The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History Based on Official Records
Chapter XV — The Battle of the Selle River
The Battle of the Selle River
Scarcely had the new trenches been dug about the Selle when, on 14th October, the Allied offensive broke out afresh with a large attack in Flanders. On the right flank, north of the Lys, 3 Corps of the Second Army participated. Ostend fell on the 17th. On the 20th the left flank reached the frontiers of Holland. The advance of the British on the right wing turned now the northern defences of Lille, as the southern defences had been turned in the Second Battle of Le Gateau. From his new salient between the Lys and the Sensée the German had no alternative but to withdraw. Lille was recovered on the 38th by General Birdwood's Fifth Army. On the evening of 22nd October the line of the Northern Armies lay along the Scheldt from Valenciennes to the east of Tourcoing.
Meantime, with the improvement of communications on the main battle front of Le Cateau, a fresh and deadly blow had been prepared and was being dealt by the 2 Southern Armies and the right wing of the First Army. The line aimed sit was the Sambre-et-Oise Canal, the western edge of the Foret de Mormal, and Valenciennes. Success meant the completion of another long stage on the march towards Maubeuge. The railway junction of Aulnoye, on the Sambre, where the Paris-Maubeuge railway crossed the lateral line from Hirson to Valenciennes, had already been repeatedly raided by our aeroplanes. If objectives were attained, it would now be brought under effective range of our artillery. As a preliminary phase of the advance, it was necessary to drive the enemy from his line on the Selle, and hence the whole operation, which lasted from 17th to 25th October, is defined as the Battle of the Selle River.
The preliminary attack was initiated south of Le Cateau on 17th October by the Fourth Army, in co-operation with a French Army on their right. Heavy fighting ensued, but by the 19th the attacking troops were on the Sambre-et-Oise Canal south of Catillon and thence held a line along the Richemont stream east and north of Le Cateau. The right flank thus secured, the main preliminary attack on the Selle page 541crossings was opened, on the 20th, when the Third and the right wing of the First Armies assaulted north of Be Cateau. In this operation the IV. Corps used the 5th on the right and 42nd Division on the left. Unless opposition should have ceased, it was not proposed for this first day to advance on the IV. Corps front beyond the high steep ridge south of Marou and beyond the road from Marou to Romeries. The attack would be continued on the 21st, but in the event of serious opposition it would be undertaken by fresh troops.
The New Zealanders were accordingly ordered to be prepared to move through the 42nd Division on the night 20th/ 21st October and continue operations on the following day.1 It was the Rifle Brigade's turn to be advanced guard. On the 19th they moved forward from Esnes to Beauvois, whence it was arranged that they should in arch on the 20th to the Viesly—Fontaine-au-Tertre Farm Spur. There they would be held in readiness to push forward at half an hour's notice.
While the New Zealand infantry were to play no part in the opening moves, the artillery and certain other troops lent active support to the 42nd Division. On the 16th2 the 1st3 and 3rd Artillery Brigades began to cart ammunition forward to selected positions, and after dusk on the 18th batteries took a section into action east and south-east of Viesly, 1 gun of the 1st Battery being detached southwards for the purpose of harassing the railway line south of Solesmes. The balance of guns was brought in on the following day.4 On the 19th one of the machine gun companies moved into the line to provide enfilade fire from the slopes north-west of Briastre on the German positions across the river. Five New Zealand medium trench mortars also supported the attack. The 1st Field Company of the Engineers was put at the disposal of the C.E., IV. Corps, for the purpose of constructing a tank bridge over the Selle at the earliest possible moment after the advance on the 20th.
1 On the 14th the Division had been visited by H.R.H., the Prince of Wales.
2 4th anniversary of departure of Main Body from New Zealand.
4 The 1st find 3rd Brigades formed part of a group commanded for the moment by the old 2nd N.Z.F.A, Brigade Commander, Lt.-Col. Sykes.
When the 42nd Division's infantry reached their objective, the New Zealand batteries moved to the deep valley northeast of the Belle Vue spur. Here during the night they came under fairly heavy fire, and on the morning of the 22nd, in dismal weather, the 1st Artillery Brigade especially were intensely bombarded by guns of all calibres up to 8-in., firing a large concentration of gas in addition to explosive. The 1st Battery sustained casualties in personnel and lost 11 horses. On this day the 2nd (Army) Brigade, after completion of its task with the XVII. Corps, rejoined the rest of the New Zealand artillery in the line under the 42nd Division. Lt.-Col. Falla now took command of the group comprising all 3 New Zealand and 2 English artillery brigades, Major Richmond assuming temporary command of the 2nd (Army) Brigade.
The New Zealand attack, originally allotted to the Rifle Brigade, was eventually, owing to a temporary weakness of effectives in the Rifle battalions, entrusted to the 2nd Brigade. The operation was divided into 2 phases, the first objective being the Neuville-Escarmain Road, on the watershed between the Harpies and St. Georges rivers. General Young proposed that 2 battalions should capture the first objective, and the remaining 2 pass through them to the final line on the watershed between the St. Georges and Ecaillon rivers. Each battalion would be supported by a forward section of artillery and a section of machine guns.
