The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—With the French First Army in Northern Belgium
Part 2.—With the French First Army in Northern Belgium.
By bus from Berquin to Rousbrugge Haringhe—Digging—Hospitality and appreciation—Return to the Berquin Area—In reserve—Ceremonial—Command.
The period of rest in the Berquin Area was of short duration. On July 3rd the Brigade marched northwards to Gode- waersvelde, the 3rd and 4th Battalions being inspeeted en route by General Godley. On the following day the Brigade moved by 'bus to Northern Belgium, where we temporarily joined the French First Army. The lst Battalion went into camp under canvas at Pollinchove, near Hoogstade; the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were located at Eykhoek, the 4th at Woesten, and Brigade Headquarters at Rousbrugge Haringhe.
In this area the Brigade was spread over a frontage of seven miles immediately opposite the Mer[gap — reason: damage]kem Peninsula (in the flooded canal region), Houthulst Forest, Bixchoote, and other points that were soon to become famous in the Third Battle of Ypres. Pollinchove was only twelve miles from the coast at Nieuport.
Each battalion had attached to it one company of the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion, and our duties, which commenced on July 5th, consisted mainly of the preparation of roads, railways, dug-outs, emplacements and cables for the forthcoming operations. Units received their orders direct from the French Artillery Group Commanders, a system that proved to be in the highest degree satisfactory. The method of piece- work was adopted as far as possible, and the working-power of our men completely surprised and mystified the French officers. Colonel Barbier, one of the Group Commanders, expressed the opinion that fifty New Zealanders could easily ac-page 221complish a piece of work for which he would ordinarily detail 250 French soldiers. In the work of cable-burying, in particular, our men, acting up to their reputation as "Diggers," progressed so rapidly that the Director of Signais found it necessary to recast his plans in order to enable him to keep up the supply of cable at the same rate as the trenches were dug. For our part, we were particularly struck with the extreme skill and thoroughness with which the French attended to the camouflaging of their works and tracks at every stage.
In the northern sector, then held by the Belgians, the front line ran along the embankment of the Yser Canal. Curiosity took one of the Maoris up to the Canal. Looking across the swamps beyond, he espied several Germans moving about in the open, and the temptation to do a little sniping proving irresistible, he raised his rifle to try his luck. His laudable intentions were, however, to his great disgust, immediately frustrated by a dozen Belgian soldiers, who promptly fell upon him and gave him to understand that the policy in that locality was, for the time being at least, one of quiescence.
During our stay here, our men were exceedingly well treated by both French and Belgian troops. The courtesies of hospitality were freely extended to us, we had a general invitation to their camp entertainments, and their regimental bands on several occasions played programmes in our camps and quarters. On July 14th, the great French National Day, the French Army sent us a special issue of wine, Champagne, and cigars. On the same day General Anthoine, the Army Commander, personally thanked the various battalion commanders for what he was pleased to call the magnificent work done by their units, and decorated the Brigadier and the Brigade Major with the Croix de Guerre.
The following letters of appreciation were received and published in orders: —
From General Anthoine, commanding the French First Army, to Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army:
"Now that the New Zealand Troops prepare to leave the French First Army, I wish to point out the fine attitude of the British troops you have put at my disposal.page 222
"Infantry and Pioneer Battalions and Engineers have rivalled one another in hard work and fine behaviour.
"I thank you very heartily for the precious help they gave to the First Army.
"I should be grateful if you would let them know my satisfaction."
From the General Officer Commanding the French lst Corps to the General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Rifle Brigade:
"Now that the men of the British Army who have been put at the disposal of the French Artillery have finished doing their work, I want to thank you most sincerely for your kind and very valuable assistance.
"The New Zealand Rifle Brigade have proved to be our brothers in arms, and have shown once again how anxious they were to best our common enemy; they were as eager as indefatigable, and, thanks to them, the French Artillery will be ready to take its share in the battle at the very moment that the British superior authorities have settled.
"I feel deeply grieved by the casualties suffered by your men on account of the enemy's shelling (four killed and twelve wounded) and, as soon as we get the necessary information, the latter will be proposed for being mentioned in orders and receiving the Croix de Guerre.
"I also take pleasure in expressing to you the sincere thanks of the French First Artillery Corps."
On July 15th the Brigade returned to the Berquin Area, with Headquarters at Doulieu. The period from July 16th to 20th was spent in training. On the morning of the 21st a transport competition took place, and in the afternoon Brigade sports were held, the 4th Battalion carrying off the honours on points.
The Brigade marched to the old area near Messines on July 22nd, and became Divisional reserve. The lst and 2nd Battalions were quartered at Canteen Corner Camp, the 3rd and 4th at De Seule and Bulford Camps, respectively, and Headquarters at Brune Gaye Camp. Here we remained until the end of the month, the units being engaged in training and in supplying parties for work under the Engineers of the Corps Troops. The transport of each battalion was in turn inspected by the Divisional Commander. The Brigade Demonstration Platoon, under Major J. R. Cowles, commenced a new term of page 223work on the 29th. Artillery and aerial activity continued on both sides with great intensity throughout the period spent in reserve.
On July 30th General Anthoine visited the area and presented the Croix de Guerre to Lieut.-Cols. A. E. Stewart, W. S. Austin, and J. G. Roache. The ceremony was of a somewhat imposing nature, 400 of all ranks from the Brigade, under Major J. Pow, forming the guard of honour on the occasion. Major P. H. Bell, who had temporarily commanded the 3rd Battalion while serving with the French, and who was at this time in England on leave, received his decoration at a later date.
On the 22nd, General Fulton proceeded to England to take command of Sling Camp for a period of three months, and Lieut.-Col. Stewart assumed command of the Brigade pending the arrival of General F. E. Johnston, C.B. Lieut-Col. Austin, from hospital, resumed command of the lst Battalion on the 3rd; Lieut.-Col. Roache returned from leave on the 8th and took over the 4th Battalion; and Lieut.-Col. Winter-Evans resumed command of the 3rd Battalion on his return from leave on the 25th.
Although the Brigade had been out of the line for the whole of the month the casualties numbered 24, including five killed.