Britain and France planned to knock the Turks out of WWI by capturing the narrow waters between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This would give them direct access to the Turkish capital, Constantinople.2 The RND and a large naval squadron were tasked with creating a convincing feint at Bulair, well to the north of the main invasion force (See Map 1 above). Freyberg's platoon was to infiltrate onshore and light flares to create the impression of a mass landing. Instead of risking his men who were not trained for such tasks, the New Zealander volunteered to undertake the mission alone on the strength of his swimming prowess. Swimming for an hour and fifteen minutes in icy temperatures in the dark, Freyberg went ashore and lit flares at widely dispersed locations. Though suffering from cramps, he made it back to his ship unscathed. The few Turkish defenders present sent word to Gallipoli, and their German commander, General Liman von Sanders was taken in by the diversion. Troops were drawn away from the main attack at Cape Helles and Arni Burnu (later renamed Anzac Cove). The New Zealander won a Distinguished Service Order and the lasting admiration of his men for his daring deed.3
Unfortunately, poor planning and leadership slowed movement inland at the main landing sites. Failure to exploit the temporary Turkish dislocation gave the defenders time to bring up reinforcements and the whole operation became a battle of attrition, the kind the attackers could not win. The RND was redeployed to support this main effort and Freyberg was badly injured twice before the entire operation was called off.
The Battle of the Somme (1916)4
Freyberg spent several months in England recovering from complications to his wounds and rejoined his unit on the Western Front in France in 1916. The British and French initially planned to launch a combined offensive in the vicinity of the River Somme but the Germans pre-empted this by launching a major attack against Verdun. The Russians were also facing major setbacks on the Eastern Front at this time. The planned Somme Offensive therefore became an unsupported British attempt to draw German attention and resources away from these vulnerable theatres.
This was not going to be easy as the German defences consisted of several layers of wire obstacles, concrete bunkers and trenches heavily supported by artillery and machine-guns. German infantry also typically counter-attacked immediately and in strength to regain lost positions. British troops therefore had to carry material for fortifying defences as they charged across the battlefield, greatly slowing them down. In the last and most successful phase of the battle (Ancre, 13-15 Nov 1916), the RND was ordered to take a succession of four lines which were supported by strong points on high ground on either side along a 1,200 yard front (see Map 2 above). Two waves were to leapfrog each other and take successive targets.5
Freyberg, by then a Lieutenant-Colonel, was in command of the lead Hood Battalion. Losing half his officers and men in the successful first assault, the New Zealander dug in and waited for the Drake Battalion to push through. However, this follow-on force was decimated while crossing no man's land. Without their commander, three officers and seventy men, they could not have continued the attack. Freyberg rallied both units, leading them forward to capture the Drake Battalion's objective with a fraction of the numbers envisaged. At 0645hrs, word from division HQ informed him that their left flank was uncovered by the failure of the adjacent division's attack. He was nonetheless ordered to hold his gains until nightfall when reinforcements would arrive.6 With too few men and an open flank, Freyberg's men sheltered in a series of artillery shell-holes instead of digging a continuous trench. German sniping made movement between them very hazardous. British 9.2-inch artillery fell short and hit their positions all day. With no communication possible with the rear, the shelling could not be lifted. As a result, Freyberg was wounded twice.
Various components of fresh units arrived at Freyberg's position after dark and the mixed force attacked Beaucourt village the next morning. The New Zealander led his men on a frontal charge to distract the Germans from the main flank assault. To his surprise the enemy surrendered en masse even though both sides were equal in numbers.
This forced the Germans to shell Freyberg's position furiously, wounding him very seriously in the neck. Although sensing death, he refused attempts to evacuate him as he was the only commander present who "knew the scheme".7 He made sure that runners went forward to notify his fellow commanders of a vital change in plans before stumbling back to the aid-station on a man's shoulder. Struggling to stay conscious, Freyberg informed his superior that the mixed units needed to be taken out of the line at once before he collapsed for six weeks. His condition was so bad that stretcher-bearers put him in a tent housing those not expected to live. The Official History of the Ancre battle credited Freyberg's "cool and capable leadership" for creating the initial penetration and repeatedly rallying dispersed and depleted units to renew attacks to keep it open. For his actions, he "was fitly rewarded with the Victoria Cross".8
The London Territorials
Soon after recovering from his near-fatal wounds, Freyberg was given command of 173 Brigade (London Territorials) of the 58 Division, becoming the youngest general in the British Army - he was twenty-eight years old. His reputation preceded his arrival and the effect on his new men was almost immediate.
...we were very proud of our commander, a VC and the youngest Brigadier in the British Army - a handsome young man full of quiet confidence, and indeed giving us confidence too.9
This was important as the brigade was constantly belittled as a sentry force. It had only been recently deployed from London to France and most of its original officers had just been rotated back to England. Freyberg knew that his first task was to instil a sense of dignity. The brigade's first action was a tough one. The general British offensive against the Hindenburg Line had failed except for the sector taken by the Australian Corps, which had endured direct fire from both flanks and artillery bombardment for nine days. 173 Brigade was ordered to relieve it and the lead battalion took 150 casualties just moving into the line. Nonetheless they held their position until they were relieved a week later. Despite heavy casualties, his unit was transformed. They had survived an ordeal that would have tested tough veterans.10
Freyberg's brigade returned to assault the Hindenburg Line after nine days of rest. The New Zealander protested against the two-phased plan envisaged as it gave the Germans ample time to reinforce an obvious weak point. The London Territorials achieved their objective but were eventually repulsed by a counter-attack. Their heavy losses seemed in vain and morale was shaken.
