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Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918

Reserve or Training Battalion

page 393

Reserve or Training Battalion.

The Reserve or Training Battalion of the Otago Regiment had its inception in Egypt at the beginning of April, 1916, with the establishment at Moascar of Infantry Training Battalions for each Brigade of the New Zealand Division. The function of the training cadres was to absorb all surplus strength and reinforcements, and ensure their efficient training before being drafted to a definite service battalion of the Division. On April 18th, 1916, the Training Battalion of the Otago Regiment moved from Moascar to Tel-el-Kebir. The arrival of the 10th and 11th Reinforcements from New Zealand called for renewed activities on the part of the training staffs; but towards the middle of May the weather became so extraordinarily hot that it was decided to carry out training operations between the hours of 2 a.m. and 8 a.m.

With the departure of the New Zealand Division from Egypt to France, it was decided by Administrative Headquarters that the reception and training camp for troops arriving from New Zealand should be established in England. In accordance with this decision the Training Battalions and their instructional staffs, under the command of Major G. Mitchell, were despatched to England. The troops concerned entrained on May 24th, and on May 30th embarked at Alexandria and sailed for England the following day, Plymouth being reached on June 9th. On arrival at Plymouth, disembarkation was effected and the troops immediately entrained for Sling Camp, on the Salisbury Plains.

Sling Camp, comfortable enough in many ways, was situated on rising ground within close distance of the permanent military camp above Bulford village, and comprised hutment accommodation which, though cool in summer time, failed to keep out the intense cold of an English winter. The sudden change in temperature and climate after the torrid days of Egypt proved exceedingly trying, and the sick parades almost immediately assumed large proportions.

page 394

No. 1 Camp was allotted to the training units of the 1st Infantry Brigade, No. 2 Camp to the 2nd Infantry Brigade, and No. 3 Camp to the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade. Command of the group was held by Major G. Mitchell, of Otago Regiment. A few days later this command was taken over by Col. V. S. Smyth, A.D.C., N.Z.S.C.

No reinforcements had as yet arrived, and the intervening time was profitably spent in training the non-commissioned officers selected for the instructional staff. The 12th Reinforcements had been detained in Egypt, and the first reinforcement troops to arrive in England were the 13th, who reached Sling Camp on June 26th. The 12th Reinforcements arrived on August 5th.

In the meantime several changes in the organisation of the Camp had occurred. It was first decided to institute an Otago-Canterbury Training Battalion and an Auckland-Wellington Training Battalion. This decision was given effect to, and the combined Otago-Canterbury Battalion took over No. 1 Camp, Captain Bishop, M.C., commanding the 1st Company of Otago, and Captain W. Domigan the 2nd Company. The arrangement did not, however, prove satisfactory, and independent headquarters were in consequence established for each unit. The Otago and Canterbury Training Battalions continued to occupy No. 1 Camp, commanded by Major G. Mitchell and Col. G. J. Smith respectively. A month later it was again decided to change the organisation; and on this occasion the original formation was reverted to, i.e., 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigade Training Battalions. Col. G. J. Smith took command of the 1st Brigade Training Battalion in the No. 1 Camp, and Major Mitchell moved to No. 2 Camp and there assumed command of the 2nd Brigade Training Battalion.

Such frequent changes naturally militated against efficiency in training; but once the organisation was considered to be established along sound lines no time was lost in meeting the demands of the Division in France for trained reinforcements. The interior administration of the Camps was also being gradually improved; although it is recorded of the Officers' Mess at No. 1 Camp, that while it was claimed to be the best in the Group, the ambitions of the committee were such that the bailiffs called and took away the furniture and crockery, which could not be paid for owing to the non-arrival of reinforcements, and the fact that the initial expenses had to be faced by a few officers.

At this period the time available for training and putting the finishing touches on drafts for over-seas was very limited, owing to the demands of the Division in France, then deeplypage 395 engaged in the Somme Offensive. The result was that operations had to be commenced at a very early hour in the morning and conducted at high pressure. The lines on which training was carried out at Sling Camp were much more advanced and more aggressive than those in operation in New Zealand. The long working hours, the exertions demanded in the "Bull Ring," and the stringent discipline insisted on in regard to both training and administration provided a rude awakening for troops who were accustomed to a comparative laxity of discipline in New Zealand, and had passed through two months of idleness on board ship. In addition to being responsible for the training of all drafts forwarded to the Regiment in France, the Reserve or Training Battalion ensured that every man was completely equipped before being sent over-seas.

