Winter at Ypres (1 November - 24th February)

By 16th of November the command of the whole Divisional front passed to the New Zealanders. Divisional Headquarters were established in the huted Anzac Camp at Chateau Segard, about 2 miles south-west of Ypres, and the headquarters of the 2 brigades in the trenches occupied deep dugouts in Hooge Crater. The northern limit of the Corps front was at the pillboxes called Tiber, 1000 yards south of Passchendaele and a mile south-east of Marsh Bottom, where a month previously the New Zealanders had suffered their tragic reverse. Thence it extended for 4½ miles south along the vital key position of Broodseinde Ridge and in front of Polygon Wood to the stream of the Reutelbeek which, rising on the slopes of the main ridge north of the Menin Road, flowed, or rather oozed, first eastwards and then south-eastwards to the Lys at Menin. Of this front the Division occupied the right sector of about a mile and a half. Their line was marked in the north by a pronounced salient at the In de Ster Cabaret between the ruins of Noordemhoek and Reutel. Beyond Reutel it trended back south-westwards, falling to the marshes of a stream that rose in the Polygon Wood and was called the Polygonebeek. This stream joined the Reutelbeek in extensive flats about 500 yards in front of our positions. From the south bank of the Polygonebeek the line, still bending to the south-west, mounted the forward slopes of Cameron Covert, which we held with a series of posts, and then descended again towards the Reutelbeek. Here at its southern boundary it joined the IX. Corps trenches at a point less than a mile short of the famous and terrible Menin Road.

In front of the Division the Germans held a line of posts in and about the copses known from north to south as Joiners' Wood, Journal Wood, Judge Copse, and largest, if not most important, of all, Juniper Wood. They had advanced positions also in the outskirts and cemetery of Reutel. Their main defences, however, lay along the high ground 1000 yards further east at Becelacre. Owing to the western trend of our line south of the Reutelbeek they enfiladed our positions at Cameron Covert and Reutel. In their defence policy the Division had not merely to face the possibility of an enemy attack at some time in the future on the IX. Corps area beyond their right flank Owing to the sharp reentrant of our line at this point they were also already actually exposed to continuous and pressing discomfort caused by enfilade fire from the south. Just beyond the Divisional boundary a well-marked spur ran eastward like a finger. From the edge of the general plateau down to the flats. On the north its sides drained into the Reutelbeek, and on the south to the corresponding valley of the Scherriabeek. These 2 streams divided by the spur wound round its eastern end and united in the flats. Beyond the Scherriabeek the ground rose again to Gheluvelt on the Menin Road. The British line had been arrested at the edge of the plateau, and the spur remained in German possession. From it the enemy not only enfiladed our forward trenches about Cameron Covert and Reutel, but fully commanded and incessantly harassed the whole of our approaches to this sector of the front. On it were perched the piled ruins of Polderhoek Chateau and groups of pillboxes which occupied sites of the attached buildings and the shattered trees of the once luxuriant and beautiful pleasances. The Ypres Battle had seen 3 assaults delivered on the spur, and the Chateau bad been temporarily won, but only to be lost again to German counter-attacks.

For the satisfactory occupation of the Division's sector, it was highly desirable that a fresh effort should be made to capture the Polderhoek Spur. A combined attack on it and on Gheluvelt had been contemplated as one of various local operations designed to continue our offensive during the winter, to add depth to our defence along the Army front, and to facilitate the initial phases of a resumed offensive on a large scale in the spring. Eventually, however, the scope of the operation was confined to the Polderhoek Spur alone. The area affected was about 400 yards wide, and all advance of some 600 yards would carry the line as far down its forward slope as was necessary to deprive the enemy of his commanding and enfilading position (a formation or position is "in enfilade" if weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis). Further examination also showed that, owing to the height of the spur and general configuration of the ground, the new lines proposed about the Chateau would not to a like degree be exposed to similar enfilade fire from the Gheluvelt Spur on the south. In the evening of the 5th, the position was handed over to IX. Corps troops, and the 2nd Brigade battalions withdrew to reserve. The advance won, though of distinct advantage to the local garrison, would not effect an appreciable improvement with regard to the exposed slopes of Cameron Covert, Reutel, and Polygon Wood, where protection from the Polderhoek fire would have to be won by the labour of the spade. Nor were the IX. Corps long to look down from the spur on the Scherriabeek valley. The ground captured was recovered by the Germans 9 days afterwards.

