Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.
Chapter XIII — The Final Advance
The Final Advance.
On the 2nd July the New Zealand Division returned to the line, holding this time the centre of the Corps front, from the south-east tip of Biez Wood, which lay south-west of Bucquoy, to east of Hebuterne, running along the north of Rossignol Wood. C.R.E.'s headquarters were now established at Couin. The 1st Field Company, in billets just north of Coigneux, took over reserve area works from 421st (Wessex) Field Company, The 2nd and 3rd Companies, located at Sailly-au-Bois and Chateau de la Haie, took over work on right and left Brigade sectors respectively, relieving the 502nd and 505th (Wessex) Field Companies.
Within the Divisional area now lay the ruins of the village of Gommecourt, where the Germans had successfully held up the first British attacks in July, 1916. The famous Bark and the woods surrounding the village still lay as the march of war had left them, in accordance with proposals of the French Government to form the area into a National Park, as a permanent record of the devastation of war. The maze of old German dugouts still remained intact, and the trenches lay practically as they were vacated when the British advanced in 1916. The dugouts were particularly welcome, but, owing to the north-eastern trend of our line, all former trenches were now running more or less at right angles to the front, and had perforce to be utilised as communication trenches, while those old communication trenches which were in a suitable position for use as firing lines required considerable attention before they could be fully occupied. The whole Gommecourt Ridge, whence one could gaze eastward over miles of desolated Somme country almost as far as the former Divisional goals at Flers and Factory Corner, was of great defensive importance, as its capture by the enemy would have placed the New Zealanders and the left flank of the Corps in a dangerous salient. The network of old German and British trenches, covered with acres of rusty wire and numerous shattered remains of former woods, had formed a good nucleus for the extensive protective works which were found already well in hand when the Division took over the new sector.
An epidemic of influenza early in the month caught the Engineers along with the rest of mankind, and numerous evacuations to isolation camps followed. Fortunately serious page 196cases were few in number, and the majority of the invalids were back with their respective companies within a short period.
Engineering activities at this stage were practically identical with those performed during the preceding Divisional occupation of the front line. The desperate necessity for urgent defensive measures had passed by some time since, but there was still room for any amount of work on the numerous trenches and communications now in existence all along the line. Even in a comparatively quiet sector, the ordinary wear and tear of the day meant constant attention and repair, if trenches were to remain habitable. However, fresh fields of endeavour were shortly to be made available by the ever aggressive infantry.
The left of the Divisional front about Rossignol Wood was by long odds the least satisfactory portion of our occupied trench area. Here one battalion occupied such a pronounced salient between Rossignol and Biez Woods that the two front line companies lay facing different fronts at right angles to one another. Furthermore, our extreme left flank lay on a narrow valley which prohibited suitable contact with our neighbouring Division, the 37th, and gave the enemy an opportunity of driving through at the point of junction. Rossignol Wood itself was a sufficient menace. Covering 20 acres or more right against our front, and free from all observation from our lines, it offered the Boche exceptional opportunities for massing his forces for a substantial attack at the very point where we were least prepared to withstand it. These facts were all sized up by the garrisons concerned within a few hours of occupation, and before ten days had passed vigorous measures were in progress for amending the unsatisfactory state of affairs. Partly by minor assaults, partly by steady pressure of insidious penetration wherever an opportunity of gaining a few yards presented itself, the enemy was gradually forced back. This was a continuation of the undisguised daylight tactics of individual scouts and small patrol parties in constantly harassing the enemy which so appealed to the particular warlike genius of the colonial troops and was of such great value in establishing ascendancy over the less enterprising Boche.
By the 15th the situation was considered propitious for a minor attack in some force that should finally clear Rossignol Wood and establish a new front line all along the left flank, free from the disabilities now sought to be adjusted. To say that success was gained lightly would do full justice neither to the fighting abilities of our own troops, nor to the defensive efforts of the enemy; but by this time the page 197Divisional infantry had reached such a pitch of confidence and aggressive enthusiasm that there could be but one result to their efforts, and in due course the enemy was driven clear of the Wood.
As the advance pressed on, the newly-won territory came under the hands of the sappers, who toiled unremittingly to provide the necessary new trenches, and to open up adequate communications. Great assistance in the field, and much good fellowship on less stern occasions, was enjoyed from a party of American soldiers of the 2nd Battalion 305th Regiment U.S.A. Engineers, who were attached to the New Zealand Field Companies at this time to assimilate knowledge and experience.
That the fighting spirit of the German soldier was not yet quenched by his reverses was shown on the 25th. In the latter stages of the fight for Rossignol Wood, the enemy had appeared to withdraw voluntarily to higher and safer ground, but since then the pressure had continued relentlessly till he was finally pushed off the ridge crowned by two fine trenches known as Moa and Shag. Here, in addition to a number of good shelters and dugouts, our troops enjoyed direct observation over the enemy lines and had forced themselves into a salient threatening both his flanks. Spurred on by these considerations, the Boche decided to contest our tenure forthwith. After fairly heavy bombardment all day on the 25th, the enemy attacked at evening. In several parties over about half a mile of front the attackers came on in determined style, leaving their cover as they neared their destination, and making a bold final dash covered by a shower of stick bombs. But all to no purpose. The machine-gunner? caught them before they were more than clear of their protecting saps, and as they broke and ran the barrage crashed down among the survivors. One strong party succeeded in effecting temporary occupation of our "post" opposing it, but-even that success was of short duration. Reserves were immediately at hand, which worked round the occupied post from each flank, and those of the victorious Germans who were not killed became inmates of the prisoner's cage. Within half an hour of the commencement of the attack our line was completely re-established, and during the evening the garrison was relieved by fresh troops.
With this confident re-assertion of our hold on the coveted high ground, our aggressive efforts were temporarily relaxed. An unduly exposed outlying post at Chasseur Hedge was in fact withdrawn on the evening of the 27th to Jean Bart trench to ensure a more compact line of resistance. With the capture of Chasseur Hedge had come into our hands two deep concrete dugouts crammed with enemy trench mortar ammunition. On page 198withdrawal these were marked for destruction. During the afternoon supplies of ammonal had been carried forward by a party from 2nd Field Company, which now arranged its explosive among the German shells and totally destroyed both shelters under cover of a heavy artillery crash. The trenches now occupied as our front line were destitute of wire entanglement protection and, though in fair order when captured from the Boche, required considerable alteration to make them effective against attack from their previous rear. The efforts of the sappers to improve the situation were minimised by the difficulty of getting up material, by continual hostile shelling, and by the torrents of rain which now drenched the whole countryside for three days, and turned all the newly-won territory into a knee-deep bog.
Hebuterne village in particular was conscientiously bombarded by the German gunners, and carrying and transport parties were forced to run the gauntlet every night. Corporal J. Q. Adams of the 2nd Field Company was in charge of one party which was struck by a shell, which destroyed the waggon, and wounded horses and driver and three of the accompanying sappers. The horses thereupon bolted and eventually became entangled in a belt of barbed wire. Adams succeeded in extricating them, still under fire, and ultimately managed to deliver his material in the forward line. For his coolness and courage, which had been marked on many other occasions, he was awarded the Military Medal. Experiences of this kind were by no means uncommon among the transport sections. Driver A. J. McLean of the 1st Field Company won the same decoration a few weeks earlier near the same spot. With urgent material to deliver he pushed through a heavy barrage, only to run into concentrated fire at his destination, where he personally unloaded his waggon and returned safely with his team.
The new reserve line, now in course of construction to meet the needs of our considerably advanced occupation, was employing the energies of large parties from the Field Companies in line, and this turn of the weather brought drainage problems to the fore once more in a manner reminiscent of the best Flanders traditions.
