Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918
Defeat and Surrender.
The events of the next few days proclaimed in striking and dramatic form that the final stage in the mighty concentration of effort for supremacy between the great nations of the earth had at length been reached; that the German spirit had been irretrievably broken, and both its ability and its willingness for further effort hopelessly destroyed. The enemy now commenced to fall back along practically the whole front of battle. The growing demoralisation was intensified by the ceaseless and tremendous pressure exerted by the Allied Armies. On November 9th all semblance of organised resistance was abandoned, and the retreat became general over the Western Front. On November 10th the enemy was rolled still further to the east; and only at Mons was any serious attempt made to dispute the British advance; but this was quickly swept aside and the town entered early on the following morning.
There is conclusive testimony, even from German official sources, that the enemy was now moving helplessly towards the worst phases of a demoralised and beaten force. It was drifting rapidly from its disciplinary moorings, was suffering equally from the attacks of the pursuing army in its rear and the overwhelming fear of its own helplessness. It had reached that point in the last stages of a beaten Army where its thoughts turn exclusively on its own safety.
Under such conditions no other course remained to the German Supreme Command but to appeal to the consideration of the Allied Commander and sue for an armistice. An armistice was accordingly granted, amounting substantially, and in effect, to a complete surrender of the enemy. All that could have been gained by fighting came into the hands of the Allies more speedily, and without the loss in lives which would have followed the adoption of a more extreme course.page 381
At 11 a.m. on November 11th—a memorable and unforgettable moment in history—hostilities on the Western Front were suspended under the terms dictated by the Allies. Peace was at last to be restored to a world prostrate and bleeding under the scourge of war.
In order to understand the full meaning of Germany's defeat, it has to be remembered that the spirit or morale of the German people was as completely broken as that of its Armies in the field. It was a defeat so overwhelming in its magnitude of consequences as no nation can seriously risk more than once in its life; and in the grave of its defeat must slumber for many generations the ambitions that led Germany to the abyss, and nearly wrecked the World.
The declaration of an Armistice was received by the Regiment when at Le Quesnoy without demonstration or outward show of enthusiasm. It first became known to the general number of troops through the civil population of Le Quesnoy, who in the early hours of the morning were heard excitedly repeating the news along the streets. But, in strange contrast to the extraordinary demonstrations in other parts of the World, there was barely a shout from the billets, except perhaps as a protest against so much noise; and the weary soldier, with a sigh of relief as after a task well done, turned over and went to sleep again.
The German occupation of Le Quesnoy, practically since the commencement of the War, had left the town in a deplorably filthy state. After all, this was typical of the German soldier's standard of cleanliness. On this occasion some satisfaction was to be derived from the fact that they were required to clean up the mess which they had made.
On November 10th M. Poincare, President of the French Republic, had visited Le Quesnoy, and was received by the civil and military population with demonstrations of extraordinary enthusiasm. The Regiment contributed to the guard of honour accorded M. Poincare.
At midday on November 1lth the Regiment marched out of Le Quesnoy, and headed south-west for Beauvois. The journey was completed on the 12th, after staying the night at Quievy. The Regiment now settled down to a period of rest and training, the latter sufficiently strenuous to preserve physical fitness.page 382
On November 13th all officers of the New Zealand Division attended an address delivered by Major-General Sir A. H. Russell, G.O.C. Division. The announcement was then made that the New Zealand Division was to form part of the Allied Army of Occupation of Germany.
On November 14th, on the outskirts of Beauvois, the Regiment participated in a Thanksgiving Service held to mark the cessation of hostilities. On this occasion practically the whole Division was assembled.
IV. Corps Order.
On the conclusion of the Armistice, the following letter of farewell was addressed to the New Zealand Division by Lieut.-General Sir G. M. Harper, K.C.B., D.S.O., Commanding IV. Corps:—
"As the New Zealand Division is leaving the IV. Corps, I desire to place on record my appreciation of the valuable services it has rendered, and to thank all ranks for the magnificent fighting qualities which they have invariably displayed.
"The Division joined the IV. Corps at a critical time on the 26th March, 1918, when it completely checked the enemy's advance at Beaumont Hamel and Colincamps, and thus closed the gap between the IV. and V. Corps. By a brilliant stroke it drove the enemy from the commanding ground at La Signy Farm and gained observation over the enemy's lines, which greatly assisted in his defeat on the 5th April, 1918, when he made his last and final effort to break our front. Throughout the summer the Division held portions of the Corps front with but a short interval of rest. Daring this period I never had the least anxiety about the security of this portion of the front; on the other hand, by carefully conceived and well executed raids, the enemy was given little respite, and identifications were secured whenever required—in this connection I deplore the loss of that brave man, Sergt. Travis, V.C.page 383
"It was the ascendancy gained by this Division over the enemy that compelled him to evacuate the ground about Rossignol Wood.
