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

Introductory — Field Companies

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Field Companies

Though the complete establishment of New Zealand Divisional troops included several units quite entitled to come under the heading "New Zealand Engineers," and some of which wore both the N.Z.E. badge and the distinctive blue and Khaki puggaree, yet the use of the term "Engineers" at the front generally referred to the personnel of the New Zealand Field Companies or Field Troop, and it is with the fortunes of these Units that the word is used throughout this story.

According to R.E. regulations a Field Company consists of five sections: Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, actually engaged in field work, and a headquarters' section concerned with the duties of organisation and supply. The whole company of 210 men is commanded by a Major, with a Captain as second in command, whose especial duty is the control of headquarters. A subaltern is in charge of each of the four field sections. In practice, the drivers from each section are almost invariably combined into one transport section, commanded by the Captain or by an officer supernumerary to the given establishment.

The number of Field Companies normally attached to a Division is three, all under the control of an Engineer Colonel or Lt.-Colonel, whose official designation is C.R.E. (Officer Commanding Royal Engineers) to the Division, and who is assisted by an Adjutant and a small Headquarters' staff. In addition to supervision of all Divisional Engineers, the C.R.E. acts as the technical adviser of the G.O.C. Division and his Staff in all matters concerned with engineering activities, and is therefore in such constant touch with Divisional Headquarters that he is practically acting as a member of the Staff. In warfare such as has recently been experienced, where the armies were almost stationary for years, there was ample scope for the constant employment of every resource known to engineering skill, and though many of the highly scientific branches of modern military engineering Were conducted by specialised Units created for the purpose, the post of a Divisional C.R.E. remained an extremely onerous and exacting charge.

In a defensive sector he had to decide upon the best and quickest means of translating the Divisional policy into terms of trenches, posts and entanglements and so on, with all the minor modifications entailed by questions of time, material and labour available; when an attack was pending, he was called page breakupon to exercise the same judgment in the numberless problems of preparation; while the attack was going on and after its completion, the questions of onsolidation, new communication tracks and trenches, roads, bridges and tramways, water supply, dugout accommodation, aid posts and dressing stations, organisation of main sources of supply and establishment of forward dumps of material, reconnaissance of captured areas, utilisation of local resources and a dozen other contingencies impossible to foresee, had all to be dealt with in the office of the C.R.E.

Throughout the story continual references are made to works as undertaken or performed by the Field Companies which it is quite obvious could not actually have been handled unaided by the limited number of sappers in the field on any occasion. It has generally been expressed, and always understood, that the Engineers had the assistance of working parties drawn from the Infantry battalions; in any case it may be gladly emphasised here that the Engineers were indebted to the willing labour of the Infantry for a great part of any success which attended their efforts, and fully recognised that the fighting men of the Division were as handy with a shovel as they were irresistible with a bayonet.

It became more and more apparent as the war dragged on, that the establishment of three Field Companies allowed to a C.R.E. as outlined above, was quite inadequate for the efficient handling of the work entailed by his position. Divisional Pioneers, though often placed under the control of the C.R.E., were liable to be called away at any moment, with the result that for works of any extensive nature calls had to be made upon the Infantry battalions for working parties. This invariably led to delays and to a certain amount of misunderstanding. The average soldier who had just been through severe fighting, or was expecting to be called on in a few hours to take his place in the firing line, showed a pardonable lack of interest in many of the tasks he was called upon to perform.

Some recognition of this state of affairs was allowed in France by the general plan of making brigades in lines responsible for a definite programme of work laid down by the Division in their own advanced areas, with skilled labour available from the Field Companies only in such amount as the nature of the work demanded. But the approximate conclusion reached by most of the Divisional C.R.E.'s long before the end of hostilities was that the three Field Companies allowed should be expanded to include 350 men each, making a Battalion of Engineers, and that a Divisional Pioneer Battalion consisting of three Companies of 300 men each should come page breakunder the definite command of the C.R.E. With a Pioneer Company attached, the officers and N.C.O.'s of which would be trained as Engineers, and whose channel of promotion would be through the Field Companies, each Field Company would have sufficient labour to handle most of its jobs with speed and certainty, with a fair reserve of men available for supervision and control of work undertaken by. infantry working parties under their own officers.

This arrangement, had it been carried out in the late war, would possibly not have appealed to the New Zealand Divisional Pioneers, whose ranks included many officers and men of a high standard of engineering skill and training, and who, from the nature of their case, were the happy possessors of a keen spirit of esprit-de-corps, but as an indication of the general conclusions reached after much experience, it may hope to receive further consideration in the future. As a matter of fact several Engineer N.C.O.s had already been appointed to commissions in the Pioneer Battalion before the end of hostilities, and had the war continued longer, no doubt the practice would have become general.