In rear areas the 1st Company had almost completed the construction of the Chateau de la Haie line, and was giving additional, and now much-needed, attention to the provision of dugouts, gas-proofing, baths, wells, horse standings and road repairs, and was continually altering and improving the numerous more or less temporary camps which press steadily on the heels of an advancing army. Here again difficulties of material and hostile shelling somewhat hindered page 199progress, though for every shell received by us the unfortunate Boche had overflowing measure in return. The British Heavy Artillery, now at a supreme pitch of organisation, bombarded his lines front and rear with a frequency and intensity which alone would have been some intimation that the scales were slowly turning at last.
As early as the first week of August, enemy withdrawals on various portions of the front, notably in the north, in the Lys country so well known to the Division, indicated that the German High Command had realised the failure of its recent offensive, and was now preparing to shorten sail wherever it could give ground without serious dislocation of its main lines of defence.
These laudable intentions were not unexpected by the British, and the first signs of any attempt to carry them out were eagerly watched for on the Divisional front. Constant patrols by day and night maintained steady touch with the enemy, determined not to be left too far behind should his modesty induce him to essay an unobtrusive retirement. An unoccupied post, discovered in the early morning of 14th August, was the first sign that the birds had flown. Immediate investigation proved that such was the case along the whole front of the Division. Patrols, followed by stronger parties, were immediately on the trail. Divisional orders were definitely against any wild advances by isolated parties, regardless of support and of contact with the troops on either flank, but by evening New Zealanders were in the fringe of Fork Wood and on the outskirts of Puisieux. Strong opposition by extensive enemy forces north of them, round Bucquoy, made further advance impossible in the meantime.
This welcome change in the situation was at once reflected in the operations of the Field Companies. All hands were long since heartily tired of the constant round of digging and maintenance inseparable from the stagnation of trench warfare. Now the first call of the situation was the provision of roads and communications to enable the advance to proceed, with the problem of water supply coming next in importance on a long programme of new activities. The former roads leading forward of Hebuterne and Gommecourt were taken in hand with vigorous enthusiasm. By the 18th, Field Artillery had moved forward and was already in position to support a fresh advance.
Plan of area captured by the N.Z. Division during the battle from Hebuterne to Le Quesnoy, showing the dates the various objectives were gained.
Once the great German attack launched in March had been definitely stemmed, it was quite apparent that all hope of victory in the field had passed from them for ever. The advent of American troops now made it absolutely certain that the initiative must pass once more to the Allies, whose recent exploits augured well for their ability to make the most of it. The best Ludendorff could hope for was peace based on the exhaustion of both sides, with a possible advantage to Germany from her successes on the Eastern Front. As early as the 8th August, Foch's first tentative efforts to test the strength of the enemy in an attack by the British Fourth and French First Armies, on the Paris-Amiens railway, had met with such unexpected good fortune that further French successes on the Oise deepened his opinion that the time for a general counter-attack had indeed at last arrived. The same facts quickened the Boche's intention to withdraw. North of the Somme, on the Third Army front, this course of action was doubly pressing, since our recent advance south of the River now accentuated the salient in which the enemy forces round Puisieux had found themselves when stopped in their onward march.
That withdrawal on Bapaume would take place was therefore a practical certainty; that it would be as leisured and orderly as the Allies cared to permit, with every attention to detail in the way of devastation and obstruction, was also sure. But this time we were to have more to say in the matter than on previous occasions. We had the advantages of observation, also of taking the enemy lines in enfilade instead of by frontal assault, and last, but by no means least, the spirit of aggressive confidence in his individual or collective superiority over the enemy had never been more marked in the Allied soldier. The New Zealanders, with memories of Passchendaele still rankling in their breasts, were simply spoiling for close quarters, and in the immediate as well as the more distant future Were to be under constant reprimand from Corps Headquarters for an excess of zeal and impetuosity in a campaign where those qualities were rated as cardinal virtues. Influenced by these favourable auspices, the Allied Commanders decided to advance at once, not only with the hope of disorganising the inevitable Boche retreat, but also to minimise as far as possible the amount of damage inflicted on the unfortunate countryside. Heavy German reinforcements south of the Somme shifted the scene Of the British effort to the Third Army front, where the Albert-Arras railway was fixed as the first objective, to be taken on the 21st. By page 202the 23rd it was hoped that events would be sufficiently forward to enable the New Zealanders to come in on that day, and make a bold push for Bapaume.
For once even the elements were on the side of long-suffering Britain. At the hour of attack a heavy fog blanketed the fields and hedgerows, and saved many a lucky soldier during that fateful dash across the open that must be endured before the opposing machine-gunners could be reached and dealt with. Puisieux fell at once, and by nightfall British field guns were up in the outskirts of the town ready for further action. Heavy fighting followed all day on the 22nd, during which the important spur north of Miraumont, marked by the Beauregard Dovecot, was taken and retaken more than once. In plain justice to the German rearguards, it must be stated that their skill and tenacity were alike above reproach, though of but temporary avail. By afternoon of the 23rd the attack was astride the Arras Road, and menacing Bapaume from the north-west. Just beyond the Dovecot, a huge dump of Engineer stores was captured, including a great amount of explosive already prepared for use in small road mines and in many other varieties of trap calculated to snare the unwary —sure evidence that our advance had been too speedy for enemy expectations.
The advantages expected from the south-easterly direction of the attack, taking the very heavily defended lines in front of Bapaume from the flank, were more than realised, and no effort was spared to make the most of the favourable opportunities for exploitation. Experience derived from Ludendorff's own methods in March was not disdained. Particular stress was laid on the importance of each unit striving to reach and hold its allotted objective, irrespective of the success or otherwise obtaining on either flank.
In a fresh assault launched at 4.15 a.m. on 24th August the New Zealanders were allotted the capture of Loupart Wood and Grevillers, with Bapaume as an enticing ultimate goal if all went well in the earlier stages. A good start was made in the semi-darkness, but later on the trees and wire in the Wood, aided by the extremely strong posts and defences in front of Grevillers, neutralised the efforts of our tanks and held up the advance.
Conspicuously fine work had already in the course of the 2nd Auckland advance been done by Sergeant Samuel Forsyth, New Zealand Engineers, who was attached in accordance with the prevailing custom to an infantry battalion on probation for a commission. His magnificent efforts now to overcome the check were to win him a Victoria Cross. The official record runs as follows:— page 203*"On nearing the objective his company came under heavy machine-gun fire. Through Sergeant Forsyth's dashing leadership and total disregard of danger, three machine-gun positions were rushed and the crews taken prisoners before they could inflict many casualties on our troops.
During subsequent advance his company came under heavy fire from several machine-guns, two of which he located by a daring reconnaissance. In his endeavour to gain support from a tank he was wounded, but after having his wound bandaged he again got in touch with the tank, which in the face of very heavy fire from machine-guns and anti-tank guns he endeavoured to lead with magnificent coolness to a favourable position. The tank, however, was put out of action;
Sergeant Forsyth then organised the tank crew and several of his men into a section and led them to a position where the machine-guns could be outflanked. Always under heavy fire, he directed them into positions which brought about a retirement of the enemy machine-guns and enabled the advance to continue. This gallant N.C.O. was at that moment killed by a sniper.
From the commencement of the attack until the time of his death, Sergeant Forsyth's courage and coolness, combined with great power of initiative, proved an invaluable incentive to all who were with him, and he undoubtedly saved many casualties among his comrades."
Again, on the 25th, Bapaume was placed in front of the New Zealanders as a trophy worthy of their best endeavours. No encouragement was required to ensure a gallant effort. An early morning mist was again helpful, but with full day came once more the grim check from well-concealed machine-gunners. The tanks allotted for the day's enterprise were late at the rendezvous, and when they did arrive a vigorous temporary engagement of our own rear did little to assist the tide of battle. However, by late afternoon distinct progress had been achieved, and the smoke of burning dumps behind Bapaume afforded some slight satisfaction as evidence of increasing concern on the part of the enemy. In pouring rain all that night energetic patrols pushed on and gave the foe no respite.
