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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

Chapter VIII. The Retreat From Messines

page 237

Chapter VIII. The Retreat From Messines.

When the 1st and 3rd Brigades of Artillery and the Divisional Ammunition Column moved out on short notice from the Ypres sector, to join the Division in its rapid march south to the fighting on the Somme, the expectations, so far as events could then be gauged. were that there was in store for them a good deal of hard fighting, and probably some open work such as could he expected in a "war of movement." The 2nd (Army) Brigade remained at Ypres outside the limits of the storm which had burst elsewhere with such dreadful violence, and seemingly was faced with no more exciting prospects than that of assisting to hold the line in a sector where the conditions of living were peculiarly bad. But none of these anticipations was justified by the turn of events. By the time the 1st and 3rd Brigades had settled into action near Mailly-Maillet the line there had practically become stable, and conditions were rapidly becoming normal again; and within a fortnight the 2nd Brigade, far from enduring routine duties at Ypres, was fighting a rearguard action in the Lys Battle—an experience which befel no other brigade in the New Zealand Division. A few days before the Division marched off for the Somme, the 2nd Brigade, which had been in rest at Westoutre, returned to the line at Ypres under the orders of the 37th Divisional Artillery. The brigade had spent about two weeks in the rest area, the time being devoted partly to training and partly to recreation, and during that period had been inspected by the G.O.C. and the G.O.C., R.A., XXII. Corps.

The old waggon lines near Dickebusvh were occupied on the 16th of March, Brigade Headquarters going to Halfway House, and on the following two days the 5th, 9th, and 6th Batteries went into action in the neighbourhood of Birr Cross Roads, and the 2nd Battery near Kit and Kat. On the 19th the waggon lines were heavily shelled by high velocity guns, the resultant page 238casualties to men and horses being so severe as to necessitate the establishment of temporary lines near Hallebast Corner. The brigade remained in action when the lst and 3rd Brigade batteries were withdrawn; but on the 6th April orders were received for the relief of the 6th (Army) Brigade, A.F.A., in the Ncuve Eglise-Ploegsteert sector. The relief was to be completed the following day, and as guns were to be exchanged the necessary personnel was sent forward in motor lorries. In this new sector the four New Zealand batteries, together with the 84th and 85th Batteries of the 11th Brigade, R.F.A., formed the Left Group Artillery on the front of the 19th Division. The group was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Falla, and covered a front which extended approximately from the River Douve south to Pont Rouge, a little over 2,500 yards in extent. The 2nd Battery position was at Anton's Farm, in front of Hill 63, and the 5th and 9th were on the left in the valley below Messines. The 6th (Howitzer) Battery had its guns in Ploegsteert Wood, in the vicinty of Hyde Park Corner. Of the two R.F.A. Batteries attached to the brigade, the 84th was in front, of Ploegsteert village, and the 85th was on Hill 63. Batteries were able to settle down in their new positions before their front became involved in the battle, which did not extend so far north until the second day. The settling-down process was made easier by the fact that everyone was perfectly familiar with the whole of the area.

Comparative quiet reigned on the 8th April, but at 3 a.m. the following day the enemy opened a most violent bombardment on the front running southwards from Armentieres. Although this did not extend north of Armentieres, and the front covered by the group remained normal, a heavy fire was maintained on the enemy's trenches, and back areas were subjected to harassing fire through out the day. Towards evening the enemy bombardment to the south had moderated, and by 7.30 p.m. everything appeared quiet; but much had happened in the meantime.

After several hours' bombardment with gas and high explosive the enemy had attacked the front from Bois Grenier to the La Bassee Canal, and at the outset had overwhelmed the defences of the 2nd Portuguese Division, on whose front the attack first page 239developed. So rapidly did the enemy overrun the positions held by the Portuguese troops, who were to have been relieved that. day by a British Division, that the arrangements for manning the rear defences of the sector could scarcely be carried out in time. By nightfall the enemy had reached the River Lys, on the outskirts of Estaires, had crossed the river at Bac St. Maur, east of Sailly-sur-la-Lys, and after strengthening his forces north of the river, had pushed on northwards to Croix du Bac. Upon word being received of this advance at Fleurbaix, it was deemed advisable to withdraw the 2nd Battery about 500 yards to a position on Hill 63. With a view to emergencies an endeavour was also made to provide a track over which the guns of the 6th Battery could be withdrawn if found necessary. The ground about the position was badly pitted with shell holes. and in places marshy, and the operation of getting the guns out of the pits, and back on to the road would be both lengthy and difficult. The likelihood of the attack extending north to the group's front on the following day was recogvised, and everyone remained on the alert. Anticipation in this instance, was unpleasantly verified, for at 2.30 a.m. on April 9th, heavy shelling broke out along the front from Frelinghien to Hill 60. and quickly developed into an intense bombardment with gas and high explosive, which extended from the front and support lines to the rear of battery areas.

