Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.
Chapter III. — Summer at Anzac
Summer at Anzac.
At this point in the history of the Engineers, the 2nd Field Company joined forces with those on the Peninsula. A little break in the continuity of events is necessary to record the inauguration and earlier experiences of this Company— the first and only complete Field Company to leave the shores of New Zealand for a European battlefield.
About the end of January, 1915, announcements were made in the New Zealand papers that there were vacancies for suitable men in an Engineer Company about to be formed at Trentham, which by that time had become the established camp for the whole of New Zealand. By the middle of February sufficient men had been enlisted to commence the formation of the Company. Lieutenant-Colonel G. Barclay, V.D. Officer Commanding the North Island Railway Battalion, New Zealand Engineers, and formerly known in Southern military circles as Officer Commanding the Dunedin Engineers, took command of the Company with the rank of Major.
The 2nd Field Company in Trentham.
This was the only fully equipped Field Company which left New Zealand.
Photo lent by Major N. Annabell.
By the 17th April the 2nd Field. Company was considered ready to face the final inspection, and received the already time-honoured compliment that it was "a fine body of men—probably the finest that had ever left New Zealand." On the same day the company embarked at Wellington with the 4th Reinforcements, 40 men on the transport "Knight Templar," and 200 more on the "Waitomo," the flagship "Willochra" completing the little squadron. The ships travelled without convoy straight to Albany, where they arrived at daybreak on the 29th.
Here the troops were disembarked for a three hours' route march and later for general leave in the town—a glorious day not soon forgotten. Albany will long have a place in the pleasant memories of thousands of New Zealanders, not only as being their last point of contact with Australasia, before going on into the unknown, but also on account of the invariable hospitality received from the kindly, townsfolk.
Next day the 4th Reinforcements continued their journey. The three weeks' run to Aden was uneventful, being occupied only by the ordinary easy routine of a troopship, whieh includes long hours of thoughtful study—with a pipe— of the foaming waters as they slip along the ship's sides There were the usual deck games and concerts, and Neptune, as ever, cheerily paid his compliments.
At Aden, on the 20th May, some three weeks after the event, the flagship gave out the first hint of the Gallipoli landing in the terse statement, "There were 10,000 Colonial casualties at the Dardanelles." After a short and uninteresting halt of two hours, the troopships moved on again up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik, Suez, where the troops disembarked and entrained for Zeitoun.
The 4th Reinforcements wasted little time in Egypt. Within five days of landing, the 2nd Field Company, less 22 men detailed to look after the transport in Zeitoun, was aboard the "Minnetonka," which sailed from Alexandria on 30th May. At Lemnos it transhipped to the "Clacton" and pushed on for the Peninsula. By early morning of the 3rd June it was ashore at Anzac, and by night had taken up its quarters in Monash Gully.
The 1st Field Company had been relieved by Australian Engineers the previous day, and was down on the beach enjoying a brief period of such rest as could be obtained. page 34Within three or four days, however, the Australians were recalled, and reorganisation of the New Zealand Engineers took place. The Field Troop was still left in charge of Walker's Ridge, Quinn's was undertaken by three sections from the 2nd Field Company and one from the 1st, while the further section from the 2nd Company gave its attention to wells and roads in Monash Gully. Pope's and Courtney's occupied a section each from the 1st Company, leaving their remaining section to build a pier and supervise various works going on along the waterfront.
The Engineers' Store down at Hell Spit was now in full blast, engaged on plumbing and carpentering operations, laying the foundation for a pumping plant, and making bombs, periscopes and movable wire entanglements under the direction of the Headquarters' staff. Grenade manufacturing had long since become a fine art, and the various types of tins originally tried had now given place to the green fuse tin from the 18-pounder guns. These tins were stout, and about the size of a condensed milk tin. Two holes punched in both top and bottom allowed passage of the wires, which were joined across the top after loading had taken place. A dry guncotton-primer or half a stick of gelignite was placed in the tin, surrounded by unexploded Turkish cartridges, and the whole equipped with a detonator and a five seconds' length of fuse. A heavier type of bomb was easily made by securing two or three pound slabs of guncotton to a piece of wood shaped like a hairbrush, the handle facilitating a longer throw. Where these could be got into the opposing trenches the results were highly satisfactory, and the destruction was not ; confined to personnel. As a general rule, however, the trenches were too far apart, and a demand sprang up for some kind of mechanical bomb-thrower. No springs were available on. the Peninsula, and recourse was finally had to a trench mortar necessitating two fuses, one to detonate the bomb on arrival at its destination, and the other to ignite the propelling charge. After several favourable demonstrations the device was taken up to Quinn's, where the stout occupants of the opposing trenches had certainly earned some little extra attention. Unfortunately at one of the first attempts the bomb fuse lit but the propelling fuse failed to ignite. Sergeant R. R. Nairn of the 2nd Field Company saw the danger and immediately attempted to draw the detonator, but he was too late, and his unselfish effort to save his mates cost him his life.
