The Maoris in the Great War
Chapter XVIII. — The Capture of Le Quesnoy—The Armistice
The Capture of Le Quesnoy—The Armistice.
November, 1918, proved the last month of warfare. At the beginning of the month the New Zealand Division was still holding the line in front of Beaudignies, which was taken on October 23rd, but to our left the advance was still being pushed on well. Even at Valenciennes the enemy was being squeezed slowly out of his positions. At the beginning of the month the Battalion was occupied in repairing the roads round Beaudignies and neighbourhood in preparation for the coming advance.
On November 4th, the Pioneers moved up to Beaudignies, where with the exception of the transport, camped on the out-skirts all the men were billeted in the village. That morning saw the memorable offensive preliminary to the capture of Le Quesnoy. The New Zealand Division attacked at 5.35 a.m., in conjunction with the British Divisions on its flanks. The object was to establish a footing in the line Franc a Louer-Herbignies-Tous Vents, and if opportunity offered to continue the advance eastward through the Forest of Mormal. Heavy fighting continued all day and gave the New Zealanders a splendid opportunity, and the last, as it developed, of displaying their dash and their pertinacity. Le Quesnoy was not directly attacked at first, but the troops moved round from north and south and encircled it, the movement involving some hard fighting. The ancient town, with its deep and wide moat and its lofty bastioned ramparts, was a fortress dating from the Middle Ages, and its fortifications showed the additional defences designed by the famous Vauban. Its great ditch and its strong high walls presented an apparently insuperable object, garrisoned as the place was by German artillery and infantry. Our New Zealand infantry, however, were not to be beaten. With scaling ladders a few daring men entered the place, after some rifle and machine-gun fighting, and others followed. It was singular to see at one part of the ramparts our men and the Germans page 153 fighting for possession while a few hundred yards away the civilian inhabitants were joyously cheering the New Zealanders on. In the process of cleaning up the town it was found strongly held in places and defended with machine-guns. After some street fighting, however, the whole of the garrison, numbering about 1,500, surrendered. The day's operations were thoroughly successful. Practically the whole of the Foret de Mormal was cleared, and a total of 27 officers and 2,050 other ranks were captured, besides over 40 guns.
That morning, soon after the infantry had advanced, the Battalion commenced to work on the roads in the newly captured territory, and as the town of Le Quesnoy was at the time holding out, they had a very trying time of it. The Maoris were under sharp machine-gun fire most of the day. In spite of this, however, some very good work was done.
One dangerous task well accomplished deserves special mention. A German motor-lorry was lying disabled on the road, where it was blocking traffic. It was noticed that the clear part of the road had lately been disturbed, and on examining it the place was found to be mined. Owing to the position of the lorry the first vehicle to go along the road would have had to pass over the mine, with serious results. However, in a very short time the mine was safely cleared away, and the road was repaired.
On the afternoon of November 5th, the Battalion moved forward from Beaudignies to billets in Le Quesnoy. The roads ahead of the captured town were not in a bad state so far as shelling was concerned, but all important junctions, bridges and culverts had been mined. The most important of these was the bridge over the railway at Pont Billon, which was completey destroyed. This necessitated the making of a deviation over very soft ground, which had to be fascined for the heavy traffic. The Battalion carried on with repairs on the roads forward of Le Quesnoy. These highways were for the most part fairly good, though in many places craters had been blown. In many other places they had been mined, and were ready for exploding, but the rapid advance of the New Zealanders had given the enemy no time to trouble about firing them; he was too busy saving his own skin.page 154
The New Zealanders had pushed on again with the advance on the morning of the 5th, and got well forward of the Foret de Mormal and nearly on the line of the River Sambre. On the night of the 5th-6th, they were relieved by the British 42nd Division.
Then on the morning of November 11th came the joyful news that hostilities were to cease at 11 a.m. The Maoris regretted that owing to their being so far away from what they termed “civilised parts,” they could not celebrate the Armistice in a manner befitting the great occasion. However, all hands were pleased at the cessation of the fighting and particularly at the silence of the guns, which had been thundering almost without ceasing for a period that seemed a lifetime.
