The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
In the pages of this work is set forth the story of a Brigade which served as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Great War. As a regimental history it is not as exhaustive as could be wished, the official records, from which for the most part it has been compiled, being astonishingly meagre as to material of moment. That a general call for personal accounts of specially-interesting incidents with which to supplement the recorded information met with a less ready response than could be desired, must be ascribed to a diffidence that shrinks from the recounting of any deed, the full story of which must unavoidably contain reference to a writer's own share therein.
Mention is made from time to time of bold leading and collective and individual acts of daring. Instances of this kind, it must be borne in mind, are such as have been placed on definite record in the field from the accounts of witnesses, these last being for the most part officers and non-commissioned officers commanding larger or smaller bodies of men. A little reflection will show how probable it is that these observers have themselves been worthy of special honour, but that such notice has been impossible because their own actions had not been similarly witnessed. In this connection, too, one could wish to speak definitely of the many who, unmarked, perished in the very act of heroism; but the individual is lost in the great host who sealed their devotion with their lives, and whose sacrifice has earned for them an enduring place in the grateful hearts of their countrymen.
One is constrained to mention here, also, what might not be apparent to the ordinary reader, but what all who have seen service will gladly enough acknowledge, namely, that often the exceptionally meritorious work of a body of men has been recognized by special mention of the leader only, and many an officer is proud to wear a decoration conferred in appreciation of some achievement of his command. page ivAgain, the compiler of a regimental history feels that scant justice can be done to those officers and men whose work was largely unspectacular, but none the less important. Some attempt has been made to indicate the difficulties constantly encountered and gallantly overcome by signallers, runners, stretcher-bearers and transport drivers; but practically nothing has been said of the devotion of the medical officers and the chaplains, or of the labours of the quartermasters, cooks, sockmen, pioneers, shoemakers, tailors and men of the sanitary sections, upon whose faithfulness the well-being of their comrades so intimately depended.
As to the general plan of the account, it may be explained that though the work of the individual soldier of whatever rank has been so inadequately treated, an effort has been made to set out as completely as possible the story of the Brigade as a whole. It may, perhaps, be thought that much unnecessary detail has been introduced, both in the body of the work and in the various appendices. It must be remembered, however, that unlike the territorial units of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force which were in existence long before the outbreak of the Great War, and which continue in being now that peace is again with us, the whole life of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was compressed within the period from 1st May, 1915, to 1st February, 1919; and in these circumstances the historian may be pardoned if he is unable to refrain from retailing much that might otherwise have been passed over without mention.
The bare story of the Brigade would have been lacking in perspective, and therefore shorn of much of its interest, if it had been told without a proper setting. For this reason connective passages have been inserted in such a way as to show how our movements and actions fitted in with the general scheme of things, and to give a clear view of the moving scenes over comparatively wide sections of the battlefront. In accordance with this plan many of the chapters have been arranged in the order of the subdivisions of the official despatches, each of which is devoted to the account of some particular phase of the general operations, or of a series of actions grouped as one major battle. It is hoped that to the general reader the passages introduced, and in particular that which tells in the briefest manner the story of the war on the British Front up page v to the time of our first going into the line at Armentieres, will not be without value in this respect. To our own men some of these will serve as reminders that many of the spots with which they became all too familiar had already been hallowed by the glorious deeds of the old British regiments that had stemmed the tide of advancing hordes at the price of virtual extermination. Compilation of passages of this kind has in the main been based upon the official despatches of the General Officers Commanding in Chief of the British Forces in Egypt and on the Western Front, though various other sources have been drawn upon where more localized detail has appeared to be necessary. Of these, Nelson's "History of the War," by John Buchan, has been of special value for this purpose, and I am indebted to the author and publishers for permission to incorporate certain extracts that seemed to me to be particularly apt and illuminating. In developing the setting of some of the actions in which the New Zealand Rifle Brigade participated, but which of necessity were told in few words in the official despatches, I have sometimes found our own records either deficient or conflicting as regards the formations operating beyond the flanks of the Division. Where such has been the case I have taken advantage of the labours of Colonel H. Stewart, C.M.G., D.S.O., M.C., who, in collecting information for his volume "The New Zealanders in France," diligently searched the records of the War Office in London.
There is one aspect of the story of the Brigade that has been passed over with not more than an occasional word. I refer to routine life in training-camps and elsewhere, life, that is, apart from the grim duties, the weary toiling, and the stark bloodshed. The lighter side is of no mean importance, and one could wish that space could be found for the telling. It is impossible to estimate, for instance, the uplifting power of humour in the midst of most trying conditions, but there can be little doubt that as a contributing factor to ultimate success it ranked with that characteristic feature of the New Zealanders, a never-failing belief in the righteousness of the Empire's cause and a steady confidence in our ability to win through. But one British soldier is very much like another, and while for the moment this seemingly insignificant part of our story remains untold, the reader may gain some slight idea of it by referring to Ian Hay's "The First Hundred Thou-page visand," and to Captain Bairnsfather's succession of "Fragments from France." Hay's description of soldiering in camp, in billets and in the line, might in almost all respects be adopted as fitting our own case. This is so even down to the references to those odd fellows, known in soldiers' language as the "bad hats," who, when not actually in the trenches, displayed a special genius for getting into mischief, but who, in almost every instance, acquitted themselves magnificently under fire. In one respect, however, there was a most marked difference. While the English soldier sang more or less heartily on the march, our own men were invariably silent. During the earliest days in camp this method of shortening the route usually found a place, but as training progressed, singing on the march as steadily diminished, and at the front it was absolutely unknown. Like the reluctance attached to the formality of saluting, the New Zealanders' silence on the march appears to be still an unsolved mystery.