A counter-bombardment was put down, but at 4 a.m. the enemy were reported to have penetrated the foremost defences. Ranges were shortened accordingly, and forward observing officers were instructed to engage the enemy at any point where he could be seen, irrespective of zones. The morning was misty, however, and communications in some cases broke down early in the attack. Communication with the 84th Battery was soon lost, but group was still in touch with the remaining batteries, and as the enemy had appeared on the Messines Ridge overlooking the positions, batteries were ordered at 6 a.m. to withdraw to the neighbourhood of Wulverghem. The 5th Battery withdraw first to Le Plus Douve Farm, in order to cover the withdrawal of the 2nd and 9th to the vicinity of Petawawa Farm, about 500 yards south of Wulverghem. Ammunition was brought to the positions by the Brigade Ammunition Column page 240and battery transport, and by 11.30 a.m. the withdrawal was complete, and all three batteries were in action engaging the enemy with observation from various points. During the withdrawal the batteries were subject to a certain amount of machine gun fire from Messines Ridge; and in some cases part of the equipment had to be removed from the old positions under cover of darkness the following night.

Owing to the rapidity of the enemy's advance, other batteries of the group were unable to effect their withdrawal. British infantry retired through the 84th Battery, and very soon after 7 a.m. the battery was overwhelmed by the enemy. Similarly, the 6th (Howitzer) Battery found itself in danger of being encompassed at an early hour, and from about 6 a.m. had to deal with enemy infantry, who were working through Ploegsteert Wood, and round the Wood and the village of Ploegsteert. The guns of the battery were distributed over a considerable area; three were at the main position, one was in a forward position some six hundred yards in advance of the battery, and the remaining section was in the wood on the right flank. While the battery was firing on S.O.S. after the opening attack, the position was heavily shelled, and several casualties were incurred. When it was reported that the enemy was in Ploegsteert Wood, one of the battery Lewis guns was sent out to cover the right section; there were not enough men to enable the second Lewis gun to be used, as the battery had lost a complete gun crew in a direct hit from a heavy German shell on one of the guns at the main position. The enemy were by this time in Ploegsteert and in the neighbourhood of Hyde Park Corner, and the position of the battery was rapidly becoming critical. It was therefore decided to make an endeavour to drag the two right section guns on to the tramline, some little distance off, and bring the gun teams in from the road by way of the tramline. One gun was got out of the pit, but became hopelessly bogged half way to the tramline. Meanwhile the enemy had worked through to Butler's House, a building situated halfway between Ploegsteert and Hyde Park Corner, and in rear of the battery; the remaining gun of the right section was, therefore, turned round, and, firing out the back of the pit, shelled this building, the enemy being driven back page break page break
A 6 in. Trench Mortar in Action [Official Photo]

A 6 in. Trench Mortar in Action [Official Photo]

page 241towards Ploegsteert. An Australian, one of three members of a trench mortar battery who had attached themselves to the 6th Battery, after their own mortar was destroyed by shell-fire, went forward to Butler's House, and found it occupied by only a few wounded Germans, the remainder having retired towards Ploegsteeert. The enemy's command of the road from Ploegsteert to Hyde Park Corner was so complete, however, that it was recognised that it would be impossible to bring a team in for the gun of the right section which had been got on to the tramline.

Attention was therefore turned to the guns at the main position, and one of these was got on to the road, with the assistance of a party of thirty British infantrymen; this party was obtained through the initiative of one of the Australian trench mortar men, who had gone over to the Catacombs, under Hill 63, where a considerable number of men were sheltering, collected this number and guided them to the battery's position. Of the other two guns at the main position, one had been destroyed by a direct hit, and the other was surrounded by a hopeless bog; it was, therefore, decided to get the remaining gun at the right section into action again, but on the way over to the pit the enemy was met in some force, and the battery commander (Major R. Miles) was wounded. The enemy was now near Hyde Park Corner, in rear of the battery, and it was therefore decided to abandon the position, taking sights and breech-blocks from the guns. A subaltern of the battery, however, volunteered to remain at the position with a party of two or three men, but no opportunity was had during the afternoon of getting the teams near the battery, and this small rearguard finally withdrew at 5 p.m.

