The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter XI — The Battle of Bapaume
The Battle of Bapaume
By their ultimate failure in the Second Battle of the Marne the Germans had been definitely thrown back on the defensive. Instead of crushing the Allies, their utmost hope was now to secure a stalemate, in which they might find compensation in the East. Their immediate task was to rebuild shattered Divisions, accumulate fresh reserves to replace those expended in the spring, and shorten their line by the elimination of awkward salients. The High Command accordingly had begun to contemplate an orderly evacuation of the salients on the Lys and at Amiens. The Allies on their side had now left behind them that critical period between March and August when their efforts were confined mainly to the holding of the offensive and to the construction of railways and defences. The initiative had been once more restored to them. By the end of July the British Armies had again been welded into an effective striking weapon, and the arrival of reinforcements and the expansion of the American Armies enabled Foch in his turn to pass from the small local and isolated offensive actions of the summer to larger, though still limited, attacks, as a stage towards comprehensive and co-ordinated strategical operations on a grand scale.
On 23rd July, when the success of his counter-offensive on the Marne was assured, Foch convoked a conference of the French British and American Commanders. He asked them to prepare plans for local limited offensives on their respective fronts, with the general aim of freeing rail communications. Should the first semi-independent attacks prove successful, it was hoped that subsequently the French and Americans might converge on the Meuse railways, and the British move towards the St. Quentin-Cambrai line which protected the Maubeuge railway system, thus threatening directly the enemy's communications in Champagne and indirectly his communications in Flanders.
In selecting the stage for the British preliminary operation, Haig, after considering the possibility of action in the Lys salient, decided to strike east of Amiens with the object of page 416freeing the Paris railway. The British Fourth and the French First Armies attacked on 8th August, and with the co-operation of the French Third Army on the 9th not merely effected the liberation of the Amiens-Paris railway, hut also deprived the Germans of the use of the Roye-Péronne railway. In addition, the French on the Oise captured the Lassigny massif, which, if the Germans proposed to fall back on Bapaume, was the obvious southern pivot of their shortened line. In view of the unexpected ease with which these successes were achieved, the Allied Command definitely made up their minds to increase the pressure. Ludendorff's and Hindenburg's memoirs well reflect the consternation inspired in the minds of the German Staff by the issue of the Battle of Amiens.
As a result of this operation, the first stage of our offensive, the enemy was faced with the possibility of having to seek a line of resistance further east than Bapaume. He was also urgently and instantly compelled to expedite his withdrawal from his positions about Serre, where, as a result of Rawlinson's advance south of the Somme, he was being confined into a dangerous salient. He no doubt meditated an orderly movement as in the early months of 1917. Foch and Haig did not, however, mean to let him go so lightly, but to force on him a disorganised retreat. Moreover, in the Amiens area his troops had by this time been heavily reinforced, and there the wire and trenches of the old Somme battlefield would make a continuance of our attack costly. For these reasons, therefore, Haig broke off the battle on the Fourth Army front and transferred it to the Bapaume sector north of the river, with the object of turning the line of the old Somme defences from the north and of preventing the enemy's destruction of road and rail communications in his withdrawal on Bapaume.
Several circumstances promised success to a rapid and vigorous attack, and in particular here again, as at Amiens, conditions favoured the tactical factor of surprise and the mechanical factor of the tank, two basic principles in the evolved science of the offensive. The enemy appeared to have no premonition of an. attack here on a large scale. The ground, which he had yielded in 1917, was only to a small degree shell-torn and could be traversed by tanks without difficulty. Moreover, holding the high plateau about Buequoy and Gommeeourt we now possessed not only commanding observation but a position of deployment from which an page 417outflanking attack could be delivered to the southeast in place of the frontal assault of 1916.
The initial stage of the Third Army attack was fixed for 21st August. The objective aimed at for that day was the Albert-Arras railway. The 22nd would see the Fourth Army conform on the right by the capture of Albert and by the passage of the lower valley of the Ancre, while the Third Army brought forward troops and guns into position for the main blow. This would be delivered on 23rd August by the Third Army and by the left wing of the Fourth north of the Somme, while the remainder of the Fourth south of the river would advance to establish a protecting flank. Should success crown these operations, the whole of both Armies would press forward to exploit it. For this purpose, the 1st Cavalry Division was placed at General Byng's disposal. If all went well and the enemy were driven eastwards on the shelter of the Hindenburg Line, the First Army would at a later stage attack on the north with a view to turning it and compelling a further retreat.
General Byng's plans may be summarised as follows. The opening assault of the Third Army on 21st August would be made on a front of about 9 miles by the IV. and VI. Corps in the centre and on the left of his line, their right flank being covered by the left division of the V. Corps which held the right sector. The principal attack to be delivered on the 23rd in co-operation with the Fourth Army would be carried out by all 3 Corps.
The IV. Corps had at its disposal 6 brigades of heavy and 15 brigades of field artillery. The front was now held from right to left by the 42nd, the New Zealand, and the 37th Divisions. The 5th and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Divisions were in reserve. The IV. Corps plans for the 21st laid down 2 stages of the attack. First, the left Division, the 37th, would assault and capture the slopes east of Bucquoy and Ablainzeville. Thereafter, the reserve Divisions, the 5th Division on the right and the 63rd Division on the left, with a battalion of tanks, would pass through the 37th and push forward to the line Irles-Bihucourt beyond the Albert-Arras railway. In the day's programme the 42nd and New Zealand Divisions in the right and centre of the Corps line would co-operate by swinging forward the right flank. In the first stage, they would support the main attack by artillery and machine gun fire, and by advancing in conformity with the 37th Division to a "Blue" Line on the page 418eastern outskirts of Puisieux and the high ground southwards beyond Serre overlooking the Ancre. In the nest stage, as the 5th and 63rd Divisions advanced on the railway, it was their task to conform by refusing the Corps flank north and northwest of Miraumont. In this second stage the New Zealand advance would be in a valley overlooked on both sides by high ground. On the north the slopes were to be carried frontally by the 5th Division. The southern spur, on whose crest was the Beauregard Dovecot,1 a long a ranging mark for our artillery, was to be carried obliquely by the 42nd Division. The New Zealand frontage would be gradually squeezed out by the south-eastern trend of the general movement towards Bapaume. General Bussell was warned therefore that his troops would probably be called upon to exploit the successes hoped for in the attack of the 23rd. The New Zealand officers accordingly lost no time in studying the map of the country east of. the railway and north of Bapaume.
The inestimably valuable asset of surprise, which, generally impossible of achievement in siege operations, had been reintroduced by the British at Cambrai, November 1917, and developed by the Germans, had contributed in no small degree to Rawlinson's success on 8th August.2 The utmost efforts were now made to achieve secrecy. The ostensible reason assigned for the concentration of troops in the Third Army area was the provision against a possible riposte in the Arras neighbourhood made with a view to easing the pressure south of Amiens. A much greater measure of reticence than usual was observed in giving information to subordinate commanders and the troops. The issue of bombs, the calling-in of packs and greatcoats, and other preparations were sufficient evidence of an impending "stunt," but it was not till the morning of the 21st when the roar of artillery, somewhat muffled by the fog, broke out in the east, that the men of the reserve brigades knew definitely that the battle in which they were to be engaged had commenced.
1 Evacuated by the enemy together with Puisieux Miraumont and Serre in February 1917, see Map No 4.
2 Prior to their attack the Fourth Army issued an admirable memo under the title "Keep your mouth shut," which was by order pasted in the soldiers' pay-books. The elaborate feints then parried out, training operations behind the Lys front, etc., are well known.
The 5th Division was partly accommodated in the New Zealanders' area, and the 2nd Infantry Brigade, in reserve, moved further back to make room for them. Concentration proceeded smoothly under the cover of darkness. During the nights 18th/19th and 19th/20th August the 3rd Artillery Brigade moved north to cover the 37th Division, leaving the New Zealand front supported by the 1st and 2nd (Army) Brigades. At midnight 20th/21st August General Russell established advanced headquarters in the outskirts of Fonquevillers.
For the limited task which the Division was called upon to discharge at the outset in the valley east of Puisieux, the employment of 1 infantry brigade would be adequate, thus preserving the other 2 intact for exploitation after the attack on the 23rd. The Rifle Brigade, therefore, which had on 18th August relieved the 2nd Brigade in the right subsector, now after nightfall on the 19th took over in addition the 1st Brigade area north of Puisieux. On the evening of 20th August they held the whole Divisional line, on a frontage of some 2800 yards, with 3 companies of the 3rd Battalion south of Puisieux and behind the southern part of the village, and with 2 companies of the 4th Battalion northwards to the junction of the old railway siding with the Puisieux-Bucquoy road north-cast of Fork Wood. These 2 battalions were ordered to carry out the attack. The 2nd Battalion was in support and the 1st in reserve. Battalions were conipulsorily reduced to a strength of 640. In addition to the artillery, 6 medium trench mortars and the greater part of 2 machine gun companies were placed at General Hart's disposal.
