Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.
Chapter VI. — Summer at Armentieres
Summer at Armentieres.
At 9 p.m. on the evening of the 17th April, the 2nd Field Company left Marseilles behind and set forth on its long train journey to the British sector away in the North.
The charms of the South of France in spring have captivated the senses and excited the admiration of seasoned travellers since time immemorial. The Rhone Valley is not the least of its many attractions. To men straight from the filth and squalor of Gallipoli and the parched sands of the Egyptian desert, the pleasant farm houses tucked away among the trees, surounded with gay flowers and apple blossom, the broad green meadows and the miles of ordered cultivation, appealed with irresistible force, and every heart beat high with a joyous sense of adventurous anticipation. At wayside stations and at Lyons noteworthy attempts were made upon the language of the country, and bread, butter and other treasures were readily acquired by the optimistic spokesmen. Their success was attributed by unsympathetic comrades more to the intelligence of the natives than to the excellence of the idiom employed. Paris was not entered, though a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower was obtained from Versailles. After some 60 hours, the journey ended at Steenbecque, a small siding near Hazebrouck, where the tired men detrained in pouring rain. It is on record that the station estaminet there retailed beer at one halfpenny per glass, a blissful state of affairs never again experienced by the Division. A 10-mile march found the travellers in billets in stables round about Aire, and only too glad to lie peacefully on the straw. The mounted men of all three Companies detrained at Abbeville, about 50 miles south-west of Aire, where they received a pleasant first impression of British Army ordnance methods in France. On a given date, unfit horses were exchanged, and fresh ones provided up to the full establishment of a Field Company. A complete issue of gear and harness accompanied the horses. On reporting; at a further given rendezvous, they received all wheeled transport and incidental equipment proper to their particular needs, with waggons ready stored with the necessary rations for man and beast. All that then remained was to satisfy themselves that their requirements were fully met, page 62 page 63and to take the road for their several destinations. Within three days they were once more in the bosoms of their respective companies.
For about two weeks the Division lay about Aire, recovering from the fatigue of its recent journey in new and pleasant surroundings. The numerous small villages, each with its tall spire, surrounded by clusters of red brick houses straggling out towards the small farms where the whole homestead was built in a hollow square round a central courtyard filled with manure and every type of refuse, were to become common enough later on, but were fresh and interesting then. So were the kindly country folk, especially after the unattractive inhabitants of Egypt and Gallipoli. An occasional dull rumble to the eastward, and the faint flicker of far-off flares by night, were the only signs of strife, and even those belonged to a phase of war still new and untried. In view of the fresh experiences shortly to be faced, a portion of each day was devoted to training operations, particularly in the use and care of the previously unknown gas helmet; while to harden the troops after the voyage, and to accustom them to the hard paved roads of northern France, so different from the sands of the desert, many hours were spent in route-marching all over the pleasant countryside. The renewal of health and general morale induced by the exhilaration of fresh environment was given increased impetus by an allotment of leave to the United Kingdom. In connection with this privilege, opportunity was taken to emphasise the importance of personal cleanliness and general smartness. From this time forward renewals of uniform were so arranged that men going on leave were always able to show themselves, in good order and condition.
On 1st May, the Division, now under command of I Anzac Corps, moved forward to the reserve area of that Corps, C.R.E. Headquarters, with 1st and 3rd Field Companies going to Estaires, and the 2nd Field Company to Doulieu. With the latter Company from Aire, or from the small village of Roquetoire to be exact, went a fox terrier dog who had attached himself to the strangers from the start. Henceforward he was known as "Jack," and right up to the end of hostilities, he was to all intents and purposes a soldier of the regiment, sharing good times and bad with perfect equanimity, and only in disgrace once, when he got among the legs of Brigadier-General Fulton's horse. While on the subject of company pets, mention may be made of the goat who joined the 2nd Company's drivers at Ismailia, without the page 64written consent of his former owners. He went right through France and Flanders, living, on trek, in a special corner of one of the waggons. On the road to Germany he disappeared suddenly one night, probably the victim of some hungry Belgian. "Jack" disappeared about the same time, though no theories are advanced to account for him.
While the 1st and 3rd Companies were at Estaires, several small and unimportant constructional works were undertaken for Field Ambulances and other units. The 3rd Company also commenced work on the defensive systems covering the bridge heads at Maison Rouge, Brickfields and Factory Post, all situated on the river Lys between the villages of Estaires and Erquinghem. Within a week, however, they moved on to Armentieres.
The Canal at Ismalia.
