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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Appendix III. The New Zealand Rifle Brigade Training Battalion

page 525

Appendix III. The New Zealand Rifle Brigade Training Battalion.

As first laid down, the establishment of a training battalion provided for a commanding officer, adjutant, quartermaster, sergeant-major, quartermaster-sergeant, on the regimental headquarters; a company commander, two subalterns, a sergeant-major, quartermaster-sergeant, three sergeants and five corporals, for each company; and ten riflemen for cookhouse and other duties. These formed the cadre whose duty it was to complete the training and equipment of reinforcements and of convalescents found fit for further service. The personnel of the training cadre were seconded from, and borne as supernumerary to, the establishment of the Brigade, to which transfers were to be made on the principle that, after a period of training duty, officers and men should be given the opportunity of service with the parent unit in the line.

When Major W. Kay, the first commanding officer, moved out from Brigade at Ismailia towards the end of March, 1916, to take over his new duties, he found there was little to be done in the meantime beyond preparatory work, for in the formation of the Division practically every man, including all the Reinforcements from the 2nd to the 9th, had been absorbed. Even his own training cadre was not up to strength. Each of two company establishments was one officer short, and beyond the regimental sergeant-major and the quartermaster-sergeant, there were as yet no non-commissioned officers detailed for duty with him. The total strength of riflemen was eleven, one being the orderly-room clerk, and the remaining ten those laid down in the establishment for permanent duties about the quarters.

The earliest reinforcement draft to be received was the 10th. This arrived early in April, but was not held in Egypt for a longer period than was required to equip it. The despatch of the 11th Reinforcements to France was similarly hurried.

On April 18th, 1916, the training base was moved from Moascar to Tel-el-Kebir, where the battalion remained for some six weeks. It was now decided to transfer the whole of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force training base to England, page 526as being more suitable for troops destined for service in France. The units accordingly embarked at Alexandria on May 31st, and, arriving at Plymouth on the 9th of the following month, proceeded at once to Sling Camp, Salisbury Plain. Here the troops were accommodated in groups of hutments according to Brigades. Training at Sling Camp was carried on with considerably greater vigour and for much longer daily periods than had been possible in Egypt; and after the inevitable sickness following upon the sudden change of climatic conditions had passed, the health of the troops was found to be much more stable than it had hitherto been.

The 13th Reinforcements were the first to join the battalion in England, the 12th having been held for a time in Egypt. Thereafter drafts arrived in regular order. Early in August the number of officers and men assembled at Sling had become so great that the unit was divided into two battalions, but on the 22nd the old order was reverted to an increase in the number of companies being held as a suitable means of providing for the cfficient handling of an abnormal number of personnel. On this date the name of the formation was changed to the "5th (Reserve) Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade," and the command was taken over by Lieut.-Col. W. W. Alderman, C.M.G., of the Auckland Regiment, Major Kay proceeding overseas to join the Brigade. Capt. J. Bishop became Second-in-Command, and was succeeded as Adjutant by Capt. C. R. A. Magnay, who continued in that office until the battalion's activities finally ceased in 1919.

On May 3rd. 1917, His Majesty the King held his second inspection of New Zealand troops quartered in the Salisbury Plain camps, the first review having been held in October of the previous year; and on June 19th, a cinema film of the troops was taken for exhibition in New Zealand.

Sling Camp was now becoming overcrowded, and on August 15th the New Zealand Rifle Brigade reserve troops, about 2,000 strong, moved out and established a canvas camp at Tidworth Pennings, some four miles to the north. By this time General Fulton was in charge of the New Zealand section of Sling Camp, and Lieut.-Col. Alderman had taken up the duties of Staff Officer under him. The Tidworth Pennings Camp was under the command of Major R. St. J. Beere, and the troops there were again formed into two battalions, under Capt. O. W. Williams and Capt. W. W. Dove, respectively. In addition there was a special company of instructors commanded by Capt. K. R. J. Saxon. Hitherto the training had been carried out on the "bull-ring" method, which had been initiated by General Braithwaite while in command at Sling. By this system the men, after the ceremonial assembly each page 527day, were drafted off in groups which, in accordance with a set time-table, passed in succession through the hands of instructors specially qualified in certain branches of military work. Under instructions from General Fulton this system was modified in order to throw more responsibility on the shoulders of the officers, and to introduce a more definite feeling of corporate life such as would prevail when the drafts should presently move over to the battalions in France; and at Tidworth, accordingly, the company of instructors was absorbed into the two battalions, whose commanders were now to take over the personal direction of the training of the troops under their immediate control.