But by the 26th the German defence had so stiffened that, despite vigorous efforts then and on the two succeeding days, progress was practically impossible. By evening of the 28th, Corps orders were to keep a keen lookout for evidence of enemy withdrawal, as it was felt that his supreme efforts of the last two days had been expended to gain time to arrange page 204the details of a further retreat elsewhere, and that once that was satisfactorily accomplished he would abandon Bapaume to its fate. Events proved this to be an accurate forecast. In the early hours of the 29th, diminishing signs of enemy activity encouraged the ever active patrols, which by 10 a.m. were through the town and hard on the heels of the retiring enemy. That night a line of trenches was laid down in front of Bancourt to provide cover for the forward troops in case of counter-attack. A section from the 3rd Field Company with 500 men of the reserve brigade stuck to the job all night under heavy gas shelling and rifle fire, but before daylight our forward patrols had again moved the enemy on, and the trenches were never used. Similar unavoidable sacrifices of time and labour were of constant occurrence all through these days of rapid movement.
The events of the next day or two were repetitions of what had gone before, marked by ceaseless gallant effort on the part of the attackers, and by a stubborn defence no less admirable on the part of the hard-pressed German rearguards. Steady progress was maintained, and by the night of the 1st September the line lay in front of Villers-au-Flos, where especially violent machine-gun fire was experienced. Events on other fronts combine to cause this to be regarded as the close of the Battle of Bapaume.
The success of the Third Army had been unquestionable, but by no means lightly purchased. All authorities agree in according due deference to the skilled tactics and marked bravery which distinguished the German retirement. The New Zealanders' share of the prisoners taken amounted to 47 officers and over 1600 men. That these results were not recorded without ceaseless effort on the part of the attacking troops goes without saying. To the Engineers, though not included in the more stirring adventures of the forward fighting line, fell a heavy share of the labours and technical difficulties, of which the speedy and effective handling was such a necessary factor to success.
Among the sappers' manifold duties, the repair of roads was naturally an ever present item. Their prototypes among the enemy had expended great energy and no little skill in the mining of all important cross roads, and many other positions calculated to cause a maximum of delay. In most cases, time was too precious to attempt final repair, and the obstacles were side-stepped by the provision of new temporary roadways of timber or of brick around them. Apart from the extensive and well-organised general schemes of destruction carried out on roads, railways, and bridges, with which, as a definite factor in war, no one can have any reasonable page 205complaint, the retreating Germans appeared to have spent an enormous amount of time and ingenuity on all kinds of petty traps and devices of a malignant nature. The inconsiderable, amount of damage likely to result from many of their bright ideas made them of no real avail as warlike expedients, and one is driven to the conclusion that the average German soldier found his simple pleasure in the performance of these queer little tricks.
Who can imagine a British soldier, for example, if forced to abandon a dressing station full of wounded men to the mercies of the enemy, arranging first a dead body in such a way that, after evacuation of the wounded, any removal of the corpse would fire a charge ? Trip wires were placed in every variety of position, likely and unlikely, all arranged on the simple principle that removal of the wire fired a charge, to the probable extinction of the curious wire-puller. Doors and entrances of shelters, dugouts and houses all were liable to be fitted with some type of friction or percussion device calculated to surprise if not delight the intruder. Books and other articles left on tables, even pictures and mirrors hung oh the walls, required careful inspection before being touched. Lumps of explosive were mixed with the coal dumps, or hidden carefully in fireplaces and chimneys with a view to ignition when a fire was lighted. All souvenirs such as helmets, shell-cases, badges and bayonets, left in conspicuous positions, or articles left sticking in the ground such as stick grenades or shovels, could safely be labelled dangerous till their bona fides was investigated.
Dugouts, as the home and dwelling place of these humourists, were especially dangerous. If there was no charge concealed beneath the entrance step so that the first pressure of an entering footstep caused an explosion, the furniture was almost certain to be well equipped with explosive, or the bunk only required occupation to betray the full extent of their hospitable preparations. In one house, a grandfather's clock was so equipped that the running down of the weight would complete an electrical circuit and demolish the whole building. Bathing places were fully provided with pointed stakes and barbed wire arranged below water level.
The above probably represent only the amusements of the private soldier in his leisure moments, though during the German retirement circumstances over which he had little control must have seriously curtailed his periods of relaxation. There were numerous instances of larger and more organised traps. Of these the principal were delay-action mines. All these mines, of whatever size and composition, were fired By a fuse containing a detonator and exploder charge, the action page 206of which depended on a corrosive liquid eating through a wire, the length of the required delay being determined by the strength of the corrosive liquid.
In many cases these traps and mines were rendered harmless by the mere cutting of a wire, which could be done by anyone, but the whole matter of dealing with enemy explosive devices was rightly considered a technical work, and as such came within the scope of the Engineers' duties. For handling some of the larger mines beneath roads and railways, several experienced miners were attached to the New Zealand Engineers from the New Zealand Tunnellers, and they fully maintained the high reputation gained by their unit in France. A spear fashioned out of a long steel rod and a spade handle, very similar to the weapon employed by the kauri gum-diggers of North Auckland, was much used by the prospectors for probing areas where mines were thought to exist, and saved a large amount of otherwise unavoidable digging.
An adequate supply of water was expected to be a considerable difficulty before the British advance commenced, and events justified the premonition. Even in front of Rossignol Wood, all supplies were being brought forward from rear areas. With the constant movement of the advance, the problem of supply became quite acute. Numerous parties of sappers were constantly employed on water service alone, prospecting for wells, clearing and purifying such as were found not entirely destroyed, and providing the necessary gear for convenient usage. The general enemy procedure as regards wells had been to smash both engine and pump at each one, and then to throw the pieces down the shaft along with any filth or rubbish readily available. To clear the accumulation from a depth of 60 to 80 feet was quite a task, and consumed much valuable time.
Storage troughs, horse watering points, suitable arrangements for rapid filling of water-carts, and in many cases the installation of hand or power-driven pumps, all came under the charge of these water patrols. No water of any kind was used before investigations were made as to its purity, and the erection of proper notices at each supply point was a further duty of the parties in charge. In the strange country occupied daily by the advancing troops there was a tremendous call for notice boards of all descriptions, and a busy time was spent by the Field Companies' signwriters.
Ordinary trench construction, despite the changed conditions of warfare, was very far from falling into the general disuse that would have been perfectly acceptable to the majority of the optimistic fighting troops. To break the pleasant exhilaration of some days' successful advancing by page 207a return to the dull routine of trench digging was not at all in accordance with their views of the proper conduct of war. However, the more prudent authorities decreed otherwise, and the provision of reserve posts and defensive lines, often abandoned the next day in favour of similar positions further forward, was an inevitable accompaniment of each successful advance, and absorbed the energies of many sappers.
The 1st Field Company, for the moment in reserve, had a similar experience with regard to the works usually required in rear areas. Erection of hutments, gas-proofing of dugouts, provision of bath and laundry facilities, and the hundred and one small requirements of the supply and administration branches of Divisional activities were no sooner completed than the exigencies of a changed situation necessitated a renewal of the same activities elsewhere. But no one heeded that small fly in the ointment, either in front or in rear. After so many months and months of stagnation in weary trench lines, or of painful advance under conditions of such peril and travail that success was almost too dearly won to possess many attractions, the armies of Britain were properly on the move. We had the Boche going home at last and almost on the run. Every man privileged to be there felt it in his bones and exulted, not least of his satisfaction being a comfortable conviction that the Hun was likewise fully aware of his changed fortunes. What mattered the long day, or the tedious task, with fresh success waiting in the morning?