Photos by Major N. Annabell
While the Engineers were settling down in their new quarters, selected officers and N.C.O.'s visited the front line area, and received all possible help and information from the R.B. Companies they were to relieve. The whole of this first trench system to be occupied by New Zealanders in France was composed of low-lying flats in the basin of the Lys, much cut up by the roads, canals and railways of a highly-developed manufacturing and agricultural region, with inhabitants still remaining in the numerous farms up to within two or three miles of the front line. After the hills and valleys of the Peninsula, this flat country seemed perilously insecure. The Germans, as usual, had appropriated the only ridge available, that of Perenchies, about a mile behind their front line, and completely dominated the whole trench area. Of natural cover there was none save trees and hedge rows, and traffic on the nearer roads was protected by the erection of long screens of hessian or scrim. In Oallipoli one moved about in narrow trenches cut deep in hard gravelly soil; here the trenches were wide open ways protected largely by built-up breastworks in country where the water was never more than a foot or so below the surface. However, it was soon realised that conditions were much the same on either side of No Man's Land, and for the moment at least Fritz was not in aggressive mood. Behind the actual front line, at a distance of generally 200 yards, ran a second or support line, with a third, called the subsidiary line, some 600 yards further in rear. In this particular sector, the defences of the town of Armentieres constituted a fourth defensive position, and south of that again, well behind the front area, a line from Armentieres to Fleurbaix was an additional safeguard against sudden enemy activity. This last line, with at least one further in the rear, was not controlled by troops in the front area, and need not be further considered here. For their first experience of trench warfare in France, the three Field Companies were located on the right, centre, and left subsectors respectively.
In the front line, in this as in all other stationary sectors, the first hasty breastworks, thrown up when the recurring clashes of the early skirmishing parties had given way to sustained hostilities by large bodies of men, had long since been extended into a comprehensive system of defence. The trace and profile of the breastworks followed much the same general page 66rules as had been familiar in the trenches of Gallipoli. The parapet was at least 10 feet thick at the top, and 7 feet at a minimum above the ground level, while all occupants of the line were protected from the back blast of high explosive shells by another stout breastwork in rear called the parados, at least as high as the parapet and not less than 4 feet thick. Traverses, or strong buttresses of earth, jutted out from the front or occasionally the rear face of the trench, splitting it into a series of compartments. Strong and solid, and not less than 15 feet thick, their special function was to protect the garrison from enfilade fire, and to localise the effect of a shell or bomb bursting in the trench. The forward bays formed by each, long enough to hold five or six men, were known as the firebays, and were, or should have been, entirely for the use of the garrison in either defensive or offensive action. Here were located the firesteps, stores for ammunition and bombs, and such temporary shelters as could be arranged for the sentry groups always on duty. Too many traverses made for difficulties of supervision and control, and also facilitated bombing attacks along the trench, as grenades could be thrown from the cover of a traverse, generally into the next bay but one. This objectionable possibility was provided for by leaving occasional straight lengths of trench between adjacent traverses, long enough to defeat the best efforts of the German throwers, and commanded by protected loopholes in the end traverses. Some five yards in rear of the front fighting line and connected therewith at frequent intervals ran a continuous travel trench, enabling the whole or any part of the actual fighting line to be fully occupied without interference with, and unfettered by, the free use of this main artery of longitudinal communication. Needless to say, the sides of all trenches thus formed required substantial revetments, which are described later.
Communication trenches were occasionally formed provided with traverses as protection against shrapnel or enfilade fire, but such extras were of doubtful advantage, as they greatly impeded the movement of carrying parties and stretcher bearers. If they were essential, circular island traverses were the best, with the trench going round on both sides.
In one Flanders sector, the Division had a sentry post located in the communication trench immediately in front of one of these island traverses. On a certain cold wet morning two Engineer officers, one of senior rank and wearing very squeaky boots, were approaching this post from the rear. The sentry, all unconscious of danger, had set down his rifle and joined his companions round a small brazier, and had just fin-page 67ished buttering a large round of hot toast. The squeak of the approaching boots just gave him. time to jump to his stand before the eye of authority fell upon him. The rifle had to stay where it was, and after one hasty glance at his man, he decided to risk the lunch too, and stood solemnly to attention with the toast on his open palm, right side up. As the officers passed on round a bend his remarks to his mates were plainly audible. "Some sport, that old bloke! I wish they all had to wear squeaky boots and give a chap a chance."
At this period, the front line was not continuously occupied, the general practice inclining to a series of small garrisons about 200 yards apart. Though the gaps between these garrisoned localities were never held in any force, the parapet and travel track were necessarily kept in constant repair and patrolled at frequent intervals by the neighbouring garrisons. To ensure control of these areas in case of enemy attack, the parados and all intervening obstacles between it and the support line were levelled to the ground, and provision was also made for enfilade fire from wing trenches of the adjacent localities. To deceive enemy aeroplanes as to our actual position, without interfering with the fire of our own troops, dummy paradoses of netting and scrim on wooden frames were erected by the sappers. Dummy assembly trenches on the same pattern were also constructed quite early in our occupation of the sector, with a view to keeping the Boche in a pleasant state of uncertainty as to our ultimate intentions.
