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The Auckland Regiment

XXVI Holding the Line

page 207

XXVI Holding the Line

"The magpies in Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flicker down the dusty roads,
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy
Through Picardy to Hell."

Throughout the months of April, May, June and July the New Zealand Division was employed holding the line. During this time extremely heavy fighting took place round Armentieres in the north and Rheims in the south. In both these localities the enemy launched very heavy attacks and penetrated to a great depth, but in both cases they were stopped before irretrievable disaster occurred. The New Zealanders would probably have been withdrawn and flung into one or the other of these areas but for the fact that a renewed German thrust toward Amiens was continually being threatened. On more than one occasion such an attack was expected almost daily, and all troops were warned to be in constant readiness.

1/Auckland had been withdrawn from the line on March 28th, and then on April 2nd came in once more, relieving 1/Wellington. They were themselves relieved forty-eight hours later by the 3/N.Z.R.B. Next day, April 5th, the enemy attacked with great violence on a wide front. Their artillery fire was very heavy, not only on the front lines, but also on the back areas. The Aucklanders of both battalions had rather a lively morning, but, fortunately, few casualties were sustained. Determined infantry assaults on the New Zealand position broke down before the steady resistance of the Rifle Brigade. This was the last effort made by the enemy to break through in the area of the Somme battlefield.

The position was now reasonably secure, and the next business was to consolidate it in such a fashion that no future attack, however heavy or sustained, would be likely to succeed. page 208Within the divisional area three distinct trench systems were constructed. The front system, known as the Green Line, was largely made up of the old 1916 trenches renovated. Three thousand yards or thereabouts to the rear was the Purple Line, a very strong defensive position, which had at all costs to be held. Further back still was the Red Line, and still further to the rear were other lines constructed by Corps and Army troops. Switch lines connected up the various systems. An enormous amount of work was necessary before the defensive works in the divisional area were complete, and battalions not in the line were always sure of employment.

2/Auckland stayed in the Purple Line round about Courcelles until April 9th, when they relieved 2/N.Z.R.B. in the sector stretching from Waterloo Bridge to a point half way to Hebuterne. The sector was a long one, but quiet, except for a certain amount of desultory shelling. Here the 15th Company had the misfortune to lose Company-Sergeant Major Brown, a very old, tried and trusty soldier, who from the days of the Main Body had been engaged in all the fighting. He particularly distinguished himself in the Battle of Messines. At this time there were very few Main Body men with good fighting records still remaining with the Regiment, and the loss of any of them was a very serious matter. "Old soldiers never die, they only fade away," is not quite correct. Certainly the less steadfast element did drift back to base camps and "soft jobs," but the finer sort were killed sooner or later. It was just a question of time. Some survived for a year, and were lucky to do so. Some came through a second year. Not many lived through a third. A very few, and one could name them on the fingers of one hand, went right through the war and fought in the last six months with the same dash and daring that had marked them out in the first weeks at Anzac; but even with these it was just a question of time, and if the war had lasted a little longer they, too, would have gone. Death came to all—to the brave man and to the coward. Sometimes he reaped a wide swathe, and other times as a gleaner does, he gathered his harvest one by one, but page 209always it was the best and the bravest who were most likely to meet the dread reaper. To a very large extent men were able to make their own choice. Some, despite physical infirmity and the breaking of all their material prospects, enlisted at once, and then, volunteers always, exposed themselves to every danger and hardship of war. They lost their lives, but in the memory of those who knew them they still live. Others there were who chose to live. They sheltered behind legal technicalities; in the first and second year of the war took unto themselves wives, and from behind a petticoat gave expression to a fine patriotism; they became indispensable to the community and could not be spared; they discovered physical defects that, while in no sense debarring them from the hardest manual work or keen participation in all games, could yet be made much of when it came to a medical inspection. They walk our streets to-day, and they think that all is forgotten. They saved their lives, but we who knew those others, though we say nothing, find it not easy to forget.

