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The Maoris in the Great War

Chapter XIV. — The Third Battle of Ypres. (October, 1917.)

Chapter XIV.
The Third Battle of Ypres.
(October, 1917.)

page 124

The New Zealand Division was now preparing for its part in the new offensive around Ypres. The Anzac troops under General Godley relieved the Fifth Army Corps in the northern sector of the extended Second Army front, and the Pioneers had a very busy time preparing the way for the artillery's movements and the passage of troops and transport. At 6 a.m. on October 4th, our guns opened a tremendous barrage fire on the German defences. Those who heard that artillery fire say it was the heaviest of the war. Besides the big howitzers, the New Zealanders were supported by one hundred and eighty 18-pounders and sixty 4.5-inch howitzers, and there was also a machine-gun barrage to take the assaulting columns forward, break up counter-attacks, and protect the infantry on the captured objectives. As it proved, our attack only just anticipated an intended enemy attack. The Anzac infantry moved out in splendid order, covered by the splendidly accurate barrage and soon were closely engaged with the Germans, capturing trenches and “pill-boxes,” shooting, bayoneting and taking prisoners.*

The day's work resulted in the establishment by our men of a new line beyond Gravenstafel and Abraham Heights, and the capture of over 1,000 prisoners. The enemy's shelling was not heavy west of Kansas Cross, and at 11 a.m. B Coy., and later A Coy. Pioneers commenced repairs on the road forward to Kansas Cross. The Maoris did excellent work on the roads and artillery tracks, but wet weather on the 6th and several days afterwards, and the trains of pack mules along the newly formed earth road turned it into a quagmire. For several days it was a steady fight with mud. All available men were set to work carrying fascines. Guns and horses were bogged page 125 everywhere. The Maoris pulled many guns out and into position but the road was in a fearful condition. The O.C. noted: “The trains of pack mules, with their small feet and incompetent drivers, are our worst trouble, as they play havoc with our work.” Rain every day (7th-10th). On October 11th all possible assistance was given to the R.F.A. who were trying to get their batteries into position. D Company took three platoons over to assist the N.Z.F.A., who were getting their guns forward on the St. Julian Road.

On the 12th, the New Zealand Division renewed the attack but were held up by machine-guns and wire on Bellevue and suffered heavily. “It was the Division's one failure on a large scale,” wrote Colonel Stewart. The casualties included Lieut.-Col. King, D.S.O., late C.O. of the Pioneers, also Captain A. E. M. Jones, Lieuts. French and Watson, late of the Pioneers, all of whom were killed.

It was with great sorrow that the Battalion heard the sad news that its late Commander had been killed in the assembly trenches before moving out with his Battalion. Lieut.-Col. Saxby went out with a party and brought in Lieut.-Col. King's body, and the funeral took place on the 14th (Sunday) in the Military Cemetery in Ypres. General Russell was present.

Work on the roads was continued with great energy under heavy shell-fire. By the 20th, the road had been improved greatly, and the guns and transport had a good hard bottom as far as Deuce Farm. The Canadian Pioneers then arrived to relieve the Maoris. The Pioneers' casualties during the heavy operations were comparatively slight, totalling four men killed or died of wounds, and one officer and 30 men wounded.

On October 21st, the Battalion moved on by 'bus to billets at Bournonville, where training and musketry were carried on. A Foden disinfecting lorry spent two days there treating the men's clothing and blankets. Captains Tahiwi and Stainton and 2nd Lieut. Pohio arrived from the base on the 24th.

On October 22nd, it was announced in orders that Military Medals had been awarded by the Army Corps Commander to Corporals T. W. Nicholls (D Coy.) and A. Sparks (A Coy.). page 126 Ptes. A. Conway (H.Q.), W. Tangatake (B Coy.) and T.-Cpl. J. Apa (B Coy.).