As to Bairnsfather's "Fragments," these are by no means the pure absurdities they might to the uninitiated appear to be. They are in fact but very slightly overdrawn, and of all the episodes and situations so delightfully recorded, there is scarcely one that might not have been taken from an actual occurrence within our own experience. Two characteristics in particular are well brought out—the grumbling or "grousing" in which it is the soldier's special privilege to indulge, and cheerfulness and humour triumphant when the misery of the conditions had reached its utmost limit. In common with others, our men had their complaints to make, but it is to their credit that these were seldom voiced when the Brigade was in the line. The least satisfied, indeed, were to be found in the base camps rather than in the trenches, and of these the greatest grumblers were the men who had never been within sound of the guns.
As esprit de corps, a matter of vital importance in military life, is too intangible a thing to make itself apparent in a mere formal chronicle, one may be pardoned for mentioning here that this feature was nowhere more fully developed than in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. The number of reinforcements received approximated 10,000, replacing a wastage averaging 60 per week; yet the excellent spirit, strongly evident from the commencement of our activities, was maintained un-page viiabated until the end. It was, indeed, a matter of astonishment even to ourselves, that in every ease a man joining up with the Brigade in the trenches but yesterday was an out-and-out Rifleman to-day; and it is told of a certain officer coming over from another Brigade to take command of one of our battalions, that almost before his first action was concluded he issued instructions to the effect that the regimental tailor was to come up to headquarters immediately for the purpose of altering his buttons and badges without delay. Mention might also be made of the fact that the remarkable esprit de corps was able to stand the test of the appointment to positions in their own battalions of non-commissioned officers promoted in the field to commissioned rank; and how faithfully and well these same junior officers continued to strive to uphold the good name of the Brigade may be seen from the casualty lists of the latter part of the war, when so many of the erstwhile sergeants with brilliant records fell while leading their respective commands in the thick of the fight.
It is hoped that the appendices to the history will be found of some value. In most cases they have been inserted with the object of making the work in a measure self-contained. In this class are the Diary of the War, taken from "The Times;" an account of the 3rd Field Ambulance, for which I am indebted to Lieut.-Col. J. Hardie Neil, D.S.O., telling of that part of our military experiences of which the ordinary records take little cognizance; a note on the Reserve Battalion; and a somewhat bare outline of the doings of the "Hush Hush Brigade," to which detachments of our officers and men so mysteriously departed at the beginning of 1918, this sketch being compiled in the main from a report furnished for the purposes of our History by Captain S. T. Seddon, M.C., of the Auckland Regiment. The notes on the Imperial Rifle Brigade consist of adapted extracts from the handbook written during the war by Captain H. G. Parkyn for the use of officers of the parent Brigade in preparing lecturettes for their companies. The list of recipients of honours and awards, and the roll of officers, non-commissioned officers and men who made the extreme sacrifice, were specially compiled, from official documents, under the supervision of the officer in charge of the War Records Branch of the New Zealand Military Headquarters. An page viiiabridgment of the first draft of the chapter on the Senussi Campaign was supplied for inclusion in Vol. IV of the Official History of New Zealand's Effort in the Great War.
Throughout the work every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, but the possibility of error in details is recognized, and it is requested that where such should be discovered a note of correction may be forwarded to the Secretary, New Zealand Rifle Brigade Trustees, care of Military Headquarters, Wellington, so that the copy kept for record purposes may be amended. It may be explained here that in the case of officers holding acting or temporary rank, the substantive rank is used where their names are mentioned. To be strictly official, both, of course, should be stated, but for the sake of convenience and uniformity the simpler method has been adopted. Convenience must be pleaded also as the reason for the omission of reference to decorations, except in special cases, such, for example, as the first or last mention of a name.
For the general illustrations various sources have been drawn upon in addition to the incomplete New Zealand collection of official war-photographs; and as the object in view was simply the provision of an informative series, no thought has been given to artistic considerations. The Revd. A. G. Parham, M.C., formerly chaplain in the composite formation of Berks, Bucks and Dorset Yeomanry serving with the Western Frontier Force, readily granted permission to use certain of his copyright photographs; and to him, as to all others who have placed the Brigade under an obligation for favours of this kind, thanks are here returned. The page-charts giving the order of battle in some of the more important engagements are, it need hardly be explained, purely diagrammatic. Of the maps, all of which were prepared by Rifleman W. G. Harding from adaptations of war-maps in use at the front, some are drawn to a large scale to display the main features of certain battlefields, while the others cover all the sections of Egypt, France and Flanders in which the Brigade was stationed at any time, whether resting, training, digging or fighting.
To all who have in any way assisted in the compilation of this History, I tender my sincere thanks.
W. S. A.Wellington, New Zealand.