Winter on the Lys

Nearly four months after the Battle of Fromelles (19th July 1916) where the Australians lost 5,500 men in an attack on a German strong point called the, "Sugar Loaf", the Division, less its artillery, was concentrated by 12th October in the rear area of 11. Anzac, Divisional Headquarters at Merris, the 1st Brigade at Estaires, the 2nd at Strazeele, and the 3rd at Outerstcene. Corps Headquarters had mean time shifted from La Motte to the town of Bailleul.

The infrastructure occupied by the Australians had been ruined, so by the beginning of November the infantry in the line had constructed tolerable accommodation and could turn undisturbed attention to the markedly inaggressive troops of the II. Bavarian Corps opposite. Renewed acquaintance was made by running several assault raids on selected German objectives on the line which included finding the area between the enemy position known as the Knucklebone and the Laies unoccupied, except by one of those itinerant German “Flareboys” who were detailed to move along empty trenches, lighting rockets and firing occasional rifle shots.  

These enterprises were enough to show that the enemy's line was held even more lightly than our own. From this time on till the Division left the sector, not a single night passed without raiders or patrols - for the functions merged - entering his lines, ransacking his quarters, sometimes kidnapping a sentry, sometimes meeting opposition. Nor was this enough to satisfy, the bold temperament of the snipers, who are long seasoned themselves in his front line parapet and harassed the sentries of his support line. Not a little information was obtained on the habits and dispositions of the enemy.

Thence on 22nd February, crossing the Belgian frontier, they relieved the left brigade of the 25th Division in the IX. Corps area north of the Lys. The 1st Brigade took over the right subsector on the 25th. On the following day the 2nd Brigade marched into reserve, and the command passed to the New Zealand Division, whose headquarters were now established at Steenwerck. The 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades were in position by the end of the month, after. the 1st Brigade had supported a successful raid by the 3rd Australians on the trenches east of Armentières. The 25th Division went back for offensive training behind St. Omer. The sector was transferred from the IX. Corps to II. Anzac, whose line now extended from in front of Sailly to St. Yves, a distance of approximately 13 miles. The trenches were necessarily held thinly. On the right, in the Cordonnerie, Boutillerie and Bois Grenier subsectors, was the newly arrived 57th Division; the central subsectors, Rue de Bois, 1'Epinette and Houplines, were held by the: 3rd Australin Division; and now the New Zealanders were extending their knowledge of the Lys flats in the subsectors of Le Touquet and Ploegsteert, on the left bank of the river.

Here, again, the infrastructure was poor and while the snow fell again during the first week of March, the strenuous toil of the Engineers and Pioneers, had already made a new world of the sector. The wire was stronger, and the trenches were drained and defensible. It was common and inevitable experience in the Army, however, that for good or ill troops should reap what they had not sown, and the labour bestowed on the position was to benefit others. On 13th March, in view of coming events, the Corps front was extended north-wards to the road from Wnlverghem to Wytschaete. The New Zealand Division side-stepped northwards to relieve part of the 36th (Ulster) Division on the southern flank of the IX. Corps. In consequence of this move, the 57th Division took over the Rue de Bois subsector from the 3rd Australian Division to enable the latter to relieve the New Zealanders in the Le Touquet and Ploegsteert trenches. Each of the 2 southern Divisions thus now manned 4 brigade subsectors with 2 brigades, holding 1 in reserve, while the New Zealanders occupied the 3 subsectors of St. Yves, Messines, and Wulverghem. These last were now divided into 2 brigade fronts, north and south of the river Douve. The 1st Brigade on the right in Le Touquet, wholly relieved by Australians, went into reserve. The Rifle Brigade side-stepped to the Douve, and the Wulverghem subsector north of the Douve was taken over by the 2nd Brigade, who now came into the line. In its period of reserve it had been training on the hill-slopes near Bailleul, and had been reviewed on 9th March, with the 3rd Australian Division's reserve brigade, by the Right Hon. Walter Long, Secretary for the Colonies. The artillery followed into their new positions shortly afterwards. Divisional Headquarters remained at Steenwerck.

