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The Maoris in the Great War

The Battle of Bezantin Ridge. (September 15th, 1916.)

The Battle of Bezantin Ridge. (September 15th, 1916.)

Early in the morning of the 15th, the advance began. Colonel King moved the Battalion headquarters to an old communication trench between the Savoy and Carlton trenches, and just after 5 a.m. the various companies moved to various forward positions. Brigade headquarters watched as much of the advance against the Crest and Switch trenches as was possible from the Savoy Trench. At 10.37 a.m. the C.R.E. issued orders through Captain Shera (liaison officer with 3rd Brigade) to carry on work on various rear portions of communication trenches as detailed in operation orders. A and B Companies moved out at once and marched on to their jobs. At this time things looked fairly quiet along the rear front.

Early in the afternoon casualties began to come back from B Company, mostly slightly wounded, and Captain Harris reported that his company was coming under shell-fire. At 2 page 94 p.m. Major Saxby reported that A Company's digging task was well in hand, and that things were comparatively quiet on his side.

Colonel King went off to reconnoitre the road from Longueval towards Flers and found a battalion of English Pioneers working on it just north of Longueval cross-roads. The road towards Flers was under fairly heavy shell-fire, but was passable for waggons so far as the surface was concerned. B Company of Maoris was having a hot time of it. The workers were heavily shelled, and the trench they were at was being blown in as fast as it was done. Captain E. Harris was dangerously wounded and Lieut. Sutherland slightly. Twelve men were killed, and forty wounded. Total Maori casualties for the day's advance, fifty-two—a heavy list. The facts were reported to the Royal Engineers' commanding officer and Colonel King withdrew the company to bivouacs at about 5 p.m. Previous to this B and C Companies had been sent off to work on a road from Caterpillar Road to Longueval in accordance with the C.R.E.'s orders. A Company reported their communication trench work completed, so Colonel King went out and inspected it and found it was rapidly being blown in again by the German shells. All the workers were back in the bivouacs by dark after a day of hard work and many losses. The Battalion diaries naturally are confined to details of trench and road operations in this battle, which is described so well in Colonel H. Stewart's excellent History “The New Zealanders in France” (pages 69-85).

In the operations, the village of Flers was captured by the 41st Division and made secure by the New Zealanders, and other ground was won, which was quickly consolidated and held strongly under severe bombardment.

The battle was renewed on September 16th, and as a part of the general attack by the Fourth Army. Colonel King went out at daylight and made a careful reconnaissance of the ground in front of that won the previous day, and marked the lines for the Pioneer working parties who would go out that night. Most of the trench work done on the 15th had been destroyed by the enemy's shell-fire, more particularly B Company's work, and it was hard to see where they had been

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Map of Entrenchments, Bezantin Ridge—Flers—Gueudecourt, September, 1916

Map of Entrenchments, Bezantin Ridge—Flers—Gueudecourt, September, 1916

page 95

except for the dead who were lying about. A Company's work had escaped more lightly, and it was continued that night towards Flers via the line called Coffee Lane. All day C and D Companies were employed working on the roads; D Company later, working under shell-fire, put through the now famous Turk Lane trench from the Crest to the Old Switch Trench. B and C Companies put in eight hours' work on the road between Caterpillar Wood and the top of Bezantin Ridge. The machine-gun section was employed in putting in dug-outs for the 3rd Brigade Headquarters in the Carlton Trench. On the night of the 17th, a lot of hard work was done, following up the further success of the Army (the advance line had been moved a mile forward over a front of six miles). D Company completed Turk Lane to the New Switch, and cleaned up a lot of B Company's old work knocked about by shell-fire. A Company dug the approach trench called Fish Alley, from Switch Trench to Point 41 (Ferret Trench). This was all new work, as the Pioneers found that the old German Fish Alley was simply a line of old pot-holes, mostly filled in and altogether useless. Colonel King and Major Buck, after a visit to the advanced works, were coming back when they were shot at by snipers. The men in the trench said the snipers had killed Captain Jennings and wounded another. The Pioneers picked up another of their dead, Poule, and also a R.F.A. officer, 2nd.-Lieut. Leggat, lying dead in the trench.

Early on the 18th, the Colonel and Major Buck went out to the right. Major Saxby was unable to finish his side owing to shell-fire. New German trenches which were inspected were full of enemy dead and so was the country in front of it. Most of the dead were without equipment, an indication of their complete surprise by the attack; a great many had been killed with the bayonet. Everything now was very wet and muddy, and the work of consolidating the trench positions won was hard and dirty.