"At the commencement of the great attack on 21st August, 1918, only a minor part was allotted to the Division, but subsequently the Division was ordered to attack, and swept the enemy from Grevillers, Loupart Wood, and Biefvillers, and gained the outskirts of Bapaume. Stubborn fighting was experienced around Bapaume, but eventually the enemy was overcome and pushed back to the east.
"From 24th August till 14th September the Division was constantly engaged, and drove the enemy back from Bapaurne to the high ground west of Gouzeaucourt, where very heavy fighting occurred at African Trench.
"After a short period of rest the Division was put in again on 29th September to complete the capture of Welsh Ridge and to gain the crossings over the Canal de 1'Escaut. A night advance over difficult country, intersected by the trenches and wire of the Hindenburg Line, was brilliantly carried out and entirely successful, and resulted in the capture of over 1,000 prisoners and over 40 guns. On the 1st October the Division captured Crevecoeur against strong opposition, and held it in spite of heavy shelling and several counter-attacks throughout the subsequent days until the great attack on 8th October, when the Division broke through the northern portion of the strongly organised Masnieres Line, and penetrated far into the enemy's line at Esnes and Haucourt.
"Going out to rest on the 12th October, the Division was again in the line on 23rd October, and drove the enemy back from the outskirts of Romeries to Le Quesnoy. Finally, on the 4th November the Division, by an attack which did much to decide the finish of the War, forced the surrender of the Fortress of Le Quesnoy and drove the enemy back through the Forest of Mormal, the total captures by the IV. Corps on that day amounting to 3,500 prisoners and some 70 guns.page 384
"During the period the New Zealand Division has been in the IV. Corps, it has captured from the enemy 287 officers and 8,745 other ranks, 145 guns, 1,419 machine guns and three tanks, besides much other material.
"The continuous successes enumerated above constitute a record of which the Division may well be proud. It is a record which I may safely say has been unsurpassed in the final series of attacks which led to the enemy's suing for peace.
"I send every man of the Division my heartfelt good wishes for the future."
Advance into Germany.
Preparations were now commenced for carrying out the projected advance into Germany. A certain measure of dissatisfaction prevailed over the fact that the journey was to be undertaken on foot instead of by rail, but this was to some extent dispelled when it came to be realised that the railway system ahead had been seriously disorganised by the blowing up of bridges and culverts and the general destruction caused to the permanent way by the enemy during the course of his retreat.
There was a small section which represented that the Division should not proceed into Germany under any circumstances, their contention being that members of the N.Z.E.F. should now be returned to their homes. Curiously enough, some of those who exhibited this feverish desire to return to New Zealand had left its shares only a few months previously. It was then pointed out that the fact of an armistice prevailing did not imply that the War was at an end; and furthermore, that an honour had been conferred upon the New Zealand Division when it had been selected to form part of the Army of Occupation.
At this stage a Divisional Education Scheme was propounded and subsequently discussed in the course of frequent lectures and conferences.
On November 26th Lieut.-Colonel Charters assumed temporary command of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Brigade; whereupon Major L. M. Scott took over command of the 1st Battalion of the Regiment.
On November 28th the Otago Regiment, as part of the New Zealand Division, commenced its victorious march into Germany. The selected route lay through the Valleys of the Sambre and Meuse, along which, down the ages, had passed many great Armies, but never before an Army of Conquest from so remote a part of the World.
Proceeding along the main Cambrai-Le Cateau highway, thence striking almost due north through Bethencourt, Viesly, Briastre, and Solesmes, and accorded a hearty despatch by the fife and drum bands of the 37th Division, the Regiment reached and halted for the night at St. Martin and Bermerain. Thereafter the direction of the march was always northeasterly. Rain fell almost continuously during the first day, and the heavy going under the weight of full packs provided a severe test for the opening stage of the journey. In fact a great deal of rain was experienced on subsequent days; but the assurance of comfortable billets at the termination of each day's march and the warm greetings of the civil populations on route lightened the discomforts of the road. Periodical spells of two and at times three days broke the monotony of distance. At many of the towns where the Regiment halted over night householders became deeply grieved if they did not receive one or more soldiers under the arrangement of billeting. The course of this great march brought the Regiment to such places as Maubeuge, Charleroi, Namur and Liege; but it was at Verviers that the most demonstrative reception of all was accorded our troops, men and horses being decorated with garlands of flowers.
On December 1st a Church Service was held at Bavais, when His Majesty the King and the Prince of Wales were present.page 386
The roads traversed were for the most part in good order, but the typical cobbled highways of Northern France and Belgium proved severe on footwear, and the greatest difficulty was experienced in securing supplies of new boots, or even leather for repairs, at a time most urgently required. In order to lessen the burden of the march, great-coats and steel helmets were discarded on December 7th, when at Montignies-sur-Sambre, and deposited there for despatch by rail at a later date.