The more important of the immediate obstacles now confronting the advance of the Third Army were the extensive Havrincourt Wood and the strongly-defended Trescault Spur immediately behind it. On 2nd September the advance was renewed, the New Zealanders proposed share in the day's exploits being the capture of Haplincourt. It is inexpedient to follow here the operation of the next few days in detail, since they presented no particular features of importance, and the activities of the sappers were confined to the ordinary duties consequent upon advance, already described and now probably more or less familiar to the reader. The time had not yet come for the bridging exploits which were to be a notable feature of later stages of this campaign.
By evening of the 8th, after continuous but not especially heavy fighting, the tide of advance was through the Wood and washing against the lower slopes of Trescault Spur. This ridge, whose crest was fortified by old British trenches, was now to be defended with a determined valour which was a fair indication of the German desire to maintain a wide defensive zone in front of the famous Hindenburg Line, at last within striking distance some three miles further on. page 208Amongst other fresh Divisions placed to dispute the passage of this important outlying stronghold were the famous Jagers, seasoned veterans of the first class of German manhood. However, despite the natural strength of the position and the valiant efforts of the redoubtable Jagers, the Spur lay in our hands by the evening of the 12th. Next day was cold and stormy, but was marked by constant conflict along the ridge, honours finally resting to a large extent with the Jagers, who succeeded in forcing us to abandon the crest in several places and were not finally dislodged till some days later. Notwithstanding this slight local check, the general stage was now well set for an assault on the Hindenburg Line.
On the 14th, in company with the bulk of the New Zealand Division, the Field Companies passed back into rear areas for a brief period of rest and recreation. During the next 10 days various odd jobs were performed in rear areas, between periods of training and sport, and considerable time was taken up in drawing complete pontoon equipment at Avesnes-les-Bapaume.
In view of the probability of considerable bridging being required to cross the Escaut Canal and River, all ranks were put through a brief course of training in the service likely to be required of them. While the Division remained in rest areas many men revisited the scenes of former experiences at Flers. Some 160 crosses were made by the sappers, and were erected over New Zealanders' graves on the old Somme battlefield; and a large wooden cross 16 feet high was also erected at Flers by order of Divisional Headquarters.
By the evening of the 28th the New Zealanders were once more in the line, which had been considerably advanced during their absence, and in the early morning of the 29th they again attacked the enemy with marked success. By this time the whole of the main defences of the allegedly impregnable Hindenburg Line, with its hundreds of concrete posts, and huge dugouts built into the earth beyond all possible reach by hostile artillery, and all protected by acres of massed barbed wire, had fallen to the armies of Britain. We now lay along the high ground of Bonavis Ridge, overlooking the deep Canal, with no further prepared obstacles of great importance in front save the last strong system of the Hindenburg support lines, known as the Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line, and how clearly visible across the valley beyond the line of the Canal.
Further beyond again, the eye dwelt longingly on green fields and wooded slopes, untouched by the devastation of war, with villages nestling amid the trees, and the peaceful smoke of civilian firesides rising on the calm air. Away to the north lay the towers and spires of Cambrai. In the immediate fore-page 209ground, on the near side of the poplar-bordered Canal and River, was the long straggling village of Rue des Vighes. Across the Canal, half a mile northward, Crevecoeur lay on a sharp bend, while possibilities of crossing further south were menaced by German rearguards in the village of Vaucelles. The whole countryside across the Canal was alive with enemy movement. Even guns were plainly visible still in process of removal, and the sight intensified the general eagerness to press on. However, patrols pushing aggressively down the forward slopes of the ridge were soon hampered by increasing German gunfire, and the sight of numerous parties of the enemy taking up position on the further bank made it plain that the crossing was to be warmly contested.
During the evening full preparations were made for an attack at dawn, while patrols tested the German defences all night in hopes of reaching the shelter of the Canal bank before daylight. The Germans remaining on our side of the Canal opposite Crevecoeur fell back on the village during the hours of darkness, but further upstream in front of Vaueelles no progress could be made till daylight, when advance was rendered singularly difficult by the numerous well-posted machine-guns on the enemy's bank. Plans for the attack proved that Vaucelles would be a tough nut to crack, but no special trouble at Crevecoeur was anticipated, despite the fact that the Canal cuts across a sharp bend of the River at that point, leaving the village protected not only by the Canal, but also by the River, while a small branch stream intersecting the island lying between River and Canal afforded yet another obstacle to the advance.
At Vaucelles the bridge was discovered with the centre span blown up and the remainder of the edifice rendered quite unapproachable by the German rearguards in the village. A small party from the 2nd Field Company essayed to reconnoitre the position more closely, but were forced to retire without success. Their leader, Lieutenant F. K. Broadgate, was killed by a German sniper as soon as he raised his head from the shelter of an old sap in which the party had wormed its way forward. Nor was much better result achieved at Crevecoeur, One attacking party managed to reach the island, and one of their number even succeeded in removing the demolition charges from the stone bridge spanning the further stream but, with dozens of machine-guns filling the narrow passage with a perfect storm of lead, no attempt to reach the village had even a remote prospect of success. In fact, as far as the New Zealand front was concerned, the attack was definitely held up. The Field Companies lying ready with their pontoons and other bridging apparatus were forced to content them-page 210selves with overhauling their gear and with making further exhaustive searches to increase their available supplies of suitable materials for the heavier bridges that would be necessary before guns and vehicular traffic could continue the advance.
On 1st October, a further attack was made on Crevecoeur by crossing lower down the Canal, where a passage had been forced on the previous day, and by coming at the village from the north-west. Against these fresh tactics the place fell quickly, but even then no progress was possible higher up the Canal on the remainder of the New Zealand Front. A party of Engineers from the 1st Field Company under Lieutenant A. W. Thomas, who had been attached to the 1st Brigade throughout its operations, and had been of great assistance in removing demolition charges and delay-action mines from bridges and dugouts, now further distinguished itself by building under fire a footbridge across the river to the island, and by repairing a traffic bridge for horses and transport. For gallant individual efforts here, and in reconnaissance work under heavy fire later, Lt. Thomas received the Military Cross. Corporal A. T. Brokenshire, who had won the Military Medal at Passchendaele, showed that his prowess on that occasion had not exhausted his qualities of skill and courage. For his excellent work on these Crevecoeur bridges, both on 1st and 2nd October, he was awarded the D.C.M. Lance-Corporal D. D. Rennie and Sapper R. W. Adams further swelled the list of Military Medal winners belonging to the 1st Field Company by their gallant conduct at Crevecoeur. The former worked continuously on the bridges under fire until they were completed, while Adams, in addition to his labours on the actual bridges, made constant excursions into territory occupied by the enemy to collect bridging material from a small enemy dump fortunately undestroyed.
Other Engineers were by no means idle and had already succeeded in placing two pontoon bridges down on the bank of the Canal ready for use as soon as circumstances would permit. This was not yet however; until the evening of the 4th, heavy bombardment and ceaseless machine-gun fire were maintained both on the captured village of Crevecoeur and on the whole length of the Escaut Canal as far as Vaucelles. On the 1st October, our right flank had side-stepped northward, and was now more in the locality of Rue des Vignes, but with even less prospect of crossing there than Vaucelles had offered.
But further south events were moving and, during the night of the 4th-5th October, the enemy fell back oil his Masnieres-Beaurevoir Line, fortunately sufficiently far from the Canal to leave room for the following battalions to make page 211suitable dispositions for the continued attack soon to follow. No sooner did hostile shells falling on Vaucelles and the immediate neighbourhood announce the fact of the enemyretirement, than there was a rush of our waiting infantry to cross the Canal and get after them. Some companies were diverted south and crossed on the Vaucelles bridge, others were accommodated by hasty temporary repairs to the demolished bridge on the Tordoir Lock at the southern end of Rue des Vignes, but the majority crossed on rafts hurriedlythrown together by the waiting Field Companies.
