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

Chapter V. — Reorganisation in Egypt

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Chapter V.
Reorganisation in Egypt.

From the period of reorganisation of the Australian and New Zealand Forces in Egypt after the abandonment of the Peninsula dates also the formation of the purely New Zealand Division.

As the scattered units arrived in Egypt the two purely Australian Divisions were sent to Tel-el-Kebir, while the Anzacs were concentrated at Moascar Camp, on the outskirts of Ismailia on the Suez Canal. The 7th and 8th Reinforcements from New Zealand had moved into the new camp a day or two beforehand, and had done what they could to prepare for the advent of the Gallipoli veterans. These came pouring in piecemeal with inevitable temporary confusion, but order and routine were soon established.

The intensive training at once put in hand seems to show that even at this stage it had been decided to send these Divisions to France in the spring, though no suggestion of the kind was made at the time. Day after day and often at night the troops were marched and exercised over the splendid natural testing ground of the Egyptian desert, till their Physical fitness left little to be desired. The qualities of cohesion and steadiness which had been so little assisted by the almost guerilla conditions of warfare on the Peninsula were also markedly increased in all ranks during these days of trial. It must be admitted that in the general reaction following on relief from the strain of Gallipoli, there was a general tendency towards slackness in dress and deportment which threatened to extend from the old hands to the reinforcements newly arrived. With the reversion to regular duties and massed movements, this soon began to wear off, and finally disappeared in the fresh flush of enthusiasm which greeted the decision to form a New Zealand Division. In addition to technical training in their own special activities, the Engineers were engaged on camp improvements such as pipe laying and water supply, in building hutments, and in supervising native labour on the construction of tramways and light piers. Pontoon bridges were also constructed over the Sweet Water Canal near Ismailia.

Ismailia, though naturally not as interesting as Cairo, was quite an entertaining place in its own little way. The business page 56portion of the town, as is so often the case in the East, was controlled by Greeks, whose highly inflated notions of the value of their wares were comparable only with those of their Egyptian fellows. Unlike the latter, however, the Greeks preserved a stolid indifference as to the success or otherwise of their efforts to ensnare a customer. Two large parks, with their ancient native stone work and beautiful palm trees, made a pleasant break in the monotony of the crowded houses; though most of the latter at this season were adorned with masses of trailing creeper. A canal traversing the centre of the town gave a splendid impression of cleanliness and beauty, until close investigation revealed its similarity to all other rivers and waterways in that part of the world. Lake Timsah, with its larger volume of water gleaming in the sun, and generally adorned by a battleship or two, was a much more inviting prospect, and as the warmer weather came on, the Ismailia shore was a general rendezvous for the troops, who came down in thousands to bathe and sport on the warm sands. Arabs were allowed to fish in Lake Timsah, under the eye of soldier guards, who went out in the boats with them to see that no floating mines or torpedoes came of the concession. Sappers told off to superintend these fishing excursions on a basis of a half share in the proceeds had rosy visions of fresh fish daily, until they saw the few miserable little sprats that were the only harvest gathered, and they were not sorry when their appointments were terminated. The subject of food recalls pleasant memories of the Christmas billies sent by the New Zealand Patriotic Societies, which were given out during January and February, and were most heartily appreciated by all hands.