In their new area the New Zealanders were to remain, with various minor adjustments, for the 3 months preceding the Messines offensive. Half the long straggling Ploegsteert village and the northern part of the Ploegsteert Forest behind the ruins of St. Yves were still included in the Divisional area. This wood had been the scene of bitter fighting in 1914. It was thin and except where blocked by wire entanglements passable for infantry everywhere. The dominating features of the country were, on the one hand, the gaunt ridge crowned by the houses and the ancient and massive church of Messines, which had been German territory since November 1914, and which now half-faced and half-enfiladed our trenches; and on the other hand, behind our own line, the beautiful tree clad hill, Rossignol, or Hill 63, so called from its height in metres. Instead of the unbroken flats, with which the Division had been familiar through the winter, the country behind the front area was markedly rolling. The hills themselves produced their characteristic effect of exhilaration and adventure, and from Hill 63 the distant view of the great bluff of Kemmel, of the picturesque Mont des Cats, with its monastery, and of other abrupt and isolated eminences, steeped in blue haze, was instinct with romantic beauty. On the steep southern side of Hill 63, screened from German observation and inaccessible to hostile shrapnel, the Army had built on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood log-houses such as Stafford House and Limavady Lodge, used as billets for supporting battalions. And at Hyde Park Corner, where the road from Ploegsteert to Messines began to mount the south-eastern shoulder of the hill, deep shelters, known as the Catacombs, and capable of holding a weak brigade, were opened by General Plumer in November 1916. That road, on mounting the ridge, came under enemy view, and was of little service to the New Zealanders. More useful was the road which leading from Romarin and adjoining farms, now occupied by Brigade Headquarters, turned to the north near Red Lodge and crossed the western slopes of the hill by a wayside Shrine and the "White Gates" of the ruined chateau. Here it joined a cart track that ran across the fields from the hamlet of Le Rossignol back in the direction of Neuve Eglise.

The defence of Hill 63 was of the utmost importance. On its retention depended the safety of the Division's new positions and those of the Australians to the south down to the Lys, It formed the northern pivot of our defences in case of a German "break-through" about Fleurbaix. The Armentières system guarded against its being outflanked from the south, and it was from a blow northwards at our lines from the Messines Ridge up to the salient round Ypres, that its secure possession was most likely to be endangered. It was known at this time that the Russian disintegration had enabled the Germans to accumulate on the Western front adequate reserves for offensive action, and it was believed that such action was actually being contemplated, either to forestall the threatened Allied blow or to neutralise it When delivered. Should an offensive be launched, this was the sector of the whole British front considered most likely to be affected. If it were delivered on a grand scale, the exposed positions in the Ypres salient might be found untenable. Should they be abandoned, Hill 63 and the Neuve Eglise ridge in rear furnished a pivot connecting the present first-line system with the second line, of which Kemmel formed the corner-stone. The northern face of the hill, therefore, was already defended by successive lines of trenches and a. line of small self-contained redoubts, but a new rear line was dug and fresh wire erected by the 1st Brigade to join the G.H.Q. system and the so-called Wulverghem Switch at the village of that name. Leading features of the defence policy were the carefully-concealed and well-protected machine gun emplacements and the shell-proof cover to protect infantry garrisons during a bombardment. On the sub-feature of St. Yves Hill, lying just to the north-east of Ploegsteert Wood in the right brigade subsector, a maze of trenches afforded a striking example of the ill co-ordinated labours of successive tenants and the destructiveness of German artillery.

Apart from the screen afforded by Hill 63, the whole country lay open to the enemy's observation from the ridge. He looked straight down the important road from Neuve Eglise to Wulverghem, so that wheeled traffic was impossible in the daytime, and parties moving up to the trenches had to move at intervals and in single file, hugging the side of the road. A little way up from the village was a gum-boot store, where working parties drew gum-boots for the trenches, and any assembly here at once attracted fire. Our own observation posts on Hill 63, which lies a few feet lower than the Messines Ridge, similarly commanded an extensive view east-wards down the Douve valley and along the southern slopes of the ridge to the Warneton church spires.

Behind the opposing lines the country was on either side covered with hedges and spinners, and the roads screened by trees. The centre of the Divisional area was marked by the Douve, which running eastwards falls into the Lys at Warneton. In summer it is an insignificant shallow stream, some 10 feet wide, but in the winter rains it rises and becomes a serious obstacle to military. operations, especially near the front line trenches, where it floods its banks and at times forms a sheet of water 40 feet wide. Hence at this point there alternative defensive systems, called respectively Summer and Winter Trenches, those in the flat nearest the stream not being held in the winter months. North of the Douve and directly facing Messines, the ground behind our support line sloped up to the rise of Midland Farm, which, forming a sister bulwark to Hill 63, was of considerable tactical importance and was correspondingly fortified with earthworks and concealed machine guns.
Among the trees and the trenches lay the shattered farms of now exiled Belgian peasants. Most of their names, if ever known, had been forgotten, and they were rechristened by troops in the early days of the war with titles which reflected the humour and the realism of the soldier: Donnington Hall, Mac's Ruin, Dead Cow Farm, Stinking Farm, and so on. These were in the front line company areas; somewhat further back Battalion Headquarters were located in the shacks behind Hill 63 or up the Douve valley, at St. Quentin's Cabaret, for example, or in the concrete quarters under the shell of La Plus Douve Farm buildings.