The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—Stationary Trench Warfare
Part 2.—Stationary Trench Warfare.
Return from the Beat Area—Into the Becelaere Sector—Conditions —Patrolling—Readjustment and relief—Hutment camps behind Ypres—Command—Back to the Line—Polderhoek Chateau—Snow—To Reserve—Cameron Covert—Salvage—Recreational training—Christimas dinner—Return to the Line—Enemy raid—Relief—To the Line again—Thaw, rain, trench-foot—Raid on the tank strong-point—To Reserve—Work, training, and recreation—To the Line by light railway—Enemy raid—Bombardment—Water supply—Smoke-boxes—To Reserve—To the Broodseinde Sector—The final tour—General improvements in the sector—Ruins of Ypres.
From the training-area the Brigade, on November 13th, moved up by rail to Houpoutre, near Poperinghe, and marched thence to Scottish Wood Camp, east of Dickebusch. The trains were late, all ranks were tired out when they arrived at their destination, and the camp was wet, muddy, and generally uncomfortable.
On the following day we commenced the relief of the 13th and 15th Brigades in the Becelaere Sector of the Ypres Salient, due east of the town. The 1st Battalion took over from the 1st Lincoln Regiment in support at Clapham Junction, on the Menin Road near Hooge, and the 4th Battalion relieved the 13th Northumberland Fusiliers in reserve at Railway Dugouts, close to Zillebeke Lake. The relief was continued on the 15th., when the 4th and 1st Battalions proceeded into the front line at Reutel, taking over the right and left sub-sectors respectively. The 3rd Battalion came up to Clapham Junction in support, and the 2nd Battalion to Railway Dug-outs in reserve. Brigade Headquarters moved to Hooge Crater. Notwithstanding the long marches, the fearful state of the ground and trenches, and the heavy scattered shelling, the relief was completed by 9 p.m. with very few casualties. On our right we had the 117th Brigade, 39th Division, and on our left the 4th (New Zealand) Brigade. The 2nd Brigade was in support, and the 1st was away temporarily as a labour Brigade.
* The Butte is now the property of the Australian Government. It has been trimmed into regular form, and, together with an obelisk erected upon it, forms a memorial of the 5th Australian Division, whose troops had achieved such magnificent successes in this region in September. (See p. 333.)
The forward part of the sector, situated on a low plateau, was swept continuously by machine-gun fire. The whole surface of the country from the front line westward was literally disintegrated by shell-fire, and every hollow converted into a loathsome bog. From the Menin Road hastily-constructed plank roads ran to Glencorse Wood and Westhoek, and from these, again, miles of duckboard tracks gave access to our trenches. These avenues of communication, of course, would show up plainly in aeroplane photographs, and consequently sections of the roads and tracks were repeatedly blown up by the German gunners. On the sides of the plank roads, in particular, there were gruesome evidences of the intensity of such shell-fire, broken transport and artillery limbers and dead animals lying all along the routes. On one stretch of 300 yards about the dreaded Jargon Cross Roads the remains of 125 vehicles were counted. Even on the Menin Road itself gangs of men had constantly to be employed filling shell-holes and clearing away wreckage, and as this road was the main artery for several sectors, it was nothing less than marvellous that casualties were not more numerous during the progress of reliefs. Such places as "Dead Mule Gully" and "Hellfire Corner" were appropriately named. The "woods" were a tangle of jagged stumps and shattered trunks, intermingled with the remains of German wire. It was with the utmost difficulty that the ruins of hamlets could be located; some, indeed, had been completely obliterated, not even a redness in the mud remaining to indicate where once brick buildings had stood. Everything, everywhere, except parts of our own works and a page 253few German "pill-boxes," was shattered, and from any viewpoint one could get a striking example, never to be forgotten, of "the abomination of desolation." A score of tanks used in the recent advance lay derelict at various points in the area. Some had been disabled by artillery fire, and some by the new German ironclad anti-tank guns, while others had become partially engulfed and wholly immovable in the morasses that abounded. The "tank cemetery" was the appropriate name given to a certain bit of country containing several wrecks together, and this spot formed a convenient point of direction.
