The Auckland Regiment
XX. Le Bizet—Ploegsteert—Hill 63
XX. Le Bizet—Ploegsteert—Hill 63
"Day by day we dig new trenches,
Bury war-created stenches
Build up castles in the mud, and drain the floor.
Night by night the big guns thunder,
Trench and castle rend asunder;
And at dawn we start to dig and build once more."
The sector, Le Bizet—Ploegsteert, was adjacent to the old Houplines one, and lay just across the canalised River Lys. Le Bizet itself was a suburb of Armentières, and was connected by means of a bridge with the town itself. "Mademoiselle of Armentières" was therefore quite handy, and so many old friendships were renewed. Would-be visitors, however, were very much restricted by reason of passes being demanded by the bridge guards. As there were only two bridges this was something more than a formality, especially when the guards were composed of conscientious Tommies.
1/Auckland took over the Despierre Farm sub-sector, which consisted of "two gaps and three localities." The trenches had been shockingly neglected, and were simply tumbling to pieces. Apparently no maintenance work had been done for months. The Germans in the line opposite had gained a decided ascendancy. Rumour even ran that they were in the habit of coming over at meal times and taking the steaming dixies back with them. They were certainly active, both with snipers and minenwerfer guns. Despite their hostility, they were a courteous people, and the day after the Aucklanders took over the line the following notice was displayed over their parapet:—
"Engl. Ober leutnant
Er Ruht in Friedhof
This news of the death and burial of an English officer, page 130missing after a raid, was one of those touches of human kindness which occasionally flash out amidst all the bitterness and hatred of war.
On the night of February 28th the Germans, following a heavy barrage of minenwerfers, raided the 16th Waikatos. Despite very determined attempts, most of them penetrated no further than the wire. The Waikatos were on the alert, and for a quarter of an hour there was a very lively exchange of bombs. A German officer was the only one to reach the trench. Badly wounded though he was, he stood on the parapet bombing, and then leaped in, to be bayoneted by the defenders. Sergeant-Major Todd and "Jimmy" Greenwood, a recent transfer from the N.Z.M.C., both distinguished themselves greatly. Before dawn the enemy removed their wounded, but left thirteen dead men "standing up" in the wire. The Auckland casualties were ten killed and fifteen wounded. During the day a party was told off to go out after dark and bring in the German dead for the purpose of identification and burial. They were a little late in starting, however, and on arriving at the spot found that the enemy had stolen a march on them, and had removed all traces of their previous visit.
March 1st, 1/Auckland were relieved by 2/Auckland, going into support at Le Bizet. 2/Auckland's stay in was entirely uneventful, although rather uncomfortable for the men in the dilapidated front line. They, in turn, were relieved by the 1st Battalion, and after another period of eight days the two battalions went back to Nieppe, from where 1/Auckland proceeded to Aldershot Camp and 2/Auckland to De Seule. On the 31st March 1/Auckland went into support at Ploegsteert, and on the following day 2/Auckland relieved the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in front of Hill 63.
The weather at this time was very variable. The dry cold had gone. Snow, rain, hail and sleet alternated. In between whiles there was a miserable drizzle. Although warm, the slush and wet made things even more uncomfortable than during the three months of intense cold. Occasionally, however a fine, warm sunny day brought a promise of spring page 131weather and a reminder that the time of great battles was rapidly coming.
Hill 63 faced the famous Hill of Messines, and the British line ran along the Valley of the Douve, in front of Ploegsteert Wood and between the two hills. The village of Messines itself, crowning the heights, showed plainly out. It seemed very little damaged, its church towering over the lesser buildings, a most conspicuous landmark. The slope from the hilltop to the valley below was green and not greatly torn. The outlines of the German trenches were clearly visible. The fact of the hill impressed itself on the consciousness of the Division. It rose up before them as a perpetual challenge. It flaunted itself in mockery. Gradually the hill became a lure. Was it always to be a German hill, or were New Zealand bayonets to go up and over it?
Major S. S. Allen, now promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel rejoined the 2/Auckland Battalion, and took over the command from Major McKenzie, who in his turn proceeded to England.
