Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.
Chapter X. — Passchendaele
For some weeks the Field Companies enjoyed a spell of comparative rest, working or training in their back areas. During the whole of this period the rumble of the distant guns about Ypres was ever in the air, now rising to a definite staccato, now falling to a subdued throb only noticeable to one in some confined space, according to the vagaries of the breeze, or to the changing conditions of the battlefield.
The grand offensive, successfully opened by the Fifth Army on 31st July, was not so auspiciously prosecuted during the succeeding phases, and by September it was clearly seen that additional forces must be employed. General Plumer and the Second Army were called upon for the necessary effort. By an attack on 20th September, augmented by further successes on 26th September, fair progress was made, and the final capture of the main ridge looked like a feasible proposition. At the same time, no strategic positions of real value had yet fallen into our hands. The new policy of defence adopted by the German High Command was already proving its sterling worth.
The bitter experiences, gained on the Somme and at Messines, of the possible effects of concentrated artillery fire on fixed trench lines had caused the enemy to modify his views regarding defensive measures, and his continuous lines of trenches formerly relied upon had now given place to a system of small, closely distributed machine-gun posts, all mutually supporting, and each well protected by its own system of wire entanglements. Generally only about 10 feet square, built of solid reinforced concrete, with walls and overhead cover up to six feet in thickness, these posts were almost indestructible except by the direct hit of our heaviest shells, while the handicaps of poor observation facilities and unstable foundations laboured under by our Artillery were increased by the very skilful manner in which the enemy had sited and concealed his structures.
Once among the "pill-boxes," as these posts were christened by some inevitable Tommy humourist, all attempted advances to date had been at once held up, since the ordinary creeping barrage had little or no effect on the machine-gunners securely sheltered in each stronghold. However, though prospects of achieving the results first aimed at were now page 147extremely dim, there was still time before the winter to take the main ridge, which, in addition to a dominating position, and relatively good winter quarters, would afford us a good starting place for renewed operations in the spring.
By September 24th came the expected orders to the New Zealand Division, and the 25th saw them on the road to Ypres. C.R.E. Headquarters, 1st, 3rd, and 4th Field Companies marched up to staging billets. in Hazebrouck, Renescure, Campagne and Sart respectively. Next day found the three Companies again on the road, putting in the night at St. Marie Cappel, Wallen Cappel, and Campagne. On the 27th the Belgian border was crossed once more, and passing via; Watou and adjacent camps, the sappers took up final quarters on the Yser Canal bank on the outskirts of Ypres. All transport was concentrated near Vlamertinghe.
The trek had been commenced in sweltering weather and concluded in heavy rain, and the heavy packs and crowded roads did not improve either situation. However, the long spell in back areas had wonderfully improved the health and condition of the Companies, which were providentially in fine fettle for the work and weather that lay ahead. The 2nd Company came up from Morbecque to Poperinghe by rail a day or two later, and after a night spent on the roadside at Goldfish Chateau, went into bivouac in a sodden field at Salvation Corner, just in rear of the other Companies. The new month found the New Zealand Infantry established in strange country in trenches some four miles in front of the old British Front Line. Little time was to be allowed them to familiarise themselves with their new positions. The lateness of the season and the urgency of the operations in hand combined to insist upon a speedy climax. New Zealand's share in the coming attack was to be the capture of the Gravenstafel Spur.
Lines of communication in the new sector were particularly inadequate. The whole of the traffic from the battle front was forced to pass through Ypres, and, from there to the rear, the main road through Vlamertinghe to Poperinghe formed the only available outlet.
Once forward of Ypres, road conditions became worse and worse until the area of recent fighting was reached. There the roads ceased to exist. Long stretches of greasy gleaming slush, interspersed with small islands of firm ground, still capped with a yard or two of paved road, amid pools of slimy knee-deep water, showed where they once had been. Choked with the debris of broken waggons, abandoned guns, ammunition boxes, shells, accoutrements, and, nearer to the front, the decaying remains of dead animals, they needed but page 148the lines of twisted and distorted trees standing as in mute despair at solemn intervals along the shattered roadsides to complete the ruin and desolation of the scene.