At 2 p.m. on 22nd October the 2nd Infantry Brigade Group moved from Beauvois to an assembly area in the newly-captured ground beyond the Selle river about the sunken roads south-east of Solesmes. In addition to a machine gun company, a light trench mortar battery, and a company of Engineers, the Group comprised a squadron of the 3rd Hussars and a troop of Otago Mounted Rifles. The concentrated force spent a miserable night under pouring rain.
On the 23rd the grand attack was opened by 2 Corps of the Fourth Army at 1.20 a.m. and taken up at a later hour by the Third Army. By 8 a.m. the 42nd Division were on their objective. A protective barrage was maintained in front for some little time, and on its cessation the command of the 5 artillery brigades covering the front passed to General Napier Johnston. They were disposed in 2 groups. The 1st and 3rd New Zealand Artillery Brigades composed the right group under Lt.-Col. McQuarrie, and the two 42nd Divisional brigades and the 2nd (Army) New Zealand Brigade made up the left group under Lt.-Col. Falla. On the cessation of the page 544barrage, however, this last brigade moved forward immediately to positions of readiness, whence they could later advance towards Romeries in order to support the second phase of the New Zealand attack. The other 4 brigades, during the pause, fired a smoke screen and bombarded selected positions. About the same time General Russell's advanced headquarters were being opened at Prayelle.
The leading infantry, 1st Otago on the right and 2nd Canterbury1 on the left, were now through the gas-drenched valley at Marou and close on their jumping-off line. The rain had cleared away and the morning was fine, but there was a heavy mist. It was still further thickened by the smoke barrage which was put down by our artillery from 7.15 a.m. till 8.35 a.m. on the valley south and north of Vertigneul to cover the approach of the 2nd Infantry Brigade Group. In this mist close touch was kept by means of advanced guards with the 42nd Division troops making the preparatory attack. In order to minimise casualties on the assaulting area, the battalions had been ordered so to time their march as to reach and be formed on their jumping-off line without superfluous delay prior to the moment of going forward at 8.40 a.m. In the case of both battalions the arrival was perfectly timed. The precaution proved justified, for just prior to our advance this line was heavily bombarded, more casualties being now sustained than during the actual attack. Within the short interval before the creeping barrage came down, small 1st Otago patrols, under L.-Cpls. W. Friend and N. Wright, cleared a pocket of enemy, about 80 strong, not far in front of the line of assembly.
1 Major Wilson, vice Lt.-Col. Stewart, in England on duty.
At 8.25 a.m., while a certain proportion of the 4 artillery brigades continued the smoke screen for a short time further, sweeping so as to cover their batteries' front, the remainder, together with three 6-in. howitzer batteries, reopened the barrage for the New Zealand advance. Its opening line fell a short distance beyond the sunken road from Beaurain to Romeries. There the barrage halted for 15 minutes at a slow rate of fire, and then at 8.40 a.m. began to advance at a rapid rate of fire, lifting 100 yards every 3 minutes. The 4.5-in. howitzers fired 200 yards ahead of the 18-pounders, paying particular attention to sunken roads and ravines. These were dealt with also by the 3 batteries of 6-in. howitzers, whose fire advanced 800 yards in front of the 18-pounder barrage. In line with the 6-in. howitzers' fire a section of 60-pounders "walked up" the by-road which ran through Vertigneul to Pont-a-Pierrcs and thence along the main road to Beaudignies. The villages were shelled not with destructive high-explosive but with shrapnel, and were masked with smoke.
The 5th Division had been unlucky enough to be caught during assembly in an exceptionally severe bombardment. It was still uncertain whether they held their objective, and the 37th Division postponed their attack till 10 a.m. The New Zealand right would be consequently for the moment unprotected. In close touch, however, with the troops on the left, the 2nd Brigade, with the advance of the barrage at 8.40 a.m., moved forward under it through the 42nd Division.
The mist had by this time dispersed, and the day was gloriously fine. Isolated machine gun posts situated about hedges and in places of vantage offered resistance. The left 1st Otago company had advanced only a few hundred yards when a number of machine guns began to enfilade them. They were most skilfully outflanked by a platoon under Sergt. R. E. Fortune. Generally, however, there was not the stubborn fighting that had marked the action on the 20th. There was a momentary cheek on Otago's right owing to machine gun fire from Hirson Mill, just over the right boundary. L.-Cpl. H. Ingram led his section out till he gradually worked round the Mill, taking 10 prisoners and threatening to cut off the retreat of its garrison. The rest of the company pressed their advance under covering fire from the Lewis guns. The enemy thereupon vacated the Mill. page 546Otago's right flank then waded through the 12-feet broad Harpies river under fire and stormed the Canibrai-Le Quesnoy railway embankment beyond. Over the greater part of the Otago front the railway, crossing the river at the southeastern corner of the Vertigneul woods, lay between us and the river and village. It formed an obvious and strong line of defence, but was carried without undue difficulty, several machine guns and 47 prisoners being taken. In Vertigneul itself resistance proved much less than anticipated. The numerous German dead attested the efficacy of the barrage. None the less, after the leading troops had passed, the ubiquitous sniper did not fail to emerge from his hiding place, and parties had to be sent back to clear the place thoroughly.