Although teams which had attempted to approach Hyde Park Corner had been forced to retire under machine gun fire, the hope of saving the guns was very reluctantly abandoned. On the evening of the 11th an officer volunteered to go to Hyde Park Corner to see if a further attempt would be possible, but by that time the enemy had captured Hill 63, and it was recognised that any further effort would be foredoomed to failure.

page 242

The 85th Battery, R.F.A., fought from its position on Hill 63 until dusk on the 10th, training its guns on to the enemy in Messines and Ploegsteert Village. At nightfall the battery successfully withdrew to Neuve Eglise and rejoined its own brigade.

On the withdrawal in the morning of the 10th of the New Zealand 18-pr. batteries to the positions south of Wulverghem, in the Douve Valley, Brigade Headquarters found itself out of communication, and removed at 11 a.m. to new quarters near Neuve Eglise, in order to link up with the new battery positions. All the battery waggon lines were moved on to the Neuve Eglise-Dranoutre Road.

Some anti-tank guns which the brigade had manned on the Messines Ridge and in front of St. Yves were not called upon. to stop any tanks as none were used; nor were their crews able to take advantage of targets offered by enemy infantry. Of two 15-prs. in front of St. Yves, which were manned by details from the 2nd Battery, one was put out of action on the opening of the attack by a 5.9 shell, which also casualtied the detachment. The other detachment got their gun into action against enemy infantry in the open, but the first round blew out the breech and casualtied two of the crew, leaving one man out of six. The two 15-prs., manned by gunners from the 9th Battery, on Messines Ridge, were put out of action and abandoned. The crews could see nothing of the advance, owing to the ground mist, and withdrew when the enemy were entering Messines on their immediate left.

At 8 p.m. enemy shelling, which had been severe all day, quietened down. Beyond the information sent in by the brigade's own observing officers, it was difficult to learn anything on which reliance might be placed as to the position of the enemy and the extent of his advance. Where doubt existed as to the precise position of the enemy's most advanced elements it was usually found necessary and profitable to detach an officer from one of the batteries to reconnoitre, and reports obtained in this manner were frequently found to anticipate information gained from Infantry Brigade Headquarters. On the evening of the 10th the line was reported to run from Hyde Park Corner, through St. Yves, to just west of Messines, the page 243town itself having been recaptured during the course of the afternoon by the South African Brigade. On the right from Hyde Park Corner the enemy held the south-eastern portion of Ploegsteert Wood, Ploegsteert Village, and a line running through Nieppe to Steenwerck. During the night fire was maintained on Ploegsteert Village and the country immediately east of Messines; but enemy batteries remained quiet until 2.30 a.m., when they put down a heavy barrage on Hill 63, Messines, and the Douve Valley. Shelling became less intense after 6 a.m., but the enemy continued to advance from the positions he had gained on the previous day, and at 11 a.m. it was found necessary to move the 5th Battery back to Wulverghem.

Events developed quickly as the day proceeded. At 12 noon the enemy was advancing towards the slopes of Hill 63 from the east, and had occupied La Petite Munque Farm and Courte Dreve Farm, a thousand to fifteen hundred yards west of the road from Hyde Park Corner to Ploegsteert. Fighting took place in the afternoon round about Messines, which the enemy had regained. Throughout the afternoon batteries effectively engaged enemy infantry with observation from the brigade's observation posts on the ridge opposite Messines, and on the ridge at L'Allouette, west of Hill 63. Valuable information as to the trend of events was passed down from these stations, but the greatest difficulty was experienced in transmitting this intelligence to higher formations, owing to the defection of the personnel at the corps' test points, on the manning of which often depended the maintenance of a whole system of communications.

Towards evening the straggling which had gone on all day was intensified, the situation becoming critical at 7 p.m., when the enemy attacked and captured Hill 63. Brigade F.O.O's had already reported infantry retiring from Hill 63, and orders were issued to batteries to withdraw to previously reconnoitred positions off the main road running towards Dranoutre, about four thousand yards in rear of the positions they then occupied. Batteries expended all their ammunition, and commenced to withdraw about 8 p.m., the 5th Battery going first, being followed at intervals by the 2nd and 9th. Brigade Headquarters was also withdrawn to the same neighbourhood. Ammunition page 244having been delivered to the positions during the afternoon by battery transport and the Battery Ammunition Column, the guns were in action again very soon after 11 p.m., and continued firing all night. The difficulties of communication became more pronounced after each withdrawal, owing to the shortage of wire, considerable quantities of which were, however, salved by brigade and battery signal staffs, and except during moves the brigade commander always maintained touch with the batteries and the Infantry Headquarters. F.O.O.'s were, in most cases, dependent on Lucas lamps for communication with batteries.