Even foot traffic across the broken country now saturated by constant rain, was strenuous labour to an unburdened man. To the early carrying parties, toiling hour after hour over the endless morass, the work was heartbreaking and the results negligible. The 1st and 4th Field Companies, with parties of 100 Infantry attached, were each immediately ordered to construct a forward mule track and a double duckboard track.
These tracks, known as No. 5 and No. 6 Tracks, ran forward on either side of the old Wieltje-Passchendaele Road, starting respectively at Oxford and Admiral Roads in the vicinity of Wieltje, where an advanced Divisional Dump was now established at Bilge, supplies coming by motor lorry from Vlamertinghe and Poperinghe. The mule tracks were provided with planking or road mats in the worst places, and a pathway was formed for the drivers. At first these mule tracks were located near the duckboard tracks, which, with the natural perversity of human nature, the drivers immediately proceeded to use in preference to their own. The mules essayed to follow the bad example, with poor results to the duckboards, and thenceforward the two tracks were constructed at a more discreet distance apart.
Double duckboards allowed of up and down traffic on each track and the free passage of stretcher-bearers. The 3rd Field Company took over the work of maintaining both existing and newly formed tracks, and since before the end of the Divisional operations these attained a total length of 20 miles, some idea will be gained of their extensive charge. More than usual damage was done to the tracks, as the German observers were quick to notice the unusually intense traffic thereon due to difficulties of travel elsewhere. Several miles of dry Weather tracks were also formed and staked with painted pickets, but since there was no dry weather after the 4th, they were practically useless.
The ground then became so sodden with rain, and was so cut up by the recent firing, that any attempt to travel at random across country was simply floundering from one shell-hole into another. These lay for miles with scarce a yard between, all filled to the brim with dark slimy water and the scattered debris of the battlefield, mingled all too often with the grisly remains of the poor wretches who had gone under in the preceding weeks.page 149
At no period in the Divisional experience on the Western Front was material more urgently required, or more difficult to come by, than during these first weeks in October. The one road forward of Wieltje, still in a precarious condition of hasty repair, was jammed solid with guns vainly endeavouring to get up to more advanced positions. Horsed transport was out of the question. Stray vehicles might have got forward in the course of time, but there would have been no return. Consequently all material required in the advanced area had to be transported on the shoulders of carrying parties. Their performances reached about the limit of human endurance, and all available packhorses in the Engineers' transport sections were used to supplement the supply of duck-boards, but the full needs of the situation were never satisfied.
Unfortunately no assistance was received from the Light Railways. A light 9lb. tramline would have been invaluable, both for preparatory work and for evacuation of wounded during the offensive, but material was nowhere available. Arrangements were made to lay a 201b. line, for which materials were available in the rear dumps. However, to cart these forward by horsed transport or motor lorry in the time available was an absolute impossibility. Had Light Railways been able to deliver the gear at their terminus, all had been well; but even this proved beyond accomplishment. There may have been good and sufficient reason for this disregard of merely Divisional requirements, but the truth may well be stated here that on numberless occasions, happily less serious than the present one, there had been a curious difficulty in procuring necessary material by the Light Railways for work in forward areas.
As September gave way to October and the day of New Zealand's entry into the battle lists came nearer, there was no cessation of effort either at front or rear, but still the results in terms of solid advance were extremely meagre. The far crest of the main ridge, crowned with the battered remains of Passchendaele Village, where ever and again the burst of a heavy shell temporarily shut out the misty picture, still lay well beyond our reach.