The support line was practically continuous, with complete parapet and parados unbroken by "gaps" such as existed in the front line. Though the whole line was maintained in a state of constant repair, series of fortified Posts were relied upon as the real centres of resistance in case of necessity. The subsidiary line also was maintained as a fighting trench, but as this was the location of the battalion in reserve, more attention was paid to shelters, headquarters dug-outs, field kitchens, etc., than was advisable nearer the front.
To what circumstance or caprice the lowly duckboard owed its title has never been divulged. It consisted of a sort of rough ladder, the side pieces of 3in. by 2in. and about 7ft. long, with cross slats of 3in. by 1in., 18in. long, nailed transversely at intervals of about one inch. The side pieces were not parallel, a slight narrowing at one end enabling them to fit into the wider end of the next board, a succession of them thus forming a continuous board walk. Divisions especially favoured by Providence, or served by careful sappers of unusual skill in acquiring material, were further assisted in the uncertain pilgrimage to the front line by strips of wire netting nailed along the duckboards to ensure a firm foothold, but page 70these were regarded as an extra by all right-minded soldiers. The duckboard is now known in military manuals as a trench board, but the use of such a term would only confuse any veteran who happens to read these pages.
The whole Armentieres sector when taken over by the Division was in a poor state of repair, and called for incessant labour with shovel and sandbag and every type of material. The existing breastworks were held up by all types of revetting, reminiscent of their various occupiers, but for new work and repairs the New Zealanders relied almost entirely on revetting hurdles, or trench frames and sandbags. These hurdles were composed of 3 uprights of 4in. by 2in. sawn timber, connected by 3 cross pieces of 3in. by 1in., one across the top of the uprights and the other two at intervals of 2ft. downwards. On this framework was nailed a sheet of expanded metal, which was found sufficiently strong to sustain any reasonable thrust by the imprisoned earth. Set ona vertical slope of about 4 in 1, lashed to one another, and anchored to pegs driven deep in the banks by ropes of twisted wire known as windles, these hurdles formed a ready and sufficient means of constructing the innumerable breastworks required. The traverses behind each fighting bay were simply provided by a series of these frames forming a kind of fenced enclosure, which could, if necessary, be erected first and filled with earth later. Damage was quickly repaired by the insertion of new frames where required. Apart from ordinary repair, a vigorous policy of improvement and reconstruction was carried out on all trenches, and these frames were used in thousands. Their manufacture was largely the work of civilians employed in the factories in the town under the control of the C.R.E. "A" frames had been used in many fire-bays, but as a general rule the New Zealander found himself cramped by the space afforded.
The Germans used brushwood revetting hurdles much more than we did. These are simply made of forest stakes interwoven with long thin saplings or flexible boughs in the manner of wickerwork, and are very strong and easily handled, lending themselves naturally to quick repair. Even where the British line lay through or near a large wood, such as Ploegsteert Wood, which we were to know well later on, there was very little use made of the material at hand. It may have been that the forests of France, which there, as everywhere else on the Continent, are looked upon as great national assets and most carefully tended and conserved, were being denuded of so many of their mature trees for war pur-page 71poses that the authorities were particularly anxious to preserve the young shoots coming on for the future. That aspect of affairs of course did not worry the Boche, who had practically the whole of Belgium at his back to supply his brushwood requirements, and plenty of forced Belgian labour to make his hurdles. Forest timber of all sizes figured largely in German defensive works.
What the British armies in France and Flanders would have done during the four years of the war, had there been no sandbags to fill with dirt, is a subject which has not yet been given the attention it deserves by our imaginative writers. Next to the articles of intimate equipment that a man wore upon his person, the sandbag was probably the most general, as it was certainly one of the most useful, of all the varied munitions of war. Whatever work was going on in front, from building a wall to filling up a shell hole, the sandbag was indispensable; the last thing a man saw as he left his own trenches to attack was his sandbag parapet; included in his battle kit were more sandbags, and the first thing thought of to provide a little extra cover when consolidating his captured position was again the friendly sandbag. And for the carriage of rations, spare ammunition, sand or gravel, or any other burden of a suitable size, no other receptacle was ever thought of, while most men had one in similar commission for their private gear. As mattresses and extra blankets they were used in thousands, and as a type of rough legging in cold or muddy weather they were not despised.
The civilians remaining in the battle area lost no chance whatever of augmenting their supplies of bags, which were almost as popular tender in small deals as tins of bully beef. To outward appearance they made no great use of them, except as leggings or as waistcoats for the children, but there must have been some other cause to account for the avidity with which they seized upon every bag they could see. Quite likely they sold them back to the British Army along with large supplies made up at several local factories and small looms in the areas well behind the lines, for the Flanders residents are careful and thrifty souls. They probably boast more churches to the square mile than any other spot in Christendom, while wayside shrines, in continual use, and often simply festooned with the little wooden crosses the country folk brought along with their petitions for the safety of Jean or Henri, were almost as plentiful as estaminets; but the scriptural injunction against laying up treasure upon earth has either passed them by or left them very cold.page 72
The increased provision of fire steps was another matter taken definitely in hand by the sappers. These, as the name indicates, were stout planks fixed at such a height in the fire bays, that a man standing on them was about 4ft. 6in. below the top of the parapet, thus securing the maximum of cover consistent with full liberty of action. Many of the fire steps used by former occupiers had now to be lowered to suit their more lengthy successors. Fire steps were also fitted at suitable positions along the communication saps for use in defence against a possible flank attack.
