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

Chapter XVI — Sergt. Richard Travis.

page 317

Chapter XVI.

Sergt. Richard Travis.

In the years still distant, and in the nearer times, when men who have fought side by side in the Great War foregather and, in reminiscent mood, go back in memory to those days of storm and stress, of great peril and blood-stirring adventure, the name of one man of the Otago Regiment will always be spoken of with pride and admiration, touched with something akin to reverence for the gallant spirit, around which centre stories of personal daring and adventure mediaeval rather than modern in the flavour of romance which they exhale.

This was Sergt. Richard Travis, V.C., D.C.M., M.M., Croix de Guerre, a man of striking and outstanding personality even among the bravest of the brave men by whom he was surrounded. He was in truth the knight-errant of the Regiment, steeled and modernised. His forays into enemy territory, attended by his small but carefully chosen band of men-at-arms; his swift and dramatically sudden surprises in enemy strongholds and trenches; his desperate single-handed encounters against many—the number of the enemy in these affairs never troubled him—his summary and terror-inspiring methods; his unfailing resource and lightning changes of attack in seemingly hopeless emergencies; his killings and capturings and forced surrenders—these things became merely the normal programme of events in the daily and nightly fighting life of this remarkable man.

His escape from death and his immunity from wounds of a serious nature in this life of observer, sniper, scout, patrol leader and raider, extending over a period of two years, with all its attendant and thrilling adventure, and his death ultimately within his own lines, suddenly and tragically struck down at the height of a bombardment by a chance missile, page 318 is curiously and pathetically suggestive of the waywardness and eccentricity of Fate—or was it in accordance with an ordered and settled design inexorable and relentless in its operation?

Sergt. Travis was New Zealand born. He enlisted from Ryal Bush, Southland, in August, 1914, joining the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment, and left New Zealand with the Main Body. His Regiment having been temporarily detained in Egypt at the moment when the New Zealand Infantry sailed from there on their great adventure, his restless spirit revolted against the prospect of comparative quietude however brief, and he made an unofficial departure to the busier and more congenial theatre of the Peninsula Campaign.

With the close of that campaign and the return of the New Zealand Forces to Egypt, Travis, with many others of the Mounted units, transferred to the infantry, joining the 2nd Battalion of Otago Regiment, and being posted to 8th (Southland) Company; with that Battalion of the Regiment he fought until his career closed.

He first came into notice when the Regiment, in the middle of 1916, entered into occupation of its first sector on the Western Front at Armentieres, establishing a reputation as scout, sniper, patrol leader and raider; and when the Regiment became engaged in the stubborn fighting of the Somme offensive his daring exploits, distinguished by the highest qualities of courage and resource, gave him a distinct and special value in the role he had made his own.

When the Regiment headed north again and settled down in Flanders for the winter he was promoted Sergeant, and given command of the sniping and observing organisation of the 2nd Battalion, and in that capacity gathered round him a small band of men whose special function was night patrolling of No Man's Land and of enemy territory generally. These men were carefully chosen, and being closely associated with Sergt. Travis in many of his exploits, it is fitting that the names of the original members should be recorded. They were Ptes. T. Barber, H. Boreham, A. Campbell, J. McGregor, J. Nicholson, T. Powelly, and R. Fitzgerald. Mainly by reason of casualties the personnel of the party changed from time to time; but so long as the organisation continued Travis remained the master-hand and the directing mind. Of page 319 this party Nicholson, a very worthy fellow, was killed prior to the Messines Battle when on the point of leading out a raiding party; Barber was killed at Passchendaele; and Clydesdale, who joined later, was also killed. Other men were Miller, Macdonald, and G. Fitzgerald; all of the right mettle and always ready for any adventure.

The last of the many reports bearing on remarkable achievements sent in by Sergt. Travis dealt with events of the day at Rossignol Wood on July 24th, the occasion when he gained the Victoria Cross. The report was as follows: "A few seconds before 5 p.m. several Stokes bombs thrown in enemy entanglements in front of blocks. At 5 p.m. our trench mortars put up a perfect barrage on enemy's forward posts for one minute. Our bombing parties rushed the trench and found the enemy very much shaken. Some ran down communication trenches, while remainder were killed, except those who were sent to the rear. Fifteen dead bodies counted and two machine guns captured in forward positions. On several occasions enemy tried to hold c.t.'s with bombing parties, but the ground was gained yard by yard. We reached objective about two minutes past 5 p.m.; but bombing party and several scouts bombed up Hawk trench for a distance of about 250 yards. As we were running short of bombs we had to establish a temporary block, and hold the enemy until we put permanent blocks across saps. Huns tried to cut us off from the left of Hawk trench, but were beaten off with their own bombs. Very heavy casualties inflicted on enemy in Hawk trench. Total for the day about 50 killed (including two officers) and six machine guns captured. Had our party had enough bombs they could have gone to Berlin." It was on the following day that Sergt. Travis was killed.

The body of this gallant fellow was carried out of the line, and in the falling rain of the late afternoon of July 26th was buried in the little cemetery above Couin by the Rev. D. C. Herron, M.C., padre to the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment. The death of no other soldier could have stirred men to such deep sorrow or caused such an acute sense of real loss. Full military honours and a long procession of all ranks, including the Divisional Commander, were the last tributes paid to his memory. As representatives of the page 320Regiment returned through the valley below Couin the soldiers of English Regiments came out of their billets and cheered them—a estimony of their admiration for the gallant New Zealander who had just been laid to rest.

In the records of the 2nd Battalion of the Otago Regiment in the Field, dated July 26th, 1918, these words are written of Sergt. Richard Travis: "His name will live in the records of the Battalion as a glorious example of heroism and devotion to duty."

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British 92in. Naval Gun in Coigneux Valley. N.Z. Official Photograph.

British 92in. Naval Gun in Coigneux Valley.
N.Z. Official Photograph.