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

Chapter VIII. — Winter on the Lys

page 99

Chapter VIII.
Winter on the Lys.

By the 14th October the Division had taken over the sector it was to occupy during the winter. This new territory, lying to the immediate south of Armentieres, and extending from Bois Grenier as far down as Laventie, was officially known as the Sailly sector, though more associated in the mind of the average soldier with Fleurbaix, the name of the village immediately in rear of the front area. The 2nd Brigade returned temporarily to Armentieres, and came under the command of General Franks, who was then holding that sector with two brigades. The 3rd Field Company accompanied them to the old sector, and Major Gibbs received a temporary appointment as C.R.E. of "Franks' Force," as the garrison was then called. In the new area, Colonel Pridham's headquarters were located at Sailly Sur-la-Lys, a small village five miles up the river from and west of Armentieres. 1st Field Company was located at Sailly also, while the 2nd Company found itself quartered in two fine farms just outside the village of Fleurbaix, three miles south-west of Armentieres on the road to Neuve Chapelle.

From the Aubers Ridge, in front of Lille, the whole countryside in this locality falls gently towards the Lys, with innumerable small streams and drains running down along the hedgerows into that sluggish stream. In the area occupied by the front line trenches, the fall in these streams, now swollen with rain, had become practically imperceptible, and the whole length of the line was intersected by a succession of shallow waterways liable to become broad stretches of morass. However, the front line itself and the saps leading up to it, notably Tin Barn Avenue, all of the breastwork type familiar to Armentieres veterans, were in exceptionally good order, practically revetted and duckboarded throughout. The front line in this Sailly sector was unquestionably the most comfortable and best equipped of all the many occupied by the Division in France or Flanders. The parapet was sufficiently high and of surprising width, the whole line was duckboarded, and the communications rearward were sufficient. About 70 yards behind the front line ran an old disused support line, where fires were occasionally lit and various aspects of constant occupation simulated in order to draw German shelling where it was least inconvenient. Further page 100back lay the real support line, a continuous fire trench, broken at suitable intervals by a series of fortified Posts, which held the garrison. A third or subsidiary line well in the rear of the first two was a continuous trench also, but in much poorer condition, with selected lengths only kept in a fortified state. A further series of somewhat larger Posts at greater distances apart was located along the subsidiary line. Several of them were well provided with accommodation, and the remains of scattered farmhouses sheltered many of the garrisons, but here, too, shelter was generally insufficient for the coming winter months.

During the previous summer much work had been done in clearing and lowering the Lys, and in opening up some of the larger streams, principally the Laies, but with the winter coming on, drainage was still of the utmost importance. The problem of dealing effectively and comprehensively with this constant menace of surplus water was met by the Field Companies by the appointment of skilled N.C.O.'s to the charge of definite sectors. By constant inspection and patrol obstacles were detected and the possibilities of the situation determined, and the provision of large working parties achieved the necessary result. Flooding did occur on a mild scale, but in no case were dugouts or sleeping quarters in the line affected. For a considerable distance in the front line, a broad open drain flowed along just behind the travel trench and was ultimately diverted down one of the communication saps, where it found a convenient stream bed beneath the duckboard track. Constant cleaning of the ditch below the duckboards was necessary in all communication saps if dry passage was to be expected. Working parties were issued with gumboots for this task, sometimes as many as 3000 pairs in a day, and were provided with dry socks at night, but despite large drying sheds erected by the sappers at the sap entrances, the problem of drying the gumboots was never satisfactorily solved, and the draining remained a wet and dirty job to the last. Free issues of Y.M.C.A. cocoa and biscuits were always available at the drying sheds, as one small gleam of sunshine in a cheerless existence, and gentlemen who had never seen a drain congregated there in great numbers at the appointed hour.