Hill 63 was the buttress of the British line in these parts. It covered the railhead at Steenwerck, the town of Railleul and the main road running between Bailleul and Armentières. Behind it. as far as the eye could see, stretched level country, which would offer little natural difficulty to an advancing enemy. Branching off from the highway at Canteen Corner, the road ran through the small village of Romarin to the fool of Hill 63 at Red Lodge, now a somewhat dilapidated but picturesque ruin. From here it skirted the foot of the hill as far as Hyde Park Corner and Ploegsteert Wood. Here, close to Charing Cross Dressing Station, it junctioned with the Le Bizet-Ploegsteert road, which ran on between the trench lines to Messines. The rear slope of Hill 63 was heavily wooded, and in consequence of the excellent natural cover thus afforded it was nearly always densely populated. Huts were scattered amongst the trees, and deep dug-outs driven into the side of the hill. Social welfare was catered for by two well-known philanthropic institutions—the Y.M.C.A. and the Honourable page 132Society of Two-Up Kings. The Y.M.C.A. built a hut, which was later on destroyed by shell fire, and the Two-Up Kings organised large "schools"—not, however, for educational purposes. This popular diversion was a source of much perturbation to the Higher Command. Periodical edicts were issued for the suppression of gambling. Why such a fuss should have been made about gambling it is hard to see, for the results at the time were altogether good from the point of view of morale. Gambling occupied men's minds under circumstances where otherwise an opportunity would have been given to that terrible foe of all good discipline—mental depression—to do its deadly work, sapping away at those foundations of faith, hope and courage, without which an army cannot exist. The money used for the purpose was the two shillings a day of the field pay, and the worst result was that the man who lost everything went without chips, eggs, beer and cigarettes for the fortnight at most until the next pay day. Immediately after the Hun raid on the l'Epinette, in which the 16th Company suffered so heavily, Sergeant-Major Todd started a "two-up ring" in the wrecked front line. In no other way could he so easily and effectively have restored the breaking nerve of the survivors of that terrible night. Of course, from the disciplinary point of view, he should have been "crimed." From the point of view of military efficiency a much stronger case could be made against smoking than against gambling, for the heavy smoking that was frequently indulged in had a very harmful effect on the nerves. Yet what man in his sane senses would have issued an order for the abolition of smoking? Both of these "vices" had immense psychological effects which were wholly beneficial from the "win-the-war" point of view. Army methods of inculcating morality were not without a certain humour. They strained at gnats, but with the most cheerful good humour swallowed immense camels.
Saluting was another matter that required a periodical offensive. It was looked upon either as an imposition or as a big joke, and very seldom in the best light. From the time of General Godley's Gallipoli Manifesto to the effect "That there page 133was too much swearing and that saluting was conspicuous by its absence" until after the cessation of hostilities the same old trouble was continually coming up. New Zealanders are, taking them as a whole, an eminently commonsense folk, and, in consequence, discipline of the real sort was usually excellent. The mass had a perfectly good understanding of the necessities of the position, and, in consequence, practically all orders were cheerfully and properly carried out. But, generally speaking, the New Zealander is not a demonstrative person. He does not cheer, or even sing, as readily as other troops. When in agony he does not scream or forget that a man should endure with fortitude in silence. Revival preachers say that he was the hardest man in all the Armies to touch, harder far even than the Australians. Individual freedom, self-respect and keen perception make a man very quick to perceive "humbug," and the Army doctrine of saluting was widely regarded as such. The saluting of the "King's Commission" was an excellent thing in theory, and if all officers had been in practice what they were in theory'—officers because of their courage, ability and capacity for leadership—there would have been little difficulty. Observation of English troops made it clear that saluting was one of the main buttresses of military autocracy, and the Prussian behaviour of numbers of English officers toward the Tommies under their command did not go unnoticed. A small section of New Zealand officers would have been only too pleased to introduce a similar spirit and the same methods. It was the fear of this, partly unconscious of course, which kept alive the opposition to the practice. Men fighting for the principles of democracy were not over anxious, even under the exceptional circumstances, to practice the observances of class distinction.
To return to Hill 63 and the amusements thereof, it was found that not only the Higher Command of the British Army, but that of the German also, was opposed to the means of sociability. In fact the Huns went further, not only did they break up the "two-up rings" with H.E.'s, which were much more effective than M.P.'s, but they also destroyed the page 134Y.M.C.A. Hut, quite a dastardly thing to do, considering that there, and there only, was the supply of hot coffee.