This retirement of the enemy had not been unexpected, and on the evening of the 4th Sergeant A. Ward of the 2nd Field Company had been detailed to prepare a raft ready for possible use at dawn. Despite heavy shelling and machinegun fire on the village and canal bank, Ward and his men carried forward their material some 2000 yards, in several trips, and constructed their raft at the selected point. The first signs of daylight found the attacking infantry on the further bank. An award of the Military Medal was immediate recognition of Sergeant Ward's tenacity and devotion to duty. As soon as these preliminary needs of the immediate pursuers were satisfied, the whole energies of the 1st and 2nd Field Companies were bent on the construction of heavy traffic bridges, with sufficient success to make possible a continuation of the attack on the 8th October.
By the evening of the 7th some bridges were still incomplete and the bridging parties were subject to constant shelling. At Tordoir Lock, where 2nd-Lieutenant D. Doake of the 2nd Field Company was in charge of bridge construction, conditions were unusually severe, a bombardment of gas shells, lending additional emphasis to the heavy gunfire, being concentrated on his locality. However, Field Artillery were to cross that bridge at dawn, and Doake and his men worked on steadily all night. When the guns arrived in the morning they crossed without mishap or delay. Doake's cool courage placed him forthwith among the wearers of the Military Cross. 2nd-Corporal A. M. Heath and Sapper A. C. Schioler of the 2nd Company also rendered yeoman service throughout this period.
During the night of the 7th October and all day on the 8th, Sergeant D. McLaren of the 1st Field Company had also been engaged on repairing these bridges. It was largely owing to his energy and disregard of personal danger, working at times with the bridge in flames, that all crossings had been kept open both before and during the operations, and his efforts were also rewarded with the Military Medal.page 212
The German lines now fronting the Third Army reprersented the very last of his definitely prepared positions, and were naturally expected to provide a mighty obstacle. With unshaken faith in the prowess of its attacking Divisions, IV. Corps set an objective which included the whole of this strong system, with instructions which pointed to an expectation that the close of the day would see our new line beyond the village of Esnes. On the New Zealanders, by virtue of their position on the Corps Front, fell the brunt of the fighting, and by night the line lay beyond Esnes as anticipated. The sappers were still busy on the Canal, where further pontoon bridges were being put in position, and all bridges were maintained in good order. German shelling continued very heavy, and the constant repairs rendered necessary would have been a hard task even in undisturbed surroundings. However their efforts were not in vain. All Divisional and attached Artillery were safely across the Canal soon after mid-day. As evening fell enemy bombing planes were particularly active, while a heavy bombardment drenched our rear areas with gas.
A cold dawn on the 9th. was heralded once again by the crash of the New Zealand barrage and the advance of the indefatigable infantry. But on this occasion their opponents were missing, nor was touch again established till the afternoon, when machine-gun fire was encountered from the village of Fontaine-au-Pire. As darkness fell, patrols pushed on and found both it and Beauvois evacuated. On went the leading battalions forthwith, and before daylight had reached the Le Cateau-Cambrai Road. Beauvois still sheltered a few civilians, and was practically unscathed, though astonishing scenes of filth and desecration marked the close of the German occupation.
Throughout the war, with perhaps special emphasis on their voluntary retreat to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, wherever and whenever the Boche vacated French territory, the recovered lands and villages returned to their distracted owners in a condition that will attach a sinister stain to the name of the German for generations. Thousands of French farms and hundreds of towns and villages, when not completely destroyed, received the almost indelible imprint of a calculated devastation such as no country in Europe had ever experienced before this war. In place of the smiling fields and prosperous homes of pre-war days, France recovered but a wilderness of terrible desolation. Churches, schools, public buildings and private dwellings, works of art, historical monuments and records—all had shared the same fate of ruthless destruction. The valuable possessions of the wealthier people were stolen and taken away; the few poor sticks and worthless little house-page 213hold treasures of the peasants were broken or burnt; wells were filled with dung; every garden and bush was uprooted; and as a crowning infamy every fruit tree was sawn off at the stump. There can be no doubt of the official intention to leave these fertile lands blasted and barren for a decade, and the thorough manner in which the work had been executed is another illuminating sidelight on the curious mentality of the German species. No one who has not seen this thing can understand how deeply the bitterness of it has eaten into the soul of France; those who did see it were looking on at the misery of others, not their own; but even so they do not find it hard to sympathise with the present day attitude of stricken Prance, however impossible of fulfilment her aspirations may appear to minds less influenced by searing memories or perchance more anxious to see the evil-doer once again on a sound commercial basis.
By 1 a.m. on the 11th, our leading battalions had cleared Briastre, and reached the banks of the River Selle. Though but a tributary of the Scheldt, the Selle flows in a deep valley, with a fair depth of water and an average width of some 30 feet, while high slopes on either side completely dominate the actual line of the stream. Here, taking full advantage of a naturally strong position, the over-taxed rearguards of the harassed enemy were bidden to make another stand.
During the evening of the 10th, the 37th Divisional Engineers had managed to bridge the stream some half-a-mile above the New Zealanders, but all bridges on our own front were found destroyed, nor was it possible to provide more before daylight. In the hour or two available, however, some parties of our infantry crossed on the 37th Divisional front, and working back along the opposite bank were in process of disposition for a further advance when the dawn disclosed them to the enemy, who lined all the eastern slopes of the valley in strength. At once heavy fire compelled them to take shelter, and they remained all day under cover of a large factory. Here Lieutenant A. W. Thomas and his men of the 1st Field Company again rendered yeoman service in pushing across the stream a temporary bridge of trees and rails which maintained some touch with the main body. Night had fallen on the 12th before our various attacks ultimately triumphed Over exceeding stout opposition, leaving us consolidated along the railway line at Belle Vue. With this establishment of a bridgehead covering the Briastre crossings, the advance was temporarily discontinued, and the New Zealanders passed into reserve.
After the constant progress of the last few days, the time was ripe to devote extra attention to the problems of rear roads page 214and railway communications. The energies of all three Field Companies were fully absorbed by reconnaissance of the captured territory, and by the familiar tasks connected with water supply, baths, laundries, hutments, repair of craters, plank roads, provision of signboards, the erection of a Divisional theatre, and so on ad infinitum. Even as the advance went on from day to day, sections of the Field Companies, especially the Company in reserve, had been forced to find time for a certain amount of this routine work, particularly as regards supplies of water. Thus in Beauvois on the 10th, 2nd-Corporal F. S. Wilkinson of the 2nd Company had been engaged on urgent water operations under circumstances of great danger from violent shell fire, which resulted in several casualties to his party. Wilkinson was not to be diverted from his purpose, and carried his job to completion with a courage and determination that won him a Military Medal.
The 1st Field Company were now notified that their services would be required by the Chief Engineer, IV Corps, to erect a tank bridge over the Selle River following a further attack set down for the 20th, and they devoted some time to preparation of gear and material. Colonel H. Stewart, in his History of the New Zealand Division, thus describes their efforts:—
"The heavy shelling on the river had barely abated when the Engineers were hard at work on the bridge. By extraordinary exertions it was completed in 13 hours. This rapidity of construction no less than the skilful and thorough nature of the workmanship elicited warm congratulations from General Harper and his Chief Engineer, who on the 21st personally witnessed the heaviest class of tank pass safely over. On the following day the same company constructed a heavy traffic bridge in 15 hours."
These two bridges were constructed side by side in the gap left by the destruction of the former brick arch bridge. The maintenance of pontoon and foot bridges across the Selle was entrusted at the same time to the 2nd Field Company. The 3rd Company, who had been Company in reserve, were to have their special opportunity without delay. On the 22nd this Company moved to an assembly area south-east of Solesmes, where they joined the 2nd Brigade, who were to carry the St. Georges River crossings on the 23rd. The now Usual success attended the day's advance; so much so that the leading troops were able to cross the St. Georges River without much difficulty, and by most commendable enterprise pushed on into the village of Beaudignies and secured two bridges across the Ecaillon still intact. Meanwhile the 3rd page 215Field Company was busily erecting a bridge at Pont a Pierres to enable the Artillery to continue the advance. The enemy was already shelling heavily all possible bridge sites, and it was with great difficulty that the 3rd Company was able to complete its job by daylight.