Of only less importance than drainage was the provision of adequate shelter for all front line garrisons. Many small concrete dugouts already in existence were found not to be waterproof. These were drained and properly finished off by the Engineers, and a few similar ones put in, but the usual type of accommodation erected took the form of steel or iron page 101shelters made with "baby elephant" or English pattern. The "baby elephant," capable of housing two men comfortably, or three at a pinch, was most in demand in the front line, where the unusually ample parapet made its construction a simple matter. Advantage was occasionally taken of the extra cover available to construct larger shelters than usual by raising the steel structures up on the pit-prop supports used for the walls of the primitive wooden shelters. The English pattern dugouts demanding 6 feet of headroom, exclusive of overhead cover, was unsuitable for the front line, but numbers of them were constructed in the "posts" and "localities" of the rear lines.

In the support line were several deep dugouts electrically ventilated and lighted, and each able to accommodate a company. At Cellar Farm and Wye Farm additional dugouts of this description were put in hand, and a special working party of 2 officers and 120 men was attached to the Engineers for the purpose.

The "deep" dugouts of the battlefront varied considerably in dimensions according to the needs of the situation. The main characteristic shared by all was a sufficient depth below ground to ensure protection from heavy shell fire without any extra provision in the way of overhead cover. Naturally these were never constructed in very forward positions. The entrance shafts, starting from small wooden chambers, level with the trench floor, and furnished with gasproof doorways, were driven downward on an inclined plane provided with stairways, and with walls and roof sustained by strong timbers, to a depth of about 20 feet below the ground line. Here a small level landing or platform about 2ft. 6in. wide was provided, from which the entrance stair turned at right angles and sank another 3ft. or more to the level of the dugout floor. From the landing, in addition to the second stairway at right angles, a continuation of the first flight of steps was carried on a short distance dropping suddenly into a square pit about 3ft. deep. This was provided to accommodate German bombs, should a hostile raiding party be moved to use such means of attacking a trapped garrison. Two entrance shafts were always provided for each dugout, not only on account of trouble from the source just suggested, or from the blocking of one entrance by shell fire, but also to ensure fresh air. The dugout itself in the primitive form in which it was most frequently used was a restricted cavern, generally about 20ft. long, 7ft. wide and 6ft. high, with walls and roof strongly supported by heavy frames made of pit-props or stout beams. In areas at all subject to sudden attack page 102a series of caverns of about this size was preferred to one or two large chambers, and was much easier to construct and maintain. In a series, of course, each entrance shaft served two dugouts, one on each side, and the frequency of the shafts was an added measure of protection for those below. Expansion of this general idea of underground shelter was limited only by the nature of the soil, or by the ideas and abilities of the constructors. In the chalk country of Picardy, for example, the Germans had underground systems almost akin to small villages, lighted, warmed, and ventilated by electricity, where whole battalions were able to shelter and carry on their numerous daily activities. In 1918, on our second visit to the Somme, we were to have intimate experience of this type of shelter.

For some weeks after arrival in this sector, the general policy of the Division, with numerous raw levies among the battalions was constructional rather than aggressive, an attitude which seemed to win the complete approval of our opponents of the moment. The system of working was the same as had previously been employed in Armentieres. The front line work was executed by the Brigade in garrison under sapper supervision; all other works were designed and carried out by the Field Companies with the aid of working parties drawn from the Brigades in reserve. At no period were engineering activities less subject to enemy interference. Large main dumps had been established in Sailly, Bac St. Maur, and Armentieres, and were constantly being replenished both by rail and by river barges. The transport lines were situated as close as possible to these main dumps, and material flowed up to the trenches in a constant stream. Forward dumps were soon well equipped, some within 500 yards of the front line, and the clatter of the waggons on the frozen roads could have been heard miles away in the calm misty atmosphere. From these forward dumps tramlines ran right up to the front line and even along behind the foremost breastwork. The sound of corrugated iron and rails being thrown about on a frosty evening must surely have aroused the German sentries, but they rarely showed any sign of real interest. There were times when the almost total lack of sound or movement immediately opposite lent some colour to the firm conviction of a large number of the "boys" that the sole occupants of the opposing front line were the flare-boys, unfortunate youths whose job was to wander up and down the line at night, firing an occasional rifle and shooting off the innumerable flares with which all German garrisons invariably enlivened every evening.

