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

Chapter IX. — The Battle of Messines

page 115

Chapter IX.
The Battle of Messines

Ever since the early months of the war, when the German thrusts on the Channel Ports had been barely stemmed by the blood and heroism of the British Regular Army, the menace of a third and possibly successful attack was ah ever-present spectre shadowing all deliberations of those responsible for Allied, and particularly British, war policy. The urgency of removing this danger at the first possible moment was keenly realised. But the perils of failure were fraught with possibilities not less serious, and during the initial stages of our war preparations the matter remained in abeyance. With the growth of our Armies in men and experience, however, the unattainable hopes of earlier days passed into the realms of possibility, and in November 1916 an Allied Conference decided upon a British offensive in Flanders during 1917.

In accordance with sound military policy a preliminary attack on the salient south of Arras would endeavour to engage the enemy's attention, and distract him from consideration of our preparations further north until it was too late to interfere with them. Success in the north meant the security of the Channel Ports and the safety of our main lines of communication, with a tremendous corresponding increase in our free dom of action. Additional important aspects of the main operation were the extinction of enemy submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend, and the disorganisation of the whole right flank of the enemy position. The latter, in particular, presented attractive possibilities of further achievement. All these fair hopes were to fade unrealised. The tremendous increase in enemy man-power on the Western Front, due to the Russian revolution, aided by delays due to a change in the Allied plans put an entirely different complexion on the attack when it finally materialised.

Early in 1917, the French Commander-in-Chief, General Nivelle, brought forward fresh plans embodying a grand French offensive on the Aisne. This scheme now took pride of place amongst the offensive proposals of the Allies, and a consequent shortage of labour and material in the north somewhat compromised our later efforts in that area. Had success attended Nivelle, a vigorous exploitation of his opening would have followed, to the probable abandonment of the Flanders enterprise altogether.

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In April, after a British feint at Arras, the French sent four armies against the southern end of the Hindenburg Line, opposite Laon. Wave after wave, the blue lines were shattered and dispersed by the machine-guns of the strongly-entrenched enemy; the offensive was a failure; and Nivelle was succeeded by Petain.

The stage was now cleared for the British performance in the northern theatre, the fateful Third Battle of Ypres. Prior to this conflict, and essential to its success, was the capture of the redoubtable ridge which marked the line of the invading armies from the Ypres salient down past Wytschaete and Messines to the valley of the Douve. Its possession assured to the enemy not only incomparable observation of all our movements in the salient about Ypres, but also exceptional opportunities for neutralising, by means of a flank attack, any advantages we might gain in projected operations in that sector.

Of all engagements fought by the British Armies in France, this Battle of Messines stands pre-eminent alike for the careful, detailed and methodical preparations undertaken to reach a pre-defined goal, and for the speed and certainty of the success which crowned those efforts. A source of tremendous satisfaction to the New Zealanders was the fact that, with full realisation of the importance of the coming straggle, they were allotted the task of preparing for their own attack with ample time to make suitable arrangements. The enemy likewise could not possibly have remained ignorant of our intentions; with his opportunities for observation, the ever-increasing scale of our activities left no room for doubt. Presumably he took steps to improve his defences, though his unusually strong position may have lulled him into a false sense of security. In either case, it was a soldiers' challenge of the most direct description, to be driven home later with a vim and celerity unfortunately rare. The varied aspects of the vast enterprise now in hand allowed full scope to the abilities of the Engineer companies.

The first concern of the C.R.E. in forecasting the very large share in the Divisional preparations that would inevitably fall to his lot, was the provision of material. Unfortunately this was still in very short supply, and it was not until May, when other Allied enterprises further south had subsided, that our requirements in that line received anything like full satisfaction. Failing adequate supplies through the usual Army channels, recourse was made to local manufacture in Divisional workshops. In pursuance of this policy, works situated at De Seule, where the road to Neuve Eglise left the page 117main Bailleul-Armentieres highway, were gradually put into full running order with extra engines, breaking-down saws, benches, and all other appliances of a well-equipped mill and factory. A force of 115 men and 25 women civilians was employed by the C.R.E. to cope with the increased output. In addition, 12 sappers and 25 Pioneers were detailed for work in the shops in various mechanical capacities. In the first month more than £30,000 worth of material went out from ' these workshops at De Seule, and right up to the day of attack they furnished the great bulk of all Divisional supplies in the way of R.E. material capable of local manufacture.

In the initial stages of our preparations, Engineer attention was largely given to the screening and improvement of the means of access, both road and tramway. On the left the main road of approach from Neuve Eglise to Wulverghem was open to Boche observers in Messines for its whole length, and all troops proceeded in single file down on one side of the road close against a continuous band of hessian stretched from tree to tree. In addition, where the road descended from the village of Neuve Eglise, transverse streamers spanned the way, and fluttered in the breeze like a series of triumphal arches. The approaches to the right and centre portions of the Divisional area, via Red Lodge and Hyde Park corner, were effectively screened from all but aeroplane observation by Hill 63. All roads of course were subject to periodic shell fire, and the consequent damage, augmented by the unusually heavy traffic, kept large parties constantly employed on repair and reconstruction. To form a circuit and join up existing roads, a new corduroy road of heavy planking was constructed from Wulverghem down the valley of the Douve to Ration Farm, with considerable relief to the congested traffic.

At every important cross roads, deviation ways were cut across the corners, both to assist traffic and to avoid probable enemy shell fire on these attractive targets. As time wore on, all Infantry and horsemen were forbidden the use of the main roads altogether. Overland routes, marked on either side with stakes, painted white at the top and provided with direction boards where necessary, were laid out across the fields between all localities frequently in use. Quicker movement and fewer casualties were the result, both to the troops on the tracks and to the transport on the roads.

The main New Zealand Divisional dump for the Messines operations was situated at De Seule along with the mill and factory. This was supplied by a broad gauge railway line direct from base areas via Steenwerck and Bailleul. The latter place was quite the most promising of the towns within page 118reasonable reach behind the Messines sector, and boasted clubs and canteens in addition to numerous shops and restaurants. This country is reported to have been once the seat of John Balliol, a Scot who took service with the French King in days gone by, and ultimately became a Constable of France. This early start in the country may explain the ease with which the kilts could still make hacks of all other competitors for local favours anywhere in France during the war.

The heavy line from Steenwerck ran on up the hill to Neuve Eglise village, whence a light tramline ran down the old Kemmel road as far as the crossing of the Douve, where a subsidiary dump was located at De Kennebak cabaret. From De Kennebak the tramway ran on down the leafy valley of the Douve, past the remains of Wulverghem village, where another subsidiary dump was located at Souvenir Farm, and on to Ration Farm, which was the main forward dump for all the preliminary operations just in front of Messines Village. A second tramline from De Seule coming up past Romarin led to the large Canpac (Canadian-Pacific) dump near Hyde Park Corner, and a branch line from this feeder ran northward to a small dump established at the Shrine behind Red Lodge already mentioned. From here material was nightly carted across the hill and down Plum Duff Avenue to Ration Farm. Ration Farm about 9 p.m., on any of the fine warm evenings preceding the battle, presented a scene of most intense activity. By road and tramway, troops, horses, and material commenced to flow out and in as soon as ever the kindly shades of evening fell down between us and the German observers on Messines. Ration carts, water carts, mail carriers, trucking parties; all made the place a common rendezvous, and hundreds of men en route for the night's work in the forward trenches, passed through the Dump in search of tools and to carry up material. In general, hostile shelling was astonishingly slight. But on a morning in April, a heap of trench mortar bombs which should have been moved forward the night before, was struck by a lucky 5.9 shell. The resulting explosion tore a tremendous hole in the road, and wrecked all shelters at the Dump, causing heavy casualties among the sappers and working party employed there at the moment.

