The Maoris in the Great War
Chapter XIII. — The Pioneers' Work in Flanders. (July—September, 1917.)
The Pioneers' Work in Flanders.
The Battalion's tasks on the war-torn soil of Belgium for the month of July, shifted back and forth along complicated lines of trenches.
After several days' needful rest, the Maoris received orders very early on July 3rd, to march with the 3rd Brigade group to join the First French Army under General Antoine in the area north of Woesten. The route of march was via Strazeele Fletre to Eecke, camping at the latter place for the night. General Godley addressed the officers and N.C.O.'s on the roadside and told them what “a fine crowd” they were. He informed them that they were going to help the French in their big north offensive, because their people were tired after the heavy fighting in the Champagne. Lieut.-Col. King left the Battalion to Major Buck for the march, and the force arrived at its destination at noon and went into bivouac. The O.C., in the meantime, went by car with 3rd Brigade representatives to report to Colonel Cavendish at the British Mission with the First French Army at Rexpoede Nord. The New Zealanders saw General Anthoine and were sent round the French front by cars to see the places were the Brigade was to camp and to visit the French Artillery Brigades for whom they were to work.
Coppernolle Hock was the headquarters for the next few days. The 3rd Brigade Group was divided by the G.O.C. 3rd Brigade into four groups, as follow:—
- A Group.—1st Battalion N.Z. Rifle Brigade and A Company New Zealand Pioneers; camp at Hoogstade (Lieut.-Col. Austin).
- B Group.—2nd Battalion N.Z. Rifle Brigade and B Company New Zealand Pioneers; camp at Eykhock (Lieut.-Col. Stewart).
- C Group.—3rd Battalion N.Z. Rifle Brigade and C Company New Zealand Pioneers and half 2nd. Field Company, N.Z. Engineers; camp at Eykhock (Major Bell).page 117
- D Group.—4th Battalion N.Z. Rifle Brigade, D Company New Zealand Pioneers, half 2nd F. Coy., N.Z. Engineers, and section 3, Field Ambulance; near Coppernolle Hock (Lieut.-Col. King).
Each group was attached for work to a group of French artillery and was to be employed in building dug-outs, gun-pits and shelters and in burying cable.
All the groups arrived at their camp grounds before noon on July 4th, and drew camp equipment (tents and shelters) from G.H.Q. lorries which came in from Calais. The rationing was by G.H.Q. direct. “The men,” wrote the O.C. Pioneers, “growled like hell at losing their well-earned rest, having to march yesterday, but to-day's ride and the novel surroundings have cheered them up wonderfully, and they are settling down quite happily. We are on the south edge of the French area and have the Guards Division (British Left Division) on our immediate right; the French north to the Yser, north of which are Belgians.”
July 5th, was a quiet day, allowing the Group to get settled down in camp.
Lieut.-Col. King went with Major Pow, 4th Battalion, Rifle Brigade, and met the staff officer of Cole Jaquemann; commanding the French 1st Division Artillery, and arranged the tasks for the various parties of Pioneers, who would be working for four regiments of artillery. One party would work for each regiment, in two shifts, half the party from 5 a.m. till noon and the rest from noon till 7 p.m.
In the afternoon the O.C. Pioneers and Major Pow arranged the rendezvous for the parties and guides at the cross-roads south of Woesten, and scouted up the routes from camp to work. “It seems a nice quiet sector,” Lieut.-Col. King wrote; “with good crops of potatoes and grain, well up in front of the subsidiary line.”
A week thereafter was spent on the various jobs allotted to the Pioneers, and on July 13th, orders came for another shift of operations. General Anthoine inspected the Pioneers' camp that day, and spoke to the officers. He said he was very pleased with the work done for him. The Battalion's casualties for the period were: A Company, nil; B Company, nil; page 118 C Company, one wounded; D Company, one killed and one wounded. General Anthoine promised the Croix de Guerre for the wounded.
A Company had been employed during the week in burying 8,600 yards of cable and in building stations for wireless and telephones and digging forward control stations. B Company dug 900 yards of travel trenches, excavated 16 ammunition dug-outs and two telephone dug-outs, and also dug and camouflaged eight heavy gun positions. C Company did similar work for its artillery and carried aerial torpedoes to the trench-mortar forward positions.
