided that in the event of an attack penetrating the foremost defensive system the guns at main battery positions would be withdrawn to the reserve positions, whence the fire of the battery would be directed from specially selected and prepared observation posts.page 212
Each brigade maintained four anti-tank guns, which were situated in suitable positions immediately in rear of the support trenches. These guns, which were got forward only with great difficulty, had of course, to be taken from the strength of the 18-pr. batteries in the brigade, as the 13-prs. which were normally used for this purpose were not available in sufficient numbers. It was considered as essential, however, that some provision of this nature should be made to guard against the possible use of tanks in an enemy attack.
Throughout the greater part of December, enemy artillery was continually active. Shooting on the forward areas was mostly from lighter calibre guns, but the battery areas and roads were shelled with heavy howitzers. On the afternoon of December 23rd, the 3rd Battery was heavily shelled with 5.9's, and there was a good deal of shelling on both forward and rear areas on the following day. Warning was issued from Divisional Headquarters that all ranks were to be specially prepared for attacks from the enemy on Christmas Day, but nothing of this nature followed, though the infantry sent up an S.O.S. at 2.45 a.m. Batteries at once opened fire, but after fifteen minutes the situation was reported clear, and firing ceased. During the remainder of the day the enemy's artillery activity was slightly above normal, while the New Zealand batteries contented themselves with firing two concentrations—one at 8 a.m. and another at 5 p.m. Snow fell during the day, just sufficient to lightly cover the ground and give the traditional setting for an Old World Christmas. All did their best to spend the day as suitably as circumstances permitted, and at the waggon lines at any rate the dinners which had been prepared were of a kind and quantity sufficient to tire the appetite of even such trenchermen as sat round the tables that day. The C.R.A. paid brief visits to the waggon lines about mid-day, and spoke a few words to the assembled men.
Events in February followed their course without notable change, except that the much-discussed German offensive was regarded as being increasingly imminent, and every precaution page 214was taken to detect signs of unusual activity behind the enemy lines. When it was ascertained that the trenches opposite the Divisional sector were held by a German division newly transferred from the Eastern Front, it was decided to accord it a reception calculated to increase the disfavour with which these transferred divisions were said to regard service on the Western Front. This took the form of a creeping barrage, fired by the Divisional Artillery in co-operation with the heavy artillery and the guns of the 66th Division on the left. Fire was maintained for forty minutes, and so far as could be judged the results were considered to have been very satisfactory.
The enemy, who invariably made good use of his observation balloons when conditions were favourable, effectively engaged some of the battery positions during this shoot. At the 11th Battery's position he secured a direct hit on one gun just as the battery was firing its last round, completely destroying the gun and killing all five members of the gun crew.
Hostile artillery fire during this period frequently took the form of area shoots, in which a selected area was subjected to a brief, violent burst of fire from one or more batteries; the enemy also sent over a lot of gas shell, especially at night time. The practice in which he indulged of sometimes mixing a percentage of gas with high explosive shells, and so concealing the presence of the gas until it had made itself apparent, occasioned casualties, until the soldiers grew more alert. On one occasion a working party, twenty strong, who were going to Cameron Covert to assist in digging an approach to an observation post for the 2nd Brigade, were all more or less badly gassed in one of these "mixed" shell storms.
Some readjustment of the Divisional sector took place as a result of the withdrawal from the line of the 66th Division, on the left. The New Zealand Division was at the time in the XXII Corps, which held the corps front with three Divisions in line—the 20th, New Zealand, and 66th. On the withdrawal of this latter Division on February 8th, the command of the Cameron Covert sub-sector on the Divisional front passed to the 20th Division, on the right. On the north the Division extended its front for a distance of about one thousand yards, to a point immediately south of Broodseinde.page 215
As reports of abnormal activity behind the enemy's lines had been received, Corps Headquarters ordered counter-preparation to be fired at 5.30 a.m. on the 20th of the month, but the situation remained normal.
Some slight alteration in the disposition of certain batteries was necessitated as a result of the change in the Divisional sector. This chiefly affected the batteries of the 3rd Brigade, which moved individual sections somewhat further north, the 4th (Howitzer) Battery putting a section near the Ypres-Roulers Railway, north of Zonnebeke.