From all these advanced dumps, trench tramways ran forward into the front line areas, but large trucking parties working every night for weeks before the battle could not fully cope with the tremendous daily demand for material. Large carrying parties, both by day and by night, were freely used to augment the supplies. All tramways, though under page 119control by the C.R.E., were run and maintained by the Pioneers.

The existing communications, particularly in the Wulverghem sub-sector on the left, were fortunately in a very fair state of repair. The communication trenches known as Calgary Avenue and Medicine Hat Trail were especially enduring monuments to the skill of their evident constructors. Both these avenues started in the vicinity of Ration Farm Dump, and feeding as they did the front line area immediately beneath the village of Messines, their condition was a very vital factor in the success of the preliminary preparations now undertaken.

Accommodation for Brigade and other Headquarters during the coming attack was put in hand early. The original intention was that the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company should construct deep dugouts in each sector, but owing to unsuitable ground, tunnelling was not attempted in the right sector.

By the end of March three entrance shafts to lead into a dugout 25 feet below ground were being sunk in the left sector. The three shafts were to be connected underground by 6ft. by 3ft. passages, off which eleven chambers 12ft. by 8ft. were to be constructed. Two Brigade and one Battalion Headquarers were to be accommodated in these chambers. This dugout was situated in Calgary Avenue about 120 yards behind our front line. The spoil from the underground workings was brought to the surface in sandbags, which was officially earmarked for raising the side walls of Calgary Avenue. Great numbers of these bags failed to reach the side walls, and their greasy clayey contents did not endear the tunnellers to passing wayfarers. In the right sector, in lieu of tunnels, three concrete shelters were constructed by the 1st Field Company, one each for Brigade, Signals and Wireless Headquarters.

For the safe housing of other Battalion, Signals and Wireless Headquarters during the attack, thirteen concrete dugouts were constructed, six in the actual front line and the remainder according to the proposed disposition of the battalions at zero hour.

The dugouts in the front line were rather a problem. When completed with shell-proof cover such dugouts were about 12 feet high. To excavate more than a foot or two was not impossible, but highly inconvenient, owing to the waterlogged subsoil. However, by the accumulation of years, the parapet in places had been built up at least 10 feet high, and a little judicious nocturnal raising of the crest in the selected page 120
Plan of Messines Sector

Plan of Messines Sector

page 121 positions passed unnoticed by the enemy. Three special parties of eight men working continuous eight-hour shifts, under two experienced Engineer corporals, were put on to each dugout. Excavation to within a few inches of water level was soon completed. On this soft and uncertain floor were laid sheets of iron, crossed angle irons, sandbags of gravel and cement, paving stones from the adjacent Wulverghem-Messines Road, anything strong and solid, and the whole was enveloped and filled in with six to nine inches of concrete. Reinforcing rods, such as were used extensively by the Germans, were unavailable for our work, and we had to fall back upon angle irons and long screw pickets, which were set cross-wise and also vertically in the floor during construction, and served as reinforcement for the walls when erected.. On this how stable foundation was generally placed one of the large types of curved iron shelters, though lacking these, the dugout was often completed of concrete alone. Above and on either side of the iron roof and walls was placed concrete, frequently interlaid with bent angle irons or screw pickets, to a thickness of at least 12 inches. The side walls of concrete were run up straight, the one furthest from the enemy to a height of five feet or so forming a ledge on which were erected a number of short stout pit-props to act as columns supporting a strong longitudinal beam. The other side wall was built up solid to such a height that steel rails set transversely, resting on this wall and the aforesaid beam, cleared the arch comfortably. The steel rails were laid at intervals of about two feet, and on them again was deposited a complete flooring of "bursters," concrete slabs 12in. by 24in. by 3in., and the whole finished off with further layers of sandbags and dirt as high as the safe limit of cover. Any space left between the finished outside walls and the parapet was filled solid with rammed sandbags. During construction the whole was protected by a canopy of hessian or some similar camouflage. This type of shelter was considered safe against any but the heaviest shells. Each of those constructed for the Messines offensive sustained several 5.9 shells with only temporary damage.
In addition to the new structures built for the attack, great numbers of old dugouts were strengthened and renovated. Some of these earlier erections had evidently been a source of great pride and joy to their original constructors, who had often left complete evidence of their identity on properly painted signboards. One decrepit ruin had a long record of vicissitude preserved on a large board let in above the page 122entrance:—
Constructed by the 1stFebruary, 1915.
Improved by the 2ndJune, 1916.
Further improved by the 5thJanuary, 1917.

Heartily condemned by the New Zealanders, May, 1917, was the last entry on the slate—a pleasant break in the monotony of the previous efforts, and a more accurate comment on its condition.

The amount of Sand and gravel required for all these structures was enormous, and had to be carried up in sandbags from Ration Farm Dump, necessitating the employment of large special parties daily. The average soldier, doubtless with a strong suspicion that dugouts were not for him, had a great aversion from this gravel carrying, and a tremendous amount was unavoidably spilt on the journey. An attempt to solve the problem by instituting a task of three bags per man for the day's work was a great success, until the sight of long lines of coatless men tearing energetically up the sap laden with gravel was so unfamiliar to the suspicious gaze of one sophisticated Brigadier, that he made enquiries and promptly forbade the employment of such devices. Thereafter the parties worked twice as long and brought half as much gravel.

Existing communications, though good as has been noted, were insufficient for the final purpose in view, particularly as all ground within a mile of the front line lay under direct observation from Messines. More saps were necessary in order to expedite and distribute the inevitable excessive movement of troops, working and carrying parties. When this work was finally completed we had five main communications, and also four short avenues between front and support lines. Practically every battalion in the Division had its turn on the new saps laid out by the Field Companies, and such names as Waikato and Taranaki took their places in a crowded nomenclature significant of the scattered units of the British Empire. To avoid congestion certain saps were for Out traffic only and others reserved for IN traffic only. During bombardment all these approaches were patrolled and any blockage immediately removed. Directly beneath Messines, any new work in progress had to be protected by camouflage of whatever description was available.

Extra attention was also brought to bear on the question of the relief and speedy evacuation of all who might be wounded in the coming operations. Special parties of sappers were employed for weeks in removing all corners in the com-page 123munication saps which could hinder the free passage of stretcher cases. Advanced sites for Regimental Aid Posts were carefully selected in each sector, and no stone was left unturned to ensure the safety and comfort of those requiring them. Situated just in rear of the support line, and adjacent to Out saps, these Posts were constructed of English pattern iron shelters, set in a bank or well protected by earth walls on either side. Steel rails and concrete bursters were laid overhead, "in" and "out" connections were provided with the main outward communication trench, and as a final precaution, the stations were provided with gas-proof doors. Several direct hits failed to put these shelters out of action, and the medical personnel were able to work freely through the offensive operations ensuing. Once clear of the rearward ends of the main Out trenches, specially marked routes directed stretcher bearers back to the Advanced Dressing Stations on main roads, whence motor ambulances evacuated stretcher cases, and special overland routes guided walking wounded back to the Casualty Clearing Stations. The main dressing stations in rear, such as were situated at Red Lodge and Kandahar Farm, were prepared for all emergencies with a detailed thoroughness previously unknown. By the day of attack, these were impervious to any ordinary shelling. Located as most of them were in the rooms and cellars of old brick farmhouses on the side away from the enemy, they were already safe from anything but a direct hit. The roofs were now given extra support by stout pit-props at regular intervals, then overlaid with rows of steel rails, upon which was spread a complete covering of "bursters" and the whole piled up with sandbags full of broken brick. The walls on the enemy side were also protected by sandbags full of brick built up as high as the roof in a wide solid mass. No bunks were used, but extra stretcher rests were fitted up in such a manner that stretcher cases could be treated and put straight into the ambulance without removal from the original stretcher. Tables, benches, water supply and gas-proof doors were all attended to, and in many cases extra motor roads were made to provide a continuous circuit for the ambulances.. This road work also made heavy calls on the broken brick, of which fortunately the Boche maintained a continuous supply amongst the farms of the neighbourhood. Nor was the question of cover confined to the needs of the wounded, and the staffs of the various Headquarters. At convenient intervals along the communication saps and in other suitable spots, shelters were provided for use as relay-posts, both by runners and stretcherbearers. These were not very grand, but they serve as an illustration of the completeness of the preparations made.

