The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter XIII — The Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line
The Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line
The successes won in August and the first half of September by the British and French in the centre of the line and by the Americans at the St. Mihiel salient enabled Foch to prosecute with a minimum of delay the great strategic plan designed to drive the German Armies back on the line of the Meuse. North of the Ardennes the main lateral line of German communications from Lille to Metz was served from the east by railways having their heads at Valenciennes Maubeuge Hirson and Mézières. Reduced to simple terms the Allies' plan was that the French and Americans in closely co-ordinated operations should strike in the direction of Mézières, forcing the enemy back on the Ardennes, and that the British should simultaneously advance towards Maubeuge, threatening his main communications. If these conjoint and converging drives were perfectly timed and equally fortunate, the enemy would see position after position turned by a succession of rapid advances and would have serious difficulty in retreating without disorder and without the loss of a considerable portion of his effectives and material. At the same time, on the Flanders front the depleted German Armies would be driven towards Ghent by Belgian and other Allied forces.
In this grandly conceived scheme the most important role was entrusted to Haig's Southern Armies in the centre of the Allied Line. Success there, where the German Staff had their most highly organised defences, and where if anywhere they might reckon on holding their ground, would not only imperil the retreat of their forces to the south but react momentously on the German positions northwards. The difficulties of the task were proportionate to its significance. By the third week of September the left of the British line affected was indeed eastward of the Hindenburg System at Queant, but was there barred from further advance on Cambrai by the deep trough of the Canal du Nord and by the marshes of the Sensee. Southward Rawlinson and Byng were confronted by the intact Hindenburg Line itself. On the Fourth Army front north of St. Quentin it was sited just east of the Scheldt Canal. On the Third Army front from page 491Bantouzelle northwards it lay west of the Canal. Part of the system had been successfully breached in the Cambrai Battle of 1917. What had been done already could be done again, but even granting the deterioration of German morale. the undertaking remained sufficiently formidable.
As the Germans for their comfort were at this trying time reminded, the Line was not composed merely of a single earthworks system. It was a deep fortressed zone laboriously entrenched and heavily wired, most skilfully sited to catch an attack with frontal and enfilade fire. In its prepared defences and behind the barrier of the Canal du Nord. the Germans still believed that they could hold the Allied attack, and the strength of their positions was such as to cause their enemies careful and anxious deliberation. Even Foch, the very incarnation of the spirit of the offensive, was dubious as to the possibility of a break-through in a single operation. The British Cabinet left the decision to the men on the spot. Haig himself fully appreciated the strain put on his troops in the preceding battles, the difficulties of the undertaking and the unfortunate consequence of even a partial failure, but pressed for the enterprise as vital to the general scheme. After all his experiences of chequered fortune, Haig's decision spoke eloquently of his personal determination as well as of his strategic insight, and of his confidence in his weapons. Some little interval must elapse before the necessary preliminary measures were complete, but these were rapidly perfected.
Haig's plans were laid with consummate skill. Though no light obstacles confronted the Third and First Armies in the centre and left, the most formidable task lay before the Fourth Army on the right. There the intervening obstacles based on the Scheldt Canal necessitated prolonged artillery "preparation." Moreover, opposite the right of the Third Army, the Line overlooked the area of the Fourth Army into which it was necessary to move the latter's artillery. An advance by the Third and First Armies in the direction of Cambrai prior to the main attack by the Fourth Army presented therefore several advantages. The bombardment necessary to break the defences on General Rawlinson's front could be largely masked in a general preparation along the line of all 3 Armies, and the preliminary action of Generals Byng and Horne would serve as a diversion and attract the German reserves northward. Haig therefore proposed that the bombardment should commence on the night page 49226th/27th September, and that the 2 northern Armies, the Third and the First, should attack at dawn on the 27th, while on the Fourth Army front the bombardment should continue till the morning of the 29th when the main assault was to be delivered.
In this attack of the 27th the left wing of the Third Army, the VI. and XVII. Corps, would advance on the objectives of Flesquiéres Courtoing and Fontaine-Notre-Damc. If successful they would endeavour to gain the Scheldt in the neighbourhood of Marcoing and secure a bridgehead at Rumilly in the direction of Cambrai. The IV. Corps on the right would capture Beaucamp Ridge and Highland Ridge and clear the Hindenburg front system as far as Couillet Valley, while the V. Corps on the extreme right would make a limited advance in conformity. Should the advance of the VI, Corps in the centre on Marcoing be successful, the IV. Corps were to press forward and carry Welsh Ridge in order to protect the right flank of the VI. Corps.
The IV. Corps proposed to attack with the 5th Division on the right acting as a pivot to the general advance and with the 42nd Division on the left. The New Zealand Division was held ready to move at short notice to exploit success on cither the 5th or the 42nd Division's front The 2nd Infantry Brigade was placed directly in Corps reserve, and on 26th September this Group comprising the 4 South Island battalions, a machine gun company, a light trench mortar battery, and a field ambulance, moved forward from the rest area behind Bapaume to the Bertincourt area nearer the battle. On the same day the 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades returned to the line, the former to support the 42nd and the latter the 5th Division. The 2 New Zealand medium trench mortar batteries were also placed at the disposal of the 42nd Division.
The country separating the IV. Corps troops from the Scheldt Canal was a succession of ridges and valleys. Their right in the African Support and Snap Trench line rested on the high ground between Gouzeaucourt and Trescault. Northeast of Beaucamp was the isolated eminence of Highland Ridge on which in the initial stages of the attack on the 27th the Corps' right flank would be refused back to the south-west. Over this joint barrier advancing troops would drop into Couillet Valley through which the railway runs from Péronne to Cambrai. On the eastern side of the valley the ground rises on the right into Gonnelieu Ridge and on the left into page 493Welsh Ridge. Beyond Gonnelieu a wide plateau terminates in slopes overlooking the Scheldt, but beyond Welsh Ridge is the further shallow depression of Vacquerie Valley. Here the advance would have again to descend and then climb the Bonavis Ridge on the other side before it could command observation over the Canal.
