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The Maoris in the Great War

Chapter XII. — The Pioneers in the Battle of Messines. (June, 1917.)

page 108

Chapter XII.
The Pioneers in the Battle of Messines.
(June, 1917.)

Many weeks were occupied by the New Zealanders in the spring and early summer of 1917, with preparations for the great attack on Messines, the object of which was the capture by the 2nd Army of the six miles length of this ridge occupied by the Germans from St. Yves in the south beyond Wytschaete, and the capture of as many as possible of the enemy's guns in the vicinity of Oosttaverne and to the north-east of Messines, to take Messines, to consolidate the line which would give possession of the ridge, and to establish a forward position on which counter-attacks could be met at a safe distance from the crest. General Godley's command for this operation comprised the New Zealanders, the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions, and the 25th and 57th English Divisions. The Maoris were to have their due part in the operations of consolidating the positions won.

Meanwhile the work of the preceding three months will be summarised.

Oosthove Farm remained the headquarters of the Battalion until the last days of March, when headquarters shifted over to Pioneer Camp. A great deal of hard and useful work was done during the month, including assistance to the Canadian tunnellers, the continuation of the work on Toronto Avenue and St. Yves Avenue trenches, and the digging of a new support line, Prowse Point to St. Yves post office, a new support line on the left, R.E. Farm to Midland Farm. On the 29th, the Pioneer Camp was taken over and Oosthove Farm was handed over to the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles (25th Division). On the 30th, there was heavy German shell-fire, directed on the 60-pounder battery near B Company, working on one of the support lines. On March 31st, Colonel King laid off a system of terraces with deep tunnelled dug-outs in the rear slopes of Hill 63 (which the Germans had been shelling heavily) page 109 between Red Lodge and Hyde Park Corner, for the Battalion. A and C Companies started work on these next day, erecting tents in which to live in the meantime. The Germans were still busy shelling the 60-pounder battery on the Neuve Eglise road behind B Company. The work on this big job and on the various trench lines occupied the Battalion during April. One of the tasks given to D Company, was widening and deepening a Canadian trench called Medicine Hat Trail. Another, C Company's job, was Calgary Avenue. On April 13th, Lieut.-Col. King was evacuated sick (measles) from Bailleul to hospital at Wimeneux, Boulogne, and returned well, on April 20th. The enemy artillery was active all the month. Headquarters was shifted to Red Lodge, and in the early part of May, A Company continued the tunnelling job at Hill 63. B Company was employed entirely in operating, constructing and deepening the divisional train system between De Kennebax rail-head and the front line system. C Company kept one platoon (Kaa's) working with B Company on the trains, and the remaining three platoons finished off the repairing of Plum Duff Road and the road from Leeuwerk Farm to Le Rossignol, and also completed the formation of emergency roads west of Plum Duff Road. D Company completed the new portion of Currie Avenue from Plum Duff to the tram-line and from Well Lane to Gabion Farm. The Company also started on repairs to the old portion between those places. Later some men were employed on emergency roads in Kennebax Valley and cutting down trees to clear lines of fire for the New Zealand Divisional Artillery. During the latter part of the month artillery firing on both sides was heavy, and dumps were exploded almost daily on both side of the line. Railway sidings and other works for trains were constructed, roads were formed and metalled, trenches were elaborated, and there was plenty of repair work always going on, as “blow-outs” were frequent occurrences owing to the attentions of the enemy artillery. On the last day of May there was particularly heavy gun firing, and the enemy was throwing gas shells about freely. A large enemy dump was blown up behind Messines early in the morning and the explosion shook the whole place like an earthquake. In the page 110 evening a British dump was burning for some hours. “There is a most appalling row going on the whole 24 hours near our headquarters,” wrote Lieut.-Col. King, “and we shall be glad to move further forward.”

