Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Chapter XIV. — The Reserve Depot in England

page 227

Chapter XIV.
The Reserve Depot in England.

When in April, 1916, the New Zealand Division was transferred from Egypt to France, it was decided to transfer all Base and Training personnel and equipment to England.

Sling Camp, near Bulford on Salisbury Plain, where the British Section of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force had been camped in 1914, was selected as the site of the main New Zealand depot. Unlike the procedure in Egypt, where all branches of the Service were gathered together in one large camp, each Unit in England was allotted a certain area wherein to establish its own Training and Reserve Depot. The 'New Zealand Engineers were located at Christchurch, the Royal Engineer Training Centre for the Southern Command, where great opportunities for improvement were afforded by the extensive stores and equipment available for training purposes and by the number of highly qualified officers and N.C.Os. on the instructional staff.

In June some 150 Engineers, Signallers and Tunnellers arrived in Sling from Egypt, and were immediately posted on to Christchurch, where they shared Jumper's Camp with the Australian Engineer Depot. After the vicissitudes of their long journey, coming straight on top of the upheaval caused by the Divisional transfer to France, they were a very ragged band on disembarking—few had even a complete uniform. They arrived at their Depot, then a few tents in a bare paddock, in no better case. However, few difficulties could long withstand the genial influence of summer in Christchurch, combined with the kindly assistance of Lieutenant-Colonel Keen, Commandant of the R.E. Station, and within a few weeks the Depot was firmly established. In addition to reinforcements constantly arriving from New Zealand, all men discharged from military hospitals rejoined the Depot before returning to France. In July the 12th and 13th Reinforcements arrived, the one from Egypt, the other from New Zealand direct, but the ensuing slight congestion of the Depot was relieved by the end of August, when the Signallers were despatched to Hitchin, to a new depot of their own.

Training commenced at once under instruction provided by the R.E. Station. Trench works and mining were carried out on St. Catherine's Hill, a large shingly knoll on the out-page 228skirts of Christchurch, and a very pleasant spot for the purpose, though entirely unlike anything ever seen later in France or Flanders. The river Stour, flowing past the foot of the Hill, gave unlimited opportunities for bridging experience, and the daily presence of large bodies of interested fair spectators is reputed to have had a stimulating effect on the work of the susceptible sappers.

The Hill was crowned by the remains of an old Roman fort, whence a glorious view of the surrounding country was obtainable. On one hand the dark green mass of the New Forest stretched away for miles; below, the courses of the rivers Avon and Stour could be traced winding like silver threads across the rich countryside; and away to seaward the white cliffs of the Isle of Wight seemed strangely close, while the immediate foreground was seldom without the interest of a gipsy encampment.

The system of training carried out was both comprehensive and thorough. All reinforcements on arrival from New Zealand were required to go through a nine weeks' course at the R.E. Training Centre, which commenced with a "refresher" in infantry training, and included instruction in trench and similar field works, wiring, demolitions, construction' of hutments, tramways, light railways and deep dugouts, tunnelling and bridging of all types. The appliances available for bridging instruction were on a particularly liberal scale, including pontoons, spars of practically all dimensions generally used, casks, decking, and great quantities of general material.

Many of the N.C.Os, on the instructional staff of the R.E. Centre were old regular soldiers, long since finished with parades and uniforms, but glad to come back to the square in the hour of need to do their share in training younger men for the front. Most of them still retained a fair "punch." One in particular will be well remembered. His chief delight was to secure a squad just arrived from New Zealand. To them, after a good round turn on the parade ground, he would give the command "Stand Easy," and proceed to relate a little story. In his extreme youth, it would appear, he had once been presented with a box of leaden soldiers, which forthwith became the pride of his life, prized beyond all other possessions. During one of the periodic migrations of his family, these soldiers were unfortunately lost, but his mother, in her efforts to assuage his grief, had assured him that he would find them again some day. "Yes, and by God" page 229he would growl in conclusion, "I've found them again today!" Another, amid frenzied exhortations to his squad to turn on their toes, could be heard roaring "Toes! I said, Toes! T-o-e-s don't spell 'eels." Not that these little peculiarities were entirely confined to the veterans. A corporal recently arrived from New Zealand, lecturing his command on the value and importance of the N.C.O., wound up an impressive speech with the assertion that the "Non-Corn. was the mouthorgan of the Commanding Officer."

Later on, in addition to the experience of Engineering works gained on St. Catherine's Hill, the New Zealand Engineers had the advantage of a training ground of their own at King's Park, Boscombe. Here their own instructors brushed up men returning from hospital, or on tour of duty in England, and here also men who had passed through the R.E. course on the Hill were kept up to the mark until required for service in France.