The Brigade immediately set to work to effect such improvements as were possible. Isolated posts in the front line were connected up, good fighting-bays were put in hand, and some attention was given to drainage. Battalions in support and reserve were employed to the utmost limit in carrying up material and in digging support and switch lines. Owing to the nature of the ground, but little advance could be made in the direction of digging communication-trenches, and for some name we had to be content with duckboard and other overland tracks right up to the front line posts.
This being new country, vigorous patrolling was necessary in order to give us our bearings, to ascertain definitely the positions and strength of the enemy's posts, and to secure a thorough knowledge of the nature of No Man's Land. Some particularly meritorious reconnoitring feats were executed through successive tours in the line by Sergeant C. C. Robertson, who was in charge of the 1st Battalion's snipers and observers and had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Much valuable information was obtained through his fine work. After many hairbreadth escapes he was finally put out of action by a severe wound from an enemy bomb while lying up against the German wire in daylight.
On the night of 19th/20th November the 4th and 1st Battalions were relieved in the front line by the 2nd and 3rd respectively. Machine-gun and artillery fire continued unabated, Brigade Headquarters being subjected to a partieularly heavy bombardment on the 20th. Enemy snipers, at first very troublesome, were now being got well under control, page 254and a German prisoner reported that in his unit alone there were seventeen casualties resulting from the activities of our sharpshooters during the first tour in the line.
A complicated relief was carried out by midnight of the 26th November, a readjustment of the sector being effected at the same time. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions, in the line, were relieved by 1st Wellington and 3rd Otago; and one company of the latter took over from our 1st Battalion the support position at Clapham Junction. Upon completion of the relief, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions moved back to huts in Howe Camp on the Dickebusch Road, about a mile south-west of Ypres. The 1st Battalion went to Micmac Camp, some two miles west of Dickebusch, while the 4th Battalion, vacating the old reserve position, was quartered at Walker Camp, north of Dickebusch. Brigade Headquarters, on relief by that of the 4th Brigade on the 27th, also moved to Walker Camp, and our Brigade became Divisional reserve, supplying large parties for work under the Divisional Salvage Officer.
The Brigade details, including the four bands, had already moved from the sodden Scottish Wood to Dominion Camp, near Ouderdom. This contained comparatively comfortable hutments, and here facilities existed for the continuance of the intensive training of specialists and non-commissioned officers, which was carried out with conspicuous success throughout the whole period of our tours of duty in the Ypres Salient.
On November 15th General Fulton returned from duty in England, but Lieut.-Col. Puttick continued in control of the Brigade till the relief then in progress was completed. Major Digby-Smith, temporarily commanding the 3rd Battalion, was wounded on the following day, and Lieut.-Col. Puttick then took command of that unit. Major J. R. Cowles, who had assumed temporary command of the 4th Battalion on the 16th, was killed by shell-fire on the 26th, and was buried with military honours at Dickebusch. Major J. Murphy thereupon assumed command of the 4th Battalion pending the arrival of Lieut.-Col. R. St. J. Beere from duty with the Reserve Battalion in England. Lieut.-Col. Austin reported from hospital on the 20th and resumed command of the 1st Battalion, Major Bell taking over the 3rd Battalion upon the departure of Lieut.-Col. Puttick on leave on the 30th.page 255
Our casualties for November were:—
We relieved the 4th Brigade in the Becelaere Sector on December 1st. The approach marches, especially that of the 1st Battalion from Micmac Camp, were very long and arduous, but the interchange was completed early and with exceedingly few casualties. The 1st Battalion relieved the 3rd Otago Battalion on the right, the 4th Battalion took over from 3rd. Canterbury on the left, the 3rd moved into a new support position in Dead Mule Gully, behind Polygonveld, and the 2nd to reserve at Halfway House and Railway Wood, about a mile north-west of Hooge. The 1st Wellington Battalion was temporarily attached to our Brigade, and remained in the front line on our right. Brigade Headquarters now moved up to the Butte, which was also occupied by the Headquarters of the 1st Battalion. Headquarters of the 4th Battalion were advanced to an old German "pill-box."
