The Maoris in the Great War
Chapter VII. — Arrival of the Pioneers in France (1916)
Arrival of the Pioneers in France (1916).
Marseilles was reached on April 9th, 1916, and the troops disembarked that evening and entrained for the seat of war. The transport “Menominee,” bringing the transport and pack animals, under charge of a party of men commanded by Captain Gairdner, had left Port Said before the “Canada,” but had not yet arrived. All next day, April 15th, the Pioneers were travelling steadily by train through the beautiful country of Southern France, in its spring dress of foliage. The train was very crowded and there was not much chance of a comfortable rest for anyone. All hands were intensely interested in the country through which they were passing. It was a most agreeable change, after the sojourn in the deserts of Egypt. to see so much eye-resting green vegetation.
On the following morning the train passed through Versailles. Very few halts were made on the journey northward. Abbeville was passed at midnight, and at 6.30 a.m. a halt was made at Steenbecque, where the Battalion detrained.
Stores and baggage were unloaded and the men marched to Morbecque, two miles away, where they took up their first billets on French soil, the school and three farms, within a radius of two miles from the Square. The billets were dirty, and the remainder of the day was spent in cleaning them up and getting settled. It was cold, wet weather, and the change from a warm climate was felt severely, especially by the Niué Islanders, most of whom collapsed on the march to the billets and had to be helped along the road.
Lieut. Wilson, with the transport waggons and horses arrived from Abbeville, having camped at Aire the previous night. Three horses died during the trek, which occupied three days; and the opinion was expressed that it was very foolish to send horses, just landed from a six-days' voyage and 48 hours on a train, right off on a 60-mile road journey, even with empty waggons. The animals were all in very poor condition on arrival, particularly the mules, which seemed to be greatly affected by the cold.
On the 26th, the C.O. and Major Buck rode over to La Motte to see the party of Maori bushmen, who were doing very good work. The Forest Control authorities were very pleased with them. All the trees cut down were felled in the French style, no standing butt was left; the tree was cut level with the ground and the top of the stump showing was carefully trimmed so as to leave a rounded surface, which would not hold water. The forest was mostly composed of oaks, elms and beeches; only beeches were being felled at this time.
In the Cercus camp, the Battalion was kept busy with route marches, bayonet fighting practice and platoon drill.
On the medical side, the inoculation of all ranks for paratyphoid was completed. The men were engaged in putting in order two strong-points on the road south-west of Cercus which had been started by the 10th Hussars the previous year and left in an unfinished state.
Captain Gairdner and Lieuts. Dansey and Hiroti, with a hundred men marched out to Sally-sur-la-Lys, via Estaires, to undertake bridge-head works there.
On April 30th, an interesting forestry competition was held at La Motte, between the Maori bushmen and the French bucherons, a tree-chopping contest, six men a side. Each team had to fell twelve trees, in the French style. The Pioneer team won by three minutes, an excellent performance considering that the men had had to master new methods of bush-falling.
The first of May, 1916, saw another change of scene. The Battalion was moved on to Estaires, a march of seventeen page 78 miles, by way of Morbecque, La Motte, and Neuf Berquin, and went into billets previously occupied by the Australians. Various working parties were sent out, and did good work.
On May 8th, the Pioneers had their first taste of the Boches' methods. A German' plane flew overhead and dropped a large bomb sixty yards from Lieut. Gibbs' party working on defences at Noveau Monde. The explosion made a crater ten feet wide and seven feet deep; no one was hurt.
On May 15th, the Battalion moved on to famous Armentieres, a march of about eleven miles, and was billeted in the cotton factory of Charvel Freres, the Rue de Bizet, just north of the town, on the river Lys. The billets had been left in very good order by the Pioneer Battalion of the 17th Division whom the New Zealanders relieved. With the billets, the Battalion took over the Divisional Trench Warfare School, which used a system of trenches, part of the town defences. Lieut.-Col. King placed Major Pennycook in command of the school, and the Division had arranged to send eight officers and n.c.o.'s from each brigade for each session, three days. The course covered construction and maintenance of trenches of all kinds, machine-gun emplacements, dug-outs and shelters, and the rapid construction of wire entanglements. Any suggested improvements for defensive works were tried in the school before being adopted in the trenches. The several companies were told off for work in the trenches and on communications about the town. These duties were carried out at night only, as it was considered unsafe to move the various parties into and out of the trenches during daylight. On May 21st, the first casualty occurred. 2nd Lieut. L. H. Reid, of A Company, was killed by machine-gun fire early in the morning, Sergeant Moffitt was wounded at the same time.