This main ridge, running due north from Polygon Wood, of our later acquaintance, to about the point where the Ypres-Rioulers railway crosses the hills, there turns in a northeasterly direction for Passchendaele, and at the same time breaks in a north-westerly direction into a low broad outline running down to within a mile of St. Julien Village. Known as Gravenstafel Spur, from the name of the village situated page 150half way down its length, this elevation lay almost square to the line of the New Zealanders' advance, close beyond a flooded marshy watercourse known as the Hanebeek. Not far from its junction with the main ridge, the easy outline of the spur was surmounted by a small isolated crest known as Abraham Heights, so called by the Canadians in the Second Battle of Ypres. Further on again, and separated from Gravenstafel Spur by another small stream known as the Ravebeek, which merged later into the Stroombeek, lay the Bellevue Spur. Both these formidable obstacles, with every approach guarded, and every fold in the ground lashed by the machine-gun fire of cleverly hidden "pillboxes," had to be surmounted before the final assault on Passchendaele could be thought of.
During the night of 3rd October; special efforts were made by the sappers to assist the movements of the assaulting battalions, and to prepare for the inevitable rush of work on the morrow. Lance-Corporal Dunbar Gunn of the 3rd Field Company was conspicuous for gallantry and determination under heavy shelling and bombing, and was awarded the Military Medal. Gravenstafel Village, and the whole spur including Abraham Heights, lay within the objectives set for the New Zealand attack on 4th October. The sinister Bellevue Spur was to come later.
At 6 a.m. in a cold windy drizzle, the British guns opened the account. To surprise the enemy, no preliminary bombardment had been carried out, and Fritz on his part had been particularly quiet for reasons of his own. Down along the dark foggy marshes of the Hanebeek a German Eeserve Division was silently coming into position for an attack at dawn. Our barrage anticipated their proposed attentions by about 10 minutes,, and, in addition to cutting the unfortunate Reserves to pieces, it disarranged the German organisation all day with results entirely favourable to our own enterprise. All objectives and a large number of prisoners were taken well up to time-table. By evening the Spur was held from end to end by a well-dug line of continuous trench some 400 yards down the further slopes. A support line of posts nearer the top, and a further continuous, line just behind the crest, provided additional security and good observation. Within a short period communication trenches were established over the crest and down to the foremost line. Though won at some cost, the day's victory was undoubtedly complete in the New Zealand sector, an experience which was happily repeated on either side of them. The capture of Otto Farm, a former German dump well stored with fascines, brushwood and timber, furnished a welcome addition to available supplies, with-page 151out which the sappers could not possibly have compassed the results achieved. By mid-day on the 5th, heavy rain set in once more, and the whole sodden area became a precarious slough of mud and water.
This pronounced break in the weather, coming as it did at the most inopportune moment possible, from the point of view of the British Armies, and no less therefore of our own Division, so intensified the difficulties of travel and transport that the question of tracks and roads became the paramount consideration of the hour; so much so that, during the whole period of this Divisional occupation of the front line, the principal energies of the three Field Companies engaged in the line were absorbed by that work alone. As has been noted, the enemy was fully aware of all that was going on in this particular direction, and time and again shrapnel crashed down among the working parties, while occasionally bursts of concentrated heavy fire forced them to withdraw temporarily. No incentive to persevere was more potent than the sight of the weary men returning from further forward, sometimes wounded and scarcely able to crawl, or even whole men with mud to the thighs, and utterly fagged out by the struggle across the broken wastes.
Since dawn on the 4th the 1st Field Company, along with the Pioneers, had been concentrated on the work of repairing the one main road, and by 8 p.m. some field guns were already on the way to more forward positions. Next day more still were brought up, but with the rain came inevitable delay and almost a stoppage of movement. Several guns were hauled through somehow by main strength and determination, but the road soon became impassable, and the road workers were fully employed in pulling out bogged guns and helping them to the nearest few feet of comparatively firm ground on either side of the slushy canal that marked the line of the former roadway.
Lieutenant G. V. Russell of the 1st Field Company was awarded the Military Cross for good work and gallant conduct on this occasion. No less admirable in their own spheres of action were the achievements of Sergeants B. V. Cooksley and C. H. Elsom, Lance-Corporal J. R. Gilbert, and Sapper A. T. Brokenshire of the same Company, each of whom received an immediate reward of the Military Medal.