page 103

Black and white line drawn map of Ypres and surrounding villages

page 104

The organisation of general supply had reached such a pitch at this time that special material urgently required on a certain day could be "ordered" as late as 5 p.m. on the preceding evening. Every evening a runner took lists of required material, made up by the Engineer subalterns in charge of the various works, and delivered them to the officer in charge of the horse lines who thereupon obtained the material from the main dump, and sent it up the same evening by the transport waggons belonging to the section in charge of the particular work. On delivery at the forward dumps it was received by a trucking party belonging to this same section, and taken up during the night to the site of next day's operations. Supplies of ordinary material always in use were maintained at the forward dumps and drawn from there as required.

The heavy rains experienced during November put the maximum strain on all types of trench revetment, in addition to the shelters and drainage systems. Sandbags not more than three months old broke away altogether, proving themselves but a temporary expedient. The "A" frames showed the best results, but owing to gradual weakening, by time and occasional shell splinters, the long side uprights showed signs of needing anchorage outwards.

All trench and communication ways required constant attention and absorbed a vast amount of labour. At the same time other requirements of the sector were not lost sight of. Trench kitchens and sentries' and runners' posts were made proof against the advent of winter, several M.G. emplacements were built, tramlines and trucks were kept in repair, and all dressing stations and dugouts were systematically provided with doorways proof against gas attack. A wet blanket hung across an open doorway had been proved to be fairly good protection, but a gas-proof doorway was a more ambitious structure than that makeshift. Outside each entrance now treated was built a kind of small wooden antechamber, about large enough to hold a man comfortably. The side walls of the outside entrance sloped outwards at the bottom, in such manner that a blanket screen provided with a wooden roller at the bottom and fastened over the top of the doorway in rolled-up form would roll down the sloping wall immediately it was released. Close contact between wall and blanket was ensured by the weight of the bottom roller and the slight slope of the sustaining wall. At the inner entrance another blanket was hung as an extra precaution.

In Armentieres sector the 3rd Field Company was busily engaged on the same kind of work. One section renewed all demolition charges on the bridges across the Lys page 105at Armentieres and included in this operation those at Erquinghem and Fort Rompu. An endeavour to enlist the assistance of the elements against the foe met with much success. It has already been noted that the country was very flat and also that the Boche occupied an area slightly higher than our own. The numerous small streams running from his country down through ours to the Lys were now in full spate. On a wet and windy evening, with the assistance of 300 infantrymen and much timber and sandbagging, 12 dams were erected in selected streams with the object of forcing back the water and flooding the German trenches. From the appearance of the lakes which resulted from this undertaking, it must have given the German drainage experts some food for bitter thought. So bitter indeed, that the dams were made the objective of German raiders some days later, when they blew up one dam without materially improving their unfortunate condition.

Another small enterprise run by the 3rd Company in Armentieres deserves a line or two. This was a full-sized smoke concert held in their own particular brewery with real cakes and ham sandwiches and other local products of a cheering nature. During a temporary lull in the proceedings Colonel Pridham presented Corporal K. Watson with the D.C.M. he had won a year before as a sapper on the Peninsula.

