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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 2.—The March to Germany

page 472

Part 2.—The March to Germany.

We leave the IVth Corps, November 28th—Earlier stages—The King and the Prince of Wales at Bavay—Rest at Thuin—Across the frontier, December 21st—By train to Cologne—Over the Hohenzollern Bridge to the billeting areas, December 22nd.

The New Zealand Division was detailed to form part of the Army of Occupation across the Rhine, and on November 28th left the IVth Corps and commenced the long march to Germany, where we were to join the IInd Corps of the Second Army.

The New Zealand Rifle Brigade, starting from Fontaine-au-Pire at 8.30 a.m., moved north-east through Caudry, Bethen-court, Viesly and Briastre, and, after a march of thirteen miles in heavy rain, arrived in the area north of Solesmes at about 1 p.m., settling down in billets about Beaudignies and Haussy. As the Brigade passed the billeting areas of our old IVth Corps friends, the 37th Division, their bands played us through, and their men lined the route to give us farewell cheers.

We moved again at 8.30 a.m. on the 29th, passing north of Le Quesnoy and billeting in Wargnies-le-Petit and Wargnies-le-Grand. For some battalions this was a very long march, our previous billeting areas having been greatly scattered. The roads, however, were good, notwithstanding the long stretches of cobbles, and all units finished up in fine style, even those arriving so late as 3.50 p.m. having suffered no casualties.

On the following day the march was continued to La Longueville, four miles from Maubeuge, via St. Waast and Bavay, the new billets proving very comfortable. The weather was now good, seasonably cold, with fogs in the early morning. At this stage we were forty miles from our first starting-point. All the unfit having been sent to base before the march began, and the remainder being in good form after their recent training, we were spared the unpleasant experience of having exhausted men falling out by the way. March discipline was very strictly adhered to, and the clothing, equipment, and packs were worn with absolute uniformity; and alto-page 473gether we were convinced that there was no finer looking Brigade then on the move anywhere in Europe.

For the next two days we rested in the La Longueville area, and the opportunity was taken to effect repairs to boots and clothing. His Majesty the King, with the Prince of Wales and Prince Albert, attended our divine service at Bavay Church on December 1st.

On December 3rd the Brigade moved forward a short stage to Bussois and Recquignies, passing by the northern outskirts of Maubeuge and through Assevant on the way. The 2nd Battalion continued the march to Solre-sur-Sambre, where next day they were joined by the remainder of the Brigade. The frontier between France and Belgium was crossed about two miles before this destination was reached.

We arrived at Thuin at mid-day on December 5th. As we approached the town it was realized that we had left behind the region of battered villages, ruined factories, broken bridges, and mined cross-roads, and were entering a different world. We had seen much of famished refugees, ill-nurtured children, and other piteous accompaniments of the battle zone. Now we passed to the area only a few days since occupied by the enemy's reserves. Here the land was well-tilled and cropped, and to all outward appearance the people were as prosperous as if war had never been. The children, in whom is visible the first evidence of general contentment, appeared happy; the mills were working, the shops well-stocked, and generally the atmosphere of naturalness pervaded the country-side. Towards noon, in brilliant sunshine, and with bands playing, we commenced the descent, from the high ground along which the road had passed, into the valley of the Sambre. Before us was spread a magnificent panorama. On our left, across the valley, was the quaint village of Lobbes with its ancient monastic church, while at the bottom of the slope lay the fine old abbey with its cloistered courtyard and symmetrically-arranged garden. Soon our road led us across the stream and then up to Thuin, which rose straight above us. As we tramped up the steep main street, the people poured from everywhere and gave us an overwhelming welcome, and during our short stay of two days treated us with remarkable kindness and hospitality. The good folk of the town were im-page 474pressed with the physique of the New Zealand Division, which they considered the best they had ever seen.*

We were on the road again by 8 a.m. on December 7th, moving from Thuin, via Gozee, over the high ground to Montignies-sur-Sambre, just east of Charleroi. The tram-service between the village and the city was placed at the use of our men free of charge, and this privilege was taken advantage of to the full. In Charleroi, which is the centre of an important mining district, business appeared to be proceeding exactly as under peace conditions; the mines, electric lighting, trams and railways all running, and cinemas in full swing. At this point in the march, steel-helmets, entrenching tools and greatcoats were discarded, and for the remainder of the journey the only extra clothing in the pack was the leather jerkin and a change of underclothing, together with the ground sheet. Two blankets per man were carried on motor lorries and distributed each evening.

Velaine, about midway between Charleroi and Namur, was reached at 1 p.m. on December 8th; and next day we marched, in warm, drizzly weather, to scattered billets in the St. Denis-Rhisnes area north of Namur. The 1st Battalion was quartered at Rhisnes, the 2nd and 4th at Meux, the 3rd at Bovesse, and Brigade Headquarters at St. Denis. Here we rested on the 10th, when, notwithstanding the heavy rain, visits were paid to Namur, some fifteen kilometres distant. General Hart departed on leave to Italy on December 9th, and Lieut.-Col. R. C. Allen assumed command of the Brigade, Capt. E. A. Harding taking over the 1st Battalion.

