New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
The great German offensive, planned with all the skill of the nation's military leaders, and prepared for with all the vast resources at their disposal, had for months been so unceasingly written of in the English newspaper press, and so long discussed and anticipated in the Army itself, that the anxiety and strain of waiting for this formidable onslaught had become intense. When the offensive was at last launched on the morning of March 21st, it was startling enough in its magnitude and sustained violence, and in the rapidity with which it developed. In its first phase, which may be said to have ended on April 5th, the offensive was directed against the fronts held by the Third and Fifth Armies. The preliminary bombardment opened at 5 a.m. along practically the whole front held by those two Armies, while violent bombardments with gas and high explosive were opened along various other sectors on the British and French fronts. The weather favoured the enemy; a thick white fog obscured the countryside, being so dense in some localities that nothing could be seen, behind the line, of the S.O.S. signals sent up by the British infantry on the opening of the attack. The hour of assault was not everywhere the same, but by 9.45 a.m. the enemy had attacked on a front of fifty-four miles between the Oise and the Sensee Rivers. By noon his infantry had reached the first line of the battle positions in strength on practically the whole front of attack. Fighting continued with the greatest intensity throughout the afternoon and evening, the attack making particularly rapid and serious progress south of St. Quentin.
The enemy exploited his gains on succeeding days; sweeping down north and south of the Somme before reserve divisions could be hurried forward from other parts of the Allied front, he was soon threatening Amiens at comparatively close quarters. On March 26th, the day on which Marshal Foch assumed supreme page 219command of the Allied Armies on the Western Front, the enemy's advance north of the Somme was practically checked. Between Hamel and Puisieux, however, the situation was obscure, and a gap existed between the V. and IV. Corps, through which enemy detachments worked forward and occupied Colincamps.
When the offensive opened on March 21st, the New Zealand Division (less Artillery), was still in XXII. Corps Reserve in the Staple area. Of the three Brigades of Artillery, the 1st and 3rd were in action at Ypres, being attached respectively to the 49th and 37th Divisions; the 2nd (Army) Brigade was in rest at Westoutre. A few hours after the offensive had opened warning orders were received by the Division to be prepared to move south at any hour after midnight on March 22nd, as G.H.Q. Reserve. On the 23rd orders were received directing that the entrainment of the Division (less Artillery) should commence at 2 p.m. on the following day. Owing to the rapidly changing situation orders issued regarding the detraining stations and the area in which the Division was to concentrate on its arrival at its destination, were subject to frequent alteration. Finally, at 1 a.m. on March 25th, orders were received that the detraining stations would be Hangest, Ailly, and St. Roch. Late on the night of the 25th, further and final orders were received from the Third Army for the Division to march by the Hedauville-Mailly-Maillet-Puisieux Road, and fill the gap between Hamel and Puisieux-au-Mont.
The Division was concentrating at Hedauville, where Divisional Headquarters had opened at 1.30 a.m. on March 26th, and as units arrived they were despatched straight into action. Contact was first gained with the enemy about 11 a.m. on March 26th, about five hundred yards east of Auchonvillers. The left flank of the advanced guard found the enemy in superior force, and fresh troops were reported advancing along the Serre Road, but the enemy was at once hotly engaged, and his advance was stayed. As further infantry units arrived a definite line was established, and touch was eventually gained with the troops on each flank, considerable assistance being given in one phase of these operations by a detachment of light tanks, or "whippets." which were being used in action for the first time. It was not until the evening of the 27th March, that the New page 220Zealand Artillery arrived on the front, and at once went into action in support of their infantry, who in the meantime had been almost without artillery support.
It is now necessary to turn again to Ypres in order to follow the movements of the Divisional Artillery, which, as has been shown, was still in action there when the first news was had of the launching of the smashing German attacks in the south. Warning orders were issued on the 22nd for the 1st and 3rd Brigades to be prepared to move at short notice. The relief of these two brigades was expeditiously carried out, but the stream of troops moving down to the threatened area threw a heavy strain on all transport arrangements, and precious time was lost standing by at the entraining stations waiting the arrival of trains. The 1st and 3rd Brigades were relieved by brigades of Australian Field Artillery on the night 22nd-23rd March, and on the 23rd were busily engaged getting everything in readiness for a move and cleaning up the waggon line areas. Guns requiring overhaul were hastily sent off to Ordnance, and the "sick lines" were cleared by evacuating all animals that were not fit to take their share of work on the march. Marching order parades were held, and kits were cut down to normal limits by calling in the surplus gear and equipment which always accumulated during a lengthy stay in one area.