The month of November, 1917, carried varied work for the Battalion, and although not without casualties the losses were light. For the first ten days training, route marching, musketry, and recreational exercises were carried on, and a sports meeting came as an agreeable change. These sports were held at Bournonville on the 6th and 7th. The mules in the “New Zealand Pioneer Grand National Steeplechase” were the best fun of the meeting. No spurs or whips were allowed. C Company's “Pioneer Stew,” led the field to the turn, where he was challenged by D Company's crack mule “Pork and Beans,” which after a desperate finish, won by a head.

The following soldiers of the Battalion were awarded the Military Medal for work at Ypres:—Sergeants W. Barclay and A. Rogers, T.-Cpl. J. Munn, L.-Cpl. A. Hughes, Ptes. H. T. Leefe, R. Ngapo, G. Maxwell, J. Panoho and P. Te Amo.

Captain Ferris and 2nd Lieuts. Paku and Parakuka now joined the Battalion from the base. Lieut. T. R. Overton was seconded for duty with the N.Z. Light Railway Operating Coy. The bandmaster of 1st Canterbury took charge of the Maori buglers and drummers for a fortnight, and they were soon able, the O.C. noted, “to make a most joyful noise to cheer us on the march.”

On the 12th, the Battalion was on the move again, bound to Dickebusch, a two-days' journey on foot and in train.

Lieut.-Col. Saxby met the O.C. 14th Northumberland Fusiliers (Pioneers) and arranged to take over the maintenance of the Chateau Road, otherwise the work that the Englishmen had been doing was out of the New Zealanders' area. A Company began work on that road and Glencorse Lane. After moving to Ridge Wood Camp, Lieut.-Col. Saxby went round with the Commander of the Royal Engineers and Captain Bruce and arranged to lay off a new tram system as far as Crucifix, also to take over the road forward from Westhoek. Captain Bruce found a good grade for the tram line and 100 men started work on it. On the 21st A and D Company, working on the roads, were heavily shelled and had three killed and ten wounded. Next day A Company commenced to double the page break
Scene of the New Zealanders' Work at the end of 1917.

Scene of the New Zealanders' Work at the end of 1917.

page 127 duck-walk track from Polygonveld to Black Watch Corner and also kept maintenance going on Glencorse Road. The O.C. arranged with the C.R.E. to shift the Battalion gradually to Y pres. Among other works C Company and a platoon from D Company started work on a new communication trench required from Butte to the neighbourhood of Jolting Houses. Captain Tingey had charge of the job. The water here was very close to the surface, so the trench was not dug very deep. It was duck-walked as the digging proceeded. The weather was now getting colder, and leather jerkins were issued.

The New Zealand Division was now holding the front covering Polygon Wood to Reutlebeck. From here the front line cut away in a S.W. direction. The divisional area was a long narrow strip, the northern boundary of which just intersected the south part of Y pres. This meant that instead of running back at right angles to our front the area lay at an angle of of 45°. The effect was that the Germans' barrage lines lay diagonally across the New Zealanders' communications and therefore covered a great deal more of our ground than they would have done had our area been at right angles to the line. Consequently the country between Birr Cross Roads and the Westhoek Ridge, a distance of over 2,000 yards, was all subject to the enemy's heaviest barrage. The piles of derelict waggons and dead animals showed very plainly the effect of this diagonal and therefore deeper barrage line. The Pioneers found the quietest time for work here to be between daylight and 11 a.m. The working parties were only once fairly caught in this shell-fire, which was particularly heavy that day. Intelligence reported that 15,000 enemy shells fell in the Chateau Woods area alone. The month's casualties were:—Killed, six men; wounded, one officer and 22 men. Most of the wounds were slight. The health of the Battalion had on the whole been good, and the evacuations per thousand were well below the average of the Division.

