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The Maoris in the Great War

Chapter XV. — Work on the Western Front. — (January-May, 1918)

Chapter XV.
Work on the Western Front.

(January-May, 1918).

page 132
The New Year, 1918, saw the Pioneers hard at work around Ypres. The chief tasks then in hand were:—
  • A Company.—Revetting and building up the “P. and O.” communication trench.
  • B Company.—Construction of light railway to Crucifix.
  • C Company.—Working with B Coy. and salvaging material; constructing Wattle Spur Line; doubling plank road from Westhoek to Divisional boundary; building Y.M.C.A. hut at Lille Gate. Each Company worked three platoons a day, Sundays included. This scheme worked well and insured continuity of work. The ground was frozen hard.
On January 6th, A Company dug a deviation in the P. and O. trench at the second support to provide better cover from enfilade fire. This was a wet trench, with difficult drainage. necessitating more building up than digging down. There was a considerable amount of shelling in the forward areas, and the party had to leave the work. Several blow-outs in the tram line and plank roads were repaired. The following New Year honours and awards appeared in Orders: D.S.O., Major W. O. Ennis; M.C., Captain D. Bruce, Captain W. H. Walker; D.C.M., Regimental Sergt.-Major Gustafson, M.S.M., Sergeant Cameron. In writing to congratulate Major Ennis, the G.O.C. added a note, “The Pioneers deserve all they get,” a comment which was much appreciated by the Battalion. On the 6th, thirty-seven reinforcements arrived. Work on the various jobs was pushed on with energy. On the 10th a thaw set in, which increased the labours of the Pioneers. A new communication trench from Crucifix to the left of Battalion H.Q. was marked out by Lieut.-Col. Saxby. This was through very wet country badly churned up by shell-fire. The new trench to the support line was intended to lighten the rather heavy casualties incurred by the infantry carrying parties. The shelling on the 11th compelled the tramway gangs to cease work. It was page break
Plan of Barb-wire Defences constructed by the Pioneer Battalion, near Ypres, Western Front, March, 1918.

Plan of Barb-wire Defences constructed by the Pioneer Battalion, near Ypres, Western Front, March, 1918.

page break
Entrenchments by the Pioneer Battalion, Frezenberg Post, March, 1918.

Entrenchments by the Pioneer Battalion, Frezenberg Post, March, 1918.

page 133 announced that day that C Company, with an average of £7/12/8 per head, and D Company, with an average of £7/6/9, had won the Divisional 2nd and 3rd prizes in connection with the subscriptions to the New Zealand War Loan.

Thirteen reinforcements arrived on January 13th, and had their taste of a snow fall in Flanders. On the 14th, the Rarotongans and other South Sea Island men, numbering fifty, left to join the Rarotongan Company in Egypt. Lieut. Wilson went in charge as far as Marseilles. A thaw and heavy rain now complicated the toil of the Pioneers and its various jobs. “Rain and slush,” the O.C. wrote; “all unrevetted work is flowing in like porridge.”

On January 17th, Major Peter Buck left the Battalion on transfer to the New Zealand Medical Corps, after a most useful period of service with the Pioneers. He served through the Gallipoli campaign with his Maoris, as M.O., and in the West Front fighting as a combatant officer. His departure was very deeply regretted by all his fellow-New Zealanders. 34 Maori reinforcements arrived that day. Shelling on both sides was very active during this period. On the 20th, three of the Maoris were hit, but only one was bad enough for hospital.

On the 21st, Lieut.-Col. Saxby went round the artillery positions with the staff Captain, N.Z.F.A., with a view to putting in 9-lb. tram lines to supply them. A scheme was arranged which would take 2,600 yards of line. Next day C Company started on this line formation in front of Westhoek. On the 23rd, two men were wounded, but not seriously, by shell-fire. On the 24th, the O.C. arranged with the Royal Engineer officers to carry a dummy tram formation about 300 yards past Crucifix Dump so that the railhead should not show up too conspicuously in enemy aerial photographs. This day one man was wounded.