June came in with fine weather, mostly brilliant, cloudless days. Trench work was carried on vigorously and the various other activities of the Corps were kept going, including such jobs as building a ration dump siding on the rail line and putting up name and direction boards on all roads and tracks. Constant and heavy enemy shelling kept the repair gangs working full time on communication trenches and tram-lines. Some very good work was done by these parties working under heavy fire, and at no time were either the trenches or the rails blocked for more than an hour or two. The casualties for June, 1st-6th, were 3 killed and 24 wounded.

On June 1st, Captain Ennis was promoted to major for good service in the field, and took over command of D Company. Captain Young was appointed adjutant in his place.

On the night of June 6th, orders were issued for what was styled the “magnum opus,” and all the companies remained in camp ready to start on the “big stunt.” The O.C., with Major Buck and the company commanders, and taking runners and telephones, went on the forward slopes of Hill 63 just after dark and dug-in in a position from which they would be able to keep track of the fight. The foe's gas shells were very troublesome during the night.

The orders issued by the O.C. Pioneers are worth giving in full here for their historical military value as a specimen of the very full and clear operation orders given out by the Battalion Commanders during the war:—

New Zealand Pioneer Battalion.
Special Order No. 2.
By Lieut.-Col. G. A. King, D.S.O.

  • (1) The Second Army has been ordered to capture the Messines-Wytschaete ridge.
  • (2) The frontage of the attack allotted to the Corps extends from St. Yves to the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road.page 111
  • (3) The attack will be carried out by three divisions disposed side by side:—3rd Australian Division on the right, N.Z. Division in the centre, and 25th Division on the left. 20 tanks will co-operate—12 with the N.Z. Division, 4 with the 25th, and 4 held in reserve.
  • (4) The boundaries and objectives of the attack area of the N.Z. Division are shown on map to be seen at Battalion H.G.
  • (5) The tasks allotted to the Battalion are as follows:—
    • A Company.—Three platoons will construct a communication trench from the head of Wellington Avenue to German front line at approximately [numbered position on map given] thence [shown].
    • One platoon will repair road from Stinking Farm to Messines, first making it fit for pack transport throughout and later for waggons.
    • B Company will operate with Divisional trench tramway system according to programme laid down by the C.R.E.
    • C Company and such men of B Company who are not required for tram operating work, will extend the present tram system from head of existing line at Well Lane to such a place S.E. of Messines as may be found practicable by reconnaissance after capture of the ridge.
    • D Company will construct a communication trench from the head of Calgary Avenue to the German front line, at about Oyster Avenue, thence to [numbered positions on map].
  • (6) Battalion report centre will be at junction of Hughit Support and the Stinking Farm-Messines road.
  • (7) Companies will remain at their present camp on Z. day until they receive message “Carry on,” from Battalion H.Q., when they will move straight to their jobs by nearest and safe route.
  • (8) Kit and equipment as in Special Order No. 1.
  • (9) Each man will carry his iron rations and unexpended portion of his day's ration, and Coy. C.O.'s will arrange to have a hot meal ready in camp 6 hours after men start work.
  • (10) A and D Companies will complete their tasks as far as the German second line at least before leaving work, unless the enemy's fire is too heavy in the opinion of the C.O.
    The work of B and C Companies will depend on the nature of the country, but the line will be pushed on as far as possible in the first 9 hours after start, unless shell-fire is too heavy and the work being destroyed.
  • (11) Each platoon will post a gas-shell picquet of one man while at work.
  • (12) All tools will be brought back to camp by men using them.
  • (13) Equipment and arms of all dead and wounded men to be brought back to camp by their own platoon.
  • (14) Officers and men must stick to work. No hunting for souvenirs to be allowed.
  • (15) All papers, maps, etc., taken from enemy dead or found lying about must be collected by officers and handed in to Battalion H.Q., immediately on return from work. Anyone found in improper possession of above will be severely dealt with.page 112
  • (16) As far as practicable all dead of this Battalion will be sent down by trench trams and buried at Le Plus Oouve Farm Cemetery.
  • (17) On returning from work officers in command of parties will report in person at Battalion Report Centre, and give detailed report of work done during shift.
  • (18) Company C.O.'s will arrange shifts to keep the work moving as fast as possible after the first day.
  • (19) All Companies will return to present camps after shifts until further orders.
  • (20) Transport officers will supply waggons on demand from Battalion H.Q., but will not shift camp without written orders from O.C. Pioneers or O.C. Divisional Train.
  • (21) Rations will be supplied as at present except on Z.A. and B. days, for which they are held by companies.
  • (22) All trenches to be 3 ft. x 3 ft. at bottom.