All work in the actual front line was planned and carried out by the battalion in garrison, supervision only being provided by sappers. In support and subsidiary line work, however, all responsibility for plan and execution lay with the Engineers, the necessary working parties being drawn from the battalions in reserve. At first both day and night parties were employed; later on, in the less advanced positions, night work was abandoned except in special cases. In this quiet sector, no special advantage was gained by the added secrecy of night operations, and the amount of work done was naturally much less than in daylight. At this stage, the business of the day was very much of a routine nature. Even by the respective front line garrisons it seemed generally understood that no very desperate measures were to be expected from either side, and for hours together no sounds of war disturbed the serenity of the early summer days. Full advantage was taken of this opportunity to devote all available energies to the innumerable works requiring attention, and probably no period in the history of the Division, save the preparation for Messines, saw more solid work done than was performed at Armentieres.
By the middle of June, owing to redistribution of the Infantry Brigades, the disposition of the Field Companies was also altered, 1st and 3rd Companies remaining in front areas, while all engineering work in rear of subsidiary line was taken over by the 2nd Company. In addition to the routine works of this rear area, the defences of Armentieres town afforded a vast amount of work to the 2nd Company. These formed a series of defensive trenches and positions distinct from those of the regular lines in front, though necessarily constructed on the same general principles. Parties of civilians were employed on these rear defences and on drainage operations, under Engineer supervision, and rendered a good account of themselves. The river Lys running just in rear of Houplines and curving round Armentieres on the north andpage 73West was obviously a most important factor in the general strategic position. One of the first duties of the 3rd Field Company had been the preparation and placing of gun-cotton demolition charges on 12 bridges in and about the town, and these were now handed over to the 2nd Company. The charges were kept permanently in position, and were tested at regular intervals to ensure their efficiency in case of sudden emergency. On the Canal at the bend of the Lys just north of the town, two pontoon bridges were placed to provide alternative access to Houplines sub-sector, in case of heavy shelling along the usual road. A new communication trench was also constructed, its descriptive title of Lunatic Avenue being not so much a reflection on its users as a record of the fact that it ran past the Armentieres Asylum. During this period the town water supply system was also operated and maintained by the New Zealand sappers. Distribution pipes were run from a large central tank, which was supplied from a deep well by electrically-driven pumps, the necessary power being obtained from the plant of a disused factory.
Working parties from the battalions in reserve or support were met at appointed times and places by the sappers in charge of the respective jobs, served with tools and material, and piloted to the scene of operations. In general, at the appointed evening hour, activities were suspended with regularity and promptitude, and all working parties from the reserve battalion were able to return to their town billets Apart from the trifling details of periodic duties on guards and fatigues, they were then free to enjoy the amenities of civilisation for a few precious hours. This even temporary immunity from care had never been possible on Gallipoli, and was now of inestimable benefit to all concerned.
Material of all kinds was bountifully supplied and prodigally used. The main C.R.E. dump was situated on the bank of the Lys, and was supplied direct by numerous barges, and also by train. Three woodwork factories and a small sawmill in the town were operated by the Engineers, and here, with the aid of civilian labour, were constructed all the frames, duckboards, and other building requirements of the trenches. A small factory was also established for the manufacture of concrete bursters. These were reinforced slabs about 2ft. by 1ft. by 3in. thick, the principal use of which is explained later. The duckboards were the particular care of women workers, who became very expert at nailing them together, and relieved the tedium of the passing hours by what would now be called a community sing. Here, too, were pro-page 74duced tables, chairs, desks, benches and stools for Headquarters, and any similar items needed by the various units of the Division.
Engineering circles at Chatham, the main R.E. Depot of England, are said to cherish very pleasant memories of an address delivered by a certain officer of the New Zealand Engineers, whose war services finally landed him in England, where he obtained permission to proceed to Chatham with the laudable intention of giving a few tips to the R.E. personnel of that ancient town. After stating his opinion that the main obstructionists in the way of free supplies of engineering material were undoubtedly Brigadier-Generals, of whom there were several present, he went on to state that the New Zea-landers at Armentieres never ran short. The reason was that by a private system of intelligence he always knew when barges full of material were approaching up the Lys, and would then make it his business to board them some distance below the town, where he would amend the labels on the cargo in accordance with his requirements of the moment! This is obviously the solution of most supply problems, and even a Brigadier-General could hardly suggest a simpler method of stocking a Divisional dump.