The task of the Rifle Brigade was throughout closely co-ordinated with that of the 42nd Division, and with it dependent on the progress of the main blow on the left. At page 420zero, 4.55 a.m. on 21st August, in conformity with the 37th Division on their loft the Rifle Battalions would attack Puisieux and press eastwards to their sector of the Blue Line. As soon as the 5th Division secured an intermediate position (the Brown Line), which they were timed to reach shortly after 7.30 a.m., and from which they would launch their attack on Achiet-le-Petit, the Rifles were to advance about 1000 yards down the valley, refusing their right flank in conformity with the 42nd Division. At a still later stage, shortly before 9 a.m., when it was estimated that the 5th Division would have effected the capture of Achiet-le-Petit, the 42nd Division would attack the Dovecot crest, and the Rifles' patrols make a further advance down the valley north of the Dovecot, for the purpose of establishing liaison and clearing the ground as far as the Ancre. In this third movement, beginning at 9 a.m., the Rifles' work would have dwindled to filling a comparatively narrow gap, and the fire of the 2 New Zealand artillery brigades, as well as of the supporting machine guns, would be employed almost exclusively to assist the 42nd Division in carrying the high ground about the Dovecot.
General Hart's plans were that both his front line battalions should effect the first task, namely the capture of the Blue Line immediately east of Puisieux, and that, as his left battalion was squeezed out by the southward movement of the troops on the left, the 2 further steps necessary to clear the remaining triangular area should be carried out by the right battalion only. 1 section of light mortars was given to the left battalion and 2 to the right. Anxiety was felt on the score of water. There was a scarcity of wells in the forward area, and water was still being carried from Sailly Hébuterne and Fonquevillers. The right battalion parties, therefore, detailed for the more distant objectives, were provided with an extra water bottle. All ranks carried 24 hours' rations in addition to the iron ration.
The night was unusually quiet, and the men had their hot meal and rum at 3 a.m. in comfort. By the hour of attack the sun had risen, but, as on 21st March and 8th August, there was a heavy blanket of fog which prevented observation beyond 100 yards and completely blinded aeroplanes. The barrage on the Rifles' front provided by the 1st and 2nd (Army) Artillery Brigades came down at zero on an opening line in advance of our trenches, but stayed there 10 minutes in order to allow the barrage for the 37th Division, who had a page 421longer distance to cover, to come abreast. It then advanced by lifts of 100 yards every 4 minutes. Half the ammunition was the deadly 106 non-delay fuse, and extensive use was made of smoke. The barrage fell with greater intensity on the trench elements east of Puisieux, and here especially the Newton mortars co-operated. Five minutes after it opened, the assaulting troops crept up to its edge and advanced on both sides of Puisieux and just inside the outskirts.
The surprise so studiously aimed at was completely realised. The enemy's artillery was particularly inactive, and after the development of the attack the fog masked his machine guns. On reaching the eastern side of the village the inner flank companies of the 2 Rifle battalions extended to meet each other, and specially detailed parties cleared it up, taking over 80 prisoners. The left company of the 4th Rifles had some fighting on the eastern outskirts, where a Lewis gun section under Cpl. N. C. Neilson captured 2 machine gun positions with guns and a dozen gunners. In and about the village the 4th Rifles with insignificant losses1 captured in all over 100 prisoners with 12 machine guns and 3 mortars.
1 17 other ranks wounded, 3 of whom remained with the Bn.
Sergt. S. Forsyth, V.C [Photo Swaine
2nd Lieut, R. S. Judson, V.C., D.C.M., M.M.
The right flank of the 5th Division was meeting trouble in approaching their final objective, and the Rifles' platoons for the moment combined consolidation with vigorous patrolling. Towards evening the New Zealand line was further advanced and strengthened by a platoon from one of the companies in rear. Patrols were pushed out to the railway in the Ancrc valley and the whole of the ground was cleared. During the day the 3rd Battalion had captured over 100 prisoners, with several machine guns, and the total bag of the brigade was 8 officers and 227 other ranks. On the right the 42nd Division also reached their objective and captured, after considerable fighting, the important ground at the Beauregard Dovecot.
In the afternoon (21st August) the 2nd (Army) Artillery Brigade moved to the western edges of Puisicux to deal with enemy concentration near Loupart Wood, and during the night, 21st/22nd August, the 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades came up to the south-eastern and north-eastern outskirts of Puisieux respectively. The 3rd Brigade passed under the orders of the 42nd Division, and the 1st and 2nd (Army) Brigades were held in readiness to support either the 5th or 42nd Division on the following day.
In the early morning of 22nd August heavy machine gun fire developed on the 3rd Rifles' patrols, and about 5 a.m. the enemy launched with a fresh Division, the 52nd, a strong counter-attack from Miraumont on the Dovecot. It was accompanied by heavy shelling on the New Zealand batteries, which sustained several casualties. The troops on the right were forced back, and the enemy came forward quickly to occupy the crest trenches about the Dovecot. These overlooked our positions. The right Rifles' platoon formed a defensive flank along the lower slopes. L.-Cpl. R. Milne rushed forward 150 yards to the crest. with his Lewis gun team and opened fire on a flanking party of Germans, killing 12, wounding about 8, and taking 5 prisoners and 4 machine guns. This quick decision and vigorous action saved the commanding positions in our immediate vicinity and freed us from any danger in front. Worse was yet to befall the Germans, for the light was now clearing, and their assaulting waves came under the intense fire of our machine guns, which inflicted very heavy losses. It was estimated that 400 were killed. Some 300, in seeking to avoid the fire, were driven page 424into the arms of and made prisoners by the 5th Division. The main German attack, however, recovered the Dovecot and the important trench along' the slopes eastwards down to the railway, thus preventing the New Zealand batteries moving forward down the valley.
Shortly after 10.30 a.m. these were ordered to put down a 2 hours' bombardment on the Dovecot. Following upon this the remaining 3 platoons of the 3rd Rifles' support company, which had provided 1 platoon for strengthening the line on the previous evening, now passed through our screen of posts to establish a more advanced outpost line. This they formed on the lower slopes overlooking the railway, beyond the point where their comrades had been surprised when the fog cleared on the morning of the 21st. Patrols of the 42nd Division similarly reoccupied the Dovecot and its spur, but their hold was insecure, and the enemy again wrested it from them. The weather was very hot. It was the warmest day of the year yet experienced, and the anticipated difficulties with the water supply in the Puisieux area were fully realised.
By the evening of 22nd August, although Irles and Bihu-court and the railway itself along no inconsiderable sector of the front still remained in enemy possession, the IV. Corps none the less was in a satisfactory position to play its part in the great attack planned for the morning of the 23rd. For this operation General Harper assigned the following roles to his Divisions. The 37th Division in the north, relieving the 63rd, would capture Bihucourt, the 5th Division would seize Irles, and the New Zealand and 42nd Divisions prolong and protect their right flank. A preliminary operation would be carried out during the night by the 42nd Division with the New Zealanders' co-operation, for the purpose of recapturing the Dovecot and denying the enemy all ground opposite our right flank west of the railway in the Ancre valley. In the main attack in the forenoon the New Zealand Division would co-operate in the advance of the 5th and 37th Divisions by stepping outside the apex of the triangle originally assigned to it, and by clearing and occupying the branch of the Ancre valley which lies north of Miraumont.
2 Since 20th August the 3rd Battalion had lost 3 officers and 18 other ranks killed, and 2 officers and 35 other ranks wounded.
The night attack was made at 2,30 a.m. in bright moonlight, with the air full of the hum of our bombing aeroplanes. On the exposed slopes it was vital that the assembly of our troops should not be detected. No talking or smoking was allowed, and the 2 companies stole quietly to their assembly position. They reached it in good time, and at zero, under an extremely accurate barrage, pushed forward up the slopes and down the valley towards the railway. Our machine guns enfiladed the long trench running from west to east along the slopes under the Dovecot. Little opposition was encountered, and the companies reached their objectives successfully, the left resting some 400 yards short of the railway and the right swinging back its flank to conform with the 42nd Division, who retook the Dovecot.
On the cessation of the barrage, hostile machine gun fire at once broke out from beyond the railway, and the left company suffered. Our machine guns and light trench mortars were sent forward to strengthen the line. At 9.20 a.m. a weak enemy force counter-attacked the right company in a series of small enterprises lasting over an hour and a half. L.-Cpl. G. Hunter, who was in a shellhole in advance of our line, stood his ground and killed 4 of the enemy, though he had to expose himself to secure aim. The Germans brought heavy machine gun fire to bear on the post. Hunter was slightly wounded 3 times, but still held his ground. Elsewhere the enemy were repelled without much difficulty, and when they withdrew were caught in the barrage which supported our further movement at 11 a.m. From then the same 2 companies of the 1st Rifles again advanced on a front of 1000 yards in conformity with the 5th Division on the left, to capture the whole of the valley north of Miraumont, including the railway. For this operation the 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades had been placed at the disposal of the 5th Division, and the 1st Rifles' barrage was now provided by the 2nd (Army) Brigade. The opening barrage line was fixed with precision, thanks to an admirably rapid and page 426accurate reconnaissance carried out by the battalion scout sergeant, C. R. Wilson, who under continual fire from enemy machine guns and snipers located the exact position of all the new advanced posts on the forward slopes and in the valley.