The month's work gave the Battalion a good deal of experience in dealing with frozen ground. Formation done while the ground was hard collapsed badly as soon as the thaw commenced, and the trenches and drains were filled with liquid mud. In the new job on the Crucifix communication trench, no more work was done than could be page 134 revetted the same day. Plank roads in hard weather were as slippery as glass, and even with frost cogs on the horses could not take an ordinary load. Far better use was being made of the light railways, on which trains now ran through right up to Crucifix Dump. Generally speaking, the Battalion had a quiet month, with casualties far below those of December. One man died of wounds, and one officer and 16 men were wounded. The health of the Battalion had been fairly good; the sick parades much smaller than those of December, but the evacuations were rather heavier—one officer and 80 other ranks. Many of those sent out soon returned from the rest camp and hospital.

February was a fairly quiet month for the Pioneers, but it did not pass without casualties. Two men were killed and and officer and six men were wounded. The fatalities (C Coy.) occurred on February 19th, when the men were at work on the P. and O. communication trench.

Lieut.-Col. Saxby went on 30 days' leave and in his absence Major W. O. Ennis had command of the Battalion.

Pte. H. Kanara, A Company, was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the King of the Belgians, and the decoration was presented by General North on the 12th. About this time the shelling on the forward area was heavy. Work on the 9-lb. artillery line forward of Westhoek, was discontinued owing to the removal of the batteries. A good deal of labour was wasted on this line through the failure of the artillery to advise the Pioneers of their intention to remove guns. 2nd Lieuts. Gannon, Ngatai, and Mete Kingi reported from the Base on the 13th and were posted to D Company. Various heavy works were carried on well including the P. and O. trench, on which 230 men were working. On the 18th shelling in the forward area was above normal, and 2nd Lieut. Dufaur and four men were wounded in the P. and O. trench. There were fifteen “blow-outs” on the Westhoek Road, and the work of repairing was heavy. On the 20th orders were received to arrange exchange of work with the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers (Pioneers, 49th Division). The officers of the two corps went over the Divisional and Company works together, and on the 22nd the page 135 Maori Battalion took over work on No. 9, Potsdam. The P. and O. trench had been completed all but 100 yards of building up on each side just forward of the reserve line. The digging and building of this work was a big task and A and C Companies worked very hard to complete it. A Company specially received high praise for the excellence of the job. The Crucifix trench had been dug, revetted and duck-walked, providing fair cover from Crucifix to the reserve line. D Company did good work on this trench. The light railway from Hannebeke to Crucifix was handed over by B Company in excellent order. On the 24th, the New Zealand Division, less two companies of Engineers, the Maori Battalion, Working Brigade and Artillery were relieved by the British 49th Division.

On the 27th, 2nd Lieuts. Pohio and Te Hau and 19 other ranks reported from the Base.

The first part of March was spent in Ypres carrying on the trench and wire work, wiring south of the Menin Road and strengthening the Frezenberg Post. Work here was the construction of a traversed fire trench to the embankment. The country throughout was marshy and difficult of drainage and badly shaken up with shell-fire. Forward of this line was “Potsdam,” a post consisting of four strong German pill-boxes and gun position connection by a traversed trench. A Company was well ahead with a lot of heavy concrete work here, constructing machine-gun positions, but had to leave the job unfinished when the Battalion was withdrawn. In the Frezenberg Post about 80 tons of concrete was put in to strengthen the existing pill-boxes and these were connected with a traversed trench. Wiring south of Menin Road was in charge of Lieut. Leef with three platoons. The type adopted on this front was three parallel lines of double apron fence at about 20 yards interval. The Battalion was also about to start work on Jackdaw Post on the Menin Road, but this with all other work was stopped on March 21st.

Major Ennis, Captain Chapman and Lieut. Pohio fell ill with malaria and were sent out to hospital on the 22nd and 23rd.

page 136

Meeting the German Push.