While the Australians and New Zealanders were thus engaged training in reserve areas, extensive fortifications and defensive engineering works were going on out in the desert some seven to ten miles east of the Canal. Some quicker method of crossing the Canal than by the use of the cumbrous barges serving the purpose soon became essential, and the Engineers were called upon to construct floating bridges capable of being swung across the Canal when required. A mixed party of the 1st and 2nd Field Company men was detailed for this purpose. Floats were easily obtained from the Canal Company, which had large numbers of them always in use for carrying the discharge pipes which disposed of the spoil brought up by its dredges. On these floats suitable lengths of bridge decking and handrails were built, in such manner that two or more of the resulting bridge sections page 57could be joined together by removable portions of decking and railing, thus enabling a bridge of any given length to be assembled in a short space of time. To prepare the floats and the wooden sections, which were put together on Lake Timsah, a special staff of Arab blacksmiths and carpenters was engaged, whereupon it transpired that in that favoured country no blacksmith or carpenter was ever called upon to work in the water, and a few fishermen were added to the pay roll to move round the floats and decking as required by the superior tradesmen. The tools of their crafts appeared to be contemporaneous with the pyramids, and were objects of great interest to the artisans among the sappers. Despite their ancient equipment and appearance, all these gentlemen had mastered the intricacies of modern methods of making a job spin out to the last half second. A side-line of theirs not yet introduced in less enlightened circles was the praying-mat. Now and again one or more of them would cease work and repair to a clear space, there to unroll their little mats and prepare for devotion. Rinsing their hands with cold water, they would wipe their fevered brows, and commence what was probably, an appeal to Allah for more power to circumvent these energetic unbelievers. Back they would come in a few moments, seemingly greatly refreshed in body and spirit. In the course of time one unusually devout apostle of the true faith spoilt the whole arrangement by losing himself in meditation for half an hour, whereupon all praying activities were relegated to the smoke-oh interval, with an immediate marked decrease in the number of worshippers. To hear such names as Ahmed, Mahoud and Hassan, reeled off at morning roll-call, one could easily imagine himself in the presence of The Forty Thieves—the main difference in any case being purely numerical.

When a sufficient number of bridge lengths had been completed, they were formed into a raft and towed up or down the Canal to wherever the bridge was required, there to be put together finally by the Engineers. Three of these bridges, varying in length up to 400 feet, were erected at Ballah, El Ferdan and Serapeum. All shipping traffic was suspended during certain hours of the day while the bridges were swung, and the long columns of infantry, transport waggons, field artillery and camel trains poured over and pushed on into the desert. Camels move both legs on either side of their bodies together, and not alternately like a horse, and a line of them set up a tremendous swaying in the bridges to their own evident discomfiture.

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With the completion of the bridges, work on the desert defences went on with increased speed, and the Engineers were sent out there to supervise construction, a few of them being located at most of the Posts, which, in a series one to three miles apart, constituted the outer line of the defensive system. Here in March they were attached for rations and water to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and English Regiments then in garrison, whose kindly treatment of their temporary guests will always be a pleasant recollection. All water out there was brought by the camel trains, each in charge of a ruffianly Arab, who was a past master in the gentle art of taking the last ounce out of his unfortunate charges. Camels have quite a reputation as "grousers," and invariably grunt and complain whatever load they are introduced to, but these particular animals in question, with 400 lbs. of water each to carry, probably had more ground than most for their querulous outlook on life.

The front line system at this time was still largely in process of construction. The Posts or fortified areas were much larger positions than are usually known by those terms, and were capable of accommodating a battalion, or even, in some cases, a brigade. Since difficulties of water and desert transport would effectually prevent the Turks from subjecting these positions to concentrated artillery fire for any length of time, more attention was paid to commanding position and to facilities for all-round fire than to concealment. Extensive belts of wire entanglement were laid out all round each Post, concealed where possible in folds of the ground, and arranged to lead attacking troops into narrow necks covered by concentrated machine-gun fire. Some three miles behind this front line of defence ran a second line, still far enough from the Canal to prevent any serious interference with traffic. The innermost line consisted of the positions occupied a year before at the time of the Turkish attack. The principal enemy to trench construction met with by the New Zealand sappers was the "Khamsin," an unreliable desert storm which constantly obliterated the work of days beneath clouds of drifting sand. Patient effort finally prevailed, and on relinquishing their duties the Engineers received official commendation from Headquarters of both XV and II Anzac Corps.