Early in December the 3rd Company returned from Armentieres and went into billets in Sailly village, with its transport located at Bac St. Maur. It thereupon became the Company in reserve and was employed on baths, stables, and similar works in rear, in addition to taking charge of all work on the reserve system of trenches. In view of the rapid approach of winter, attention to back areas had been constantly given since the taking over of the Sailly sector. Baths, laundries, and drying rooms had been established and were constantly being extended and repaired. During the cold weather which followed in January, all water pipes at the Baths burst, and caused a mild crisis in the domestic affairs of the Division. Every effort was made to render all rear billets waterproof and sanitary, and duckboard tracks were put down to prevent the fouling of the floors by the inevitable mud and straw. A special work of great magnitude had been the provision of proper stabling accommodation for all the horses connected with Divisional transport. Overhead cover was not as difficult to provide as decent flooring. Ordinary ground in that soft country was trampled into a bog within two days. This trouble was overcome by a liberal use of concrete slabs, ashes, and broken bricks. Despite page 106the prevalence of that particular article around the shelled areas, not a particle of brick was to be touched until proper arrangements for amount and payment were made with the French civic authorities. It has been stated that one or two bricks got past the barrier occasionally. In any case, before the real rigours of winter set in, all horses were comfortably installed in satisfactory quarters.

At irregular intervals of ten days or so the troops in line were relieved, and on such change-over days, owing to congestion in the front area, work in the trenches was seldom attempted. A visit to the Divisional Baths at Sailly consumed at least a portion of the sappers' leisure moments. This entertainment was probably followed by a football match, or perchance a visit to one of the larger villages in rear. Some revisited the scenes of former triumphs in Armentieres, generally with disappointing results. Either the house was bare and empty, or the accustomed corner by the fire was filled by some strange and assertive brother-in-arms, usually from Scotland.

It was not that attractions were entirely lacking in the immediate vicinity. Fleurbaix, for example, was a maze of small shops, with an especial penchant for coloured silk postcards; and cosy estaminets and egg-and-chip kitchens were filled to overflowing every evening. In addition, the ever solicitous Y.M.C.A. erected permanent institutions per medium of the ubiquitous sapper, and there provided nightly entertainment of a high order.

One attractive young demoiselle who was laying up a tremendous "dot" from a steady trade in eggs and chips had no doubts as to the class of client Fortune had favoured her with during that winter. "Ah! these New Zealanders," said she, "very good! but" with uplifted hands and eyebrows, "What pigs. Always say six eggs Mamselle! Last year we had Scottish, not much money, though very nice, too. But Mon Dieu!" she added with a sorrowful smile, "Beaucoup pinch! beaucoup pinch!" For the probity of Scotland it is to be hoped no one will understand what she meant.

Considering the water supplies of many of these small estaminets it is a wonder that more sickness was not caused. Plenty of the wayside farmhouses, where the thrifty inhabitants were always ready to supply coffee to the troops, had no water supply at all other than the deep roadside ditch, which in many parts of low-lying Flanders is filled with water all the year round. Opposite the door could be seen the watering place, in which an expanse of water about a yard wide clear of the prevailing green weed showed where the kettles and buc-page 107kets were constantly being dipped and withdrawn. One prominent resident in this area gave permission for the Engineers to pump out and fill up an offensive cesspit in his grounds, but complained bitterly later when the water level of his well, a chain or so away, was found to have sunk during the process. The native of the region is of course so impregnated with germs from birth that nothing can disturb his internal economy; officially, no troops were allowed to touch water which had not been tested and treated by the sanitary experts.

At this time also, between Sailly and Bac-St.-Maur, the Divisional Entertainers came into being and had their first performance in a large malthoid theatre erected by the Engineers. This building was used for cinema shows, instructive lectures, and once was the scene of festivities when Divisional Headquarters essayed to provide the children of the surrounding district with a Christmas tree. But the ability to command and direct the destinies of 20,000 soldiers was powerless when faced with a crowd of children excited to frenzy by the unaccustomed display of toys and sweets, and casualties were many and severe. By far the most popular form of amusement with the men of the New Zealand Division during these winter months was their national game of football. Even those who did not play found great pleasure and excitement in watching the struggles, and large crowds could be seen almost any afternoon gathered about some frozen field, crying hoarsely on their chosen fancies. War or no war, mud, snow, or frozen ground nothwithstanding, on went the good old game. The Field Companies were no exception to the general rule. The sections played each other, the drivers played the sappers, the Companies played one another and whenever occasion offered tried conclusions with outside units. When no matches were toward, all hands were always ready to punt a ball about, including officers of years and discretion. On one historic occasion, a prominent captain was well in the rush for a soaring ball, which finally landed in a pool of mud and slime sufficient to abate the speed of the accompanying lesser fry. But nothing could halt the gallant captain. In he went, shiny leggings and all, in a smother of mud and foam. The writer was privileged to overhear the bitter cry of his watching batman:—"Now, isn't that a fair—I'll have to clean those—boots in the morning!"