As extra protection against enemy bombers in the more exposed Posts, where overhead cover was unobtainable or in-page 35advisable on account of the risk of the occupants being trapped, bomb screens were now introduced by the Sappers. Made of wire netting and erected on the parapet, these screens ensured that a bomb would either strike them and fall back into No Man's Land, or else would pass right over the trenches and burst harmlessly behind. The netting was constantly being cut by machine-gun fire and required endless repairing, but was a welcome advance on the old style of trying to dodge the missiles or of dropping an overcoat on them to attempt to blanket the explosion.
One portion of Quinn's Post known as the "Racecourse" had been so consistently harassed by the Turkish bombers, that on arrival of the 2nd Field Company, they found it temporarily abandoned—a fine opportunity to show the mettle of the new sappers, especially as the ground was well worth some risk in the reclaiming. Bomb screens minimised the risk of sudden dissolution, and little by little, with two or three men at a time working lying down, enough earth was scooped up to allow kneeling room. All dirt removed was filled into sandbags and dragged back for further use. From this slow laborious beginning the work progressed rapidly, gaining in speed as more room became available, until gradually the trench was sufficiently deepened and widened to enable work to be done in comparative comfort. Sandbags filled with gravel from the beach were built into a breastwork in which a steel loophole plate was fitted, with a crack shot posted to keep down the heads of too inquisitive Turks. Day and night the work went on till four loophole plates had been placed in position, and a section of the trench provided with overhead cover, when it again became part of the garrisoned defences of the Post. This particular corner of Quinn's was undoubtedly the most dangerous portion of the Ahzac line at this time, and the constant casualties had been causing great concern. The improvements effected under the skilful supervision of the former Staff Sergeants-Major who had come with the new Field Company, earned the hearty commendation of the responsible authorities.
Apart from the particular enterprise just noted, one of many similar exploits on Anzac, the steady routine works of trench improvement and roading were going on all the time. In addition to the new bomb screens erected on the parapets, the system of overhead cover already in use in the front trenches was being extended to the support lines as labour and material became available. At Quinn's again, a new page 36communication trench was required leading back over the crest of the ridge and down into the comparative safety of Monash Gully. From the Post up to the ridge any such work would lie in full view of the opposing Turks, who could be safely relied upon to improve their opportunity. The new C.T. was finally achieved by laboriously driving a small tunnel at the required depths of the trench, and later breaking in the top and removing the debris in a single night. At Pope's and Courteney's similar operations were in progress and similar methods were employed to overcome the numerous problems presented by the commanding positions of the energetic enemy, and by the tremendous natural difficulties of the country.
At Courtney's Post, the garrison hit upon a promising plan for returning some of the unwelcome attentions showered upon them. A Turkish battery, which shelled them with regularity and enthusiasm every morning and afternoon, was at length "spotted" in some tunnels facing them from a spur to the northward, and within easy range of our mountain guns. It was accordingly decided to introduce some light artillery into the front line to try the effect of close range shooting on the offending battery. The sappers forthwith prepared an underground chamber in the front line, with sacking across the opening in front, and there a 10-pounder gun from an Indian Mountain Battery was installed. The attendant "Janis" got off 20 rounds rapid, then hastily dismantled and removed their gun before reprisals commenced. The Turks were not noticeably cowed, but as a relief from the monotony of passive endurance of daily insults, these little enterprises had their merits.
Down at the Cove the new pier was already well out into deep water. Once there, the problem of pile driving added itself to the inexhaustible supply of unforeseen contingencies provided by Gallipoli. But not for nothing did the Field Companies include men who had served on many a far-off outpost of civilisation with little but a nimble brain and a ready hand to help them in their emergencies. A West African expert soon "came to light" with a monkey fashioned with the aid of the blacksmith from a dud Turkish 9.5 shell. This, despite the derisive comments of the onlookers and possibly to the secret relief of the inventor, failed to explode when used, and thereafter drove many piles most satisfactorily. The completion of the pier greatly facilitated the landing of all stores and troops.