In the open country beyond the village machine gun fire from the crest in front became distinctly more troublesome, till the crews were knocked out by rifle fire. Over the right boundary also, towards Neuville, which the postponement of the 37th Division's attack left temporarily in enemy hands, a series of German posts were vigorously aggressive. The right company was forced to side-step to deal with them. This move, however, turned out a blessing in disguise, for on reaching the crest and moving over the plateau towards the Escarmain Road, Otago encountered severe machine gun fire. On the right boundary of their objective the Escarmain Road was crossed by 2 other sunken roads, and the junction of the different roads was marked by a crucifix and the Chapelle des Six Chemins. The roads themselves and the hedges in their vicinity were strongly held by machine guns. Instead of making a costly frontal assault, a platoon from the left company swept the position with fire. With the enemy thus engaged and diverted, the right company over the boundary was in a position to turn the flank, and the stronghold at the crossroads was captured with a minimum of casualties.
2nd Canterbury throughout met less resistance. They rapidly cleared the orchards, steep river banks and northern outskirts of Vertigneul, and passed forward between it and Romeries. The enemy in disorderly retreat before our barrage offered acceptable targets to Lewis guns and rifles. Only on the objective itself there was a short sharp struggle. 50 prisoners and 2 machine guns were captured here. 6 other machine guns with 3 trench mortars had been secured during the advance. Casualties were extremely light. Shortly page 547after 10 a.m. both battalions had captured the brigade's first objective. Patrols were sent out in front, and the remainder of the troops dug in. The consolidation was hampered by active hostile artillery, and later in the afternoon by a large number of Blue Cross1 gas shells.
On the cessation of the barrage covering this first New Zealand objective, one of the English artillery brigades moved speedily forward to the vicinity of the New Zealanders' jumping-off line south of Vertigneul to co-operate with the 2nd (Army) Brigade in supporting the attack on the final objective. Two New Zealand batteries also were rushed forward beyond Romeries and Vertigneul to give close and immediate help to the 2 fresh battalions. Till the advance was resumed, the other artillery brigades remained in their previous position and then moved forward in their turn east of Romeries and Vertigneul.
The whole of the newly-won ground, including the battery positions, was now being heavily shelled with gas and explosive. Vertigneul was particularly "unhealthy," and the supporting battalions as they came forward gave it as wide a berth as possible. Skirting it on the south, 2nd Otago deemed themselves fortunate in altogether avoiding casualties. 1st Canterbury similarly making a detour round the church lost a few men, but the advance was in no way disorganised.
Before noon both battalions, 2nd Otago on the right and 1st Canterbury2 on the left, lay behind the Neuville-Escar-main Road in position to pass through at the appointed time of 12.12 p.m. The final objective lay nearly 2 miles away on the high ground this side of Beaudignies, and between them and their goal was the valley of the St. Georges river, where, if anywhere, the German might be expected to oppose them. Should, however, his resistance prove to be disorganised, the attack would exploit towards Beaudignies. The 2 brigades of field artillery supporting the attack, together with the additional forward batteries, all commanded by Lt.-Col. Falla, came under General Young's orders as advanced guard artillery. After establishing his headquarters with General Young, Lt.-Col. Falla took his battery commanders to reconnoitre positions for the next artillery advance. Riding forward briskly, they went right on to the Escarmain Road, where a few minutes after noon they found themselves among our foremost infantry fixing bayonets for the final attack.
1 A H.E. shell containing a gas very irritating to eyes and nose.
2 Major Stitt, vice Lt.-Col. Row, on leave.
On the right the 37th Division had reached the first objective at 11.30 a.m., and were now in line. The barrage protecting this second phase of the New Zealand advance was considerably thinner, but it was to prove more than adequate for the work in hand. Its rate was, however, only 100 yards in 4 minutes, and pressing forward and anxious to pass quickly the crest west of the St. Georges river, which the enemy artillery were shelling with some intensity, the 2 assaulting companies of each battalion chafed at its slowness. When at a later stage it died away, the advance pushed on with correspondingly greater rapidity. It was on this same crest that they first encountered appreciable weight of machine gun fire from the river valley itself and the German positions on the high ground east of it. Our infantry were admirably supported by the forward sections of artillery and by a machine gun company which boldly drove its limbers with the machine guns right up to the foremost infantry positions. Despite all this covering fire, however, the 2nd Otago patrols could only with great difficulty work down the forward slopes. The St. Georges valley and De Mesnil Farm on the river bank were held by strong enemy rearguards, and although our machine guns and artillery harassed the German positions vigorously, the volume of the enemy's fire was not appreciably reduced. On the right company's front the slopes were bare of cover, and advance had to be suspended.
Under better cover, however, part of the left company, led by Sergt. J. J. Blackburn, worked steadily downhill. They crept along a hedgerow, climbed a garden wall and rushed the Farm, where they captured the bulk of a Battalion Headquarters, comprising 2 officers and 30 men. Moving then through the farm buildings, they crossed the St. Georges river to the other side. The remainder of the left company between the Farm and the little hamlet of Pont-à-Pierres, where the Beaudignies road crosses the river, were moving abreast with them. The right, on the exposed hillside, was still held up.
