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Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.

Chapter XI — Winter in Ypres

page 160

Chapter XI
Winter in Ypres.

For some three weeks the Field Companies occupied rear areas, engaged in light work of training and recreational sports. These last were run by a committee set up in each Company to organise amusements, both indoor and out, during the coming winter months. In due course, on the 12th November, came the call to move. By the 17th, after the usual temporary stoppages en route, C.R.E. Headquarters with 1st, 3rd, and 4th Companies, were established round and about Chateau Segard Camp between Ypres and Dickebusch. A week later the 2nd Company relinquished Corps work at Morbecque and moved up into billets in the ramparts of Ypres near the Lille Gate. The 3rd and 4th Companies joined it in the same locality on the 25th, and 1st Company moved at the same time to Belgian Battery Corner in the vicinity of Kruisstraat, south-west of Ypres. Corps was now taking over from 1st Anzac in the area south of the Ypres-Roulers railway. The portion of the Corps front to be occupied by the New Zealand Division, known as the Becelaere sector, lay immediately in front of the famous Polygon Wood, so called from its shape lying between four bounding roads, and extended from the ruins of the hamlet of Molenaarelsthoek generally south-westward towards the sinister Menin Road. Enveloping part of Reutel, our line fell away into the marshy valley of the Polygonebeek, flowing from Polygon Wood to join the Reutelbeek in the German Lines; thence, mounting the easy slopes crowned by Cameron Covert, it fell again into the Reutelbeek, and rose once more across the base of a high tongue of land on which stood Polderhoek Chateau. Our responsibility ceased at the Reutelbeek. The Chateau had been taken by the Australians on 4th October, but was recaptured by the enemy shortly after, and owing to its extensive command over a large portion of our front line system, became the objective of a local Divisional attack some time later. Half a mile behind the front line, and towards the northern boundary of the Divisional area, stood a high artificial mound known as the Butte de Polygon. Popular opinion in the Division could not be induced to regard this as anything but a grandstand for the racecourse visible amid the remains of Polygon Wood lying south-west of it. In reality the mound had been constructed to facilitate the musketry training of the Belgian soldiers page break page 161 formerly quartered in Ypres barracks. It was now a maze of underground tunnels and shelters, constructed by the Germans, and used as Brigade and Battalion Headquarters for our garrison in line. Further back towards Ypres the smaller woods of Glencorse and Nonnebischen were separated from the Westhoek ridge by a low-lying area drained by sister branches of that same Hanebeek crossed at Gravenstafel. South of Westhoek, at about the same elevation, lay Clapham Junction on the Menin Road just in front of Hooge. From the Junction an old road led directly into our right sector past Black Watch Corner.

Behind Westhoek again nothing broke the level expanse of repellent desolation till the eye rested on the walls of Ypres. The remains of the glorious tower of the famous Cloth Hall still rose proudly over the shattered remnants of the ancient and mighty city, which had formerly boasted its own trained soldiery, and had once defied the passage of an English army in the good old days when English kings were wont to make periodic forays on their Continental neighbours.

Surrounded by a deep moat, the sturdy ramparts, monuments to the 17th century genius of Vauban, still stood largely intact. Three main gates pierced the walls, the Lille Grate, the Dixmude Gate, and the Menin Gate; the last leading out eastward along that Via Dolorosa, the Menin Road, by which so many British soldiers had passed to return no more.

With temporary modification in the disposal of working sections, Lille Gate remained the virtual centre of Engineering activities during the coming winter, especially when the C.R.E. occupied quarters later on in the same locality. In course of time the homes under the ramparts became extremely comfortable. Every shelter, from little one-man cuddies to elaborate excavations holding 40 men, had bunks and a stove, and later many of them were lit electrically from the Corps system. The broken remnants of the former buildings supplied plenty of fuel.

No written words could ever convey a true sense of the awful state of this last poor corner of unconquered Belgium. Former roads, hedgerows, farmhouses, all had long since disappeared, no green leaf appeared on the broken tree stumps, not a bird disturbed the silence of outraged nature. The very streamlets had ceased to flow, and were merely a succession of festering shell-churned pools choked with the poisoned remains of dead mules. Miles of such transport roads as existed about Westhoek were piled high on either side for, their whole length with the shattered remains of every con-page 162
Plan of Zonnebeke Sector

Plan of Zonnebeke Sector

page 163 ceivable
article used in war. And over all the sickening stench of death in many forms, perhaps buried only to be thrown once more abroad by the unrelenting shells.