Road repairs were carried on with until the 15th. Route marching and recreational travelling followed. On the 18th, the O.C., Lieut.-Col. Saxby, D.S.O., went on leave to England. This brave and able officer, unhappily, was destined never to see his Pioneers or the shores of New Zealand again. On the 28th his comrades received the news that he had died of pneumonia in London. The whole Battalion grieved deeply for their gallant leader, who was liked and admired by all for his personal qualities and his soldierly ability.
Orders to move came on the 21st and a billeting party, Y.M.C.A., and the regimental canteen went next day to Bevillers, followed on the 23rd by the Battalion. The Company cookers left ahead of the Battalion and halted at Romeries, where at mid-day the men found a hot lunch awaiting them. At Bevillers the mornings were spent in route marching and ceremonial drill, with a little physical training and bayonet exercise. The afternoons were devoted to recreational training, in the form of inter-platoon football matches, cross-country runs, and wood-chopping competitions. On the 26th the first round of the New Zealand inter-Battalion Rugby football matches was played, the Pioneers beating 1st Auckland by 27 points to 3.
On the 27th orders were received to move to Viesly, but at the last minute these were cancelled and the Maoris were told to hold themselves in readiness to march to Germany. page 155 Next day the journey was begun. Before leaving Bevillers, 116 men whom it was thought were unfit to undertake the march were sent to the Base. The Pioneers' blankets on the way eastward were carried in motor lorries, and the Battalion, headed by its drum and bugle band, marched very well. Solesmes was the first halting-place. On the 29th, the force reached Artres, where billets were found for the night. In the morning the march was resumed to Heau-sur-Hon, near Tasnieres, a long day's tramp, broken near Wargnies for midday meal and rest. The weather was very foggy and cold and not at all the sort of weather one would choose for a walking tour; however, it was Peace. That day it was announced that the Corps Commander had awarded the Military Medal to Pte. A. Anderson. On the 15th of the month the IV. Corps, of which the New Zealand Division was a part, came under the command of the Fourth Army.
The Battalion remained at Tasnieres two days, and on December 3rd, moved on to Roncq, on the Sambre, about four kilometres from Maubeuge. Here there was difficulty with the transport, and repairs were necessary to the bridge before the waggons could cross it. From Roncq the Pioneers marched via Jeumont and Sol-sur-Sambre to Merbes-le-Chateau. Here, as the Maoris marched into the town headed by their band, they were given a hearty welcome by crowds of the Belgian inhabitants. This was the first Belgian town entered since the route march began. On the 5th, Gozee was reached; from here a few of the Battalion visited Charleroi by steamtram. Charleroi was one of the principal commercial cities of Belgium and was the finest place the Pioneers had yet seen in that country. Couillet, one of the suburbs of Charleroi, was reached on the 7th. When the billeting party started their work they were most warmly greeted by the civilians, who all wished to have soldiers billeted on them; and so practically every one in the Battalion had a bed. Anti-German feeling ran high. On the day the Maoris arrived the inhabitants were going round the town smashing the windows and breaking the furniture in the houses of those who had done more than tolerate the Huns during their occupation of Belgium. Jemeppe-sur-Sambre was the next halting place. page 156 Here the Pioneers were again made very welcome; the people on whom they were billeted treated them with great hospitality. St. Servais, a suburb of Namur, was reached on December 9th. As the Pioneers were doing three days' march and then having a day's spell, the Battalion had nothing more than a foot inspection on the 10th. The men stood the long march very well, especially considering the fact that the weather was very wet. Major Sutherland was now appointed Second in Command of the Battalion, under Lieut.-Col. W. O. Ennis; Captain P. Tahiwi took over the command of D Company and Captain J. H. Hall took over A Company.
Marching on by way of Gelbressee, Couthiun was reached on December 12th. Headquarters there were in a very fine billet, the Chateau d'Envoz. Two companies, A and B, were also quartered in a large chateau. Here the Maoris saw something of the wanton destruction for which the enemy had become so infamous. The Chateau which had been beautifully furnished, was in a shocking condition. Horses had been stabled on the ground floor; mirrors had been broken, pictures ripped from their frame, and furniture of all sorts smashed to pieces.
Everywhere along the line of march the Belgian civilians turned out to welcome the New Zealanders, and everywhere they were hospitable to their Allies quartered on them. On the 16th, at Amay, a football match was played between the officers and the other ranks, resulting in a win for the men, by 9 points to 7; an exciting game.