2/Auckland were relieved on the 14th by 2/Wellington, and went back to Colincamps, while, on the same day, 1/Auckland went into the line, taking over from the Serre road to Waterloo Bridge. Though fairly quiet on the whole, the crossroads by the Sugar Factory were heavily shelled. Captain Alexander was badly wounded by a sniper early in the morning of the 15th, and on the same day three bombing attacks were carried out on a Hun post in one of the saps. There was some lively bombing, but nothing definite was achieved. On the 17th, the Battalion was relieved, going back to posts in the Purple Line. At the same time 2/Auckland moved back to a tarpaulin camp near Bertrancourt. The weather was not good, and the men were not very comfortable, but the spell out enabled them to have a clean up and get new underclothing. A week later the 1/Battalion took over the trenches in front of Hebuterne, while the 2/Battalion were in support in and behind the village. The sector was taken over partly from English and partly from Australian troops. Much work was necessary to put the trenches into good order. New Zealanders page 210had plenty of this kind of thing to do, as it was always their custom to leave a sector in better condition than that in which they found it. Simply as a working division the New Zealanders had a very good name. So many of them had been used since boyhood to an outdoor life, to digging, road-making and the simple engineering on a farm, that this aptitude for doing "war work" is not to be wondered at.

On the 30th, 1/Auckland was relieved by I/Wellington, and went back in support, while the 2/Battalion took over the right half of the Brigade's sector—a very strong portion of the front, which completely overlooked the enemy position in the valley below. The enemy, so inconveniently placed, very sensibly kept quiet.

Another move back look place on May 6th, when 1/Auckland went back to the locality known as J 22 Central, not far from the Chateau de la Have, while 2/Auckland went into the Purple Line near the windmill of Bertrancourt. It was now well into the middle of spring, and the weather was becoming much finer, and the conditions in every way more pleasant. After a week in reserve the 1/Brigade took over the right subsector of the divisional front, 2/Auckland remaining in brigade reserve at Colincamps, while the 1st Battalion once more took over the Serre road sector. All through the next day there was considerable movement behind the enemy lines, but no resulting activity. At 6 p.m. Sergeant-Major Rogers, with five O.R.'s, left the trench by Mountjoy Sap, and raided an enemy strong point, for the purpose of obtaining identification. They found the trenches fully occupied and were unable to bring back any prisoners, although in the lively fight that took place they were successful in killing a considerable number of the enemy and managed to get back to their own line without loss. The following night the enemy endeavoured to retaliate by raiding an advanced Lewis gun post. A patrol fortunately located the raiding party while they were assembling in No-Man's-Land, and so enabled a destructive fire to be poured into the party, which was dispersed with loss. Although a big German attack was expected at any time, everyone was in the page 211best of spirits. Morale was at its very best, and if the Hun did come no one had any very great fear of the result. The general opinion was that although in the first surprise he might rush some of the front posts, his penetration would proceed no further—a very comfortable theory for all except those who for the time being happened to be garrisoning the posts in question.

During the evening of the 15th a platoon of the North Auckland Company, commanded by Lieutenant Stunnell, one of the old Main Body men, now promoted to commissioned rank, carried out a raid on the enemy line. Under cover of an artillery and trench mortar barrage they filed out into No-Man's-Land, and immediately the barrage lifted rushed in. They quickly bombed five dug-outs, killing some twenty of the enemy, and then returned with two prisoners and a light machine-gun, suffering no loss themselves. The whole operation barely took five minutes, and was a splendid example of the perfectly successful raid. A retaliatory barrage put down by the enemy caused a few casualties—amongst them being Major Holland, M.C. His death was a heavy blow, not only to the Regiment but also to the Brigade and the Division. Enlisting as a private in the same section of the 6th Company as Tuck, Tilsley and Melville, he had earned a wonderful reputation during the Gallipoli days. For his services there he was granted a commission and awarded the Military Cross—an honour which he and Captain Wallingford were the only Aucklanders to receive throughout that campaign. A man very keen on winning the war, extremely conscientious, and though not loved as well as some, yet universally respected, and greatly admired for his thoroughness, devotion to duty, and his great valour. When one thinks of the best fighting men the Regiment produced—men like Wallingford, Holland, Tilsley, Warden, Tuck, Forrest, Jock McKenzie, the Allens, Vercoe, Todd, Brewer, Prendergast, Rogers, Roberts, Robertson, Brown the stretcher-bearer, Campion, Greenwood, Stewart, Tom Gordon, Dr. Craig, Faithful, and if it be permissible to include him, Forsyth, V.C., the engineer—it is barely pos-page 212sible to say this man or that was the bravest of them all. They differed in character, rank and attainments, but as far as courage was concerned they stand very much on a level. Major Holland's name will always be one of the most honoured of them all, equalled by some, but not surpassed by any. One more of the "Old Brigade" had gone. Continuous movement on the part of the enemy and much shell fire marked the remaining days spent in the line, and then on the 18th the Battalion was relieved by 1/Wellington.

