New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18
Chapter IX. The Turning Point
Chapter IX. The Turning Point.
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.
The Attack Opened.
Zero hour on the 21st was at 4.55 a.m. The attack on the front of the New Zealand Division was carried out by the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade in support, and the 2nd Brigade in reserve. The barrage completely satisfied the infantry, who gained all their objectives early in the morning. By night the Division was on a line a thousand yards to the east of Puisieux, with patrols pushed out to a point midway between Achiet-le-Petit and Miraumont. The enemy artillery was very quiet during page 255the day, although in the early morning the 1st and 3rd Batteries were shelled by light field guns, one gun of the 1st Battery being put out of action. When the barrage opened at zero hour the whole countryside was covered in a dense white fog, which effectually hid the enemy lines from the eyes of the artillery observers during the first few hours. In the evening, as soon as darkness set in, the guns commenced to move forward over the broken ground that led down into the Puisieux Valley. Batteries of the 1st and 3rd Brigades moved forward to the valley on the eastern side of Puisieux, the 2nd Brigade finding positions in the area to the immediate south of the village. The conditions encountered in the move were reminiscent of those which prevailed during the artillery's first advance on the Somme in 1916, before the advent of wet weather. The country was broken and intersected with trenches, and the roads, such as they were, torn and pitted with shell fire. Battery and ammunition column teams were on the road all night, bringing up ammunition, and by early morning on the 22nd 450 rounds per gun had been dumped at each position. The Puisieux Valley was heavily shelled during the early hours of the morning, severe casualties being incurred in running the gauntlet of the 5.9's. At 5 a.m. all guns were hotly in action answering S.O.S. calls from the 42nd Division, on the right; an enemy counter-attack was beaten off, although some batteries were under fairly heavy fire while answering the call. At one stage, when the line fell back to within close range of the 7th Battery, the battery commander had one gun run forward to the crest in front of the position, and engaged the enemy infantry over open sights.
As a result of the success of these preliminary attacks on August 21st and 22nd, the way was now clear for the launching on August 23rd of the main attack by the Third Army and the Divisions of the Fourth Army north of the Somme. A series of assaults were to take place on practically the whole front of thirty-three miles from the junction with the French, north of Lihons to Mercatel. In the IV. Corps, the New Zealand Division had the 42nd Division on its right, and the 5th Division on its left. The 42nd and New Zealand Divisions co-operated against Beauregard Dovecote and the high ground page 256in the neighbourhood. In support of this operation the New Zealand Artillery fired a creeping barrage, which advanced due south from its starting point, in lifts of one hundred yards, until it reached the protective barrage line for the final objective. The 4.5in. howitzers were used to thicken up the barrage, keeping their fire fifty yards in advance of the 18-pr. barrage. The 5th Division assisted in the barrage with one brigade of field artillery, and the 90th Brigade, R.G.A., engaged selected points east of the Arras-Albert railway. Zero hour was at 2.30 a.m. on August 23rd, and though stubborn resistance was encountered in the neighbourhood of Beauregard Dovecote, this was successfully overcome. A second barrage was fired by all brigades in support of an attack made by the 5th Division on a line running east of Bihucourt and south-west of Irles, the New Zealand Division assisting in front of Irles and to the north of Miraumont. This attack was successful on the right, but was held up somewhat on the left. By evening the line held by the infantry was in advance of the Arras-Albert railway.
During the afternoon batteries of the 2nd Brigade moved forward to the valley fifteen hundred yards east of Puisieux, and teams of the 1st Brigade were assembled ready for a move. In the evening the 3rd Brigade, which up to this time had been attached to the 37th Division, rejoined the Divisional Artillery, and at 9.30 p.m. orders were sent out to the 1st and 3rd Brigades to move into positions in the valley south-west of Achiet-le-Petit. The march forward in inky darkness over totally unfamiliar country was not without its incident, apart altogether from the desultory shelling by hostile batteries, but the move was satisfactorily accomplished before dawn.