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On the 6th of April, the 3rd Australian Division extended northward and took over our right sub-sector as far as Winter Trench. At the same time the 25th Division on our left took over an area extending to the Wulverghem-Messines Road. The contracted front now held by the New Zealand Division corresponded roughly with the area defined as the Divisional assembly position for the coming assault. The 1st and 2nd Field Companies retained their respective positions on the right and left of the new sector, the line between their operation-areas being marked by Currie Avenue.

No mention has so far been made of any work undertaken on the actual trenches of the area, as distinct from communications. On the most peaceful and well-built sector in France, the ordinary routine of trench improvement and repair was more than sufficient to keep every available man employed. Here, with definite engagements daily looming nearer fraught with unknown possibilities of weal or woe, in the face of a foeman looking down from a vastly superior position on every movement made, the whole question of trench construction assumed a special significance. One particular aspect of the preparation for offensive can never be lost sight of by the prudent commander. It is always open to enterprising troops, especially when strongly posted, seeing an opponent engrossed in the multitudinous affairs of his own contemplated attack, to seize that very moment for a sudden counter-stroke. Such sallies, over and above the prospect of upsetting the attackers' plans, may possibly reveal unexpected joints in his armour resulting in his serious discomfiture.

In view of such contingencies, one of the earliest trench works undertaken at Messines was the construction of a new reserve line running from Plum Duff Avenue on the upper slopes of Hill 63 across to the Petawawa Farm on the Wulverghem-Messines Road. This was surveyed and taped by the 2nd Field Company during 22nd March, while at the same time sufficient tools were collected on a country road behind "White Gates" just out of sight of Messines. In the evening 10 companies of Infantry parading at the same spot were supplied with tools, and led on to various sectors of the new line already marked out in company tasks. By midnight the job was completed satisfactorily. On later evenings this line was continued right across to the Divisional left flank, and was finally connected by a Switch line to a strong new defensive position created round the small hill by the remains of Wulyerghem Church. This again was joined up to a strong fortified post further to the left known as the Lozenge.

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In the more advanced areas the work of construction and renewal went on without cessation day and night. The problem of assembling a large body of troops on the restricted battle front allotted to the Division was early in the minds of the responsible authorities. Obviously additional assembly trenches were required, and just as certainly it was folly to leave their construction till the last minute. Better to have them ready and allow the Boche to expend his destructive energies upon them, if so minded, while they were yet empty of men.

The possibilities of the unusually wide No Man's Land on our left front appealed to the imagination of the Divisional Commander with great force, particularly since our existing front line in that sector lay at an awkward angle with the direct line of assault on the hillside village. Between us and the German line some 200-300 yards up the slope to Messines ran the valley of a small sluggish stream known as the Steenebeek. And here in this valley, under the very noses of the German garrison, our new assembly trench was now to be dug. This task, under the circumstances one of extreme delicacy, calling for unusual skill in organisation and a perfect discipline in all ranks, was carried through without a hitch. Just after dusk on the evening of the 13th, Lieutenant Keilar of the 2nd Field Company and four sappers slipped over the parapet and proceeded to stake out and tape the line of the new work. With them were two officers of the 2nd Brigade whose knowledge of the ground gained on constant patrol was of great assistance. By 9 p.m. their task was completed, and 500 men of 2nd Otago were filing out on to the job, shovel in hand. Working with great energy and under splendid control, they had finished the new line and left for camp again by 3 a.m. without casualty. On the following evening this new line was connected with the old front line and drained into the Steenebeek, and subsequent operations saw it finally completed with travel and support trenches in rear. By the actual day of assault, the front area was supplied with successive lines of assembly trenches sufficient for all requirements.

On the 15th April, the sappers of the 1st and 2nd Field Companies and half of the 3rd Company moved into huts among the trees at Red Lodge corner. These billets were much nearer to the scene of the works now in hand, and were pleasantly situated on the outskirts of the Wood, which had not yet lost all the attractions formerly surrounding the hunting box of the Belgian King. About the end of the month, consequent upon a temporary withdrawal of the 25th Division, the 2nd Field Company was ordered to relieve the 106th Company R.E., and took up new quarters between Neuve Eglise page 126and Dranoutre, working on the immediate left of their previous sub-sector at Wulverghem. The duties here set them were mainly the provision of shell-proof dugouts for the Headquarters personnel of the batteries detailed for that sector of the coming offensive. These shelters were located in various localities from the open fields to the cellars of occupied farmhouses. It was here that one conscientious officer, on proposing to erect structures in a certain barn, was invited by the daughter of the manor to delay his operations "but five days" for the sake of a speckled hen who had selected the same barn as a suitable place in which to hatch a brood. Monsieur waited, nor did the speckled hen fail in her appointed mission, but all to no purpose. A German battery wiped out the whole farm three days before the grand attack. Such are the uncertainties of war!

On 10th May the 2nd Company returned to Red Lodge and resumed its former activities on the left of the Divisional sector. During its absence, its sector of the Divisional front area had been run by the 1st Field Company.

An adequate supply of water both during and after the offensive was a further objective of Engineering activities. Existing sources of supply were four in number. Two pipe lines came from back areas, where they were fed by existing lakes, catchments on Kemmel and neighbouring hills, and even from sterilising barges on the Lys. Another line led from a deep bore on Hill 63, and shallow wells throughout the area contributed the fourth quota. The three pipe lines were continued forward to the farthest limit of safety, and just in rear of the actual trench area four extra water points holding 4000 gallons each were constructed. Each of these consisted of large square tanks brought up in sections, and put together on a stout stand high enough from the ground to enable a passing file of men to use the tap in turn without delay. The main water pipe was tapped, and a line of pipe run underground as far as the tank stand, where a vertical supply pipe fitted with controlling mechanism led the water finally into the tank. No direct hit was required to damage this type of structure, any shell splinter or shrapnel bullet was sufficient to destroy its utility. To ensure safety as far as possible, the sites were carefully selected, and the finished article was heavily fortified with sandbagged walls and top, which were then camouflaged to nullify or minimise the shadow always thrown by such an erection on an aeroplane photograph. Local reserves of water, in large barrels or in petrol tins, were formed in the trench area, some as far forward as the support line. One trench tramway truck, fitted with 20-gallon tanks, was allotted page 127to each Brigade for general water supply purposes. Large numbers of wooden troughs were also provided in all transport concentration areas.