The canvas camp was situated amidst delightful surroundings, and the training grounds were admirable. Within the camp itself special attention was directed towards securing the maximum comfort for the men as far as the general conditions permitted. The tents were fitted with wooden floors, and in addition to a liberal issue of blankets each man was provided with a paillasse and bolster. Even hot shower-baths for general use were fitted up in a number of tents. Indeed, as the result of the unceasing labours of Capt. W. E. Christie, than whom there was probably no more efficient quartermaster in the British Forces, the camp at once took its place as the model for the whole of the Southern Command, and General Slater, commanding in the south, on more than one occasion sent representative officers to observe the working of the camp generally, and in particular to note the methods and devices introduced in the quartermaster's branch. Tidworth Pennings was, however, essentially a summer camping-ground, and, as the season was now far advanced, preparations were made for a further move. A general inspection was held by the Colonel-in-Chief, H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, and on September 27th our reserve troops entrained for the permanent camp at Brocton, in Staffordshire. The strength at that time was 1925, for, though heavy drafts had been sent to France, the 27th Reinforcements had marehed in some ten days previously.

Brocton Camp was a section of the great Rugeley Camp, officially termed "The Cannock Chase Reserve Centre," at that time commanded by Major-General H. R. Davies, C.B., a former New Zealand officer.* The greater proportion of the page 528troops at this centre formed a Reserve Division, composed for the most part of British youths as yet too young for the field; and close to our section of the camp was that in which some 2,500 German prisoners were housed. The latter appeared to he healthy and comfortable enough. It is safe to say that they were fed on a more generous scale than that which obtained in the prison-camps of Germany, and on the whole they were amenable to discipline and for that reason easily handled. On one occasion, however, a mild strike over some food trouble necessitated a display of force, our men being ordered out under arms, and machine-guns placed in position covering the prison enclosure.

For local administrative purposes Brocton Camp came under the control of the Cannock Chase Reserve Centre, but in respect to both general administration and training it was virtually an independent command, responsible direct to the New Zealand Headquarters in London. For the sake of coordination, formal connection was maintained with the Reserve Group at Sling, whose commanding officer paid periodical visits of inspection. In control of the Northern Command was General Sir John Maxwell, under whom we had served in Egypt, and who now frequently visited the camp.

Brocton Camp was situated on a somewhat bleak and dreary upland surrounded by a charming countryside dotted with quaint old-time villages. Some four miles away was the historic county-town of Stafford, whose people proved to be eminently kindly and hospitable. The camp itself was thoroughly equipped for all branches of general and specialist, training, the open spaces afforded ample scope for extended-order work, while the climatic conditions, combined with the nature of the soil, gave a realistic touch to the frequent rehearsals in treneh routine and attack and defence.

On October 12th, Major Beere was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel, and a month later proceeded to France to rejoin the Brigade. The command was now taken over by Lieut.-Col. J. G. Roache, D.S.O.

With the opening of the year 1918, a slight change was made in the organization. The troops were re-grouped into one unit known henceforth as the 5th (Reserve) Battalion, while the camp became the New Zealand Rifle Brigade Reserve Depot. Lieut.-Col. Roache was appointed to command the page 529Depot, the battalion being placed under the direct control of Capt. H. C. Meikle. On May 22nd, Lieut.-Col. Roache was invalided to New Zealand, and Lieut.-Col. E. Puttick, D.S.O., assumed command.