(Signed) C. le P. Young, Captain. Adjutant N.Z. Pioneers.

At 3.10 a.m., on June 7th, the battle opened with the firing of mines on the front and a tremendous burst of fire from artillery of all sorts and sizes, besides machine-guns. For an hour or so it was too dim to see much of what was going on, but after that our infantry could be seen well around Messines, and apparently suffering very few casualties so far. At 8 a.m. the Pioneers moved forward and all parties were started at their big tasks, with the exception of A Company, whose work ground was being very heavily barraged, especially round Petit Douve Farm. A Company continued the Wellington Avenue trench from the old front line to the enemy support line (500 yards) and repaired Stinking Farm-Messines Road as far as the old front line. B and C Companies operated and maintained Well Lane and another trench and extended the Well Lane line 400 yards to the east. D Company carried Calgary Avenue as far forward as the enemy support line. The day's casualties among the Pioneers were:—
A Coy.B Coy.C Coy.D Coy.H.Q.
Total: 5 killed, 24 wounded.
On the following day, June 8th, all companies carried on with the jobs. A Company dug a further 225 yards in Wellington page break
Scene in the Battle of Messines Ridge. A shell bursting on the front line, June 14th, 1917.

Scene in the Battle of Messines Ridge.
A shell bursting on the front line, June 14th, 1917.

An example of the Germans' work. Wreck of a church shelled at La Creche. Photo in June, 1917.

An example of the Germans' work.
Wreck of a church shelled at La Creche. Photo in June, 1917.

page break
Opening a Communication Trench, near the famous Buttes, Ypres.

Opening a Communication Trench, near the famous Buttes, Ypres.

The Market-woman. A picture somewhere in France.

The Market-woman.
A picture somewhere in France.

page 113 Avenue and laid duck-walks throughout the new position. B and C Companies kept the Divisional trams running and completed lines on the 400 yards of formation done the previous day. They completed 190 yards of formation eastward and also maintained and operated Shrine and Hill 63 lines, which were blown in badly by the shell-fire. D Company dug and duck-walked a further 200 yards of Calgary Avenue trench, still in very bad ground. One man was killed and five were wounded this day.

On June 9th, A Company completed Wellington Avenue and laid duck-walks. B and C Companies worked on the tram lines, and also finished off the extension of Well Lane line, making 1,500 yards of new line open for traffic.

D Company carried on Calgary Avenue, making 1,200 yards new trench. A Company also worked one platoon on the Stinking Farm-Messines Road, and finished 1,400 yards of formation. The casualties for the day were two wounded.

On the morning of June 10th, the Battalion, less B Company, marched to a point on the road south of Neuve Eglise for a rest. B Company continued to operate and maintain the tram lines for 24 hours. News now came that the Division had been relieved by the 4th Australian Division and we handed over to the 4th Australian Pioneers (Colonel Sturdee). Everyone was very tired and the Maoris were all heartily glad to get out for a rest after the most strenuous toil under shell-fire. Red Lodge and Hill 63 had been heavily shelled every day since the 7th, and pelted with gas shells every night, so that no one had much sleep. All next day the Battalion rested. B Company handed over to the Australians and rejoined the other companies.