Trench work on Bezantin Ridge occupied some days. On the night of September 20th, 1917, the Battalion was much worried by tear-gas shells in the bivouacs, and in the morning every depression seemed full of the stuff. That afternoon, General Russell came up and told Colonel King to ask the page 96 First Infantry Brigade for as many men as he liked; so he obtained the assistance of several hundred men to carry duck-walk material. Turk Lane and Fish Alley were duck-walked over the crest of the ridge.

On September 21st, Major Buck and Lieut. O'Neill had a marvellous escape. They were returning to camp down Fish Alley when a “whizz-bang” grazed O'Neill's right shoulder, knocking him down, and burst in the ground just in front of Buck's feet. O'Neill, who was walking behind the Major, escaped with an abrasion of the shoulder; his tunic, cardigan, shirt and singlet were cut. That day the 1st Canterbury Regiment distinguished itself by taking a portion of the trenches at Flers. They had a stand-up fight with bombs, killed 250 of the enemy and sustained 150 casualties.

On September 24th, operation orders were circulated for the Battalion's share in the new advance on Flers by the 4th Army. The 55th Division was on the right, and the 1st Division on the Left. The objective of the New Zealand Division was to capture Factory Corner and establish a line thence to a spur running N.E., in conjunction with the general advance, and to maintain touch with the 3rd Corps. The Pioneers' special job was to construct various advanced lines of communication trenches. The advance was begun by the 1st Infantry Brigade at 12.35 p.m. on the 25th. At 5 a.m. that day, Colonel King went up to the back of Flers with the Company Commanders and reconnoitred the ground as well as possible for the evening's work; and the officers also went over to Turk Lane and had a look at the country from there. During the morning the companies moved up to their positions of readiness as ordered, each man with his pick and shovel, and the Battalion headquarters moved up to Crest Trench.

The afternoon's attack by the infantry was watched by the Colonel from Switch Trench, and there was a good view of the whole operations, as it was a very clear day. The artillery barrage opened exactly at 12.35 p.m. It was a tremendous afternoon of noise and fire. The thunder of the guns was deafening, and as far as the eye could range there was a line of bursting shrapnel and H.E. The artillery work page 97 was marvellously accurate, and Major Buck noted in his diary that the shells seemed to be bursting six inches apart. The watchers saw the infantry leave their trenches and advance leisurely behind the creeping barrage, travelling at a rate of 50 yards a minute. Factory Corner, our objective on the right, was reduced to a mass of ruins, shattered into fragments which were hurled hight into the air by the big shells. It was soon obscured by smoke, and the advance of the 1st Canterbury Infantry Battalion could not be followed. The Auckland men in the centre and Otago on the left could plainly be seen. The various waves of men were soon formed into one irregular line. They could be seen hunting about in the gully and the sections of trenches looking for “Fritz.” The barrage remained stationary for a few moments in order to allow the infantry to do their work and then went creeping on again, with the men following steadily behind it.

Now and again a high explosive projectile came over from the Germans, and the line could be seen to open out or bend to this side or that to avoid what looked like a shelled area.

The Black Watch Highlanders, who belonged to the 1st Division on our left, could be seen working along Flers Trench; some of them ran along the top of the trench to where they were to junction with the New Zealanders; they then planted a flag to show that they had reached their objective. Our men had further to go, having to sweep up-hill and incline to the left. While they were yet some two hundred yards away, the Germans in Goose Alley climbed out at the rear of the trench and fled ignominiously without attempting to put up a fight. They bunched together, and seemed to hesitate, as if some officer was endeavouring to rally them. Then shrapnel burst over them and they ran for the valley beyond. Our men could not chase them owing to the intervening artillery barrage. The line advancing up the hill extended on either flank and went leisurely on. Any bits of trenches or holes were dealt with on the way. Everything was done in a most systematic orderly way, splendid to see, quietly except for the artillery thundering, rocking and crashing. None of our men seemed to fall, but a wounded man now and again was seen coming back. Goose Alley was reached but page 98 the Germans had fled, with the exception of a few, and there was no fight in them.

Our troops reached their objective on the left with hardly a casualty, and up went a red flare to announce the victory. This was at 35 minutes after zero. Almost immediately afterwards, through the smoke and dust on the right, up shot two red flares to show that Canterbury had gained the shell-battered Factory Corner. Away to the right again could be seen flags in the advanced trenches. The 4th Army had reached its objective all along the line.