On July 14th, the Pioneers, with the other units of the Group, marched for a new area of work. The route taken was via International Corner, Poperinghe and Abeele, 14½ miles to Eecke. The road from Poperinghe to Beauvouze was full of field-artillery brigades, moving N.E., with scarcely an interval between them. On the following day the march was resumed, to Vieux Berquin, in the New Zealand Divisional area (a six-miles march at the usual pace, three miles an hour). Another shift was made on the 19th, when the Battalion marched for De Seule and the old jobs were taken over. On the 23rd, the Battalion was moved to the old 4th Australian Pioneers, camp, because the distance from De Seule to the work was too great and because also, if the men went to work by train the danger of moving them through the shell-ridden Ploegsteert Wood from the terminus would be greater than the jobs were worth. The camp was on Leeuwert Farm, and the site was a good one, although a trifle far to walk to the working area; it seemed to be outside the radius of the enemy's gas shells and there were no guns in the immediate neighbourhood. Two platoons of each company were worked daily on trench and other jobs. The other two platoons did platoon and company drill under the Regimental Sergeant-Major, who was also taking all N.C.O.'s for two hours daily. No new work was done on the communication trenches, the Battalion simply keeping them open for traffic. Shelling was rather heavy, directed on all communication trenches, tram lines and roads; and there was plenty to do. Half the Battalion was employed every morning for several hours. page 119 It took about an hour and a quarter to walk from camp to jobs. All hands practised gas-helmet drill daily.
August set in wet, and all the trenches were in an awful mess. The drill and trench platoons alternated their day's work, so that no party had two days' continuous work with the shovels.
On August 2nd, Lieut.-Col. King conferred with General Braithwaite regarding a scheme of wiring the posts in front of La Basseville. It was decided that the Pioneers should construct wire entanglements in front of the posts from Le Rossignol-Warneton Road to the River Lys, east of La Basseville on the night of August 3rd. Headquarters and A and D Companies had to be moved as the camp was shelled on the night of August 1st. At one o'clock on the morning of the 3rd, the O.C., with Captain Tingey and Lieuts. Leef, Ehau, Roto-a-Tara, Kaipara and Hetet, went out to reconnoitre the ground in front of La Basseville. The party had a good look round, each officer taking the sector allotted to him for the tasks, and got back to camp about 6 a.m. It was raining hard nearly all the time, and there was a good deal of enemy artillery fire.
At eight o'clock that night, the wiring parties went out—under Captain Tingey's command—A Company, sixty men under Lieuts. Leef and McNicol; C Company, 110 men, under Lieuts. Kaipara and Roto-a-Tara; D Company, 80 men, under Lieuts. Hetet and Ehau; also 45 men from A Company, under Lieut. Cameron to carry material for Leef's party, and an officer and 32 other ranks from 2nd Battalion, Canterbury Regiment, to carry for C Company. It rained hard all night and the ground was sodden and very rough; moreover, there was much enemy shell-fire and the Maori workers had a bad time. Most of the wire-entanglements (which were 875 yards in all) were constructed successfully and all the parties returned to their quarters about 6.30 next morning. Two gaps were left, owing to the heavy shelling which prevented Lieuts. Hetet and Cameron from carrying out the orders given them. The Maoris' casualties were heavy, but all except one man wounded occurred while the parties were going to and from the job. 2nd Lieut. Kaipara was killed, 2nd Lieut. McNicol page 120 was mortally wounded, Lieut. Ehau was wounded in both legs. Four other ranks were killed, one was missing and 29 wounded. 2nd Lieut. McNicol died after being carried to the Australians' camp. “This is a most unfortunate loss,” the O.C. Pioneers wrote, “as he was a very promising officer.”
Duncan B. McNicol had come as Quartermaster-Sergeant with the Second Maori Reinforcements. He got his commission in France and for a time was acting-Quartermaster. Though a pakeha, he spoke Maori like a native. His business in North Auckland as agent and auctioneer for the farmers' organisation had taken him constantly among the Maoris, for whom he had a great affection. When A Company (North Auckland) was short of platoon officers he begged to be transferred from the administrative branch to the combatant side, and this was done. McNicol looked forward to the days of peace when he would be able to assist the men of his company with advice in farming pursuits and so use the splendid qualities that the war had brought out in them. But it was not to be.
Wiring parties went out again on the night of the 6th-7th to complete the jobs. A Company's party returned at 3.30 a.m. and reported that while going up the tram line from Prowse Point they were heavily shelled and 2nd Lieut. Cameron and two men were killed, and one sergeant wounded. They tried to get on to the wiring job but were blocked by machine-gun fire. Lieuts. Hetet and Roto-a-Tara completed their jobs, and Lieut. Hetet filled in the gap where A Company should have been working. The O.C. recommended Lieut. Leef and Ptes. T. Brown and J. McAndrew for honours in recognition of their fine work in the wiring. Lieut. Leef a few days later received the Military Cross and the two privates the Military Medal.
On the night of the 8th, D Company had an officer and 19 other ranks doing some additions to the wire-entanglements. Their casualties, from shell-fire, were three men wounded (one each from A, C and D Companies).