2/Auckland's stay in the line was quite uneventful, and on the 6th April they were relieved by 1/Auckland, who took over the sector to the north of Ash Lane, 2/Auckland going back in support. It was during this spell that Plum-duff Dump, close to Battalion Headquarters, was blown up. The explosion was a tremendous one, and everybody in the vicinity was well shaken up. Fortunately very few casualties occurred, and as the cook's fire was not put out things were "not so bad." On April 15th, 2/Auckland relieved the 1/Battalion at Plus Douve Farm, and eight days later were themselves relieved. April 27th saw the 1st Battalion back on Hill 63 and the 2nd in the hutment camp at De Seule. Three days later 1/Auckland moved to Aldershot Camp and the 2nd Battalion to Neuve Eglise.
During the whole of this period the time not actually spent in the line was employed in preparing for the coming battle. There was little attempt at secrecy. The enemy were to be overwhelmed by a tremendous concentration of guns, aeroplanes, tanks and infantry. A battle of this description called for no subtle strategy, but for the most careful preparation and exact co-ordination of all branches of the service. An enormous amount of work was necessary digging new communication trenches, assembly trenches, gun-pits and burying cables. 1/Auckland were for the greater part of their working time employed on the latter job. With the success or failure of the battle depending so much on the work of the artillery it was supremely important that telephonic communication with all parts of the battlefield should be rendered as secure as possible. To ensure this, cable was buried six to eight feet deep right up to the front line. The greater part of this work had to be done at night. Working parties would fall in at any hour of the night deemed most suitable by the authorities, and march through the darkness to the allotted place, which in the case of 1/Auckland was usually Ploegsteert Wood. Engineer sappers were ready to mark out the task for the night. As a page 135rule, each man was given a distance of two yards to dig down to the required depth of six or eight feet. In daylight on clear ground such a task took from one-and-a-half to two hours; at night in difficult country it might take twice as long. Ploegsteert Wood, for instance, was often very difficult, owing to the number of roots which had to be removed before any progress could be made. Close up to the front line the enemy frequently heard suspicious sounds and intervened actively with machine-guns and whizz-bangs. The extremely variable weather was also a very great hindrance. Occasional days which seemed to give a promise of spring were followed by snow storms, hail, rain and sleet. There was little frost, and, in consequence, there was much mud. 2/Auckland were at first employed on the digging and wiring of the assembly trench, afterwards known as "Hanbury Support." Falling in soon after dark, they marched all the way from De Seule, a distance of about six kilometres, to the rear of Hill 63, where, picking up shovels, they went on over the crest and filed on down to the work, and then having done the allotted portion filed back in silence, dumped the shovels, and commenced the long tramp back to billets.
On April 30th, 2/Auckland moved to Neuve Eglise and the 1st Battalion to Aldershot Camp, from where, on May 4th, they went into the line near Wulverghem. By this time the weather had definitely taken a turn for the better. Spring was coming, fields were green, and all the trees were bourgeoning. Activity on both sides increased. On May 5th and 6th the Huns brought up heavy guns and shelled the back areas, especially Neuve Eglise. It was a wild night. Some of the working parties had just come, in and were settling down to a well-earned rest after a hard job cable laying; others were preparing to go out, when of a sudden the big shells came flying over. A huge convent, however tranquil and secure a place it may have seemed to the Good Sisters and their flock of little maids in the quiet days of peace, gives small sense of sanctuary when the big guns are firing and the projectiles crashing down amongst the buildings. Most of the Battalion page 136scattered over the countryside, returning in all sorts of moods to carry on once more the interrupted slumbers—keeping one ear open to catch the whine and whizz of the first salvo that might herald another bit of German fright fulness. The same night, after a bombardment of "minnies" and H.E.'s, the Huns attempted to raid 1/Auckland, meeting, however, with no success. It may be remarked here that 1/Auckland made a habit of repelling enemy raids. Somehow or other, they seemed to attract the errant Hun of nocturnal habit in a way that the 2nd Battalion never could. Next day there was intermittent shell fire, sometimes swelling up to quite a burst of fury. During the afternoon the 2/Battalion had the misfortune to lose Major West, who was for the second time very badly wounded. Captain Champion was also wounded. Throughout the night of the 6/7th the "Hun Travelling Circus of Heavies" gave another demonstration, but the night was made hideous mainly by the British retaliation for the proceedings of the night before.