The 3rd Brigade marched out from its waggon lines for the entraining stations at 9 a.m. on March 24th; Brigade Headquarters and the 4th, 11th, and 12th Batteries marched to Godewaersvelde, and the 13th Battery to Caestre. The 1st Brigade marched out the following day to Hopoutre, but as no trains were available preparations were made to bivouac near the station. At 10 p.m., however, 1st Brigade Headquarters commenced to entrain, and finally moved off at midnight, followed in succession by the 1st, 3rd, and 7th Batteries. The 15th Battery entrained at noon on the 25th. All day on the 25th the 3rd Brigade stood by waiting for trains without result. The night, which was wet, was spent in bivouac and it was finally late in the afternoon on the 26th before entraining was under way. The Divisional Ammunition Column travelled, in small sections, with units of the two brigades.page 221
The train journey occupied about twelve hours, following a somewhat indirect route running north through St. Omer towards the coast, and thence through Calais, Boulogne, Etaples, and Abbeville, to the detraining stations south of Amiens. The 1st Brigade detrained at St. Roch, and the 3rd Brigade at Ailly and Hangest. After watering and feeding the horses the 1st Brigade marched right through to Hedauville, where batteries bivouacked, while the Brigade and Battery Commanders went forward to the vicinity of Mailly-Maillet to reconnoitre positions.
Headquarters of the 3rd Brigade also proceeded direct to Hedauville, but the batteries broke their journey during the night to feed and rest their horses; the 11th, 12th, and 13th stopping at Picquigny, and the 4th Battery at Warloy. After this spell the columns took the road again and marched straight through to Mailly-Maillet. The enemy vigorously bombed Amiens all night, the crash of his heavy bombs punctuating the incessant popping of the anti-aircraft guns. Some of the 1st Brigade batteries, which marched through Amiens during the night, had to run the gauntlet of this bombing, but fortunately escaped without casualties.
Already closely menaced by the German advance from the north and east, and thus violently assailed from the air by night, the inhabitants were fleeing from Amiens, and their numbers swelled the streams of refugees from the villages in the battle zone. The road traversed by the batteries as they went towards Amiens in the early morning presented a pathetic and extraordinary spectacle. Along the broad highway, bordered with lofty poplars, slowly moved an endless stream of women and children and old, old men, all on foot, except for the few, more fortunate, who rode on top of their heavily burdened waggons and country carts. All who were strong enough had contrived to take away some few small possessions which they wheeled in barrows and even perambulators, or carried on their backs. Mostly they trudged through the dust stout-heartedly enough, but others sat wearily by the roadside with hardly the courage to smile, sad fugitives of war, who knew not if ever again they would see their homes. Amiens itself appeared almost deserted, and many of the buildings showed evidences of the severity of the bombing to which the town had been subjected.page 222
The 1st Brigade, less the 15th (Howitzer) Battery, moved up from Mailly-Maillet after 1 p.m. on the 27th, and by 5 p.m. was in action in positions which had been reconnoitred on the northern edge of the village. The 15th Battery went into action the following morning. Officers from the 3rd Brigade batteries arrived at Mailly-Maillet late in the evening of the 27th, and had just sufficient time before dusk to reconnoitre positions which were all to the east of the village, two of them being near the ruins of the railway station. Batteries arrived a little later, and were in action by 11 p.m. Beyond some hostile shelling the night passed uneventfully; but the movement of enemy troops opposite the Divisional front aroused fears of further attacks in the morning, and as an urgent provision batteries and the Divisional Ammunition Column were hard at work getting ammunition up to the guns, the batteries alone bringing up a total of ten thousand rounds during the first twenty-four hours. Harassing fire was maintained on the enemy's forward areas during the night and counter preparation was fired for two hours from 4 a.m. As battery staffs were still occupied during the day in establishing forward communications to infantry headquarters and front line observation posts, most of this shooting was done off the map; but observation showed it to be accurate and effective.