Each company advanced with 2 platoons. The right company followed the barrage closely. The left pivoted on the right, coming up in echelon and conforming with the movements of the 5th Division. A good deal of opposition was encountered by both companies, especially from the machine guns on the terraced and still wooded slopes of the ridge behind which lay Irles, but all objectives were seized and the line pushed 500 yards forward. The right company secured 20, the left company over 70 prisoners with a heavy mortar and 7 machine guns. A few enemy machine gun nests, though surrounded, held out until nearly dark. Patrolsscoured the front and maintained touch with the 5th Division. In the day's fighting the 1st Rifles had an officer and 6 men killed, and 4 officers and 39 men wounded. As a result of this operation, the line of the 42nd and New Zealand Divisions, pivoting on the Dovecot, swung round to face southwards, and a defensive right flank was formed north of Miraumont for the further advance of the Corps. In the evening the 42nd Division extended their front northwards, taking over the New Zealanders' area. The whole Rifle Brigade moved back north of Puisieux and concentrated the next morning east of Buequoy. Their part in the battle was for the moment over.
During the afternoon, 23rd August, the 2nd (Army) Artillery Brigade moved into the valley east of Puisieux, and in the evening, when German observation from Miraumont was obscured, the other brigades also pushed forward. The Corps heavy artillery had begun systematically to bombard Bapaume and Thilloy. The fire of the enemy's batteries, extremely active during the morning, had diminished considerably, and many of his guns had been withdrawn east of Bapaume.
For the grand attack had won no inconsiderable success. The 37th Division held all but the Factory in Bihucourt, and the 5th Division had reached the western outskirts of Irles. Though in the afternoon the 42nd Division had failed to occupy Miraumont and the high ground between Miraumont and Pys, substantial progress had been achieved by the Fourth Army and by the other Corps of the Third. The attack was now astride the Arras Road and menacing Bapaume from the north-west. The whole south-easterly direction of the page 427movement, which took the heavily wired and strong Le Transloy-Loupart system1 and the other Bapaume defence systems from the flank, facilitated exploitation, and no effort was spared to take advantage of the enemy's disorganisation. Ludendorff's methods in March had widened tactical conceptions, and the lessons then taught were not forgotten. During the day the Commander-in-Chief issued a special message that all ranks must act with the greatest boldness. Divisions were to be given distant objectives which each must reach independently of its neighbour, even if for the time being its flanks were exposed. Reinforcements cuts were to he directed on points where troops were gaining ground and not where they were checked.
The Corps plans for further advance were drawn up and communicated as rapidly as possible. The 5th Division had sent forward a brigade with the object of capturing Loupart Wood and Gréviilers, but these troops had met strong resistance, and their position was obscure. The moment was ripe to throw in the New Zealanders. The 5th Division was ordered to form a defensive flank on the right from Irles to Loupart Wood. On the left the 37th was instructed to capture Biefvillers. In the centre the New Zealand Division were to complete the capture of Loupart Wood, seize Grévillers, and pass on towards Bapaume.2
This New Zealand attack would be divided into 2 stages. One infantry brigade, supported by 2 mobile field artillery brigades and tanks, would safeguard the right flank by capturing Loupart Wood and Grévillers and advancing 500 yards beyond. A second infantry brigade following in support would push through the first objective to Bapaume and the high ground east of it, its advance covered by 1 mobile field artillery brigade and tanks. Bapaume was believed to be held lightly.
1 For description see Haig's Despatch, 19th June 1917. para. 2.
2 Grévillers and Loupart Wood were occupied by the British in the middle of March, Bapaume on 17th March, during the German retreat in 1917.
A number of heavy tanks and of the lighter and speedier "whippets" would assist each brigade. A troop of Scots Greys was also attached for duty to the Brigade Headquarters. Late in the evening orders had been issued for the 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades (the latter now returning from the 42nd Division to General Napier Johnston's control) to move northwards from the Puisieux valley to a valley south-west of Achiet-le-Petit by 3 a.m. Further to support the attack an English (Army) brigade was attached to the Division. It and the 1st Artillery Brigade were placed at General Melvill's disposal, the 2nd (Army) Brigade at General Young's, and the 3rd kept in Divisional reserve in a position of readiness. It was hoped that it would be possible to provide a barrage which, owing to uncertainty as to the position of the advanced 5th Division brigade, would fall on the far sides of the wood and village, but it was still indefinite as to whether the guns could be in position in time.
At 1.30 a.m. (24th August) the 1st Infantry Brigade began to move forward skirting the north edge of Achiet-le-Petit to its assembly area on a road half a mile east of the Albert-Arras railway south of Aehiet-le-Grand. Precise information as to the exact location of the front line could not be obtained, and the North Island battalions took the precaution of throwing out advanced guards and screens of scouts. Bihucourt was being shelled with some severity, but for the most part hostile artillery was inactive. A nervous enemy post south of Bihucourt was putting up many flares. The sky was overcast, however, and the waning moon gave little light, so that the assembly was completed without detection. On the way the battalions were notified that it was now possible to put down a barrage which would lift 200 yards every 8 minutes.page 429
The 1st Brigade placed 1st Wellington1 on the right and 2nd Auckland on the left of its line, with 2nd Wellington in support to cover the junction between the leading battalions, and 1st Auckland in reserve. 8 large tanks were available to assist the attack, 6 going to Loupart Wood, and 2 to Grévillers. Whippets were to assist in the northern outskirts of the village. A section of machine guns was given to each attacking battalion, while the remainder would be used to provide direct overhead fire. The enemy defence relied on a few light guns and field mortars with numerous machine gun posts scattered in well-concealed positions.
1 Major (Temp. Lt.-Col.) W. F. Narbey, vice Lt,-Col. Holderness, sick.
The 2 leading companies of 2nd Auckland at first met little opposition. The enemy post on the left flank, which had been so active in firing flares, opened machine gun fire and threatened to cause delay. The left platoon was hung up, the remainder of the line continued to advance, and a section of the supporting company worked round the post from the rear and charged it with cold steel. Thereupon the Germans hastily surrendered. Two 77-mm, guns were captured and several machine guns surprised with their crews. The western outskirts of Grévillers were reached with few casualties. At the borders of the village the right front company swung out round either side, and the support company passing between proceeded to mop it up. A 2nd Wellington company also coming forward swept in through the surrounding plantations and cleared the southern part. By 7 a.m. the village was definitely ours. The German garrison was taken completely by surprise, and some even were interrupted at breakfast. But if the village itself proved easy to capture, considerable difficulty was to be experienced on the flanks, On the north the 37th Division had made a fine advance towards Sapignies, but its right had met trouble on the outskirts of Bihucourt, at the Factory and in a triangle of railways, and had been unable to push down the road towards Biefvillers. On this road were old British cantonments from which a heavy fire was directed on the left Auckland company as soon as it passed over the rise and came under observation. With the assistance of tanks, however, the huts were cleared, and with this footing on the road a further 2nd Wellington company crossed it and pushed on to the high ground beyond it to the north. This movement considerably relieved apprehension about the left pending the arrival of the 2nd Brigade. Posts were accordingly pushed forward for 500 yards east of Grévillers in the direction of Avesnes-les-Bapaume.
On the south fringe of Grévillers, however, the investing troops of 2nd Auckland had a sharp brush with enemy machine guns and were also greatly impeded by the inability page 431of 1st Wellington to overcome the resistance about Loupart Wood. South, of the wood and of the village itself lay the Grrévillers sector of the very formidable Le Transloy-Loupart system which, forming part of the Bapaume defences, crossed the Albert Road and then turned north-west past Achiet-Le-Petit to Bucquoy. At this point the trenches ran west and faced the 1st Brigade. They were strongly held by machine guns and infantry, and fire from them and from advanced posts in pits and sunken roads was intense. It was therefore with relief that the Auckland men saw the approach of 2 tanks with whose co-operation they might hope to beat down the enemy resistance.
Conspicuously line work had already in the course of the 2nd Auckland advance been done by Sergeant Samuel Forsyth, New Zealand Engineers, who was attached in accordance with the prevailing custom to an infantry battalion on probation for a commission. His magnificent efforts now to overcome the check were to win him a Victoria Cross. The official record runs as follows:—
“On nearing the objective his company came under heavy machine gun fire. Through Sergt. Forsyth's dashing leadership and total disregard of danger, three machine gun positions were rushed and the crews taken prisoners before they could inflict many casualties on our troops.