We were now well settled in the Salient. Generally speaking, each Brigade had a tour of about a week in the line, followed by a similar period in support, and then went out to reserve for the same length of time. The Brigade in the line was disposed in depth, and held a battalion in rear specially detailed for counter-attacking purposes. Similarly each battalion had its counter-attacking company, and each company its counter-attacking platoon. The Brigade in support had a battalion in the front line at Cameron Covert. All through the Divisional sector, from front to rear, special Lewis gun, Vickers gun, and even trench mortar sections, were told off for the purpose of dealing with low-flying enemy aircraft; but though these did good work in warning off the venturesome airmen, there was little of the directly spectacular in their achievements.
On December 3rd the 2nd Brigade carried out from the trenches of the IXth Corps on our right an attack on the notorious Polderhoek Chateau position, which, though beyond our sector, was a constant menace to our flank posts. Owing to the concentrated machine-gun fire and the impossibility of continuing till the last moment the bombardment of the "pill-page 256boxes" by the heavy artillery, full success was not obtained, but the front line was slightly advanced.* Particularly fine work, earning the special commendation of the Divisional Commander, was done by parties from our 2nd and 3rd Battalions in preparation for this operation. Under shell-fire and through deep mud, 650 men from these units carried 1,300 six-inch Newton bombs a distance of nearly three miles in one trek. This meant a load of 109 pounds dead-weight for each man. During the progress of the attack, 400 large gas-bombs were fired on to Becelaere from projectors set up in the lines of our Brigade. The guns of the 3rd Machine Gun Company established in our sector also assisted in the operation by repeatedly dispersing enemy counter-attacking parties moving forward on the Becelaere Road.
Heavy snow-storms commenced on December 3rd, and three days later the 2nd Battalion came into the line, taking over from 1st "Wellington the Cameron Covert sub-sector on our right, between the Reutelbeek and the Polygonbeek.
We were relieved by the 2nd Brigade on the night of 9th/10th December, and became Brigade in support, with one battalion, the 3rd, in the front line holding the sub-sector previously taken over by the 2nd Battalion. Brigade Headquarters moved to Lille Gate in the southern ramparts of Ypres. The 1st Battalion went to Howe Camp, the 2nd to Otago Camp, just north of Zillebeke Lake, and the 4th to Dickebusch Camp.
The Brigade became Divisional reserve on December 15th, Headquarters and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions moving back to Walker Camp, and the 1st to Micmac Camp. The 4th Battalion remained at Dickebusch. At about mid-day on the 20th, instructions were received from Division by telephone to the effect that the enemy was attacking on the right Brigade front, and our Brigade was ordered to be ready to move up at half-an-hour's notice. Orders for assembly were accordingly issued to units, but fifteen minutes later Division announced that the attack had been driven off.
* This was the fourth attack on the Chateau. The ground gained was handed over to the troops of the IXth Crops, but nine days later the germans, after repeated counter-attacks, succeeded in regaining their lost territory.
On December 27th the Brigade again became Divisional support, relieving the 4th Brigade, with Headquarters at Lille Gate and one battalion in the line. The 2nd Battalion moved up to Halfway House and Railway Wood, and the 3rd and 4th to the Otago and Manawatu Camps. The 1st Battalion relieved 3rd Otago in Cameron Covert.
