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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Rossignol Wood

page 231

Rossignol Wood.

The area in which the artillery waggon lines were situated afforded a striking and pleasant contrast to the quarters in which the battery transport had spent the winter at Ypres, and the artillerymen, in common with the Division generally, were not slow to appreciate the changed environment. The enemy's sweeping advance in March had been checked on or about the line held by the British forces before the launching of the first great offensive in July, 1916. For considerably more than a year all the country in rear of this line had been almost completely freed from the shadow of war, and the passage of the seasons had already restored to the fertile countryside much of that air of peaceful industry which it must have worn in happier days. Nothing had been done to repair the wreckage in the villages nearest the line; but the peasants had restored the fields to cultivation, and within a month or two of the Division's arrival on the front the crops were beginning to ripen, and the luxuriant fields of clover and rich meadow lands afforded splendid grazing for the horses. Traffic over growing crops was avoided as much as possible, and owners of fields on which batteries grazed their animals were always compensated, though not on the liberal scale on which they invariably based their claims. The country was undulating, at times hilly, and freely dotted over with typical French villages, whose small clustering woods and shelter plantations spoke in language both picturesque and eloquent of the comfort traditionally associated with those peasant homes. The Divisional Ammunition Column, and most of the batteries, had their transport lines in or nearby small villages like Bus-les-Artois or Louvencourt; but the 3rd Brigade lines were situated along the sheltered slopes of a small valley which ran up from the foot of Louvencourt Wood, which the soldiers themselves styled Happy Valley.

The natural tendency of the colonial soldier to beguile his leisure hour with sport or recreation of some active description was given a very full measure of encouragement during the summer months. There were weekly cricket matches, and occasional sports meetings, and in June, when the infantry were page 232out of the line, there was a series of horse shows, at which jumping and other competitive mounted events bulked largely. The Divisional Artillery held its Horse Show, and the 3rd Brigade held an unofficial, though highly successful race meeting in Happy Valley. The Divisional Horse Show, held on June 16th, near St. Leger, eclipsed anything of the kind that had previously been attempted in France. Batteries and sections of the ammunition column competed very keenly in the events for which they were eligible.

When the New Zealand Division returned to the line at the beginning of July it took over the front immediately to the north of its old sector, involving a change of position for the New Zealand batteries which were still supporting the 42nd Division. The new sector extended from the southern edge of Hebuterne to a point immediately south of Bucquoy, and included the greater part of the small salient held by the enemy at this portion of the line. In changing over, the New Zealand batteries did not retain their guns, but exchanged pieces with the outgoing batteries, and dissatisfaction was again expressed regarding the condition of the guns and the pits in which they were handed over. Two of the batteries of the 3rd Brigade had their guns in the old trenches which had formed part of the British front line system before the Somme offensive of 1916. A few hundred yards away were the old German defences on the edge of Gommecourt and Gommecourt Wood, where the attacking British infantry suffered so severely in the first furious assaults at the beginning of July, 1916. The old enemy trenches, with their deep and safe timbered dug-outs, were still in a fair state of preservation, and when the guns moved forward on the eve of the great attack on August 21st, some of these old dug-outs provided temporary shelter for the gun crews. Most of the waggon lines moved to the vicinity of Souastre.

Of the five brigades of field artillery primarily available for the defence of the sector, four were in the line, one brigade, R.F.A., being in corps reserve. In addition, there were fourteen 6-in. Newton trench morars, and one brigade of heavy howitzers. There was also a call on two batteries of 60-prs. and counter-page 233battery guns. The defensive scheme outlined in great detail the programme of normal fire, action in case of attack, counter-bombardment, barrage fire, response to calls from the air, gas attack, mutual support barrages, anti-tank defence and counter-attack. Observing officers were already familiar with the greater part of the front, and from the moment guns were "shot in," the full programme of harassing fire was carried out night and day. Facilities for observation were good, though no single station afforded anything like a comprehensive view of the whole sector. The entire front was kept under the closest observation from dawn to dusk, however, and this vigilance and close liaison with the infantry combined to render the fire of the guns so effective that as the month progressed signs were not wanting that this constant punishment was beginning to tell severely on the enemy infantry. Rossignol Wood was a favourite target for light and heavy guns, and entries in captured diaries supplied convincing testimony of the miseries endured by the unfortunate garrison in this gaunt and shattered wood.