The whole intervening country was covered with trenches and entanglements. First came the old British trenches as far east as Welsh Ridge, which the final developments of the 1917 Cambrai battle had, till the German 1918 offensive, left in our possession. Beyond were the intricate mazes of the Hindenburg system. The Canal runs roughly from south to north. The trend of the Line, in a north-westerly direction away from the Canal, was diagonal and not parallel to the IV. Corps' assault position. Various circumstances, however, made it necessary that our attack should be for the most part frontal. Of several roads crossing the area it is sufficient to notice 2. One of these is the sunken road which runs down Couillet Valley, parallel to the railway but slightly above it, along the western slopes of Welsh Ridge. This is Surrey Road. The second is the main highway from Gouzeau-court to Cambrai. It leads first north-east as far as Bonavis village, passing just south of the township of La Vacquerie where Welsh Ridge joins Gonnelieu Ridge. Thus far it lies wholly on the high ground. At Bonavis it turns sharply north, drops down to the western reach of the Canal at Masniéres and mounts the farther bank towards Cambrai, some 4 miles to the north. From the crest of the Trescault Ridge to the top of Welsh Ridge is, as the crow flies, 2¼ miles. A straight line measured from the top of Welsh Ridge to the Canal amounts to approximately the same distance.
On the general front of the Third and First Armies, the progress made on the 27th satisfied expectations. The Canal du Nord was crossed, 10,000 prisoners and 200 guns captured, and the line advanced beyond Flesquiéres and Bourlon and brought within assaulting distance of Cambrai. The IV. Corps on the right secured the flank of the main attack, but was unable to progress beyond their first objective. The VI. Corps did not succeed in capturing Marcoing. Thus the New Zea-landers were not called upon.
During the night 27th/28th September, however, the 42nd Division succeeded in making further ground. They found resistance weakening. By the afternoon of the 28th the Corps reached Gouzeaucourt and Couillet Valley. Patrols of page 494the 42nd Division on the left had advanced towards Welsh Ridge, meeting opposition, but it was confidently expected that before nightfall they would master it, carry Welsh Ridge and possibly reach Bonavis Ridge as well. On the same day the troops northwards captured Marcoing and won a foothold on the east bank of the Scheldt Canal, which after a short westerly stretch here again turns northward. Time was now ripe for the New Zealanders to be put into the battle.1
In preparation for this the 1st Brigade Group had moved forward at 4.30 a.m. on the 28th to the Neuville-Bourgonval area, the infantry being conveyed in a convoy of motor lorries. The 3rd Brigade Group prepared to march up in the afternoon. Advanced Divisional headquarters was established in Vélu Copse. General Russell held a conference at the 1st Brigade headquarters at noon and explained the situation and the tasks of the Division to his brigadiers. The 5th Division on the-right would advance between La Vac-querie and Gonnelieu towards Banteux. On the left the 62nd Division of the VI. Corps would attack Masniércs and Rumilly. The New Zealand Division would pass that night through the 42nd Division with the 2nd Brigade on the right and the 1st on the left. In view of the 42nd Division's progress, alternative plans were laid dependent on whether the line to be taken over was still short of Bonavis or not. Possession of Welsh Ridge seemed already assured.
1 During their period of training in reserve some battalions marched to the-1916 battlefield about Fliers to revisit the scene of their former struggles and the-graves of old comrades.
In accordance with these plans the 2nd Infantry Brigade, now released from Corps reserve, moved up in rainy weather during the forenoon to a concentration area behind Havrin-court Wood. In the late afternoon both assaulting brigades marched forward along congested roads to the battle area. Passing through Metz and rounding the southern edge of Havrincourt Wood the 2nd Brigade climbed in gathering darkness the familiar and bitterly-contested heights towards Beaueamp. The rain had ceased. On the whole the night was quiet, and it was on the battery areas further in rear that the hostile aeroplanes sailing through a starry windless sky dropped their bombs. Passing through Beaueamp, however, 2nd Otago was subjected to a brief bombardment by 5.9 in. howitzers. The 1st Brigade was allotted a preliminary rendezvous area between the northern end of Highland Ridge and Ribecourt. They turned up the valley east of Havrincourt Wood towards Trescault, and as one of the battalions was approaching Trescault, here too the enemy flung a shell-storm on the village. In deviating round the outskirts to dodge this, 2 companies bore somewhat too far north, and for the moment lost touch with their unit. Such mishaps, inevitable in war, are not calculated to relieve commanding officers' anxieties. Worse was yet to come, for on getting into touch with the 42nd Division, it was found that the Lancashire troops had met heavy opposition, and that so far from occupying Bonavis they had been unable to clear Welsh Ridge.
Plans were hurriedly modified. It was arranged that the 2 assaulting battalions of each brigade should form up on Surrey Road and attack at 3.30 a.m. The 42nd Division troops would be withdrawn half an hour before zero to below Surrey Road, to enable our barrage to come down 200 yards east of it. Thence the barrage would roll over the ridge at the rate of 100 yards in 3 minutes as far as the forward slopes of Bonavis Ridge overlooking the Canal, where it would die away.
1 p. 489.
Almost as soon as our barrage opened, the enemy's heavy artillery bombarded the obvious assembly place in Couillet Valley, but his shells for the most part fell behind the attacking troops. 1st Canterbury, on the right of the 2nd Brigade front, attacked with 2 companies and carried Welsh Ridge without much difficulty. Cowed by the barrage and overwhelmed by the élan of the attack, the enemy offered little resistance. Nearer La Vacquerie machine gun fire became heavy, and the leading Canterbury companies cleared the ruins only after a lengthy and considerable struggle. On this line the 2 supporting companies were to have leapfrogged through them. Two platoons arrived. Time went on. There was no sign of the others. The original right attacking company, therefore, not satisfied with having done its own job, pushed on after the barrage and made substantial progress on the high ground due south of the village.
The remainder of the support companies had simply lost direction in the darkness. They were marching on compass bearings, but in that tangled and intricate country of trenches and wire-belts, running in every direction, they had swung southwards into the area of the 5th Division. Here the remaining 2 platoons of the one company encountered heavy fighting, and eventually, about 10.30 a.m., they were hemmed in by machine gun fire, surrounded and taken prisoners. Among the captured survivors were an officer and man, both wounded. These the Germans treated considerately and placed in a dugout, where they were recovered in our subsequent advance in the evening.