At Neuve Eglise there was a fine field that lent itself admirably to the playing of cricket. The game was making progress, but unfortunately a Hun O.P. amongst the spectators very unfairly took sides at the wrong moment, considerably marring the perfect wicket by a well-placed H.E. Sundry bursts of shrapnel overhead could not deter such enthusiasts from carrying on, and it finally took a Brigade Order to stop play. At the time this was rather resented as a piece of unnecessary molly-coddling on the part of the "Heads," but, after the fall of Messines, men walking about in the ruins realised what an excellent view old Fritz must have had of the play. Perhaps, after all, the much-abused Higher Command could see a little further than ordinary individuals!
For the coming battle it was necessary that every man should not only be physically fit and expert in the use of his weapons, but also that he should have an accurate knowledge of his own particular task. In the Army training area a few kilometres outside St. Omer a full-size model of the Messines fortifications had been laid out, so that the attacking troops could rehearse as nearly as possible under actual conditions the operation they would have to perform when the day of page 138battle should at last arrive. By this means everyone, from the Divisional Commander himself to the humblest private, gained a complete understanding of his own particular share in the tremendous undertaking that lay ahead. On May 18th the 1/Brigade entrained from Bailleul and proceeded to St. Omer, from where 1/Auckland marched to Setques and 2/Auckland to Esquerdes, two pleasant little villages some eight kilometres outside of the town itself. Accommodation was good, and there was really nothing left to be desired. Every morning the Battalions marched away to the training ground, and by platoon, company, battalion, and finally brigade practised their particular part of the scheme of attack. After a hard day's work they marched back again, hot and dusty, to plunge into the river that so conveniently flowed through the middle of the village. It was a somewhat novel sight to see hundreds of men without the superfluity of bathing costumes swimming in the midst of a civilian population, which could hardly fail to see the whole proceedings. Under abnormal conditions even the most civilised drop back, almost without noticing, to the primitive; and conventions, under the pressure of necessity, just drop off for the time being. Tired, dusty men and a smooth-flowing river. "Que voulez-vous," says madame, "e'est la guerre, monsieur." And so bathing goes on without any protest from the village father in the person of "Monsieur le Maire," who, by the way, is not backward if a few francs can be made out of the benevolent British Government. A trip to St. Omer for bathing parade was full of interest. Fortunately the interior economy of the baths had been somewhat disarranged, and in consequence there was an excellent excuse to let all hands have a look round the historic old town. St. Omer was well outside the danger zone, and was therefore very much more normal than Armentières, Estaires, Ballieul or even Hazebrouck. The main evidence of war in these parts was the great number of officers in St. Omer, due to the town being an extremely important centre of Army organisation; the huge aerodrome just outside; and the spare Huns kindly lent by the Kaiser's Army. There were hundreds of page 139them employed on various kinds of work in the vicinity. Generally speaking, they seemed a well-fed, happy-looking people, by no means ill-contented with their lot. Many newspapers during the war made much of the miserable appearance and physique that was supposed to be the mark of the degenerate Hun. This was so much nonsense, as the average German soldier was a good type of man. Journalism of this character has given rise to the feeling that the German Army was after all a very miserable organisation, needing but a breath to overthrow it. As a matter of fact the German Army and the German soldier compared very favourably with the average of any of the armies. This foolish talk, although useful as propaganda to hearten the war-weary civilians, was only another way of belittling the work of our own men. Huns were hard people to beat, and it took heavy fighting to win victories. If the German Army had been as contemptible as it was made to appear on paper, the Allies would have won the war in a few weeks at a small cost. But it was far otherwise. The twelve days training in the pleasant villages passed only too quickly, and the battalions made ready for the long tramp back to the battle sector and the great event toward which everything had for so long been moving. All through the winter the Australians had been busy on the Somme. They had taken Bapaume, and their patrols had pushed on to the Hindenburg Line. At Arras the storm had burst, and the Canadians, taking Vimy Ridge, had won much praise. Australians busy, Canadians fighting, it was time for New Zealand to pass "Onward" once again. Hardened up by the marching and training, all were fit and eager.