2/Auckland came in, and occupied their old position before La Signy Farm. For the first few days there was quietness, undisturbed by anything more serious than a few rather badly aimed minenwerfers. Sergeant-Major Roberts was, as usual, very active on patrol work. It was during this spell in that the Battalion was raided for the only time in its history. Just before daylight the enemy guns played a heavy barrage on the front and support lines, which he followed up by a dash on the salient in Central Avenue. The raiders were observed and dispersed by Lewis gun fire, leaving behind them two dead and six rifles. On the evening of the 20th, the Battalion was relieved, and marched right back to billets in St. Leger Authie, a small village some miles behind the line. This march to billets was memorable, as owing to a late start the hour for the wearing of gas masks occurred actually during the march. For those who could raise no reasonable excuse for dropping behind, and then out of sight, the march was exceedingly unpleasant. St. Leger Authie was a typical little French village, and though the billets were not of the best, at the same time they were a very pleasant change after two months in the trenches and open fields.

The countryside of Picardy and Artois was different altogether from that around Armentieres and Ypres. Instead of level flats, stretching for mile after mile, there was here for a long distance alternating hill and valley. Both alike were well grassed, and much of the ground was down in crops. Patches of woodland were frequent, and were much used for camping grounds. From Hebuterne, which may be taken as page 213the central point of the New Zealand line, the road ran back to Sailly-au-Bois, an extensive village, considerably damaged by shell fire, but which before the war must have been an exceedingly pleasant place, nestling amongst its beautiful hedge-rows and trees. From here it continued down a long valley past Rossignol Farm, Couin and Coigneux, and so to Authie St. Leger. Authie itself, a considerable village, with a fine chateau in the middle of it, was a kilometre further on. Authie was in many ways the social centre of the Division when troops were out of the line. It possessed a large Y.M.C.A., a number of excellent estaminets, and also a first-class natural amphitheatre, which served excellently for concerts given by one or other of the divisional troupes. From here the road continued down the valley through Orville to Doullens, the only considerable town within reach. Without being of any great size, it yet had sufficient attractions to justify a visit when funds were available and a day's leave could be obtained. As one faced the front line, Marieux Wood, Lovencourt, Bertrancourt, Bus, Courcelles and Colincamps were all on the right hand side of the road from Doullens to Hebuterne, while on the left were Pas, Henu, Souastre. Fonquevillers, and finally, right on the line, Gommecourt. Marieux Wood was the divisional centre for the "B" teams, who were all concentrated here for the purpose of training. Ever since the fighting on the Somme in 1916 it had been the practice to leave a certain percentage of the personnel of a battalion in reserve whenever heavy fighting was anticipated. Experience had shown that in case of very heavy casualties it was often extremely difficult to carry on again, when things returned more or less to normal, owing to heavy losses in officers, N.C.O.'s and trained specialists. The object of the "B" team was to have a sufficient nucleus of experienced men always available from whom, in case of any disaster, the battalion could readily be built up again, still retaining that "continuity of command" and of "feeling" so necessary if a unit is to be a really good one. The practice had been extended by this time, and a battalion in the later stages of the page 214war sent back its "duds," as they were familiarly known, even when it was merely going in for an ordinary trench spell. It was usual for the Battalion Commander and his Second-m Command to take turns in staying back. The same rule was followed by company commanders and their seconds-in-command. Three platoon officers went in with each company. The Regimental-Sergeant-Major and two Company-Sergeant Majors, with a certain number of junior N.C.O.'s and men formed the remainder of the party to stay out. As far as 2/Auckland were concerned, Colonel Allen always made a rule of leaving Major Sinel with the "B" team. In consequence, the Major, who had left Anzac with a very fine reputation, had little chance of displaying his ability as a fighting soldier.

Louvencourt was for a considerable while the railhead for the New Zealand Division, and, in consequence, was the home of the various battalion transport details, those of the 1/Brigade camping close to the windmill of Lovencourt. This village was for a long time crowded with the men of a very fine French Division, which was there lying in reserve in case of a renewed effort by the enemy to break through.