The other supporting company came in for equally stern fighting south of La Vacquerie but resolutely, yard by yard, driving the Germans before them, reached the Cambrai Road south-west of the village. Here, however, after beating off a counter-attack, they became exposed to reverse and enfilade page 497machine gun fire, and were later withdrawn some distance to conform with the position of the 5th Division, who had been held up by deadly cross-fire from the ground south of La Vaequerie on the one hand and from Gonnelieu on the other. When the light dawned, some German posts on the eastern slopes of Welsh Ridge were found to have been overlooked, and one in particular, 1000 yards north-west from La Vacquerie, gave trouble, but was finally rushed by a patrol under cover of Lewis gun fire. In all, some 250 prisoners were captured. The fighting on this flank and the resistance offered to the 5th Division had left the position here somewhat unsatisfactory. To strengthen it, therefore, a company of 1st Otago was sent in the forenoon to the forward slopes of Highland and the rear slopes of Welsh Ridges, and in the afternoon 2 further companies were moved to Welsh Ridge.
On the left of the 2nd Brigade subsector no untoward incident marred 2nd Otago's success. Good Man Farm, at which cavalry and 42nd Division posts had been established during the previous evening and from which on account of our barrage they had been subsequently withdrawn, had not been reoccupied by the enemy. By 4.30 a.m. both assaulting companies had pressed over the crest of Welsh Ridge, stamping out inconsiderable resistance. Thereafter, as the light cleared, machine guns from about the village of La Vaequerie, not yet cleared by 1st Canterbury, from Vaequerie Valley, and from the Bonavis trenches beyond rendered progress in the open much more difficult. Strong bombing parties worked down the infinite maze of trenches in the Hindenburg Line to the sunken road in Vaequerie Valley, where touch was gained with the 1st Brigade on their left. Enfilade fire from the other flank, where for the moment nothing could be seen of 1st Canterbury, was becoming heavy and causing casualties. In spite of this, both companies pressed up the Bonavis slopes till within 400 yards from the crest. The 1st Brigade on the left were making unchecked progress, but the German machine guns on the right, south of La Vaequerie, were now in Otago's rear. The advance was therefore temporarily suspended till reinforcements could strengthen the right flank.
About 11 a.m. the support company thrown forward for this purpose had arrived, and the 2 assaulting companies, thus protected, fought their way on to the top of Bonavis Ridge. One company, shortly after taking 2 abandoned 77-mm. guns, was held up by heavy machine gun fire. Sergt. page 498R. B. Foote, though without previous training in gunnery, turned the captured field pieces on the hostile posts and drove the German garrison back over the ridge. By 1 p.m. 2nd Otago had cleared the summit and held the important Royal Trench on the Cambrai Road overlooking the Canal. Patrols pushed down the forward slopes to the outskirts of Lateau Wood, but were there met by intense machine gun fire, and for the moment no further progress was possible. 2nd Otago had taken nearly 600 prisoners, with 30 officers, together with 4 field guns, a howitzer, 2 trench mortars, and 30 machine guns.
The chief triumph of the day, however, was reserved for the 1st Brigade who, meeting opposition, swept it before them in seemingly effortless mastery. 2nd Wellington1 was on the right and 1st Auckland on the left, supported by their sister battalions. As with the 2nd Brigade, their main difficulties in crossing Welsh Ridge were due to the darkness and not to the enemy. Shortly after 5 a.m. they were down in Vacquerie Valley, and their screen was breasting the slopes of Bonavis Ridge. Here one of the Wellington companies was momentarily arrested by machine gun fire from very close range, but 2nd Lt. D. G. H. B. Morison crawled along a sap and threw bombs into the post, thus enabling his platoon to advance above ground and capture the guns and crews. Before 8 a.m. 300 unwounded prisoners and 10 officers had passed the 1st Brigade headquarters, and many others were streaming in, carrying our wounded and their own. An enemy pocket in Vacquerie Valley, though surrounded, held out with determination till destroyed, not without risk to our own troops in the vicinity, by our heavy artillery.
Swarming up the Bonavis crest in the cool dawn the two 1st Brigade battalions completely overran the enemy. By 6 a.m. they were beyond the northern fringe of Lateau Wood, and over the Cambrai Road, and in those advanced trenches on the forward slopes which the British had won and held for 10 days in November 1917, till the German counter-stroke pressed them back on Welsh Ridge. 2nd Wellington, with 43 casualties, had taken over 250 prisoners, 20 field guns, and 29 machine guns. 1st Auckland, with similarly light casualties, secured an equal number of prisoners and machine guns, six 77-mm. guns, and 2 howitzers.
1 Major McKinnon, M.C., vice Lt.-Col. Cunningham, at Rest Camp.
On the extreme right of the 1st Brigade line, half a 2nd Auckland company, which had deviated too far south in the darkness, held the Bonavis ruins, where they secured the exposed flank till the 2nd Brigade came into line. The bulk of the 2 leading companies had become immerged in the front line. Following on with great rapidity, the remainder of 2nd Auckland on the left and 1st Wellington on the right had crossed Welsh Ridge at 6 a.m., where they mopped up some overlooked machine guns and took close on 50 prisoners. They now caught up the leading troops on the ridge and were eager to pass through, if these should be checked, and to make down for the Canal. 2nd Auckland on the left in particular pushed patrols through the 1st Auckland line of consolidation on the ridge down towards Crèvecoeur, where, as early as 8 a.m., they had secured 2 long-range guns,1 captured a batch of prisoners, and were approaching the Canal.
But the whole 1st Brigade line was now somewhat disorganised both by the darkness and by the rapidity of the advance. On the left, touch was maintained with the VI. Corps troops, who had occupied Masnières but were held up by the trenches east of it and prevented from continuing their advance on Rumilly. On the right, however, there was a great gap about Bonavis village between the 2nd and 1st Brigades, and on the crest line itself men of 2nd Wellington, 1st Auckland and 2nd Auckland were much intermingled. Some reorganisation was therefore essential before pushing forward. The posts of 2nd Auckland were withdrawn by orders of Lt.-Col. Alderman (1st Auckland) to the line of the Cambrai Road.2 The front was reorganised under the 2 original assaulting battalions, who took over for the moment the charge of making ground towards the Canal, thus leaving the supporting battalions ready for exploitation on its eastern side. Two 1st Wellington companies moved up to closer support on Bonavis Ridge. By noon, 29th September, the whole of the position was well consolidated, and the 2 support battalions were in readiness to press forward at a moment's notice.