The front line area when taken over consisted largely of the scattered posts and unconnected lengths of local trenches inseparable from the changing fortunes of the recent severe fighting. The enemy was still well entrenched, with adequate artillery in position, and plenty of ground suitable for hidden assembly. Vigorous measures were at once taken therefore to build suitable systems of trenches and wire entanglements, capable of ensuring a successful defence against any hostile enterprise that might be in view.

Three lines of trenches were now to be constructed. In the meantime, the first would still remain a system of posts in selected shell holes, to be joined up later; the second, or support line, was to be a continuous trench, with fortified localities covering the gaps in front; while the third would be maintained as a reserve position, gradually equipped with shelters and conveniences impossible further forward.

Decent communications were again a prime consideration, from motives both of travel and supply. One of the sappers' first jobs was the re-laying, straightening, and extension of all duckboard tracks. These were taken in hand right from Ypres forward, though the principal work in the way of new construction naturally lay in front of Westhoek. The importance of other trench work, and the shortage of material, combined to force a decision not to dig communication saps in the meantime anywhere short of the immediate front. Overland tracks had to suffice elsewhere, with alternative routes for use in case of heavy bombardment. In the course of time it was hoped to sink the tracks, and thus provide them with at least splinter proof cover in the shape of earthen side walls. For some weeks, while the ground remained like a muddy sponge, enemy shells buried themselves deeply before explosion, resulting in very local effect, and the side walls were not particularly required. Later on, when the frosts laid an iron crust over the whole countryside, shells exploded instantly and sent their jagged splinters in all directions, causing casualties even 200 yards away. Once forward of Glencorse Wood and the crossing of the Hanebeek, an unsavoury spot known as Dead Mule Gully for obvious reasons, all movement came under direct observation from Polderhoek Chateau, whence the German garrison was never slow to enliven the traveller with a burst of fire. All forward track work was accordingly done at night, still with numerous page 164delays and inevitable casualties due to the constant spray of machine-gun bullets.

During the whole of December, the laying of new forward tracks and the maintenance of existing ones went on without a break. Ultimately, this sector was probably better supplied with overland trails than any other in which the Division operated. "F" track in the left sector, for example, ran without a break from just outside the Menin Gate right through to the front line on the ridge at Broodseinde. Similarly one could travel direct from the Lille Gate to Reutel in the right sector, though the track went by various names at different stages of the journey. The last stretch on Black Watch Track, with Polderhoek so close that the Boche could almost see if one's boots were clean or not, was a journey to be undertaken swiftly, and large parties of fellow travellers were to be avoided. In addition to the main through lines, cross trails ran wherever there was any necessity for lateral communication. So numerous did the tracks become, that a complete survey was made by the 2nd and 4th Field Companies in order to place them all correctly on the map for the information and use of Divisional Headquarters. The provision of authentic direction boards at all doubtful points was a considerable job in itself.

Already on the 3rd December, the constant annoyance suffered from the machine-gunners of Polderhoek Chateau had inspired a special attack on their stronghold by two battalions of the 2nd Brigade. The Chateau was really opposite the area occupied by the IX Corps, but, if a desire to see it put out of action was any criterion, there was no doubt as to which Division should have the honour of making the attempt. Heavy bombardments were laid on the easy target for several days before the assault, and clouds of red brick dust testified to accurate shooting, but apparently no serious damage was being done to the well-protected personnel. The 3rd Field Company sent up parties from reserve, who laid special tracks through the neighbouring Corps area to the selected assembly positions. On the day of assault, a heavy weight of artillery supported the direct attack, and also endeavoured to neutralise enfilade fire from the German supports, but all to no purpose. The garrison was very much on the alert, and a storm of machine-gun bullets completely baffled the storming troops. Insufficient training and the marked preponderance of inexperienced reinforcements among the companies were considered to be the causes of failure. Thereafter Polderhoek remained in German hands, a perpetual irritation to all and sundry.

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The Field Companies were now disposed as follows:—2nd on Right Brigade sector, 4th on Left Brigade sector, and 3rd on Reserve area works, while the 1st Company, after a Week or, so spent in the forward area, was now employed on works for II Anzac Corps. To each of the three Companies on Divisional work was allotted the now usual special infantry working party of 100 men. Three small reinforcement drafts also arrived during the month.