On the morning of the 12th, the line ran south from Wytschaete, a thousand yards east of Wulverghem and Neuve Eglise, and thence to Pont d'Achelles, whither the 34th Division had withdrawn from Nieppe during the night of the 11th. The enemy continued his pressure during the 12th, and severe fighting took place in the neighbourhood of Neuve Eglise, where effective observed shooting was done by the batteries on parties of German infantry. During the night this pressure increased, and by early morning of the 13th parties of the enemy had forced their way into the village. Batteries had been in action practically all the night, and S.O.S. had been fired several times, fire being regulated according to the volume of machine gun and rifle fire that could be heard. Shortly after 6 a.m., when the enemy were reported to have entered the village, orders for a further withdrawal were issued to batteries. The tired teams were brought up and by 11 a.m. the guns were in action again in positions which had been reconnoitred between Dranoutre and Locre. Headquarters was established near Dranoutre, and later, in Locre. By a successful counter-attack delivered during the morning by troops of the 33rd and 49th Divisions, possession of the village was regained, and the guns continued to shell the roads and approaches along which the enemy was endeavouring to force his way.

Although a small garrison still held out in Neuve Eglise on the morning of the 14th, the enemy had gained possession of Hill 75, due west of the town, and the direct observation which this spot gave him on to the battery positions between Dranoutre and Locre made another change of position imperative. The three 18-pr. batteries accordingly moved back nearer to Locre, page 245the 9th being furthest in rear, a few hundred yards north of the village. The 6th (Howitzer) Battery, which had been equipped with new howitzers, went into action during the day in the same neighbourhood, and placed a forward section to the north-east of Dranoutre. By nightfall Neuve Eglise was definitely in the enemy's possession, but attacks delivered on the front running south-west from Neuve Eglise towards Bailleul were repulsed, and the attempt to seize the Ravelsberg Heights, almost midway between these two points, was for the time frustrated. After hostilities, directed against Wytschaete, on the following morning—15th April—the enemy launched strong attacks against the high ground west of Neuve Eglise, and gaining a footing on the eastern end of the heights, worked west along the ridge towards Bailleul, which he also attacked from the south at the same time. By 9 p.m. the troops holding this town had fallen back to positions between Meteren and Dranoutre, leaving the enemy in possession.

This new ground having given the enemy improved observation over the country beyond and around Dranoutre, the batteries of the brigade in the neighbourhood of Locre were heavily shelled at intervals during the 16th, Headquarters was also twice shelled out, and the gun positions were made more insecure by the activities of low-flying aeroplanes. Some uncertainty also existed as to the intention of the infantry, and in view of the possibility of a further retirement, the forward section of the 6th Battery was withdrawn, and the brigade took up positions further in rear. The 2nd Battery went into action five hundred yards south of Westoutre, the 5th midway between Locre and Westoutre, and the 9th and 6th near the junction of the main roads between Locre, La Clytte, and Westoutre.

Several S.O.S. calls were answered during the day and evening of the 16th, and again next morning, when the enemy placed a heavy barrage along the front. Waggon lines at Westoutre were also shelled by hostile guns during the morning, resulting in a loss of men and horses, and the evacuation of the positions.

Forward observing officers kept closely in touch with the situation during the day, and batteries placed protective fire on threatened points, and engaged a great deal of enemy page 246movement. The enemy brought up more guns, and hostile fire increased in volume, battery areas being severely shelled. The 5th Battery suffered heavy casualties during the morning of April 18th, losing two officers and five other ranks killed and twelve other ranks wounded; the battery was forced to evacuate the position, and as the other batteries were also coming under fire, the brigade withdrew to fresh positions.

By April 19th the front covered by the Brigade had been taken over by French troops, but the artillery in support was not withdrawn, and the brigade remained in the line supporting the French infantry until the 23rd, when all batteries were withdrawn to their waggon lines. The brigade proceeded the following day to the Staple area, where it remained in billets for three days. During this period sixty-three reinforcements and seventy remounts reached the brigade, and the guns were sent to the Ordnance Workshops for much-needed overhaul.