The Entrenching Battalions had established themselves in the large and beautiful wood above the village of Pas. As all reinforcements passed through here, including men returned from hospital, the camp under the trees was frequently visited by all those who had got word of old friends coming up to the Division. Rossignol Farm, renamed "Diggerville," a frequent home of 1/Auckland, was a very large Y.M.C.A. centre.

1/Auckland in the Bois de Warnimont, and 2/Auckland in St. Leger, settled down to a week's concentrated training. There was much to be done. After two months in the line a considerable deal of smartening up was necessary, much attention was paid to gas training, and a considerable deal of time was also spent in carrying out battalion battle manoeuvres. The difficulty with which these operations were sometimes carried out showed how necessary training of this sort really was. Certain hilarious people from the Entrenching Group page 215celebrated a pay-day in Authie, and, being considerably elevated, became entangled with certain members of 1st and 2/Auckland, 2/Wellington and the Military Police. As the "M.P.'s" failed to carry off the honours of the day—or night rather—they raised a storm at Brigade Headquarters, which resulted in the three battalions aforementioned doing an hour's extra gas drill. Colonel Allen's contention that 2/Auckland were not concerned is probably correct, although this abstention on their part was due, not to the fact that they were too proud to fight, but that their estaminets lay further up the road. The average infantryman, no matter how law-abiding a person he may happen to be, had a tremendous averison to military police. It is safe to say that the only body of police who were ever really popular were the regimental police of 2/Auckland—and they never made an arrest.

A brigade horse show and transport competition was held at Vauchelles, whither the battalions marched one bright summer's day. The show ground was a very pleasant meadow with patches of woodland scattered about. Some New Zealand nursing sisters and some ladies from the district gave a touch of colour to the mass of khaki-clad men. Everything went off splendidly. 2/Auckland were successful in carrying off practically all the prizes, including General Melvill's Cup. Incidents like this made men forget the war for brief hours, though not for long.

Every night there was a droning in the air, and the heavy-laden Hun bombing 'planes flew down the line of the valley to Doullens—often not so far. It is never a pleasant feeling waiting for the last 'plane to get safely past, especially when there are only a few tiles overhead.

On June 1st, 2/Auckland went into Brigade reserve in and behind Sailly, while the 1/Battalion went into the line in front of Hebuterne. With the exception of a little shelling, the sector was quiet. A patrol party, endeavouring to locate a Hun strong point, were unlucky enough to be observed and to have a heavy machine-gun fire directed upon them, which wounded eight of the party. Nothing else happened, and then on the page 2166th the Battalion was relieved by Manchester troops, and went back to J 22 Central, near the windmill of Bertrancourt, and then after a week in that position moved back to the tented camp at Couin. 2/Auckland carried out a similar move, and then a few days later 1/Auckland moved to Louvencourt, and 2/Auckland to a very comfortable camp at Vauchelles. With the exception of three battalions which were garrisoning the Purple Line, the whole Division was now out of the line, and busily employed in training.

This period of training was noteworthy for the number of social events which took place. First and foremost, Colonel S. S. Allen went over to England and got married.

A divisional horse show and sports was a very great success. It was largely attended. Many generals and other distinguished people were present. Not the least interested was a Hun airman, who came over to see the boxing. Someone evidently disturbed his peace of mind by shooting upon him with an anti-aircraft gun, for he shortly after flew away. Not long after, probably on his instigation, a big gun commenced to fire shells round about the area of the show ground. The programme was almost over, and so the shelling was taken as a broad hint to go home.

The 1/Brigade's debating competition resulted in 2/Auckland scoring a victory in the first round over 1/Auckland, but losing the final to 2/Wellington. This final excited a great deal of interest. It was held out in the open before an audience of several hundred men, the subject being: "Is a League of Nations Desirable ?" 2/Wellington's victory was well earned.

Mr. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward, otherwise "Bill and Joe," took this opportunity of visiting the Division. Their first appearance was at the pierrot show in the open-air theatre at Authie. It is very regrettable, but nevertheless a fact, that the politicians were not taken altogether seriously, and were regarded more or less as a "star turn" on the programme. Something of the same sort happened a few days later, when they appeared again, this time at a church parade. Unfortunately, they were not allowed to preach, and so enliven the page 217proceedings a little; but at the conclusion of the ceremony their turn came—and also that of the congregation.