During subsequent advance his company came under heavy fire from several machine guns, two of which he located by a daring reconnaissance. In his endeavour to gain support from a tank he was wounded, but after having his wound bandaged, he again got in touch with the tank, which in the face of very heavy fire from machine guns and anti-tank guns he endeavoured to lead with magnificent coolness to a favourable position. The tank, however, was put out of action.
Sergt. Forsyth then organised the tank crew and several of his men into a section and led them to a position where the machine guns could be outflanked. Always under heavy fire, he directed them into positions which brought about a retirement of the enemy machine guns and enabled the advance to continue. This gallant n.c.o. was at that moment killed by a sniper.
From the commencement of the attack until the time of his death, Sergt. Forsyth's courage and coolness, combined with great power of initiative, proved an invaluable incentive to all who were with him, and he undoubtedly page 432saved many casualties among his comrades.”
The other tank was also destroyed, but thanks largely to Forsyth's heroism the high ground about the village passed securely into our possession. Making every use of cover the right Auckland company pushed forward. Sergt. 0. E. Burton, M.M., although wounded, led his platoon with undiminished dash and with his men captured 6 machine guns. By 8 a.m. the company had worked well over the intervening space towards the wood. Their right reached a Crucifix on a sunken road running to Warleneourt-Eaucourt and secured touch with 1st Wellington. In acting as emergency runner and in rescuing wounded, an Auckland cook, Pte. E. Fair-weather, showed brilliant qualities of courage and energy, Further advance was held up by large numbers of snipers and by machine guns, which from concealed emplacements in the scrub as well as in the trenches swept the open ground and the sunken road. Shortly before 9 a.m. General Melvill, not yet cognisant of the difficulties, instructed the 2 battalions to advance south of the wood beyond the original objective, and capture the Le Transloy-Loupart trenches. Attempts at frontal assault, however, proved vain, and wo were not yet in a position to outflank it.
The capture of Grévillers yielded the first of those hauls of prisoners guns and war material, which were to characterise the advance of the next 3 months. 2nd Auckland, in the course of the day, took some 3501 prisoners, and with the 2nd Wellington company captured in the village two 77 mm. guns, 3 dozen machine guns, 6 mortars, 3 G.S. wagons, a horse with saddle and bridle, and in addition three 8-in. howitzers, from each of which the breach had been removed. The skill and resolution shown by 2nd Auckland during this 2000 yards' advance were thus satisfactorily rewarded.
1 A large number of these were sent to the 37th Divisional Cage.
2 Major Wilson, vice Lt.-Col. Stewart, on leave.
As soon, however, as the patrols and tanks appeared on the open, crest line south-east of Biefvillers, an intense artillery barrage was put down by the Germans. Four of the tanks were destroyed almost immediately, and the right company was raked by the machine guns which had checked the 1st Brigade and were now harassing 2nd Otago. On the left, east of the village, 2nd Canterbury succeeded in making good the falling slopes, broken by steep banks, chalk pits and dugouts, and their patrols reached the sunken road running north from Avesnes-les-Bapaume. Already high-explosive shells were falling thickly into Biefvillers, and some few shells also on the slopes in front. Nearing the sunken road, the patrols encountered storms of machine gun fire. Movement now attracted an instant stream of bullets, and the duties of the n.c.o.s and privates commanding sections demanded qualities of stern resolution. One instance may serve to show how the call was answered. Pte. W. C. Adams, after his section commander was killed, took command and handled his men confidently with equal skill and determination, eventually establishing a post close to the enemy's line. The Germans made repeated attempts to isolate it, but were consistently thwarted.
During the forenoon our field artillery had come into position east of the railway south of Achiet-le-Grand. Forward observation officers had located the enemy posts, and our batteries shelled them fiercely. Our own machine guns. actively co-operated, but the deep defence zone of the enemy on the eastern edges of Avesnes-les-Bapaume and towards the Albert Road was extremely formidable. It was only with the utmost exertion and at the cost of fairly heavy casualties that by noon Canterbury patrols and some Otago men also reached Avesnes-les-Bapaume. In their advance 2nd Canterbury captured 41 prisoners. These belonged to the 44th Reserve Division, who were fresh from reserve and had been thrown into the line to defend Bapaume and relieve the shattered page 435remnants of the 52nd, 111th, 5th Bavarian, 2nd Guards, and other exhausted Divisions.
With the movement on the flanks checked, the forward posts of 2nd Otago and 2nd Canterbury about Avesnes were in a most exposed situation. The enemy presently began to filter round their flanks in a near bend of the sunken road and through the buildings. Colonel Pennycook came forward very gallantly with his adjutant to make a personal reconnaissance with a view to turning the enemy resistance. Both were, however, almost immediately killed by snipers. Two Otago Lewis gunners, L.-Cpl. A. Grant and Pte. C. Sims, the only remaining members of their crew, held out desperately, although outflanked, and inflicted severe losses on the enemy, falling back only when their ammunition was exhausted. Heavy enfilade fire had already forced the Canterbury posts on the road to withdraw somewhat uphill, and at 1 p.m. under cover of a bombardment and machine gun fire the enemy attacked the whole 2nd Brigade line in front of Biefvillers from the direction of Favreuil and the vacated road. Along the greater part of the front the attack was stopped by Lewis gun and rifle fire, but the enemy regained complete command of Avesnes, and a few prisoners remained in his hands. At 4 p.m. the situation was again “normal.” Throughout the struggle partis-ularly fine work had been done at this part of our line by a section of light trench mortars under 2nd Lt. C. O. Pratt.
In the afternoon a redistribution of the troops about the right flank was ordered by the Corps so as to strengthen the line for the further advance of the 2nd Brigade on Bapaume. It was intended that the 5th Division should take over Loupart Wood, and that the 1st New Zealand Brigade should "side-slip" eastwards to a front extending from the eastern edge of the wood to the Achiet-le-Grand—Bapaume railway. They were instructed also to make every effort to win the Le Transloy-Loupart trenches and the Albert Road. In face of intense machine gun and artillery fire about the Crucifix, the reorganisation itself proved impracticable during daylight. Nor did attempts of the 1st. Brigade to secure better touch with the South Island battalions on their left achieve satisfactory results. All the enemy trenches south of Gré-villers between the Crucifix and the Albert Road were full of men, and considerable movement seemed to presage a counterattack. Artillery support was asked and given, and no enemy action developed.page 436
The 63rd Division had meantime moved up to an advanced concentration area east of Achiet-le-Petit. In the afternoon they were ordered at short notice to pass through the 5th Division, who now held Irles, and attack Le Barque and Thilloy. The 1st Brigade was instructed to conform by a corresponding advance across the Albert Road west of Bapaume. Two companies of 2nd Wellington therefore moved forward to leap-frog through their sister battalion and 2nd Auckland. The 63rd Division attack was, however, cancelled by a subordinate commander less than half an hour before zero. Notification of the change of plan did not reach the 1st Brigade till the 2nd Wellington movement had started.1 One company was warned in time by troops of the 63rd Division. The other captured a machine gun nest south-east of Grévillers on the new brigade boundary and were fortunate in not having become seriously involved when ordered to discontinue. The 1st Brigade positions, therefore, remained substantially unaltered. As soon as the protecting darkness permitted, it was arranged that 2nd Wellington and 1st Auckland should relieve the 2 forward battalions on the readjusted front. Prior to the relief, strong covering parties and patrols were sent forward, and in an audacious enterprise on the Le Transloy-Loupart trenches 1st Wellington captured 23 prisoners and 6 machine guns.
At the end of the day (24th August.) the New Zealand outposts rested about 21½ miles north of the scene of the Division's fighting on the Somme 2 years previously. Half a dozen field guns, 3 heavy pieces, many machine guns and 400 prisoners had been taken. During the day the Fourth and Third Armies had made great progress. On the IV. Corps front the 42nd Division on the right had at length carried Miraumont and Pys, and on the left flank the 37th had advanced between Biefvillers and Sapignies. General Harper thanked his troops in the following message to his Divisional Commanders:—
“The Corps Commander wishes to convey to all ranks under your command his thanks for their work during the past three days and to congratulate them on their success, which could only have been attained by great fighting capacity and endurance.”
1 2nd Wellington Bn. Hdqrs. received notice of the cancellation half an hour after zero.
A full share of the burden of this further movement was laid on the 2nd Brigade north of the town. The line of advance of the 1st Brigade, however, would be through the houses and streets, where, in face of opposition, progress would be costly, if not impossible. The 1st Brigade therefore were ordered not to press home their attack against determined resistance, beyond the employment of fighting patrols, but to await the envelopment of the town from the flanks. Their elbow-room clear of the town was extremely limited. If resistance developed and a gradual enveloping movement proved necessary, their attack must be secondary and dependent on the measure of success achieved by the Division on their right, with whom, rather than with the South Island brigade north of the town, their work must be co-ordinated. For the 2nd Brigade operation a company of whippets was made available. The 1st Artillery Brigade, with a British (Army) brigade, was moving forward to a position behind Grévillers for close support, and they also came under General Young's orders. Forward sections of artillery were detailed to destroy machine gun nests.