Climbing the eastern bank, these men found that the Germans had dug an improvised line of posts with a strong belt of wire in front all along the slopes overlooking the river and about the Salesches-Escarmain road, which ran parallel with it. Groups of these posts had been organised, each consisting of about 8 posts, and each post being held by 3 or 4 men. Protected by wire and manned by numerous machine guns, the whole formed an extremely formidable obstacle. page 549On the left of the line, however, a section of 5 men of the support platoon, under Sergt. F. C. Fergusson. stole up a hedge south of Pont-a-Pierres, crawled round the flank of the enemy position, and bringing a Lewis gun to bear at close quarters, charged and killed about 16 men in the garrison of the posts immediately adjacent. The remainder, with several machine guns, then gave themselves up.
As soon as the resistance slackened, the right 2nd Otago company, providing its own covering fire and rushing alternate sections down the slopes, plunged through the river and pressed up the eastern bank. By skilful Lewis gun tactics they advanced rapidly on the southern end of the line of posts towards Salesches. Heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy, and about 90 prisoners and several machine guns were captured. A vast number of expended cartridges lying in and about the pits indicated the severity of the opposition.
These defences carried, the main point of resistance did not now lie opposite the New Zealand front, but on the high ground beyond the right flank and about the outskirts of Salesches, which the troops of the 37th Division had not yet reached. Seeing this, and the possible effect of enfilade fire on the whole brigade advance, 2nd Lt. W. Murphy, on the Otago right flank, swung out a platoon, and attacking the superior enemy in enfilade, drove him off, capturing further prisoners and mopping up the northern part of Salesches. With little delay the main advance continued. By 2.25 p.m. the objective was taken, the right flank being refused for over three-quarters of a mile back to the northern outskirts of Salesches. The 37th Division, through no fault of their own but owing mainly to strong opposition encountered by the V. Corps on their right, had not yet come into line nor indeed were to do so till the following day. Till they should join us, the length of this right flank made for anxiety, which was not abated by evidence of German movement towards Salesches and an increase of hostile artillery and machine gun fire from that direction. To meet immediate emergencies a support company was brought forward. Meanwhile the 1st Canterbury line also was well advanced beyond the Division on the left. The 2 battalions, therefore, which had carried out the first attack in the morning and were now in support on the Neuville-Escarmain Road, were ordered each to move a company forward to keep close touch with the troops in front and to strengthen their flanks should the necessity arise.page 550
1st Canterbury's progress, indeed, astride the Beaudignies road had been astonishingly rapid and successful. At the outset they had met somewhat severe artillery fire and a considerable volume of machine gun and rifle fire. But, as their sister battalion also in the morning had found, resistance was much less stubborn on the left of the brigade front, where the troops on the outer flank were more nearly abreast than in the Otagos' sector. As in the morning, the enemy fell back before the line of our barrage. The main bridge in Pont-à-Pierres was demolished, and the troops waded through the St. Georges river. Unlike the right battalion, they were not faced by posts on the far bank, and without incident they swept on, ahead of Otago and the VI. Corps troops on their left, to the final objective on the eastern slopes of the watershed overlooking the Ecaillon valley. Here for the moment they consolidated till the troops on either flank should come-into line.
There was a little machine gun fire from Beaudignies, nestling in its trees in the valley below them, but when our patrols pushed forward it ceased. The companies moved on to sunken roads eastwards. The prospects of exploitation were rosy. Two bridges cross the Ecaillon at Beaudignies, one at the northern and one at the southern end of the village. Some distance further down-stream the river, itself a tributary of the Scheldt, receives the waters of the St. Georges and Harpies, but already at Beaudignies forms a sufficiently difficult military obstacle, being from 12 to 15 feet wide and 6 feet deep. For the, sake of communications and facilitating a further advance it was, of course, most desirable to secure the bridges before they were destroyed.
1st Canterbury accordingly, about 5 p.m., moved up one of their support companies, strengthening it with a platoon from the other, and sent them forward. By nightfall these troops, working round the south-east edge of Beaudignies, gained the southern bridge without opposition. The platoon of the other company thereupon penetrated up the main street of the dark empty village, and its leading patrol, under L.-Sergt. J. J. Kelly, seized the bridge at the far end and secured the ground on the eastern bank. Both bridges were in our hands and the village cleared by 9 p.m.
The Level Crossing, Sept. 1919 (Looking: towards Beaudignies)
[Photo Capt. S. Cory Wright
1 p. 311. Nicholas' body was exhumed on the 20th and reinterred with military honours in Vertigneul churchyard, the service being conducted by the Bishop of Nelson.
The day had been extremely successful. The 2nd Infantry Brigade had advanced 44 miles, and pressing well beyond their final objectives had secured the Ecaillon crossings. Casualties had been very light. 1st. Canterbury had captured just over 100 prisoners, and 2nd Otago just over 200. Many machine guns had been secured, and there had been, mostly in the St. Georges valley, a haul of abandoned guns. 2nd Otago had secured a field gun and 1st Canterbury an 8-in. howitzer, 2 "five-nines," 4 light howitzers, and a tank. In view of the disorganisation of the enemy it was determined to apply the last unit of energy left in the attack and maintain the pressure. After consulting the Divisional Staff, General Young sent orders over the telephone at 9.30 p.m. to 1st Otago and 2nd Canterbury to pass their support companies through the leading battalions and continue the advance. The objective to be gained by the dawn (24th October) was the sunken road which runs from Ghissignies past the eastern edge of Beaudignies. The companies would have to advance 1000 yards over unknown country to the line already established, and thence make good a further 1000 yards, the whole in the dark.