Owing to the pronounced hiatus in our front line caused by the valley of Polygonebeek, and to the constant menace of a flank attack from Polderhoek Chateau should the weather harden, the distribution of Brigades in line after early December was a little contrary to usual practice. The length of line was divided into Brigade sectors as usual, but one held the southern sub-sector between the Polygonebeek and the Reutelbeek with only one battalion in line, whereas the Brigade to the north was forced to employ three battalions in line to garrison its long stretch. The 4th Field Company, operating on the northern sub-sector, was hard pressed to cope with all the demands upon its services entailed by the large area in its care.

Corporal A. C. Ford and 2nd-Corporal J. S. Strawbridge of this Company came under official notice here for their personal courage and resource, and for determination in rallying working parties dispersed by heavy shell fire.

Though the immediate provision of proper tracks had been made an urgent work in the new sector, work on the trench systems had been no less energetically carried on. The positions of both support and reserve lines had been traced out, by the Engineers in the first few days of the occupation and strong working parties were busy every night, digging and draining, while duck-boarding and revetting followed as fast as time and material allowed. Drainage as a general thing presented no difficulties in the 2nd Company sector, save that of labour. The small gullies already mentioned Were easily utilised to dispose of surplus water. In the left sector, the 4th Company was not so fortunate, and drainage problems caused much greater expenditure of energy. The front line, except in the area in front of Cameron Covert, where the marshes of the Reutelbeek caused a stretch of un-: tenable ground half a mile wide, was quickly in process of conversion from its original state of detached shell holes into a continuous line. Here also the work of the garrison was assisted by the proximity of several small depressions falling away towards the front, without which their efforts to ensure page 166a dry trench would have been largely abortive. The gap caused by the Reutelbeek itself was well covered by the strong position of the well-wired support line on the high ground behind it. The names given to the new trenches, such as Papakura Support, Patoka Trench, Papanui Switch, had a pleasant and familiar ring to New Zealand ears after such atrocities as Molenaarelsthoek or Polygonebeek. As soon as the defensive trenches in support and reserve lines showed signs of definite progress, sections of the Field Companies were put on to revet, to build fire bays, to lay duckboards, and particularly to establish well-wired fortified "localities" on suitable positions.

The Light Railway and tramway systems were steadily creeping forward all the time. Sidings were put in by the sappers at Wattle and Crucifix Dumps, and material commenced to come forward, though never in sufficient quantity. Concentration of traffic round these dumps was very soon marked by the enemy, who shelled them heavily and repeatedly. On Boxing Day Wattle Dump was treated to a particularly violent burst which killed and wounded several men of a working party and disorganised the remainder. Corporal A. R. Penman of the 4th Field Company showed fine courage and contempt of personal danger in attending to the wounded under fire, and was awarded a Military Medal.

A vast amount of the work going on both in front and support lines was being executed with material salvaged from the old German lines. Great hauls were made in the neighbourhood of Glencorse Wood, where a special dump was established at the rear end of Black Watch Track. This was also fed by wheeled transport from Clapham Junction, or from Hooge by Chateau Wood Road. The latter enjoyed a particularly sinister reputation with all transport drivers, and the number of derelict waggons and dead mules piled on either side of it seemed to lend some colour to their statements. The Field Companies' drivers were up at the furthest limit of possible wheeled activity every night in an effort to keep pace with the demands for material, both special and general.

Anything brought forward by them was drawn from a large main dump on the Menin Road at Birr Cross Roads, through which ran the Light Railway from Ypres which ultimately served Wattle and Crucifix Dumps. All night, at uncertain intervals, but especially just before dawn, when the general need for retirement before daylight caused a slight congestion of traffic, the enemy lashed all roads vigorously with shrapnel and H.E.

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In general, Engineer transport was extremely fortunate, but on the 3rd of January, the 2nd Company teams were caught in a fierce bombardment on the Westhoek Road. Several shells dropped right among the horses, killing and wounding several. Three drivers were also severely wounded. 2nd-Corporal F. G. Gleeson, who was in charge of the party, exhibited great coolness and gallantry under heavy fire in extricating the remainder of his horses and waggons, thus obviating a block on the road which would inevitably have caused further serious losses. One of his loading party, Rifleman W. E. Hallam, assisted him in his dangerous work, and stood by the wounded though run over by a passing waggon. Both men received the Military Medal.