The hour of attack along the front was fixed for 5 a.m. South of Bapaume the 63rd Division carried the Le Transloy-Loupart line. Their right made further progress and cleared Le Barque. The left wing was, however, unable to take Ligny Thilloy and Thilloy, and nearer Bapaume could make page 438little headway against fierce machine gun fire. In face of it also the 2 North Island battalions seized part of the Grévillers sector of the Le Transloy-Loupart line and made a little progress towards the Albert Road, which was reached by the right battalion, but could win no further. For the remainder of the day they confined themselves to active patrol work.
On the other side of the town a hard day's fighting was to fall to the 2nd Brigade. During the previous afternoon a flight of German aeroplanes had observed and bombed the concentration areas near Achiet-le-Petit, where the two 2nd Brigade reserve battalions and the incoming 63rd Division troops were massed. The results of their reconnaissance were not long in declaring themselves. The batteries of the 2nd (Army) Brigade in the vicinity were subjected to a severe gas bombardment, and now during the night the enemy drenched the approaches to his rearguard positions with gas and high-explosive. Through this bombardment, fortunately with very light casualties, the 2 assaulting battalions, 1st Canterbury on the right and 1st Otago on the left, under a clear moonlit sky, occasionally obscured by slight mists, moved up to their positions of assembly behind 2nd Canterbury on the Biefvillers slopes.
Before them the ridge dropped gently to the hamlet of Avesnes and to the sunken road where the Germans had been in force the previous afternoon. On the far side of the valley the ground rose steeply at first over a high tree-clad bank and then more gradually towards the great Arras Road. On Otago's left a cross-country track from Biefvillers to Favreuil cut the main road on the high ground at right angles. At the crossroads there stands in a little enclosure a commemorative pillar of the Battle of Bapaume in 1870. From this monument the wide spinney which, half a mile nearer Bapaume, juts out from the Favreuil Wood towards the high road takes its name of Monument Wood. All about the spinney and the high ground in its vicinity Otago might reasonably expect to meet with opposition.
In the late hours of the night the mist had become denser, and combined with the dust of the enemy's shelling, which about 4 a.m. increased in violence, afforded again an invaluable screen. The 8 tanks allotted were late, but the barrage advancing evenly 100 yards in 3 minutes was of gratifying weight and accuracy. The enemy offered stubborn resistance, but at 7 a.m. 1st Canterbury reached their objective in the page break page 439triangle of broken country beyond Avesnes, their right resting on the Albert and their left on the Arras Road. Before consolidation could be effected, the mist lifted with unforgettable suddenness, "and there was bright sunshine." One or two of our men who had pressed too far forward were captured. The enemy machine guns in the north-western outskirts of Bapaume redoubled activity. There was, however, abundance of natural cover, and 1st Canterbury completed their task with a total loss of 6 officers and 60 men. During the attack a German ambulance section, with part of its equipment, surrendered voluntarily, and a handful of enemy came in under a white flag, asserting that their comrades only awaited an opportunity for doing likewise. In clearing Avesnes and its outskirts the battalion secured 150 prisoners.
1 p. 412.
During the early afternoon there was heavy gas shelling in the rear areas, and enemy aeroplanes were active, dropping small bombs and firing their machine guns on the Otago posts about the Arras Road and towards Favreuil. Ground machine gun fire and sniping, however, diminished considerably, and small parties of Otago were able to work 200 yards into Monument Wood.
In view of this check the IV. Corps asked the Third Army that the VI. Corps might turn Favreuil from the north. The VI. Corps were accordingly instructed to co-operate by pushing down east of Favreuil, while the IV. Corps troops made a fresh effort in the afternoon. It was decided that 1st Otago should consummate their attack under a barrage at 6.30 p.m. It would be made in conjunction with the 37th Division, who would capture the northern half of Favreuil Otago would thrust their right forward over the Road near a cemetery north of Bapaume; their centre would carry Monument Wood; the left, in close touch with the 37th Division, would capture the southern half of Favreuil and the trench system round its south-eastern edge. Nor would this exhaust the 2nd Brigade effort, For 2nd Canterbury, recovering the company attached to Otago's reserves, would follow up the attacking battalion, pass through it, and exploit success by securing high ground north of Bapaume and pushing patrols towards Bapaume itself. Should the enemy retreat, touch was to be maintained with him by fighting patrols, and the line Bancourt-Beugnâtre established for the night. Meantime a heavy bombardment was put down on Favreuil.
During the afternoon the enemy had begun to set fire to his dumps, but he was also planning a counter-attack with the remaining effectives of the tired 111th Division to recover the important ground lost at the Arras Road. The stroke was timed to take place shortly after the hour fixed for our operation. The assaulting troops were seen by our aeroplanes, who bombed and machine-gunned them mercilessly. They were in addition caught in our barrage falling at 6.30 p.m. 200 yards east of the Arras Road. The bulk of the force was dispersed with serious losses, and the remainder rendered too demoralised either to attack themselves or to resist our onset.page 441
Only on the right, at the Cemetery, was strong resistance encountered. A whole company was required to clear it, and later in the evening the enemy attempted to filter back into it, but was repulsed with 2nd Canterbury help. In the Monument Wood, however, and the southern part of Favreuil, though a temporary withdrawal of the troops on the left caused brief anxiety, opposition proved considerably less formidable than Otago had anticipated. The battalion's task was fulfilled to the letter, and the troops fully recompensed for their trying time in the morning. In the village and the trenches just to the cast of it 118 prisoners were captured, including a battalion commander and his staff. Large dumps of S.A.A., shells and engineering plant, a field gun, 4 antitank rifles, 4 mortars, 40 machine guns, 4 telephones, and signal apparatus fell into our possession. Casualties in the evening attack were extremely light, but during the day Otago had lost 7 officers and 211 men. In the northern part of the village the 37th Division met tougher resistance and succeeded in securing their objective only by a fresh effort after dark.
The evening had been sultry, with heavy masses of black clouds hanging like a pall over doomed Bapaume. About 9.30 p.m. a violent thunderstorm burst from the overcharged sky, and after the long spell of fine weather rain fell practically all night. It was intensely dark. Hostile artillery remained active. Under these acutely disagreeable conditions 2nd Canterbury pushed 3 companies through the Otago outposts to exploit success. Little opposition was met with. A fresh line of outposts was established on the Favreuil Road, and our patrols approached the Bapaume-Beugnâtre Road. It was held strongly, but by midnight one or two of the Canterbury patrols were close to and on the Road with a flank facing south. At least 10 Germans were killed and 20 wounded, 6 machine guns, 2 mortars and 22 prisoners taken. Towards Bapaume, however, patrols encountered fierce resistance. Here every evidence pointed to a stiffening of the enemy's defence. Large parties were digging trenches. The number of machine guns in action appeared illimitable. During the attacks on the 24th and 25th, 2nd Canterbury had lost 2 officers and 50 men killed, and 7 officers and 50 men wounded.
As a result of the day's fighting the 2nd Brigade had taken over 400 prisoners at a cost of under 300 casualties. The brigade was to hold for 2 days longer the position won page 442in this last highly successful enterprise, but their part in the Bapaume Battle was now played. During the night (25th/ 26th August), the 1st Brigade extended their left to the railway line, relieving part of the 1st Canterbury troops, and the Rifle Brigade was already on the way up to take over the left subsector from the 2nd Brigade and continue the advance on the following day.
In the Third Army plans for 26th August, the V. Corps on the right proposed to maintain pressure towards Flers, and the VI. Corps on the north to clear the ground about Mory and gain a position in the old British reserve line of the previous year. On the IV. Corps front the 63rd Division on the right would capture or contain Thilloy, and advance eastwards in the direction of Ricncourt-les-Bapaume on the Feronne Road. In the centre the New Zealanders, now ahead of the flank troops, would make a fresh bid for Bapaume and the high ground east of it. On their left the 5th Division, relieving the 37th during the night, would attack towards Beugnâtre.
General Russell's purpose was that the 1st Brigade should conform with the movement of the 63rd Division on Thilloy. No frontal assault would be made on Bapaume, but patrols would ascertain whether enemy resistance had weakened. In that event the 1st Brigade would co-operate in the mopping-up of the town. Touch in any case must be maintained with the right flank of the Rifle Brigade. On the north of the town, with greater room for manoeuvre, the task of the Rifles was more important. They were ordered to advance in co-operation with the 5th Division from the Beugnâtre Road, cross the railway and the Cambrai Road, and seize the high ground towards Bancourt. If possible they would also penetrate Bapaume from the north.