All new dumps, trenches, posts or communications constructed by the New Zealanders were favoured with names reminiscent of home, and generally of Maori origin. One trench dug by Waikato men was forthwith labelled Ngarua-wahia Avenue to the bewilderment of "Tommy" neighbours and relieving troops. At Houplines the 3rd Field Company established a dump which they christened "Waitangi Dump." An irate British Colonel attempted to pronounce the name with somewhat indifferent results, and then called upon a Sapper Sergeant to tell him what it was: "Waitangi, Sir!" "Waitangi! What the devil's that?" "It means weeping water, Sir, and is…." "Then, why the hell don't you say weeping water instead of using that unpronounceable — lingo."
While the sappers were busily engaged on their multifarious duties, the transport sections, both men and beasts, came in for a fair share of the prevailing activity. The requirements of the forward areas in the way of material were supplied from dumps established as close as possible to the scene of action. The replenishment of these dumps with every type of trench store was a heavy task calling for the nightly employment of all available transport. In addition to ordinary waggons and limbers, use was made of the pontoon page 75and trestle waggons. These were relieved of the usual loading, and by an arrangement of the bridge decking to serve as a flooring, were converted into serviceable cartage vehicles. It may be noted here that a portion of the regulation equipment of a Field Company on active service is two double pontoons, each mounted on a special waggon, which also carries the necessary baulks and decking to form a span of bridging, while a third waggon carries two Weldon trestles and a further supply of decking timbers, the whole being sufficient to form a light bridge of 75ft. span suitable for traffic up to 18-pounder guns. In open warfare, when rapid movement is probable, and temporary bridging a necessity, this gear is indispensable, but for the first two or three years in France, when every Field Company in the land was trailing its pontoons about at every move, with great expenditure of energy in men and horseflesh, there was little prospect of any bridging. It was not till within a few months of the time when there really arose a definite call for the pontoons that they were all called into concentration parks, whence they were issued as required. However, as we have seen, the waggons served other purposes no less useful, if more lowly, than that for which they were originally designed. And on trek, the extra opportunities afforded for stowing spare kit sometimes prevailed over the regulations prohibiting any such misuse of the frail vessels.
From the forward dumps, tramways ran up to the actual line. Every night a working party under the control of two or three sappers took forward loads of material, and returned the empty trucks. The general movements of these parties and the position of the tramways were well known to the Boche, who was busily engaged in similar enterprises on his own side, and occasionally he caused considerable delay and annoyance to the tram parties, with damage both to track and personnel. Seldom, however, did they fail to deliver the goods.
In addition to the endless task of ordinary trench repair, a matter calling more for tools and labour than for any special skill, there were plenty of works to exercise the technical abilities of the Engineer Companies. The provision of new splinter-proof and high explosive-proof dug-outs was carried on steadily from the first. The general run of the existing shelters had been roughly constructed in the shape of a wooden box about 6ft.. by 5ft. and 3ft. high. The vertical supports on either side were provided by pit-props. Fairly stout straight poles cut green from the young trees of the French forests, page 76without trimming or dressing, were sent to the battle areas in great numbers. These were usually 6 to 10 feet long and 6 to 9 inches in diameter, though there was great variation in both dimensions. Everything up to 10 feet in length was called a pit-prop. Beams resting on the pit-prop supports carried a roofing of transverse boards, covered with such height of earth as might be available. Board flooring, and sides of timber or corrugated iron, completed the structure. Many of these existing shelters were in the front line, where their presence not only weakened the parapet, but created a certain amount of tension between sleepers and passers-by in the matter of protruding legs and feet.
New shelters were now constructed in front of the travel trench in rear, some of the old box type, but as many as possible of corrugated steel, the sides and roof being roughly on the curve of a small circle, with a board flooring as the diameter, so to speak, of the same circle. Instead of the row of pit-props, stout beams were laid on the ground on each side, to which the iron was securely fixed by means of bolts driven through holes in flanges turned for the purpose at the bottom edges of the steel sheets. Each semi-circle of steel was composed of two equal segments, which met and bolted at the top by means of flanges similar to those below. On this supporting arch was heaped a covering of loose earth covered with packed sandbags. On these again were laid strong baulks, or pit-props, 2 feet apart, supporting a roofing of concrete bursters. The air space between the concrete slabs and the sandbags beneath was found to act as a protective cushion in the event of a direct hit by a shell, and the special function of the concrete was to ensure the bursting of the projectile before penetration, hence the term "burster." These small steel shelters, known as "baby elephants," were 5ft. 3in. wide and 3ft. 6in. high. Numbers of them were also erected in support and subsidiary lines. More ambitions shelters of the same shape, 6ft. 2in. high and 9ft. 6in. wide, capable of acting as company headquarters, or signallers' dugouts, were also constructed of a heavier type of corrugated iron known as "English" pattern. For these, the arch was composed of two side pieces, with an overlapping centre piece, the whole being bolted securely together. The same system of cover was employed for protective purposes.