Angleur, a suburb of Liege, was the halting place on the 17th. On the 18th the Battalion moved to Pepinster, and on the 19th a halt was made at Stembert. That night the billeting party under Lieut. Bevan left on bicycles for Herbesthal, just across the German frontier, where they entrained early next morning for Ehrenfeld, a suburb of Cologne. The Battalion was to move into Germany in three groups, halting at Herbesthal. However, on December 20th, orders were received cancelling the move for Germany and instructing the Pioneers to go to Dunkirk for England, en route for home again.page break page break
Sir James Allen addressing Returned Soldiers at Rarotonga, 1919.
So, on the morning of the 24th, the Battalion left Stembert and marched to Verviers. All Christmas Day was spent in the train, going through Tournai, Lille, Armentieres and Haze-brouck, and by 5 o'clock next morning the Maoris gladly jumped out of their trucks at Dunkirk, their long, long months of campaigning on European soil over.
Dunkirk was a wet and comfortless camp. It was practically under water and all the men were in tents. Major Sutherland, Captain Dansey, and over 60 men went into hospital, most of them with influenza, and Lieut.-Col. Ennis and many others kept to their blankets, sick. On the 28th, the Transport went to Calais and gave over their horses and equipment and returned to Dunkirk on the 30th.
Entry in the O.C.'s Diary:—
“During the stay in the camp the men had the day to themselves, and in the evening leave was granted till the night of the 31st. They seemed to take leave of their senses. It appears that there was a bit of indiscriminate shooting going on, and when the piquet appeared on the scene and attempted to arrest one of the offenders he resisted. Lieut. Wickham, one of the officers of the picquet, tried to gain possession of the revolver, but was shot and died of the wound. Lieut. Angel was also slightly wounded.”
Early in the month four representatives were picked from the Battalion for a representative football team from the Division, to go to England. The players chosen were, 2nd Lieut. W. Barclay, centre-threequarter; 2nd Lieut. H. Jacob, wing forward; Sergeant F. Barclay, five-eighths, and Pte. S. Gemmell, forward. However, nothing further was heard of the proposed tour.
So ended the ever-memorable year which had seen all the phases of the Great War from the German offensive of March-July, when things looked black for the Allies, to the glorious Allied attack which began on July 18th and never ceased until the enemy had been driven right out of France and out of half of Belgium, pushed so far that recovery was hopeless and acceptance of the Armistice the only alternative to an invasion of Germany.
The Battalion in England.
Major Sutherland and Captain Dansey returned from hospital on January 2nd, 1919, and on the same day orders were issued for embarkation for England on the following morning. Crossing in the steamer “St. George,” the Battalion disembarked at Southampton, whence they went by train to Amesbury.
From there they marched to No. 5 Camp, Larkhill, which was to be their home until they embarked for New Zealand. It was a most agreeable change to be quartered in huts with fire-places and bunks and to enjoy the use of bath-houses, recreational halls, and the two dining-halls given over to the Battalion. On January 7th, the Battalion was inspected by the G.O.C., Brigadier-General Stewart, who complimented the Maoris on the work they had done in France, and informed them that they were to march past the King, at Whitehall, before leaving for their homes.
For some time thereafter the Battalion practised ceremonial drill for the Royal review. On the 10th, a draft of 100 men arrived from Germany. This was the billeting party, and the men who had been sent back when the Battalion was on the march across Belgium. Owing to the prevalence of measles in the neighbouring camps it was found necessary to have an inspection by the M.O. every day, but fortunately there were very few cases in the Battalion. It was ordered that before leaving for New Zealand every man must undergo strict medical and dental examinations, and in order that this should not have to be done hurriedly at the last moment the men were put through before embarkation leave was granted. On January 12th, the first batch, 400 men, left on 14 days' leave, and the rest of the Battalion left in parties between that time and the end of the month. On the 13th, the Battalion drummers left for a course of instruction at the Guards' School, London.
Owing to an outbreak of influenza while most of the Maoris were on leave, the camp was put under isolation. The epidemic was severe; seven or eight cases a day were sent to hospital, but very few cases proved fatal.
After leave, the Battalion was kept busy preparing for demobilisation. Clothing cards and demobilisation cards had page 159 to be made out in duplicate for each man, and all shortages in clothing and equipment had to be made up.