Very good observation was to be had over the enemy's country, and once communications had been laid no time was lost in engaging the splendid targets offered by the German infantry, who showed themselves very freely during the first few days, and could even be seen in bivouacs on the slopes of the ridges behind Beaumont-Hamel. Although the indications were that the enemy had not yet brought up a great weight of artillery, his batteries were very active on the villages and roads behind the Divisional front and on battery areas, and he made free use of captured guns, ranging from 4.5in howitzers and 60-prs. to heavy calibre howitzers. During hostile shelling on the 28th Lieut.-Colonel R. S. McQuarrie was slightly wounded. and command of the 3rd Brigade passed, temporarily, to Major C. Somerville. An unlucky shell the same night destroyed the headquarters of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in Colincamps, and killed Brigadier-General Fulton, the Brigade Commander, and his Brigade Major, besides wounding several other officers.page break
On 27th March Divisional Headquarters had moved from Hedauville to the Chateau at Busles-Artois, and the C.R.A. assumed command of the artillery covering the front, consisting of the two New Zealand Brigades, the 25th Divisional Artillery, the 104th (Army) Brigade, R.F.A., the 29th and 90th Brigades, R.G.A., and the 56th Siege Battery. At the beginning of April the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade took over a few hundred yards of line on the left, and a few minutes later the Divisional front was reorganised on a two brigade front, with one brigade in reserve. The 2nd Infantry Brigade remained on the right, and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade took over on the left from the 1st Infantry Brigade which went into Divisional reserve. The construction of rear defence systems was by this time well forward, the Pioneers in particular, having done an immense amount of digging. These rear defences consisted primarily of a Divisional reserve line, known as the Purple Line, which skirted Forceville on the east and ran in a north-easterly direction past Beaussart and Courcelles-au-Bois to Hebuterne; a switch line known as the Colincamps Switch; and a third system, designated the Red Line, and situated several thousand yards in rear of the Reserve Line. The principle of defence in depth was also followed in the selection of reserve positions for the artillery, and the selection and partial preparation of these positions was actively proceeded with during April.
During the 28th March the guns supported minor attacks which were made by the infantry to regain a short length of line which had been seized by the enemy the previous night, and to improve the observation at one or two other points. In the early afternoon two brigades of enemy infantry were reported moving down the valley from Serre towards the Ancre; every available gun was turned on to them for an hour, and they were not seen again. Harassing fire was maintained day and night, and by day a tremendous amount of observed shooting was done by all batteries. Heavy rain fell during the night of the 29th, and as no duckboards were to be had the condition of the old trenches was very bad. An operation to further improve the line was carried out at 2 p.m. on the 30th March by the 1st Infantry Brigade and the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. The advance was supported by a well-placed barrage and was quite successful, page 224except in one spot where the enemy clung to a small "pocket," from which, however, he was eventually driven the following morning. So rapid was the success of the centre and right battalions in this attack that their objectives were reported occupied within seven minutes; the prisoners totalled nearly three hundred, and over one hundred machine guns, and five light minenwerfers were captured, while about two hundred and fifty enemy dead were counted on the front attacked.
On the 3rd and 4th of April hostile fire was normal, and there was nothing to indicate that the enemy was strengthening his artillery along the front; although he had brought up a number of observation balloons, which stared down at the battery positions from the first peep of dawn till dark. It soon transpired, however, that this comparative calm was of the sort that precedes a storm. Apparently the enemy had not been able to accept the fact that his advance on this front had been completely blocked, and cherished the hope that he might yet re-open the road to Amiens; for on the 5th he launched a series of strong attacks accompanied by strong and sustained fire from a reinforced artillery against the front of the Division. It so happened that the Divisional Artillery was that morning assisting the 37th Division in an attack on Rossignol Wood, by putting down a smoke screen, and creating a diversion on enemy trenches elsewhere. The 37th Division was to attack at 5.30 a.m., but shortly after the guns opened up the enemy commenced a heavy bombardment with guns up to 21 c.m. calibre, and extending from the forward areas to well behind battery positions.
Particular attention was paid to all the valleys and dead ground in rear of the front line system. These places were almost deluged with high explosive, and swept with shrapnel— chiefly captured 18-pr. ammunition, with which the enemy gunners managed to get very effective bursts. Practically all the ground wires to observation posts and infantry headquarters were broken at the outset, and communication was made difficult and uncertain; but the enemy's trenches were kept under a slow rate of fire, and counter-preparation was fired for several hours. Strong attacks were launched against the Left Brigade in the morning, but beyond gaining a little ground at one particular point, they were repulsed with heavy losses.
At 2 p.m. the Right Brigade beat off a further attack and captured some prisoners, who stated that they were originally to have co-operated with the attack on the left in the morning, but that the weight of artillery fire to which they had been subjected had then made their advance impossible. This was page 226the enemy's final effort, for the time being, and by 3.30 p.m. hostile fire had practically died down. The casualties at the gun positions during the day had been numerous, and considerable material damage had been done. The 3rd Battery position having been badly knocked about with eight-inch shells, was temporarily vacated during the night. The fact that the day had been dull, with low, overhanging clouds, was probably a fortunate circumstance for the batteries, as the enemy was unable to employ his observation balloons.