One regimental officer, on inspecting the proposed assembly position of his battalion, some days before the attack, decided that he was about to be overlooked as regards water, and sent down a special party to the nearest Field Company Headquarters with a special request that he should be allowed four barrels, and that they should be delivered to his own messengers forthwith. The barrels destined for his particular area had not at the moment come to hand, but his men were ultimately supplied with four barrels. A barrel is not a convenient article to: carry far, especially in crowded saps, and his enterprising party finally solved its problem by knocking out the ends of the offending articles, and carrying them up slung on poles. The commotion caused by their arrival is beyond the scope of this story.

Side by side with this amazing welter of preparation in the trench areas went a steady increase in all classes of British artillery. Night after night long lines of weary gun teams rumbled through the rear villages, day after day another obscure hedgerow of leafy copse was found bristling with the sinister black muzzles. Not all were able to find suitable natural cover. The open fields behind Hill 63 were dotted everywhere with the parti-coloured erections of netting, scrim or hessian which concealed additional batteries from enemy aeroplanes, while ammunition dumps of varying size were all over the countryside, and were frequently struck by enemy shells, despite all attempts at camouflage.

The process of camouflage is another of the numerous devices called into existence by the Great War, at first in a crude form, but later developed into a highly complicated organisation strictly based on the scientific properties of light and shade. The primary object of it is not concealment from view in the ordinary sense, but concealment of the fact that something is being hidden; in other words, deception.

The principal risk of detection run by any gun or other position of importance was from the air, but the chief opponent to be overcome was not the enemy aviator; the expert who interpreted the meaning of his photographic records was far more dangerous. Every variation of colour, texture, or shape in a natural landscape is recorded on a photograph in terms of light and shade as a pattern of black and white intermingling in varying intensities of grey. These patterns run from the simple monotones of regular unbroken fields, to the highly complex variations produced by ruined villages, page 128shelled areas, or devastated woods, and variations in colour are much less marked than variations of texture. Long standing grass shows dark on account of the shadow thrown by each erect blade; the same grass pressed down throws less shadow and consequently appears lighter. This explains the ease with which slight tracks can be detected on a photograph, which are almost invisible on the ground. Earth contains little texture, especially if long exposed, and never shows even dark on a photograph. The basis of successful camouflage therefore is to regard any position from the point of view of the pattern it will present on a photograph, and then to select cover that will reproduce a similar pattern, or one that will combine inconspicuously with the original.

The more usual clues by which positions were betrayed to the enemy were disturbed soil, tracks, shadows, blast marks of guns, and regularity of constructional design.

Disturbed soil, especially among vegetation, would obviously show a distinct photographic tone. Tracks in the open were impossible to conceal, since any covering substance opaque enough to hide them would itself throw a dense and conspicuous shadow. The only remedy lay in keeping all tracks along hedges or beneath trees where natural cover was easily augmented, or by disguising the real destination of "open" tracks by the provision of additional conspicuous "dummy" tracks. Shadows were a prolific source of betrayal. A mound-shaped camouflage on a flat surface, for example, might be perfect concealment at midday, but if of any opacity would be certain to throw a tell-tale shadow as evening drew on. However the fact that shadows must always throw in the same direction was some help in devising means to overcome their dangerous tendencies. Advantage might be taken of some definite existing shadow, or cover could be erected that would throw a shadow so irregular and fantastic as not to be thought the result of human agency, or else an attempt could be made to eliminate shadow altogether. This was best attained by using a flat cover with no sides, the centre of sufficient capacity to conceal material or spoil, while towards the edges the opacity diminished sufficiently to blur the shadow east by the opaque centre without being of sufficient intensity to cast a definite shadow itself. Further, the increasing transparency towards the edges allowed the camouflage to blend gradually with the ground showing through it.

Sagging of any portion of the cover would at once have thrown a distinctive shadow and had to be carefully guarded against. Blast marks could only be attended to by the gunners themselves, by using removable camouflage or by firing page break
Lieut Colonel H.L. Bingay, D.S.O

Lieut Colonel H.L. Bingay, D.S.O

page 129 over distorted fixed shapes of expanded metal, which would disguise the blast marks on the ground beneath. Any aspect of regularity of design was to be avoided, since regularity in nature is unknown. Straight lines or rectangular shapes required distortion, and this principle of irregular shape was also applied to the opaque centres of the flat covers already mentioned. Regular spacing in the position of guns was likewise to be avoided; unusual marking on a photograph might escape notice once, but could hardly hope to do so if repeated several times at regular intervals.

Before proceeding to camouflage positions of importance, great assistance was often gained from inspection of a photograph taken by our own aircraft. With this knowledge of the appearance of the selected spot from the air, facilities for concealment were more easily determined, and the requisite character of camouflage selected. Though special circumstances could be catered for by the Corps Camouflage officers, given reasonable time for manufacture at the special factories, the usual material on issue was composed of fish netting, wire netting, or sheets of scrim, more or less garnished with raffia, painted canvas knots, or islands of painted, variegated, or plain scrim, made up in different sized squares and rolls. Additions and alterations were easily made on the site by the aid of grass or boughs and so on, and it was generally understood that the material issued was not suited to every locality, but was the basis from which could be completed the type of cover suitable to the particular needs of the individual position.

Many varying devices were adopted by different operators, and doubtless many more might have been thought of. A note or two on the particular systems usually adopted in specific cases will round off the foregoing general description of principles. Railway guns were easily disguised as ordinary railway trucks. One 12-inch howitzer spent many useful months masquerading as a dump of R.E. material. A scheme often adopted to cover an important position in open fields, always a difficult problem, was to create a large structure of very regular shape in strict uniformity with adjacent strips of cultivation, and throwing no shadow. This entailed considerable material and labour, but the result showed merely as an alteration in the landscape due to some normal agricultural operation. Blast marks on snow were covered up with fresh snow, or crushed chalk, and occasionally a sloping platform was placed under the muzzle to deflect the blast off the ground. Artificial camouflage would not hold snow, each page 130erection showing up as a dark square, necessitating the use of large islands of white calico.

Actual guns were always painted in green, cream, and brown, with a strong line of black between each colour, on the principle that while frequent changes of position made it impossible to harmonise exactly with the varying surroundings each time, one or more of the adopted colours would blend with any landscape, leaving the visible remainder in a broken series of patches effectually disguising the form of the gun.

Long trenches were impossible to conceal effectually for any time, though short lengths could be well treated with painted scrim. Camps likewise could not be hidden, though hut surfaces could be treated to minimise moonlight reflection. Dummy trenches or other works painted on canvas failed under expert investigation, since the painted shadows would not move with the sun. A good deal of quite effective camouflage was effected by local garrisons or machine-gun teams without special material at all, using grass, sods, boughs, and derelict rubbish of the battlefield.

A great number of gun positions were prepared by the Engineers, mainly the 3rd Company. Shallow pits about two feet deep were dug for each gun, covered with a type of arched iron shelter known as "large elephant." These "large elephants" were similar in size and shape to the English pattern iron shelters already mentioned, but were of much stronger design. Covered with packed sandbags all round the arch, and protected by sandbag walls in front, they furnished the gunners with comparatively good shelter. Gradually, as battery after battery came into position and began to register, the weight of metal on the enemy position increased, though never at any time was indication given of the full strength of our impending blow. However, quite a sufficient demonstration was made to arouse Fritz's antagonism, and though he paid no special attention to our front line area, an increasing activity was brought to bear on all rear areas where villages, dumps, transport lines and battery positions afforded an increasing variety of targets.

