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

The Western Front

page 85

The Western Front.

The Regiment had now set its foot on the shores of a land into the interior of which war had long since been carried by a ruthless enemy, whose progress in every direction was marked by ruin and desolation and the sufferings of a helpless non-combatant population. The days of Gallipoli, with their imperishable glories, their suffering and endurance, their heavy burden of unfulfilled anticipation, of hope deferred, and splendour of achievement,—all belonged now to the past. A new campaign was being entered on, and no one doubted but that the Regiment, fighting side by side with the men of England and France—men of the immortal first Armies—would uphold the gallant name it had made for itself on Gallipoli.

It was approaching summer, and the fertile valley of the Rhone, through which the Regiment travelled from Marseilles to the interior, was clothed in verdure of the deepest green. Smiling homesteads, nestled in gardens rich in golden promise of fruit and flowers, provided a refreshing feast for the senses, a tonic for mind and body, after the long drab-coloured days of desert and Peninsula. As an amelioration of the attendant weariness of a long journey by rail, there was everywhere the joyous greeting of an enthusiastic people. And through all there was a leaven of interesting and humorous incident, with impromptu feasting, sudden train stoppages and more sudden resumptions.

The 1st New Zealand Infantry Brigade, which embraced the 1st Battalion of the Regiment, was ordered to concentrate in the Morbecque area, near Hazebrouck, and the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade, embracing the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, in the Rouquetoire area. The 1st Battalion reached its area on April 16th, detraining at Steenbecque, near the page 86 village of Morbecque, at midnight, and marching out to a small camp situated on the Morbecque-Hazebrouck Road. The camp comprised a number of huts, shelters and tents, and was afterwards to become the XXII. Corps School of Instruction. On the following day Battalion Headquarters-moved into the village, where the billeting officer found accommodation for personnel and animals in the surrounding farmhouses, and the camp site originally selected was vacated. Three days later the Battalion transport arrived from Abbeville.

The 2nd Battalion of the Repent reached Hazebrouck on the evening of April 18th, detrained at a small station just beyond, and marched a distance of several miles to Rincq. Rain fell during the night, and in the darkness the guide lost his way, and the march being in consequence unduly prolonged, Rincq was not reached until five o'clock on the following morning. Comparatively good billets, however, offered some compensation for this unpleasant experience. On the 21st the Battalion transport arrived from Abbeville.

This was the Regiment's first experience of being quartered in billets, which demanded an observance of regulations to which the troops had not been previously accustomed. But the conditions generally and the pleasant intercourse with the people of the country provided an agreeable change to men many of whom had only recently gone through the hardships of the Gallipoli Campaign.

The several succeeding days spent in these areas were devoted to route marches, company drill, night alarms, and, of considerable importance, demonstrations by the Army chemical advisers in the adoption of protective measures against the enemy's use of poison gas. At the same time the first quota of selected officers and men was despatched for a course of instruction to the various Army and Corps Schools.

On the last day of April the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment moved out from Rincq to Boeseghen, and on the following day, in company with the whole of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, continued the journey to Doulieu. Ths involved a march of approximately 20 miles, and carrying heavy packs and 150 rounds of ammunition it proved a stiff test of endurance page 87 to which everyone stood up remarkably well. There now followed a further period of rest and mild training, which included throwing live bombs, musketry, and exercise in the several arts of warfare calculated to be useful in view of approaching events.

It was at this stage that the Commanding Officer and the Company Commanders paid a visit to the Armentieres Sector and had their first sight of the German front line. In company with the officers of the 7th East Yorks Battalion, they spent the night of the 6th-7th May there, acquiring a first-hand knowledge of the front, support and reserve positions of the sector, its general defensive dispositions, and the many important details common to relief. On the return of these officers to Doulieu, a conference for all officers was held with Brigadier-General F. E. Johnston, C.B., Commanding the 1st New Zealand Infantry Brigade.