With the minimum of delay the troops were on the move. The character of the terrain was now markedly different from that of the wide open expanses over which the advance had hitherto been conducted. The country was very much closer. Beyond Beaudignies it was covered with successive thickly-set plantations orchards, and woods, and already the tall impenetrable hedges, that had grown up round old wire fences or were interwoven with German wire, constituted considerable obstacles. Careful, if rapid, reconnaissance and systematic touch were essential.
The line, especially on the right, was now considerably in advance of the flank units. In the Canterbury area an unexpected nest had been discovered still west of Beaudignies. In front of Otago also the enemy was in considerable strength on a sunker road eastwards and in isolated and inconsiderable "practice trenches" beyond an orchard just over the Ghissignies road. It was known that both flank Divisions were making an early attack. Patrols were pushed forward in the meantime, and the companies waited for the dawn.
With the first glimmer of light (24th October) the flank Divisions began to move forward into line. At 4.15 a.m. the covering barrage of the 3rd Division on the VI. Corps right overlapped our left and compelled 2nd Canterbury to withdraw temporarily some little distance to escape it. They were soon back, however, in the sunken road, and by 9 a.m. on the high ground north-east of Beaudignies. This movement, in combination with the Otago advance, compelled the surrender of an enemy force of about 80 who had held an orchard and now threw down their arms to Otago with the utmost alacrity. On the left, 2nd Canterbury were much assisted by the machine guns of the 3rd Division. These swept the wooded valley of the Rogneau stream, which falls north-west towards Ruesnes. Making the utmost use of outflanking movements against numerous enemy machine guns, 2nd Canterbury by nightfall had established outposts across the valley, with their left flank over the Le Quesnoy-Ruesnes road. During the day they captured an officer and 13 men, with 9 machine guns. To the north and north-east the high ground in their centre commanded a wide and diversified view over rich peaceful country. But it was not in that direction that the now exhausted men's eyes were turned. Only a mile eastwards, between intervening coppices, could be discerned the dense tree-tops which hid the ramparts of the ancient and famous fortress of Le Quesnoy.
On the right flank 1st Otago, reassured by the appearance of the 37th Division troops in the eastern outskirts of Ghissignies, advanced under cover of their Lewis guns on the strongly held "practice trenches" beyond the road. Skilful dispositions were made by Lt. H. R. Domigan, who commanded the assaulting company. Cpl. C. S. Moorhouse and page 554Pte. E. A. Richardson crawled forward with a Lewis gun and covered the advance of the right platoon with enfilade fire. In its turn the platoon brought enfilade fire to bear, and the remainder of the company rushing forward carried the position. In addition to 7 machine guns, 3 officers and 75 men were captured, and many others were killed. On the next sunken road the right company was for some little time checked. Repeating the successful outflanking tactics of the previous day at the Chapelle des Six Chemins, the left company manoeuvred forward, worked down to the right and silenced the machine guns. Thereupon the companies without difficulty cleared the whole 1000 yards of road from the right Divisional boundary to the Le Quesnoy highway.
About 1000 yards from Beaudignies the Le Quesnoy road passes uphill through a thin wood in which the Rogneau has its source. The wood shelters 2 farms, 1 on each side of the road. On the' left the Ferme du Fort Martin abuts on the road itself. South of the road the Ferme de Beart is secluded within the wood. A patrol of 1st Otago, under L.-Cpl. G. D. Tod, penetrated the wood, finding the De Beart farm occupied by 2 civilians, the Fort Martin farm unoccupied, and the wood evacuated. On the eastern edge of the wood, however, the enemy were located digging in. Fairly heavy fire was directed from the Cambrai railway embankment west of Le Quesnoy. Both flank Divisions were now abreast, and in close touch with them the 2nd Brigade line at nightfall ran from the Ruesnes road on the left to the north-eastern extremity of the de Beart Wood on the Le Quesnoy road and then through the trees. Outposts were established on the eastern edge of the wood. At the nearest point the line was only 1000 yards from the outer ramparts of Le Quesnoy. During the 2 days' operations 1st Otago lost 6 officers and 107 men, and captured close on 200 prisoners, with over 30 machine guns, a field gun, and 4 light mortars. 2nd Canterbury had lost 2 officers and 130 men. The enemy had given them little chance to get at close quarters, but they had taken over 60 prisoners and 17 machine guns, with 3 mortars.
On the infantry gaining the high ground beyond Beaudignies, the 2nd (Army) Brigade batteries, which had been ordered to rendezvous at 6 a.m. on the main road through Pont-à-Pierres, were rushed forward over the newly constructed bridge to the east bank of the St. Georges river. At page 555the storm-centre of Pont-à-Pierres the 6th Battery was caught in a sharp bombardment and lost 3 men and several horses killed. By 9 a.m. the bulk of the artillery was in the St. Georges valley. The line of the river continued to be heavily shelled. All teams were sent to the rear with the exception of those of the 8th Battery, which now moved still further forward to the northern outskirts of Beaudignies in order to be in close touch with the infantry.