An enemy aeroplane, which had flown in and out of the low clouds above the batteries all day, was shot down by Lewis gun fire at 4 p.m., and both the pilot and observer were taken prisoners. At 5 a.m. the following morning counter-preparation consisting of a creeping barrage over the enemy's trenches to a depth of five hundred yards, was fired by all batteries in case the enemy should be assembling for another attack; but the night had been wet, and the situation remained normal.
On April 6th the 25th Divisional Artillery was withdrawn from the command of the New Zealand Division, and was replaced by the 93rd and 293rd (Army) Brigades, R.F.A. The artillery covering the Divisional front was then grouped into Right and Left Reserve Groups. The Right Group consisted of the 1st and 3rd Brigades, under Lieut.-Colonel F. Symon; the Left Group, of the two newly-arrived R.F.A. Brigades; and the Reserve Group, of the 104th (Army) Brigade, R.F.A. The situation remaining quiet, except for reciprocal artillery activity, the work of completing the defensive systems behind the Divisional front was vigorously proceeded with. The digging of the Divisional reserve line made steady progress, and a great deal of wiring was done in front of this line and the Colincamps Switch.
In view of the ever-present possibility of a renewal of the enemy's offensive on the front on a grand scale, the construction of a strong defensive system was regarded as of paramount importance, and the whole enemy country for a considerable depth behind his front line was kept under the fire of the guns with such excellent effect as to make preparation for an advance both difficult and costly. The greatest importance was attached to this harassing fire, and groups were ordered to keep it up page 227during every hour of the twenty-four. The minimum daily expenditure of ammunition for this purpose alone was 600 rounds per 18-pr. battery and 300 rounds per 4.5in. howitzer battery. An elaborate and lengthy defence scheme was issued by Divisional Artillery Headquarters, together with instructions showing the normal course a hostile attack might be expected to take, and the manner in which it could be most effectively dealt with.
Owing to the shape of the salient held by the enemy in front of Hebuterne it was possible to bring enfilade fire to bear in support of the flanking Divisions, and accordingly arrangements were made for "mutual support" barrages. The action of the artillery in the event of an enemy attack was divided into three phases. The first was counter-preparation, during which the enemy assembly areas were thoroughly searched by all guns. The second phase was the neutralisation of enemy guns, principally with gas shell, during the hostile bombardment; this task was to be carried out by the heavy artillery and field howitzers, the remainder of the field artillery standing by on S.O.S. lines. Finally, the actual assault would be met by all guns firing on their carefully registered S.O.S. zones.
All the gun positions which had been selected in rear for the defence of the reserve line were accurately resected by the Corps Topographical Section and fighting maps prepared. No pits were dug, each position being simply marked with a numbered board and gaps being left in the wire through which the guns could be withdrawn. A supply of boxed ammunition was provided near each position. Trench mortars were to assist in the defence of the Colincamps Switch, and pits were dug on the eastern edge of the village for medium mortars. Some of 6in. mortars were placed in the line, and carried on an active programme of shooting. Forward waggon lines were established by each brigade, and gun limbers and teams were kept there in readiness to move the guns at a moment's notice. On 9th April the 1st Brigade batteries moved to positions behind Mailly-Maillet, from which the guns would be able to cover the right flank in the event of the enemy endeavouring to advance up the valley to the south of the village. A few days later the R.F.A. Brigade which had been in mobile divisional reserve, ready to page 228move at an hour's notice, was ordered into positions selected for the defence of the Purple Line. In these positions the batteries were to fire only on S.O.S., remaining silent at all other times.
On April 21st and 22nd the 1st Brigade, exchanging positions with the 232nd Brigade, R.F.A., moved from the outskirts of Mailly-Maillet to north of Beaussart, and the 3rd Brigade went into the positions on the Divisional reserve line, with headquarters in Bus-les-Artois. Three days later the Division sideslipped a little to the north, handing over a short length of front to the 12th Division on the right, and relieving the 42nd Division in the line to a point just north of Hebuterne. In the readjustment of artillery caused by this change, the 93rd, 232nd, and 315th Brigades, R.F.A., were transferred, in situ to the 12th Division; the 235th and 236th Brigades, R.F.A., and four 6in. trench mortars being attached to the New Zealand Divisional Artillery.