On the night of 6th May he opened up a particularly heavy bombardment, during which many casualties were caused, especially in the village of Neuve Eglise. On the western edge of Ploegsteert Wood near Red Lodge the 1st Field Company experienced a full share of the vicissitudes of the night. Five of their huts were fired by a direct hit, and the resulting casualties were intensified by the flames page 131which immediately enveloped the flimsy tinderbox structures. Most of the Company records were burnt. For weeks the comparative immunity from German shell fire of Ploegsteert Wood behind Hill 63 had been a source of wonder and satisfaction to those most concerned. Thousands of men were packed among the trees, and scarce one with any cover that a shotgun could hot have destroyed. Now apparently conditions were to alter, and immediate steps were taken to provide increased protection. The few dugouts already in existence were strengthened by a liberal use of forest timber and sandbags, new ones were built where the configuration of the hill afforded most protection, and in particular several tunnels provided with alternative exits were driven far into the hillside.

But no such protection was possible for the occupants of the crowded horse lines further back. The 2nd Field Companies in particular, whose transport was located just below Neuve Eglise on the road to De Seule, suffered severe casualties during the bombardment of May 6th. No less than 20 horses were either killed or wounded, and of the drivers, all of whom stuck gallantly to their charges during the shelling, eight were severely wounded. On the 7th all horses and transport personnel were removed to fresh positions near the Nieppe-Bailleul road, where they escaped further molestation.

In order to provide a small permanent body of labour, always available when required, a carrying and working party of 1 officer and 100 infantrymen was attached to each Field Company on the 18th May. This arrangement was continued right through to the completion of the Messines operation and worked exceedingly well. Its permanent adoption would seem to be the solution of some aspects of a troublesome question.

Officially speaking, each sapper is a trained man in some particular trade, and his time is being wasted whenever he is not supplied with adequate labour to carry out his job. On the other hand, it is a source of annoyance to infantry units to be constantly called upon for all kinds of working parties, and the men themselves, classing a job they will probably never see again as simply one more fatigue of no particular moment, are not likely to put forth any very enthusiastic efforts unless tempted by a set "task" to get work finished quickly and get away again. And the "task" was seldom looked upon favourably by the authorities except in special cases. The permanent man does twice the work, because he sees enough of what is in hand to take an interest in it. No one would claim that every individual sapper was actually a highly page 132trained man whose time was of great value. But he should have been, and the system of working had to be arranged on the basis that he was. Whether engaged in defensive or offensive operations, a Field Company must have labour, and the provision of even the small permanent nucleus mentioned was a decided step in the right direction.

On the 19th May, the 3rd Company took over the works of the 1st Company, which forthwith became Company in reserve, and by the end of the month moved out into fresh billets at De Seule. At the same time all Engineer transport was concentrated in the area just south-east of Steenwerck. On the 20th, in anticipation of the exigencies of the supply situation on the days immediately preceding and following zero hour, the Divisional Pack Transport Unit was formed. All pack-horses and attendant personnel of the three Field Companies forthwith became part of this force.

About the same time two Field Company dumps were established, one in each sector, adjacent to the tramways, at Boyle's Farm and Gooseberry Farm. These were stocked with a view to operations after the attack only, and pending that event their supplies were rigorously conserved. No battalion dumps were established and no necessity for them arose. A multiplicity of scattered dumps is no advantage. All cannot be kept stocked, and troops finding one dump exhausted do not know where to look for another. Attacking troops were fully equipped with tools and sandbags before their final parade in battle kit.

On the night of 22nd May, four sappers of the 3rd Company accompanied a raiding party of 2nd Rifles to enemy territory near La Petite Douve Farm. The German trenches were found in a very poor condition with dugouts damaged and blocked up with debris. Further demolition appeared unnecessary and was not attempted.

By the end of May the 4th Infantry Brigade, recruited from surplus reinforcements in the camps in England, made its appearance in France, and after inspection by General Godley at Bailleul became part of the New Zealand Division. With the new Brigade came the 4th Field Company under the command of Major Skelsey. About the end of March arrangements had been made by the C.R.E. with a view to an exchange of officers and N.C.O.'s from the Field Companies with those in the Reserve Depot in England, to take effect every two months. Men with long service in the trenches would thus obtain some short respite from the daily round of shelling, and their experiences would assist in the training of page 133the men in the Depot. On the other hand, reinforcement N.C.O.'s would gain valuable experience of trench warfare before being called upon to assume full responsibility in the field. Accordingly, on 21st March two officers and eight N.C.O.'s from the Field Companies had been sent over to England, a like number arriving from base to take their places.

One of the last tasks assigned to the Engineers was the provision of bridges across the Douve capable of supporting tanks. Search along the banks revealed the existence of the remains of old cart-road bridges and culverts in several places, the brick abutments of which were still usable, and with the aid of steel girders and heavy decking, four bridges, which safely fulfilled their purpose later, were erected by the 1st and 3rd Companies.

By the beginning of June, all major preparations were complete, and a few days were available for the perfecting of minor details. On the 2nd, 50 reinforcements arrived from base and were allocated to the various companies.

On the afternoon of 5th June, eight sappers from 1st Field Company, armed with 201b charges of guncotton, accompanied a raid on La Petite Douve Farm, where three heavily fortified concrete dugouts had been found to exist. Two were destroyed, but the charge laid on the third failed to explode, and was recovered on the 8th. Sapper H. J. Tuck was conspicuous in this operation, laying his charge and waiting till the whole of the raiding party was clear before firing it, though subject to both machine-gun and shrapnel fire all the time. He would probably have won the Military Medal had not delay been caused in presenting his case owing to the wounding of the infantry officer in charge of the raid.

For a week or more before the attack, the enemy deluged Hill 63 every night with gas shells, and though the Field Companies suffered few casualties, the constant alarms of the gas sentries, combined with the continual disturbance caused by the gunners, both friend and foe, made it extremely difficult to obtain any proper sleep. The evening of 6th June was cool and sweet after a sharp thunderstorm. Special parties of sappers were on duty all night patrolling the communication saps, ready to remove any obstacle to the free passage of the incoming assault battalions. By every available route across the dark countryside, these now came marching up from the concentration areas to take post in their assembly trenches. At 3.10 a.m. on a dark, misty morning the famous mines were blown simultaneously.

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"The inception of a deep mining offensive on the Second Army front dated from July, 1915, but the proposal to conduct offensive mining on a grand scale was not definitely adopted till January, 1916. From that date onwards, as the necessary labour became available, deep mining for offensive purposes gradually developed, in spite of great difficulties from water-bearing strata and active counter-mining by the enemy. In all, 24 mines were constructed, four of which were outside the front ultimately selected for our offensive, while one other was lost as the result of a mine blown up by the enemy. Many of these mines had been completed for 12 months prior to our offensive, and constant and anxious work was needed to ensure their safety. The enemy also had a deep mining system, and was aware of his danger."

Comparatively little sound was caused by the explosions, but, before the red flash had faded from the sky, the thundering roar of the British artillery rent the heavens with a deafening crash. The great assault was launched.