1 Claimed also by 1st Auckland.
2 Lt.-Col. S. S. Allen, whose opinion merits careful consideration, says (2nd Auckland, 1918, pp, 132, 133): "(This) extraordinary incident was the cause of robbing us of a very striking success. The Battalion's casualties were negligible…. There appears to have been little disorganisation… We might easily have secured the river crossings and Crèvecoeur." This is possible enough, though in the event of success they would almost certainly have had to face heavy counter-action.
On the line held by the 1st Brigade on the Bonavis Ridge was a succession of trenches which were obviously not German. They greatly perplexed the North Island battalions at the moment, and it was only later that men realised they were on the furthest limit won by the 1917 Cambrai battle. These trenches had been dug by the 12th Division. Behind our left flank in the Scheldt Valley was Masnières, where a broken bridge had in 1917 prevented Byng's massed cavalry sweep on Cambrai. East of the Canal were the last isolated trenches of the Hindenburg System, the Beaurevoir-Masnières line, which a Canadian squadron had then broken in a stirring charge. At the time few if any of the troops on the ridge knew this. What they did most thoroughly appreciate, was the sight of the smiling country eastwards unscathed by war. Behind them now was the lacerated, too familiar, landscape of churned-up shellholes, hideous walls of wire, miry battered ditches, the unsightliness of stricken villages and blasted woods. East of Bapaume there had been a limited temporary approximation to normal scenes, but even there the slopes were pocked with craters, and the villages, though not levelled, had felt the heavy hand of war. Now, however, the attack had reached the threshold of a new world, and fatigue was forgotten in tense exhilaration. The grey lofty towers and spires of Cambrai were clearly visible northwards, and great beacons of smoke told of the destruction of dumps or the firing of the city. Below Auckland on this side of the Canal lay the 2 long streets of Les Rues des Vignes, which had been held for an hour during the 1917 Cambrai battle. Half a mile further north on the other side of the Canal, at the point where it turns westward towards Masnières, was the village of. A mile up-stream from Les Rues des Vignes and opposite the 2nd Brigade the village of Vaucelles nestled under protecting tree-clad hills. The Canal itself and the river which flowed alongside were fringed with lines of poplars. On the far page 501side, the ground rose steeply to the La Terrière plateau, broken by sunken roads and quarries. From it a broad spur running towards the Canal overhung Vaucelles on the south and looked on its northern slopes towards Les Rues des Vignes. The trees of Cheneaux Wood climbed up the lower hillside in a solid mass of greenery. Northwards the plateau fell towards Crèvecoeur and the village of Lesdain, further east. Stretching south from Crèvecoeur the wire of the Beaurevoir-Masnières line near the crest of the plateau was the one and only sign of prepared defences.
All this country over the Canal was full of German movement, and our patrols feeling down towards its banks saw guns limbering up for retreat eastward, and transport moving both east and west along the lower edge of Cheneaux Wood. Our machine guns, pushing aggressively forward, took up positions on the eastern slopes of Bonavis Ridge, engaging transport lorries, guns and motor tractors at ranges for the most part of between 1300 and 1400 yards, and scattering horses and personnel. In the afternoon, however, considerable forces of German infantry were dribbled up in small parties to contest the crossing. Movement became increasingly difficult. German guns began to shell the ridge. It was clear that the passage over the Canal would involve a separate operation. 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago also were meeting fierce resistance about the Cambrai highway.
Meantime great events had been happening in the south. Just before 6 a.m. the Fourth Army had struck their blow on the Line, meeting for the most part with immediate and remarkable success. Satisfactory progress had also been made against stiffening opposition towards Cambrai. In the afternoon orders were issued by the Corps foreshadowing an advance on the 30th by all 3 Southern Armies. On the IV. Corps sector the 5th Division were during the night to complete the capture of the Hindenburg Line south-east of La Vacquerie. The New Zealanders were to strike early in the morning with the object of securing the eastern bank of the Canal between Vaucelles and Crèvecoeur and of establishing bridgeheads. In co-operation with the 5th Division on the right, the 2nd Brigade would throw its leading troops across the Canal, form a defensive right flank on the high spur above Cheneaux Wood, and pass through the Beaurevoir-Masnieres line in the direction of a smaller copse, known as Pelu Wood, 2 miles beyond the Canal.page 502
In view of the 5th Division's position and of the resistance still offered to the 2nd Brigade by strong enemy parties on the western bank about Vaucelles, it was realised that the New Zealanders' right wing would probably encounter difficulties. More was to be hoped from the 1st Brigade movement against Crèveeoeur and Lesdain. There it might prove possible to exploit success towards the high ground north of Esnes in conjunction with an advance of the VI. Corps and cavalry on Wambaix. A squadron of the 3rd Hussars was attached to the 1st Brigade for the operation.
In his plans for the proposed advance General Melvill ordered that 1st Wellington and 2nd Auckland, passing through the original front line battalions, should make every effort to secure the Canal crossings before dawn, and then attack with the objectives of Esnes and the La Targette Road east of Seranvillers. 2nd Auckland on the left was given a free hand for exploitation and could move, if it proved possible, in a northerly direction to threaten Cambrai. A motor lorry was provided to carry Lewis gun sections forward close behind the cavalry. 2nd Wellington and 1st Auckland would not move till Lesdain and Crèveeoeur were taken, but when these villages were cleared, 2nd Wellington would watch the right flank of the attack about Lesdain in case the 2nd Brigade failed to cross at Vaucelles. 1st Auckland would move also into a position of readiness behind Les Rues des Vignes. It was not at first proposed that there should be a covering barrage, but at the request of the battalion commanders this was arranged for at very short notice. The hour of the attack was fixed for 5.45 a.m.