The Rifle Brigade found the roads choked with traffic, and the battalions moved in open "artillery" formation over the fields, now drenched by the heavy rain. About 10 p.m. on 25th August they reached their appointed concentration area behind Grévillers and Biefvillers. It had not yet been possible to issue detailed orders. In the thick darkness the battalion commanders had no little trouble in finding advanced brigade headquarters. General Hart arrived at 1.30 a.m. and issued verbal instructions. It was believed that the Beugnâtre Road was held by the 2nd Brigade, and that enemy resistance would not prove formidable except perhaps at St. Aubyn, the northern suburb of Bapaume.page break
Lieut. J. G. Grant, V.C.
The operations were to be carried out by 3 battalions, on a frontage of 2500 yards, the 3rd Rifles on the right, the 2nd1 in the centre, the 4th on the left. The left and centre would advance to the high ground south of Beugnâtre, the village itself falling within the 5th Division's area. The right battalion would carry St, Aubyn, and passing along the northern outskirts of Bapaume itself, would fling a flank round the town's eastern approaches over the Cambrai Koad.
An hour after midnight, 25th/26th August, the Rifle battalions moved off to their position of deployment in rear of the 2nd Brigade line. There they found a disagreeable surprise in the enemy retention of the greater part of the Beugnâtre Road. In the early morning the rain cleared off. and at 6.30 a.m. the attack was launched in ideal weather. It was not supported by tanks or barrage, but a battery of New Zealand artillery was allotted to each battalion, together with a section of machine guns and light trench mortars. In the centre of the 4th Rifles' front, Capt. D. W. McClurg rushed the sunken road with 2 platoons, capturing many machine guns and killing or making prisoners the garrison. At the. very outset the left company of the 4th Battalion met considerable resistance. Well supported, however, by the covering fire of the attached battery, within half an hour it had joined up with McClurg and established posts along the tree-lined Beugnâtre Road facing the old aerodrome. A counter-attack made by about 2 companies and debouching from Beugnâtre was successfully repelled. McClurg took command of both companies, the company on his left having lost all its officers, and superintended their consolidation in front of the Road.
1 Major J. Murphy, vice Lt.-Col. Jardine, on leave.
Bapaume and the high ground north-east of it towards the Cambrai Road had been subjected by us to heavy bombardment, which it was reasonably thought must weaken the enemy's power of resistance. As the 2nd Brigade, checked in the morning of the previous day, had effected a brilliant recovery in the evening, so now too General Hart suggested that the commanding officers should meet at the 2nd Battalion headquarters in the centre of the line and discuss the situation with a view to a resumption of the attack. Lt.-Col. Bell arrived safely, but Lt.-Col. Beere of the 4th Battalion was wounded on the way. It was agreed that no further advance without artillery assistance was practicable. Should it be possible, however, to provide a barrage, the battalion commanders recommended that the centre of the line should strike again in the afternoon with the purpose of securing some three-quarters of a mile along the Cambrai Road from a point 500 yards east of Bapaume. The left of the line would conform, but the time was not yet ripe for any considerable movement on the right, where the enemy's defences about Bapaume bristled with machine guns. After consultation with General Russell, the brigadier approved of this plan and gave orders (3.30 p.m.) over the telephone for a renewed advance at 6 p.m. under an artillery barrage. The 5th Division was to co-operate on the left and capture Beugnâtre.
The 2nd Battalion company commanders were at once summoned to headquarters, where the plan of attack was explained to them. The battalion commander could not at the moment withdraw and utilise the right support company which was pinned to its trenches before St. Aubyn. The reserve company was therefore to be brought up into support. The original left support company would attack on the right page 445and the original patrol company on their left. A company of the 1st Battalion was allotted as reserves.
From this conference the 2nd Battalion company commanders hastened with all despatch to their own headquarters some 2000 yards forward, whither they instantly summoned their platoon commanders. Less than 20 minutes remained before the opening of the barrage. Brief orders were issued, but time did not permit of certain desirable changes in the machine gun positions or of anything but the baldest explanation to the rank and file. Such over-hurried preliminaries do not augur success.
Punctually to time the promised barrage fell and began its march of 100 yards every 4 minutes. If the infantry had previously in the day been impressed by the dropping of S.A.A. boxes by parachutes from the aeroplanes, it was now the turn of the low-flying observers to admire the rapidity with which the riflemen shook themselves out into attacking formations. But from the outset there was an inevitable lack of cohesion between the 2 companies. At first they swept everything before them. The railway line, which was halfway to the objective, was reached with but a handful of casualties. Heavy opposition, however, developed on the right flank from Bapaume, and the left flank was harassed by continuous long-range fire from the ground east of Beugnâtre and from the village itself, which the 5th Division did not eventually clear till late in the evening. Serious casualties were sustained. The right company lost all its officers, and a large gap was torn in the line between it and the left company. None the less their advance cleared St. Aubyn. Beyond that point only a few sections managed to progress, and thus as the left company (Capt. W. J. Organ, M.C.) struggled towards the objective, very troublesome machine gun fire began to harass their right rear. The left company, however, and some men of the right reached the Cambrai Road. A dozen prisoners were captured.
There was no abatement, however, of the machine gun opposition, and presently a strong party of Germans lining the walls of some brickyards on the Cambrai Road made our position untenable by close-range fire. Enfilading the line, they forced a withdrawal. The Rifles fell back slowly some 500 yards to the line of the railway. Here they stood firm. On the left the 4th Rifles formed a protective flank, maintaining touch with the 5th Division. On the right the 3rd Battalion patrols were able to push their way somewhat further forward page 446towards the northern outskirts of Bapaume. By nightfall the line ran from Gun Spur north-east of Bapaume along the railway-back to St. Aubyn. The total advance from the morning's position amounted to approximately 1000 yards on a front of about 2500. The Beugnâtre Road was left now well behind, and Bapaume was directly menaced from the north. During the day the 2nd Rifles, on whom the brunt of the fighting fell, lost 6 officers killed or died of wounds and 40 men killed. 1 man had been captured on the Cambrai Road. 6 officers and 126 men had been wounded.
Meanwhile south of the town the 1st Brigade and the 63rd Division had been unable to effect much progress against an extremely strong defence. As the result of their side-slip northwards during the night,1 the 1st Brigade were not now, except on their right, immediately confronted by the westerly section of the Le Transloy-Loupart system, which opposite the greater part of their line lay south of the Albert Road. But having taken over the positions after nightfall, they had little knowledge of their front and were in addition very much handicapped by uncertainty as to the zero hour of the 63rd Division's attack. The wires to brigade headquarters were cut by shell-fire. During a reconnaissance in the night (25th/26th' August) Lt. R. V. Hollis of 2nd Wellington ran right into 4 Germans. He attacked them single-handed, killing 2 with his revolver and closed with the other 2. One he knocked down with his fist, and the other after an attempt to club him with a rifle fled. Hollis collected a couple of his men at once and returned to the scene of his encounter, but found the ground clear except for the dead Gentians.
1 p. 442.
2 Owing to their uncertainty as to the 63rd Division's "zero," 2nd Wellington attacked at the same hour (6.30 a.m.) as the Rifle Brigade.
A somewhat light artillery barrage, however, had completely failed to neutralise the machine gun posts about Thilloy, and the main attack of the 63rd Division made no material progress. Prom the commencement of the operations a total of no less than 20 German Divisions had been identified by contact on the Third Army front, and the Thilloy sector was now heavily reinforced. In addition, the New Zealand patrols were severely harassed by machine gun fire from Bapaume. In the end, to conform with the general line, our advanced posts were withdrawn on the Albert Road. A proposed renewal of the attack in the late evening was abandoned. The 1st Brigade indeed remained in a position where progress on their right was an essential preliminary to their getting forward. Splendid as was Judson's exploit, not much could be expected from bombing alone. During the night 26th/27th August 1st Auckland took over the 2nd Wellington line and became responsible for the whole brigade front.
At the close of the 26th the order of battle on the Corps front was, from right to left, the 63rd, the New Zealand, and the 5th Divisions in the line. In reserve, the 42nd Division was on the right and the 37th on the left. The vital importance of cutting the German communications by obtaining command of the Péronne and Cambrai Roads was keenly felt. In conformity with a general advance along the Army front, the IV. Corps ordered the 63rd Division to make a further attack on Thilloy on the 27th. The New Zealanders would continue to encircle Bapaume, and the 5th Division move with them on the left. Bapaume and the roads eastward were heavily bombarded. Some of the New Zealanders' Newton mortars were now in position on the town's north-western edge, and in this bombardment they, together with the howitzer batteries, co-operated. In view, however, of the enemy's strength, it was not desired that the 5th and the New Zealand Divisions should force a costly assault. If it should be found necessary, a full-dress attack with a wide encircling movement would be arranged, but this must take a little time. The 63rd Division's attack on the 27th accomplished little. As a preparatory page 448measure, therefore, to the encircling movement, the 1st Brigade, who had during the day made some advance beyond the Albert Road, took over in the evening the front of the Rifle Brigade up to the cemetery on the Arras Road, thus entirely covering Bapaume and leaving the Rifles free for movement north of the town. During the night 27th/28th August the 63rd Division after a further vain effort at Thilloy was relieved by the 42nd Division.