Our position in the Cameron Covert sub-sector consisted of a number of isolated posts facing south-east, with a partially-constructed support line running behind the wood. In the wood itself and in the valley of the Polygonbeek were a number of old German concrete "pill-boxes" which we converted to our use as living-quarters. The posts overlooked the sodden valley of the Reutelbeek, and were under observation by the enemy from his position at Polderhoek Chateau, which was only 600 yards distant, and from which" concealed snipers and machine-guns were unpleasantly active. Snow still lay on the ground, making movement on the forward slopes very difficult. The use of white suits for patrolling was effective, but this advantage was largely discounted by the noise of erashing ice as our men moved over the shell-holes in No Man's Land. While the ground remained frozen, progress in trench- improvement was slow, and when a thaw set in, the falling-in of the sides impeded drainage and involved much labour in the upkeep of the existing works. To mitigate, in some degree, the discomforts of the men in these conditions, parties of flfty were sent daily from the line to the Divisional Baths at Ypres for a thorough wash and a change of underclothing.
While the Brigade was in support or in reserve large parties were supplied daily for work with the Engineers or with the Divisional Salvage Officer. Scattered over the whole Divisional area was an incredible quantity of valuable material of all kinds, such as rifles, machine-guns, harness, wagons and limbers; cartridges, bombs, shell-cases and live shells of all calibres; coils of barbed-wire, stakes and tools; discarded clothing and web-equipment—the flotsam and jetsam of recent battles. Every officer and man moving towards the rear from any part of the area was expected to carry back to special dumps at least one article of equipment or clothing salvaged from the mud of the Salient. This, indeed, was a standing order, but so framed as to make obedience a point of honour.page 258
The Divisional commander set the example by carrying out his own orders to the letter, and, serving as a prick to the conscience if one should be careless or forgetful, there were staring posters everywhere on lorries and buildings asking the pointed question, "What have you salved to-day?" How thoroughly the work was done may be judged from the statements published from time to time, that for the week ending 30th November giving the estimated value of stores salvaged by the Division at £141,768.
Recreational training became an important feature of our routine so far as it could be developed in view of the number of men required for working-parties: and so beneficial were the effects of properly-organized sports and games upon the health of the men that definite days were set apart to the different units in turn for recreational training only, and on these days no working-parties were asked for.
December 25th, with its heavy snow-storms, was a typical northern Christmas Day. Fortunately the Brigade was out of the line, and on account of the weather all special duties were cancelled. The bands of the various battalions played a programme of carols in the early morning, and, later on, the men sat down by companies to a sumptuous dinner, the major items on the menu being turkey and plum pudding. Luxuries of this kind did not, of course, come up with the rations, but were provided for out of battalion funds, subscriptions from the men, and gifts from our friends of the patriotic societies in New Zealand, and to make the necessary purchases the quartermasters scoured the country as far south as Rouen.
Our casualties during the month of December were:—
* On January 17th, 1918, the 4th Brigade rplieved the 1st as Corps Works Brigade, and early in the following month it was disbanded. Surplus troops were formed into the New Zealand Entrenching Group, under the command of Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart, and were organized in three battalions corresponding to the three Brigades of the Division. The 3rd N.Z. (Rifle Brigade) Entrenching Battalion was commanded by Capt. S. J. E. Closey. All reinforcements for the Brigade passed through the Entrenching Battalion, which thus served as an immediate source from which supplies of trained men could be drawn as required. The Entrenching Group, then commanded by Lieut.-Col. G. Mitchell, D.S.O., did good work in the trenches about Bailleul when the Germans broke through at Armentieres and Ypres in the following spring. (See p. 310.)
On the night of the relief the enemy attempted to raid the point of the salient at Joiner's Avenue in the 4th Battalion line. After a sharp fight the raiders were driven off, and were pursued into No Man's Land by Corporal A. Adamson and another. Unfortunately, both these men were wounded by a bomb. The corporal, however, not only succeeded in bringing his companion safely in, but also secured identifications from one of the enemy who had been killed.