In the evening (29th September) rain began to fall heavily about 5 p.m. and continued till midnight, making the ground soft and muddy. The night was again very dark. Conditions seemed likely to favour an advance against machine gun resistance, but there would be a difficulty in maintaining direction. As soon as dusk fell, the 2nd Brigade "battalions had begun to thrust towards the Canal. 2nd Otago patrols endeavoured again to work towards Vaucelles, but the enemy held the ground in force, and up to midnight no material advance had been realised.
Shortly after midnight (29th/30th September), however, the enemy began to evacuate the western bank. As the machine gun fire of his rearguards abated, 2nd Otago redoubled their pressure, and a strong patrol hurried the German retreat towards the Canal. The rain cleared about page 5034 a.m., and the morning was of delightful freshness. Before 5 a.m. an Otago patrol, under Lt. R. D. Douglass, after twice being driven back by direct machine gun and ride fire, had covered the intervening 1000 yards and reached the bank opposite Vaucelles, where they found the centre span of the bridge destroyed. The reserve company was at once sent forward and reached the neighbourhood of the bridge by 6.30 a.m. The actual approaches were heavily swept by machine gun lire. A small party of Engineers, under Lt. T. K. Broadgate, endeavoured to reconnoitre the bridge, but were driven back, Broadgate being killed. Meantime, another Otago patrol, under Scrgt. R. Fitzgerald, examined the whole Canal from Vaucelles to Banteux, in full view of the enemy. The footbridge at the lock north of Banteux was found mined. The wires and fuses were cut by Fitzgerald. Moving further south, they discovered 4 German sappers preparing to mine the traffic bridge from Banteux to Bantouzelle, and opening fire, killed 1 and forced the others to flight. Then crossing this bridge and boldly penetrating to the far side of Bantouzelle, the patrol safely returned to the battalion headquarters with most valuable information. Without delay 2nd Otago established posts on the western bank and were presently joined by 1st Canterbury. These also had moved at nightfall. Two companies had cleared the trenches east and north-east of La Vacquerie. Another, after fierce hand-to-hand bayonet work in the darkness, had reached the line of the Cambrai Road on 2nd Otago's right.
At dawn (30th September) the 5th Division had advanced under a barrage to reach their objectives of the previous day and make good our right flank. Under the protection of their ban-age 1st Canterbury patrols also had moved forward over the Cambrai Road, overmastering half-hearted opposition, and shortly after 8 a.m. had gained the approaches to the Canal near a sugar factory on the northern outskirts of Banteux. Distant machine gun lire was encountered, but most of the enemy had already vacated the western bank. A few last rearguards were crossing the Canal by the footbridge at the lock nearer Banteux. Horses and transport were moving out of Bantouzelle, and infantry parties were retiring up the wooded slopes on the far side. At this particular point there was apparently nothing to stop further advance, but, the troops on the right had met with considerably more resistance in the Hindenburg Line and had not been able to keep progress. Meantime the bridges were page 504reconnoitred. The main factory bridge had been destroyed, but was just passable for infantry in single file. Across it and the footbridge, which was still intact, 2 platoons moved forthwith and occupied a line of willow trees 200 yards beyond the Canal. At 10.15 a.m., however, the enemy began to move back again. Considerable bodies re-entered Bant-ouzellc. A party approached the bridge with demolition material, but was scattered by our fire. There was no sign yet of the flank Division, so our bridgehead was temporarily withdrawn. An outpost line was established along the western bank to guard the crossings, and a defensive flank formed southwards. The whole position was consolidated pending further progress on the fanks.
In the late evening of the 29th the leading company of 2nd Canterbury had moved forward to Welsh Ridge, and soon after dawn on the 30th had passed through the rear companies of 2nd Otago in Rebel Trench and over the Cambrai Road into the long Lateau Trench that led towards Vaucelles. Should 2nd Otago succeed in forcing the passage, the Canterbury company was to cross over to the eastern bank and extend the bridgehead by the occupation of Vaucelles and the capture of the spur above it. Moving down the dilapidated Lateau Trench, the company was seriously incommoded by heavy machine gun fire from the eastern bank. It was immediately apparent that 2nd Otago had no chance of effecting a crossing. 2nd Canterbury accordingly at nightfall took over the front line in the hope that by the following morning the enemy might have withdrawn. Should resistance be maintained, a major operation would be necessary, in which, under cover of artillery fire, bridges could be flung over the deep unfordable Canal. At any time even unencumbered and active men, moving one at a time, would have difficulty in crossing the broken Vaucelles bridge. So long as a single hostile machine gun remained in action to guard it the passage was quite impossible. For the moment not less than 20 machine guns were located in the houses of Vaucelles and about the hedge-lined ditches which commanded a clear view of the crossing.
While the 2nd Brigade advance was thus held up by obstacles which for the time were completely insuperable, the 1st Brigade attack also had encountered serious opposition and failed to realise the sanguine expectations of the previous evening. In the darkness the brigade runners had gone astray, and it was not till 11.15 p.m. that orders reached page 5051st Wellington and 2nd Auckland. Very little time remained to go into details with the company commanders. The brigade order was misinterpreted by 1st. Wellington, who supposed that the attack was timed for 5 a.m. No barrage falling at that time, the leading company, who were to cross the permanent bridge at Les Rues des Vignes and secure a bridgehead, believed naturally enough that the operations were postponed and did not attack. Artillery tire fell, however, further up-stream, and the right support Wellington company made an independent advance in its direction to the edge of the Canal. Deviating far away to the right, they cleared the enemy's last foothold on the western bank in this area, taking 8 prisoners.
When it was found that 2nd Auckland had attacked independently, the main 1st Wellington advance was initiated shortly after 6 a.m., and though harassed by fire from artillery and machine guns on the eastern bank of the Canal, parties occupied, about 8 a.m., Les Rues des Vignes, which had already been mostly cleared by 2nd Auckland. But the approaches over the slopes from the village to the Canal were swept by extremely heavy fire and were all but impossible. No hope of the actual crossing at this point could be entertained. Could it be achieved elsewhere? On their own initiative 2nd Wellington sent a party up-stream to test the bridge at Vaucelles, whence the 1st Brigade, after crossing, could work north again on to their proper frontage. There they were speedily satisfied that “nothing was doing.” Meantime heavy machine gun fire and shell-fire enfiladed the 1st Wellington troops in Les Rues des Vignes, causing casualties. It was not till dusk that their patrols were able to work down to the Canal and the shelter of its high bank.
