New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
The recovery of the British Armies from the smashing blows which they had sustained at the hands of the German legions in March and April had necessarily been slow; but it had been complete. The military situation on the Western Front at the beginning of August wore an outlook very different from the sombre uncertainty in which the future had been shrouded during those terrible days when the German divisions were sweeping forward with apparently irresistible impetus towards Amiens, and towards the Channel ports. Though the enemy achieved a great degree of success in those attacks, breaking completely through the organised defensive systems on the fronts on which the fighting centred, and making enormous captures of men, guns, and booty, his great strategic purpose still awaited fulfilment. The Franco-British Armies remained intact, and still barred the way to the coast. But the Germans still retained the initiative after the battles of the Somme and the Lys, despite their heavy commitments and heavy losses. The peril which menaced the Allied cause could not be said to have been effectually dispelled until after the definite collapse of the ambitious offensive launched by the enemy east and south-west of Rheims on July 15th, and the striking success of Marshal Foch's deliberately planned counter attack three days later on the front between Chateau Thierry and Soissons. That was the decisive turning point in the dramatic rush of events. The German army had made its great effort in the springtide of its strength, and the effort had failed. Thereafter the future of the Allied cause was no longer uncertain.
At a conference held on July 23rd, when the success of the counter-attack of July 18th was well assured, the Allied Commander-in-Chief asked that the British, French, and American Armies should each prepare plans for local offensives with certain definite objectives of a limited nature. These objectives on the British front were the disengagement of Amiens, and the page 251freeing of the Paris-Amiens railway by an attack on the Albert-Montdidier front. The rôle of the French and American armies was to free other strategic railways by operations further south and east. It was subsequently arranged that attacks would be pressed in a converging direction towards Mezieres by the French and American Armies, while at the same time the British Armies, attacking towards the line St. Quentin-Cambrai, would strike directly at the vital lateral communi-cations running through Maubeuge to Hirson and Mezieres by which alone the German forces on the Champagne front could be supplied and maintained.
The British attack in front of Amiens, which was entrusted to General Rawlinson's Fourth Army, was launched on August 8th, on a front of eleven miles, extending from just south of the Amiens-Roye road to the vicinity of Morlancourt. The attack was completely successful; within the space of five days the town of Amiens and the railway centring upon it had been disengaged, and the enemy had been driven back to the line of the old defences which he had held in the Somme in 1916. This sudden and striking success, following so closely after the Allied counter-stroke south of the Aisne, could not fail to exercise a strong influence on the morale of the German soldier. Without a doubt it must have implanted in his mind the first seeds of disbelief in the invincibility of Germany's arms, and created an uneasy feeling that after all his hopes of an immediate and decisive victory might yet be frustrated in the final issue. After the battle of Amiens, Sir Douglas Haig decided to extend the attack northwards to the area between the rivers Somme and Scarpe. In outlining the considerations which influenced him in arriving at such a decision, the Commander-in-Chief points out in his despatches that a successful attack between Albert and Arras in a south-easterly direction would turn the line of the Somme south of Peronne, with a promise of producing far-reaching results; it would also be a step forward towards the strategic objective St. Quentin-Cambrai.
In conformity with this plan the Third Army, commanded by Sir Julian Byng, was ordered to attack north of the Ancre on August 21st, on a front of about nine miles, and gain the line of the Arras-Albert railway.page 252
This attack was to be delivered by the IV. and VI. Corps of the Third. Army, with the object of pressing the enemy back rapidly, and preventing his destroying road and railway communications. The Divisions of the IV. Corps in line were the 37th, New Zealand, and 42nd. On the left the 37th Division was to attack and capture the high ground east of Bucquoy and Ablainzeville. This operation completed, the 5th and 63rd Divisions were to push forward through the 37th Division to the line Irles-Bihucourt. The New Zealand Division and the 42nd Division, on its right, were to co-operate in the first phase of the attack with machine gun and artillery fire, and by advancing their front to the general line extending along the eastern edge of Puisieux-au-Mont and the high ground to the immediate south; in the second phase, by advancing to conform with the 5th Division to a line extending along the western side of Miraumont. The attack was to be a preliminary to an assault on a grand scale on August 23rd by the Third Army, and the divisions of the Fourth Army north of the Somme.
The Final Offensive[unclear: Showing the line held by the New Zealand Division at Poieioux on the opening of the offensive on August 21, 1918, and the path followed by the Division in its advance until reaching the final line on the eastern edge of the Forest de Morcirl.]
A remarkable feature of the opening assault on August 21st was the brevity of the preparations, and the suddenness with which, after their conception, the plans for attack were put into execution. The initial orders regarding the attack were not received by the Division until the night of August 18th, and everything had to be in readiness by the early morning of the 21st. For the first time in the experience of the Division on the Western front a great attack was to be launched without even the briefest preliminary bombardment. The necessary preparations for attack—the assembly of the infantry, and the pushing forward of the guns—were carried out so silently and unobtrusively as to leave the enemy quite unaware of the imminence of the storm which was about to burst. During the brief period available, batteries were very busy moving their guns forward under cover of darkness to their assigned positions for the opening of the battle, and the ammunition columns and battery transport were on the road from dusk till dawn bringing the ammunition supplies at the new battery positions up to the totals required for the attack. The New Zealand Division was to be supported by the 1st and 2nd Brigades only, the 3rd Brigade being attached to the 42nd Divisional Artillery, and forming the nucleus of "N" Group Artillery on that Division's front. Positions for all the batteries of the 3rd Brigade were found in front of Grommecourt. Of the 1st page 254Brigade batteries, the 7th and the 15th were on the right of Rossignol Wood, and the 1st and 3rd were fifteen hundred yards west of Puisieux. Three batteries of the 2nd Brigade, the 5th, 9th, and 6th, were all in the neighbourhood of Rossignol Wood, and the 2nd was in the valley south-east of Hebuterne. The C.R.A., Brigadier-General Johnston, and Staff, moved with advanced Divisional Headquarters to Foncequevillers on the eve of the attack.
The Division awaited with a feeling of settled confidence the commencement of the great series of struggles which was destined to culminate in the utter defeat of the powerful enemy whose wild ambitions, so nearly realised, had shattered the peace of the world, and carried ruin and desolation into the heart of Belgium and France. The courage of all ranks had remained unshaken in the darkest hours of March and April, their belief in a final triumph undiminished; and now they experienced a thrill of elation in the instinctive feeling that the final chapter in the bitter struggle of four years was about to open. The day of August 20th was dull, with occasional showers in the morning, and batteries displayed, no more than the normal activity for such a day. A calm fell on the front with the coming of night, but in the forward areas the final preparations for the battle afforded little opportunity for rest. Tucked away in shell holes down by Rossignol Wood, or in the old German dug-outs near Gommecourt, battery commanders worked by candle-light, completing their orders for the barrage, and making their final dispositions for the advance.