Peaceful Surroundings [Official Photo An advanced section of 4.5 in. Howitzers in action in an orchard near Le Quesnoy
While the guns were going forward on the night of August 23rd, arrangements were being made to continue the advance on the morning of the 24th. The New Zealand Division, attacking at 4.30 a.m., was to take Loupart Wood and Grevillers, the village to the north-east. The 37th Division of the IV. Corps operated against Biefvillers, on the left. The ultimate objective of the New Zealand Division was the town of Bapaume. For this attack the 1st Brigade, N.Z.F.A., and the 26th (Army) Brigade, R.F.A. were placed at the disposal of the G.O.C., 1st Infantry Brigade, which was to capture the first objective of Loupart Wood and Grevillers. The 1st Brigade batteries occupied positions east of Achiet-le-Petit. The 2nd Artillery Brigade was placed at the disposal of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, which was to follow up the 1st Infantry Brigade, and push through the first objective towards Bapaume and the high ground to the east of the town. Batteries of the 3rd Brigade were placed in divisional reserve, and occupied positions of readiness in rear of the 2nd Brigade. The orders for this attack were not issued until 2 a.m. on the 24th, and as the attack was timed for 4 a.m. it was found that the time available was too brief to enable detailed orders for a barrage to be issued to brigades, and thence to batteries. Brigades of artillery were, therefore, attached to the infantry brigades in the order mentioned, and artillery brigade commanders reported for instructions to the commander of the infantry brigade to which page 258they were attached. The infantry attack was thus launched without any organised barrage fire, despite which fact it made good progress, and Loupart Wood and Grevillers were both captured. Both the 2nd and 3rd Brigades got their guns into position east of the Albert-Arras railway line to support the advance of the 2nd Infantry Brigade. Grevillers and Biefvillers which was taken by the 2nd Infantry Brigade, came under heavy enemy fire as soon as they had been captured. Any further advance towards Bapaume was found to be impracticable, for the time being, as the enemy was encountered in increasing strength west of the town, in the locality of the town and Avesnes-les-Bapaume.
Having crossed the battered stretch of country in rear of the enemy's old front line near Puisieux, batteries were now in action in open country. At last the prospect of open warfare, which the gunners had long contemplated, fair but elusive, had become a reality. The picture that presented itself to the eye as the guns went forward on the morning of August 24th, was remarkable and inspiriting. Infantry, guns, tanks, transport, and detachments of cavalry were all on the move, the roads and tracks leading forward being almost black with traffic. Overhead, in a brilliant sky, aeroplanes wheeled and circled, the insistent drone of their engines penetrating through the noise of battle. At one point where the roads converged, east of Achiet-le-Petit, the batteries streaming down the roads were obliged to defile through a narrow gap. The enemy was shelling the vicinity with a high velocity gun, but the great stream of traffic was capably controlled, and batteries passed safely through and on towards their positions. The Division, fighting in open country, no longer had at its disposal a complicated and secure system of communications, and artillery brigades and batteries were to a large extent obliged to improvise their own communications as they advanced. Visual signalling was used a great deal, especially by observing officers, in communicating with their batteries. The portable wireless set with which each brigade was equipped was sometimes used for communication between observers and groups or batteries, but the greatest use was made of ground wires and visual signalling.page 259
The advance was resumed on the morning of August 25th after a night of heavy enemy shelling which culminated in a heavy barrage on the front line system about 4 a.m. At 5 a.m. under cover of a heavy fog and behind the barrage, the infantry swept forward to Avesnes-les-Bapaume, and gained the Bapaume-Sapignies Road. The enemy's heavy artillery was very active all day, but this did not prevent the guns from pushing forward. At 4 p.m., 1st Brigade batteries occupied positions immediately to the north of Loupart Wood, and in the evening the 3rd Brigade went into action west of Biefvillers. Hostile heavy artillery had been sweeping the roads and open country for some hours, and to get the guns forward was an anxious and difficult task. A section of the 12th Battery which was caught in the shelling, suffered several casualties and had some horses killed. All guns supported an attack on Favreuil at 6 p.m. The country was swept by a heavy thunderstorm at 9 p.m., and rain continued to fall all night. After a conference with the infantry brigade commander, it was decided to push the 2nd Brigade batteries forward towards Favreuil, on the western side of the Bapaume-Sapignies Road. Two of the batteries, the 2nd and 6th, were to be in action by 6 a.m. on the 26th to support an attack on the railway line running north-east from Bapaume.