By the middle of November the pressure of urgent preparation for the coming winter had somewhat abated. Our opponents still carefully refrained from any serious aggressive tactics, but if by so doing they hoped to ensure for themselves a peaceful and friendly sector, they were doomed to dis-page 108appointment. With rested troops at full numerical strength again available, Headquarters decided to resume hostile activities, thus maintaining the fighting spirit of the Division and giving the new men a chance of putting a finish on their warlike education. Medium and heavy trench mortars largely increased their previous efforts, and raids were taken up again with renewed enthusiasm.

On 16th November a raiding party from 1st Rifles accompanied by six sappers of the 3rd Field Company attacked Turks' Point. Everything in the German front line was found flooded, and no signs of a garrison were to be seen. Five days later six sappers from the 1st Company took part in a 1st Canterbury raid on the trenches opposite the Cordonnerie. A pair of rotting human legs projecting from a mound of earth was the only sign of the enemy encountered. A concrete wall 9ft. high strongly protected by barbed wire, and thought to conceal a mine shaft, was blown up by some of the sappers, while the remainder demolished a large concrete dugout.

A more ambitious enterprise was attempted by the 4th Rifles on 17th December, when twelve sappers were selected to accompany a large party of 5 officers and 170 other ranks, who went across to attack Corner Fort. While the Infantry was engaged in its usual activities in the presence of the enemy, the sappers searched for suitable subjects for demolition. The only object of importance appeared to be a large pumping plant which was effectually destroyed, while a long section of tramway was given the benefit of the remaining explosive.

During December the first machine-gun "tubs" were installed, generally about the support line. These were more or less a new departure, and unfortunately no real opportunity was given of proving their efficiency or otherwise. The "tubs" were ordinary round wooden contrivances large enough to hold a machine-gunner and his gun, or two men at a pinch. A lid or cover of steel was provided coming well down over the sides all round. At one place on the circumference of the steel circle, a suitable aperture for the use of the gun was arranged. By a ratchet system worked from inside the lid could be made to revolve, giving a field of fire in any direction, while the occupants of the "tub" were protected from any attack save through the aperture in front of them.

Just before Christmas, 6 officers and 200 other ranks of the New Zealand Engineers paraded for a Divisional inspection by Sir Douglas Haig. Christmas Day was observed as a holiday as far as possible, and in each of the three Companies all officers and men available sat down together to a well-spread page 109board. General Godley, accompanied by General Russell and Colonel Pridham, visited the 2nd Company's temporary banquet hall, and spoke a few seasonable words. Needless to say, he hoped and believed that next Christmas would be spent far from the fogs and snows of Flanders, with which pious wishes his hearers were evidently in hearty accord.

Two days later, at the Headquarters of II Anzac Corps in Bailleul, in the presence of the staffs of the Corps and of the Divisions comprising it, General Godley, at the request of the King of Montenegro, invested Major G. V. Barclay, V.D., with the Montenegrin Order of Danilo recently conferred upon him.

On the 2nd of January, further satisfaction was given to all members of the New Zealand Engineers by the news that Colonel Pridham had been awarded the D.S.O.