The initial task of the Engineers was to be the usual construction of Strong Points in positions selected beforehand to accord with the possible variations of fortune on the morning of attack. The various objectives were known as usual as Blue, Brown, Yellow, Black and Green Lines. The Black Line, well in front of Messines Village, was to be the limit of the New Zealand effort, the capture of the Green Line farther on being assigned to the 4th Australians. Within an hour prisoners commenced to flow back. In a shade over two hours the final New Zealand objective was won. The 2nd and 3rd Field Companies thereupon moved up to the positions selected for the construction of Strong Points in support of the Black Line, viz., abreast and in front of Messines Village. The infantry was found well dug in, and any movement on the surface drew German fire at once. In most cases it was inexpedient to commence work on the Strong Points till the middle of the afternoon. By late evening four were completed and occupied by the neighbouring garrisons. The remaining four were completed on the following evening, and all those likely to avoid direct observation were wired. These works were small, to contain a platoon and two machine-guns each, and were placed to give flanking fire and mutual support in case of successful counter-attack. During the progress of this consolidation work, enemy shelling was heavy and continuous.; Outstanding examples of determined courage and devotion to duty were shown by numerous Engineers, notably Sergeant H. E. Fricker, Corporal D. A. Kennedy, Lance-Corporal A. P. Mackie, and Sapper J. Tindall of the 3rd Company, and Lance-page 135Corporal M. G. Easton of the 2nd Company. Each of these men had set a high standard of soldierly conduct under fire, and was given an immediate reward of the Military Medal.

Other men conspicuous for their courage and skill while engaged on general consolidation work during the progress of the Messines offensive and after, were Sergeant C. King of the 2nd Field Company, Sapper L. Robinson of the 3rd, and Sergeant A. M. Oliver of the 4th.

Early on the morning of the 7th a small reconnoitring party from the 2nd Field Company went into Messines Village in search of water. All wells were found blown in and filled with rubbish, but the important discovery was made that at least one well was poisoned with arsenic. All water from Messines was accordingly banned. In any case, owing to intensity of German fire, little use could have been made of any water that had been available in the village. Parties were thereupon set to work on shallow wells outside Messines in places where good indications existed. Within two days an estimated daily supply of 10,000 gallons of tested water was available. Corporal J. H. Anderson was awarded the Military Medal for coolness and courage during the exploration of Messines Village.

As soon as our line had cleared Messines Village, the work of constructing new roads and communication trenches went on apace. This work was largely undertaken by the Pioneers, but the 1st Field Company, being in reserve, was called upon to form an urgent track for mule traffic from the head of the tramway at Medicine Hat Trail past the forward dump at Boyle's Farm and on to the Wulverghem-Messines Road. A fair amount of clearing wire and filling in old trenches was necessary, and a bridge across the Steehebeek occupied one party for several hours, but by evening the track was complete and well marked with white stakes. Heavy shelling was experienced during the middle of the day. During the evening of the 7th a heavy sterilizing plant was installed at La Plus Douve Farm for the utilisation of the Douve for water service, and one section from the same Company was fully employed on the 7th and immediately succeeding days in clearing and maintaining all communication trenches for the rapid passage of stretcher bearers. Several urgent lengths of light tramline were laid to new battery positions. In addition, all available transport was utilised to maintain supplies in the dumps at Boyle's Farm and Gooseberry Farm, now meeting a heavy demand from advanced areas.

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The recently constituted 4th Field Company had its first experience as a front-line unit on the evening of the 7th, when it commenced to repair and reconstruct the old road running from Hyde Park Corner across the right flank of Hill 63 and to Messines. Hyde Park Corner was never among the health resorts of the Messines sector, and the new company was well broken in ere sunrise. One section was detailed for preparation of Heavy Artillery positions in Armentieres during this evening, and found that the job offered no attractions other than those being enjoyed by the men on the road. Succeeding days were spent by the whole Company in repairing the Wulverghem-Messines Road.

On the 10th June the sector was handed over to the 4th Australian Division, and the Field Companies, along with the rest of the New Zealand Division, moved out for a brief spell in rear areas. Headquarters moved to Rue de la Gare, Bailleul, 1st Company remained at De Seule, 2nd Company moved to Watts' Lines near De Seule, and 3rd Company to Hillside Camp, Neuve Eglise. Engineer casualties during the attack had fortunately been comparatively light.

The 4th Field Company, having only just entered the arena, was not withdrawn from line with the others, but continued its road-mending activities in front of Wulver-ghem. On the 10th June, one section was despatched to Pont de Nieppe to take over work on the Le Touquet sector, so well and unfavourably known to the other companies in the preceding March. Here it was joined by the remainder of the Company on the 15th. Working sections bivouacked in the region of the support line, Headquarters remaining in Pont de Nieppe.

From all reports of the 4th Company's experiences at Le Touquet, in common with all predecessors, it found the sector in such a frightful condition that evidently little or no work whatever had been done on it for years. The war diary, sweet fountain of truth and accuracy, (all war diaries share these characteristics), shows that when they left the sector at the end of August it had been overhauled and refitted. It is certain that a vast improvement was effected.

The Company included a considerable leavening of "old hands,' and the remainder of the men, who had been condemned to a long stay in England through no fault of their own, were more than keen for work when their opportunity at last arrived. As a mild set-off against the disadvantages of the area, the orchards round Le Bizet were well stocked with fruit, and many of the fields, graced by wild flowers and pop-page 137pies, were further adorned with temporarily forsaken crops of potatoes, peas, and beans. These would have formed a welcome addition to the army rations, had there been no regulations prohibiting their use. Base rumours were current of hoarded sugar rations, and supplies of home-made jam, but such stories lack official confirmation, and need not be repeated here.

On 12th June the Division re-entered the scene of activity, taking over the Ploegsteert sector from the 3rd Australians. C.R.E. Headquarters moved once more to Steenwerek, the first three Field Companies being located at Weka Lines, Romarin; Stuff Camp, Pont de Nieppe; and Nieppe Village respectively. The 2nd Company now exchanged positions with the 1st Company and became Company in reserve, all works in rear areas coming under its charge.

The whole front of this formerly familiar sector now comprised ground recently won from the enemy, and work of every kind was waiting on all sides. Tracks, tramlines, water supply and concentration of stores and material were the most urgent requirements of the situation. At the same time, Engineer personnel was made available for the supervision of large working parties on trenches and communications. Several miles of new track were soon ready for mule traffic, and the former roads of the area were put on something like a working basis. Existing tramlines were extended and large quantities of stores were collected at Prouse Point, Maison 1875, and Divisional dumps further forward. Several wells were discovered in the advanced areas, others were dug and put in working order. From the Douve to the Warnave, two miles each of new front and support lines were traced out and dug, and south of the latter stream the old German line was converted into a new front line, with our former line as a support line behind it.

The main strength of the Company in reserve during the latter half of June was employed on the electric lighting system of the Catacombs on Hill 63, on the water supply system in Ploegsteert Wood, and on a series of Strong Points in the subsidiary line. A splendid well was discovered beneath one of the old buildings in Ploegsteert Village of sufficient depth to justify the rehabilitation of an ancient pumping engine. From this supply pipes were laid right up through the Wood to the large storage tanks at Can-Pac Dump, feeding on the way two smaller open tanks used for local needs at the Strand and Regent Street, two well-known communication tracks leading through the Wood to the front line. The weather was very warm, but water was none too plentiful, page 138owing to constant breaks in the line, and to periodic crises arising out of the dilapidated state of the pumping engine. Consequently, when it was found that the Strand tank was empty every morning, a night water-guard was posted. Still the supply was extraordinarily low in the morning. Some time elapsed before it was discovered that an old sap near the tank afforded cover to thirsty marauders with a perverted sense of right and wrong and a length of stolen hose, with which they took turns at siphoning the water out of the tank into dixies in the sap below. All pipes were laid on the surface as it was found that burying them did not afford sufficient added security to compensate for the time lost in locating and mending a break when one occurred. Patrols were maintained on the line night and day, and found the work sufficiently arduous, especially as the Germans kept the famous Wood in a constant reek of phosgene and mustard gas. The mustard gas, now encountered for the first time, had an unmistakable odour of wet mustard and was particularly pungent. Patrols mending breaks in the pipe line caused by mustard gas shells found that the water which collected in the small shell hole beneath each break was sufficiently impregnated with the mustard to cause swelling and blisters to appear on the arms some hours later. Sapper T. Drummond, of the 2nd Company, was indefatigable in his efforts to maintain the pipe lines, working all hours frequently under shell fire, and it was largely due to his exertions that the supply of water was so well maintained.