Next day three Weldon trestle bridges were thrown across the river in this same locality. The 1st Field Company had been instructed to repeat its performance of the 20th by erecting another tank bridge at Pont a Pierres. Investigation of the situation disclosed an immense crater 80 feet wide and 20 feet deep which had been blown in the road by the departing Boches, and had involved the former bridge abutments in the general ruin. To repair this damage was impossible at the moment, but the erection of a fine double-way heavy bridge of two 20-feet spans supported by a massive trestle pier, quickly reopened the road to Beaudignies for the passage of guns and waggons. The new bridge was approached by a short deviation on either side of the stream. Heavy planks on one side and broken brick on the other furnished a temporary roadbed that successfully carried the weightiest traffic.
Constant violent shelling of the area immediately surrounding these bridges caused repeated damage to the structure, to say nothing of the personnel employed. Colonel Stewart may be fairly quoted once more:—
"No unit, however, can boast of a higher standard of duty or hardier fortitude than the Engineers, who, making light of difficulties, dangers and disappointments, persevered with, completed and maintained their work."
Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty were shown by 2nd-Lieutenant D. R. Mansfield, and Lance-Corporal E. R. W. Pledger, of the 1st Field Company, the latter's efforts being rewarded with the Military Medal. Sappers G. M. Bennett and A. Newport of the 1st Field Company also came under official notice for their qualities of skill and courage shown under heavy fire during the bridging operations at Pont a Pierres. Both had also been prominent in the erection of bridges at Briastre a few days earlier.
The 3rd Company were no less assiduous in their efforts, nor less steadfast in maintaining a high standard of efficiency and cool bearing. 2nd-Lieutenant E. W. George was particularly prominent in the operations at Pont a Pierres and won the Military Cross, while a Military Medal was awarded to 2nd-Corporal George Campbell, whose performances on the 4th set the seal on a long period of courageous service.
Meanwhile the scene of conflict lay in front of Beaudignies, where the determined opposition met with pointed to a page 216desperate stand before the famous old fortress of Le Quesnoy, now less than a mile to the eastward. So vigorous and numerous indeed were the enemy troops, and so heavy the increased fire of his artillery and trench mortars, that the plan, of advance was broken off on the 25th to allow of very necessary reorganisation. The numerous re-adjustments from a moving to a stationary warfare which followed brought the Engineers once more in touch with the details of trenches, posts, elephant shelters, and gas-proof protection, which they had fondly hoped were left behind for ever. The erection of 3 artillery bridges and 14 foot bridges across the Ecaillon, however, all cut from the trees growing along the banks, was some earnest of the temporary nature of the change of policy. Constant attention was also necessary at Pont a Pierres, where the bridges still remained the storm-centre of continuous German bombardments.
A welcome draft of 54 reinforcements, mostly "old hands," joined the Field Companies at the end of the month, replacing some 60 men sent to the Depot in England in due rotation, 10 days earlier.
The ancient fortress of Le Quesnoy, soon to become so intimately associated with the military exploits of one of the youngest and smallest countries in history, had many a time stood in the forefront of the conflicts of the Old World. Its very existence is due to the fact that in that region no topographical obstacles protect France from invasion from the north-east, and the military experts of mediaeval France had been forced to rear their own barriers against outside aggression, since Nature had been remiss. The extensive ramparts of former days, however, though maintained and improved by the great Vauban, whose skill had provided the stubborn walls of Ypres, were even before the war considered obsolete. Three gates entered the town, now boasting little more than 5000 inhabitants.
Some eight miles to the south-east of Le Quesnoy, beyond the great Forest of Mormal, now largely destroyed by the Boche, lay the most important feature of the strategic situation, the Aulnoye Junction. This and other centres of communication about Maubeuge, only 15 miles due east of Le Quesnoy, were of the utmost importance to the demoralised Huns, since their fall would probably involve the cutting of the main line of retreat for the extensive German forces now falling back before the French and Americans. The wording of the official despatch clearly defines the position at the end of October.
"By this time the rapid succession of heavy blows dealt by the British forces had had a cumulative effect, both moral page 217and material, upon the German Armies. The difficulty of replacing the enemy's enormous losses in guns, machineguns and ammunition had increased with every fresh attack, and his reserves of men were exhausted.
"The capitulation of Turkey and Bulgaria and the imminent collapse of Austria—consequent upon Allied successes which the desperate position of her own armies on the Western Front had rendered her powerless to prevent—had made Germany's military situation ultimately impossible. If her armies were allowed to withdraw undisturbed to shorter lines, the struggle might still be protracted over the winter. The British Armies, however, were now in a position to prevent this by a direct attack upon a vital centre, which should anticipate the enemy's withdrawal and force an immediate conclusion."
This attack was set down for the morning of the 4th November. The New Zealanders were to establish a new line on the further side of Herbignies village, a total advance of about four miles.
Despite their lack of modern finish, the ramparts of Le Quesnoy still presented far too serious an obstacle to be attacked frontally with inevitable heavy loss of life, when other methods of subjugation lay open to the attacking troops. Intense bombardment might have hastened matters, but then only at the expense of civilian lives, and of the destruction of historic monuments and private property. Plans were accordingly laid to envelop the town from both flanks, eventually surrounding it without unduly delaying the progress of the advance on Herbignies. To the Rifle Brigade, which was to conduct the preliminary stages of the advance, was left the honour of mopping up Le Quesnoy.
During the night of the 3rd-4th November there were no signs that the German garrisons in and about Le Quesnoy were expecting an attack. Desultory shelling was maintained on our positions, and at 5.20 a.m. a double orange flare, denoting all clear, was seen to rise above the town.
Ten minutes later the operator must have had a suspicion that his signal was premature. A tremendous bombardment fell on the German positions, while drums of burning oil were hurled on the ramparts with a view to concealing the enveloping movement of our troops now about to take place. After a hard struggle in the immediate environs of Le Quesnoy, the attacking battalions swept forward without any particular resistance, and by mid-day had reached the final objective about Herbignies on the outskirts of the Forest of Mormal.page 218
To the 3rd Field Company had been allotted the work of clearing artillery tracks right through the double railway lines north of the town within two hours of zero—fixed on this occasion at 5.30 a.m.—and of assisting the endeavour to find a way into the fortress. The section detailed for the tracks followed the infantry at the beginning of the attack and reached its objective without casualty. The rails were immediately blown out with guncotton charges, when passable roadways were easily dug through the embankment. An enemy machine-gun not far distant was enfilading the line of railway, but fortunately the gunner was prevented by mist from any accuracy of aim, which alone enabled the work to be completed in the specified time.
Meanwhile the battalions of the Rifle Brigade, to each of which was attached a party from the 3rd Field Company, who withdrew numerous demolition charges from bridges and road crossings, were encircling the walls of Le Quesnoy, each intent on securing the honour of first entry into tne fortress. Strong defence was encountered from the garrison, which increased the natural difficulties of the position.
The Moat, instead of a single wide ditch, was found divided into an outer and inner moat by a series of disconnected fortifications, some 20 to 30 feet high, with brick or sandstone sides, acting as an extra rampart and known as "demilunes." Trees and undergrowth grew in and around these outlying bastions, which together with the varying direction of the walls rendered it difficult to preserve a sense of direction, and furnished excellent cover for the German snipers and machine-gunners now holding each position in considerable force. Beyond them lay the inner moat before the final rampart, watered by a small tributary of the Rhonelle, which, entering the fortress through a sluice gate on the south-east side, flows along the moat in a stream about seyen feet wide and-leaves the walls by another sluice on the north. West of the town this stream runs generally underground. With expectation of finding the inner moat flooded, the attackers were provided with cork mats, but only the normal amount of water was found in the stream. The final rampart showed a 60 feet wall of solid brick.