On the 14th the German artillery paid particular attention to Ultimo Avenue, where the Maoris had nine casualties. Lieut. Kaa was killed by a shell near the entrance of St. Yves-Ultimo Avenue, while assisting to get wounded men to the dressing station. He had been with the Battalion since its formation and was a most reliable officer. Kaa's death was a real loss to the Battalion. He was buried at Kandahar Camp. The other casualties were four other ranks killed and four wounded.
On August 15th, Lieut.-Col. King went away on leave, and Major Ennis took over the duties of second in command from Major Buck. The latter officer had been acting as O.C. of D Company since Major Pennycock was wounded at Fleurbaix. Major Buck helped to build up the company to a high state of efficiency, and voluntarily relinquished his position as second in command to retain the more active duties of Company Commander.
Pte. J. Newton, reported missing on August 4th, was now (August 15th) reported killed.
Work was carried on vigorously on keeping clear and repairing trenches, repairing and maintaining trench tram line, salvaging material, and so on. One man of D Company was wounded on the 15th, and on the 17th two were wounded—one was Pte. Rini, who had suffered a previous wound (August 14th). On the 20th D Company commenced shifting material to Gunners' Farm line, the extension of which was pegged out. The 9-lb. rails were to be lifted and replaced with 16-lb. rails, to carry tractors. Two men were attached to the Light Railway Operating Company to learn the work on the tractors. Otherwise this day the work was as usual. Casualties—four men wounded, one remaining on duty. On the 21st Pte. Pira was wounded by an aeroplane bomb.
Lieut.-Col. King, D.S.O., was now transferred to the Canterbury Regiment, Major Saxby, later promoted to Lieut.-Col., was left in command of the Pioneers.page 122
On August 23rd, the North Brigade Area work was handed over to the 4th Australian Pioneers. On the 24th, some final work was carried out on the rail lines. The day's casualties were six men wounded, of whom two remained on duty. On the 26th, the Battalion moved on from Leeuwerck Farm to Tahuna Camp, D Company, owing to lack of accommodation, remaining temporarily at the Farm. Leeuwerck was shelled 15 minutes after the other companies were clear of it, the shells landing in the headquarters cook-house and the R.Q.M. store. The 4th Australian Pioneers, who were shifting in, suffered a few casualties.
At Tahuna Camp the Battalion was under the Commander Royal Engineers, 8th Division. He arranged that the Pioneers should concentrate their work on trench tramways, pushing ahead the formation on the Gunners' Farm and La Basseville lines, replacing certain portions with heavier rails, and repairing the light railway parallel to and east of Ploegsteert Road, and salvaging material on the Lancaster line. Arrangements were made with the light railways to convey the men to and from work and to run up ballast. On the 27th, the Battalion paraded for Lieut.-Col. King, who left on transfer to the infantry (1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment). It was this fine officer who formed the Pioneer Battalion and commanded it up to this date, and the foregoing pages of the War Diary used in this History are a record of his untiring energy and industry.
On September 1st (1917), the Battalion was on the march again, this time a longer trek, to Bournonville. There for several days the Battalion put in five hours a day in squad, platoon, company and battalion drill. The Pakeha company, B, was disbanded and detachments were sent to the various infantry battalions. Maori reinforcements had arrived in England in such numbers that the Maori Companies were over strength. The Pakeha battalions, on the other hand, were in urgent need of reinforcements, and it was therefore decided by headquarters that the tried Pakeha veterans of B Company should be sent to Pakeha battalions, the surplus Maoris in England taking their place in the Company. Now with the conversion of this company into a Maori company, the Pioneer page 123 Battalion became a full Maori unit, and the old name was restored—the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion, and the proud badge was re-adopted, “Te Hokowhitu a Tu.”
On the 9th the Battalion was visited by the G.O.C. the Division, who was accompanied by Sir Thomas MacKenzie, New Zealand High Commissioner in London. Several days more were spent in drill in preparation for the expected visit of the Commander-in-Chief.
On September 14th, the inspection was held. Twenty officers and 580 other ranks of the Battalion marched nine miles to the parade ground. The New Zealand Division marched past in column of platoons and then straight back to billets.
The camp was changed again. The Battalion arrived at Hazebrouck on the 26th, after a 25-miles march from Harletts, with all transport. A spell of a day there and then a move on to Watou No. 3 Area. Once more a trek, and the Pioneers found themselves in famous war-battered Ypres. C and D Companies had quarters in cellars in the town; headquarters and A and B Companies camped just west of the town and south of the Poperinghe Road. C Company commenced repairing work the same night on Bridge Farm Road. A and B Companies (on the 30th) began the tram extension from Bridge Farm, but were taken off after doing one shift. C and D Companies were on night work, Bridge Farm to Spree Farm Road.