Early in October, in breaking weather, the Christchurch Camp was abandoned in favour of billets in Boscombe, a near suburb of Bournemouth. A billet in England meant lodging in a private house, with, in the earlier days, board also provided by the householder. This was unsatisfactory. Some parsimonious billet, owners would accommodate nine or ten men and feed them scantily; others, more generous, found the military appetite a tax on their resources. The householders of Boscombe were by no means unanimous in welcoming the attentions now thrust upon them, but a few weeks experience of the simple and docile New Zealanders soon altered all that, and in future years accommodation was always offering in excess of requirements.

However, on 26th October, while the sappers were still in the first flush of enthusiasm over their new homes, an unexpected calamity fell upon them. The Depot was ordered to Brightlingsea. Leaving the Drivers in Christchurch, all other ranks departed for their new station. The rigours of the journey were somewhat alleviated by kindly old gentlemen in London who waved their hats to the brave lads as they marched by. A Coldstream Guardsman, not to be outdone in courtesy to the strangers, volunteered to act as guide, and eventually steered the party safely to the wrong railway station.

Brightlingsea, in Essex, is described in the guide books as one of the most popular East Coast watering places, the first yachting centre in England, and the home of the "Shamrock" crews. The skippers of these craft were reverently pointed page 230out on the street, while civic pride also centred about the town's position as a daughter of one of the famous Cinque ports, whose customs and privileges it still shares. The town enjoys the further reputation of being the original of Sunwich Port, made famous by W. W. Jacobs in "Many Cargoes." All of this and more may be true. To the New Zealanders it appeared but a cold, wind-swept, unattractive little town, albeit inhabited by wonderfully kind and good-natured people, who did all in their power to entertain their visitors.

Training at Brightlingsea was similar to that at Christchurch, save that the pontooning was carried out over an arm of the sea, with a tidal rise and fall. Small permanent bridges in the vicinity were also constructed at intervals. During one of these bridging experiences, some weary sappers, with the laudable intention of introducing a little Oriental colour into their drab existence, hauled on the ropes with weird imitations of an Egyptian labour gang. The R.E. Major in charge stopped the practice, comparing them unkindly with "blacks" he had known in the East, much to the secret delight of the Gyppo impersonators. Despite such small diversions, the work commenced to pall on the old hands, who became apt to prefer the storeroom fire to handling frosty cables on a grey December day. That the kindly old Major was not entirely ignorant of their wiles was evidenced by his frequent command— "Sergeant, call the Roll!" The Brightlingsea Depot was in the special defensive area of England and formed part of the East Coast garrison. Complete instructions were issued to the Engineers for the manning of their trenches in the event of invasion though, in the complete absence of rifles or other offensive weapons, their ultimate role was not so clearly defined.

Dancers were well looked after in Brightlingsea, others less advanced in social graces had to content themselves with a picture show. The New Zealand Engineers' Orchestra came into great prominence, and was soon brought up to full strength. Football, both Rugby and Soccer, flourished as ever where New Zealand troops foregathered. Devotees of the former had trouble in finding expert opponents; two of the best games were against the officers of the 66th Division, and the A.S.C., both at Colchester. Soccer players found a wealth of eager antagonists among the naval men stationed at Brightlingsea.

The arrival of reinforcements soon increased the Depot strength above the reserve required, and on 20th November 50 men were reluctantly transferred to the Machine Gunners.

page 231

Early in the New Year, 1917, to the delight of all ranks, the Depot was ordered back to Christchurch. Winter conditions being still in evidence, the billet system was taken up again in Boscombe. In place of previous arrangements for board, all rations were now cooked at a central Depot mess. This system gave more satisfaction to all concerned and remained in existence till the close of the Depot.

With the return of spring, the sappers went under canvas once more at Christchurch on the pleasant banks of the River Stour adjacent to the old R.E. Barracks of the town. These barracks had an extensive history and had often seen British soldiers depart for French battlefields in days gone by, notably in the time of Napoleon, when Christchurch was a great artillery centre. The Stour, in addition to its usefulness in connection with training purposes, provided boating and bathing facilities, which were a constant source of pleasure to the sappers all through the summer months.

Early in 1918 the Christchurch Depot was extended to include the former New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion Depot, which had been on Salisbury Plain, where the winter climate was thought to be somewhat rigorous for Maoris just arriving from the north of New Zealand. At the same time it was arranged that the New Zealand Tunnelling Company and the New Zealand Light Railway Operating Company should also make Christchurch their base. These changes considerably raised the strength of the Depot and necessitated an increase of staff, while the increased importance of the command was met by the appointment of Major G. V. Barclay of the 2nd Field Company as Officer Commanding with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

For a time the good folk of Christchurch and Bournemouth were inclined to be suspicious of our Maori soldiers, but it only required closer acquaintance with their invariable good behaviour and cheerful disposition to change all that, and ere long they were general favourites with the community. As an athlete the Maori soon gained a reputation, winning practically everything at the Aquatic Carnivals promoted by the R.E. authorities.