Throughout the month of January the Field Companies took advantage of the comparative lull in general activity to detach a section at a time from front line works and to devote a week or so to training operations in rear. In addition to the regulation brush-up gone through on such occasions, one company at least devoted much time and energy to a skating slide on a convenient small pond. Demolition experiments conducted by another led to various shattered windows and broken roof tiles on the adjacent farm billets, and very nearly spoilt the entente cordiale prevailing between the farmer and his New Zealand guests. After Christmas, the ground had become too hard for any serious attempt at ordinary trench work. While the heavy frosts continued, the incessant labours of drainage were more or less unnecessary, and in any case work under such conditions gave results so meagre that working parties could not be induced to consider them worth striving for. No suggestion to reduce or "washout" working parties was ever acceptable to the authorities, and day after day large bodies of men wended their way to the trenches, there to amuse themselves as best they could till it was time to go home again. Sliding on the frozen drains was a favourite form of relaxation from the horrors of war—and work. And they were there in case of a German attack, which is about the best that can be said for the state of affairs then prevailing. In any case, owing to heavy demands elsewhere, a, great shortage of material was now in evidence.

Though not conducive to great achievement with pick and shovel, and in spite of certain discomfort from the cold nights, this succession of clear bracing days raised the spirits of the troops and greatly improved the general health. All page 110tanks and water pipes in the front areas were quickly affected by the severe cold, and it was early found necessary to protect them with covering of straw and sandbags. By mid-January, the prolonged frost made it certain that "Thaw restrictions" would follow its natural end, and supplies of R.E. material were accumulated in the forward dumps, to be reserved for use during the first days of the thaw. Thaw restrictions were a natural outcome of the enormous cost of maintenance of all roads in the battle zones. By these regulations, no wheeled transport, except ration carts and a few other special vehicles, were allowed to use the roads at all until the restrictions were removed by a general order from Headquarters.

On 26th January the Division extended its front to the left and took over the Right Brigade area of the 3rd Division. The 3rd Field Company was allotted to this new sub-sector and moved up to Gris Pot. A large draft of reinforcements had recently been absorbed by the Companies.

Considerable time and labour were spent in January and February in erecting successive swathes of barbed wire entanglements behind the support line as far back as Fleurbaix village. All were not erected on lines parallel with the front. Several lines embracing wide strips of country in the front area ran convergently towards the rear, with the hope of ultimately drawing possible attackers into a narrow neck where they could be profitably engaged by previously sited machine-guns. Many of these swathes were 10 yards wide, one dense mass of stout stakes and tangled wire, and it was a matter of considerable annoyance to the New Zealanders to read of the comparative ease with which the Germans were allowed to side-step these obstacles in their attack of March 1918.

The 2nd Rifles undertook the first raiding activity of the New Year on 7th January. Two officers and 80 men accompanied by four sappers of the 2nd Field Company made a successful attack on a strongly garrisoned point in the enemy's line known from its apparent shape as the Lozenge. A large portable bridge specially prepared for the event by the sappers assisted them across a considerable stream in No Man's Land, whence they rushed the enemy trenches.

Our final and biggest enterprise in the raiding line in the Fleurbaix area took place just before relief. 500 men of the 2nd Auckland Battalion were detailed to attack both front and support lines of the enemy's system over a length of front which gave the operation more the air of a minor assault than of a mere raid. Very careful preparation page 111was made, and the whole plan of attack was worked out in detail over an exact replica of the enemy's trenches. This was laid out in rear, from aeroplane photographs, by the 2nd Field Company, the lines of trenches being marked by shallow cuts in the frozen ground, filled with straw to avoid enemy observation. A mass of artillery supported the raid.

At 5.45 a.m. on the morning of 21st February in unusually heavy mist the attack was launched. Sixteen sappers, eight from 1st Field Company, and eight from 2nd, accompanied the raid, fully equipped with explosives. Lack of daylight was a severe handicap to the raiders. Many parties failed to distinguish their objectives, others went too far and were cut off. Many Germans were reported killed, and a considerable number were taken prisoner. Our own casualties were by no means light; of the sixteen sappers, only six were uninjured and few of them found any opportunity of dealing with their explosive owing to the number of their own troops about. At the time the attack was hailed as a great success, in retrospect it wears more the air of a costly experiment.