It was on this same road a week or two later that Lance Corporal H. Fake of the 2nd Company earned a Military Medal under similar conditions. The road was badly damaged and impassable and still under heavy shelling. Ambulances with wounded men were portion of the held-up traffic Fake was the mainstay of the repair gang who mended the gap, under fire, and he thoroughly deserved the reward which' followed.

Following hard on the provision of trenches and tracks came the question of wire entanglements. In many places it was quite possible to pass between posts on a dark night and wander into the opposing lines. Stray Germans, by accident or design, achieved the performance regularly. It was inadvisable to wait till the work could be undertaken in force on an organised footing. Any considerable advance by the opposing armies here in front of Westhoek would also have entailed the immediate vacation of our recent hard-won gains about Passchendaele. Both catastrophes were to occur with the German drive in the coming spring, but for the moment we were in possession and intended to remain so. And night after night the wiring parties were out among the shellholes, till the protecting "aprons" lay right across the front.

For the more intimate control of this and other problems in actual front line defence, small parties from both 2nd and 4th Field Companies were permanently stationed at the Butte to assist the efforts of the garrison in a technical capacity. The working and carrying parties sent forward each evening by the rear battalions had a particularly long, trying journey in country little known at first to most of them, and were wont to arrive at Crucifix Dump, near the Butte, in a pretty fatigued condition. They had then to be guided over another waste to the scene of the evening's employment, cheered on by page 168frequent bursts of fire from the accursed Polderhoek Chateau half a mile to the southward. Constant attention from that quarter was a certainty, whatever the luck of the night in the way of ordinary shelling.

Proper daylight exploration of the ground by the Engineers was an utter impossibility. A little reconnaissance work could be effected by moving about the few existing trenches or crawling among the crowded shell holes. Even that was done at imminent risk from snipers. Most of the day was taken up in that manner and by investigation of the drainage possibilities of the area. As soon as the dusk made movement possible, new drains and barbed-wire lines were sited and marked out before the little parties hastened back to the Butte to act as guides to the arriving working parties. When these would arrive no man knew, and dawn was often close at hand ere the night's work was complete.

The enemy was quick to note the increasing lines of wire. Ranging on them accurately with artillery by day, he not only caused immediate damage, but was able to ensure considerable casualty amongst the workers in the evening. His machine-gunners needed no ranging, they could sweep the whole line near Reutel without any trouble whatever. And wherever the two or three small gullies of the sector afforded some extent of dead ground, the time of the year and the continued heavy shelling had combined to form a wide and treacherous morass, though this particular aspect of affairs was not entirely unfavourable. The extensive marshes caused by the overflowing Reutelbeek and Polygonebeek south of Cameron Covert formed an impassable barrier to any German attack from that quarter, and before the frosts ensured a firm passage wire entanglements were in position.

The principle of barbed-wire entanglements used as a protective measure in war was known long before 1914, but, as with every other warlike device and expedient, new ideas were constantly evolved and put into practice as the long struggle drew on. By 1917, though the wide belts of stout stakes laced and interlaced with random coils of wire were still in use in their proper setting, there was only one type of wiring used to any extent when rapidity of construction was the principal consideration. This was technically known as "double-apron," and the more usual term of "rapid wiring" always meant that type of construction. In addition to wire, the only materials involved were screw pickets, long and short. These were steel rods, about half an inch in diameter, shaped exactly like a corkscrew, with a small loop at the top of the shaft, and smaller eyelets or loops formed by a twist in the page 169rod at intervals of about a foot down the shaft. Penetration of hard or frozen ground was assisted by means of the sharp point on the screw's end. The pickets were screwed into the ground by the aid of a short stick placed through the loop on top acting like the handle of a corkscrew. The handle of the infantryman's entrenching tool was ideal for this purpose. In position, the long shaft stood some 4 feet out of the ground, while the buried screw end was sunk about 18 inches. A line of these driven 6 to 8 feet apart formed the main basis of the "fence." Six feet away, both in front and rear and situated opposite the gaps between these main uprights, were placed lines of short pickets, screwed 18 inches with only the steel loop and a projecting spike left above ground.