The continuance of the unfavourable weather conditions on the 26th did not contribute to freedom of movement, but batteries limbered up again and advanced a little nearer to Bapaume. Before dawn the enemy commenced to shell forward and rear areas with all calibre guns and howitzers, and between 4 and 5 a.m. he put down a heavy concentration on battery positions and the valley between Biefvillers and Favreuil. During the morning New Zealand infantry reached the road running from Bapaume to Beugnatre, but as the division on the left was unable to get through or round this latter village, the advance was temporarily held up. It was then decided to bombard Beugnatre, and so from 1.15 p.m. to 1.30 p.m. the village was intensely shelled, after which the place was taken, and a line established on its eastern outskirts. The 3rd Brigade batteries moved forward to positions east of Biefvillers, and at 6 p.m. all guns fired in a creeping barrage to enable the New page 260Zealand infantry to go forward to the line of the railway running north of Fremicourt. This was successfully accomplished, except at one spot, which was very strongly held with machine guns.
While supporting this attack some batteries of the 3rd Brigade came under heavy and accurate fire from enemy 5.9in. batteries. The 4th Battery had four guns put out of action, several men killed, and eleven wounded, including the battery commander. The 13th Battery also suffered some casualties. Both batteries kept their guns in action, despite this sustained and destructive shelling, the gallantry displayed by officers and men of the 4th Battery under trying circumstances being of a high order.
The guns were now within close range of Bapaume, the position of which was hourly being made more precarious by the development of the encircling movement from the north. On the 28th, and the following day and night, the town was severely battered by the guns, which finally concentrated all their strength in a hurricane barrage which started on the western outskirts and rolled slowly over the town. This punishment, added to the threat of envelopment, compelled the enemy to withdraw; and at dawn on August 29th the infantry found that Bapaume had been evacuated. The Division passed through the town and advanced the same day some distance along the line of the Bapaume-Cambrai Road. At noon the 1st Brigade moved forward to positions south-west of the town, covering the high ground beyond Fremieourt and Bancourt. A section each of the 1st and 3rd Batteries was attached at the same time to the battalions in the line, their task being to deal quickly with enemy machine guns, and assist their own troops wherever they encountered any serious resistance. A section of the 12th Battery, and one from the 13th Battery, were also pushed forward east of Monument Wood; the remainder of the 3rd Brigade brought its teams up to positions of assembly close to the guns.
The advance was continued east of Bapaume on the 30th; Fremicourt and the ridge east of it being seized, as well as Bancourt. The 5th Division was to have co-operated by taking page 261Beugny, further to the north, but their attack did not meet with success, and Beugny was not finally taken by them until the 2nd of September. Artillery support for the New Zealand Division was given by the 1st and 3rd New Zealand Brigades, acting in direct co-operation with infantry commanders. The 2nd Brigade assisted the barrage to beyond Fremicourt, after which it passed into divisional reserve, moving its guns forward so as to be able to cover the front of the Division if required. These new positions, which were all in the neighbourhood of Beugnatre, were occupied a few hours after the attack opened, and though the move was made during the period of heavy shelling, the Brigade got safely through with few casualties.
Shortly after dawn on the closing day of the month the enemy delivered a fairly strong counter-attack on the front held by the Division. The attack was preceded by heavy shelling, and assisted by six German tanks. S.O.S. signals brought the guns into action, forward sections engaging the enemy over open sights; the attack was beaten off with loss to the enemy, who left two of his tanks in the hands of the New Zealanders. Later in the day, the 18-pr. batteries of the 3rd Brigade advanced east of Bapaume, and the 4th (Howitzer) Battery occupied a position east of Monument Wood.