Immediately the advance had gone forward, extension and maintenance of the duckboard and mule tracks were pushed on with all speed. By nightfall the 3rd, Field Company had reached Dump House, level with Gravenstafel Village. Gallant conduct and coolness under heavy shell fire page 152while engaged on this important work brought Military Medals to Sergeant W. J. Brown, Corporal D. W. Stronach, and Lance-Corporal T. Hatful.
Of cover in the forward area there was none, and could be none, save the captured German dugouts. Even Dressing Stations were dependent on that uncertain source of shelter. Most of the concrete pillboxes were small, and many had been more or less damaged by our artillery. Parties from the 3rd and 4th Field Companies were continuously occupied in pumping out and generally patching up these captured dugouts, but had all been in first-class order, there had still been no prospect of weather protection for 90 per cent, of the unfortunate garrisons.
At the same time other sections from the same Field Companies continued the duckboard and mule tracks, but naturally under still further difficulties of supply and construction, owing'to the increased demand for other stores consequent upon the advance, the constant passage of troops and wounded, and the pitiless opposition of the elements. Beyond the limits of the tracks the sappers erected numerous guiding stakes and notice boards containing full directions to various destinations, without which accurate movement in the featureless wastes would have been impossible.
Meanwhile the 2nd Field Company had not been idle. While the more extreme needs of the Divisional routine had been imperfectly satisfied by the provision of the various tracks, it was quite evident that, for any successful prosecution of the main advance, a road that could cope with wheeled transport and heavy guns was an absolute necessity. No style of earth or stone construction available was of the least use in dealing with the torn and waterlogged terrain. Timber was the only solution of the difficulty. This was a Corps job and was tackled by the 2nd Field Company along with the Engineering troops from the 49th Division. Train load after train load of heavy beams, green and rough cut straight from the saw, was landed at the railhead near Wieltje and thence carted out in lorries, waggons, limbers, cooks' carts, anything that would carry a load and help to relieve the pressing need of the moment.
From Wieltje towards Gravenstafel the road led down a long easy slope to the stream crossing at the bottom marked by Spree Farm, where German dugouts had now been converted into a Dressing Station, and the block of traffic On that road is still something to remember. Lying open to direct observation from Passchendaele, it was always a stand-page 153ing marvel that 'enemy artillery did not shell it out of existence. Even moderate efforts would have completely disorganised at least two of our Divisions. Not that it was altogether exempt by any means. Taking one thing with another, to get a load of material up the road in day time was a day's work. The conflicting claims of those anxious to extend the road itself and of those who wanted the sole use of what road already existed, led to an impasse which reacted most unfavourably on the progress of the extension. The 2nd Field Company adopted the method of concentrating all available transport efforts on the hours between midnight and dawn, and thereby managed to supply approximately the needs of their daylight building gangs. Both by the carters at night and the builders by day an enormous amount of time was consumed in patching the holes constantly torn by the German shells, or in extricating the vehicle of some careless or unfortunate Tommy lorry driver.
The method of road construction adopted was to lay on an approximately level prepared bed four or five lengthwise stringers, to which were spiked broad stout beams making a continuous decking. Rough planks at either side operated as wheel guards and held many a crazy side-slipping lorry on the uncertain way. Forward of Spree Farm the old road-line was abandoned altogether, and a new road bed was prepared through the shell holes to the foot of Gravenstafel Spur. Any length of bed that was prepared ahead of the decking invariably attracted some unfortunate mule driver forcing his way up to the forward guns with his few shells, and it was a common experience to have to excavate three or four bogged mules before going on with the roadway. As time wore on, the field guns got up by degrees, till the area anywhere near the road just behind Gravenstafel Spur Was set thick with them, and their casualties must have been severe.