Several leads of wire were then run out along the fence, again by means of the entrenching handle thrust through the centre of each coil, one man to a lead. Some three or four strands were secured continuously from post to post by means of the eyelets noted; others were woven diagonally from the eyelets on the long pickets down to the loops on the short, and back to the next long one, and so on. Following the diagonal bracing, continuous lines were again run lengthwise from diagonal to diagonal. Contact was secured where no eyelets existed by a twist with the invaluable entrenching handle. Wiring gloves and cutters were an item of supply, but were never much in evidence. This type of construction was soon reduced to a definite drill movement, involving 10 or 12 men to a party, and for speed and utility far surpassed any other known method.

Further protection could be arranged by the erection of additional lines behind the first. Occasionally "single apron" only was employed; the name explains itself. One great advantage attached to the use of the double-apron system was that any experienced sapper, knowing the extent of his proposed job, could estimate beforehand exactly how much material would be required for its performance.

The belts of wire put up in the support and reserve line areas were erected by special sections of the 2nd and 4th Field Companies, aided by working parties, and were distinct from purely front line work done by garrisons with the assistance of the small parties lodged in the Butte. The rear lines of wire were not arranged uniformly in lines straight across the front, but were sited to take full advantage of the marshy streams and gullies, to help to break up and deflect the line of advancing enemy parties, and to prevent them from making use of any dead ground. Defensive machine-gun positions were chosen to accord as far as possible with this idea.

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Several other types of wire entanglement were in occasional use, either in the absence of "double-apron" material, or used in conjunction therewith. "French wire" or "gooseberries," made of plain wire, and concertina wire, using the barbed species, both depended on the idea of hasty balls of wire rolled loose and laid in rows, staked down with pickets, and connected right along the tops with a horizontal wire, and protected again by a low trip wire in front. These were more effective when used between two fences of double-apron than when relied upon alone.

Low wire entanglement consisted of a series of rows of pickets, about 2ft. 6in. high, with horizontal and diagonal wires tightly strung from picket to picket, and coils of loose wire thrown into each bay. This system required to be at least 30 feet in width, and, though less conspicuous than any other type of wire erection, was very difficult to handle at night. It was seldom used in France.

Shelter was very unsatisfactory in the first weeks of the Divisional occupation. To begin with, there had been none existent, and though small parties were put on the work at once, very slow progress was made owing to lack of material. A few small steel shelters were established in support and reserve lines, but they were very few. One section of the 2nd Company was detailed to assist the N.Z. Artillery with 0. Pips and shelter for the forward gun crews, but here, again, the material was sadly to seek.

Such German pill boxes as existed had all been cleaned, pumped out, and fitted up for our own use, but Dressing Stations and various Headquarters commandeered the great majority of them. Where a concrete dugout had been acquired by ordinary troops, there were so many aspirants for a corner that a man was almost as comfortable in the holes cut in the bank of the open trench, lined with a waterproof sheet and covered with a sheet of iron, which were fair samples of the general accommodation available about Reutel during this winter. All pill boxes by whomsoever occupied were well wired to act as Strong Points in case of enemy attack.

The 3rd Field Company in the reserve area had more opportunity as regards material, but the calls made on its services were necessarily many and urgent. Several new camps were built complete. One, consisting of 40 huts to hold a battalion, was erected outside Lille Gate in a trifle over three weeks.

The baths at Cafe Beige were in great need of attention and were put in good working order, and new baths were page 171erected at Birr Cross Roads. Horse-standings were again in strong demand, as were new stables. The same strict regulations existed here with regard to the removal of broken brick, of which thousands of tons lay piled about the ruins of Ypres. Probably the same regrettable breaches of the regulations were committed by thoughtless and energetic gentlemen with horses standing in 12 inches of mud. Such notices as "Bricks must not be removed without authority" are proverbially subject to destruction by enemy gun fire.

Christmas Day Was spent as a holiday as far as possible. By the end of the year, a pleasing transformation had been effected in the Divisional area. The trench systems, of course, still required much attention, but the fact that three lines of trenches actually existed where none had lain before was fair ground for satisfaction; and in addition, several new avenues and short switches materially strengthened the general position. The front line was practically wired throughout, and before support and reserve lines the protecting screens of "double-apron" were well in hand. The former shell holes of the front line were now a continuous trench, and good progress had been made with fire-bays, revetting, and drainage. Several "localities" both in front and support lines lay ready to dispute the passage with any hostile invader. The work had all been carried out under adverse conditions, both as regards weather and enemy shelling. The frosts and snows experienced all through December made occupation of the trenches a comfortless and fatiguing duty, and materially increased the labours of all working parties.