In the closing days of August an important change was effected in the tactical control of the field artillery supporting the Division. To make for closer and more effective co-operation with the infantry it was decided that all the field artillery directly supporting any operation should form a single group, and that the group commander should attach himself to the headquarters of the infantry brigade in the line. At the time this was regarded as one of the most effective means of providing for that close co-operation between the two arms which the rapidity and sweeping character of the advance, with its ever-changing situations, made desirable. Batteries or brigades which were not included in the group of advanced guard artillery remained under the direct control of Divisional Artillery Headquarters, and constituted a divisional reserve. Occupying positions of readiness, they were able to fire at call should the enemy's resistance stiffen, or should there be a danger page 262of a counter-attack. On those occasions when the enemy failed to offer a strong resistance to the advance, fire was seldom opened from these positions of readiness, and batteries limbered up and moved forward once more in the wake of the infantry.
The grouping and attachment of brigades was as follows:— 1st Brigade, N.Z.F.A., and 26th (Army) Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut.-Colonel I. T. Standish), attached to the 1st Infantry Brigade; 2nd (Army) Brigade, N.Z.F.A., and 293rd (Army) Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut.-Colonel N. S. Falla), attached to the 2nd Infantry Brigade; 3rd Brigade, N.Z.F.A., and 317th Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut.-Colonel R. S. McQuarrie), attached to the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade.
The attack was taken up with vigour on the 1st of September, when the Division attacked under cover of a barrage at 4.55 a.m., and advanced the line to the high ground east of Bancourt and Fremicourt By 5 p.m. all batteries of the 2nd Brigade had moved forward to positions which had been reconnoitred on the previous day, midway between Bapaume and Fremicourt. The 4th and 12th Batteries of the 3rd Brigade also moved forward during the evening and carried out a programme of harassing fire. The day was remarkable for the heavy casualties amongst officers. Two forward observing officers from the 1st Brigade, Lieutenant Dean (1st Battery), and 2nd Lieutenant Russell (7th Battery), and three officers from the 3rd Brigade were killed, those from the 3rd Brigade being Captain F. V. Brown (11th Battery), 2nd Lieutenant A. J. Priestley (13th Battery), and Lieutenant J. M. Watkins (4th Battery). During the night battery areas and the eastern outskirts of Bapaume were heavily bombed and there was also a good deal of intermittent shelling.
In the operations planned for September 2nd the 42nd Division on the right was to take Villers-au-Flos and the spur in front with exploitation towards Barastre and Haplincourt Wood as a second objective. The New Zealand Division co-operated with the 5th Division on the left, which was attacking Beugny and Delsaux Farm, and the high ground east of Beugny. The New Zealand infantry were directly supported by the 2nd Brigade group artillery, which for the occasion included the 3rd Brigade. The 1st Brigade and the 123rd page 263Brigade, R.F.A., supported the 42nd Division, and the 317th Brigade, R.F.A., attached to the New Zealand Division, supported the 5th Division. The barrage opened up at 5.15 a.m., and the enemy replied about five minutes later with a heavy counter-barrage. The 3rd Brigade area was heavily shelled, and the 12th Battery sustained a good many casualties.
Strong resistance was encountered on the front of the Division; and, though the enemy was thrown back all along the line, the advance was for a time held up by heavy machine gun fire from some huts near the cross roads west of Haplincourt. A heavy concentration of fire was put down on this area at 1 p.m., and the infantry were able to push on again. The advance suffered another check in the afternoon, mainly owing to machine gun fire; and the procedure adopted earlier in the day was successfully repeated. The area was swept with a heavy barrage, the infantry following on and materially increasing their total captures of prisoners and machine guns for the day. The G.O.C., 2nd Infantry Brigade, expressed his thanks for the assistance given to the infantry by artillery observers, who had sent back to batteries and group a great deal of valuable and timely information. A forward observing officer from the 13th Battery effectively engaged two enemy field batteries and one anti-aircraft battery, and shelled another battery while it was in the act of effecting a retirement. During the forenoon the 1st Brigade moved forward to positions in front of Riencourt, the guns being in action in the new area about 1 p.m.