During the afternoon of July 15th the infantry undertook a highly successful operation with the object of advancing the line a short distance in the vicinity of Hebuterne. The attack was preceded by a short bombardment from all active guns on the Divisional front; by guns of the right divisional artillery, and by two 6in. howitzer batteries. The Divisional Trench Mortars provided a diversion by bombarding Rossignol Wood. On the following day all the New Zealand batteries co-operated with corps heavy artillery in a bombardment of Puisieux-au-Mont with the threefold object of discovering any possible concentration of hostile artillery on the front, of searching out enemy ammunition dumps amongst the ruined buildings in the villages, and of drawing the fire of hostile batteries, and then engaging them by aeroplane observation. So far as could be be judged the shoot was fairly successful in its results, though it did not disclose any concentration of enemy guns. From this day onwards the ordinary forms of harassing fire were supplemented by a system of double "crashes," by which sudden brief bursts of fire were turned on to a particular area by every available field gun and howitzer on the front, at times notified page 234by Divisional Artillery Headquarters. The first crash opened with a salvo from all guns, and the second, which was fired after an interval of three minutes covered all the ground within a radius of 200 yards of the target. It was seldom possible to estimate the results of this shooting by actual observation, but from the statements of prisoners captured from time to time, it was learnt that casualties from artillery fire were constant, and at times heavy.

About the middle of July a series of small operations were initiated in the neighbourhood of Rossignol Wood, and were carried out with such skill and determination that within a very few days the capture of the Wood became imminent. But so uncomfortable had his position apparently become that the enemy anticipated the event by withdrawing under cover of darkness. Explosions were heard in the Wood during the night—July 19th-20th—and at dawn patrols found that the enemy had destroyed his small concrete dug-outs, and withdrawn from the position. The infantry immediately followed up to keep in touch with the enemy, arrangements being made at Artillery Headquarters to meet the situation should the retirement become general. At the waggon lines everything was put in readiness for an instant advance, one battery in each brigade standing by for instant movement. The situation soon cleared itself, however, infantry patrols discovering that the enemy had merely withdrawn to the further side of the Wood. The enemy showed his irritation at these events by doing his best to make the Wood untenable, and fiercely and almost continuously shelling his lost trenches in front of it with light calibre guns. For several days this shelling was a feature of hostile artillery activity, but it did not deter the infantry from making a further forward move on the evening of July 24th, when they captured some high ground to the south of Rossignol Wood, taking thirty prisoners and a number of machine guns. The following evening the enemy counter-attacked after a heavy bombardment lasting half an hour, but the attack was crushed with the assistance of artillery fire. For the remainder of the month the enemy continued to shell the Wood and neighbouring area, the infantry on several occasions being compelled to ask for page 235retaliatory fire. On the last night of the month counter-preparation was fired, the violence of the enemy's fire having given rise to the belief that he contemplated another counter-attack.

The work of the Division over this period was made the subject of appreciative reference by the Army Commander, in the following letter:—"G.O.C., IV. Army Corps. I would ask you to convey to the G.O.C. New Zealand Division my sincere appreciation of the operations of that Division which have led to the evacuation of Rossignol Wood and the adjoining trenches by the enemy. This operation, lasting over several days, has achieved a result which has reduced the extent of our front line and placed the enemy in an extremely difficult position. That this result has been obtained with few casualties and without check is due to the persistent enterprise on the part of all ranks, and to thoughtful preparation and skilful leading on the part of commanders. The Division is to be warmly congratulated on its spirit and initiative, and I desire that all ranks should be informed of these few words of commendation and gratitude. (Signed) J. Byng, General, Third Army."

During this period batteries had been most successful in locating and engaging some of the enemy's light field batteries, and a great deal of valuable information as to the position of other enemy guns passed on to the counter-battery group of heavy guns. One or two sections, both of 18-prs. and howitzers, were placed well forward in order to engage gun positions and movement beyond the range of main battery positions, and a section of the 6th (Howitzer) Battery which was moved forward to Hebuterne for this purpose succeeded in destroying several enemy ammunition dumps. Shoots by 18-pr. and howitzer batteries, with aeroplane or balloon observation, were attended by a considerable degree of success, and afforded useful experience. Observations from the aeroplane observer were received at the wireless station attached to every brigade, and transmitted thence by telephone to the battery. Calibration shoots were also carried out in conjunction with the Field Survey Company, whose calculations were based on results recorded by extremely accurate and delicately adjusted instruments. These page 236shoots were valuable as a check or confirmation of the results of calibrations carried out by batteries themselves; but calibration by direct observation from a forward station remained the general and most satisfactory practice.