The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—The Cordonnerie Sector
Part 2.—The Cordonnerie Sector.
Into the line—Trench mortars and patrols—Command—Enemy raid—Relief by the 170th Brigade, 57th Division—General: arctic conditions; enemy activity; the veteran Sergeant-Major departs.
The Brigade remained in Divisional reserve from the 8th to the 24th of January, 1917. It was now the depth of the severest winter known in this region for thirty years. Snowstorms were frequent and the cold intense. The most popular pastime was skating, a novel form of amusement for the majority of our men, many of whom had never before seen ponds and ditches covered with ice of such thickness as to make skating possible. Life during this period, however, was not all fun. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, notwithstanding the distance of their quarters from the trenches, had to supply large parties daily for wiring the subsidiary line in the old sector. The 1st Battalion was more fortunate. Estaires was so far from the line that the march to and from the site where the entanglements were being erected would in itself have constituted a day's work. This unit was therefore left in page 169peace; and the opportunity was taken to carry out general training, which all ranks appreciated to the full. The ceremonial guard-mounting, performed daily with full band accompaniment, was a spectacle that excited a vast amount of interest in the good people of the town.
On January 24th we relieved the 2nd Brigade in the line in the Cordonnerie Sector, east of Laventie, all being reported complete by 2.30 p.m. The 1st and 2nd Battalions went into the front line, the 3rd being in support at Rouge de Bout, and the 4th in reserve at Bac St. Maur.
Units in the line immediately commenced a vigorous bombardment of the enemy's trenches with light and medium trench mortars, destroying and rendering untenable long stretches of his front line. The results of this work were investigated by patrols. Five of these entered the German lines at different points on January 25th, and again on the 26th and 28th, without in any case encountering the enemy. On the 30th one enemy post was located, and this was "scuppered" on the following night by a patrol of fifteen other ranks from the 2nd Battalion, under Lance-Corporal S. F. Hanson, two prisoners being taken and ten Germans killed. Patrols entering at other points on the same night met with no opposition.
The casualties in the Brigade during the month of January were:—
On February 1st, the 3rd and 4th Battalions relieved the 1st and 2nd in the front line, and the trench-mortar and patrolling activities were continued with unabated vigour. It soon became evident that, for a time at least, the enemy had practically abandoned his forward trench opposite our sector, and was holding his old support trench as his main line of resistance. Notwithstanding the fact that the usual illumination displays continued with a fair degree of regularity, our patrols exploring the enemy's front line and the saps in rear of it seldom caught sight of any Germans, and the common belief was that the garrison was represented by a solitary individual, popularly dubbed "the flare-boy" or "the caretaker," who wandered about from point to point discharging his flare-pistol page 170with the idea of deceiving us regarding the enemy's strength A patrol from the 3rd Battalion, however, discovered to their cost that this was not so. Some three hours before dawn or February 2nd this little party of a corporal and five men had penetrated some seventy yards within the enemy's territory and, in scattered formation, were making a second entry into his line at another point, when they fell into an ambush. Challenged indistinctly, they paused to ascertain whether they had met friend or foe, when the enemy, either a strong patrol or the garrison of a post, opened fire, at fifteen yards' range and wounded two of their number. One of these, who could not be found, was, it was afterwards ascertained, taken prisoner. Probably the least perturbed member of the patrol was Rifleman W. B. Thomson. Finding himself held fast by the leg in the barbed wire, he proceeded calmly to cut away the sandbag which had been doing duty as a combined puttee and sound muffler, picked up the other wounded man, carried him to safety, and then coolly returned to retrieve his rifle, which he secured without further mishap.
General Fulton returned from leave on February 4th and resumed command of the Brigade, Colonel Hart returning to the 1st Wellington Battalion. On the same date a number of officers of the 57th Division, recently arrived from England, were attached to our battalions for instruction in trench duties.
At 9 p.m. on February 8th, under cover of an intense minenwerfer bombardment, a party of the enemy, estimated at about thirty strong, made a fruitless attempt to raid the salient in the sub-sector held by the 4th Battalion. This attack, judging from the amount of wire-cutting by trench-mortar fire that had continued steadily during the two previous days, and by the tornado-like nature of the preliminary bombardment, promised to be an affair well worth while, but it dwindled off to a very insignificant business; for, though one or two of the enemy reached our parapet, where a bag containing bombs and wire-cutters was afterwards found, the raiders hesitated before our rifle fire and then hastily retreated when our artillery fire commenced. As a test of the efficiency of the garrison of the battalion sector it was useful enough. With the utmost precision and smoothness, every detail of the plans page 171laid for the purpose of dealing with such an eventuality was, as it were, automatically followed out, as it had been when a similar attempt was made on the trenches held by the 1st Battalion two months previously. Our only casualties were two men slightly wounded during the bombardment.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions relieved the 3rd and 4th on February 9th, relief being reported complete soon after noon. The ensuing period proved very quiet in all respects.
Two battalions of the 170th Brigade, 57th Division, the 2/5th King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment and the 2/4th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, arrived at Sailly and came under the orders of the General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Rifle Brigade on February 13th. On the 15th these battalions commenced relieving our 1st and 2nd, one company in each daily. The relief was completed by 3 p.m. on the 18th, our Brigade then marching to billets at Outtersteene.