In the evening (24th October), the South Island battalions and their affiliated units were relieved by the Rifle Brigade Group. The 3rd Battalion was placed on the right and the 4th on the left. The squadron of the 3rd Hussars and the troop of Otago Mounted Rifles passed under General Hart's orders. Following on the relief, the 3rd Artillery Brigade, with one of the 42nd Divisional brigades, both under Lt.-Col. McQuarrie, became advanced guard artillery, and on the same day the 1st Artillery Brigade went into reserve. Its casualties had been heavy, on the 24th the 1st Battery alone losing 1 man and 37 horses killed and 10 men wounded. There was a renewed violent bombardment on the Pont-â-Pierres crossings from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., and the 2nd Rifles in the vicinity were much inconvenienced by gas. The rest of the night was marked by sporadic shelling, but was quieter. In the early morning (25th October) the fire became again intense-along the line of the river.
By this time the Army objectives had been achieved generally all along the front. The line now ran from the western edge of the Mormal Forest past the western outskirts of Le Quesnoy and thence along the lower Rhonelle towards the Scheldt west of Valenciennes. On the New Zealanders' front the enemy was found to be established in strength along the Cambrai and Valenciennes railways. But northwards the 3rd Division had occupied Ruesnes and found indications in the forenoon of a further withdrawal. Immediately in front of Le Quesnoy the 3rd Rifles, apart from effecting local improvement in their position, could do little, but an advance might be effected round the town on the north. Orders were issued, therefore, for the 4th Battalion on the left to make good by the evening the line of the Valenciennes railway north-west of Le Quesnoy, after which the 2nd Battalion would pass through for exploitation.
Near the point where the Beaudignies road makes a sharp eastward turn before entering Le Quesnoy, the Cambrai railway, which faced the 3rd Rifles, splits into 2 branches. page 556One, carrying the traffic for Le Quesnoy, bends in a semicircle round the town's north-western outskirts till the rails, turning south-eastward, reach the permanent way from Valenciennes. The second branch serves the northern traffic and continues north, meeting the trunk line about 1000 yards above the junction of the Le Quesnoy loop. Just above this northern junction the sunken road from Beaudignies to Orsinval, after crossing successively the Rogneau and the Precheltes, goes over the railway at a level crossing. Another 1000 yards further up the line towards Valenciennes the railway passes on its right La Croisette Wood. Of one or two small houses about the level crossing on the Orsinval Road we must notice a brick house on the far side of the line, occupied in peace time by an old couple who look after the gates at the crossing. The Orsinval Road, like most of the roads in the neighbourhood, is for the most part sunken, but just beyond the railway it is for some 20 yards on a level with the fields. Thereafter, again becoming deeply sunken, it leads down gently towards a well-defined mossy bank and hedge, with a belt of trees beyond. This hedge bank is almost continuous, but on the right of the road and at some distance from it is a gap of about 80 yards, below which the bank and hedge again continue south, merging eventually into plantations on the outskirts of Be Quesnoy. In the open field on the left of the road is a small square wood, some 300 yards east of the railway. On this level crossing and its vicinity the Division's efforts were to centre during the final movements of the battle itself and during the brief period of quiescence that followed.
In the afternoon and evening, 25th October, the 3rd Rifles advanced their line beyond the de Beart "Wood and swung their right parallel with the Cambrai railway. In a small farm building at the eastern fringe of the wood they found 17 French civilians, men women and boys. The main building in the Ferme de Beart was, during the afternoon, fired and razed to the ground by German shells. By the evening the 4th Rifles succeeded in making the Precheltes stream north of the Orsinval Road, but machine guns on the embankment towards La Croisette Wood held them back from the railway. On the other side of the road, towards Le Quesnoy, the Germans were also in force in the whole triangle formed by the 2 railways, but the Rifles pushed well up the road itself towards the Level Crossing. The advance, though falling short page 557of the objective, enabled the supporting artillery to move east of Beaudignies.
The 3rd Division, further distant from Le Quesnoy, had encountered less resistance. By 4.30 p.m., crossing the railway beyond Ruesnes, they occupied La Croisette village and were moving on the high ground east of the wood to outflank the enemy opposite their right at its southern edge. On the following day, 26th October, they proposed to advance on Orsinval and Villers Pol. The 4th Rifles were accordingly ordered to make a fresh bid after dusk, 25th October, for the Level Crossing, upon the seizure of which the 2nd Battalion would pass through them towards the Le Quesnoy-Orsinval road. The latter battalion was directed to push its left to the southern boundary of Orsinval, and at the same time to operate with patrols against the north and north-west of Le Quesnoy. A section of the Otago Mounted Rifles was placed at its disposal. It was hoped that, in view of the reported withdrawal on the left, the advance might be effected by methods of peaceful penetration.
Under cover of darkness, accordingly, the 4th Rifles renewed their movement against the Level Crossing. They rushed it, L.-Sergt. H. Moscroft heading the charge. Several enemy were killed without loss to the attack. A counterthrust made about 2 a.m., after a heavy bombardment, was repulsed, German prisoners being left in our hands. The railway on each flank, however, was very strongly held, and the attack elsewhere being checked by intense machine gun and rifle fire, and at close quarters by bombs, the post at the Level Crossing had eventually to withdraw.