In view of the resistance encountered, plans for formal attack were indefinitely postponed in favour of the policy of maintaining strong pressure by patrols and of taking immediate advantage of any sign of weakening. The Third Army warned the V. and IV. Corps to be prepared for the possibility of the enemy's evacuation of Bapaume through the night. The artillery continued to bombard the place and sweep it with barrages, and barrage plans were drawn up for a "local" attack on the town by 1st Wellington.1 Further siege batteries were placed at the Corps' disposal. Just as Rawlinson had discontinued his attack in the south, so now it was no part of the High Command's purpose to ram their heads against a brick wall. There were other vulnerable sectors in the German line. Arrangements were continued for the construction of reserve lines in the event of continued resistance or of a counter-thrust. But the hard-pressed German had no such purpose. As our Staff surmised, it was his intention to hold Bapaume only for such time as would suffice to cover his retirement on the Hindenburg Line. When the progress made in the Battle of the Searpe (begun 26th August) proved a menace to its northern pivot, he hesitated no longer.
1 General Russell had promised a flag bearing the word "Bapaume" to the battalion which captured the town.
By 4 p.m. the flank battalions had come forward into line, and the 1st Brigade had reached a point over a mile down the Péronne Road. Shortly after 6 p.m. we held securely the German trench system south and south-west of Bapaume to the Péronne Road and thence to the Sugar Factory on the Cambrai Road whence the line continued to the north-east. The flank Divisions had made equal progress, and the hitherto sternly defended positions at Ligny Thilloy and Thilloy had now been yielded without opposition. On this line touch was again established with strong enemy rearguards, amply furnished with machine guns. Our new positions were being swept with shrapnel, and whippets operating in the angle between the Cambrai and Péronne Roads drew the fire of the enemy heavy artillery. The advance was temporarily discontinued, the troops took breath, and arrangements were made to press the pursuit together with the rest of the Army at dawn on the morrow (30th August).
If resistance proved slight, a distant goal was set the Divisions of the IV. Corps in the line Ytres-Bertincourt-Vélu, but as a primary objective the 42nd Division on the right would seize Riencourt, the New Zealanders in the centre Bancourt and Fremicourt, and the 5th Division on the left Beugny. In the evening General Russell accordingly issued orders for the 1st Brigade on the right to take Bancourt and the Rifles on the left to carry Fremicourt. Both brigades would advance to a ridge which rose 800 yards east of the villages.page 450
The infantry were to be supported by harassing machine gun fire specially directed on the trenches in front of the villages and co-ordinated with the advance of the artillery barrage. The barrage would be provided by all 3 New Zealand artillery brigades as far as the Cambrai Road, when the 2nd (Army) Brigade would cease, in order to come into Divisional reserve and be ready to move forward at instant notice.
On the north the Rifle Brigade front amounted to 1000 yards and could be covered by 1 battalion. Warning orders were given the 1st Rifles1 in the late evening. On definite information being received from the brigade at 1 a.m., the necessary instructions were issued to the company commanders already assembled at battalion headquarters. Expected guides from the leading troops failed to turn up, and the battalion moved off from their reserve position at 3 a.m., guided by their officers' compasses to their assembly area between the railway and the Cambrai Road. The company which had been in reserve to the 2nd Battalion2 was made the left attacking company. Two of its platoons chanced to be engaged in "carrying" and found it impossible to assemble in time to advance with the rest of the battalion at 5 a.m.. It was only with the utmost effort and thanks to the energy displayed by Sergt, W. L. Free that they were able to follow the attack some 25 minutes after the barrage and reach the position for the final assault.
1 Lt.-Col. Austin resumed duty this day.
2 p. 445.
The right company thereupon pressed forward to the crest, beyond which it encountered hot machine gun fire from the right flank. The 1st Brigade had not yet moved to the crest, but had dug in along a subsidiary spur with their left some 300 yards in rear of the Rifles' right, which was consequently exposed. The left company had special anxieties of its own. The 5th Division, harassed by fire from Beugny, drew in its right to overcome it, and left a gap. To reduce it, the left company extended their outer flank and had considerable fighting with a pocket of enemy in their left rear, at the dump and railway line to the north-east of Fremicourt. There they captured 50 prisoners. This flank lost the barrage, but the other half of the company took the full objective, and presently the left flank followed. Fremicourt had been cleared by 6.30 a.m. By 8 a.m. the whole line was on their objective. In an effort to secure touch with the 5th Division the left flank was flung out 300 yards into the latter's area. Thence it swung back in a wide circle round the east of Fremicourt to the railway cutting beside the Cambrai Road, halfway between Fremicourt and Beugny.
Meanwhile the support company in rear, which had been subjected to a very unpleasant 10 minutes' “crash” from the German guns and had throughout its advance been troubled by machine gun fire from Bancourt, had reached the Cambrai Road at 5.40 a.m. Our heavies were then still on Fremicourt. Three platoons were diverted along the Road towards Beugny. Dodging the heavies' shells, 2 passed into Fremicourt. The third moved to assist the left company. It took up a position in support 100 yards south of the Fremicourt cemetery at the eastern edge of the village. Here it was joined by the f urth platoon, which had worked through gardens and buildings from the south.
These 2 platoons in Fremicourt completed its mopping up. 7 officers and 110 other ranks in all were taken prisoners in it, Cpl. E. Sheldrake and a section of 5 men accounting for 5 officers and 76 other ranks. The parties of the attacking companies thereupon moved forward to the outpost line, and the support company's platoons extended the second line by the cemetery.page 452
The reserve company on reaching the Cambrai Road was ordered to send 1 platoon to assist the left company north and east of the village. The remainder waiting by the roadside were mistaken by our tanks for Prussian infantry. There ensued some natural altercation till a diversion was provided by some German machine guns on the western outskirts of the village, which had not come into action against the forward companies and had not been detected. Riflemen and tanks forgot their differences and co-operated in clearing up the enemy nests.
The 1st Rifles captured in all 402 prisoners including a battalion commander and his staff. Their losses were 4 officers wounded, 20 other ranks killed, and about 100 wounded.
The 1st Brigade on a wider front attacked their objective with 2 battalions. The capture of Bancourt itself fell to 2nd Auckland,1 but 1st Wellington2 advancing on the left would if necessary co-operate with 2nd Auckland in carrying the village. The 2 battalions took up their positions in saps and in a sunken cross-country track about the Péronne Road. On arrival 2nd Auckland at once got in touch with the 42nd Division, whose attack on Riencourt would safeguard their otherwise exposed right. The 42nd Division troops unfortunately had received their orders late. They informed Major Sinel that they would not be in a position to attack until 6 a.m. Auckland, therefore, was compelled to wait for them. Wellington, less exposed, attacked as arranged at the same time (5 a.m.) as the Rifles.
2 Major Turnbull, vice Lt.-Col. Narbey, wounded on 24th.
The 42nd Division moved shortly before 6 a.m. and 2nd Auckland with them. It was now broad daylight with no protecting mist. Raked by fire from the village of Beaulen-court further down the Péronne Road, which had resisted the V. Corps' attack, the 42nd Division was unable to take Rien-court, and this check in turn exposed the right of Auckland. Intense machine gun fire raged from the village itself and the coppices round it, and though artillery support was obtained it failed to neutralise the machine guns. For the moment it was out of the question for Auckland's right flank to attempt to advance over the open slopes north of Riencourt, and consequently a defensive flank was formed well up the ridge pending the fall of the village. Even the establishment of this foothold on the high ground was a creditable performance. The left company advanced rapidly, clearing Bancourt by 8 a.m. and gaining touch with 1st Wellington. In mopping up, Auckland was helped by 2 companies of the 2nd Rifles who came forward and secured 34 prisoners. In this strenuous day Auckland lost an officer and 17 men killed and 8 officers and 112 men wounded. One wounded man was missing. The places of the officers were taken effectively by Sergt. L. Thomas, M.M., Sergt. H. M. Morris, Cpl. L. G. North, L/Cpl. G. C. Ford, and others.
The general advance effected by the 3 battalions amounted to a mile and a quarter. Parties of the enemy digging in east of Bancourt during the morning were heavily shelled by our artillery. Others could be seen moving back towards Villers-au-Flos at noon, but till Riencourt fell the page 454New Zealanders could make no further move. On the left too the 5th Division had cleared the old British trenches west of Beugny but had been unable to capture the village, and as a result the 1st Rifles' position was not satisfactory. Sustained rifle and machine gun tire from Beugny caused casualties, and the line was thin. Soon after midday the enemy counter-attacked. He succeeded in driving the 1st Rifles' right flank and a post on the left off the crest. In the afternoon no improvement took place on the flanks, and both the Rifle companies were obliged to withdraw their remaining posts. They established themselves in a trench line about 300 yards below the crest. Here they were sufficiently clear of the enemy edge of Fremicourt, and a hostile bombardment on the village at 4.30 p.m. passed idly over their heads. The remaining 3 platoons of the reserve company and a section of Vickers guns were sent up the Cambrai Road towards Beugny to strengthen the left flank, and a company of the 3rd Rifles was attached in reserve.