The idea of a "bursting course" in the cover provided against shell-fire was only evolved after some 18 months of sad experience of the results of enemy high-explosive shells. Of the materials available, the concrete slab was so page 77much the simplest and easiest to handle that it practically appropriated sole rights in the name "burster," but failing the slabs, good results could be had from broken brick, or flint, or heavy baulks of timber, providing the air space existed underneath. Overhead cover, on a steel shelter, consisting of 2 feet depth of packed sandbags on top of 12 inches of solid concrete failed to avert destruction. Had the 2 feet of sandbagging given place to a row of large pit-props or iron girders spaced 2 feet apart and surmounted by sheets of iron upholding 1 foot of sandbags and 9 inches of broken brick, the result would have been less disastrous. It must not be inferred that no cover was safe which did not include air space. An arrangement of 9in. logs laid close together covered with corrugated iron, then with another row of logs, and finally surmounted by 6 feet of solid rammed earth came successfully through the ordeal of the "direct hit," but such a structure, in addition to requiring labour, was useless when head room was limited. Safe and shallow cover was well provided by the use of two layers of steel rails, the upper laid transversely on the lower, surmounted by walls formed by packed sandbags laid end on, one bag wide and three bags high, spaced at 2 feet centres apart. On these walls were laid the concrete slabs, painted on top in various colours to disguise the real facts of their existence. The total depth of this arrangement was but 2ft. 3in.
The first captured document which showed that the enemy had reached the same conclusions as ourselves with regard to an "arresting course" was taken in September, 1916, on the Somme. The diagram showed practically the same practice as our own, except that Fritz employed some 6 inches of solid concrete on top in place of the 3-inch slab used by us. He also introduced fascines about the middle of his protection courses, which being of a yielding, yet tough and springy consistency, served the purpose very well.
The foregoing may be taken to represent some indication of the principles underlying the construction of shelters in the battle area, though full treatment of even mere principles could be expanded indefinitely. Practice varied even more, according to the situation, the material available, and the individuals in charge of the work.
The construction of snipers' posts, almost always situated in the front line, was the particular care of selected sappers or N.C.O.'s who made a specialty of the work. This type of job invariably appealed to the sporting instincts of the aver-page 78age New Zealand soldier, and was a veritable labour of love. On selection of a likely spot, a recess was dug into the parapet until the outside edge was almost reached. Thereafter operations became more secretive and every care was taken to avoid detection.. First of all, a conveniently sized stand for the sniper was excavated, with the sides held up by hurdles or sandbagging. In front, at a suitable height, a ledge was cut out on which was placed a flat wooden box shaped like a trapezium, open back and front, with the smaller opening towards the enemy, and shielded by a trap-door when not in use. A wide field of fire was obtained by moving to either side of the larger opening in the rear. Before the final aperture was made in the parapet, some care was taken to attend to the ground outside. Loose earth or an old sandbag might move on discharge of a rifle and disclose the position. A favourite device was to surround the opening with old tins or similar trench rubbish of a safe nature. The hanging of a sack or blanket behind the sportsman to minimise the risk of discovery on opening the trap-door in front completed the preliminary arrangements, and the rest was a matter for the sniper and his quarry on the other side of the way. The above description merely represents the general conditions affecting the sniper, and all arrangements were capable of elaboration up to the point of a square steel structure to protect the head and shoulders of the operator, with a sliding steel plate to cover the shooting aperture when not in use. Under ordinary trench conditions such high-class articles were not generally available, nor was the average sniper in the least perturbed by their absence. So long as something in field grey passed his sights with reasonable frequency he was quite satisfied to carry on with or without mechanical assistance.
Along the low-lying flats of this trench area, destitute of all natural facilities for observation, recourse was had to artificial means of keeping a careful eye on the daily movements of the enemy. Several of the tall factory chimneys of Houplines and Armentieres were utilised for the purpose, and the preparation of these eyries afforded many opportunities to amateur steeplejacks among the Field Companies. An arrangement of alternate platforms and ladders inside the chimney, or, in some cases, spikes driven in the brickwork, usually enabled the observer's post to be located at a sufficiently commanding height. A narrow slit cut through the wall of the chimney afforded excellent observation, and was practically impossible to detect. Other posts nearer the line were located in tall leafy trees, and occasionally the remains page 79of a farm building afforded a necessarily limited field of view. By each post was constructed a dug-out for telephone and personnel, as far as possible proof against enemy artillery. A clever idea used here right in the front area, and also met with in Fleurbaix later, was the artificial tree. This was a hollow steel replica of a tree trunk, which had been removed one night and replaced by the steel erection before daylight. A thin slit covered with gauze gave all necessary facility for observation. Later on, posts in the actual front line were fitted with steel protective sides and movable loophole plates. One peculiar aspect of observation posts or, in trench vernacular, 0. Pips, was the number of units, to whom, on their own showing, an observation post was absolutely essential for the successful prosecution of the war.