The brigade suffered heavy casualties during this brief period of active fighting, which besides being a severe trial on the endurance of the personnel at the guns and at the waggon lines, must be regarded as a most severe and searching, and in all respects successful, test of the initiative of commanding officers and their subordinates and of the efficiency of the whole brigade. On the day of the attack at Messines the front covered by the brigade was under the 19th Division, but during the morning the C.R.A. of the 25th Division assumed control of the artillery. By evening the group had lost the two attached R.F.A. batteries, one having been overwhelmed by the enemy and the other having rejoined its own brigade; thereafter the Brigade Commander had an absolutely free hand in fighting his brigade. The orders received from the C.R.A. of the 25th Division were that he was to keep in touch with the situation on the spot, fight his own brigade, and if he found it necessary to retire to move generally in a north-westerly direction. No further orders were received from the rear until some days after, when the situation promised more stability. The brigade during this period was forced to act more absolutely on its own initiative, owing to the breakdown of rear communications at the very outset. The area possessed an elaborate system of bury and page 247air lines, some of the former dating from the Battle of Messines; but it was a common experience to find the "exchanges" on the systems evacuated. After the first move rearwards brigade and battery signal staffs were sufficiently occupied in maintaining communication with each other, and with the headquarters of the infantry unit which they were supporting. A lot of old wire was reeled up, in the absence of fresh supplies, and where the position of the batteries made that possible, a common wire was run through to headquarters. Forward observing officers in most cases were dependent on visual signalling for communication with their batteries, and orders to the waggon lines were always sent by mounted orderlies.

No other battery in the brigade suffered the unfortunate experience which befell the 6th Battery on the opening day of the attack. On all other occasions withdrawals were carried out without interference, and before the necessity had become too pressing, a policy which was dictated by the experiences of the 10th, and made still more imperative by the frequency of the straggling in some of the first-line units during the first three or four days of the fighting. This straggling was most marked on the evenings of the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th, and battery personnel were constantly engaged endeavouring to turn back parties of infantry who were making their way down from the line. One battery commander, whose guns were in action near Dranoutre intercepted a party of fifty strong in this manner, and sent them on to a battalion headquarters a few hundred yards in advance of the battery position. Most of the divisions which participated in the fighting on this front had already borne a share of the fighting in the enemy's first offensive in the south, and before going in to the line at Ploegsteert and Messines had received large numbers of reinforcements fresh from Home, and with no previous experience in the line.

In order to carry out the orders for withdrawal with the minimum of delay gun teams and limbers were kept fairly close to gun positions and fortunately suffered few casualties. The supply of ammunition was always constant; none was left at positions that were being evacuated, and small dumps were page 248always formed at fresh positions before the guns had arrived. The normal supply at dumps was very soon exhausted, and it became necessary for waggon line officers to range the countryside in all directions in order to secure further supplies.

Reinforced and somewhat rested after its strenuous experiences in the Ploegsteert sector, the 2nd Brigade went into action again on 26th April under the 1st Australian Division, which held the Hazebrouck front. Batteries were situated behind Strazeele.

After the guns had been registered and calibrated, batteries engaged on a very active programme of harassing fire and counter-battery work; a special hour in the harassing fire being devoted each day to Merris, during which every battery flung at least one hundred rounds into the village. Several enemy posts were engaged by the 6th (Howitzer) Battery, the fire driving the garrison into the open, where the Australians took toll of them with machine guns. A supply of incendiary shells was received early in the month, and these were very successfully employed against farm houses and other buildings occupied by the enemy. In fighting such as the brigade had recently experienced this class of ammunition would have proved invaluable in dislodging enemy machine gunners who often made a practice of establishing themselves in the farm houses dotted over the countryside. Shortly after coming in to the sector the Brigade Commander reconnoitred a very large dump of 18-pr. ammunition, at Strazeele railway station, which, however, was but a few hundred yards from the enemy's forward posts. By bringing the teams up under shelter of a hedge which ran close to the station and carrying boxes by hand from the dump some two thousand rounds were got away on successive nights; but it was feared that the ammunition might be too dearly bought, and operations were abandoned.

After having been in the line for little more than a fortnight, intimation was received from the XV. Corps that the brigade was to withdraw from action and be prepared to march away south to join the New Zealand Division. A day or two was spent at the waggon lines preparing for the road, and on 16th May the journey was commenced. The first night in billets was disturbed by the attentions of enemy aircraft who came page 249over and heavily bombed Aire, a mile away, and the surrounding district. One member of the brigade signal staff was killed by a bomb, and a second received wounds from which he died. The second day's march on hot and dusty roads proved very trying, and to make matters worse difficulty was experienced in finding water for the horses. None was to be had at the mid-day halt, but later in the afternoon the column passed a stream at which the tired horses were able to slake their thirst. The night was spent at Magnicourt-en-Comte, and the following night at Etree Wamin (?), and finally on the 19th, the brigade marched into Couin. The C.R.A. inspected the brigade on its arrival, and the following day all officers accompanied him on a reconnaissance of the country behind the divisional front. On the 21st the brigade occupied the positions behind the Purple Line.