The mention of "church parades" brings up the question of religion. It is a subject that cannot be passed over as lightly as one might think. New Zealanders were generally supposed by army evangelists to be a very hard type to touch—harder even than the Australians—and very little religion was apparent amongst them. To start off with, very few men even in civilian life are at all deeply interested in the subject. A considerable number fall in with the ceremonial and social demands of the church simply from long-established habit. War came, and established habits went to the winds. Once overseas men did as they pleased in all the private relationships of life. It was very easy to run wild—it was rather difficult to keep straight. The influence of the chaplains, taken as a whole, was exceedingly small. Perhaps the real cause of this ineffectiveness was the disunion of the Church and her utter inability to give any clear leadership on any of the great issues of the time. This mental and moral cowardice was reflected in the Army. Chaplains always had a tendency to be obsessed with the fact that they were army officers, and to forget that first and foremost they were "men of God." One example will make things clear. A divisional order was issued to the effect that chaplains must not accompany their battalions into the line. Almost inconceivable to relate, this order was obeyed by the majority of the chaplains then with the Division. The Army was perfectly right in issuing the order, and the clergymen were quite correct in obeying it, but the whole underlying principle was wrong. As a rule chaplains were men whose moral conduct was unimpeachable, but who were not distinguished above ordinary men for courage and self-sacrifice. They were a good average—perhaps a little better than average—but from the followers of One Crucified, whose primary business, according to their creed, was "to lay down their lives for the sheep," it was perfectly justifiable to expect much more than mediocrity. One of the most saddening things of the war from the point of view of the Christian man was the page 218ease with which a padre could win for himself a reputation for bravery. Compulsory church parade did a tremendous lot of harm to real religion. It disgusted the average man. He was quite willing to give up his freedom and to submit to a rigorous discipline; he was prepared to give his life, but it seemed rather an unnecessary infliction compelling him to be religious "by numbers." From the point of view of the Higher Command church parade was an excellent institution. It was an admirable opportunity for some of that "ceremonial drill" which is so very essential to give the sense of battalion and brigade solidarity. However admirable as discipline, from the point of view of religion, church parade was a deplorable failure. From disunion, timidity, lack of vision and leadership the official representatives of religion failed even more deplorably than under civilian conditions to touch the hearts of men in the mass. Despite the failure of the padres, religion did not entirely die out. Before the first sailing from Egypt a group of men gathered frequently in the Y.M.C.A. tent of Mr. Oatts at Zeitoun. Sadly depleted, they maintained a precarious footing at Anzac, revived strongly at Lemnos, grew again during the reorganisation in Egypt, but almost disappeared in the early months of the French campaign. They came together again before Messines, forming groups in units, and linking these groups together in a divisional movement under the name of the "Brotherhood of Men of Goodwill." Many were killed and wounded at Messines, but during the spell for training the movement gathered impetus, and though nearly shot to pieces at Passchendaele, it went steadily forward, growing in numbers and influence, Denominationalism simply vanished —the very simplest essentials being found sufficient basis for unity of effort. Here on the Somme the movement made splendid progress, and the first great rally of the religious element in the Division took place. Representatives of every unit in the Division assembled in the large upper room of the biggest estaminet in Authie. It was a remarkable gathering or Catholic Christianity. From this time on the Brotherhood grew from more to more, until it reached its culminating point page 219in the magnificent rally held after the Armistice, when General Russell addressed the gathering. Throughout the later stages of the war the Brotherhood notice was a familiar one in all the Y.M.C.A. centres. At this time, however, the prospect of an armistice or peace seemed a very long way off. Even as men knelt to receive the Sacrament the windows rattled and the house shook as great pieces of cannon rumbled through the main street.

Authie was the centre of reunions of all sorts. Freemasons, Grammar School Old Boys, Old "A"s of the Training College, all held most successful functions. Altogether the spell was an exceeding pleasant one, and when the time came for a move forward the morale of the men was excellent. The general health and fitness was also good, except for the influenza epidemic which now broke out. Commencing in the east and centre of Europe, amongst populations whose resisting power had been lowered by the food scarcity, the disease rapidly spread westward, through the German army and across NoMan's-Land. A number of New Zealanders went down with it, but there were very few really serious cases, and scarcely any deaths. All the "flu" patients were concentrated in a camp at Marieux Wood, as delightful a spot as could have be n found anywhere.