At the Stores the making of chevaux-de-frise had been added to the list of local enterprises and was going on apace. page 37For some time efforts had been made to put out wire in front of all our positions, but in many places, for obvious reasons, it was quite impossible to send parties beyond the front trench, and chevaux-de-frise, or "knife-rests" in the vernacular, were the only alternative. Each section of this obstacle was composed of an iron or wooden framework very similar to the ordinary knife-rest of civilian life. Barbed wire was stretched across and tangled in between the end crosses of the frames, which were then ready for No Man's Land. They were carried up to the front line and carefully put out over the parapet at night, then anchored down as best they might be. To drive a stake or make any other sound was to invite interference of a sudden and intensely disagreeable nature, so the operation was a veritable deed of darkness. Such lightly-fastened obstructions were easily removed, and more than once the obstacles so carefully placed in the early hours of the night were adorning the enemy's parapet by daylight.
Mining, always a feature at Quinn's Post, had been carried on also at Pope's, Courtney's and Walker's Ridge since the beginning of June, and hardly a day passed without some small mine being blown either by the enemy or ourselves. Lieutenant R. Black of the Field Troop was the moving spirit of the Engineering operations on Walker's Ridge, where he was eventually "gassed" in one of the mine tunnels. As time wore on our galleries were extended and improved until it became apparent from the Turkish operations that they had abandoned the idea of blowing us up, and were now seeking, to protect their own front line. This was the time when an adequate supply of explosives would have been welcome to the hard-working miners. As things were, we read in the official records such items as these: "A mine of 37 lbs. gun-cotton was fired at Quinn's—Result unknown." Or "A camouflet of 10 lbs. of guncotton was detonated. Result apparently satisfactory." Charges of this kind were often less than the amount of explosive contained in a 9-inch shell, and in their hopeless inadequacy merely afford one more instance to protect their own front line. This was the time when an by lack of proper material.
On the other hand, the great success often achieved with the insignificant resources at command throws into high relief the patient and heroic endeavours put forth by the indefatigable operators. In mining operations in particular success was ever to the brave. Judgment and skill and steady labour all played their part, but the hour had to come when everything depended on the final firing of the charge. A charge laid too soon would fail in its effect—if' delayed too long page 38there would be no chance to lay a charge at all. Very occasionally picks met in the middle, when the race was to the miner who got his rifle or bomb through the hole first.
The most ominous moment in the galleries was when enemy movement was noticed to have ceased—certain sign that the other man had decided to fire. Stripped to the waist, the miners would then work for their lives, laying and tamping the charge, confident of getting out before the enemy was ready. When all was in order the handle of the exploder was rammed home and a muffled report shook the air. A burst of flame or smoke rising from the Turkish trenches was sometimes the welcome intimation of a successful effort, showing that the charge had blown right through into their gallery. Craters were seldom blown since explosive was so scarce, and in any case a charge large enough to blow a crater was inadvisable near our own trenches; and in other parts of the line, the Turks who occupied the higher ground might have been able to use the crater as an advanced position. Many notable acts of courage and cool daring took place in these underground burrows. On one occasion when a corporal of the 2nd Field Company had broken a hole into a Turkish gallery and could see the inmates laying a charge, he took in a charge alone and succeeded in firing it first. At another time the same man was following two officers into a mine recently fired, when the leaders were overcome by noxious fumes, whereupon he got both of them out before succumbing himself.
An excellent piece of work was performed by the Field Troop during the night 22nd-23rd July in putting out wire entanglements on Russell's Top within 30 yards of the Turkish trenches. Corporal P. G. Pearce was mentioned in Army Corps Orders for gallantry on this occasion.
Down in Monash Gully the sappers hunting for water had all the excitement of gold mining. To strike water there was quite as thrilling as, and from some points of view much more valuable than, striking a reef in a gold area. Wells were sunk in every spot that showed any sign of proving favourable, but in general the experience here was the same as that of the seekers on the left flank—water could be found but seldom in any permanent form. Some wells did prove profitable, and yielded a fair flow all through the summer, but never enough for comfort. Water was also brought to Anzac in barges and pumped up into a storage reservoir on the hill 150 feet above the beach, whence it was led by a pipe-line into reserve tanks in Shrapnel Valley. Even then supplies were page 39scanty, and men even with a signed order often had to wait three or four hours before they could get their water-bottles filled.