On the 21st, news came through of the German offensive in the Cambrai area, and next evening, after nearly three months' stay in Ypres, the Battalion was on the road to camp near Ouderdom. The Maoris were not disturbed on the march except by a few parting shots as they passed Shrapnel Corner. On the 25th, the Battalion entrained, and went by a loop line round Hazebrouck, and arrived at Amiens about noon next day. Immediate orders were received to move out in fighting kit with 220 rounds S.A.A. per man and all Lewis guns. After a meal the men left by motor lorry for Pont Noyelles, thence on foot to Hedauville, where they spent a very cold night. Many refugees were on the road, and parties of labour troops. Our Division was at first intended to march for a position towards Bray, but events moved quickly, and a gap was found in the line between Puisieux and Hamel through which the Germans were coming without opposition. By the time our infantry came up the enemy was in Hebuterne, Colincamps, and Mailly Maillet. Our people very soon cleared the two last named places and Auchonvillers, and the Australians pushed him out of Hebuterne. A line was established with a slight westerly bulge from east of Hebuterne to west of Hamel. It was a fine quick piece of work for which our Division got great credit. The Battalion moved on on the 27th from Hedauville to Bertrancourt and then to Sailly au Bois. By dark all available men were at work, and by 1 a.m. the Battalion had finished and handed over to the infantry garrison a line of posts from the rear of Colincamps to near Hebuterne. There were no casualties but the enemy's machine-gun fire was decidedly annoying. Next day similar posts were dug from Beaussart to near Forceville. The New Zealand Engineers looked after the country between Colincamps and Beaussart, so that by the night of the 20th there was a line of posts dug right across the New Zealand Divisional area.

On the 28th, A Company commenced digging a continuous trench line from Colincamps north to Hebuterne and had 800 yards of this finished when the work was handed over to the 3rd N.Z.R.B. On the 29th D Company commenced cleaning out and enlarging deep dug-outs for the Left Brigade headquarters, page 137 while C Company spent the 29th and 30th digging machine-gun posts all over the Divisional back area.

The casualties during the month were light—one man died of wounds, and one officer and nine other ranks wounded. Three officers and 97 men were evacuated sick.

The month of April at Bertrancourt was spent almost entirely on defensive work digging trenches and wiring, for the most part working on reverse slopes and away from the enemy's observation. The scheme was to provide a defensive system in depth line after line of prepared and wired defences with hidden machine-guns covering every avenue of approach. The Divisions on the Battalion's flanks had also put in an immense amount of work on their rear defences, but while our Divisional scheme had been more a succession of small posts often arranged checkerwise with wire so placed that it could all be enfiladed, they had dug deep solid continuous lines with a belt of wire running in the old style parallel to the front trench. In our case the enemy would have to distribute his fire, while with the continuous line he could concentrate.

Entry by the Battalion Commander in his official diary for April:—

“As Sailly au Bois was just outside our northern country we shifted on the 2nd, to Bertrancourt, and have since been deluged with claims for the frightful excesses our men did not commit in the former village.

“One platoon, though accused of consuming between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. 10 bags of flour, 2,000 kilos of potatoes, 200 kilos of grain, and all a French gentleman's furniture, did not show any excessive corpulence, while it was a mystery what another platoon had done with 1,000 francs' worth of straw they were accused of annexing for bedding.”

The weather was damp and showery and so for once in our favour. There was a gradual increase in shelling until on April 5th the line Hamel-Hebuterne was bombarded in depth, and an infantry attack developed with the probable objective Colincamps or the high ground east of that village. The enemy occupied La Signy Farm, but otherwise failed to improve his position. He harrassed all roads and communication with artillery and paid particular attention to the valley running page 138 south from Colincamps towards Mailly Maillet. Some 60-pounders beside C Company billets were heavily shelled with big stuff and so the Company was shifted out into the fields. The casualties were, 2nd Lieut. Thompson, badly wounded and 2nd Lieut. Amohanga slightly wounded; four men killed and seven wounded. Lieut. Thompson was wounded east of Colin-camps. L.-Cpl. Tamati Taiapa showed a great deal of pluck in getting him out through the barrage; he was awarded the Military Medal.

On the 6th, C Company and two platoons D Company, dug platoon posts to command the Hedauville Valley in case the right flank Division gave way. A, B, and C Companies then concentrated on wiring until the 20th. On the 11th, the Battalion had 11 men wounded in billets, and as it appeared that the enemy were going to make all villages within range uncomfortable, the Battalion shifted out into bivvies in the paddocks where there was less danger from the German area shoots.

On the 25th, the Battalion side-stepped one Brigade front, handing over the Mailly Maillet sector and taking over the Hebuterne part.

The casualties for the month were:—Killed four, died of wounds two, wounded 41; total 47.

Particularly good work was done by D Company under Captain C. W. Salmon in making the underground headquarters at the Sailly-Colincamps Road.