Later a few prisoners came along, carrying stretchers. They were Bavarians and poor specimens of soldiers, being mostly either young or fairly old men. There was some excitement later when British cavalry were seen coming over, but they took up a position somewhere behind Flers, waiting for the right moment. All night the Pioneers laboured with pick and shovel, at the new trenches. Some very deep dug-outs found in sunken roads were utilised by our people. In some parts our artillery interfered with the pushing on of the lines. Some of the 8-inch howitzer shells fell short and made it very uncomfortable for the working parties. The infantry in the firing line immediately in front was very pleased to know the Pioneers were behind them, as the line was very thinly held. King, Saxby and Buck went out in the hope of seeing the cavalry attack, but there was “nothing doing.” The news came later that some cavalry went through, and the Germans started a counter-attack, but the artillery crumpled them up. In the evening the report came that Gueudecourt, on the right flank, had been captured by the 55th Division, and also Theipval, and that patrols had entered Combles.

During the night of the September 25th-26th, Lieut. Stainton's party from A Company, completed their digging task to Factory Corner, a standard-size trench 160 yards long. C Company, under Lieut. Dansey, dug 650 yards northwards and joined the North Road up with the outpost line. D Company, under Captain Gibbs, dug in 500 yards of standard-size along Abbey Road connecting up the outpost line on Ridge. Next day all these parties rested, and the rest of A and B Companies carried on with the duck-walks in Fish Alley and page 99 Turk Lane. On the 27th, the works were pushed on with vigour. C Company were pushing on with Turk Lane when they got shelled off the job, with four casualties. That afternoon the 1st Brigade and 55th Division captured Gird Trench and Gird Support. No work was done by the “Diggers” that night, everyone standing by for orders. At a late hour the orders came from the C.R.E. to return to the bivouacs, as the position of the Gird line was too obscure to carry on work. The following day saw various jobs pushed on well. A party consisting of men from all companies, under Major Buck, after knocking off work on Turk Lane, towards Gird Support, were heavily shelled as far as North Road and had two men mortally wounded (Pte. Ovens, D Coy., and Pte. Pineaha, C Coy.) and seven wounded. Next night 250 men from all companies completed Turk Lane through to Gird Support except for 40 yards in the centre only down three feet. There was heavy German shelling part of the day, from Factory Corner to Abbey Road, and about 450 yards long. but it quietened down, and there were no casualties during the night. The work on hand having been completed, Colonel King, at the C.R.E.'s request, set the Pioneers at a communication trench and assembly trench combined from Turk Lane to the recently captured Goose Alley, parallel with the road via Factory Corner to Abbey Road, and about 450 yards long. 250 men started on the job at 8 p.m. and finished it by early morning. Major Buck made a diary entry: “All worked well, especially the Rarotongans.” These men suffered several casualties during the month.”

The British push forward was renewed on Sunday, October 1st, and the Colonel and principal officers watched the great attack from Switch Trench. The Pioneers had no part in the action beyond carrying on with Turk Lane and Fish Alley. The attack was very successful along the New Zealand front, but the 47th Division got hung up badly just past Eaucourt L'Abbeye. Our casualties were pretty heavy. Two tanks took part in the operations on the New Zealand left flank, but later went over towards Eaucourt and got bogged out of action. During the battle the Maoris kept steadily at work. Turk Lane was duck-walked as far as Grove Alley, and Fish Alley page 100 to within 250 yards of Flers. Turk Lane was completed right through to a depth of five feet in the solid, and four feet wide.

Describing the day's battle, as seen from Switch Trench, Major Buck wrote:—

“We saw plenty of big guns in the gully, including 9.2-inch howitzers. There was not time to form a fixed emplacement, and after each shot the guns worked backwards and forwards on their wheels. The 18-pounders have moved forward, and the valleys round Flers are full of them. At 3.15 p.m., a very intense bombardment began. We have a far larger number of guns than when we started. Saw the infantry leave the trenches and advance in great style behind the creeping barrage. Two tanks going along slowly, crossing trenches, like huge antediluvian monsters nosing round for what they could kill.

“The Tommies went across very thick. Saw 47 prisoners come back from the left. Fritz sent some H.E. on to the ridge behind us, and we had to scale forward. Saw the yellow flares go up, showing that the position was taken. Saw the tanks disappear into the valley near Eaucourt L'Abbeye. Six German aeroplanes came over, and there was much firing in the air. One was hit and fell straight down into Gueudecourt.”