On 28th and 29th June the Division was again relieved by the 4th Australians. The short tour in the line had been more than usually trying. A constant series of minor attacks had been carried out nightly by all battalions in line with a view to improving and rounding off the splendid victory gained on the 7th. These had kept the enemy in a constant state of irritated uncertainty, and his shelling had been heavy and continuous in consequence, while shelter and means of communication were very far from adequate.

C.R.E.'s Headquarters were now removed to Vieux Berquin. By the end of the month, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Companies were located in rest billets in pleasant farm buildings round about Doulieu. The 4th Company still remained in line with the 4th Brigade, under the tactical command of the Australians.

The endurance and determined fighting spirit shown by the New Zealand infantry throughout the whole of the great enterprise just concluded were beyond all praise. Once again page 139all ranks in the Division had very special reason to feel proud of those among them on whose devoted shoulders the main burden of the day fell with the greatest weight and frequency. Along with whole-hearted admiration of the powers of their fighting comrades, the Engineering units felt a quiet glow of satisfaction in the undeniable fact that all their weeks of. special preparations had materially lightened the final task of their own Division, and assisted in a glorious triumph of the British arms.

No facts are strained by a plain statement that the men of the Field Companies were always conscious of a feeling of keen disappointment that, in the hour of the final call, the technical nature of their job forced them to remain in at least comparative security, while the men beside whom they had worked for weeks for a common object went forward to the death-grip alone. In the Army every man's opportunity comes in good time, but when one is young and fit, the red blood runs fast, and it takes more than a grain of philosophy to realise the truth that "they also serve who only stand and wait."

Well quartered, and favoured by beautiful summer weather, the Companies settled down to enjoy their brief spell of rest and quietness. Leave was plentiful, parades were few and short. On the first Sunday, a massed church parade was held, one of the very few occasions on which all three companies were on parade together in the presence of the C.R.E.

The 2nd Field Company at this stage had a unique opportunity of extending its war experience. In company with the Rifle Brigade and the Pioneer Battalion it was ordered to the Woesten area in Belgium, there to assist the 1st French Army in. the construction of gun pits and roads and other measures incidental to its co-operation with the British attack about to develop. In that peaceful sector, the preparations for the impending offensive were the only visible signs of war. No shelling marred the green expanse of the smiling fields, no shattered trees and broken roads dispelled the mid-summer charms of the ripening countryside.

Work was conducted in two shifts on the task system, and went on swiftly with practically no interruption. The French soldier, as we saw him there, loves to linger at his toil. With frequent pauses for a yarn and a smoke, he jogs along contentedly till the evening meal about 3.30 p.m. calls him to rest from his labours. The mental attitude of the New Zealander, stripped to the waist, grimly intent on cutting out his job in the shortest possible time in order to get back to page 140camp to the enjoyment of his own devices, filled our Allies with audible amazement. Admiring poilus thronged each gun-pit, and but for the fearful imprecations of their own sergeants would have made that pastime the business of the day. Two official meals, the first about 9 a.m., are the rule of the French Army. Breakfast consists mainly of brown bread and coffee, and by contrast with the hearty rations of the Britishers, the general fare seemed both hard and scanty. A standing joke of the lesser French comic papers hinged on their assertion that the British Army would greatly increase its successes if it could be induced to move even half a day in advance of its ration supplies.

The French Army treated the New Zealanders as honoured guests, entertaining them with band concerts and supplying a daily issue of wine, while the proximity of the camps and the long summer days gave every opportunity for individual personal contact between the soldiers of the respective armies. Several New Zealand reputations for linguistic ability went utterly by the board or were badly shaken during these encounters. "I say, Jack!" one Rifleman was overheard to remark, "I thought Bill could do a bit at this Francais." "Well, he can, can't he?" replied Jack. "Damned if I know," continued the former speaker. "He tried to get the time from one of 'em this morning, and the old — gave him a match!" Obviously these good times could not last, and by the 14th July, the French National Fete day, the works were complete. In an atmosphere of general festivity, somewhat heightened by a free issue of champagne, cigars, and extra wine, the working parties prepared to return to their own Division. By midnight they were on the march in pouring rain sustained by the happiest recollections of their short experience of their gallant allies. On the 16th, the 2nd Field Company returned to the billets they had recently vacated near Doulieu.

Both going to Woesten and returning, the Company passed close beneath the foot of the hill, Mont des Cats, crowned by the Trappist monastery whose spires had been visible alike from Hill 63 in front of Messines, and from the country round Fleurbaix. The hill-top was additionally interesting as the spot where the German Prince Max of Hesse was killed by the British cavalry patrols early in the war. Several monks were still in residence, marching to work in the fields every day several paces apart, since one of their vows is silence. Two only among them hold converse with outsiders, the Abbot and the Sacristan—called by the Tommies in garrison the O.C. and the Quartermaster. If the Abbey's vocal efforts had de-page 141pended on the Quartermaster alone, it had still been fairly well represented. The hill and adjacent ridges are said to have harboured certain of the wilder tribes that troubled Caesar long ago; certainly the site of one of his main camps was at Cassel, some 10 miles to the westward, from whose church spire the radiating lines of the old Roman roads can be seen to this day.

During the absence of the 2nd Field Company the 1st and 3rd Companies, with Headquarters, had leavened a little training with a good deal of sport and amusement. On the 4th July, in preparation for the Divisional gymkana which followed on the 8th, they held a very successful sports meeting of their own. The rival claims of would-be representatives were tried out, and not a few of the many aspirants found themselves a trifle "short of a gallop." However, those selected for the more important contests on the 8th did very well, and many sappers' names figured in the prize lists.

On the 18th July the Division moved back into the line again, re-occupying its old position in the Ploegsteert sector. The Engineers were disposed as follows:—C.R.E. at Steen-werck, 1st Company to Weka Lines taking over the left sector, 2nd Company to Watts' Lines in reserve, 3rd to Watts' Lines taking over the centre sector, while the 4th Company remained on the right sector. The commencement of the long-delayed attack in the Ypres salient was now rapidly approaching. In other sectors, a series of feints was continued, particularly from Lens, threatening Lille from the south, not with any vain hope of deceiving the enemy as to our ultimate intentions in Flanders, but to dissipate his reserves and artillery over as large a front as possible.

To the New Zealanders on the extreme right flank of the Second Army was allotted the task of a demonstration against the Warneton Line. An advance here, in addition to threatening a passage of the Lys, with possibilities of enveloping Lille in the background, would effectively secure the right flank of our major operation. The centre-piece of the New Zealand enterprise was the capture and retention of the village of La Basseville. To further the illusion with regard to our crossing of the Lys, a series of dummy assembly trenches was dug on the bank of the river with conspicuous guiding tapes leading back toward our lines. Generally speaking, work in the forward areas was along routine lines. In pursuance of the policy so successfully employed at Messines, both 1st and 3rd Companies were supplied with 100 attached infantry to enable them to handle urgent calls with adequate despatch and efficiency. On the evening of the 29th page 142July two sappers from 1st Company accompanied a raid with the intention of demolishing some troublesome M.G. emplacements, but the party failed to reach its objective. At dawn on the 31st July the roar of the guns to the northward told of the commencement of the attack at Ypres. At the same time the New Zealanders attacked La Basseville, and established themselves firmly beyond the village.