Meantime the 2nd Rifles had, shortly before midnight, come forward to follow through the 4th Battalion, exploit to the north of Le Quesnoy, and endeavour to penetrate the town from that direction. The enemy's guns were active. Gas was being sent over in salvoes, especially about Beau-dignies, and the 2nd Rifles had to dodge storms of 8-in. shells on the road junctions. Their plans were that one company should move towards Orsinval along the sunken road, with a second following it to secure its left flank, and that a third should then exploit towards Le Quesnoy. At 3 a.m., 26th October, the leading companies moved to their assembly areas. Machine gun fire aimed at the 4th Battalion posts swept the approaches, and several men were hit. All companies, however, deployed in good time, and the telephone was run well forward along the Orsinval Road on our side of the Level page 558Crossing. On finding that the post at the Crossing had been lost, that we were not in touch on the left, and that there were no posts on the railway, the 2nd Rifles rapidly adjusted their plans to meet this unexpected situation. Two light trench mortars in the road were ordered to cover the advance by bombarding the railway and the high ground beyond it on the north of Le Quesnoy. The machine gun section attached to the battalion took up positions for a similar purpose. The first duty of the leading company was obviously to secure the Crossing and the railway junction just south of it, where the northern branch of the Cambrai line links with the main Valenciennes railway.
The 2nd Rifles' attack was launched at 5.15 a.m. The morning was very foggy, but as soon as ever the leading troops moved on the railway, heavy machine gun fire was opened at them from the Cambrai line embankment in their right rear. Our machine and Lewis guns, rifles and mortars replied from the Orsinval Road but were not able to dominate the enemy fire. The right platoon was practically annihilated and the centre held up. By 5.50 a.m., however, posts were established on the main railway line close to the junction. Resistance on the left was also heavy, but the line was cleared as far as La Croisette Wood. Outposts were thrown across the railway, and touch was secured with the VI. Corps. By 6.30 a.m. posts were held in the Square Wood and beyond it, and along the hedgerow from the sunken road as far as the gap in the hedge and bank.
Further progress, however, down the road proved impossible, and the passage of the gap, swept as it was by particularly heavy fire, appeared equally impracticable. None the less, another platoon (2nd. Lt, R. J. Richards) was sent forward at 7 a.m. Under all the covering fire which the platoon on their left could give, Richards' men made a very gallant effort to rush the gap to the belt of trees eastward. The enemy machine guns inflicted grievous losses. Some of the riflemen reached the edge of the belt of trees, where a slight hollow, carpeted with autumn leaves, gave shelter from the fire in front. The Germans, however, moved a machine gun down a dry ditch round their right flank, and against its enfilade fire our men had practically no protection. A scout from the platoon on the road endeavoured to reach them but could not. He reported that he could see only dead and wounded. He did not greatly exaggerate the actual situation. The Lewis gun was early knocked out of page 559action, the Nos. 1 and 2 of the team hit, and Richards himself wounded in the jaw and neck. The party could neither advance nor withdraw. Two men volunteered to take back a message. One was killed; the other, although wounded, crawled back to the bank. Unless there was a marked turn of fortune, Richards and the few wounded survivors must fall into German hands.
Along the whole of the right flank the pressure from the direction of Le Quesnoy now grew overwhelming. Heavy and sustained fire from both railway lines forced the outnumbered and enfiladed post at the junction to fall back. The enemy began to move in behind the platoon on the Orsinval Road, and their position in turn became untenable. To prevent envelopment they withdrew under cover of its high banks towards the railway line just in time. The intense machine gun fire now directed over their heads across the sunken road did not matter, but the fire sweeping the open space at the Level Crossing, which they must pass, mattered very much. Every weapon available was turned on the enemy machine guns. They were silenced for a moment, and in that moment the platoon dashed safely across the line.
It was now 10 a.m. On our side of the railway line the sunken road was being severely bombarded by German light howitzers, field guns and mortars, and receiving in addition unwelcome and resented attention from some of our own 18-pounders. The enemy presently worked up the Orsinval Road on the other side of the line. His fire became increasingly violent, and it was evident that an attack was imminent on our own positions on this side of the railway. The 2nd Rifles strengthened their flanks by fresh posts of Lewis guns and prepared to meet it. About 10.30 a.m. a company or more of German infantry poured up the main railway from the direction of Le Quesnoy. About the junction the enemy swarmed over the embankment and reached some 50 yards further. There he was definitely held. At the Level Crossing he had won the brick house by 10.50 a.m. and was endeavouring, under cover of stick bombs, to cross to our side. An officer succeeded, but was instantly killed.
The watchful and active hostile machine guns on the Cambrai railway prevented a counter-attack over the open. The 3rd Artillery Brigade and the English batteries, however, which were now in action east of the Beaudignies-Rucsnes road, answered the S.O.S. signals by an effective barrage, and the enemy was in addition bombarded by the light page 560mortars and by rifle grenades. Shortly after 11 a.m. his effort was broken, and his party at the junction withdrew, suffering several casualties as they recrossed the embankment. The junction was at once reconnoitred and found vacated, but a post here would be too exposed, and it was decided not to garrison it for the moment. The Level Crossing, however, was reoccupied and a strong post installed there so as. to command the Valenciennes railway towards Le Quesnoy.