Corporal L. G. Pope, of the 2nd Field Company, was prominent on this occasion, showing great dash and enterprise in pushing forward into enemy country, where he succeeded in blowing up several dugouts before being finally disabled by two severe wounds.

The thaw was just commencing when the Division received orders to take over the Le Touquet-Ploegsteert sector, and this was finally completed by the 25th February, after relief by the 57th Division. C.R.E. 's new Headquarters were now at Steenwerck. The 1st Field Company marched out to Bleu and thence moved up to billets at Dou Dou Farm, and took over the left sub-sector from the 25th Divisional R.E.'s. The 2nd Company marched to Pont de Nieppe and took over the right sub-sector from another R.E. Company of the same Division. The 3rd Company found its destination at Le Don Camp, when it remained Company in reserve, employed on usual back area requirements.

In the eyes of men used to keeping their sector in reasonable order, the Le Touquet trenches now occupied were in a disgraceful condition. The fervour and poignancy of the remarks passed by: the unfortunate individuals allotted to some of the alleged shelters will never be forgotten by any of those privileged to hear their views. By all appearances, nothing had been done to the earthworks since they were first thrown up by the original defenders, and the thaw did not improve matters. Duckboards lay at all and any angles up to the vertical, with little paths round them now feet deep page 112in mud. Parapets, held up only by a kindly frost and protected by a few strands of broken wire, were now crumbling to pieces, and in some places afforded no cover whatever. The German sniper was in a state of bold and enterprising activity quite unacceptable to the New Zealand Brigades now in line, who speedily put an end to his sporting proclivities. Communication saps were narrow and knee deep in mud. Long stretches of trench, even in the firing line, were completely under rising water, dugouts were either falling to pieces or being quietly filled with surplus slush from the trenches. All ranks accepted the challenge of the untoward conditions with energy and enterprise. The 2nd Field Company soon discovered that the lie of the country in its area and the proximity of the Warnave stream combined to render drainage a feasible proposition; working parties threw the mud about with apparent enthusiasm; dugouts were cleaned and drained, tracks laid, and parapets repaired; and when the sub-sector was handed over to the 3rd Australians on 13th March, it bore at least some aspects of a soldierly appearance. Much that might have been done could not be attempted owing to lack of necessary material.

The Division now moved northward once again, and took up the position it was to occupy with minor modifications until the Battle of Messines. The left flank of the Divisional area now lay just beyond the village of Wulverghem; the right was bounded by a line running from Ontario Avenue in the front line near St. Yves back through Suicide Corner, as the cross roads in the centre of Ploegsteert Village were known. The whole sector was divided into two Brigade fronts, north and south of the river Douve. The northern portion of Ploegsteert Wood still remained in our lines.

C.R.E.'s Headquarters remained at Steenwerck. The 1st Company, operating from the same billets as before, took over from the 121st R.E.'s a sub-sector extending from Ontario Avenue to the Douve; from the Douve to the left flank was in charge of the 2nd Company, now billeted in the partially destroyed village of Neuve Eglise. Its predecessors were the 122nd R.E. 's. The 3rd Company, still in Le Don Camp, took over works in back areas from the 150th R.E.'s. On 24th March owing to heavy shelling the 3rd Company vacated this camp and moved to fresh quarters in the Weka Dines near Romarin.

The country now occupied by the New Zealanders was in complete and welcome contrast with the low-lying flats of the Lys. In front, on the" southern tip of the broad low ridge bearing the same name, the shattered houses of the village of Messines lay clustered about the more massive ruins of the page break
A Serine and Ruined Church at Nouvelle Houplines.Photos by Major N. Annahell

A Serine and Ruined Church at Nouvelle Houplines.
Photos by Major N. Annahell

Remains of the Ypres Cathedral. A Portion of the Cloth Hallis shown in the Background.