On December 20th, after a march of 170 miles on foot, the Regiment crossed the Belgian-German frontier. At Herbesthal, on the border line of the two countries, the Regiment entrained and completed the final 60 miles of the journey by rail through German territory. The detraining point was Ehrenfeld, on the outskirts of Cologne. From this point the Regiment marched through Cologne City, crossed the River Rhine by the Bridge-of-Boats, and thence into Mulheim. There it took up its station along with the other troops of the New Zealand Division, now established as one of the Bridgehead Garrison units of the Allied Army of Occupation.
|1st Battalion.||2nd Battalion.|
|November 28||Bermerain||…||St. Martin|
|November 29||Orsinval||…||Villers Pol.|
|December 8||La Sarte||…||Auvelais|
The remarkable feature of the whole journey was the unrestrained enthusiasm and the almost embarrassing hospitality of the French and Belgian civil populations. As our victorious troops, marching to the stirring music of the Regimental Bands, advanced through a succession of towns and villages, the people excitedly crowded the road-sides, now able to realise, with feelings of emotion not easily suppressed, that the long days of enemy invasion and subjection were definitely ended.
Across the border, the attitude of the German people was first one of timidity, which might have suggested fear of retribution, and later one of attempted conciliation, or desire to make friends, supported by acts intended to convey goodwill. Of course, the presence of Allied troops in the area assured the civil population a sense of security against rioting and internal strife, such as was threatened or had occurred elsewhere. But in any case the German mentality was not to be understood on so brief an acquaintance. There was no evidence of hostility to our troops in a general sense; in fact, the temper was that of a nation completely subdued,—a state of mind and action conveying an illustration of the expression "knocked sick."
Army of Occupation.
The New Zealand Division's occupation of the Cologne Bridgehead involved the additional duties of maintaining guards over German war material and factories, and the supplying of picquets and Regimental guards. The dislocation of the railway service consequent upon the blowing up of delayed action mines laid by the enemy during his retreat, and the severe strain imposed on rolling stock by the rapid advance of the Allied Armies, at times threatened to interfere seriously with the commissariat arrangements. Certainly there was grievous disappointment when the turkeys and other good things ordered for Christmas Day failed to arrive, and their consumption had to be deferred to New Year's Day, when no less gusto was exhibited because of the postponement.
During the month of January the Regiment was employed in the forenoons on educational training under the page 388 Divisional Education Scheme; in the afternoons recreational games were played. River excursions on the Rhine always proved popular. The occupying of battle stations in defence of bridgeheads, factories, railway stations, and public buildings was practised in view of possible civil disturbances, and was certainly impressive from a military point of view.
On January 13th Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Charters, C.M.G., D.S.O., who had commanded the 1st Battalion of the Regiment through its successes and vicissitudes of fortune in France and Flanders over a period of three years, bade farewell to officers and men, and departed for the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Under the command and influence of Lieut.-Colonel Charters, the Battalion had at all times, and under the most desperate conditions of warfare, maintained its splendid reputation for discipline, fighting efficiency, and esprit de corps, all of which qualities were remarkably in evidence during the many difficult operations carried out in the course of the Campaign on the Western Front. Major W. G. A. Bishop, M.C., now took over command of the Battalion.
On January 16th His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales visited the New Zealand, Division.
Several drafts were now being despatched to the United Kingdom preparatory to return to New Zealand. With this development commenced the termination of the Regiment's existence as such on the Western Front. On February 4th, in consequence of the rapidly decreasing strength, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Otago Regiment were amalgamated, and the double formation designated the Otago Battalion.
On the same day Lieut.-Colonel J. Hargest, D.S.O., M.C. (F.), terminated his service with the Otago Regiment in the Field, and departed for England. In the course of his long connection with the Regiment, Lieut.-Colonel Hargest, by his thoroughness, his soldierly ability and bearing, his great sense of military honour, and his extraordinary energy and unexampled dash in action, commanded the highest admiration and confidence of all ranks; while the rapid and exceptional success which attended his military career has won for him a foremost place among the distinguished soldiers of the New Zealand Division.page 389
The regular despatch of drafts to England continued. On February 27th the Otago Battalion amalgamated with the Canterbury Battalion, and the two formations became C and D Companies of the South Island Battalion.
By the end of March the New Zealand Division had ceased to exist as an active unit on the Western Front.
In the triumphal march of Over-Seas Troops through the streets of London on May 3rd the Regiment was fully represented, and shared in the acclamations showered upon the Colonials by an enthusiastic populace. But a brief space of time elapsed and the last members of the Regiment had left the shores of England for New Zealand—and Home.