On arrival in France, reinforcement drafts were received at the Divisional Base established in the great British camp at Etaples. After a further period of "Bull Ring" training, carried out alongside men from practically every Regiment in the British Army, drafts were sent straight to the Division, and there absorbed into one of the service Battalions of the Regiment. The Divisional Base was established at Etaples for a lengthened period.

Reinforcements who were in Sling Camp, on the so-called Salisbury Plains, will remember the winter of 1916 because of its extraordinary severity and duration. It was commonly regarded as the severest season experienced for over 30 years. Major J. B. McClymont was in command of the Reserve Battalion at that period, and remained there until the formation of the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade at the close of March, 1917, when Major J. L. Saunders, D.S.O., Otago Regiment, assumed command of the Otago-Canterbury Camp.

Towards the end of April about 150 non-commissioned officers and selected privates with active service to their credit assembled at Sling Camp and passed through a lightning course of training as officers for the New Zealand Division in France. A large number of these cadets belonged to Otago Regiment.

On April 27th, on the Bulford Fields, His Majesty the King reviewed some 8,000 men of the New Zealand Forces in England, This number included the 4th Infantry Brigade (which embraced the 3rd Battalion of the Regiment), members of the Officers' Training Corps, and large drafts on the point of proceeding over-seas.

Reinforcements were arriving regularly from New Zealand, and training was being carried on at high pressure. On September 7th, 1917, the Reserve Battalions of Otagopage 396 and Canterbury Regiments separated, Canterbury remaining in No. 1 Camp, and Otago taking over No. 2 Camp, which, from an administrative point of view had long been unoccupied. Major W. G. Wray, M.C., assumed command of the Reserve Battalion of Otago Regiment, Major J. L. Saunders at this time acting as G.S.O. for the Brigade Group.

The system of training obtaining in the "Bull Ring" was altered at this period. The Group "Bull Ring" was abolished, and separate "rings" were allotted to each Battalion; but it was doubtful if this operated as well as the former system.

The arrival of the 28th Reinforcements at Sling Camp in September, 1917, was marked by a tragic occurrence during the journey from Plymouth to Bulford, nine men being killed and two injured as a result of being run down by a fast through-train at a wayside station where the reinforcements had temporarily halted.

On October 1st Lieut.-Colonel J. L. Saunders took command of the Reserve Battalion, Major Wray proceeding to New Zealand. During the following month the despatch of drafts to the Regiment in France left the Camp practically empty. At the close of November Lieut.-Colonel Saunders left for New Zealand on transport duty, and Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Smith, C.M.G., D.S.O., up till then commanding the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment in France, arrived and took over the vacant command.

The winter months of 1917 were not as severe as those of the previous season, but yet there was a considerable amount of sickness. In fact, from time to time, epidemics of influenza, measles, and the like were experienced, demanding the adoption of special precautionary measures, by which training operations were seriously interrupted. For reasons of health, and in view of the fact that several deaths had taken place during the month of February among the latest reinforcements to the Battalion, arrangements were completed for placing the 33rd Reinforcements in a special camp at Larkhill. There the Otago Reinforcements were administered as a complete unit, and strict isolation insisted upon for a definite period. These epidemics were invariably associated with the winter months, and with the approach of fine weather there was an immediate improvement in the general health.

The internal arrangements of the Otago Camp, which provided for an excellent standard of food, every opportunity for recreational as distinct from military exercise, dry and sufficient clothing, healthy sleeping accommodation and efficient medical attention, assured a sound state of general health, and quickly combated any epidemics which arose.page 397 The existence of "wet" canteens as a regular camp institution met the legitimate demands of a large percentage of the men without in any way contributing to excesses or abuse of the privileges granted.

Towards the close of July, 1918, Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Smith assumed command of the 4th New Zealand Infantry (Reserve) Brigade, and command of the, Reserve Battalion, Otago Regiment, passed to Major McCrae, D.S.O., who in the following month was succeeded by Lieut.-Colonel J. B. McClymont.

The declaration of the Armistice on the Western Front on November 11th, 1918, was duly celebrated. On November 16th the last draft, comprising 93 other ranks, was despatched from the Reserve Battalion over-seas. The routine of the camp was now altered, more time being devoted to educational classes and lectures.

On December 5th a draft of 122 men, ex 43rd Reinforcements, marched into Otago Camp, this being the last reinforcement to arrive from New Zealand.

On December 26th, 1918, the Reserve Battalion, Otago Regiment, terminated its long and useful service. A new formation, the Otago Provincial Detachment, at once came into being, and under it were grouped all ranks whose destination in New Zealand was the provincial district of Otago.

It was not long before large drafts commenced to arrive from France and Germany, followed over the succeeding months by a steady despatch from Sling Camp of Homeward-bound soldiers.