The new conditions of warfare confronting the machine gunners again often caused necessity for the services of the Engineers. The provision of accommodation in the vicinity of their posts was a constant routine job, usually satisfied by the erection of "baby elephants," but the construction of the actual posts was a more important work often undertaken. Open positions at the corners of hedgerows, or similar field sites, called for nothing much more than a little sandbagging and camouflage. Several covered positions in the Armentieres sector were put in at salient angles of the support line, or in convenient banks in the open fields. For these, a suitable hole was excavated in the bank, and provided with a low sandbag bench or mound in the centre, on which the gun was mounted. In some cases the opening towards the enemy was left wide and free, in others the opening was narrowed down towards the front by the use of sandbag walls. Across the top of the whole excavation was placed a heavy roofing of pit-props overlaid with concrete bursters, and the whole was surmounted by turf. Any type of erection with sharp angles which could throw a shadow in an aeroplane photograph was carefully avoided. A position frequently adopted was behind the remains of a brick wall of one of the ruined farmhouses dotted about the countryside. In these cases, shelter for the gunner was usually arranged by the erection of a "baby elephant" in the selected position hard against the wall. Broken brick piled round and on top of the steel arch afforded protection and concealment at the same time. A small sandbag mound inside the shelter gave a platform for the gun, and a horizontal slit cut out of the brick wall in front allowed for the necessary field of fire. This was the simplest, and probably the most effective type of the defensive positions pre-page 80pared for the machine-guns, though here again it should be understood that only an outline of the general procedure has been attempted. In all engineering manuals or in Schools of Instruction the subject of machine-gun positions was elaborated in many forms, and with great attention to detail, measurements and so on, but in practice the sappers had to make use of what was available, and produce reasonably efficient results quickly.
Buterne Lane, near Houplines.
Photos by Major N. Annabell
During the dry weather experienced in June, a shortage of water in some of the forward areas made it necessary to dig wells and instal pumps for their convenient working. To run short of water in Flanders of all places on the habitable globe seemed a queer vicissitude of fortune, when another month or so might easily see the same pumps busily occupied in assisting to keep the surplus surface water within reasonable bounds. Pumps were continually in use by the New Zea-landers. Invariably a considerable proportion of the dugouts taken over from their predecessors in any sector required the attentions of a pump to render them habitable, and the application of considerable concrete to keep them so. The probable reason is that these concrete jobs were generally done in summer, when the extreme rigours of the winter season were temporarily forgotten.
Towards the end of June much greater animation began to prevail on the whole northern front, and with the commencement of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July, a continuous activity of all arms set in, which lasted with slight respite until the Division was relieved in mid August. Wire cutting, bombardments of the front line, bursts of fire on billets, gas discharges or raids took place nightly. Not least in importance was the continuous series of raids now carried out with great skill and determination. The usual objects of a raid, to develop one's own offensive spirit, to secure identification of the enemy, to destroy garrisons and machine-guns and so on, were now reinforced by a necessity for assisting operations in the south, by keeping our northern opponents on the qui vive in their own trenches. Here, as elsewhere, raiding parties were accompanied by sappers, armed with mobile charges of guncotton, whose principle aim was the demolition of any important structure found.
The first raid attempted by the New Zealanders in France took place on the night of 16th-17th June, when a party of 4 officers and 83 other ranks of the 2nd Brigade raided a new enemy trench known as the "Breakwater" from its general shape and appearance. The construction of the "Breakwater" was not greatly advanced, and the raid yielded little in the way of Germans alive or dead. Four sappers of the 3rd Company accompanied the party, and blew up the only work of any magnitude they could discover, a listening post at the forward end of a German sap.page 82
On 25th June a highly successful effort was made by the 2nd Rifles on the enemy trenches opposite Pont Ballot salient. Some 30 Germans were killed in the open trench, and many more preferred to die in the seclusion of their dugouts by the agency of a Mills bomb, while 9 prisoners and much material accompanied their successful opponents back to our own line. Two sappers of the 1st Field Company took part in this raid. One blew up a gas engine used for pumping, while the other destroyed the enemy's main dugout, a commodious residence lit by electric light.
First Wellington took a hand in the game on 1st July, again with splendid results. One N.C.O. and a sapper of the 1st Field Company went over with the raiders, and contributed their share to the general performance. One of them discovered a large pump shaft leading from a deep well towards the German rear. A short excursion in search of the actual pump was cut short by the whistle signal for withdrawal, and he had to content himself with the destruction of the shaft. His partner attended to a large concrete emplacement provided with iron doors, and evidently used as a bomb store. With his charge laid and fuse already lit, he was ready to withdraw, when the doors were opened and four yelling Boches disclosed themselves within. Three were got out in time with the aid of an infantryman's bayonet, the fourth was slow and reluctant and shared the fate of his bomb store.
