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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1.—Digging in the Ypres Salient

Part 1.—Digging in the Ypres Salient.

First period—Appreciation—Second period—Appreciation—Condition of the troops.

After the exhausting tour in the trenches of the Warneton Sector, the Brigade rested in the camps in the neighbourhood of De Seule until the 27th August, on which date a move was made to the Waterlands-La Creche Area, north of Steenwerck, where we became reserve Brigade to the New Zealand Division. On the 30th a further move was made to the Borre Training Area, near Hazebrouck, the 1st Battalion being quartered at Caestre, Brigade Headquarters and the 2nd Battalion at Borre, the 3rd at La Creche, and the 4th at Pradelles. By this time the men, whose cheerfulness had never entirely deserted them, were beginning to regain their wonted appearance of physical fitness, and were looking forward to a comparatively enjoyable period of training. Their hopes, however, were doomed to disappointment, for a long month's digging under fire, and mostly by night, was about to commence.

On September 1st, the 2nd and 4th Battalions moved by motor-'bus to the Xth Corps Area to bury cable for the Second Army in the vicinity of Zillebeke, south-east of Ypres, going under canvas at Ridgewood Camp, near Diekebusch Lake. Three days later the 1st and 3rd Battalions went by 'bus to the 25th Divisional Area near Ypres, for cable-burying under the Director of Signals, 1st Anzac Corps. These battalions went into camp, the 1st at Chateau Segard, and the 3rd at Swan Chateau, and were employed laying cables between Hooge and Ypres.

The 2nd and 4th Battalions returned from the Xth Corps Area on September 16th, moving from Ouderdom to Caestre by rail, and thence by road to billets in the Vieux Berquin Area, the 2nd Battalion at Stein-Je and the 4th near Doulieu. They were followed on the 19th by the 1st and 3rd Battalions, page 228the former going into billets at Vieux Berquin, and the latter at Outtersteene.

As continuous work at digging hardly tends to the maintenance of general military efficiency, that "little leaven," the Brigade School, continued in operation. Remaining with Brigade Headquarters at Vieux Berquin and later at Brandhoek, it commenced a new term under Capt. D. C. Bowler, and through it small drafts from the battalions, generally the less fit men, were passed from time to time.

The following letters of appreciation and thanks were received and their contents communicated to the troops of the Brigade:—

From the G.O.C., Xth Corps:

"It is difficult for me adequately to express to you my gratitude for the splendid work of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade, and the IInd Anzac Cyclists, in burying cable on my Corps front during the last three weeks. Their achievement in digging over 13,000 yards of cable-trench, laying the cable, and banking it from three to four feet, is an extraordinary one. The keenness they displayed is universally admired, and their skill is acknowledged to be an example to any troops. Will you please tell these gallant men how much, while I deplore the casualties they suffered. I appreciate both their valuable work and their soldierly spirit."

From the Second Army Commander:—

"The Army Commander wishes to place on record his appreciation of the work done by the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade in burying cable to assist in yesterday's operations.* The success of the operations was in great measure due to the good communications established, to attain which results the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade played such an important part."

After a short rest the Brigade resumed its arduous labours in the Ypres Salient. On September 21st the 2nd and 4th Battalions moved up again by motor-'bus, the former being attached to the Xth Corps Signals, and going into camp near Dickebusch Lake; the latter, working for the Ist Anzac Corps, being quartered in a camp close to Ypres. On September 26th the 1st and 3rd Battalions went up by road and rail via page 229Bailleul and Poperinghe. They occupied bivouac camps, the 1st at Watou Camp, the 3rd at Hill 55, and were employed burying cable for the IInd Anzac Corps in the Vth Corps Area in the vicinity of Ypres. From the 2nd of October, the 2nd and 4th Battalions were employed with the IInd Anzac Corps, the former constructing gun-emplacements for the heavy artillery, the latter being engaged at road-making. The work went on steadily until October 7th, on which date we were relieved of this duty by the 1st Brigade and commenced preparations for active operations in the line.

In addition to miscellaneous work, the four battalions had within the whole period laid 50,000 yards of cable seven feet deep, and 10,000 yards three and a half feet deep, and had thrown up 30,000 yards of banking three to six feet high. All the cable used had to be carried by the men for an average distance of a mile.

The following communications were now received and passed down:—

From A. D. Signals, to Headquarters, Ist Anzac Corps:

"I should like to bring to the notice of the Corps Commander the splendid work accomplished by the battalions of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade during the time they have been employed in burying cable for this Corps.………All battalions have had an exceptionally heavy task to perform, and have got through the digging at what must have constituted a record pace. The work has frequently had to be carried on under heavy shell-fire, but the completion of each day's or night's task has never failed.

"I am particularly indebted to the commanding officers and other officers of the battalions for the great personal interest they have taken in the work, especially as regards the preliminary reconnaissance of the routes to be dug. These officers have always surveyed the routes themselves in daylight, in addition to going up with the working parties at night, and have thus given the greatest possible assistance to the Signal Officers responsible for the construction of the lines. I much regret the casualties these battalions have suffered during the time they have been working for this Corps."

From Lieut.-General Birdwood, Commanding Ist Anzac Corps, to Headquarters, IInd Anzac Corps:

"In forwarding to you the enclosed memorandum by the A. D. Signals of this Corps, I would like to express my grati-page 230tude for the invaluable services of the battalions of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and my admiration of their gallantry and devotion to duty."

It would be idle to pretend that the prospect of an engagement within a few days could be regarded with absolute equanimity. Battalion commanders knew only too well how much their men were in need of both rest and training. After the three weeks spent in the Warneton Sector under appalling conditions they had had a few days' respite; but since September 4th they had been almost continuously employed at the trying and wearing work of cable-burying and road-making, well up in the Ypres Salient. These duties had entailed long marches over difficult shell-hole country; and most of the work had been done at night, and sometimes in gas-masks under shell-fire. Exactly 200 casualties had been sustained. The weather, at first fair, became bitterly cold, and as the men had neither blankets nor warm underclothing, they had got little sleep. Throughout the period they had literally slaved at their tasks, and now they were almost worn out and certainly unready for immediate combative action.

It was expected that we should be taking part in the final assault on the Passchendaele Ridge on the 12th, following upon the capture of Bellevue Spur, which formed part of the general objective of a preliminary attack to be launched on the 9th. That would give little enough time for preparation and still less for reconnoitring, but in the sequel the conditions were to prove much more difficult than those now anticipated.

* 20th Sept. See page 233.