On June 12th, the Battalion moved on to Nieppe Chateau and took over from the 3rd Australian Pioneers. Headquarters and A Company were in the chateau, and the other companies in the neighbouring farms. Orders came to start work in the Ploegsteert area next day.

On the 13th, B Company took over the trench trams in Ploegsteert Wood from the 3rd Australian Pioneers. C and D Companies moved from the farms into the chateau as they had been shelled at night, when two men were wounded. The O.C. page 114 and Company Commanders went over the new area on the 14th and found that the Australians had done very little work since the advance on the 7th, and what there was done was of poor value. On the 15th, the Pioneers started work in shifts. A and C Companies set to at Anton's Farm communication trench. B Company extended the tram line and D Company continued on the road repairs east of Le Cheer. The roar of artillery was unending, and as the whole area was heavily shelled very little work was done. Two men were wounded. Trench work and other details were carried on. One job was the digging of Ultra Lane from the old front line to the German old front line, and the cleaning out of a considerable portion of German trenches.

On the 17th, A and C Companies dug a further 400 yards of Anton's Farm communication trench and other tasks were done. In the evening the Battalion moved back to the old quarters at Red Lodge. All the parties were heavily shelled this day. Twelve men were wounded and nine were gassed.

On June 18th, A and C Companies did further work on Anton's Farm communication trench near the Potteries. The ground was very bad and wet and heavy shell-fire interfered with the work. B Company operated and maintained the Divisional trench trams and extended the Prowse Point road formation 160 yards. D Company dug a further 150 yards of Ultra Lane trench and laid duck-walks throughout. Red Lodge and the Camp were shelled with high explosive and gas most of the night. The casualties for day and night were one man killed and eight wounded. A heavy thunderstorm in the afternoon added its artillery to the guns of man. Similar work was carried on for some days, and every day had its casualties from the almost constant shell-fire. On the 19th, three Maoris were killed and 12 wounded. The shelling at night was particularly troublesome; one man was wounded on the 20th. Three were killed and three wounded on the 21st; amongst the wounded was Captain Bruce; he was but slightly injured and remained on duty. Trench extension, constructing tram lines, repairing and the revetting of the trenches, and laying the wooden duck-walks were continued each day. Some of the trench was blown in on the night of the 22nd by heavy H.E. page 115 fire from Lille. Lieut. Vercoe sustained a slight wound but remained on duty. On the 23rd, three men were wounded and one gassed. Red Lodge's garrison had the night's sleep interfered with by gas and H.E. shelling. One man was killed, three were wounded and seven were gassed on the 23rd-24th. A man was killed by shell-fire and 15 were gassed on the 25th, when the fire was so heavy that no working parties were sent out. On the previous night gas shells were showered for six hours on and about Red Lodge. The casualties for the 26th and 27th June were two wounded and seven gassed. On the night of the 27th, the Battalion, less B Company, moved on to De Seule. B Company remained at Underhill Farm until the night of the 28th to hand over to the 4th Australian Pioneers, who were only taking over the trams and not tackling the communication trenches. It was announced that the New Zealand Division was being relieved by the 4th Australian Division, but the New Zealand 4th Brigade remained holding the right flank to the River Lys. The Maoris were heartily glad to get away from Red Lodge, where they had been shelled regularly every night from 10.15 until 2 a.m. with gas and H.E., and no one had had any sleep worth mentioning. One man was wounded this day.

The Battalion's casualties from June 7th to June 28th (1917) were:—Killed 17, wounded 88, gassed 45, N.Y.D. 5; total 155.

The work done in the fortnight from June 14th totalled 5,000 yards of trench digging and the construction of considerable lengths of tram lines.

On the morning of June 29th, the Battalion packed up and complete with transport, marched for Vieux Berquin, where it halted at 10 a.m. Very good though rather scattered billets were found to the N.W. of the town. Next day the Battalion rested (“No work for anyone,” the O.C. noted in his official diary, “and a damn good job.”) So ended the strenuous month of June, 1917.