Towards the end of March all New Zealand troops across the Canal, with the exception of the Mounted Rifles, were recalled to Moascar Camp. The usual vague rumours and peculiar mixtures of official frankness and reticence were again in evidence on every hand. Cryptic orders were read page 59out about moving to another country, with weighty words as to the correct treatment of civilians in a strange land; followed by the advice of some less discreet or more sensible high official, who openly emphasised the importance of a gas helmet in France; and renewed again next day in terms which might have related to Timbuctoo or South America. That queer assumption of the old British Regular Army system that the rank and file has no native intelligence nor need of a mind of its own, and can be told any old fairy tale so long as it is hallowed by inclusion in an Army Order, never failed to interest and perchance irritate the civilian soldiers of the recent war, who, in the mass at least, had an uncanny power of detecting a bluff of whatsoever description.

On the 1st of March the New Zealand Division was definitely launched as a separate unit. For some time before, the arrival of the Reinforcements, added to the stream of men returning from hospitals, had made it quite apparent that there were many more men available than were necessary to bring the original Brigade up to full strength. But no casualties were occurring, and it was necessary to consider how the ranks of a full Division were to be maintained when the inevitable wastage of active warfare again set in. For those reasons considerable correspondence took place before the New Zealand Government finally agreed to the proposal to form a separate Division, though preliminary arrangements were put in hand pending receipt of their approval. To bring the Engineers up to full Divisional establishment, the Field Troop was disbanded and the remaining men were transferred to form the nucleus of a 3rd Field Company. With extra men coming in constantly from the sources already mentioned, all three companies were soon at full strength. Colonel Pridham received the appointment of C.R.E. to the new Division. The equipment of every man was now either renewed or brought completely up to date, and to be found with any unauthorised gear in valise or kit-bag was to run the risk of punishments ranging from being shot at dawn to being left behind in Egypt when the Division sailed for its mysterious destination. Definite orders a day or two later named France as the next scene of endeavour. On the 3rd April, a most vigorous and exacting inspection and review of the New Zealanders in full marching order was held by General Sir Archibald Murray, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, when it may fairly be said that the new Division acquitted itself with distinction, and impressed him as a fine fighting unit. Thereafter sundry unauthorised articles of private gear page 60were recovered from the kindly sands, and the troops were ready to take the trail once more.

The last night in Moascar Camp was marked by another slight demonstration against the general injustice the troops considered they had suffered in all dealings with the native shopkeepers who infested the neighbourhood of the Camp. Many of the battalions were already gone, but the remaining men decided to take their own line in the matter of winning the merchants from their evil ways, and also of exacting reprisals for the universal cheating and overcharging that had gone on; with the result that all huts in the occupation of the offending parasites were burnt down, and many of the unsavoury owners had a vision of swift and sudden demise which probably influenced the future course of their lives for at least a week. However, the path of virtue was beset with thorns, and every man in Camp on that particular night afterwards had his share of the cost of these vigorous improvements deducted from his pay by order of a prosaic Board of Enquiry.

On the 5th April, the Division had begun to move out. Some of the Engineers were detailed for certain duties in clearing up the camp, after which the three Companies travelled to Alexandria. During the next week or more the 1st and 3rd Companies' experiences were somewhat similar to those of the 2nd Company. After arrival in Alexandria in the early morning of the 8th, the 2nd Company embarked on the transports "Haverford" and "Ascania." Both ships lay in harbour that night, but with the early morning their heads were turned for the open sea and the stirring possibilities of the Western Front. No great regrets troubled any adventurous heart as the sands of Egypt faded slowly away astern.

The trip to Marseilles was not particulary injoyable stiff uncomfortable lifebelts were worn day and night, quarters were necessarily restricted, and no lights were allowed after dark. Before leaving Egypt all troops had been inoculated once against typhoid, and most of them received a second dose on board, with the result that a large number felt more or less indisposed towards the end of the journey. All were heartily glad when, on Sunday morning, 16th April, the vessels reached Marseilles. The troops were allowed ashore, but their movements were restricted to the wharves near the disembarkation point, where arrangements were made to store all base kits, which were ultimately sent to England.