In expectation of a final assault on the walls 10 ladders had been prepared by the Engineers, and placed overnight at the shrine on the Ruesnes road west of the fortress. When the barrage opened in the morning, these ladders were carried forward by sappers attached to the 4th Rifles attacking in that area. After considerable difficulties, these parties succeeded in scaling one of the outer bastions, and, emboldened by success, endeavoured to rear their ladder against the inner page 219wall. They were immediately discovered, and the infantry officer in charge was shot down. One of the sappers in charge of the ladder was also killed and two others were wounded, and the attempt was seen to be hopeless.
Up till 9 a.m. various other attempts to approach the inner moat failed, though some more of the outer bastions had been occupied by enterprising platoons of the 4th Rifles. The final capture was only a matter of time and, rather than sacrifice lives unnecessarily, recourse was had to propaganda. However, no reply to the various messages inviting surrender was received, and by mid-day many enquiries as to the prospects of the town's early fall began to arrive both from the Artillery officers anxious to move forward without making a long detour, and from numerous working parties and others on the flanks of the town who were subject to periodic bursts of fire from its commanding walls.
In the early afternoon, another attempt was made on the walls. This time the attacking party was able to reach the western bank of the inner moat without opposition, with the final wall towering above them. By a fortunate chance a narrow stone bridge spanned the moat, and offered some prospect of reaching the top of the wall with the 30ft. ladder available At the first attempt a German post on the walls above drove the party back at once. A light trench mortar and several Lewis guns were brought forward in support and, under their covering fire, a final attempt was made. This 'time the ladder was safely reared, and a moment later a New Zealand officer stood on the ramparts, where he was soon joined by eager Riflemen, and the town was ours. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while carrying and controlling the indispensable ladders, Lance-Corporal A. J. Randall received the D.C.M. and Sapper J. Hodgson the Military Medal.
During the night of the 3rd, 2nd-Corporal T. MacLennan of the 3rd Field Company had been occupied under heavy shell fire in erecting a road screen to hide the advance of our assaulting troops to their jumping off positions. In the morning he repaired and maintained his work till it was no longer required, when he was prominent in work on the roads round Le Quesnoy, though still under machine-gun fire from the ramparts. He showed coolness and skill of a high order, and received the Military Medal for his exploits. For similar work in constructing an avoiding road near Le Quesnoy, while under heavy fire from the walls of the town, Sergeant W. J. Fix of the same Company, who had been prominent on numerous other occasions during the preceding three months, received the same decoration. Sapper J. E. Foster was another member page 220of the 3rd Company who was conspicuous for devoted service under heavy fire during this momentous day.
While the 3rd Company had been engaged on the special preparation for its share in the Le Quesnoy assault, the 1st Company had been still actively engaged on the never ending requirements of roads and bridges. A heavy lorry bridge at Mesnil Farm was completed prior to the fresh attack, and numerous log bridges to facilitate the rapid advance of our artillery were run up at various selected crossings on the Ecaillon. By this stage in the campaign, the energies of at least one section were always employed on the work of dismantling temporary trestle bridges in rear as these were replaced by the erection of more solid structures, and in bringing forward the retrieved bridging with a view to its employment in the new advanced areas constantly falling to our arms. Searching for additional material, either in abandoned German dumps or in destroyed buildings, filling up small craters, or constructing road deviations round larger ones, were practically the only calls allowed to compete with this constant demand for bridges, at which the sappers were becoming highly efficient. With the increasing dexterity born of continual practice came a pardonable pride in the reputation their good work undoubtedly achieved. Small parties were kept constantly on the move after each fresh advance, examining the state of captured roads and bridges, locating German dumps and reconnoitring the possibilities of the captured area with regard to water, the shelter of troops, supplies of timber, and similar considerations. The actual work connected with water supply, billeting areas, baths, laundries, and other rear requirements was for the moment in the hands of the 2nd Company, now taking its turn of duty as company in reserve.
Meanwhile, the fall of Le Quesnoy was already but an item in the day's work to the troops round Herbignies. The Rifles were scarcely in the town ere the 2nd Brigade was on the road forward to take up the attack on the Mormal Forest on the 5th. Though German depredations had cleared large tracts of the original wooded area, the debris left by their operations and the jungle of dense Undergrowth which had followed, made the Forest even less open to the passage of troops than had been the case formerly. Altogether, these 20,000 acres of bush, marsh, and stream, with innumerable opportunities for enemy posts, and with little or no facility for the passage of guns and transport, were expected to provide a serious delay. Nor were these expectations unrealised, though the numbers of great trees which had been felled across the roads were not the obstacle they might have page 221been to men less accustomed to axe and saw than the New Zealanders were. A champion axeman among the sappers found great opportunities of displaying his skill, and the speed with which he went through his blocks completely fascinated passing Tommies. Pouring rain added to the difficulties of an arduous day. However, conscious of the fact that they were to be relieved on the morrow, the battalions of Otago and Canterbury were not to be denied, and, when Lancashire troops of the 42nd Division arrived to continue the advance, they were able to form up on the Bavai road, with the line of the Sambre clearly visible across easy rolling fields.
The New Zealand Artillery were in action again on the 6th and their resolute efforts to traverse the mined and boggy tracks through the Forest called for assistance from the Engineers. A bridge on the only serviceable road had naturally been demolished, and the state of all approaches was so bad that only temporary material was available to cross the stream A section of the 2nd Field Company was on the spot, and forthwith constructed an improvised bridge of branches and pick handles, which saw the majority of the guns over the obstacle before a clumsily driven waggon capsized into the stream, and wrecked the makeshift crossing.
In succeeding days, several more bridges were erected, notably at Le Quesnoy and at Pont Billon, where a lengthy structure occupied both 1st and 2nd Field Companies for several days. Following the capture of Le Quesnoy, the 3rd Company had assisted in the general rehabilitation of the town, many of whose buildings were left in filth and confusion by the Germans, according to their peculiar custom, and had also erected bridges at the Valenciennes Gate and in the Rue Victor Hugo. They also removed objectionable German street signs, such as Hindenburgh Strasse, and restored the original French names. It is pleasing to record that much of the labour necessary for cleaning up the town, and for removing the numerous booby-traps and mines installed by the enterprising Boche, was supplied by the 700 prisoners who were taken with the fortress.
The scenes of joyful welcome which had met the victorious troops within the walls of the old city beggar description. Every able-bodied soul in the place turned out to wave and cheer. Many of the older people stood inarticulate, with tears streaming down their faces, while the younger and especially the fairer members of the community, as one remembers with regret, showered flowers and caresses upon the unfortunate soldiers with undreamt-of profusion. For once in a long performance the stage bore some resemblance to the glorious scenes which make war in the story books such a noble and page 222exhilarating pastime. Here, as elsewhere in liberated territory, the French flag appeared so quickly and so generally as to lend some colour to the base report that certain canny Germans, who had foreseen the triumph of our arms, had ordered up a supply of cheap flags from the Fatherland to sell to the French civilians, in readiness for the great day.
On the 10th, President Poincare paid Le Quesnoy an official visit when, in the presence of a New Zealand guard of honour on the Place d' Armes, the town was welcomed back to the bosom of France, while the bugles blew and the strains of the "Marseillaise" once more rose free upon the breeze.