1 The 63rd Division, less artillery, marched during the night from the IV. Corps area on transfer to the XVII. Corps.
2 The German tank was a heavily armoured clumsy box on small caterpillar wheels, carrying one 5-cm. gun and 6 machine guns.
On the left of the Rifles, in view of the gap towards the 5th Division, all possible measures had been taken during the night to strengthen the thin line. Daylight revealed that the precautions adopted were more than justified. Two strong enemy parties had infiltrated through behind our line, possibly working down the railway through the railway yard and the dumps, and were now in our rear. Both parties were about 50 strong. The first was taken prisoner by vigorous enterprise on the part of Sergt. A. J. Cunningham, M.M., who, while reconnoitring the front, was surprised by the sight of the Germans. He at once went to a neighbouring platoon and asked for a section. Dividing them into 2 parties, he charged the enemy and captured 46 prisoners, with very few casualties. The other was wiped out by our machine gun and infantry fire, in which the 5th Division co-operated, only half a dozen prisoners remaining. By 7 a.m. the Rifles' posts on the right were restored to the position on the slopes lost at daybreak, and the 1st Brigade also pushed forward again shortly afterwards and were now able to swing their refused right to join the 42nd Division east of Riencourt.
It was obviously desirable to retake the portion of the actual crest lost on the 30th, and also, now that the 42nd Division held Riencourt and protected the right flank, to extend our footing on the high ground for the purpose of page 456securing wider observation. Preparations were pressed forward to that end. The 5th Division on the left were to cooperate. Reconnaissance, however, established that the crest line was held too strongly to be taken without artillery. A conference was held at advanced Divisional headquarters, now at Grévillers. The operation, in which both brigades would take part, was fixed for the following morning (1st September), under an artillery barrage. In accordance with these plans, the 1st Rifles' reserve and support companies passed at 4.55 a.m. through the outpost line. By 5.30 a.m. they had carried their objective, and their centre was beyond it. They secured 70 prisoners of the 23rd (Saxon) Division, together with the usual haul of mortars and machine guns. Later in the morning the right of the 5th Division, which had been unable to attack at zero, pushed forward as far as was possible in the day time, and in the evening, under cover of darkness, it dribbled up into line. At the close of the the day the Rifles' casualties were 84, of whom the greater number were lightly wounded cases.
The 1st Brigade, who were faced by the 44th (Reserve) Division, were not to gain their objective with the same uneventful smoothness. In close touch with the Rifles on its left, 1st Wellington attacked with 3 companies in line. In command of one of the platoons was a Sergt. John Gilroy Grant, who throughout the 2 days' previous fighting had displayed coolness determination and valour of the highest order. On nearing the crest his company threatened to be hung up by a line of 5 enemy machine guns. Under point-blank fire, however, it rushed forward. When some 20 yards from the guns Grant, closely followed by L.-Cpl. C. T. Hill, dashed ahead of his platoon at the centre post. No one but the panic-stricken German at the gun could tell how the fire missed him. He leapt into the post, demoralising the gunners. His men were close on his heels. The instant they were on the parapet he rushed the post on the left in the same manner, and cleared first it and then the next one, and the company quickly occupied the remainder. Grant was awarded the V.C. and Hill the D.C.M. The other companies did not encounter very determined resistance. One platoon was taken by surprise by a hostile machine gun at close range. L.-Cpl. W. E. Ball immediately engaged the machine gun, and by skilful manoeuvring beat down its fire and forced it out of its position. The platoon then moved forward successfully. The whole position was gained and established well up to page 457time. It had been intended to push patrols forward towards the Haplincourt Road, but intense machine gun fire from that direction made all movement impossible. Small sections of trenches were dug in touch with one another along the crest.
This fire from the Haplincourt Road and from huts on the roadside had seriously inconvenienced the advance of the 3 companies of 2nd Auckland who incurred more casualties from it than in clearing their objective. No touch was yet obtained with the 42nd Division. A foreshadowed German counter-attack was stifled by our artillery action. The enemy gun-fire slackened considerably. The snipers in the Haplincourt Road huts were temporarily dislodged by one of the 2 tanks put at Auckland's disposal1, and the battalion proceeded to consolidate their position. During the day the 1st Brigade captured 100 prisoners and 7 machine guns.
The tank having fulfilled its mission departed, and ere long the German snipers and machine guns returned to the huts. 2nd Auckland, though toiling manfully, were not yet under cover, and from the huts machine gun fire became very heavy on their centre. Mortars in a sunken road in front pounded destructively on the same sector. Anti-tank gun fire from the direction of Villers-au-Flos also raked these exposed forward slopes. Movement and consolidation became alike impossible, and after suffering severely the survivors, too weak to attack the enemy, even if attack were feasible, were forced to withdraw behind the crest. On this misfortune being reported, orders were issued for an immediate re-establishment of the line before the 2nd Brigade, relieving the front, line troops in the evening, took over the position. The assistance of a 2nd Wellington company was put at Auckland's disposal. The project was, however, eventually abandoned, and General Young expressed himself as satisfied with the position as it was. During the day Auckland had lost 3 officers and 31 men. killed, and 104 men wounded. 1 man had been taken prisoner.
1 The other broke down behind Bancourt owing to engine trouble.
The battle had been no facile triumph. The enemy had indeed been retiring, but his movements had up till this time been conducted in a great measure deliberately, with marked skill and in good order. His rearguards had offered fight on positions carefully selected to give the greatest scope to well-placed machine guns supported by field artillery. The successive lines occupied were independently organised and sufficiently far behind one another to prevent troops who had carried the first from overrunning the second with their initial impetus. The villages and broken commanding ground chosen as centres of resistance were in themselves formidable. The machine gun positions were sited up to 1500 yards, and in such spots as afforded no covered approach either from the front or flanks. Unoccupied intervals were left merely as traps. Moreover, each centre of resistance was sited for all-round defence. The destruction or capitulation of one did not materially facilitate the task of our units on either side, for, while neighbouring centres held out, further progress into the gap was, in daylight at least, extremely arduous. Against these machine gun nests the most gallant efforts to advance with infantry weapons not supported by artillery had proved unsuccessful. The German rearguards had displayed resolution and had repeatedly sacrificed themselves, Fighting for time, the enemy had in many cases forced from us more of that priceless asset than we were disposed to yield, and he had maintained unbroken a screen behind which he had withdrawn his guns and main force.
Under these conditions the attacking troops were called upon for strenuous and incessant labour. Nor had the cost been light. The Corps casualties amounted to over 600 officers and nearly 11,000 men. Of the 3 New Zealand infantry brigades, the 1st had lost 10 officers killed and 36 wounded, and 110 other ranks killed and over 500 wounded. The 2nd Brigade had 7 officers killed and 28 wounded, 150 men killed and 650 wounded. In the 3rd Brigade, 14 officers and 120 men had given their lives, and 34 officers and close on 600 men had been wounded. The Division had lost some 2 dozen prisoners.page 459
But despite German science and stubbornness there could be no doubt as to the satisfactory results of the battle. "The troops of the Third and Fourth Armies, comprising 23 British Divisions, by skilful leading, hard fighting, and relentless and unremitting pursuit, had driven 35 German Divisions from one side of the old Somme battlefield to the other, thereby turning the line of the River Somme. In so doing they had inflicted upon the enemy the heaviest losses in killed and wounded, and had taken from him over 34,000 prisoners and 270 guns."1 The IV. Corps alone had captured nearly 8000 prisoners. Of these the New Zealanders' share amounted to 47 officers and just over 1600 men.
In the battle the Division had experienced its share of checks and disappointments, but these were outweighed by its repeated successes. In common with the other troops engaged it had found that the transition from trench warfare to a battle of movement involved certain novel and at the outset somewhat bewildering features. Above all, the speed necessary to secure surprise and exploit success had allowed no place for elaborate deliberations and had rendered it in many instances impossible for battalions or even brigades to give other than verbal orders. It was thus inevitable that the men should get little previous information. This involved obvious disadvantages. But all difficulties incident to the change were surmounted with remarkable and admirable rapidity. Competent observers noted the facility with which subordinate commanders grasped hurriedly-sketched operations, and with which units of all arms, after one or two days of open warfare, achieved a high degree of mobility. The mass of comprehensive detailed and precise reports forwarded by artillery and infantry officers and by Intelligence personnel on our own and the enemy's positions and movements constitutes a striking testimony to the adaptability of officers and men to novel circumstances.
1 Official Despatch.