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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1: Brigade Headquarters And The 1st and 2nd Battalions

Part 1: Brigade Headquarters And The 1st and 2nd Battalions.

Brigade Headquarters at Heliopolis— Command, Brig.-Gen. Braithwaite—Reinforcements—Move to lsmailia—Formation of the New Zealand Division—Command, Col. Fulton—To the forward zone, Ferry Post.

This account must now go back to the date of the 1st Battalion's departure for Matruh, namely, 18th December, and deal with the Brigade less the two detached units. The headquarters' personnel were still at Aerodrome Camp, Heliopolis, with Lieut.-Col. Fulton in command of the Rifles and also of the New Zealand and Australian Reserve Brigade.

The day after the 1st Battalion left, the 2nd Reinforcements for the Rifle Brigade arrived in camp. This draft consisted of 10 officers and 394 other ranks. The 1st Reinforcements had, of course, come with, the first two battalions of the Brigade.

Lieut.-Col. (Temp. Col.) W. G. Braithwaite, D.S.O., assumed command of the Brigade on December 27th.*Lieut.-Col. Fulton retained command of the N.Z. & A. Reserve Brigade, with Major Gibson, Northumberland Fusiliers, as Brigade Major.

A change was effected in Brigade headquarters on January 11th, 1916, Capt. C. W. Melvill, N.Z.S.C., taking over the duties of Brigade Major from Major Gard'ner, transferred. The appointment was, however, ante-dated to December 7th, page 551915, and Capt. Melvill was granted the temporary rank of Major.

The reinforcements were temporarily organized as a battalion, and at once commenced intensive training of a comprehensive nature, and this was carried on steadily throughout the remainder of December and the whole of January and February. Brigade Headquarters, together with this unit and other details, moved on February 6th to Moascar Camp, Ismailia, whither the 2nd Battalion had gone direct from Alexandria on the 18th of the previous month. Here, in addition to its own company and battalion training, the latter unit had been taking part in manœuvres on a large scale in conjunction with the troops lately returned from Gallipoli. General Birdwood, commanding the Anzac Corps, inspected the Brigade troops at Heliopolis on January 26th, and the 2nd Battalion alone at Ismailia on February 18th. At the end of the month, as we have seen, the 1st Battalion joined up with the Brigade.

After its glorious service on Gallipoli, from the famous landing in April, 1915, to the brilliant withdrawal at the end of the year, the New Zealand and Australian Division, which formed part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, concentrated at Moascar during the first week of January, 1916. Here, in common with the other formations of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, it entered upon a period of intensive training to fit it for action in the defence of the Canal, to take the field against the Germans, or to meet any other emergency that might arise. In the course of the process of reorganization, however, it soon became patent that the Australian and New Zealand reinforcements and convalescents had accumulated to such an extent that they could not be absorbed under normal conditions, and that the training formations into which they were being drafted were becoming unwieldy. Reinforcements alone were coming forward every month at the rate of twenty per cent. in excess of ordinary requirements, and in addition there was a large number of surplus men intended for mounted units, who, because of their desire to get early into the firing-line, were willing and eager to transfer either to artillery or to infantry units. Moreover, half the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was already in Egypt, and the remaining two battalions were expected early in March. Careful page 57 investigation made it clear that it would be quite feasible, as well as eminently desirable, to form additional Australian Brigades, detach the Australian formations from the New Zealand and Australian Division, and reconstitute the latter as a Division composed entirely of New Zealand troops. Negotiations to this end were immediately entered into, and by the middle of February the establishment of an additional Anzac Corps and of a purely New Zealand Division within the 1st Anzac Corps was commenced.

By the end of the month the various adjustments had been completed, and on March 1st the change of name from "The New Zealand and Australian Division" to "The New Zealand Division" was announced. Major-General Sir A. H. Russell, who in the previous November had succeeded General Godley, continued in command.

In the New Zealand Rifle Brigade very few alterations were entailed, for though the 3rd and 4th Battalions had not arrived, they were expected in the course of a few days, and the organization was already practically complete. Indeed, beyond the transfer of reinforcements and some of our officers to the 1st and 2nd Brigades, which had been formed of the old New Zealand Infantry Brigade, we were scarcely affected by the change.

On this date our Brigade Commander, Brig.-Gen. W. G. Braithwaite, D.S.O., with Major C. W. Melvill, N.Z.S.C., his Brigade Major, went over to similar appointments in the newly-formed 2nd Brigade, and Lieut.-Col. Fulton was again appointed to the temporary command of the Rifle Brigade, with Capt. H. M. W. Richardson, N.Z.S.C., as Brigade Major. Capt. E. Puttick, one of the original 1st Battalion company commanders, was on the same date seconded for duty with the 2nd Brigade as Staff Captain.

Inter-brigade operations were carried out on March 3rd. The 1st Brigade represented a British force coming from Telel- Kebir, and was attacked by our two battalions, representing a Turkish force. It is noteworthy that to the total of 131 march casualties sustained during this trying day on the desert we contributed only five.

The 1st Battalion was inspected by G.O.C. Ist Anzac Corps on March 6th, and on the following day the Brigade moved out page 57to the camp at Ferry Post, about half a mile east of the Suez Canal, where the New Zealand Division took over the defensive sector from the 2nd Australian Division, which was being withdrawn for despatch to France.

Ferry Post covered one of the most important bridgeheads established during the recent rapid development of the Canal defences. When the Turks attacked in February, 1915, the fighting had taken place on the very banks of the Canal itself, the British forces being for the most part on the western side. Now, however, the defensive works extended far to the eastward, the first line being from six to seven miles distant. Some two and a half miles behind this ran the second line of defence, while the third was close to the Canal. Metalled roads, railways and water-pipe lines had been carried well up towards the front and were being rapidly extended. The trench systems in the forward lines of defence consisted mainly of self-contained "localities," each prepared for a strong garrison of from a battalion to a brigade, and were very strongly wired. They were temporarily held by troops of the Mounted Brigade, but were reconnoitred by representatives of the various infantry units told off for their occupation in case of enemy attack. Beyond the foremost line, patrols of Mounted Rifles scoured the desert, while air-men prosecuted their investigations still farther afield, for though the Turkish Military Railway was still far from the Canal, nothing was left to chance.

Even in the third line, which was practically on the Canal, the utmost watchfulness was maintained. No traffic was allowed after dark except through the examining post, and then only if the outpost commander was satisfied on the points of identity and business. Natives without armlets or passes were not permitted to pass through in either direction, and as an additional precaution, a strip along the front of the line was smoothly swept each day before nightfall, so that any possible eluding of the sentries might be discovered.

To the men of our Brigade, who had had little experience in duties of trench-construction beyond that gained in the moist soils of the New Zealand training-grounds, the defensive works were a striking example of skill and perseverance. The dry sand appeared to be more or less continually flowing; the sides of the trenches could be maintained in position only by the use of framing and matting, while the frequent high winds page 59were accompanied by a drift which here and there almost obliterated the works. It appeared to us that when we came to occupy the trenches we should find it more difficult to fight against the forces of Nature than against those of the enemy.

On the 11th the 2nd Battalion replaced the 1st Brigade troops in the defensive line from Bastion "A" on the right to the Beacon Light on the Suez Canal on the left, the strength employed being two companies. The 2nd Battalion was relieved of this duty on the 15th by the 1st Battalion, which in turn handed over to the 1st Brigade on the 17th.

* The temporary rank of Brigadier-General was granted to Col. Braithwaite while commanding the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.