Early in December the Battalion headquarters, A Company and one platoon of B Company moved to new billets in Y pres. The Corps Commander's certificates for meritorious service were allotted to Sergeant A. Anderson, L.-Cpl. S. M. Hodge, L.-Cpl. S. G. Karetai, and Pte. G. A. Moore. D Company on page 128 the night of the 4th dug 240 yards of support line by Polderhoek Chateau; other work was as usual. Permission was obtained to build stables for the horses east of Ypres-Comines Canal, and the Rarotonga natives' platoon, which was awaiting orders to join the Rarotonga Company in Egypt, moved to billets near the site and was employed on the construction of the stables. The remainder of B Company moved into new billets in Ypres, and D Company returned to their work on Westhoek Road.

On the 7th, two shells caught B Company on the way to work. Two men were killed, one died of wounds and six were wounded. On the whole, though, the Germans' shelling had eased up considerably and had interfered little with the works. Padre Wainohu left for England that day on duty.

By the 12th material was coming up to the Maoris' work by the light railway, which greatly facilitated the laying of the Westhoek plank road. The weather now became very cold and it was freezing steadily, making the ground hard to work. On the night of the 20th, a number of shells were thrown into the Pioneers' camp but did no damage. Next night German 'planes came over just after dark and dropped several bombs in the Battalion's area. The men in billets were all right, but some who were out loading a waggon which had just come in were caught. Three were killed and two wounded. One bomb burst on the roof of a bivouac, but thanks to its instantaneous fuse the men inside were unharmed, though the roof was smashed in. Another bomb was apparently after the Adjutant and succeeded in knocking his house in almost on top of him. The chief anxiety was for the safety of the pigs which had been collected for Christmas, but the excitement cooled down when it was found that neither these nor the beer had suffered.

Christmas Day was devoted to the serious business of disposing of the extra food collected. The porkers and potatoes were steam-cooked in hangis after the good old Maori style. The O.C. noted officially of the festival:—

“Although one poor soldier is reported to have written to his friends that he had received only a few extra carrots to mark Christmas Day, the next sick parade showed that the page break
Mr. Massey (Prime Minister of New Zealand) and Sir Joseph Ward inspecting the Pioneers at the Bois de Warnimont, June 30th, 1918. Lieut.-Colonel Saxby, O.C.

Mr. Massey (Prime Minister of New Zealand) and Sir Joseph Ward inspecting the Pioneers at the Bois de Warnimont, June 30th, 1918.
Lieut.-Colonel Saxby, O.C.

page break
New Zealand's Prime Minister addressing the Pioneers, Bois de Warnimont, June 30th, 1918.

New Zealand's Prime Minister addressing the Pioneers, Bois de Warnimont, June 30th, 1918.

A Haka for the Chiefs, at the Bois de Warnimont, June 30th, 1918.

A Haka for the Chiefs, at the Bois de Warnimont, June 30th, 1918.

page 129 rest had managed to do themselves pretty well. Every man received most acceptable parcels from Lady Liverpool's Fund, while the Y.M.C.A. most kindly sent cases of chocolate, etc., for distribution. The mid-day meal was a dreadful exhibition, but luckily Lord Rhondda [the British Food Controller] did not appear on the scene, and the Battalion relapsed into a more or less comatose state for the rest of the day, waking up somewhat towards evening to polish off the remainder of the feast.”

Twenty reinforcements arrived on Christmas Day to fill up wastage. Work was resumed next day, and one of the stables was finished and was occupied by 48 horses. On December 28th-30th the enemy's artillery became more active, and on the 30th A Company had to leave their digging job for Fritz to play with. He threw over between 400 and 500 shells, and the Battalion was fortunate in having only one man slightly wounded. On the 31st, Lieut. Paku's platoon of C Company was caught by a shell in the early morning at the junction of Saville and Zouvebeke roads. The losses were six men killed and Lieut. Paku and 14 men wounded, two of whom died. A most unhappy ending to 1917.

The Lessons of the Push.

