The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Marseilles to Steenbecque—First billets—Training—Detachments —Tunnellers—Trench mortars—Inspection by General Plumer— To Estaires—First visit to trenches—To Morbecque-—To Armentieres.
The journey from Marseilles across France to the battle zone occupied the greater part of three days. Battalions moved at different times, each in a single train composed for the most part of fairly comfortable coaches. We had not the omnipresent Y.M.C.A. of later days to supply us with tea and biscuits, and, as halts for any length of time were very few and far between, we had to be content with the ordinary fare as provided for on the army scale of rations. From our observations we concluded that there was one long line of rationtins, in various stages of decay, from the Mediterranean to the Channel; for wherever the train paused for a time, and these stops seldom took place at a station, the permanent way was lined on both sides with the familiar square cans lying in the open in defiance of the strict rule that "What you cannot burn you must bury." Indeed, sanitary matters of any kind seemed to have entered not at all into the calculations of the authorities concerned.
Long railway journeys are always more or less wearisome, and this was no exception to the general rule; but the novelty of the scenes which succeeded each other as we moved northward served to relieve the tedium. The monotony of the desert here gave place to green fields, early flowers, trees putting forth their first buds, extensive and orderly vineyards, quaint villages, ancient towns and thriving cities, and, in the south at least, bright sunshine bathing all. It seemed like a special privilege to see white folk again, and the smiles and cries of the cheering children were particularly touching to page 70men so far from home. In the bleak north the line approached the coast, and before turning inland again we caught a glimpse of the waters of the English Channel, and one is safe to say that few of us failed to be stirred by the thought that not far beyond stood the white cliffs of the Motherland whose welfare lay so close to our hearts.
From Marseilles our route ran through Arles, Avignon, Orange, Vienne, Lyons, Macon, Dijon, Montereau, Corbeil, Juvisy (on the outskirts of Paris), Creil, Clermoine, Longneau, Amiens, St. Roche, Longpre, Abbeville, Etaples, Bifur d'Boulogne, St. Omer, Bifur Wallon Capelle, Hazebrouck, Steenbecque. With many of these points to the north of Paris we were destined to become more familiar during the years that lay before us.
The first unit to move left Marseilles at 4.24 p.m. on April 13th, and, travelling day and night, reached Hazebrouck, the official destination, at about midnight on the 15th/16th. Here the commanding officer was verbally informed by a full corporal that the battalion was to go on to Steenbecque. After some trouble these instructions were verified and the train proceeded accordingly. The remaining battalions arrived at Steenbecque station at short intervals. Each battalion on detraining was met by the French billeting officer, and officers and men were immediately told off into groups and marched to their quarters under the guidance of members of the advance party, who had come on ahead with Brigade Headquarters.
Brigade Headquarters and the 2nd Battalion were quartered at Steenbecque, an interesting village with a quaint old church the gate-posts of which were unusually curious. The 1st Battalion was billeted in neighbouring farmhouses, and the 3rd and 4th in the adjoining villages of Tannay and Thiennes. On a readjustment of the area, which now came under the command of General Fulton, the 1st Battalion a few days later moved to the village of Boeseghem.
The various Transport Sections of the Brigade detrained with their horses at Abbeville, and having drawn at that base the vehicles to replace those we had left in Egypt, commenced the long three days' trek of sixty miles to the Steenbecque area, where they arrived on April 22nd.
This was our first experience of billets, and it will readily page 71be understood that there was no little difficulty in getting comfortably settled down, especially on the part of those units that arrived in the middle of the night. Hitherto we had lived for the most part in orderly-arranged hutments or tented camps, or had bivouacked in the open; but here we had to fit ourselves into such accommodation as was afforded by barns, lofts and sheds, none too liberally supplied with straw, but paid for by the British authorities at a fixed rate per head. For the officers, rooms were usually found wherein they slept and messed and carried out with moderate convenience their administrative duties. The peculiarities of the French farmhouse were in many respects a source of wonderment. In the darkness, one unfortunate company commander made an involuntary personal reconnaissance of the ancestral midden which formed the most striking feature of the courtyard of his quarters, and received his commanding officer, on the latter's round of inspection during the morning, in an ill-fitting suit of velveteen provided by his obliging host. The notices in English posted up at all the house-pumps—"Not to be used for drinking purposes" —at first appeared odd, but careful consideration of the position of the well led to a most respectful obedience of the instruction.
We found the inhabitants of the district kindly and obliging to a degree, and such good people as those of La Belle Hotesse and the other hamlets and villages will long be remembered for their solicitude on our behalf. Cupidity, an unfortunate trait displayed by the country people in some billeting areas occupied in later days, was not a characteristic here. Usually the greatest kindness was displayed by those who had suffered most. The war, it will be remembered, was already drawing to the close of its second year, and signs of its effects were not wanting. There was a marked absence of able-bodied men; in the fields women and old men followed the plough or executed other forms of manual labour from daylight till dark; and as the people wended their way to church, on Sundays and Saints' days, one noticed that the majority of the women and children wore mourning.