Units in the forward positions worked hard to bring about some improvement in the defensive lines, and, in spite of adverse conditions, made considerable progress. The special task of the battalion for the time being in support was to assist in digging and wiring a new reserve trench, and to open page 260up emergency overland routes to the front line in preparation for meeting any possible enemy attack. During this tour the weather alternated between frost and snow on the one hand, and mist and drizzle on the other. Enemy air-craft were active, flying low over our positions. Shelling continued with varying intensity upon our trenches and tracks, and carrying- parties moving over the exposed routes suffered severely.
Early in the month a number of selected officers and non- commissioned officers were detached from the Brigade for special duty, the nature of which was at the time kept profoundly secret, though information subsequently filtered through to the effect that they had gone to join what became familiarly known as the "Hush Hush Brigade," and that the scene of their activities was somewhere in the Middle East. A note on their adventures is given in Appendix V.
We were relieved by the 2nd Brigade on January 8th, on which day there was a severe snowstorm. The 2nd and 4th Battalions were relieved by 2nd and 1st Otago, respectively, and went to the Otago Camp; the 3rd handed over to 1st Canterbury and moved to Half-way House and Railway Wood. The Brigade was now in support with headquarters at Lille Gate and one battalion in the line, the 1st Battalion having taken over Cameron Covert from 3rd Otago.
Snow fell again on the 9th, but on the following day a drizzle set in, bringing on a thaw which turned the ground everywhere into an oozy mess of mud. Conditions in the Cameron Covert, sub-sector became distressingly bad, and the work of the three battalions in support, which were engaged mainly in carrying and trench-digging, was carried out under the greatest difficulties.
On January 14th, in heavy snow, the Brigade returned to the line, taking over from the 2nd Brigade. The relief was a comparatively quiet one and was accomplished by 8.30 p.m. The 2nd Battalion relieved 2nd Otago in Reutel, the 3rd relieved 1st Canterbury in Judge, and the 4th took over Noord from 1st Otago. The 1st Battalion handed over Cameron Covert to 2nd Canterbury and went to the support position in Albania and Polygonveld, west of the Butte.
A thaw setting in on the following day, the front line and support trenches began to collapse in many places and soon be-page 61came knee-deep in mud. At night rain came on, flooding the trenches and swamping the low-lying shelters. Drainage was a difficult problem, but Lance-Corporal W. G. Bowers, of the 3rd Battalion, solved it for a part of his line at any rate. Strolling out into No Man's Land one misty morning, with his spade on his shoulder, he noted the fall, selected his line, and proceeded to dig a drain back to his trench, accomplishing the task at last after an hour's steady work, with the Germans not 150 yards away.
The general conditions were such as would favour an abnormal outbreak of "trench-foot," a painful inflammatory swelling whieh invariably incapacitated the sufferer; but rigid attention to the supply of hot food and drinks, a daily rubbing with whale-oil or other anti-frostbite preparation, a change of socks with the same frequency, and hot baths and change of underclothing with such regularity as was possible in the circumstances,— these precautions had the effect of keeping the number of cases within satisfactory limits. The changing of socks, indeed, became a most important, part of the daily routine. Every man had three pairs, one on the feet, one in the haversack, and one in "the wash." Specially-detailed "sockmen" made the rounds of the trenches every day, bringing in a pair for each man, and taking back a corresponding pair to the laundry attached to the Divisional Baths. Daily returns to Brigade were made by the non-commissioned officers in charge of the sock-men, and drastic steps were taken in dealing with any shortcomings in the various units.
One of the enemy strong-points in front of the 2nd Battalion sector consisted mainly of a derelict British tank. On January 17th this position was heavily bombarded by our artillery, and at 2 p.m. Sergeant W. B. Bowles, with four men, went forward to reconnoitre. They found twelve enemy dead inside the tank, and several dead and wounded outside. Our patrol secured identifications and brought back a light machinegun. Enemy air-craft continued active over our front and rear lines, and on the 19th the Butte was shelled more heavily and persistently than usual.