Remains of the Ypres Cathedral. A Portion of the Cloth Hall
is shown in the Background.

Forming a Plank Road near Ypres.Official Photo

Forming a Plank Road near Ypres.
Official Photo

page 113 medieval church and the Institution Royal, a large R.C. Orphanage for girls. The extensive cellars known to exist in this stout old building were expected to provide serious opposition later on. The ridge ran in a northerly direction past Wytschaete, Zonnebeke and Hooge right through Passchen-daele, where we were to meet it later under less fortunate auspices, and away to the far north at Dixmude. Though only some 210 feet in height, this long ridge had furnished unrivalled observation for the Boche since 1914. At Wytschaete a low saddle connected it with Mont Kemmel, quite the most dominant feature in the plain of Flanders. South of Messines the German lines fell away abruptly into the valley of the Douve. Rising in the hills behind Kemmel and flowing between the southern slopes of that mount and a chain of lower hills, of which Neuve Eglise and Hill 63 are the most eastern points, the Douve meandered down a wide valley, and after entering the German Lines at La Petite Douve Farme, finally emptied its sluggish waters into the Lys near Warneton.

Our right sub-sector was largely covered by the forest of Ploegsteert, affording splendid cover and easily traversed by infantry. The small hill of St. Yves at the north-eastern corner of the forest was the salient feature of this portion of our line. In the central area, a mile or so behind our front line, rose the beautiful rounded hill of Rossignol, called Hill 63 from its height in metres, whence the southern slopes of Messines Ridge and enemy territory right down the valley of the Douve lay open to splendid observation. (Behind lay miles of rolling wooded country and, half hidden in the haze to the north-west, the line of wind-mill crowned heights stretching from Kemmel to the distant spires of Mont des Cats made irresistible appeal to men far from the hills of home. Almost due north of Hill 63 and east across the Douve from Wulverghem, lay another important rise, screening Wulverghem from observation, and crowned by heavily fortified positions, known as Midland Farm.

Several good road lines led in from the rear areas. Hyde Park corner, at the southern end of Hill 63, on the old main road from Ploegsteert to Messines, was also accessible by an alternative route leading in from Romarin past Red Lodge and along the foot of the rearward slopes of the hill. Here were situated several log houses and Catacombs, deep tunnelled shelters capable of accommodating a brigade. Forward of Hyde Park Corner the road to Messines mounted the hill, and, coming under direct observation, ceased to have any attraction for either transport or pedestrians. Just before reaching Red Lodge, the road from Romarin turned to the page 114left, and running up past one of the wayside Shrines with which rural Belgium is so plenteously endowed, crossed the hill crest near the "White Gates." There it joined a country road running westward from the former hamlet of Le Rossignol on the forward slopes of Hill 63 to join up with the Neuve Eglise-Wulverghem road about half way between those two villages. The left sector deepened on the Neuve Eglise-Messines road running through Wulverghem. Just eastward of the road intersection at "White Gates," now the sole remaining relics of a former magnificent chateau, a tree-lined roadway ran down the hill to Ration Farm, just in rear of the extensive remains of La Plus Douve Farm on the Douve Stream. Here Battalion Headquarters and Advanced Dressing Stations were established in fine concrete shelters built inside the old farm walls. Alongside the road down the hill ran a deep communication trench, sharing indiscriminately with the roadway the euphonious title of Plum Duff Avenue.

Scattered here and there in quiet corners of the wayside fields and up and down the winding Douve, isolated graves of French artillerymen, Scottish clansmen, and yeomanry of the English shires furnished grim evidence of earlier struggles for the shell-scarred ridge and mute appeal for further effort.

The whole countryside, covered with woods and hedgerows, and dotted with the now battered and deserted farmhouses of the unfortunate Belgian peasants, was soon to burst forth into the delicate glory of early spring with a sudden magnificence strange to Antipodan eyes.