The striving towards the attainment of a high ideal which had hitherto characterized the New Zealand Rifle Brigade during its short career, was the outstanding feature in its training-camps as well as in the field. At Brocton this reached its highest development. Directed in succession by selected commanding officers from battalions in France, each thoroughly familiar with the requirements of modern war and with the special needs of the parent Brigade, the training reached a standard of excellence frequently commended in the warmest terms by inspecting officers of wide experience. The instructors were, without exception, war-seasoned men of outstanding ability, whose power lay in inspiration rather than in driving force; while the material in their hands, whether untried recruits or older soldiers from the convalescent camps once more preparing to take their place in the firing-line, was second to none that the Empire had to offer. A spirit intensely keen pervaded the barrack-square, the training-fields, the lecture-halls, and the camp activities generally; while a gratifying sense of attainment served to preserve that desirable spirit of the regiment upon which it is impossible to set full value. The general training covered such subjects as formal drill, protection against gas, wiring, construction of trenches, bayonet-fighting, physical training, musketry, tactical schemes, and all-night occupation of trenches. Nor was this all. Experience had shown not only the value of such specialists as Lewis-gunners, signallers, scouts and bombers, but also the difficulty of replacing casualties in their ranks; and to the training of men along the lines required for this purpose more than usual attention was given. In one period of six months during the extraordinary activity of 1918, some 2,000 officers and men were transferred from the Depot to France, and of every hundred of these no fewer than fifteen were highly-trained specialists.

On the administrative side the conduct of the camp was equally efficient. The work of the quartermaster and his staff, already established at a high standard, was raised still further until it became a fine art. At Brocton Camp waste was unknown. Crumbs and stale bread were baked in the huge ovens and sold to Birmingham manufacturers of calves' food; bones, fat, marow, cracklings, meat-residue, swill, and even paper, were disposed of for good money in the best markets. In this connection the following statement taken from the general record will be of interest. It covers a period of four months in page 529the middle of 1918, and shows the monetary value of the by-products sold, as well as the daily cost of food per man.

Fat. Swill. Others. Total.
Month Cost of food per man per day. £ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d. £ s. d. Average daily strength
May 1/7½ 45 9 0 15 6 6 33 19 10 94 15 4 1,438
June 1/8¾ 33 1 6 11 7 0 29 11 8 74 0 2 1,460
July 1/6 77 1 10 13 14 6 34 3 7 124 19 11 2,020
August 1/3½ 35 0 0 18 13 0 78 7 7 132 0 7 2,484

Economies of this kind, as well as the steadily-rising returns from the "wet" and "dry" canteens, made it possible to extend the provision made for the comfort and general welfare of the men. The food-ration, supplemented in various ways, was well-prepared by expert cooks in model kitchens, and the dining-halls were provided with central stoves serving not only to warm the room, but, by means of a camp invention in the form of an ingenious rack built round the flue, to heat the dinner-plates as well. Excellent recreation halls, well-furnished billiard parlours, and comfortable reading rooms were provided, and a cinematograph entertainment was give nightly.

In common with other camps, Brocton had its worthy representatives of the Y.M.C.A., who are gratefully remembered for their many-sided activities, and more particularly for their labours in arranging a long series of concerts and lectures and other forms of evening amusements. In this connection, too, the band, under Sergeant-Major Shardlow, calls for special comment, not only as being a highly important aid to the well-being of the troops, but also as affording a means of making some small return for the generosity and kindliness of the people of the neighbouring towns.

It is a significant fact that, notwithstanding the rigours of the Staffordshire climate, only one New Zealand camp in England, that at Boscombe, had a lower sick-rate than had Brocton. Indeed, until the onset of the influenza epidemic at the end of June, 1918, the general health was uniformly excellent. The first wave of this scourge came in a comparatively mild form, and, being expected, was met by complete and effective arrangements for the protection of the men. A large portion of the camp was set aside as a hospital, and permanent orderlies were detailed to attend to the inmates. Into this area every influenza patient, on his complaint being recognized, was despatched, and all contacts were isolated. These measures, together with other necessary precautions, resulted in the restriction of the epidemic to a small proportion of the troops, amongst whom there were no serious cases, and in the stamping out of the disease within the comparatively short page 530period of two weeks. A second visitation later in the year proved more severe, but this was successfully countered in the same manner.

As on the one hand no pains were spared in the endeavour to seek out devices which might serve to increase the general efficiency, so also on the other hand every care was taken to guard against the development of weaknesses in unsuspected quarters. It is the common experience in all camps which have been established for some time that the staff, as well as the men employed on camp duties generally, tend to become more or less firmly fixed in their positions. Brocton was no exception to this rule, and although provision was made for the replacement of officials by men from France who had recovered from the effects of wounds or sickness, it was found advisable in addition to conduct a definite periodical overhaul to ensure that no one had been employed at the camp beyond the term laid down. As a further safeguard, and as a check on the records, each man was required to report in writing when he had been on duty as a camp official of any kind for a period of three months.