By the end of April, Lieut.-Colonel McQuarrie had returned from hospital, and again assumed command of the 3rd Brigade, which continued to occupy the Purple Line positions. Further changes in the composition of groups took place during May. On the 7th the 235th and 236th Brigades were withdrawn from the Division, and as they were replaced by one brigade only—the 187th—it was found necessary to dispense with the Divisional Mobile Reserve, and accordingly the 104th Brigade, which had been in reserve since the beginning of the month, went into action again. On 21st May the batteries of this brigade were relieved in their positions near Sailly-au-Bois by the 3rd Brigade, and a day later the pits vacated by the 3rd Brigade were occupied by the 2nd (Army) Brigade, which had marched down from Hazebrouck. At the same time one of the 2nd Brigade batteries took over the two 18-pr. anti-tank guns which the 3rd Brigade had established near the Sugar Factory in front of Colincamps some two or three weeks earlier.
In addition to the normal tasks which were carried out during May, support was given to an infantry operation undertaken with a view to advancing the line on the left of the Divisional front some five hundred yards. The 42nd Division on the left, was to co-operate by conforming with this advance page 229and also by creating a diversion. Zero hour was at 8.50 p.m. on the 4th May, and the attack was directly supported by the fire of eight 6-in. Newton trench mortars, two brigades of field artillery, and some heavy guns. For three days the ground to be covered in the attack had been thoroughly prepared by heavy howitzers. and a diversion was created at La Signy Farm immediately before zero hour, by a sudden bombardment being laid down on certain trenches which had been very deliberately registered during the day. The diversion was so far successful that the enemy placed a heavy barrage at La Signy Farm and only lightly shelled the actual front of attack. The objective was successfully reached and prisoners were taken; but as the 42nd Division was held up on the left the captured ground could not be held, and the troops were withdrawn.
Towards the end of the month there was a very marked increase in hostile artillery fire, although at the time the weather was dull and visibility was not good. The enemy carried out a great deal of counter-battery work, and heavy concentrations were put down on trench areas. This may, in some measure, have been due to nervousness consequent on the raiding activities of the Divisional infantry; but it was more probably a general activity accompanying the launching of his offensive on the Soissons-Rheims front. After the opening of this offensive hostile fire on the front died down a good deal, except for an increase in the shelling of rear areas with long range high velocity guns.
About the middle of May a silent area was laid down within the limits of which no active batteries could be placed. Guns in this area were situated well forward, so that they could engage at close range hostile troops breaking through on the front. It was considered that their inactivity in normal seasons would enable them to escape the enemy's counter-battery shooting in the event of an attack. Brigades which maintained a battery in this silent area thus had two 18-pr. batteries and on 4.5in. (howitzer) battery for normal fire purposes, while all guns and howitzers were available for fire on S.O.S.
On June 7th the New Zealand Division was relieved by the 42nd Division, and withdrew from the line for a period of rest and training. The relief did not extend to the New Zealand page 230Brigades of Artillery, which remained in action in support of the 42nd Division. Weather conditions were almost uniformly fine during June, and conditions for artillery work were correspondingly good. The period was not marked by any particular activity, but brigades expended on an average from eight hundred to a thousand rounds per day on normal tasks—observed shooting by day and harassing fire by night. Hostile fire was below normal; apart from the usual attention paid to the trench system, it consisted chiefly of bursts of fire on the small villages immediately in rear of the line, particularly Mailly-Maillet. Beaussart, Courcelles, and Colincamps. Some attention was also paid to Sailly-au-Bois, the positions of the 3rd Brigade batteries in and around the village being shelled at dawn for several days in succession with high explosive and blue cross gas shells, the latter containing a mixture of gas and high explosive. The damage to positions was inconsiderable. The enemy also frequently placed brief concentrations of small calibre shells with instantaneous fuzes on the open country forward of the artillery zone; but although their unexpected and sudden appearance made them very disconcerting to parties on the move, casualties were fortunately infrequent.
Batteries of the 2nd Brigade withdrew to their waggon lines on June 10th, and for the remainder of the month the Brigade remained in mobile reserve, still continuing, however, to man the two anti-tank guns near the Sugar Factory in front of Colincamps. As corps mobile reserve the brigade had to be prepared to go into action on an hour's notice by night, and two hours' notice by day. On the 14th of the month a test was given by Corps Headquarters, on which batteries turned out, and within thirty-five minutes of the order being received had reported themselves in occupation of their late positions. During this period in reserve a good deal of useful training was carried out, and batteries also proceeded in turn to the Third Army gun range near Frohen-le-Grand to calibrate their guns.
On June 16th Lieut.-Colonel I. T. Standish assumed command of the 1st Brigade, in place of Lieut.-Colonel F. Symon, who proceeded to England to command the New Zealand Field Artillery Reserve Depôt at Ewshott.