On the following night a raid by 2nd Wellington attacked the trenches near Frelinghien Brasserie. Four N.C.O.'s of the 3rd Field Company were included in this expedition. Owing to particularly prompt and vigorous shelling by the enemy artillery, and to poorly-cut access through his wire, the raid was not a success.
Two sappers from the 2nd Field Company took part in a further raid on 13th July. On this occasion 1st Otago had charge of the enterprise. Tremendous concentration of enemy fire seemed almost to argue fore-knowledge of the attack, and practically the whole of the raiders suffered injury. The sappers were both wounded severely. 2nd Field Company again sent 3 sappers with a 1st Auckland raid on the night of 19th-20th July. Nothing but dead and debris was found in the enemy trenches, and no subject for demolition presented itself.
Despite our raiding activity at this period, we enjoyed no monopoly of the pastime. The Boche made several notable efforts to return our attentions, including one particularly page 83fierce, attack on 8th July on the Mushroom, an undesirable salient in our lines. The hasty lines of trenches thrown up under fire in 1914 approached one another more closely here than at any other point within miles. The flooding of one of his mine tunnels by our Engineers early in July may have inspired more than usual resentment. An intense bombardment completely destroyed the trenches and most of the garrison, and the enemy gained temporary possession of his objective. Sappers of the 1st Field Company were included in a mixed party, which immediately counter-attacked and successfully evicted the invaders. The rest of the night was fully occupied in repairing our front parapet, complete restoration of the locality occupying several days of unremitting toil. Several Engineers distinguished themselves in these numerous raids, and some at least received awards, but unfortunately no satisfactory records of their exploits are now available, and they cannot be given the attention they undoubtedly earned.
One natural result of our increased activity was a disposition to retaliation On the part of the enemy. This generally resulted in a bombardment of Armentieres, which gradually began to wear a battered appearance. On one occasion a shell in the 1st Company's billets caused 14 casualties, and on another, the 2nd Company's brewery was set on fire. Assistance rendered by the warrior inmates placed the brewer under a heavy debt of gratitude, which he cheerfully liquidated with a good spirit. Two nearby houses were slightly affected by the conflagration, and the inhabitants, all asleep in the cellar, had to be roused to a sense of their danger by eager sappers. Meanwhile two of their brethren, more far-sighted in emergency, had seized the opportunity to effect a perfectly unnecessary rescue of two much-sought-after demoiselles in a neighbouring estaminet, and thereby established a lead that was never seriously threatened as long as the Company remained in Armentieres. This enemy activity naturally led to considerable damage to the trenches and other works in our area, now beginning to show unmistakable signs of the energies lavished upon them. The daily shelling effectually removed all haunting fears that work on the sector would fail from lack of suitable objects to engage our workmanlike attentions. Owing to the increasing risks in the town, all Engineer transport and mounted personnel were sent into camp on the outskirts. Most of the horses were sent for a spell to Hayes' Farm, near Pont de Nieppe, and civilian transport was hired for supplying requirements of the moment.page 84
On 3rd July the 2nd Field Company moved out to Bois Grenier with the 3rd Rifles, and took over from the 7th Field Company, Australian Engineers. Here they were employed on works similar to those already handled in the main sector. More than passing interest attaches to Bois Grenier from the fact that that area was the one occupied by the heroes of Ian Hay's "The First Hundred Thousand" and here were seen in radiant glory those blood-red fields of poppies which are now so intimately associated with all memories of Flanders.
With the Field Companies, as with the rest of the Division, life went on along these comparatively peaceful lines until the 13th August, when the New Zealanders marched out of Armentieres en route for an unannounced destination. As they left the town they passed through the 51st Division, which was waiting to march in and take over the recently vacated billets. The war-scarred ranks of the famous Highlanders, all clad in the romantic garb of old Gaul, and straight from fresh glories earned on the bloody fields of the Somme, were an inspiring and never-to-be-forgotten sight to the young battalions from overseas. And the Highland battalions, between whom and all colonials a cheering spirit of understanding cameraderie always existed on whatever front throughout the war, were not slow to show their appreciation of the brave show made by the marching columns. Waving bonnets lined the roadside, while the skirl of the pibroch and the roll of the drums rose above the tumult to cheer the New Zealanders on their way, and to stir the breasts, not only of those whose ancestry hailed from old Scotia, but of all privileged to enjoy the experience.
Temporary billets were now occupied in the Hazebrouck area, the 1st Company being located at Racquinghem, the 2nd at Wallon Cappel, and the 3rd and Headquarters at Blaringhem. Route-marching and general training were indulged in till the 21st August, when entrainment took place at Arques near St. Omer, for a training area in the Abbeville district at the mouth of the Somme. This finally settled all question as to the ultimate destination of the Division. Detraining at Pont Remy and Longpre, a short march found the three companies finally located at Hocquincourt, Limercourt, and Allery respectively, with C.R.E.'s headquarters at Hallencourt.