The march on December 11th brought us to the Leuze area, north of Namur. On the following day we moved eastward to Burdinne, and again, on the 13th, eastward still to Vinalmont. We had rain on all three days and the roads were rather bad. We rested in this area for another three days. page 475during which time the men got baths and a change of under-clothing. Lieut.-Col. Jardine went on leave to the United Kingdom on December 16th, Major W. C. I. Sumner assuming command of the 2nd Battalion.

The trek was continued on December 17th, when the Brigade accomplished a fourteen-mile march down the valley of the Meuse to the Flemalle area, close to the outer fort-line of Liege. The weather was dull but dry, and the billets proved to be very good. The next stage, carried out on the 18th in showery weather, brought us to the Chenee area, immediately south of the city, which, being within easy reach, was freely visited. Moving up the valley of the Vesdre by a long march on the 19th, we reached Verviers. Of all our marches this was perhaps the most pleasant, leading as it did through the most beautiful scenery imaginable. On either side of the narrow valley the hills rise very steeply, leaving but little room for the road, the railway, and the swiftly-running Vesdre stream. The winding roadway led us repeatedly across both river and rail. A few miles short of Verviers the valley gradually widened out into a broad basin in which the town was situated. Here we received our most hearty welcome. At every point the citizens greeted us with enthusiastic cheers. The battalions were billeted in schools or large factories, and every effort had been made to render these quarters as comfortable as possible, but families vied with one another in their endeavour to secure one or more of our men as private guests. We rested here during the following day, enjoying to the full the public and private hospitality extended to us. Spa, the late Headquarters of the German General Staff, was only some ten miles away, and, being accessible by train, was freely visited.

On December 21st, in cold, unsettled weather, the Brigade moved out from Verviers for its last march in Belgium. As battalions from their billets converged on the starting-point, the whole town seemed to have turned out, lining the footpaths five and six deep. During the short wait here the warm-hearted people seized the opportunity to bedeck wagons, horses and men with the colours of the Allies, and there was hardly a rifle without a miniature bit of bunting stuck in its muzzle. As the gay column moved off with the bands playing the Belgian national anthem, "La Brabançonne," the multi-page 476tude united in one long last cheer, and waved and gesticulated until at length we disappeared from view.

We had now had experience of both the Fleming and the Walloon. With the former we had long been in contact nearer the British battle zone, and now we had lived for some time amongst the latter. There is a very marked difference between the two races, which need not here be enlarged upon. There is also a decided antipathy between the two, and we know that upon this the German worked his hardest for his own ends; but happily there was a strong tie that to a large extent held them united—the intense loyalty to the person of their Sovereign, whom both sections almost worship.

Just before noon on December 21st the head of the column reached a highway running north-west along the frontier. Into this we turned, and had on our left hand Belgium and on our right Germany. Surely this was a stirring moment, but probably the thought uppermost in our minds was, "What will the billets be like?" Soon we entered Herbesthal, whence we were to entrain for Cologne on the following day. Half the population of this town is German and half Belgian, and the street along which we marched separated the two. To the left every doorway and window was gay with Allied flags, and as we passed by we were enthusiastically greeted by old and young; but to the right there was dulness and silence. The railway station was an example of the thoroughness of German methods. Elaborately-planned sidings were everywhere, and in all cases they appeared to be arranged for the sole purpose of facilitating the despatch of military personnel and material.

December 22nd was a miserably cold day. The ever-faithful representatives of the Y.M.C.A. were at the entraining point with abundant supplies of coffee, biscuits, cigarettes and chocolates, and at the journey's end we found them awaiting us with similar comforts. We moved from Herbesthal to Cologne in five trains, the first departing at 4 a.m. and the last at 11.15 p.m. The journey, lasting over four hours, proved on the whole rather uninteresting.

Arrived at Ehrenfield, on the western outskirts of Cologne, the various units set out on their last march of some twelve miles to the billeting areas. The route lay through the centre of the city of Cologne, across the great square, past the walls of the famous cathedral, and over the Rhine by the page 477Hohenzollern Bridge. With quick and sprightly step our men swung along with the proper air of conquerors, disdainful alike of the discomforts of the pouring rain and of the fact that the passage of their column was dislocating the city's excellently-conducted tramway system.

Brigade Headquarters were established at Holweide, but on January 4th were moved to Haus Mielenforst, Delbruck. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were billeted at Bensberg in an enormous "schloss" large enough to hold a Brigade, and used in pre-war days as a college for German cadet officers. The 3rd and 4th Battalions were quartered at Delbruck and Dunwald, respectively. The billets were found to be very comfortable. Every man had a paillasse, and, where there was no central heating, every room was provided with a fire. Where further conveniences or luxuries were desired, from tableware to pianos, a requisition on the Burgomaster always resulted in the production of the necessary articles. There were few signs of the stress of war, and the people were neither under-fed nor ill-clad. They were very docile, looked upon us more in sorrow than in anger, and implicitly obeyed all orders and proclamations, which, however, were designed to disturb as little as possible the normal routine of their civil life.

* At Thuin, as at Caudry and Boussois, our officers learned at firsthand something of the horrible barbarities and atrocities practised on the inhabitants in the early days of frightfulness. It is not right that we should turn away from these things, but some of the statements, solemnly vouched for by citizens whose word appeared to be absolutely reliable, are too dreadful to be recapitulated here. Innumerable cases of similar nature are recorded in the report of Lord Bryce's Committee on Alleged German Atrocities, a document published as a Parliamentary Paper in 1915, and obtainable from booksellers.