On arrival in the battle zone the New Zealand Division became reserve to the Ist Anzac Corps under Lieut.-General Birdwood, the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions being already in the line.page 72
General training, specialist work and route-marching commenced at once. Every possible square foot of land being under cultivation, our exercises had perforce to be carried out on the roads. Flannelette gas-helmets were issued, and training in their use formed an important part of our daily exercises. Before the end of the month the whole Brigade attended a special demonstration, every man being subjected to the ordeal of the gas-cloud and passing through trenches charged with both lethal and lachrymatory gas.
As early as April 20th, battalion commanders received the first of a long series of orders couched in such terms as these: "Please detail (so many) other ranks to report at (such-and- such) School of Instruction for a course in (subject)..…" Orders of this kind came to hand with more or less frequency right through our career in France, as often as not while the unit was moving up to take over a new sector in the line, or even in the thick of a fight.*The system itself was an excellent one, providing as it did for the special training of officers and other ranks in various branches of military work, and ensuring that the unit as a whole was kept up-to-date in all developments in the art of fighting; but to the fretting commanding officer, chronically under establishment in officers and non-commissioned officers, it seemed to be carried out with a merciless unconcern as to the fitness of things. The order on this occasion was for the despatch of eight non-commissioned officers per battalion for gas-helmet instruction at the Gas School at Oxelaere.
"Please detail an officer of the rank of Captain for duty as Town Major at Estaires." This was a class of order that was always received with dismay, for it was a point of honour that officers so detached should be in the highest degree efficient. For this particular post Capt. R. O. Brydon was detailed on the day after our arrival at Steenbecque, and the services of a very able officer were lost to the 1st Battalion for a period extending over many months. It is still an unsolved mystery why such a position was not filled by an ex-service officer from England, too old for active service but still willing and able to carry out non-combatant duties of this nature. At page 73that time, it must be remembered, battalions had to find their "specialist" officers from amongst their platoon commanders, and companies were correspondingly short. In this case Capt. Brydon was the second-in-command of a company.
Two officers and 100 other ranks were detached for duty with the 172nd Tunnelling Company on April 30th. As practically all of these men were thus, as the event proved, finally separated from the Brigade, brief mention may here be made of their subsequent career. They were in every case experienced either in mining or in some allied occupation that would specially fit them for the particular service for which they were now detailed. The men drawn from the 1st and 2nd Battalions were commanded by 2nd Lieut. G. Lewis, and those from the 3rd and 4th by 2nd Lieut. S. J. E. Closey. They were privileged to be the first New Zealand troops to serve in the trenches of the battle-front in France, for on the day after leaving us they entered the line in the Bois Grenier Sector, then held by the 19th and 21st Australian Battalions. Three days later they were called upon to man the trenches when the sector was raided by the Germans, but fortunately, though the bombardment was especially severe, they escaped without casualties. They were thanked by the Australian brigadier for their assistance in the fighting as well as for their service as stretcher-bearers. When the New Zealand Division went into the line on May 10th, our detachment relieved part of the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company in the New Zealand sector, and later, on the arrival in France of the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company, the New Zealanders were transferred from their old company, the 172nd, and were attached to the Australians, remaining on duty, however, on the New Zealand front. While here, the New Zealand miners were specially detailed for the sinking of the "Anzac Shaft," with its series of galleries, in trench 74 of the Armentieres sector. This was the first satisfactory steel-lined water-tight shaft ever sunk in the Second Army area; and as the whole of the work was executed by New Zealanders, the achievement is one of which we have no small reason to be proud. The detachment experienced a second raid on the evening of July 3rd, the enemy's main objective being, on that occasion, the underground works in course of execution at another point. As soon as it became page 74clear, during the artillery preparation, that the enemy would probably attempt the destruction of the shaft, the sappers were withdrawn from the galleries where they were at work, and 2nd Lieut. Closey remained behind with two or three of their number to mask and protect, by means of sandbagging, the entrance to the shaft-head. When shells began to fall thickly about the spot, the officer sent the men back to the shelter of a dug-out in rear and completed the work alone, just managing to escape when the raiders entered the trench in search of the shaft-head. This, however, had by then been so effectively covered and disguised that the enemy failed to locate it, and the number of unexploded mobile charges left behind at this spot testified to the raiders' disappointment. The Australian officer reporting upon the matter states in conclusion: "There is not a question of doubt in my mind that 2nd Lieut. Closey, by sticking to his duty under heavy shell-fire, saved our mining system from possible destruction." From time to time our men were drafted in small parties from the Australian to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, with which unit the majority continued to serve in various sectors, for the most part far removed from those held by the New Zealand Division, until the end of the war.