The first heavy artillery concentration shoot on the Chateau and the pillboxes about it was carried out on 28th November. To avoid enemy retaliation, the bulk of our garrison, both opposite the Chateau itself and north of the Reutelbeek, was withdrawn before daylight. The date of the attack was fixed for 3rd December. Two battalions, 1st Canterbury (Lt.-Col. Mead 1) and 1st Otago (Major W. F. Tracey, M.C. 2) were considered adequate for the task, and their companies were in addition reduced to the strength of 100 all ranks The selected personnel, who included a large proportion of reinforcements without previous experience of battle, rehearsed the operation behind Ypres on ground laid out to scale, with the buildings and pillboxes numbered as on the map and represented by heaps of material. The leading waves of the attacking companies moved into the line on the evening of 1st December, and the remainder of the battalions on the following day Three field artillery brigades were allotted for co-operation. One barrage of 18-pounders would immediately precede the infantry; 150 yards in front of it would be another fired by 18-pounders and 4.5-in. howitzers. Our artillery activity would embrace either flank. On the right, field artillery of the IX. Corps would extend the covering barrage southwards and weep Gheluvelt, the railway line, the Menin Road, and the Scherriabeek valley. Opposite the New Zealanders' proper front to the north of the Reutelbeek, the enemy's occupied shellholes and emplacements would be similarly kept under fire. From that direction 2 machine gun barrages were arranged to deal with the German trenches and approaches and with the loopholes on the northern side of the Chateau. In addition to light mortars, 5 of the new 6-in. medium trench mortars were also placed in position at Reutel to neutralise, by gas shells, machine guns operating from the vicinity of Juniper Wood; and personnel of the 2nd and 3rd Rifles, who now garrisoned the Divisional sector, toiled to carry up the massy projectiles 2½ miles through the mud.

The actual plan of attack was simple. It would be made by 2 companies in each battalion advancing abreast in 2 waves. The first wave would carry the line to an intermediate objective beyond the Chateau, and the second, following 50 yards behind, would then “leap-frog” through, and push on to a final objective, some 300 yards further, sufficiently far down the eastern slope to give observation of the flats. After the assaulting troops crossed No Man's Land, the support company waiting in the trenches on each battalion front would occupy the present front line to meet counterattacks. The reserve company would be kept well in rear to relieve the victors in the captured line. Eight machine guns co-operated directly in the attack. Of these, 2 were in position in the front trench, 2 in the support line, and 2 were allotted to each battalion for the purpose of providing covering fire during consolidation and of engaging enemy counter-thrusts. The Chateau itself fell within the area of 1st Otago on the left, but 1st Canterbury were faced with a series of strong pillboxes, including those at the stables and at the Manager's House which was suspected to be connected by a tunnel with the Chateau. For coping with these, 1st Canterbury were given the assistance of 2 light trench mortars.

From the outset of the attack, Canterbury would form a defensive flank on the south overlooking the Scherriabeek valley and facing Gheluvelt. Definite parties had been allotted to and practised in the attack and mopping-up of each pillbox and dugout. To others was assigned the duty of taking up posts at each angle of the Chateau and of watching for concealed outlets, while the eviction of the enemy was in progress. The attacking waves assembled in the support line, leaving in the front trench a few Lewis gunners and snipers till close on zero to maintain "normality." Each man was in the lightest possible fighting order. His greatcoat was dumped under a guard in the assembly trench, but he carried his waterproof, and in addition to his fighting kit and invaluable leather jerkin, he took with him in his mess tin a soup square and a tin of solidified alcohol.

It was but fitting that the good work of the company should be crowned by a heroic action which was recognised by the award of a Victoria Cross. An enemy Strong Point garrisoned by 16 Germans with a machine gun offered stubborn resistance. The section commander and several of the men attacking it were killed. Then Pte. Henry James Nicholas, M M., rushed forward, followed at about 25 yards by the remainder of the section. A moment's hesitation would have cost him his life, but he was on the parapet before the Germans realised it. Firing point-blank at the German platoon commander he shot him dead, and then instantly leapt down among the remainder. Those nearest him he bayoneted. At the others further up the sap he flung with deadly effect his own bombs and the German bombs lying about him. He thus killed the whole of the garrison, except 4. These were wounded, and these he took prisoners. The machine gun remained in our hands. After winning the V.C., Nicholas, who was in every respect a particularly fine soldier and man, remained with his company till his death.

In the morning of 4th December enemy forces mustering on the eastern and south-eastern declivities of the spur were driven back in disorder by our artillery towards Becelaere, and a very heavy toll was taken by our snipers on individuals about the Chateau, who appeared astonishingly unconscious of our proximity. Throughout the day hostile artillery raged on our new positions and on the approaches from Veldhoek. After dark the assaulting troops were relieved by the other companies, and the work of consolidation was completed. A strong line was constructed with characteristic energy and thoroughness by a company of the Maori Pioneers under Major P. H. Buck, D.S.O. The garrison connected the advanced posts into a continuous line, and deepened to a proper depth 2 communication trenches to our old position, commenced the previous evening. Patrols worked to within 50 yards of the Chateau and saw a German relief in progress. Both battalions had now lost half of their effectives, including many officers and senior n.c.o.s, and once progress was arrested, the lack of battle experience on the part of many of the men was not without result. The strength of the undamaged pillboxes and the tremendous volume of fire which beat against the confined area of assault had proved insuperable. Only some 30 prisoners had been taken. The decimated stormers had no alternative but to dig in. For the moment at least there was no hope of taking their objective or even securing the Chateau, but the ground actually won was of great value, yielding as it did full command of the Scherriabeek valley. In the evening of the 5th, the position was handed over to IX. Corps troops, and the 2nd Brigade battalions withdrew to reserve.

The advance won, though of distinct advantage to the local garrison, would not effect an appreciable improvement with regard to the exposed slopes of Cameron Covert, Reutel, and Polygon Wood, where protection from the Polderhoek fire would have to be won by the labour of the spade. Nor were the IX. Corps long to look down from the spur on the Scherriabeek valley. The ground captured was recovered by the Germans 9 days afterwards.