The extreme cold had continued throughout the whole of our tour in the Cordonnerie Sector. The frequent snowfalls caused general discomfort, but the most distressing effect was the solidifying of the snow on the duck-boards. This rendered movement exceedingly difficult and dangerous, and our men were forced to bind sand-bags upon their boots in order to get about with due speed and safety. Patrolling under these arctic conditions was unusually risky. White patrol- suits were made use of as far as possible, but there was no means of avoiding the noise of crashing ice as the men Stumbled upon concealed shell-holes in No Man's Land.
Special instructions were issued regarding regular observation and treatment of the rubber valve of the box-respirator. Through this the breath was exhaled, and unless it was carefully attended to it was liable to become frozen and so render the apparatus useless in a sudden emergency. Out of the line, the bandsmen, who, while in Egypt, had been frequently inconvenienced by wind-blown sand which stopped the action of the valves, now had to come on parade with their instruments wrapped in blankets or articles of clothing to prevent a similar stoppage by freezing.
On February 17th the order "Impose thaw restrictions" was received by telephone. This was the prearranged signal for putting into operation the most elaborate restrictions on the page 172movement of transport along the roads everywhere, regulations designed to prevent undue damage to the ice-bound highways that would ensue if, immediately after a thaw, traffic were permitted to go on at the normal rate.
In this sector the support company of one of the frontline battalions was accommodated in a deep dug-out with branching tunnels in which tiers of bunks were placed. The arrangement was not at all favoured by the commanding officer, for though the men were comfortable enough and practically safe from shelling, these advantages could not compensate for the unsatisfactory features. Water oozed into the exit-shafts and froze as it dripped upon the steps of the narrow winding stairs, and even ordinary movement thereon was dangerous as well as difficult. In any case the dug-out was too near the front line; and though getting the men above ground and at their posts was frequently practised, there was an ever-present uneasiness lest during a determined enemy attack it should prove to be a veritable death-trap.
The enemy's activity was confined mainly to minenwerfer fire, which in response to our trench-mortar bombardments, at times became intense. Most of his artillery shooting appeared to be the work of what we called his "travelling circus," an organization of special batteries that visited various parts of the front for the purpose of conveying the impression that he was strong in this arm.
In several of these spasmodic bombardments the enemy mixed gas-shells with the ordinary projectiles, and, as this was a new experience for us, the softer explosions of the former were not distinguished in the general din. A second shelling in one night caught the 4th Battalion unawares, and 31 men were gassed owing to their respirator valves having become frozen after use in the previous bombardment. The ammonia solution carried by every man as a precautionary measure gave partial relief in many cases, but in others the frightful agony ended only in death. This unfortunate occurrence led to immediate investigations by the gas-experts with the object of devising some simple means of preventing the freezing of the rubber valve, and within a few days an Army Order was issued directing the frequent application of glycerine, a treatment which was found to be entirely efficacious.page 173
While we were in this sector there passed from the Brigade a very notable figure, in the person of Regimental Sergeant-Major Charles Livesey, D.C.M., of the 1st Battalion, who, on account of ill-health, but much against his own wish, was detached for depot duty in England early in February.
Born in 1853, he enlisted in the Scots Guards at the age of twenty, and up to the time of his departure from France had fought in no fewer than eight campaigns. His first active service was in the Egyptian campaign of 1882, and he was with his regiment in the famous battle of Tel-el-Kebir. In the Soudan campaign, three years later, he fought at Suakin and again at Hasheen, in the latter battle gaining the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He had the honour of being invested with this decoration by Queen Victoria in 1886, and the same year saw his promotion to Warrant Officer, 1st Class. He completed his service in the Regulars in the year 1893, and, joining the British South African Police, he was again on active service through the Matabele War of 1896, and the Mashona Rebellion operations of the following year. In the same force he fought through the whole of the Boer War of 1899-1902; and four years later, while serving in Royston's Horse, he took part in the operations that resulted in the quelling of the Zulu Rebellion.
At the outbreak of the Great War he was in New Zealand. He offered his services, was accepted, and left with the Main Body as a member of the 1st Otago Battalion. Returning to this country on troopship duty, he obtained a transfer to the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, which was just about to leave on active service. Here he received the appointment of Regimental Sergeant-Major of the 1st Battalion in the place of R.S.M. W. Catto, who had been attached to us hitherto, but was now required for further instructional duty in the training- camps.
Because of his knowledge of interior economy, drill, and active service conditions, derived from long years of experience, R.S.M. Livesey proved to be an acquisition of great value to the 1st Battalion. He was a strict disciplinarian, but by no means a martinet, and the influence of his example was felt throughout the whole of the unit. Notwithstanding his comparatively advanced age, for he was sixty-two when he joined page 174the battalion, he "looted it" and carried his pack with the best of us; and at the close of each of the long treks over the desert at Mersa Matruh and the wearying marches on the pavé roads of France and Belgium, one knew that he would never fail to accomplish the performance of the many duties that fell to the lot of the sergeant-major long after most of the personnel were at rest. Though the unusual severity of the worst part of the winter of 1916-17 had left its mark, he still considered that he could weather the remainder of the season, but he was not permitted to continue to face the ordeal. After a brief stay in England, he was invalided to New Zealand on April 6, 1917.
At the close of the war Sergeant-Major Livesey was entitled to wear the following decorations and medals: The Distinguished Conduct Medal; the Egyptian Medal and Khedive's Star; the Soudan Bar on the Egyptian ribbon; the Matabele- Mashonaland Medal; the Queen's and the King's South African Medals; the Zulu Rebellion Medal; the 1914-15 Star, the General Service Medal, and the Victory Medal.