The enemy shelling had ceased as soon as his infantry came into action. It now reopened vindictively on the Crossing and our positions in the Orsinval Road, and continued intermittently during the afternoon. A further strong hostile attack was made after midday. It was for the most part shattered by the 2nd and 4th Battalions' fire. A handful of Germans reoccupied the brick house, but were driven out from it almost immediately. A third attack, shortly after 5 p.m., was repulsed with less difficulty. Two Lewis gunners. of the 4th Rifles, A. G. Feat and F. Prince, had done particularly good service in moving their gun to a flank and enfilading the enemy's advancing troops. The check to our advance and the subsequent necessary withdrawal from the Orsinval Road across the railway left the posts in the Square Wood and beyond hopelessly isolated, and they must have been not a little uneasy about their position. There was no alternative for them but to retire. If the absence of cover made this impossible for them in daylight, it also prevented offensive movement against the wood by the enemy. At dusk they were successfully withdrawn through our posts in front of the railway between the Level Crossing and La Croisette Wood.
In the evening an overdue reorganisation was made. The 4th Battalion troops still in the sunken road at the Level Crossing were relieved, and the whole position was taken over by the 2nd Battalion. In the day's fighting 12 men of the 2nd Battalion had been killed, and an officer and 22 men wounded. Richards and half a dozen men, all wounded, were taken prisoners.
On 27th October the 2nd Battalion's left flank beyond the railway was improved and posts established to within 200 yards of the VI. Corps right, whose advance had been similarly arrested. The 3rd Battalion's posts now lay along the Precheltes and about 500 yards short of the Cambrai railway. No further enemy attack followed on the Level Crossing, but snipers in the excellent cover afforded by the railway em-page 561bankments towards Le Quesnoy were markedly aggressive till overcome in the afternoon. The German machine guns and artillery remained abnormally active.
The enemy were known to be constructing a system of trenches on the line Mons-Maubeuge and were believed to contemplate also another as a temporary position west of Bavai. Till these were completed it was apparently his intention to stand on his present line. The increase of hostile fire and an extensive employment of mortars all along the front indicated that the tide of the battle had reached its limit. The attackers had no reason to feel dissatisfied. 20,000 prisoners and 475 guns had been captured. The objectives of the Armies had been attained and in places, as on the New Zealanders' front, exceeded. Haig marks 25th October as the final day of the Battle of the Selle.
The Rifle Brigade's effort was thus made when the action had already virtually reached its close. The Division, however, had been fully represented in the Corps' operations. The artillery and Engineers had borne an active share from the outset. The infantry's participation did not extend to the opening move of the 20th, and except for the Rifles' attack on the enemy's reorganised line was confined to the 2nd Brigade's advance on the 23rd and 24th. Its performance had, nevertheless, fully reached the level of the Division's best achievements up to this time. All objectives had been seized or passed with exemplary speed and precision. 524 prisoners and 8 guns, in addition to a vast array of machine guns and other trophies had been captured. 2nd Otago's skilful and resolute work at the St. Georges river, and 1st Canterbury's dashing and energetic seizure of the Ecaillon bridgeheads were exploits as gallant and successful as any in the long and honourable records of these battalions. Less dramatic but not less instinct with the soldierly spirit were the bold handling of the artillery, indefatigably eager and supremely competent to take advantage of fleeting targets and assist the line of bayonets; the staunch determination, true to death, of the Engineers at Pont-à-Pierres; and the impetuosity of the machine gunners, content only with a place in the foremost line. Nor did the administrative personnel escape dangers and fatigues or fail to overcome them. A single illustration must suffice. Rflmn. E. H. Nailer, a driver in the 3rd Rifles' transport, was engaged on 25th October in bringing up rations to the front line companies, when he came under heavy shell-fire at a cutting. page 562Here he passed a water cart which had been cut adrift by a fellow driver to save the horses. With consummate coolness and gallantry Nailer regotiated the cutting successfully and delivered the rations. Learning then that the fighting troops were short of water, he returned, hitched his team to the cart and went forward with it in turn. Shelling, though less heavy, had not ceased, and Nailer was wounded. None the less, he persevered with his errand, delivered the water, and brought his team back again to safety.
Pending the resumption of the advance the Division was organised in depth, and the front line was reconstituted on a 2-battalion basis. All necessary readjustments from a moving to a stationary warfare ensued. The consolidation of defences was taken in hand. Trenches were dug, not in continuous lines, but in section posts, arranged chequerwise. They were camouflaged to harmonise with their surroundings, and the excavations of shelters were covered to prevent toll-tale shadows in aeroplane photographs. Batteries of medium and light mortars were installed in or near the front line for offensive purposes. Forward sections of artillery, frequently changing their positions, were retained near the line for harassing fire, but the remainder of the 3 field artillery brigades, now covering the outpost line, withdrew into defensive positions. Of these 1 was superimposed for S.O.S. calls, the remaining 2 being placed in reserve positions to cover the second line.1 The Engineer companies hitherto forming part of the infantry brigade groups reverted to the command of the C.R.E. Similarly the machine gun companies were restored to Lt.-Col. Blair's command, to whom with the change fell the responsibility of the machine gun defences. One company was detailed for the forward and one for the second line, the remainder passing into reserve. All possible precautions were taken to prevent casualties among men and animals. Thus the Engineers put in hand the construction of "elephant" shelters in the forward area and gas-proof protection east of the St. Georges river. Wagon lines also were withdrawn westwards.
1 On 24th October the 7th Battery was selected to go to the Army Artillery School as a "model battery,"