The relations of the Riflemen with the neighbouring British troops and with the civilian inhabitants of the district were of the most cordial nature, and the excellent discipline and gentlemanly deportment of all ranks won for them a high place in the esteem and regard of the people generally. The interchange of hospitality was a marked feature, and camp concerts, which were open to all, appear to have been appreciated as heartily by our visitors, as the town and village entertainments, particularly the dances, both indoor and on the village greens, were enjoyed by the New Zealanders. General Davies, as well as his successor, General Wanless O'Gowan, were frequent visitors to the officers' mess and to the concerts in the camp, as were many commanders of the British brigades and battalions in the vicinity, and such visits were freely returned.

Lieut.-Col. Puttick relinquished command of the Depot on returning to New Zealand on duty, and on October 11th was succeeded by Major N. F. Shepherd. By this time the 42nd Reinforcements had reported in camp.

Following upon the cessation of hostilities at the front, the amount of definite military training at Brocton was gradually reduced, being finally established at that standard sufficient only for the maintenance of sound health and general smartness. Its place was to a large extent taken by educational work, partly voluntary and partly compulsory, but the constant changes resulting from the reception of drafts from Germany and the despatch of others to New Zealand, combined page 531with the natural restlessness of the troops, greatly militated against the success of the educational scheme. The general direction of this side of the work was in the hands of Capt. H. M. Keesing, M.C.

In the third week of January, 1919, the Depot was reorganized to the extent of establishing four "provincial" companies according to the New Zealand centres of demobilization. At the beginning of February the first of the larger drafts, numbering 1,000 men, arrived from Cologne. Owing to transport difficulties the evacuation of the troops was a slow process, and on May 17th, there were 31 officers and 315 other ranks still in camp.

On May 10th the 5th (Reserve) Battalion formally bade farewell to the people of Stafford. At this ceremony a full parade was held, and Major (now Lieut.-Col.) Shepherd, on behalf of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, presented to the Mayor a New Zealand flag, receiving in return the Union flag and the flag of New Zealand, both in silk, to be brought to this country as a token of goodwill from the citizens of Stafford. These gifts have been supplemented by the presentation to the Brigade of a handsome musketry challenge-shield of local workmanship, in sterling silver, to serve as another tangible sign of that invisible link of affection forged during the Riflemen's sojourn at Brocton Camp. Unlike other regiments, a Rifle Brigade does not possess colours, and it was in lieu of these that the challenge-shield was presented. The flags will doubtless find a final resting-place in some suitable building; the shield is in the custody of the Defence Department, and, with the concurrence of the trustees of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, serves at present as an important trophy in connection with the rifle-shooting of the Territorial Forces. Some little time before the Armistice, the officers of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade at Brocton had handed to the representatives of the Rifle Brigade (British Army) a challenge cup of considerable value, the hope being expressed that the trophy might stand as a perpetual reminder that the Dominion formation had been proud to be associated with the honoured Homeland Brigade, in close touch with which it had been privileged to fight on more than one occasion.

The end came on June 14th, when, after handing over to the General Officer Commanding the Cannock Chase Reserve Centre the large-scale model of Messines, which our men had constructed in the camp lines for instructional purposes, the evacuation of Brocton was completed, and the last detachment of the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade left for Codford Camp, where they joined the small body of troops then awaiting despatch to New Zealand.

* General Davies had commanded one of the contingents in the South African War, and later became Inspector-General of the Forces in New Zealand. Being in England at the outbreak of the Great War, he was given a British Brigade on active service, and afterwards rose to the position of Divisional Commander. He was invalided to England after the second battle of Loos. General Davies frequently expressed his pleasure at once more having New Zealand troops under his care, and his admiration of their work was shown in a definite way, the whole of the troops under his command having twice been paraded to view our model platoon carrying out attack practice. General Davies' kindly interest in the welfare of the New Zealanders was keenly appreciated by all ranks, and his death on May 17th, 1918, was felt as a personal loss.