In front of Crèvecoeur the Scheldt river makes a detour eastwards of the Canal, thus leaving between it and the latter a large marshy island which is connected with the eastern bank of the river by a stone bridge. A subsidiary branch of the river also cuts the island, so that to reach Crèvecoeur the left of 2nd Auckland had to cross the Canal itself and the 2 branches of the river. Misfortune dogged 2nd Auckland from the outset. The runners to the companies, like the brigade runners, lost their way, and Lt.-Col. Allen was obliged to modify his plans at the last moment. He employed one company, the 15th (North Auckland), commanded by Capt. J. Evans, to seize the Canal and river crossings and Crèvecoeur itself. Two further companies were to continue the attack page 506beyond. Despite the short notice given the 15th Company started, punctually at 5.45 a.m., succeeded in crossing the Canal by a permanent and a half-destroyed wooden bridge, and by 6.30 a.m. had established themselves on the island. One platoon on the left crossed the subsidiary branch by a footbridge and made for the stone bridge. Their movement was as yet not contested by the enemy. Wires could be seen leading under the masonry, but risking the danger of mines and booby-traps the leading patrol advanced straight on to it. At that moment they were noticed. A blast of machine gun fire came from the far bank, and several men were killed, including the platoon commander and the senior n.c.o. An enemy counter-attack was crushed by our Lewis guns, but the number of German machine guns was considerable, and the stream of lead made the bridge utterly impassable. The river elsewhere was unfordable. The remainder of this platoon, therefore, under Cpl. A. de B. P. Steward, took refuge in a ditch in an angle between the 2 branches of the river.
Meanwhile the heavy fire of the aroused German posts checked with loss the other 3 platoons on the western half of the island where the ground was destitute of cover. Steward was anxious to let his company commander know the position of the isolated and reduced platoon, but between them and headquarters lay not only the deep river, where the footbridge was now raked with fire, but more than 100 yards of open ground, already dotted with the dead of the other platoons. Any such journey must be a most desperate undertaking. One of the private soldiers with Steward was a certain James Crichton, who had been wounded in the foot during the rush to the stone bridge. He now volunteered to take the message. Removing his box respirator and helmet, he lowered himself into the river and swam over, Steward throwing his respirator and helmet after him. Now came the open ground. Crichton picked up his respirator and helmet, took a minute's breath, and dashed over the open to Capt. Evans' headquarters. Machine gun bullets spattered up little clouds of dust everywhere about him, and Steward and the men watching him. expected every minute to see him fall. But Crichton arrived safely. Giving the written message, he said not a word about his wound, but reported the mines under the stone bridge. Capt. Evans asked him whether he thought they could be removed after dark, having no intention of risking his men's lives in daylight under the hail of machine gun fire. Crichton replied that it would be pos-page 507sible. Evans said nothing further, but sent a message to Steward bidding him hold his ground, and Crichton again made unharmed the perilous journey.
During his absence Steward, checking his platoon, had found some men missing, and Crichton now undertook to locate their whereabouts. He crawled nearer the bridge, machine guns opening every time that he exposed himself, but he found only dead. A hedge ran towards the bridge, with a shallow ditch on our side. By working along the ditch it might be possible to reach the bridge. Hugging the earth, Crichton came to the steep river bank, and in a flash dropped over it into the water. Here he was screened by the arch. He leisurely removed the 2 fuses and detonators of the mines and sank the mines in the water. The fuses and detonators he took back with him and showed to Steward. He crossed again through the undiminished machine gun fire to company headquarters, taking with him the proofs of his adventure. By this time he was not merely soaked to the skin, but his wound also had become acutely painful. Not even now, however, did he mention it. But it was no longer necessary to send him back to his platoon, and Capt. Evans, refusing to allow him to risk the journey again, detailed him as a stretcher-bearer to carry wounded back to the dressing station on the western bank of the Canal. Here his own wound was detected—a wound which the chaplain who had helped to dress his foot stated in his sworn evidence was one that most men would have “gone out with” immediately. He was evacuated. His outstanding gallantry and resourcefulness were rewarded by a V.C.
1 p. 499.
The seriousness of the opposition at Crèvccoeur was not yet realised at brigade headquarters, where it had been erroneously reported that the 62nd Division, on the right of the VI. Corps, had made good progress towards Seranvillers. Despite the check at Less Rues des Vigncs it was still hoped that by means of this bridgehead at Crèvccoeur it might be possible to pour troops across and win the final objectives about Esnes and the La Targette Road northwards. 1st Auckland was accordingly warned to be ready to pass through 2nd Auckland, and the squadron of 3rd Hussars, now attached to the brigade, was instructed to cross the Canal, gain touch with the VI. Corps at Seranvillers, and facilitate the advance of the infantry. On arrival, however, at 2nd Auckland headquarters, where the squadron commander was killed by a shell, the actual position was explained, and the Hussars withdrew.
It speedily transpired that no hope could be entertained of forcing a passage that day. Yet a foothold on the far bank would be of inestimable value for a further advance. Preparations were therefore made for a renewal of the attack on the following day (1st October) by 2nd Wellington and 1st Auckland. Against a frontal assault the enemy position was so strong as to be nearly, if not altogether, impregnable without sustained artillery preparation. It was possible, however, that it might be turned from the north, where the VI. Corps had already gained a bridgehead beyond the Canal, and where an attack would not be hindered by the water barriers.
Pte. J. Crichton. V.C. [Photo Dobson
Since it was desirable for General Melvill to have a battalion in reserve, the brigade frontage was reduced. A 2nd Canterbury company, in the evening (30th September), took over the sector in front of Lateau Wood. 2nd Auckland, extended southwards, took over the rest of the right battalion area, thus holding the whole of the brigade front, and 1st Wellington was accordingly brought into reserve.