One section of the 3rd Company was detailed for work among the camps round Dickebusch, a particularly low-lying and cheerless locality south-west of Ypres, where the few scattered civilians seemed to be constitutionally affected by their surroundings. Here they used broken brick by the ton, but without much effect on the oceans of slush existing everywhere. A sapper, who had made commendable progress in acquiring a knowledge of the French language, for military purposes only of course, was one day engaged in sweet dalliance with a maiden of the country near Ouderdom; how romance clings to the very name! Their artless prattle had reached the critical stage, as the warrior was due on a working party that evening., "Well, where do you go on Sundays?" he inquired. "Oh, Sunday is our day of amusement. I go to see my friends on Sundays," she replied. "Ah! Yes! but where?" persisted the ardent wooer. "Dickebusch!" she murmured. page 172"Dickebusch!" echoed the gallant lover, relapsing into his native tongue with a crash. "Well, I'll be —!" All was over.

Corps policy, by mid December, under pressure of the unwelcome fact that the enemy now enjoyed numerical preponderance on the Western Front, was definitely committed to defence. This was the first occasion in France on which the New Zealand Division had been committed to a passive rale, and the unusual proceeding was as a fleeting breath of disquietude before the storm of the desperate German drive in the following spring. All defensive works were to be enlarged and strengthened, and necessary amendments, if any, made to conform with the expectation of a determined enemy attack in large numbers. A Corps line of resistance well in rear of the front area, which had previously existed only on paper, now took definite shape, and effectively absorbed the energies of all labour that could be spared from the forward lines.

Early January was still very cold. A mantle of snow somewhat alleviated the unredeemed ugliness of the devastated landscape, but ere long the good progress noted on the tracks and trenches "in front" received a decided set-back. With the thaw about the middle of the month came the usual collapse of all unsustained earthwork, with its natural sequence in blocked drains and flooded trenches: salutary evidence that the sappers' insistence on berms and slopes in all trench construction was not entirely due to technical idiosyncrasy. The energies which the Field Companies had begun to divert from purely trench and track works to the improvement of accommodation were transferred back again. Great efforts were necessary to keep the trenches inhabitable at all. Fortunately material was now brought up as far as Crucifix Dump at the Butte by Light Railway, and supplies were much more plentiful. "A" frames and revetting hurdles were used in numbers reminiscent of old times, and by concentration on the "localities" and selected positions, some improvement was effected in the lot of the unfortunate garrisons.

A gum-boot store and drying shed became a necessity. Quite an extensive institution was erected by the 2nd Company at Westhoek, boasting a store, two drying rooms, a room each for issue and for changing boots, and—not the least of its many attractions—a free coffee stall, run by the ubiquitous Y.M.C.A. Despite camphor treatment and all precautions, "trench feet" were becoming common, and the gum-boots arrived none too soon. The water literally poured down some of the trenches, and in one stretch 800 yards were silted up.

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Even back in Ypres life was not entirely free from the uncertainties of the season. Some enterprising sappers of the 4th Company, who had built themselves a home on one of the small islands at the. edge of the frozen moat, awoke one morning to find themselves cut off by deep and perilous waters. However, their rescue afforded the pontoons a Heaven-sent opportunity of vindicating their right to be regarded as essential munitions of war. The Ypres Moat was still inhabited by a pair of beautiful white swans, which had survived all the piled misfortunes of this unhappy city. Their safety and rights as original inhabitants were guarded by an Army order, and they were, still there late in 1918, and may even yet be paddling round lamenting the absence of the stir of bygone days.

Tram lines and tracks suffered along with the trenches from the break in the frosty weather. In many places they had been unavoidably constructed over filled-in shell holes, which, subsiding with the thaw, upset all calculations as to grades and security. Most of the forward tram lines were ultimately provided with duckboards. No amount of official displeasure was sufficient to keep pedestrians from utilising the tram track as a highway, hence to guard against complete removal of all ballasting on the boots of the trespassers, duckboards were laid between the rails, and "no thoroughfare" restrictions were removed.