Meanwhile Maori foresters were doing excellent work. A wood-chopping competition was held in the Foret de Nieppe on May 21st, between teams from the 3rd Canadian Division, two Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division. The New Zealand axemen were drawn from Lieut. Maclean's party of bush-fellers at La Motte; all were Maoris. The New Zealanders won two out of four contests and were second in the other two—a splendid performance considering some of page 79 their opponents were drawn from the ranks of the finest woodsmen in the world.
Trench work was now being carried on under fire and casualties were frequent. During the last few days and nights of May, Lieut. J. Short was severely wounded on the night of the 27th, and died next night at Bailleul. Others wounded were L.-Cpl. J. Danger, Ptes. H. Hirini, T. Matenga and G. Waldron. Several of these casualties were sustained on the evening of the 29th when the billets near the Armentieres railway station and the neighbourhood of the town swimming baths were heavily shelled with high explosive; the Pioneers hit were in the town on leave. On the following day L.-Cpl. N. Toki, and Ptes. R. Elers, H. Kahukiwi, and P. Marunui were wounded.
It was decided to send the Niué Islanders back to their South Sea homes, as they were constitutionally unfitted for work in a cold climate and many had fallen sick. Accordingly, on May 30th (1916), 2nd. Lieut. Fromm and 53 Niué men left Armentieres for Etaples en route for England and New Zealand.
Heavy shelling was now the daily and nightly experience. Once a German 8-inch shell landed in C Company's mess-room and “smashed things up a bit,” as the C.O. expressed it in his diary.
With the consent of the G.O.C., early in June the Battalion was reorganised into two Maori and two pakeha companies; D Company in the meantime to consist of Cook Islanders only, pending the arrival of reinforcements. This company attended to the sawmill work.
The month of June saw the ranks depleted by numerous casualties inflicted by German shell-fire. On the 5th, Pte. E. B. Brooke was killed. On the 8th the officers' billets and all houses near the main billet were heavily shelled with 8-inch page 80 and 5.9-inch H.E. from 7 a.m. till 10 a.m. A hundred and forty-two German shells were fired. All hands were hurried away from the billets into the open, and the horses were sent across the river. Work was carried on as usual after the bombardment. Five Pioneers were killed or died of wounds: Ptes. H. Waru, P. Whitau, E. Kawhia, P. Takauo, and Humphries.
Major Clifton, D Company, was wounded, and Captain Twisleton, B Company, and Captain Cooper, were evacuated sick from Armentieres. Captain Ennis took over command of B Company.
On June 12th, Sergeant Delamere was accidentally killed at the Divisional Bomb School, where he was acting as instructor. There were other casualties incidental to the varied duties of the Pioneers. Lieut. W. H. Walker lost two fingers through an accident at the Divisional sawmills operated by D Company.
On June 13th, all company commanders were taken round the defences of Armentieres and each company was allotted a portion of the defensive line to hold in case of attack.
On the night of the 16th, there was a gas alarm. All the companies paraded and the horses were sent off to Pont de Nieppe. The gas passed west of the town and followed the river to Estaires, causing some casualties among troops, but the Pioneers escaped.
The Divisional authorities having asked for recommendations for Military Medals for good work and bravery in the face of the enemy at Anzac, the following names of Maoris were sent forward for decoration: Sergeants Angel, Rotoatara, Bennett, Corporals Flutey, R. Otene, Sidney, and Pte. Rawhiti.
On June 24th, A Company was severely shelled while on trench work, and a 5.9-inch gun bombarded its billets and surrounding houses. There were eight casualties among the Pioneers, including 2nd. Lieut. H. Hetet (Ngati-Maniapoto). Five days later the same company was the target for another burst of shell-fire, and Lieut. S. J. S. Coupar, from Southland, was killed by a shell. Another South Islander, Lieut. J. C. Tikao, of Rapaki, who was with Coupar at the time, suffered severe shell-shock.page break