Heavier guns also essayed the passage, but few got past Spree Farm, and not many as far. Their struggle generally ended in setting up within a few yards of the roadside, and making the best of a poor situation. The shelling attracted by the increasing congestion of guns made actual work on the road a perpetual task, as the broken timbers consequent upon a direct hit were harder to remove and renew than they had been to lay in the first place. All stores of heavy ammunition brought forward had perforce to be dumped at the end of the road, where on several occasions German shells found them out, the result being great craters torn in the road bed, and the destruction of all in the vicinity. Corporal A. E. Gibb page 154and Lance-Corporal G. H. Shelley were awarded the Military-Medal for gallant conduct and devotion to duty during the progress of this work.
The difficulties and bitter discomfort experienced in the front area were faithfully reflected even in rear. Men paraded in wind and rain in the early dawn, trudged wearily over the broken wastes to a day's work in mud and slush, and returned later in more rain to flimsy bivouacs on open ground that was practically a pond, where they lay down in clothes and blankets that had not been dry for days. And then not to sleep save when exhausted Nature asserted herself. With the first watches of the night came the detestable penetrating double-stroke whirr of the large German bombing 'planes. The silver streak picked out on the dark countryside by the Canal served them well as a landmark, and not a night passed without several casualties among the occupants of the crowded camps along the banks. On the first evening spent in the locality Engineer transport lost five men and four horses; on another occasion a hutment occupied by 2nd Company officers had the roof blown off, fortunately with only one casualty. He was a highly philosophical or a very weary man who could rest peacefully with nothing between him and those prowling night birds but a sheet of tin or a waterproof sheet. So long as the brutes were in the sky, there was always a chance of trouble, and the tension was prolonged in a manner quite distinct from even heavy shell fire.
On the 6th, the New Zealand Infantry were relieved by the 49th Division, and passed back into reserve areas behind Ypres. The Engineers and Pioneers were left in the battle area, owing to the extreme necessity for the tracks and roads upon which they were engaged. Until the 11th they worked under the control of the 49th Division, whose G.O.C. called personally later at New Zealand Headquarters to express to the C.E.E. his appreciation of the work done for his Division.
During one particularly cold wet dawn the sappers found themselves alongside West Riding Pioneers, one of whom was none too clear as to their identity. "Say, choom!" said he to a gaunt New Zealander, "what do them letters N.Z.E. stand for?" "New Zealand Esquimaux!" was the expressive reply.
During the attack on the 9th the New Zealand Engineers had further opportunities for distinguished service, and several of them were recommended for immediate rewards by the G.O.C. 49th Division. Sapper J. K. Ramsay, of the 1st Company, in addition to fine work on road reconnaissance, volunteered to assist in bringing in a wounded officer of the page 155Y.L.I. and succeeded in his task despite heavy machine-gun fire. Corporal J. W. Duggan, 2nd Corporal W. D. McKinley, and Sapper J. Walker of the same Company, and Sapper H. McMillan from the 3rd, all showed outstanding qualities of courage and determination while engaged on roads and tracks. Each of them received the Military Medal.
By this time it had become a matter of serious question whether the attack should be gone on with. All prospect of achieving the original objects of the offensive had admittedly vanished. The extremely skilful disposition of the German defences, and the atrocious weather experienced, had proved to be obstacles against which unremitting effort and dauntless valour had alike been vain. It is no secret that the cessation of hostilities at this comparatively favourable stage was definitely contemplated. It is probable that those saddled with the responsibility of decision were forced to weigh many other issues beside that of purely military expediency; in any case it was decided to persevere.
The 9th of October was the date set for the next blow, and arrangements were even made for reserve troops to be brought up at short notice to press a possible German retreat. However, the weather continued unsuitable, no guns could advance, and finally the exploitation proposals were dropped in favour of a further deliberate attack on the 12th. For this second effort, the 49th Division, now about to take part in the assault on the 9th, would be again relieved by the New Zealanders. Unfortunately for themselves and all concerned, the 49th were able to make but little impression on the German defences confronting them, and by nightfall lay on the line of their first objective only. The 3rd and 4th Field Companies had been on hand to assist in consolidation, and in cleaning up captured pill boxes, but the German machine-guns on Bellevue Spur were so active that movement was impossible, and the Companies were recalled to repair tracks further in rear.