By February, weather conditions took an improved turn, and the work of steadily improving the Divisional sector went on with increased speed. Accommodation schemes Were again revived. Gas proofing of all important shelters and of the deep concrete dugouts and dressing stations at Hooge and Birr Cross Roads had been carried out long since. The Butte was finally put out of commission as a shelter by a gas bombardment on the evening of 18th-19th February. In common with all other well-used points of the front area, it had successfully weathered many previous bombardments with gas shells. On this occasion the usual precautions were at once taken, and the night passed without casualty. Next morning, however, when the heat of the sun commenced to thaw the frozen ground, polluted air rose all round and gradually filled the Butte before it was noticed. Every man of the two Headquarters in residence was evacuated, more or less poisoned. Since no serious results finally eventuated, the incident caused little unhappiness to the battalions in line, who still cherished memories of a severe "strafe" delivered a few evenings earlier on the subject of laxity in the matter of precautions taken against gas attacks.

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Great activity in Artillery circles had necessarily prevailed following the decision to adopt a defensive policy on the British Front. Since the New Year the 2nd Field Company had kept men constantly at the disposal of the N.Z. Artillery, who were now fairly well equipped with all "O Pips" and gun positions necessary to their work.

In rear areas, the 1st Field Company in reserve was completely engaged in the extensive Heavy Artillery preparations occasioned by the new policy. Not only was each battery on the front to be provided with a well-equipped permanent position, but, in the case of the heavy guns, reserve positions also were constructed in rear, in case adverse attack should render the idea of permanence illusory. These artillery positions were made a very urgent charge, and to a permanent party of attached infantry, aided by 50 men from artillery brigades, was added an additional 400 men from the Reserve battalion giving the 1st Field Company a daily labour strength of 1500 men. In a single fortnight nearly 800 truckloads of material were used, including fascines, sleepers, concrete slabs and blocks, cement, shingle, sand, reinforcing rods, sandbags, duckboards, and iron shelters. To these were added the daily loads of all available Company transport, while a small force of Corps lorries and waggons was called in to transport the various parties to the scattered scenes of their labours. The digging of pits and approach roads thereto, even the heavy plank platforms of the gun mountings, were matters of no great intricacy. The shelters for crews and battery command posts took longer. The latter in particular were of concrete and secure against ordinary shelling.

In some instances captured pill boxes were utilised, in which case the former rear walls and overhead cover were increased to a thickness of 5ft. 6in. In other cases new concrete dugouts were built, with requisite reinforcement. A special forge and smithy were established to handle the necessary work. Observation posts were not forgotten. On completion of the work, the Company enjoyed the hearty commendation of both Army and Corps Commanders.

Many of the Heavy Artillery brigades had a number of West Indian Bermudans on their strength, who acted more or less as general labourers, handling the heavy shells and digging pits. Each man was as black as the proverbial coal, and not altogether a Georges Carpentier as regards facial contour. Several of them were going homewards one evening, when a mixed party of New Zealanders and Australians loomed up out of the fog. "Hullo," cried one New Zealander, "here page 175come some more Aussies!" "Oh no, Sir!" replied the leading darkie, "we are all New Zealanders!"

On the 8th February, owing to an extension of the Corps front Northward, the 2nd Field Company took over work in the Zonnebeek sub-sector from 66th Divisional Engineers. Tracks here were in a very poor state and totally unprovided with notice boards. In addition to the improvement of these defects, work was along the usual routine lines till the relief shortly afterwards.

On 23rd February, all work in the Divisional area was handed over to the R.E. companies of the 49th Division. The 2nd and 3rd Field Companies were relieved by 456th and 458th Field Companies, while the 57th Field Company replaced the 4th Field Company.

On the 7th February, owing to the steady thinning of the Divisional ranks, the 4th Brigade, as such, had ceased to exist. With its disestablishment died the hopes of the 4th Field Company, which was now earmarked for reinforcement to the other three companies until the passage of time brought about its final absorption. For some weeks, however, the Company remained as a complete unit, working on the Corps defence line. A further step towards dissolution came on 21st March, when the Company ranks and equipment were liberally drawn upon to supply deficiencies in the other three Companies prior to their move southward. The depleted Company was then attached as Engineer unit to the New Zealand Entrenching Group, composed of surplus infantry units from 4th Brigade, with whom it worked until the passage of time finally brought about its complete absorption in the three older Companies.

The 4th Company had enjoyed only 10 months of existence as a complete unit, but during that time had borne a full share of the fortunes of war, and had grown into a first-class Company, with the happy experience that increasing efficiency had kept pace with a steady growth of esprit de corps and mutual friendship and respect among all ranks.