The Battalion's experience of the last three weeks, Major Ennis noted in his official diary, had demonstrated the vital necessity when an advance was made of pushing roads, light railways and tram lines forward with all possible speed. When the 2nd Anzac Corps took over this sector practically nothing forward of Wieltje had been done. No attempt had been made to make the road to Steenbeck fit for heavy traffic; the light railway was only laid as far as Wieltje, and nothing had been done in the way of tram lines. The front line was only 4,000 yards from Wieltje and our Division had to attack on the 4th October, the day after coming into the sector. The various corps at once commenced laying a plank road from Wieltje to Steenbeck, while the New Zealand Pioneers had to carry the road from Steenbeck as far forward as possible, and commence laying tram lines from Brigade Farm forward. The Light Railways were expected to have their line to Bridge Farm by page 130 the 3rd, but did not actually get there until about the 5th. They were therefore of no use in our first advance, and later were only used for their own construction and ammunition for the heavy artillery.

The Maoris made a start at once on road and tram line. For the latter they were at first promised three miles of 20-lb. track; this was altered to 1,500 yards of 9-lb., and finally, after labour had been wasted on formation it was found that only 500 yards of bare 20-lb. rails were available at Abeele, without sleepers, fish-plates and dog-spikes. Tram lines were at once stopped and the Pioneers never laid a rail. Attention was therefore concentrated on the roads. From Steenbeck to Spree Farm was a shaking bog, and it had to be fascined. Sufficient material was not available, so only a single track could be laid. Some guns got past this; many more were bogged. However, the weather kept fine until the night of the 3rd, and the attack of the 4th was well covered by the artillery. After the 4th the Battalion took over the road as far as Spree Farm, and with practically no material we had to make the road forward passable for guns. This could easily have been done in fine weather, but in the wet weather that followed, and hampered by the continual and increasing trains of pack animals the Pioneers had no chance. No further attempt could be made to push forward the tram lines owing to the lack of material. Even had this been available the congested state of traffic on the road from Ypres to Steenbeck made it almost impossible to get waggons with material forward.

The 47th Division relieved our infantry and were timed to attack on the 8th October. After their failure the New Zealand Division returned to the attack on the 12th. Both these attacks were failures, because—from the Pioneers' point of view—of the failure of roads, light railways and tram lines. With material available, a tram line could have been laid very quickly, at least to the bottom of Gravenstafel Hill, and would have been invaluable, if only for supply of ammunition and evacuation of wounded.

page 131

Casualties and Sick, December, 1917.

Though there had been no serious epidemic the Battalion's evacuated sick for December were rather heavy. Besides the wounded, two officers and 80 other ranks had been sent away and although many returned after a few days at the rest camps the wastage was considerable. All things considered, the men were fairly comfortable. The bivvies now in use were warm and dry; firewood was plentiful; the rations were good; and the men got a daily change of socks—a most important item in the field. Footballs had been provided, and platoons commanders were responsible for the use of these by their men, also camphor treatment for the prevention of “trench feet.” There had been a steady dribble of casualties, which made a rather heavy total for the month, vix.:—

Killed and died of wounds, 15 men; wounded, five officers and 41 men; total casualties, 61.

The reinforcements nearly balanced the total losses and evacuations.

An opportunity was given the members of the Battalion to subscribe to the New Zealand War Loan, and over £4,500 worth of bonds were taken up.

The total strength of the Battalion in the field at the end of 1917 was 928 of all ranks, consisting of 29 officers and 899 other ranks. A Company numbered 196, B Company 203, C Company 182, and D Company 236; transport 66. In addition there were about 50 men at Etaples ready to come forward, a further contingent at Sling Camp, and 15 N.C.O.'s at the O.T.C.

* See Colonel H. Stewart's history, “The New Zealand Division, 1916–1919,” pp. 250–293, for an excellent detailed account of these operations, known as the Third Battle of Ypres. The present narrative is necessarily restricted to the Maoris' share in the great offensive.