The brigade was relocated to Arras where it trained for an even more difficult attack at Passchendaele, an area covered with knee to waist-high mud which sucked soldiers in like ants. The Germans shelled the brigade as it assembled for attack and Freyberg was again badly injured. Yet he put on a brave face and stayed with his men to steady them, though he could only direct operations from his HQ. Nonetheless, he refused relief until the attack was pressed home. The casualty clearing station quickly evacuated him to London - shrapnel from the 5.9 inch shell had injured him in five places, including a wound through the lung and a hole the size of a fist in his thigh. The latter became septic and threatened Freyberg with amputation and death.12 Two months later, he recovered and returned to France in early 1918, just in time to face Germany's greatest offensive since the beginning of WWI.
Russia succumbed to war deprivations and revolution in late 1917, just when the US joined the war on Britain and France's side. Germany quickly redeployed its eastern armies to knock the latter powers out before America could fully mobilise. The entire Western Front threatened to collapse as German stormtroopers effected deep penetrations at several points.
Freyberg was given command of the veteran 88 Infantry Brigade. Upon being relieved after a fortnight in the trenches the unit was immediately sent to Bailleul to cover the retreat of two divisions pulling out of a salient. Expecting to be heavily outnumbered, Freyberg collected stragglers who had lost contact with their parent units and organised them into reserve companies. In confused fighting, the mixed rearguard managed to pull out and escape German encirclement, just after the divisions they were covering withdrew past their position.
While withdrawing further to the Ravelsburg Ridge, someone discovered that two injured men were left behind in haste. Brigadier Freyberg took one of them on his back and ran slowly uphill to the fresh fall-back positions despite being utterly exhausted by the time. At a briefing held later, the officers were so tired that they fell asleep at the table. Freyberg had to wake and pull each one by the hair in turn to make sure they understood their particular orders! He followed the battalion commanders to their HQs and found "colonels giving orders to snoring company commanders". All along the line the British were similarly burnt out. Fortunately, they outlasted the Germans, some of whom came forward and surrendered to the 88 Brigade.13 The tenacity of the British and French defences turned the tide of WWI for the last time.
Freyberg's divisional commander heaped high praise on him and the 88 Brigade for these decisive series of operations:
This Brigade... showed a gallantry and tenacity well worthy of its reputation.
Among the most notable of its exploits, were the covering of the retreat from Nieppe...the steadiness shown...when the retirement to Mont-de Lille-Crucifix Corner Line took place, and efficient assistance rendered to the hard-pressed left of the Division on the Haegerdone Line.
General Freyberg exhibited to the full those qualities of personal gallantry, energy and driving power for which he is well known throughout the army and his handling of his Brigade was beyond all praise.14
Freyberg continued to exhibit personal bravery in the closing operations of WWI, capturing the Dendre bridges in a lightning cavalry charge one minute before the Armistice came into effect at 1100hrs on the 11th of Nov. He would go on to command multinational Allied units in World War Two and become the Governor-General of New Zealand in 1946.
The British Army did not develop tactics to overcome the supremacy of defensive fire-power until the very last months of WWI. In the interim, they depended much on the gallantry of individual units and commanders who created opportunities on the toughest battlefields out of sheer tenacity. Bernard Freyberg exemplified the special kind of leader who could inspire his men to endure the unendurable. "He never talked down to them and didn't expect them to talk up to him...They were proud of him and more than proud to call themselves 'Freyberg's men'."15 The New Zealander understood that the conditions prevailing required him to show, not tell his men, what true courage was. It is hard to imagine a more demanding calling. Bernard Freyberg might have fought in a time and place no longer familiar to us, but the qualities he exhibited will always be welcome and essential in a tight spot.
1 Commodore Backhouse, Character Reference for Commander Bernard Freyberg. Freyberg Papers as quoted in Paul Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, VC: Soldier of Two Nations (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991), p76.
2 Gallipoli, a key point along the narrow straits became the accepted name for this theatre of operations. See http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/gf.htm, web version accessed 21 Oct 08 for succinct descriptions of various battles fought here.
3 Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, pp54-74. One of the men in his platoon wrote in his diary "Only a superman could have survived so long in that icy-cold sea."
4 See http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/somme.htm, web version accessed 21 Oct 08 for a brief account.
5 Wilfrid Miles, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Military Operations - France and Belgium 1916 2nd July 1916 to the End of the Battle of the Somme, (London: Imperial War Museum, 1992), p486.
6 Ibid., p487.
7 Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, pp91-2.
8 Miles, History of the Great War: France and Belgium 1916, pp488-506. The London Gazette also featured Freyberg's achievement on 15 December 1916. See Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, pp95-6.
9 Charles Howard to Freyberg, 16 September 1960. Freyberg Papers as quoted in Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, pp103-4.
10 Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, p107.
11 For a general description of this series of battles (also known an Third Ypres), see http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/ypres3.htm, web version accessed 21 Oct 08.
12 Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, pp107-14.
13 Ibid., pp122-9.
14 Memorandum by General Nicholson, GOC 34 Division. Freyberg Papers as quoted in Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, p114.
15 Chief Petty Officer Tobin. Freyberg Papers as quoted in Freyberg, Bernard Freyberg, p96.