On April 22nd the Brigadier and the Battalion Commanders attended an interesting demonstration, held at Berthen, in the use of light, medium and heavy trench mortars. Important improvements had recently been made in this comparatively new arm, and the display was distinctly heartening. Visions of the period of tragic stress were called up by the fact that the journey to the trench mortar school was made in a London motor-'bus.
In addition to inspections at various dates by the Brigadier and the Divisional Commander, the battalions were seen at work on April 25th by General Sir H. Plumer, the Commander of the Second Army, of which we now formed a part.
The Brigade marched fifteen miles, from Steenbecque to billets in Estaires, on May 1st. and the same evening we had our first experience of a gas-alarm, which, however, eventually proved to be false. We were now well within the battle zone. On our first morning in Steenbecque we heard the rumble of distant artillery fire, and at night the flashes of the guns could page 75be distinctly seen. At Estaires, bursts of machine-gun fire were frequently heard, sometimes in great intensity.
On May 6th. the Brigadier, Brigade Major, the Commanding Officers and Company Commanders of the 1st and 2nd Battalions went to Armentieres and were attached to the 51st Brigade, 17th Division, for a twenty-four hours' tour of duty in the trenches. By this means valuable information was obtained as to the new conditions under which we were presently to work, but, as frequently happens, the sector which was so closely studied did not prove to be the one the Brigade eventually took over.
Three days later the Brigade marched back to Morbecque for a special course in musketry and practical Lewis and Vickers gun training. Here our first Brigade School was established, bombing being the principal subject taken up.
The New Zealand Division commenced to take over from, the 17th Division east of Armentieres on 10th May, the 1st Brigade going into the right sector of the front line on the 13th, and the 2nd Brigade into the left sector on the 14th. The length of the front occupied was 6,000 yards. On the right were the 2nd Australians. The Division was on the left of the Corps sector, and on the left again, north of the River Lys, was the 9th Division, afterwards relieved by the 41st.
On May 13th the Brigade moved forward again, the 1st and 2nd Battalions marching to Doulieu and the 3rd and 4th to Estaires. A further move towards the front was made on the 15th, when the Brigade marched in to the town of Armentieres as part of the Divisional reserve. The 1st Battalion, with two companies in Armentieres and two in Houplines, relieved the 9th West Riding Battalion as reserve to the left Brigade sector, the Brigade there having all four battalions in the line. A readjustment was made on June 8th, after which date each Brigade found its own reserve.
Before the war Armentieres was a town of some importance, and had a population of over 25,000. It is situated close to the Belgian frontier, some ten miles west of Lille. The canalized Lys, on the banks of which it stands, was one of those inland waterways so greatly valued in this part of the country, and Armentieres was a small but busy river port. It was particularly famous, however, as one of the more impor-page 76tant manufacturing centres. Its many factories were engaged mainly in the spinning of flax, hemp and cotton yarn, and in the production of woollens, cottons and linens. In addition there were several large distilleries, soap works and tanneries; the minor manufactures were various; and there were extensive brick-making works.
When we first came to Armentieres a considerable proportion of the inhabitants was still in the town, for only certain quarters had as yet suffered from shell-fire. During our short stay we were to witness some remarkably accurate shooting on the part of the German gunners, such churches of the town as were then intact coming in for special attention; and more than once we were to suffer casualties through sudden bursts of concentrated "hate" upon the neighbourhood of our billets. It was not till the following year, however, that the place was systematically shelled, and in connection with the temporary German advance in this area in 1918, the destruction of the town was completed. While we were quartered at Armentieres we had excellent billets situated mainly in abandoned factories, while certain of the more pretentious dwellings, now deserted, formed convenient homes for the various Brigade and Battalion Headquarters. One of our battalions was, during a spell out of the line, billeted in a large building that had been a Girls' College, and the lady-principal was still in residence. It is worthy of note that this lady was able to tell us of our next move into the line some time before official warning or definite orders reached the headquarters of the battalion, and she complained most bitterly that, apparently through the soldiers' unguarded talk, such information frequently filtered out till it reached the civilian residents, amongst whom it became the common topic of conversation.
The transport lines of the various units of the Brigade were established at Pont de Nieppe, just west of the town; and here also were situated the Divisional Baths for the men's use, and the laundry establishments through which clean underclothing was issued.
* When the Brigade was in the line during the Battle of the Somme, in September, 1916, one officer and fifteen other ranks were detached for a course of instruction at the Lewis Gun School, Le Touquet.