On the following day, the shell-fire was very heavy, and some damage was done to the trench work.

Next morning (October 3rd) the Battalion shifted camp via Pommiers Redoubt to a site near its first camp at the cross-roads near Fricourt, and on the 5th moved on again, to a reserve camp at Fontaine-sur-Somme, en route back to the A.N.Z.A.C.

The trench work done by the Battalion during the strenuous period from August 28th to October 2nd, totalled 13,163 yards. In addition, brigade headquarters had been built at 4 places, dressing stations built at 3 places, and two companies worked 5 days on the roads. The best work was done in Pioneer Lane, where 210 men dug 482 yards of trench 5 ft. x 3ft. in 5½ hours.

On the morning of October 3rd, Lieut. J. O'Neill, the Battalion's machine-gun officer, who had been lent to the page 101 Brigade, was killed by a shell when coming out of the front trenches and crossing over from Goose Alley to Abbey Road, after having been relieved. “Bad luck, as he was one of the best men we had,” wrote Major Buck. O'Neill was hit in the back and had a leg broken. Five other men (No. 2 Machine-gun Coy.) were killed and several wounded. O'Neill had been reported as left dying near a deep dug-out, and on the 5th, Major Buck took out a cross which had been made and made a search for his late comrade. Dead machine-gunners were seen lying on Abbey Road but no sign of O'Neill. The cross was put up at the junction of Abbey Road and North Road near his last resting-place. The Pioneers of the Middlesex Regiment were seen at work near there on the trenches. A machine-gun officer later informed Major Buck that the men had carried Jack O'Neill down to the deep dug-outs in Abbey Road, but as they had so many wounded they left him on the side of the trench and asked the English soldiers to bury him. This was evidently done, and the spot must have been quite close to the cross the New Zealanders set up for him.

General Russell expressed himself very pleased with the Maoris' work. He announced that he was putting the Pioneers on the same footing as an infantry battalion as regarded the number of honour awards, viz., 2 D.C.M.'s and 10 Military Medals.

On October 11th, after a rest of several days at Fontainesur-Somme, the Battalion with transport entrained at Longpre for Caestre (west of Armentieres), and from there the men went on by motor lorries to Neuf Berquin. On arrival there, in good clean billets, word was received to prepare to take over from the 5th Australian Pioneers, who were in the Sailly-sur-la-Lys section, as the New Zealand Division was to relieve the 5th Australian Division there. Arrangements accordingly were made for renewed hard work. A, B and C Companies went into billets at Rue de Bruges, and D Company to billets at L'Attargette—Armentieres, as the 2nd N.Z. Brigade was to be attached to Frank's Force now holding the Armentieres section. Each company and platoon were allotted the respective frontages along the subsidiary line which the Battalion took over. Each company had a total frontage of page 102 2,000 yards, and each platoon 500 yards. The total length taken over was 6,000 yards. Each Company had three platoons in the line and one in billets at Rue de Bruges. Of these, one platoon was at the disposal of the C.R.E. and two for drainage jobs under the direction of the Section Drainage Officer (Captain Perrett). The subsidiary line consisted of a series of strong points in fairly good repair, connected by a system of trenches only small patches of which were completed. The rest of the line was dug out to an average depth of 3 feet, without any revetting. The trench system consisted of a traversed fire trench, with a winding traffic trench about 20 feet in rear. From October 16th to October 31st, the Companies each worked one platoon on the subsidiary line and two platoons on winter quarters for themselves in rear of the line. The roads also were put in good order. The men housed themselves comfortably, and a cinema theatre was built at the junction of the Rue de Bruges and Rue de la Lys. Screens for traffic on the road between Sailly and Estaires were constructed. D Company (two platoons) ran a sawmill and burster factory, and one platoon ran the trench tramways and railways; the fourth platoon did emergency work about the town. October 31st was medal decoration day. General Godley arrived with Mr. Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Sir Joseph Ward, and the Canterbury men and the Pioneers were inspected by them. During November and December the various works were quietly carried on. Among the details a lot of barb-wire entanglements were erected along the 1st Brigade support line.

Christmas was spent peacefully in good winter quarters, and the men enjoyed a bountiful Christmas dinner, consisting chiefly of pigs and fowls bought locally. All the meat and vegetables were steam-cooked in hangis in the good old Maori way and were pronounced tino pai. “Our guns,” wrote the O.C., on Christmas Day, “were very active during last night, and today and this evening, especially the 60-pounders.”