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Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The Story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp, and Some Account of the Daily Round of the Troops within Its Bounds

The Engineers

page 76

The Engineers

Sturdy and strung and soldierly,
To us the squad appears;
The women are waving their handkerchiefs,
The men are hoarse with cheers
For the handy men, the dandy men—
The men of the Engineers.

"A Soldier first and an engineer after" is the motto of the sapper. Not until the elementary portions of Infantry Training, 1914, have been mastered and Table A—the recruit's course of musketry—left behind does the month-old sapper proceed to the trenches, the brushwood on the hill, and the bridging of the Hutt River.

The field engineer is the handy man of the Army. When other people get into difficulties the sapper is called in. It may be to go over the parapet to clear some barbed-wire obstacles; or perhaps it is nothing more exciting than a very determined leakage of hot water from that rendezvous of dirty men, the Divisional Baths. Kipling makes his sappers modestly sing—

"We are the men who do something all round,
With the rank and the pay of a sapper."

The men with the blue puggaree—the sign of the Engineers—have traditions. Before the New Zealand Engineers were thought of the Royal Engineers had made their mark. The men of the New Zealand Engineers have a very high standard set by the parent corps. In New Zealand and page 77Gallipoli and France, officers and n.c.o's of the Royal Engineers have steadied the Dominion organisation, and no sketch of the work of the New Zealand Engineers would be complete without this fact being fully recognised. And now it is the proud boast of the New Zealand Engineers that, though few numerically in comparison with the other arms, they hold the record for decorations and awards in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. To this it may be added that ninety per cent, of the four field companies in France have been trained at Trentham.

Every morning the squads of engineers may be seen marching out. The men are in four stages of training, for, unlike the infantry, the sapper completes the whole of his course at Trentham. And the radius of their operations extends from the parade-ground to the trenches, to the manuka scrub on the hill, and away to the river at Silverstream.

The recruit squad spends much of its time on the parade-ground, working at the new bayonet-fighting and physical drill. These two phases of training inculcate in the recruit the soldierly virtues of fitness and confidence. Here, also, the sapper learns to handle the rifle from the musketry point of view; he gets his aiming and firing instruction, and, having fired his Table A, he is ready to proceed to the trenches, where his training in military engineering really begins.

In many ways engineering as the soldier needs it is quite distinct from civil engineering. Although the first principles must necessarily be the same, the application is very different. The civil engineer goes in for every labour-saving device and costly machinery. In the Army it is a question of men. Labour is plentiful and the exigencies of the situation, such as concealing the work from the enemy, must be borne in mind. So it often happens that men who shone in their civil work find themselves at sea when military engineering is first encountered. At Trentham every man is a tradesman or a professional engineer. But in the second month of the training each man, whatever his previous occupation, marches forth in the morning in his denims, armed with the very elementary pick and shovel. And down in that maze of earthworks known as "the trenches" he gradually acquires much knowledge. He learns the uses of a traverse; he realises that if his communication trenches are made straight they may be enfiladed—that is, exposed to a devastating enemy fire-—and in a few weeks his talk is all of A frames, revetments, and duckwalks. In this month he touches on the elementary principles employed in bridging, such as the proper tying of knots, the raising of sheers and derricks; and he probes into the deep mysteries of stresses and strains on spars and cordage.

page 78

The digging of trenches leads to the question of providing support for the walls or sides. If these are not supported they are liable to fall in after rain. Troops moving through the trenches brush against the sides and help to break down the earth—and made-up earth will not stand in any case unless it has a considerable slope. So the engineers devise revetments. Anything that is used to support steep earth walls is a revetment. Sods, sandbags, corrugated iron, brushwood, expanded metal, and wire netting are pressed into the service. In France the Allies use tremendous quantities of sandbags and metal revetments. Owing to the blockade the Germans are denied the use of sandbags, and they use, instead, great quantities of brushwood hurdles which are made in the forests by civilian labour. As manuka is plentiful around Trentham, brushwood is largely used for revetting. Anyone trained with hurdles can always manage galvanised iron later on. Every day, up in the sweet-smelling manuka, men cut the long growths and build them into hurdles, gabions, and fascines.

Down at the river on a sunny morning the engineers were at work. Wagons carrying pontoons drew up at the river-bank; the heavy-looking pontoons that were made by the engineers on their training-grounds were swiftly unloaded and launched. Men and baulks of timber moved rapidly and accurately like pawns and kings on a chessboard—indeed, the cross-bearers of the bridges are called chesses—and rafts were formed which grew into a bridge that spanned the swiftly-flowing stream. It was an example of what men can do with regulation material. But the sapper is often in the position of the Israelites who were expected to make good bricks without straw—though even if he had no straw he would devise some other way of building a bridge; but give him some trusses of straw or hay and the bridge is half-built.

The trusses of straw were tumbled out of the wagons and some tarpaulins were lashed round them, so that numerous large and awkward parcels were made. Then they were launched, with booms and distance-pieces to keep them in proper formation, the distance-pieces acting as road-bearers, upon which the chesses or roadway planks are laid, and lo! a steady and stable footbridge reaches from shore to shore.

The average civilian has some idea of the capacity of casks. The sapper is concerned not so much with what amount of liquid a cask will hold as with what amount it will keep out, and, in doing so, provide sufficient buoyancy to carry a bridge and all the military loads likely to be imposed upon it. He multiplies the number of gallons by nine and arrives at the safe buoyancy in pounds.

page 79

On that autumn morning there were casks afloat in the cool, clear water, and men busy lashing them together, until a third bridge had been built. Perhaps it was the ease and skill of the thing which filled an eager sapper with an undue sense of the omnipotence of the New Zealand Engineers. At any rate, he stepped off a plank into the water, and was hauled out unceremoniously by a burly second-lieutenant and another sapper.

"That is one thing that We cannot do yet, Mills," said the officer—"we can't walk on the water!"

"No, sir," said Mills, and went hurriedly back to the work he had been doing.

Like many other recruit sappers, Mills was accumulating a store of knowledge he had never dreamed of in his plumbing experiences—a store of knowledge that would stand him in good stead on that eventful day when he would take his place in one of the veteran field companies which are now doing such magnificent work as part of the Expeditionary Force. The work of those companies is sufficient testimony to the soundness of the training at Trentham.