On the return of the Depot to Christchurch a Regimental Band had been organised, and had been successful, despite great difficulty in maintaining its strength owing to the constant departure of men for the Front. With the increased status of the Depot, permission was given to draw permanent bandsmen from hospitals and other Depots and from men with long service overseas, and with the appointment of a Bandmaster, the Regimental Band then became a recognised page 232institution, and quite a feature of the town and district. In addition to service on route marches and parades, with a weekly visit to the New Zealand Hospital at Brockenhurst, the Band made frequent visits to numerous other Hospitals and Convalescent Camps about Bournemouth, where its attentions were much appreciated.

Within easy reach of the Christchurch camp were many places of historic or scenic interest, such as the Old Priory Church, dating back to 1036, or the Rufus stone in the New Forest marking the spot, near Lyndhurst, where William Rufus was Gorton, E. St. G., while many of the little villages of the district were well worth a visit to anyone moved by rustic beauty. Not that it was necessary for the sappers to go far afield to find distractions for their leisure moments. All municipal resources in the way of sports grounds, baths and parks, existing in Christchurch, Bournemouth, or Boscombe, were thrown open to them unreservedly, while the extreme kindness of the private citizens to the New Zealand boys could not possibly have been surpassed. Football of course flourished mightily, and the fame of the Depot was carried far and wide by victorious teams.

The Committee of the New Zealand War Contingent Association in London early established a Soldiers' Club in connection with the Depot, and this proved a great source of pleasure and comfort to the men. Refreshments were always available, while concerts and cinema entertainments took place several times weekly. The care of the Club was undertaken by a Committee of local ladies, who gave unceasing service throughout the existence of the Depot, and will always be gratefully remembered by all New Zealanders who experienced their many kindnesses.

Another Club greatly appreciated by the boys was the Hostel of the New Zealand Y.M.C.A. in Boscombe. Originally established on a small scale, this Hostel ultimately became a large institution, where not only local but any visiting Colonial soldiers were ever welcome, and were always treated with the greatest kindness and consideration.

Towards the end of the war, the Engineers' Depot was called upon by New Zealander Headquarters to undertake constructional and repair works in connection with the hospitals and various other buildings occupied by New Zealand troops, and on occasion a considerable number of men were employed on this kind of work. The construction and erection of crosses on New Zealand graves in the United Kingdom was also undertaken by the Depot. Another extension of programme was marked by the introduction of agricultural instruction into the daily activities of the Depot. This mainly page 233took the practical form of growing potatoes and other vegetables for immediate consumption, and served a useful purpose without starting many men on an agricultural career.

The charms of life in the Depot, losing nothing by report, occasionally appeared unduly attractive to men in the Flanders trenches, weary of war with its dull monotony of mud and shells. There seems no reason why troops in training should not have enjoyed as much fun as possible in their leisure moments. But the cold fact sticks in the minds of many well qualified to judge that, in general, whatever the reason, reserves coming to the Companies in the field after a long spell in the Depot never showed the same grit and spirit as earlier reinforcements trained in a harder school.

From the time the Depot returned from Brightlingsea until the final demobilisation of the troops, it remained in the Bournemouth district, at Christchurch in summer, and at Boscombe in winter, growing in size until at times it held 500 to 600 men. In March, 1917, a system of exchange had been arranged by which officers and non-commissioned officers with long service in the field were given a turn of duty in the Depot, and were replaced in France by similar ranks from the Depot, to the mutual advantage of all participating. In June, 1918, the same arrangement was extended to the sappers, but by the time two drafts of 60 men each had arrived from France hostilities had ceased.

When the trend of events pointed clearly to the early closing of the Depot and to the departure of the New Zealanders, many kind sentiments of regret were expressed by local residents. The Civic Council of Bournemouth even passed an official resolution extolling the virtues of the colonial soldiers, which was duly conveyed to those modest gentlemen; while the Mayor entertained the officers of the Depot at a farewell dinner, where further occasion was taken to express the admiration of the hospitable townsmen for the good behaviour of the New Zealand soldiers.

The last public appearance of the New Zealand Engineers in Bournemouth was at the opening of the new Art Gallery, when they furnished a Guard of Honour for Her Royal Highness, Princess Beatrice. In the nature of the case, no adequate return for all the kindness heaped upon them could possibly be made by the New Zealanders, but the presentation of a New. Zealand flag to the Mayor of Bournemouth, as representative of the Borough, was a slight act of courtesy much appreciated by the citizens, and one which will happily associate all memories of the overseas soldiers with some recognition of their errand and of the imperishable bond which drew them Home.

page 234