Another illustration of the many-sided duties the sapper might be called upon to perform was afforded by the employment of one who happened to be an artist to draw and paint various aspects of the enemy position for the use of our artillery observers. In order to do this he was sent aloft in a captive balloon, where he made some splendid drawings, and fully availed himself of a unique opportunity to gather material for a further series of Anzac scenes, which were painted later, and many of which are now widely known and appreciated in New Zealand.
In June all drivers of the 1st Field Company were sent back to Alexandria, where the horses were reported to be losing condition owing to lack of attention. To make up this further defection from the available strength of the depleted Company, some 30 men of various trades were transferred from the Infantry battalions. Here at Anzac, as ever throughout the course of the war, the infantryman was the backbone of the whole structure, always in the thick of the trouble either working or fighting, and always bearing himself with a courage and cheerfulness beyond all praise.
As July wore on and the constant requests for reinforcements showed some likelihood of being in part fulfilled, preliminary preparations for a further great effort were put in hand. Engineering instructions bore special reference to the improvement of the communications leading out towards the left flank. The main existing communication trench, known as' the Big Sap, was already cut right through to a suitable depth, but partly to save work and partly to avoid enfilade fire, had been left very narrow. This was now widened throughout to admit the passage of at least two men abreast, with recesses here and there to facilitate crossing. Portions of the trench especially liable to enfilade fire were deviated, and others were protected with overhead cover of timber and sandbags. Along the actual waterfront a new road was built northward, suitable for wheeled traffic. To avoid arousing enemy suspicions, with inevitable heavy casualties from the overlooking rifles and machine-guns, this road work had to be undertaken at night. The sandy beach alone gave an impossible surface. Stones had to be gathered along the shore and carried to form a foundation. Clay could be had in abundance on every hillside, and was carted down by the Indian, mule-drivers. A certain amount of sand completed the list of available page 40materials, and the "set" of the whole was imperfectly assisted by sea water carried up in petrol tins and poured over the surface. The difficulties of handling the men and materials in darkness and in silence were constantly increased by machine-gun fire, though there was no reason to believe that the Turks had any suspicion of what was going on.
The comparatively quiet conditions obtaining throughout July were reflected in the gradual accumulation of Engineering material at the Stores at Hell Spit, but with a view to future operations, everything was closely conserved. Timber, galvanised iron, loophole plates, tools, nails, sandbags and wire —no more than enough of each to support the contention that such things did exist—were brought across from a store-ship lying in Kephalos Bay, Imbros Island, two hours' steam from the Peninsula. Lighters 60 feet long, each in charge of a New Zealand sapper, were towed across to Imbros by pinnaces and trawlers, and loaded from the store-ship overnight. While so employed, the lucky captains of the lighters enjoyed a good feed and a bath, with perchance a sleep in a hammock—all luxuries unheard of on the mainland. At dawn every morning the loaded lighters were towed back by trawlers to within reasonable distance of the beach and then handed over to naval pinnaces which looked after the final dash for the shore. A certain amount of attention from the Turkish sharpshooters had generally to be endured, and occasionally "Beachy Bill" took a noticeable interest in the proceedings.
"Beachy" was a large gun, or battery of them, hidden in the Olive Groves behind Gaba Tepe Point, and notwithstanding constant shelling by the naval gunners, was never put out of action for more than two or three days at a time. Shells from "Beachy Bill" and from "Anafarta Annie," his active helpmate on the Suvla side, were particularly annoying to the bathers who crowded the beaches as the weather grew warmer. Midsummer found the inhabitants of Anzac generally reduced to hat, shorts, boots and socks. The exact extent of clothing favoured by each individual was at once shown by the amount of brown skin exhibited when he went into the water. Many men gave up shaving, and for general doubtful appearance there was soon little to choose on either side of the parapet. The heat and the flies made serious inroads on the general health of the garrison. Most men did their own cooking in their little bivvies, but there was so little to cook. Bully beef and biscuits were always available, but these dainties do not tempt any but the heartiest appetite. Prunes were dealt with singly, and rice by the spoonful, while the few stores of greater page 41variety which reached the Y.M.C.A. marquee on the beach were sold immediately to those lucky enough to be on hand at the moment. Very occasionally the gods distributed a few stray favours. Of this nature were the barrels once observed floating near Anzac Cove. The sappers, ever watchful for stores of military importance, secured four or more of them, all filled with good red wine, probably relict of some foundered ship; though no one allowed unhappy speculation to mar the simple pleasures of the ensuing hours.