Light showers of rain began to fall about 10 p.m. as the 2 assaulting battalions moved in pitch darkness to their assembly position, crossing over by a wooden bridge to the north bank of the Scheldt Canal. Towards dawn (1st October) the rain ceased, and the clouds cleared from a grey sky with the promise of a fine day. The battalions were in position by 5.15 a.m. 2nd Wellington were on the right and 1st Auckland on the left. At 6 a.m. our artillery opened fire, the enemy guns at once answering along the line of the Canal. Closely following the barrage 2nd Wellington had captured Crèvecoeur by 8 a.m., taking 150 prisoners. Just before reaching the final objective, 2nd Lt. H. Pettit pursued a large party of the enemy along a sunken road, and overtaking them captured 35 with an empty revolver. Elsewhere the enemy resisted stubbornly enough, and 2nd Wellington had to fight hard, the enemy's shell-fire and enfilade machine gun fire from the high ground southwards causing heavy casualties. Exploitation towards Lesdain was impossible, and the situation did not permit of the employment of cavalry.
Between 1st Auckland and their objective on the Old Mill Road lay 3 roads, first a track running diagonally across the front to Rumilly, then a sunken road running due north and marked by a crucifix, and lastly a further road also leading due north. The 2 latter roads would furnish admirable facilities for checking direction, but in the sunken Crucifix Road the Aucklanders were likely to meet opposition. Two companies were ordered to seize the objective, detailing platoons to safeguard the flanks. Another company was page 510instructed to pass through them for exploitation towards Seranvillers and Wambaix. Two machine guns were given to each of the leading companies, and the exploitation company was allotted 2 trench mortars.
A certain amount of opposition was encountered on the Rumilly Road, but this was speedily overcome. The Crucifix Road, as anticipated, was strongly garrisoned with at least 40 machine guns, and heavy fighting ensued before it was cleared. Over 200 prisoners were captured here. The 2 companies, pressing on towards the third road, began to he much troubled by machine gun fire from Seranvillers and the left flank where the VI. Corps attack, delayed by strong enemy resistance in the outskirts of Rumilly, had not made progress. This third road was also held by the enemy in force, and after seizing it the leading companies, now considerably reduced in strength, had reached the limit of their powers. At this stage, therefore, the exploitation company passed through them and attacked the final objective. Like the third road it was occupied strongly, and from the 2 a further large bag of prisoners was collected.1 Many casualties also were inflicted on the enemy escaping towards Seranvillers. In crushing this stern opposition and securing their final objective the Aucklanders had excelled their own record in the battle, but their very success now left them in difficulties. On the right they were in touch with Wellington, but their left, though to some extent protected by a flank platoon, was very much exposed, and the anxiety of the company commander was only too well founded.
1 The prisoners captured by Auckland were taken to the 3rd Divisional cage at Masnières. 163 prisoners only passed through the New Zealand cage.
The German counter-attack developed also on the Ruahine company (Lt. Temp.-Capt. W. R. Burge, M.C.) on 2nd Wellington's left flank. Ruahine lost half their effectives, but held on dourly, and their stand was largely instrumental in saving the whole line. Two platoons of the reserve 2nd Wellington company were sent forward to strengthen them. In the day's fighting 2nd Wellington sustained nearly 150 casualties. Those of 1st Auckland were considerably heavier. 2 officers, including Major G. de B. Devereux, had been killed, 8 wounded, and 2 were missing; 70 men were killed, 240 wounded and 10 taken prisoners. Normally, about this time, a company went into action with 3 or 4 officers and about 130 men. On relief, on. 3rd October, the 1st Auckland company strengths were respectively 1 officer and 38 men, no officer and 29 men, 2 officers and 51 men, 2 officers and 39 men. The fortitude displayed by the regimental medical officer, Capt. P. A. Ardagh, M.C., in attending to wounded at an inadequately protected dressing station for 36 continuous hours, under the heaviest shell-fire, won him a recommendation for the V.C. and the grant of a D.S.O.
On the capture of Crèvecoeur and the clearing of the defences that had guarded the stone bridge, 2nd Auckland moved strong patrols across the river and extended the bridgehead south of the village. By noon (1st October) our lines ran solidly all round the eastern outskirts, with posts in the northern extremity of the Beaurevoir-Masnières line. Forward posts were established by 2nd Wellington well towards Lesdain and up the Seranvillers valley, and in the afternoon, the enemy artillery remaining quiescent, the position was strongly consolidated. A small party of Engineers under Lt. A. W. Thomas, M.C., had advanced with the 1st Brigade infantry and repeatedly done good work in removing demolition charges and delay-action mines from bridges and dugouts. Remaining from 30th September onwards on the Canal bank, they built under fire a foot-page 512bridge across the river to the island and repaired a traffic bridge for the use of horses and transport. Other parties too of the Engineers were hard at work. They took in hand at once the placing' of 2 pontoon bridges in position on the western bank of the Canal, in readiness to be thrown across when required. Conspicuously good work in this connection was done by Lts. W. S. Rae and M. K. Draffin and Cpl. A. T. Brokenshire, M.M. In the evening the artillery batteries moved forward to the depressions east of the Cambrai Road. The night was comparatively quiet.
On 2nd October Crèvecoeur and our battery areas were heavily bombarded throughout the day. The 7th Battery in particular received attention, but only 1 gun was destroyed. In the evening the battery moved forward just east of Les Rues des Vignes and became "silent." The 3rd Artillery Brigade, returning from the 5th Division, took up positions on the western bank of the Canal opposite Crèvecoeur.. On the same evening the 3rd Division of the VI. Corps captured Rumilly and advanced into line with the 1st Brigade, thus definitely securing the left flank. For the time being the Army policy was that our advance was not to be pressed. Artillery was to be brought up to deal with the enemy defences at the crossings over the Canal and to carry out vigorous counter-battery work. Constant vigilance was, however, to be maintained to detect any signs of withdrawal.
The 1st Brigade front was subjected to very heavy enemy artillery fire in the morning' of the 3rd from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Unmistakable barrage lines were put down on the approaches to Crèvecoeur and to the Canal bridges, and Capt. Cade's company, though only just relieved and dog-tired, was sent forward again through the shell-fire to strengthen 1st Auckland. The hostile bombardment may have been meant to support a counter-attack, but no infantry movement developed. On the roads east of the Crueifix Road, where the Auckland dead lay from 1st October, the enemy were still in strong force, and rumours that reached the 1st Brigade headquarters of his withdrawal were unfounded. In the evening the Rifle Brigade moved up to relieve the 1st Brigade. Just prior to relief there was a particularly heavy enemy bombardment on our front line from Crèvecoeur northwards, and every indication foreshadowed an enemy attack. A slow fire was opened on S.O.S. lines by our artillery. The enemy shelling gradually died away, and his infantry did not leave page break page 513their positions. The 4th1 Battalion relieved 2nd Auckland and the 1st Battalion2 2nd Wellington. The 3rd Battalion took over the Crucifix Road positions from 1st Auckland.