On January 20th we were relieved by the 2nd Brigade and moved back into Divisional reserve. This proved to be a fairly easy relief, as we proceeded by light railway from Birr page 262Cross Roads on the Menin Road, about two miles east of Ypres. The 1st Battalion went to Howe Camp, Brigade Headquarters and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions to Walker Camp, and the 4th to Dickebusch Huts. On the whole the weather now was fine, and all ranks enjoyed to the full the short spell of comparative rest. Large parties were supplied for const ruction-work, carrying and salvaging, but we were able to devote a considerable amount of time to recreational and general training, battalion parades and inspections, and bathing at the Divisional Baths.
The casualties suffered during the month of January, 1918, were:—
On February 1st the Brigade returned to the line, relieving the 1st Brigade in the old sector by 7.30 p.m., units having moved up by light railway as far as Birr Cross Roads. The 2nd, 1st and 4th Battalions went into the front line, and the 3rd garrisoned part of the Reserve Line then under construction east of the Butte.
Half an hour after the completion of the relief, one of the posts of the 1st Battalion captured a ration-party of five Germans who had lost their bearings. Three days later another German fell into the hands of the 1st Battalion. This man, tall, stately and middle-aged, was unarmed. He was very indignant when asked what had become of his rifle, giving us to understand that he was a "Controller," whose duty it was to visit machine-gun posts at intervals, and that one in such an exalted position was above the carrying of arms.
February 2nd was a fine, cold day, and there was great enemy artillery activity on all parts of the sector. The Butte, in particular, was subjected to a two-hours' intense bombardment with gas and high-explosive shells. In the evening a party of twenty Germans raided one of the 1st Battalion listening- posts. All four men in the post were wounded, and the raiders, under cover of bombs and revolver fire directed upon the main trench, endeavoured to remove the wounded or to secure identifications. In this attempt, however, they were page 263smartly countered by Corporal J. G. Hart, who, after directing the fire of his section upon the raiders, dashed out to the post to protect the wounded. Under stress of the corporal's bombing and his men's rifle fire the Germans were compelled to withdraw. A patrol, taken out immediately afterwards by Sergeant J. P. Glentworth, found three enemy dead close to the wire and much blood along the raiders' line of retreat.
On February 4th, in retaliation for the enemy's bombardment on the 2nd, our artillery carried out a heavy and prolonged shelling of the enemy's sector on our front. The Germans responded with a steady bombardment of our lines with "sneezing-gas" throughout the 5th, and supplemented this with a series of "shell-storms" on the 7th.
During this tour several wells, discovered on sites of hamlets and farms near the front line, were opened up and cleaned out, By tliis means the supply of water to the sector was greatly improved. Hitherto all water had had to be carried very long distances, necessitating the employment of many men on this work alone.
Well out in No Man's Land, in front of the Reutel sub-sector, our observers marked down what appeared to be the ventilator or chimney-flue of an underground dug-out, and plans were on foot for dropping a Stokes bomb into this for the benefit of the people below, when, at another point, near the Butte, an old German smoke-box was discovered, In appearance it resembled a large oil-drum, containing a swinging receptacle in which there was a quantity of some chemical that still emitted fumes on being disturbed. Further investigation, by a patrol, of the mysterious "flue" revealed the fact that it was nothing more interesting than another smoke-box.
A readjustment of the Divisional sector was made on February 7th and 8th. Cameron Covert sub-sector was handed over to the 60th Division, and the New Zealand Division took over from the 66th a part of their front extending from our left boundary to the Broodseinde-Moorslede Road. This portion, together with the sub-sector held by our 4th Battalion, was taken over by the 1st Brigade, and our remaining battalions were relieved by units of the 2nd Brigade. The New Zealand Division now had two Brigades in the line On going out on the night of 8th/9th, our Brigade went into Divisional page 264reserve and occupied the usual hutment camps behind Ypres. The customary programme of work, training, sports and bathing was resumed. The weather, fortunately, was fine, and all ranks appreciated the short respite from the trying life in muddy trenches. On February 12th a team from the New Zealand Division played a football match with a team from the 38th, and won by fourteen points to three.