On February 9th the 2nd Brigade had the misfortune to lose one of its battery commanders, in the person of Major V. Rogers, D.S.O., commanding 5th Battery, who was killed by a shell on the road between the Bellewarde Ridge and Westhoek while returning to the guns at night. Major Rogers was a very popular officer, with a lengthy record of service, and the news of his death came as a shock to every artilleryman in the Division. Command of the 5th Battery then passed to Captain P. J. Ellis, who was, however, severely wounded a fortnight later, after which the battery was commanded by Captain W. H. Jones.
Some important changes in commands occurred during the latter half of March. On the 14th Lieut.-Colonel F. B. Sykes, D.S.O., R.A., who had commanded the 2nd Brigade of Artillery since its formation in Gallipoli, left the Division to join the British Army. Lieut.-Colonel Sykes left New Zealand with the Main Body, in command of the 2nd Battery, and fought the battery on Gallipoli, until he was appointed to the command of the newly-formed 2nd Brigade. He possessed a vigorous personality and characteristics which made him a well-known and popular figure in the Artillery. Lieut.-Colonel N. S. Falla was appointed to command the 2nd Brigade, his departure from the 3rd Brigade, which he had up till then commanded, being viewed with regret by all ranks in the Brigade. Major R. S. McQuarrie, commanding 9th Battery, was promoted Lieut.-Colonel, and given command of the 3rd Brigade, command of the 9th Battery passing to Captain F. W. Reed.page 216
Major McQuarrie did not actually assume command of the 3rd Brigade until the eve of its departure for the Somme at the close of the month. In the interval he was given charge of a Divisional Artillery Training School which was established in Scottish Camp, near Poperinghe. Training schools for the various arms had always been maintained in France by the several British Armies, and from time to time a small number of officers and non-commissioned officers from the Divisional Artillery had been despatched to the Artillery School of the Army to which the Division was at the time attached, and there received instruction in the most modern ideas concerning artillery warfare. The establishment of a Divisional School was a new departure. Its career, however, was very brief, as it was closed immediately warning orders came for the move south to the Somme.
On the 24th of February the New Zealand Division (less Artillery), was relieved in the line by the 49th Division, and went back into the Corps Rest Area. The 1st Brigade, N.Z.F.A., remained in the line under the orders of the C.R.A. 49th Division. The 2nd Brigade was relieved by the 245th Brigade R.F.A., but the personnel of the 2nd Battery remained in the line to man anti-tank guns on the Divisional front; the Battery, therefore, did not accompany the 2nd Brigade when it marched on the 27th of the month to Westoutre, under orders from the XXII. Corps.
The 3rd Brigade batteries were relieved by those of the 246th Brigade R.F.A. on February 25th, and withdrew to their waggon lines, only to be ordered into the line again the following day under the tactical control of the 37th Divisional Artillery Headquarters. The orders to move were received without warning shortly before 9 p.m. on the 26th, but despite the fact that the waggons had to be loaded with ammunition, the move was completed very shortly after midnight. All batteries were close to the road which intersected the Menin Road at Hell Fire Corner, and ran in rear of the Halfway House dug-outs. A few days later the 12th Battery withdrew from its position near Hell Fire Corner, and moved its guns to pits near Zillebeke Lake, in relief of a battery of the 213th Brigade, R.F.A., which had gone to the Artillery School at Tilques as demonstration page 217battery. The 11th and 13th Batteries also moved forward a few hundred yards to positions immediately in front of Halfway House. On March 19th the 12th Battery, which had endured a great deal of heavy shelling at Zillebeke, was withdrawn from the 213th Brigade, and rejoined its own brigade, the guns going into action in front of the 11th Battery position.
The enemy displayed marked activity along the whole of the Ypres sector during March. In addition to a small local attack north and south of the Menin Road on the 8th of the month, hostile batteries were persistently active on forward areas, and there was a recrudescence of long range shelling in back areas. Anxiety was felt as to whether the heavy shelling of forward areas might not be the prelude to infantry action, and counter-preparation was ordered and fired in the early morning of the 10th, and on the three following mornings. There were constant alarms during the week that followed, but the tension remained unbroken until on the 21st March intelligence was received that the long-expected German offensive had been launched in the south. Details at first were meagre and, as always, rumours and vague reports of the most varied description sprang to life with a fecundity that is usual at such times. It was soon learnt, however, that the enemy had struck on a very wide front with tremendous weight, and that the situation was one of extreme gravity. On March 22nd Brigades and the D.A.C. were warned to be ready to move, and detailed instructions regarding reliefs were issued.