On relinquishing work in the front line area, the whole strength of the N.Z. Engineers, with the exception of the 2nd Field Company, was employed on the Corps defence system. Their work consisted almost entirely of constructing concrete dugouts and erecting barbed-wire entanglements. Everything could be done in daylight, with the added advantage that Corps jobs had first call on any facilities in existence, such as light railways and extra motor lorries. Material was always on hand in requisite quantities, and the working page 176parties rode to and from their work on the railway tracks in most unusual comfort. Over 1500 tons of concrete were used on this job.

The 1st Brigade now remained in the area for work on the same Corps line. The 2nd Brigade entrained at Ypres on 23rd February, and proceeded to the Corps reserve area round about Staple, a small village west of Hazebrouck. With it went the 2nd Field Company, which was finally located near Hondeghem. All ranks now in the rest area had passed some strenuous weeks in the notorious Salient, and the good quarters and fine weather experienced heightened the sense of freedom and relief. Each morning was devoted to various training exercises and to lectures, but in the afternoon, sports, crosscountry running and football held sway with at least an equal expenditure of energy and ardour.

On the 15th March, the 2nd and 3rd Field Companies exchanged areas and duties. Ever since Christmas, an invariable accompaniment of all clear frosty nights round Ypres had been the ominous drone of the German Gothas, punctuated by the vicious cracks of their exploding bombs. Apart from the inevitable uneasiness caused in crowded open camps and horse lines, the amount of damage done was inconsiderable when compared with the experience of the autumn. The majority of the sappers were housed in the ramparts, and no casualties were sustained, though several bombs fell among the unprotected shacks that ultimately congregated round the Lille Gate. A Y.M.C.A. hut, built mostly of tarred paper, survived without a scratch. Divisional Baths, a bare hundred yards away, were temporarily closed down on several occasions. But new and, if possible, more unwelcome agents of destruction made their appearance in January, and both then and in March caused heavy damage in many forms. These were the long-range high velocity guns, thought to have been borrowed from the German Navy, which certainly at that time can have had singularly little use for them.

The 2nd Company had returned from rest areas only four days when the transport lines came in for their share of the attentions bestowed on back areas by the naval gunners. Eleven horses were killed outright, and twelve others seriously wounded, fortunately without injury to transport personnel.

The weather had remained exceptionally good ever since withdrawal from the front trenches, and work on the Corps line, no less than the training at Hondeghem, went on smoothly under almost ideal conditions. But not for long were the page break
Lieut. Colonel L. M. Shera, O.B.E., M.C.

Lieut. Colonel L. M. Shera, O.B.E., M.C.

page 177 Companies to be left in enjoyment of these peaceful occupations. Ominous rumours began to creep up from the South. Ere long these gave place to the grim certainty that the expected German attack had broken out on the Somme, and that Ludendorff 's hordes, pressing forward vigorously in great numbers, were meeting with quite unexpected success.

Day by day a further substantial advance was credited to the enemy. He was nearing Flers and Guedecourt. When and where would he be stopped? This matter assumed an intensely personal significance with the New Zealanders, and as a means of putting an extra finish on the great increase in health, morale, and fighting form due to the recent rest and relief from the strains of the severe winter, could hardly have been excelled. That territory so intimately bound up with the grim experiences of their first great effort on the battlefields of France, captured from the enemy in close fight after so many weary days, and soaked with the blood of such numbers of their bravest and best, should fall back into German hands like this, practically without a struggle, seemed almost an unconsidered trifle in a daily advance. The whole idea was preposterous. But Flers was left far behind, and still the relentless march rolled on. On the 21st March, instructions to be ready for the road at short notice reached all units of the Division. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Field Companies profited by the warning to bring their establishments up to full strength in men, material, and horseflesh by drawing on the now finally doomed 4th or Reinforcement Company. 23rd March saw the 1st and 2nd Companies at Ouderdom, handy to the railhead. By the afternoon of the 24th advance parties of the Divisional units, including C.R.E.'s Headquarters, had said good-bye to Flanders flats for ever, and a steady succession of troop trains was pulling out from Hazebrouck, Caestre, and Hopoutre near Poperinghe. The usual practice of sending Engineer transport by road was abandoned this time, and after some strenuous loading of horses and vehicles, the 1st and 2nd Companies left Hopoutre on the 25th. The 3rd Company marched from the rest area to Caestre, and entrained there on the same day. No announcements were made as to destination; none were required.