Although arrangements were considerably upset by this failure on the 9th, plans were nevertheless completed to carry on the attack on the 12th. The Second Army effort on this day was to be confined to New Zealand and Australian troops only, the objectives being the capture of Passchendaele Village and the Goudberg spur to the north.
On the 10th the New Zealand Infantry began to relieve the troops of the 49th Division, who were found badly disorganised by their recent failure, and in no position to supply any reliable information to the incoming battalions. Little page 156assurance was needed of the grim fact that the enemy's wire entanglements and concrete shelters were practically intact. The evidence of patrols immediately sent out, supporting the results of direct observation from Gravenstafel, left no room for doubt as to the well-nigh impregnable positions in front, and confirmed the worst suspicions of the unfavourable nature of the country to be crossed. Under these conditions a postponement of the attack would have been welcomed till the wire at least had been dealt with, but Army orders had already gone forth and the die was cast. Under the circumstances there remained for each man but the grim determination to go forward and do his duty. Everything now depended on the measure of artillery support accorded. That this was fully realised by the artillerymen themselves was best evidenced by the superhuman efforts put forth to get the guns and ammunition forward. Unfortunately there are limits to human endeavour. Even the few guns that were pulled through the morass were forced to fire from unstable foundations, with trails sinking in the mud every few rounds, thus affecting alike the speed and accuracy of the shooting.
Low over all hung the leaden sky, with cold winds sweeping the forlorn wastes and a constant succession of bitter rain storms thrashing the Flemish swamps. In knee-deep mud on the night of the 11th the Infantry struggled forward to the assembly positions. Down in the swollen Ravebeek the whole of the 1st and 3rd Field Companies were busily constructing stream crossings, eight of which were completed during the evening. Covered with cocoanut matting, these ensured a firm-footed passage of the obstacle, and the attackers were lined up well on time. Later on, when the duckboard tracks were brought forward, the best of these crossings were converted into more or less permanent foot-bridges. In connection with this operation, 2nd Corporal A. A. Howard and Sapper J. Houston, both of 3rd Field Company, received well-merited awards of the Military Medal.
At 5.25 a.m. on the 12th the attack opened, but where was the heavy barrage that alone could have mended the fortunes of that stricken day? Practically unsupported, the infantry struggled across the lead-swept slopes with a pluck and devotion never surpassed in war, only to find as they came within striking distance of the foe that the way was barred with double belts of wide unbroken entanglements, against which both skill and fortitude could only beat in vain. Dozens of men deliberately sacrificed themselves in an endeavour to cut through by hand, some even reached the page 157second belt before they fell and hung among the pitiless wires; others rushed the few gaps left open, only to find a certain bullet from machine-guns carefully sited for that very purpose.
Not till every battalion involved had poured out its blood like water, and had strewn the stark slopes with swathes of gallant dead, were the few survivors forced to break off the impossible struggle. Where they failed, no men could have succeeded. It is questionable whether the authorities knew exactly how much they had asked. Exhausted men struggling through mud and water in pouring rain cannot well compete against a skilled enemy waiting in concrete shelters armed with machine-guns. But weather and machine-guns and lack of supporting artillery notwithstanding, the Boche could never have stopped them had the wire been cut. That impregnable barrier was the main cause of failure at Bellevue, as it had been the reason for almost every British failure since the Highlanders came to grief at Loos in 1915. No more need be said here of what was a bad day for New Zealand, save that no sense of chagrin or dissatisfaction with the results achieved could have equalled the anger and disappointment of the gallant survivors.
The sappers held ready for the usual consolidation duties following a successful advance were not to be called upon that day, and were at once thrown into the work of extending and improving communications, now even more important owing to the failure of the attack, with consequent slight disorganisation, and to the tremendous congestion of wounded men.