When the Battalion left France the O.C. received a message from Lieut.-General Sir A. Godley, complimenting them on their good work done as infantry on Gallipoli and as Pioneers in France, and wishing them a safe and speedy return to New Zealand.
February of 1919, found the Battalion still in No. 5 Camp, Larkhill, anxiously awaiting the day of embarkation for their far-away home. Towards the end of January the epidemic of influenza had abated somewhat, and it was hoped that it would be possible to remove the edict of isolation; however, owing to a fresh outbreak early in February this was found impossible, and the camp remained in isolation until the Pioneers left. The whole of the officers and men were inoculated against influenza.
On Tuesday, February 4th, the Battalion was inspected by Brigadier-General Stewart, G.O.C., who said he was well satisfied with the smart and soldierly appearance of the Maoris. The Battalion was again paraded on the 11th, when the G.O.C. presented decorations as follow for gallantry in the field:—Distinguished Medal.—Sergeant F. Barclay.
Meritorious Service Medal.—Sergeants H. M. Davies and H. Kerei.
At an investiture in Buckingham Palace, on February 13th, three officers were decorated by His Majesty the King. Lieut.-Col. W. O. Ennis received the D.S.O., and Captains Stainton and Hiroti received the Military Cross.
The pakehas remaining with the Battalion were, with a few exceptions, transferred to Sling Camp (four officers and 45 men). Classes were started during the month in general education and elementary agriculture, and the good attendance showed how keen the men were to avail themselves of any opportunity of making themselves more fit for their occupation in civil life.page 160
Football was the men's great sport during the month. The Battalion football team played three matches. The first was against the Royal Naval Depot at Devonport; in this game the Maoris won by 6 points to 3. The second match was played at Swansea against Swansea, and was also won by the Battalion—the score being 9 points to nil. The last match, played against Llanelly, was won by the Welshmen by 6 points to nil.
On the 25th, the final inspection of the Battalion was held by the G.O.C., who wished officers and men a safe and speedy return to their homeland and to all who were waiting for them there.
The final move came on the morning of February 28th; when the Battalion entrained at Amesbury for Liverpool, where the transport for New Zealand, the steamer “Westmoreland,” was boarded late in the afternoon. At ten o'clock that night the troopship hove up her anchor in the Mersey and steamed out for sea on the long home voyage to New Zealand.
The “Westmoreland” made the passage direct to Auckland, via Panama Canal. The reception of the soldiers on their native shore was a soul-stirring welcome-home after their long heroic adventures at world's-end. Pakeha and Maori alike, the people delighted to do honour to the returning Hokowhitu a Tu. The Battalion, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Ennis, marched through the flag-decorated city, cheered by thousands, and up to the Auckland Domain, where a grand Maori reception and feast had been prepared. Many hundreds of people, from a score of tribes, were encamped on the Cricket Ground oval, awaiting with intense excitement and overflowing hearts the coming of their young men. It was a scene of old Maoridom revived, the return of the war-party from the fighting trail. The waiting Maoris were assembled by tribes, and after the first tremendous roaring chorus of welcome from all, they sprang up, iwi after iwi, from Ngapuhi southward, chanted and danced their powhiri of greeting, and sang their waiata of praise and affection to the warriors. Sir James Allen (Minister for Defence) and Sir James Carroll addressed the soldiers; “Ta page 161 Hemi Kara's” speech was poetically eloquent in the true Maori manner.
All the old war-songs were sung, the ancient war-cries were heard again. Chants that inspired the defenders of Orakau and the Gate Pa and many another battlefield came from the grey-beards of the tribes; from the women and girls came songs, composed for this day, and the rhythmic and melodious poi enchanted all eyes and ears. And the grand old “Toia Mai” chorus of greeting to the honoured ones was heard again and again: it likened the soldiers to a canoe crew returning to the loved home shores:
A-a tōia mai
Ki te urunga,
Ki te moenga,
Ki te takotoranga
I takoto ai
Toia mai te waka
Ki te urunga!
Oh haul away
Oh hither draw
Our grand canoe!
To the resting-place,
To the sleeping-place,
To the abiding place—
Our great canoe.
Oh haul away!
For home comes our canoe!