At midnight on 5th-6th November the New Zealanders in line began to be relieved and, since the Armistice followed within a week, the capture of the Mormal Forest was the last of the long list of Divisional exploits in the war. That this last appearance had been well up to previous high standards was a matter of keen satisfaction to all concerned. As one evidence of that waning strength and diminishing morale of the British arms, in which the German staff professed such comfortable belief, it must have appeared somewhat lacking in essentials, even to those skilled and critical judges. The words of General Russell's order, issued on the 8th in Le Quesnoy, may well mark the conclusion of this chapter:
"The Divisional Commander wishes to express to all ranks his appreciation of their work during the past fortnight's operations. At no time has the Division fought with more spirit and determination, nor have its efforts at any time been crowned with greater success. The Divisional Commander is convinced that the results achieved are due to the determination of every individual to do his utmost towards the common end."
The hour of the Armistice, 11 a.m. on the 11th November, found the Field Companies still in the forward areas about Le Quesnoy, engaged on roads and bridges, and the usual lesser structures incidental to all periods in reserve. The news was received by the Division, as by all other troops on the spot, with a total absence of that excitement and hysterical display of emotion which were such features of the celebrations in London and other great centres of the Empire. A disposition to take things as they come is soon one of the most fortunate possessions of the soldier, and possibly army atmosphere is not conducive to excessive freedom in thought or action. Troops on leave were not proof against the contagion of civilian rejoicing. A hearty Australian accosted a New Zealand officer in Trafalgar Square with a surprisingly complete salute and a generous invitation. "Look here, sir, a few of us boys are page 223going to knock old Nelson off his perch. Will yon take charge ?" The latter portion of November was spent by all Units-of the Division in reserve about Beauvois, where the Field Companies occupied their time with light training and recreation, and in overhauling all gear and equipment. An inspection of each company was carried out by BrigadierGeneral Carpenter, Chief Engineer to the IV Corps, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel L.M. Shera, C.R.E. N.Z. Division.
The IV Corps, with which the New Zealanders fought so long, was not selected for the march into Germany, but, probably in order to give the New Zealand Division the privilege of entering Germany, the New Zealanders were eventually transferred to the II Corps, and began their long march from Beauvois on the 28th November. Passing through Caudry and adjacent villages, the Division received a splendid send-off from the 37th Division, whose battalions lined the roads while their bands played the New Zealanders through. Coming from the tried companions of many a hard day, this kindly feeling was greatly appreciated and heartily reciprocated.
Thereafter the long march proceeded by regular stages right across Belgium in fairly good weather, though rain and mud hindered progress occasionally. No special incidents marked the unbroken series of triumphal entries into villages and towns, where the whole population appeared to vie one with another in expressing hearty welcome, and in speeding the troops on their way, laden with flowers and flags and other gifts of a more material nature. Many opinions of the Belgians, based on long experience of the dour Flemish peasantry of Flanders, were amended on closer acquaintance with the warm-hearted and vivacious Walloons of the central districts. Verviers, near the German frontier, occupies a special niche in the memories of those privileged to experience its enthusiastic reception. This town is the centre of the Belgian woollen trade, and, since many of the prominent business men had been in the Southern Hemisphere on wool-buying excursions, they knew New Zealand well and had a special interest in her soldiers. The constant change of scene and the historical interest attaching to such towns as Liege and Charleroi also helped to sustain the tedium of the long journey, which was completed by the Field Companies without losing a man.
On 20th December the German frontier was crossed, and the Field Companies entrained at Herbesthal for Ehrenfeld, near Cologne, whence a short march brought them into billets page 224round about Leverkusen. Here the companies were employed in the various brigade areas, reporting on roads, bridges, buildings, water and power supplies, traffic circuits, bathing and laundry facilities and so on. Dumps were established in connection with the defences of Cologne Bridgehead, and large parties were employed in the forests cutting pickets for our barbed wire entanglements.
Sightseeing was encouraged and, early in the new year, educational classes were commenced to prepare all men for their return to civil life. These classes, which were continued on board each returning troopship, might have had more success had they not been forced to contend with the constant disorganisation inseparable from gradual demobilisation, and with the natural reluctance of war-weary men to assume studious responsibilities.
As early as the middle of January, the first draft of 191415 men had left the Engineers for England and demobilisation. Thereafter the process of disbandment continued with regularity, and with quite unexpected celerity. On 4th February the 3rd Field Company ceased to exist, personnel being absorbed into the remaining two Companies. Horses of all three Companies were handed over to the Army authorities, mainly for despatch to England. Some of these animals had been with their respective companies throughout the war, and were as highly prized as all other good soldiers. However, for them, return to New Zealand was out of the question. All vehicles, with special gear and equipment, were absorbed into the Ordnance stores of the occupying Army. Throughout February drafts of men were despatched to England. By the 2nd of March, the hour of the 2nd Field Company had struck also, and all remaining men on its strength were absorbed into the waning ranks of the 1st Company. The few remaining sappers were now employed on the old familiar job of erecting notice boards and directions about the villages of their immediate area, and this was the last noble task of the N.Z. Engineers in the Great War.
By the 25th March, all was over with the N.Z. Division, and 30 men were all that remained of the N.Z. Engineers at the final moment of dissolution. These departed for England next day, along with the C.R.E., Lieutenant-Colonel L. M. Shera.
The internal relationships of the New Zealand Engineers throughout the war were singularly free from incident of an unpleasant nature. Time and space have prohibited detailed description of the lighter aspects of military life, of the extraordinarily good feeling and genial cameraderie which in page 225retrospect stand out as the brightest spots in the whole tremendous medley of experiences. While the sappers were not alone in possession of these virtues, no account of their war performances would be complete which did not refer to the extremely happy conditions existing throughout the Engineering Unit. The absence of serious crime was doubtless due, to some extent, to the fact that most of the men were of the trained artisan class, with a responsible outlook on life well established long before they were caught up in the vortex of war. To the same training may be attributed that high degree of technical ability which was undoubtedly possessed by the great majority of the Unit, and which was never long found wanting in dealing with the innumerable calls on their skill and ingenuity furnished by the ever changing crises of the great struggle. Not that any close monopoly of skill and energy lay with the highly trained men; each Company included many sappers who had previously found a living as bushmen or farmhands, or in the variegated school of general back-country labour, and these were noticeably not the least of their fellows in an emergency. With the stern challenge of untoward circumstance to native resource and grim determination they were already quite familiar, and thus equipped were well able to bear their share of an enterprise where those qualities had full play.
The Unit was entirely fortunate again in its supreme control. Lieutenant-Colonels Pridham and Bingay, as successive C.R.E., set a particularly fine standard of loyal and devoted service, not only to the Division, but to their own immediate charge, a tradition which was ably carried on by Lieutenant-Colonel Shera when his turn came towards the end of the campaign. The respective commanding officers were actuated throughout by the same lofty motives of duty and efficiency. Many of the junior officers were highly trained men; others had won their spurs on the field by virtue of practical experience and the possession of outstanding personality. Of the majority of the non-commissioned officers it would be difficult to speak too highly. Among the number of trained and intelligent men in a technical unit, where casualties are comparatively few, stripes are hard to win; those men who did achieve the distinction, particularly in the higher grades, were a splendid example of courage, resource and unflagging energy, through, in many cases, the whole course of the war.
None of these facts and circumstances would have been of great avail in supporting the Unit through its trials and achievements without the wonderfully high standard of duty and good-humoured endurance shown by the average sapper. It is true that he was seldom allowed to fire a shot in France, page 226though called upon to carry and clean a rifle, to his frequent disgust, over hundreds of weary miles, but every soldier knows that the strain of war is by no means confined to the actual clash of assault. In trench warfare the area immediately behind the front line is much more subject to hostile shelling than the actual line itself. Of all the hardships and vicissitudes of war, apart from the hand-to-hand fighting, from which he was officially withheld, the sapper took a full share with a pluck and tenacity second to none.
"Without you, gentlemen of the Engineers, without your co-operation, without your science, the war could not have been won. Your help will be indispensable in the future, as it has been in the past, and your country relies on your prompt response should necessity arise."