On February 34th we relieved the 1st Brigade in the Broodseinde Sector, on the left of the Divisional front, with Headquarters in a series of German concrete dug-outs in the embankment of the Ypres-Roulers Railway at Potsdam, about three-quarters of a mile east of Frezenberg. The 4th Battalion went to the right and the 3rd to the left of the front line, the 2nd to support at Garter Point, and the 1st to reserve at Hussar Camp, near Potijze, "with a company in Kit and Kat strong-point.
This was a good sector, the driest and quietest occupied by our Brigade since June of the previous year. The defensive works, however, had not reached a satisfactory stage of advancement. Particularly was this so on the left, where the 3rd Battalion's front line, 1,000 yards in length, consisted only of a series of detached posts. Taking advantage of the fine weather then prevailing, a special effort was put forth by both the forward units to bring about the desired improvement. Excellent results followed. The 4th Battalion brought to completion the works that had been suitably laid out but not developed. Within a week the 3rd Battalion had dug 1,000 yards of now trench along its front, together with the necessary communication saps, had erected 500 yards of wiring and 700 yards of revetting, and had laid over 700 yards of duck- walk. But the 3rd Battalion were not content with this achievement. Sergeant J. W. Clayson with his patrol had been reconnoitring No Man's Land during daylight, and had succeeded in marking down the whole of the enemy's posts opposite the battalion front. On the information so gained a peaceful advance was planned, and in one night the battalion established four posts from 300 to 450 yards beyond its new front line, wired and garrisoned them, and linked them up with a continuous belt of wire entanglements.page 265
The Division was now about to go out to rest as Corps reserve, and we were to be relieved by an English Brigade, Which, as was now usual in the Home Army, contained ouly three battalions. To facilitate the relief, adjustments were made in good time, the 2nd Brigade extending to the left and our 3rd Battalion to the right, thus releasing the 4th Battalion, which now went back to the Westhoek deep dug-outs and Kit and Kat. The 146th Brigade, 49th Division, came in on February 23rd, completing a good relief by 8 p.m. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions were relieved by West Yorks units, while the positions occupied by the 4th Battalion in reserve were taken over by a battalion of the 148th Brigade, and the Brigade moved back to the old quarters in Walker, Howe and Dickebusch Camps.
So ended our series of tours of duty in the trenches of the Ypres Salient. We were destined to return for a brief period of work in the reserve systems, but never again to occupy the front line there. Our experience in the sector had been a very trying one, though in many respects not without interest. As was so often the ease, we found on first coming in that very little construction work appeared to have been done, and our men were called upon, in the midst of snow, rain and mud, for almost superhuman efforts in order to make the lines habitable and fit to fight in. Engagements in this area had been so recent that here and there behind our lines both British and German dead lay unburied, and the outpost line still consisted merely of isolated advanced posts. The support positions were little better, and there was practically no reserve line, though farther back the defensive system was in a much more satisfactory state. Water, rations, and engineers' material for the front line had for a long time to be earned up by hand from dumps near Westhoek, a distance of nearly two miles, and this labour involved the expenditure of much valuable man-power. Carrying-work was rendered doubly laborious and dangerous from the fact that the duck-walks were usually ice-covered, and that these tracks were above ground and all exposed to shell-fire. Later on a great improvement was effected by the opening up of ancient wells in the forward area, and the pushing on of the light railway which eventually reached a point fairly close to the Butte. Deep dug-outs for the accommoda-page 266tion of support and reserve battalions were put in hand, but these were never sufficiently advanced for our occupation until just before we went out of the sector, and our men had to be content with hastily-constructed sand-bag "bivvies" which, during thaws and rains, were constantly falling in.