Bold reconnaissance of tracks, water, and dugout facilities, under exceptionally heavy fire, by 2nd Corporals G. H. Thorpe and F. G. Taylor, and Sappers J. W. McKay and A. Springall, all of the 3rd Company, brought each of them a Military Medal. Sapper F. Smyth of the same Company was also conspicuous on this occasion.
On the 13th, in company with every free man in the Division, the Engineers assisted to carry in the wounded. The regimental stretcher bearers were quite unable to cope with the terrible task; over some of the country six and eight men were required to carry out a single case to the ambulance at Spree Farm. To add to the difficulties, the outgoing 49th Division on the 10th had left the battlefield and Aid Posts strewn with their wounded, all of whom received succour and attention without distinction. Despite all efforts, dozens of wounded men were doomed to lie for hours and even days in page 158the cold rain and hail, and many must have perished who might have been saved under more favourable conditions. It was afternoon on the 14th before all surviving wounded were finally clear of the battlefield. It is pleasant to be able to record that, in general, stretcher bearers were able to work right up to the wire entanglements without interference by the Germans, while such places as Waterloo Farm, where as many as 200 stretcher cases were massed at once, in full view of German observers, were free of hostile shell fire.
Back at Spree Farm, congestion of traffic was now attracting intense shelling with constant heavy damage to the road. For outstanding energy and bravery while engaged in this vicinity, Lance-Corporals D. McM. Fullarton and A. W. Danby and Sapper J. W. Garnett of the 1st Field Company were awarded the Military Medal. A similar distinction, awarded to Driver A. Johnstone for exceptional coolness and resource in the control of his team under concentrated shell fire, was timely recognition of the unobtrusive but none the less sterling work continually being performed by all transport drivers.
By this time stores were coming forward more freely, and a dump established at Spree Farm enabled better progress to to be made with the plank road, which 2nd Field Company were still advancing in the neighbourhood of Gravenstafel. But this improvement was too late to affect Divisional activities to any extent.
The construction of baths near the Dead End of the Canal by the 1st Field Company marked the first opportunity for attending to needs other than those of the immediate battle front, but those also were to serve the needs of other Divisions. On the 18th the Canadian Corps took over the sector, and on the 21st all Engineer works and dumps were handed over to 3rd Canadian Divisional Engineers. It is interesting to note that the front line handed over to the Canadians was in much the same position as the line occupied at the time of the German gas attack in the Second Battle of Ypres, when Canadian troops made such a gallant stand before being overwhelmed. Many of the Canadians were not in the line at the actual moment of the attack, but were rushed from Ypres to replace French colonial coloured troops, who had stampeded before the gas, and by all accounts were then half way to the coast.
C.R.E. Headquarters, 1st, 3rd and 4th Field Companies now entrained at Ypres and returned to the respective billetsoccupied in the Aa Valley before the battle, and there the remainder of the month passed in rest and light training operations; 2nd Company returned soon after to Morbecque and resumed its labours at the Corps School.page 159
In common with all ranks of the Division, the horses of the various transport units had found the last few weeks sufficiently trying. Those belonging to the Field Companies were in very poor shape after the constant packing in the heavy mud, and stood in urgent need of the rest now given them. It may be noted that some horses are very much affected by shell fire. Many of those which happened to suffer actual injury, or only shock, from a too intimate acquaintance with a bursting shell, were never the same again. In some extreme cases, twitching limbs and other signs of collapse followed even the scream of a projectile passing overhead.
Three weeks operations by the redoubtable Canadians saw the fall of Passchendaele and the occupation of country which had been included in the objective set for the New Zealanders in one day.
And there one of the grimmest and bloodiest struggles of the whole war came to a conclusion. The British casualties had been enormous, and the results by contrast with the original aspirations poor in the extreme. The New Zealanders took consolation from the fact that their morale was not seriously impaired by the recent severe ordeal, and looked forward to another day with Fritz, when the chances of war should be on a more even footing.