Meantime opposite Vaucelles the 2nd Brigade had not succeeded in crossing the Canal. On 1st October it had sideslipped northwards. The 37th Division, relieving the 5th, took over the 1st Canterbury sector at Vaucelles, and 2nd Canterbury occupied the whole of the new brigade front south of Les Rues des Vignes. The change, however, offered even less facility for an advance, for 2nd Canterbury were now faced by the bridgeless Canal. Of the 3 spans of the bridge on the Tordoir Lock, at the southern end of Les Rues des Vignes, 2 had been blown up, and along the whole front the weedy muddy water was at least 5 feet deep. On the east bank also, though the enemy's movement was now restricted by the efficient fire of our artillery, he still held in strength his positions in Cheneaux Wood and about the quarries. From this high ground, the northern extremity of the La Terrière plateau, he could make no withdrawal without imperilling the last entrenched positions of the Hinden-burg Line to the south.
Early in the misty morning of 4th October a silence of the enemy's guns appeared to betoken a retirement, but when the fog lifted there were indications that on the contrary he had even, possibly as a feint, strengthened his defences. His machine guns were as ever active against the forward Bonavis slopes south of Les Rues des Vignes, and large movements of troops in the rear areas suggested the possibility of counterattack at Crèvecoeur.
While the whole of the Third and First Armies were by now similarly brought to a standstill, the Fourth Army had on 3rd October completed their task of breaching the Hinden-burg Line by the capture of its last system opposite their front, 5 miles cast of the Canal. The result of this last advance turned the enemy defences on the La Terrière plateau.
1 Major Barrowclough, vice Lt.-Col. Beere, pp. 444, 473.
2 Lt. Col. R. C. Allen of Auckland Regiment, now returned from New Zealand after-wounds received at Messines, took over command on 30th September. See also p. 48C.
The platoon forming this company's advanced guard, under 2nd Lt. J. Mitchell, met with considerable resistance in the sunken roads on the slopes north of Cheneaux Wood. 5 machine guns and 15 prisoners were captured in successive encounters. On the fourth occasion, the German officer who commanded the machine gunners, after first holding up his hands, endeavoured to stab one of our party with a dagger. He raised his arm to strike, but L.-Cpl. M. H. Coppell, seeing his action, shot him dead instantly. Not a few other Germans were killed. A second company was diverted round to cross at Vaucelles, Meanwhile the Engineers had constructed a more substantial raft, on which the remaining companies, with a section of machine guns, ferried themselves across. 37th Division patrols were also now over the Canal and moving east.
Continuing their advance, the leading Canterbury company cleared the high ground about Cheneaux Wood, adding an officer and 22 men to their number of prisoners. On this spur they formed a defensive flank, and the support companies advanced on the Bel Aise Farm and the Beaurevoir-Masnières line with its 50-yard-wide belt of unbroken entanglements. This was the pivot of the enemy's withdrawal. Machine guns fired actively from it, but the patrols discovered saps giving approach towards the wire. Here they established the presence of a powerful garrison.
The necessity of guarding the right flank had swung the direction of the Canterbury movement some 600 yards southwards, but the 4th Rifles on the left swiftly filled the gap. For the Rifle Brigade, still being intermittently shelled with gas and high-explosive in the Crèvecoeur positions, were also able to make headway. One company of the 4th Battalion extended the bridgehead opposite Les Rues des Vignes and surprised a German post, capturing 18 prisoners and a machine gun. A second company moved over the Canal in support. Nearing the Beaurevoir-Masnières line, the leading company was counter-attacked on the left flank but drove off its assailants, with the help of the support company. Two platoons actually entered the page 515trench, but were later forced to fall back a distance of 150 yards, Rflmn. P. Henderson covering the withdrawal and crawling back later with his Lewis gun under direct and heavy fire. The left front line company, however, which had posts in the northern extremity of the Beaurovoir-Masnières line, succeeded in clearing it for 500 yards southwards. Owing to this hard fighting the 4th Rifles' casualties were fairly heavy, amounting to an officer and 5 men killed and an officer and 39 men wounded. The 1st Rifles' patrols in the centre met very strong fire from Lesdain, but reached its western outskirts, capturing 4 prisoners. On the left the 3rd Battalion gained some 500 yards in front of the Crucifix Road, but as the centre battalion could not make progress into Lesdain, the newly-established posts became exposed to the machine guns in the village and were withdrawn.
In view of the strength of the Beaurevoir-Masnières wire the enemy's position could not be rushed. But the advance already achieved facilitated immediately the Engineers' task of constructing bridges over the Scheldt Canal and river for guns and transport. Forward sections of artillery also could now be thrown over the Canal, and the fact that the New Zealanders and the 37th Division on their right had now room for deployment on the eastern bank would be of enormous assistance in the next movement.
1 The N.Z.E. Tunnelling Company had moved from Arras to Marieux in the IV. Corps area in August to work on the G.H.Q. line. They had followed up the advance, repairing roads water-mains reservoirs, On 28th September they began the erection of a bridge, capable of carrying the heaviest traffic, over the Canal du Nord near Havrincourt. It was completed on 2nd October. Sir Douglas Haig. General Byng. Mr. S. Gompers and others visited their work, and the. Field-Marshal ordered Capt. J. D. Holmes, acting O.C. Company, to give the following message to his men:—"I wish to convey to one and all of the N.Z.E. Tunelling Company my appreciation of the excellent work done by the Company during the erection of the Havrincourt Bridge and also of the work done since the unit came to France." From several congratulatory messages, the following from the CM. Third Army may be quoted:—"Congratulate you and your Company on completion of fine bridging feat." Photo opp. p. 509.
1 p. 490.