On 1st August, 3rd Field Company assumed charge of a large portion of the left sector from the 1st Company, which forthwith moved northward and took over the sector immediately beyond the Douve from the 9th, 10th, and 11th Field Companies of the 5th Australians. Heavy German shelling marked the continuance of our minor operations beyond La Basseville, and a new C.T. was dug from the top entrance of the Catacombs in Hill 63 to St. Yves. By the 6th, our offensive posts had been advanced as far as seemed necessary for the moment, and new permanent systems of front and support lines were put in hand. Continued bad weather and the low-lying nature of the country made this work a wet and dirty job, especially as material was extremely difficult to bring up over the broken country. A special salvage party, and the use of abandoned German stores went some way towards assisting the difficulty. Both heavy and light lines of railway were now up as far as La Petite Douve Farm, our original front line, but advanced tramways were only in course of construction. For a considerable period all trenches and communications were simply ditches knee deep in mud, and except under exceptional circumstances travellers preferred to risk their luck and take to the open. North of the Douve conditions were especially bad, with no defined lines whatever, and the 1st Company was not sorry to see the last of this area on the 23rd, when 4th Australians took over the pleasant task of converting it into a habitable locality.

During the whole of this period German shelling was continuous and very severe. Sergeant John McKay, of the 1st Field Company, whose fine work at Messines had brought him under official notice, was again conspicuous for his energy and courage under fire. Corporal A. H. Loke and 2nd Corporal S. Forsyth of the 3rd Field Company, both of whom were Gallipoli men, also added to their records of devoted service during these operations.

Rear areas were in no better case than the front line. For a comparatively inactive front it is doubtful whether the Boche at any time bestowed more attention on our back villages and camps than he did during the month of August. Continuous shelling by day gave place to the ominous drone page 143of his bombing planes by night, and the sharp crash of his heavy bombs was heard every evening over an increasing radius of unpleasantness. So active did he finally become that all iron-roofed huts in the Divisional area were given a coat of tar, and sprinkled with sand. Without some such arrangement, dew or rain, especially on moonlit nights, furnished a glistening beacon for the enterprising bombers. The Divisional baths at Pont de Nieppe were a favourite target with the German gunners, and after numerous attempts at repairs, during one of which a valuable N.C.O. of the 2nd Company fell into a huge vat of dirty water coincident with the arrival of a big shell, new baths were erected on a smaller scale at Papot, Pont d'Achelles, Kortepyp, and Romarin. Laundries were also renewed at this stage.

On relief north of the Douve, the 1st Field Company moved out to La Motte for a few days, and finally went on to Wizernes, whence it was transported in motor lorries to Bainghem le Comte, in the Aa Valley west of Lumbres. There it was joined by its transport, which arrived by road via Wallon Cappel. On the 29th, 3rd Field Company sappers reached Wizernes and went on to Longueville, where they also were joined by their transport via Arques. C.R.E. with Headquarters had handed over to 8th Division on the 27th and removed to Caestre. By the 30th he had arrived at Colembert. On 2nd September the 4th Company had also arrived in the Lumbres area at Alincthun.

Here, along with the rest of the Division, the Field Companies enjoyed some weeks of comparative rest. Training was carried out along the usual lines, varied by occasional jobs required about the training area. Several ordinary huts and baths were given to the 3rd and 4th Companies; to the 1st Company, probably in recognition of its long service and experience in delicate situations, fell the onerous task of repairing and enlarging the W.A.A.C.'s camp at Wisques. No details are now available, but it is understood that the job was carried through with satisfaction to all concerned. A further opportunity of extending its circle of acquaintances was allowed this Company a few days later, when the necessary labour for constructing a rifle range was provided by a Chinese Labour Corps. The 3rd and 4th Companies also figured in reviews held on 10th and 14th, the latter a Divisional review by the Commander-in-Chief at Harlettes.

On the 11th the Divisional Horse Show was held to decide on New Zealand's Divisional representatives for the forthcoming Corps Show. Captain Annabell's charger "Leo," which had won 1st prize at the previous Divisional Horse page 144 Show, was again too good for its opponents and secured two first prizes one for "Best charger in the New Zealand Division." Later on, it was successful in further competitions. This horse was originally sent from New Zealand with the Field Troop attached to the Main Body, and remained with the Engineers till the date of demobilisation in Germany.

The 2nd Company had moved out to Pradelles on the 30th August and by 4th September was settled at Morbecque with its transport on the work of converting the II Anzac Corps School into a New Zealand Reinforcement Camp. The work was mostly a good clean building job with good weather and plenty of material to ease the strain. An interesting feature of the work here was the erection of 40 Nissen Bow huts, which, though quite familiar and largely used in all rear areas, had not so far come under the hands of the Company. The Nissen hut, so called from the name of the Canadian officer who designed it, was distinctly one of the discoveries of the war. The never satisfied demand for shelter was a constant problem on every portion of the front, and this hut, with its simplicity of construction, lightness and portability, met the needs of the situation with marked success. All material used was prepared at the Base and sent forward in standard bundles, sufficient for 1 hut or 20. The flooring, of light 1-inch boarding, was supplied in made-up segments which only required fitting together on the supporting joists. The sides and roof were composed of corrugated iron sheets, forming an arch, much after the style of the English pattern iron used for front area shelters, and bolted together on the same principle. The ends, complete with windows and door, were likewise supplied in prepared sections, which could be erected in a few minutes. Stoves, shelves, bunks or tables could be added as desired, but without any accessories the hut could supply 40 men with a dry place to sleep in, and as such was a welcome institution in any area. In crowded camps some small measure of protection against bomb splinters was afforded by the erection of encircling banks of earth; against anything in the nature of a direct hit, of course, the cover provided by the huts was of no more use than brown paper.

Football matches at Morbecque were of daily occurrence, and inter-sectional rivalry was keen. On Sundays a Company team was wont to scour the countryside for fresh scalps, and scored many a glorious victory.

On July 27th Lieutenant-Colonel Pridham, D.S.O., R.E.. had relinquished command of the New Zealand Engineers, and page break
The Ypres Cloth Hall Before The Great War.Photo lent by Major N. Annabell

The Ypres Cloth Hall Before The Great War.
Photo lent by Major N. Annabell

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The Ypres Cloth Hall after nearly Two Years Bombardment by the Enemy.Photo lent by Major N. Annabell

The Ypres Cloth Hall after nearly Two Years Bombardment by the Enemy.
Photo lent by Major N. Annabell

page 145 under instruction from a Medical Board, had left for England to take a few weeks very necessary rest. From the formation of the 1st Field Company in Egypt right through the stern days of the Peninsula, and for 15 months in France, he had occupied the position of C.R.E. to the New Zealand Division, and as such had been Officer Commanding New Zealand Engineers. A man of ripe experience in his chosen profession, and highly trained in the best traditions of the British Regular Army, he was a source of inestimable benefit to the force of raw civilian soldiers fortuitously thrown under his hand. Possessed of a naturally simple and sincere disposition, with plenty of quiet force and none of the frill and bluff so objectionable to the colonial mind, he had a knowledge of men and affairs that enabled him to handle his unfamiliar command with a sure touch. No man was ever heard to question the wisdom or justice of "the Colonel's" decisions. An English gentleman and a pukka soldier, Colonel Pridham has no need of further enconium from us. Of our constant regard we like to feel he was sufficiently assured long since. His place was taken by Lieutenant-Colonel H. L. Bingay.