A glance at the trench map of the eastern and south-eastern portions of the Ypres Salient, corrected to the middle of February, is interesting and instructive. Everywhere the lines arc fragmentary except the portion occupied by the New Zealand Division east of Polygon Wood. Here there is shown a complete system of front, support and reserve lines, connected up by a series of communication-trenches. The high ground in this locality projected well into the German lines beyond Becelaere; and while the striking development of trench-system may be an indication of great industry on the part of the Division, it also draws attention to the importance of the position, for it was anticipated that a German attack, expected at any moment, would develop most strongly across this plateau. During the later portion of our stay in the area, the working-parties supplied while the Brigade was in support or reserve were employed mainly in digging and wiring Divisional reserve lines and Corps support and reserve lines, constructing rear strong-points and observation posts, reversing the innumerable German "pill-boxes" by closing the original and opening new entrances, constructing artillery positions, and establishing scattered ammunition dumps. So well advanced were these works when we finally left the Salient that we fondly imagined the position was strong enough to hold up any advancing German force.
The back-country behind the Broodseinde Sector appeared to be less shell-torn than that on the Menin Road farther south but within the same distance from Ypres. The track forward from Hussar Farm, the last quarters of our reserve battalion, led through fairly intact grassy land. Where it crossed some disused trenches there was a notice-board with the legend "Old British Front Line." Standing here, one marvelled how the British, even with all their patience and doggedness had been able to hold out in such a position. The old trenches were in low ground overlooked by those of the enemy, so much so that it would appear that the slightest movement in our lines must page 267have been observed by the Germans, who, indeed, had had all the conditions in their favour.
Our earlier reliefs, before the extension of the light railway system, involved very long and tiring marches. The route usually ran through the battered town of Yprcs, and directly past the rapidly-dwindling ruins of the ancient Cloth Hall. If the old city, so full of historic interest, evoked more than passing attention from our men, they, with their characteristic reserve, failed to display any enthusiasm they may have felt. Shell-storms still frequently fell upon the streets and ruined buildings, and it was not a place to linger in.
Before the war Ypres was a town with a population of 17,000. Its history stretches back into the dim past, and is somewhat intimately connected with that of England. The daughter of our own King Alfred the Great was the countess of a certain great Flemish lord who fortified Ypres and other towns in the same region. Ypres began to rise in importance in the tenth century, and soon became noted for its cloth manufactures, the raw material for which was obtained mainly from England. Flemish knights accompanied William the Conquero to England, and were rewarded for their military assistance by grants of land in that new country. In the fourteenth century Ypres reached the pinnacle of its greatness, its inhabitants numbering 200,000, and producing material from 4,000 looms. It was then the leading Flemish town and the centre of the cloth trade of Flanders. Of this period of prosperity the Cloth Hall, a great and beautiful building erected by the Guild of Clothworkers, was till its destruction in the Great War, a famous relic, while the adjoining Gothic cathedral of St. Martin, dating from the thirteenth century, was one of the most remarkable religious edifices in Belgium. Steady decline commenced with the military activities resulting from trade jealousies. In 1313 Ypres attacked Poperinghe, then a rising manufacturing town, and was in its turn attacked by Ghent towards the end of the century. As a result of these troubles many of the Ypres weavers migrated to England, where they helped to lay the foundations of the manufacturing prosperity of that country, and trade rapidly moved from Ypres and its sister towns to those nearer the seaboard. Of the former greatness of Ypres little remained in modern times, and the page 268town had to be content with modest returns from a lace industry of no great volume, supplemented by such pecuniary benefits as might arise from the fact that here the training-school for the world-famous Belgian cavalry was established. The moat and the brick ramparts of Ypres, obsolete fortifications with which the men of the Rifle Brigade became sufficiently familiar, date back to the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV of France made the town one of the strongest fortresses in the Low Countries at that time. In the great European wars Ypres seldom escaped a siege, or at least a bombardment; in the last and greatest struggle of all hardly was one stone left upon another; and of the huge armies that strove for its possession fully half a million men, friend and foe, lie buried in the torn soil of the area in and about the dreadful Salient.
The casualties in the Brigade for the month of February were: —