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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter XXI Of the Aftermath of Battle

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Chapter XXI Of the Aftermath of Battle

But our comrades are dead, we cannot help them, they have their rest—and who knows what is waiting for us? We will make ourselves comfortable and sleep and eat as much as we can stuff into our bellies and drink and smoke so that the hours are not wasted.

The weather was beautifully fine and the few days spent out of the line in Regina, Kortepyp, Bulford, Neuve Eglise and the various camps about Romarin and De Seule were very enjoyable. The battalions were re-equipped and reorganized. At this time the strength of the division was increased by the addition of the 4th Brigade which during the battle had been in corps reserve doing working parties.

When the New Zealanders first went into the trenches at Armentières there were many alarms and much sounding of Strombus horns but no gas. After sweltering and choking a few times in the slimy, evilsmelling P. H. helmets the gas alarms came to be looked on as rather a bad joke and nothing more. On the Somme the artillery and the infantry in the support areas had encountered lachrymatory gas, but this although sometimes a nuisance had no harmful results except a temporary irritation of the eyes.

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Goggles served out to combat the effect of this gas were quite effective. Throughout the winter little use was made of gas. "Cloud gas" had not been a great success. The cylinders from which it was discharged were clumsy, difficult to assemble in the front line and very dangerous owing to the possibility of enemy shell-fire damaging the cylinders and thus swamping our own line. Even when a "cloud" was successfully discharged the wind might blow it aside or a sudden change drift it back from whence it came. It was relatively useless as a barrage to cover attack because the attackers, having of necessity to wear masks, had no advantage over the trench garrisons and indeed would be utterly exhausted after crossing the width of No Man's Land. The evolution of the gas-shell however changed everything. From being rather an expensive and ineffective novelty gas immediately became one of the most dangerous weapons of modern war.

There were many gas casualties at Messines, with the result that much greater attention was paid both to the proper care of helmets and to their quick and effective use. The "small box respirator" issued shortly after the Somme was an absolutely safe protection against any gas then used. A rubberized mask with eye-pieces, nose-clip and expiratory valve fitted over the face. A rubber tube led from the mouthpiece to the tin canister containing chemical preparations which neutralized any harmful gas in the atmosphere. Only pure air passed through. When in action the brown canvas haversack containing the apparatus was carried hung on the breast and at other page 216times at the side. At first the small box respirator was looked upon as rather a mixed blessing. It certainly gave an extra sense of security but it was more weight to carry. Still there were compensations. With a scarf on top it made an excellent pillow and the mask compartment of the satchel was useful for love letters and extra socks. This casual treatment of the soldier's best friend had anything but good results. Valves became choked with dust and dirt. Eye-pieces were neglected and men moving with masks on through a belt of gas found themselves blind and in danger of losing touch. Many through lack of practice were found to be very slow at adjusting the mask. Gas experts now came into their own, and from this time forward the rank and file suffered many things at their hands. Adjustments of masks by numbers, route marches with the masks on, lectures on gas, demonstrations, tests of various sorts became an abomination and a weariness, especially after perhaps the fiftieth repetition. Still it was all necessary; for on the least slackening of the pressure careless human nature reasserted itself and sooner or later there was trouble.

The New Zealand Division withdrawn from the sector of Messines took over the La Basse Ville-Warneton one, which stretched from Hyde Park Corner and La Basse Ville over a wide expanse of torn fields sloping gradually down to the village on the banks of the Lys River. Here the Germans were at a great disadvantage and during the next six weeks they were gradually thrust backwards until they were forced to cross the river. There was a tremen-page 217dous amount of sheer hard work to be done. Long saps had to be run out across the newly won ground, new trenches dug, revetted, duckboarded and wired. Every night working parties assembled at Hyde Park and moving through Ploegsteert Wood, picked up A-frames, duckboards, sandbags, coils of wire and iron standards and then tramped across the wilderness to some new trench that was under course of construction. The engineer taskmasters quickly apportion the jobs. Some start filling sandbags and passing them along to the skilled group who are putting in a dugout; a file go out and screw in the iron standards while others wrestle with the refraction coils of wire and commence the fence itself another party puts in the A-frames and fixes the duckboards into place.

Sometimes the location of the working party was picked up by the enemy and heavy shelling commenced. As long as this began early in the proceedings the infantry were content, for it gave them the excuse to abandon the job without shame and to get home to billets two or three hours early. The really annoying thing was to be shelled on the way home. A company might be going back through the middle of a torn stretch of debris, stumbling over the broken track towards the security of a length of communication trench. Even as the mouth of the sap looms up it is deluged with a sudden burst of shell-fire. It would be suicide to go forward and the men sit down in the damp shell-holes and wait for ten minutes until the shelling ceases. The explosions tear the darkness with red and yellow flame and bits page 218of shell case come screaming back overhead. One shell lands short and spatters the line with mud. It's no use moving. Then the guns lift and search elsewhere. The men go on and enter the sap. It feels warm and safe and they stumble on over the firm boards until they enter Ploegsteert Wood and strike the overland route through the trees. -1

"Plop! Plop! Plop!"—Gas shells slide quietly into the soft soil. "Gas!" At once with surprising speed the helmets are adjusted and the men sit down on the duckboards to wait until the air clears. But the enemy seem to have thought of everything and commence to burst big "coalboxes" overhead. The flying fragments patter viciously down. It's no use waiting. The files go on puffing and grunting and semi-suffocated until at last they get beyond the gas. Off come the helmets and men breath deeply with sighs of satisfaction.

Patrols were continually pushing out into No Man's Land to make contact with the enemy and to establish new posts. A patrol would creep out, moving cautiously toward the flares that rose from the German posts—a hundred yards, two hundred yards, three hundred yards and still the flares rise well beyond. The patrol creeps on from shell-hole to shell-hole. Machine-gun bullets whizz overhead but they are coming from far beyond. A trench looms up and the patrol lies still and quiet. There is no sound and the flares rise still at some distance. They wait for half an hour and then creep in through a gap in the broken wire. It is empty. Other patrols go out and come back with much the same news.

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Here and there they have been fired on, but it is evident that the enemy are in no great force. Next night a battalion goes over and occupies the deserted line with little loss. The patrols push forward again towards Loophole Farm, Trois-Tilleuls Farm, au Chasseur Cabaret, Sunken Farm and the Ferme de la Croix. The ground here is not so greatly torn and very soon they establish contact with the enemy posts. There does not seem to be any very clearly defined trench line. A patrol creep toward a point from which flares go up every moment or so and unexpectedly run on to new wire. They move out and try a hundred yards lower down, to be greeted with a burst of machine-gun fire from a broken hedge—farther on still half a dozen bombs are flung. It is difficult to say what strength the enemy are in.

Then come days of bitter fighting in which companies of men from all units of the division gradually wrest from the enemy their strong-points and force them back toward the Lys. In the middle of the night a barrage goes down upon a German strong-point. The light trench mortars deluge it with bombs. The German machine-guns from the shelter of concrete emplacements sweep their front. Bombing parties creep closely in on the front and flanks and rush in as the barrage lifts. For five minutes the bombs fly back and forward. The New Zealanders close in. One brave German stands with his back to the wall of the pill-box and shoots every man who tries to rush in. At last a man springs in with a bayonet—the German falls and the tide pours in. And so all along the fine.

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Patrol activity was kept up strongly and a week later large raiding-parties broke into the enemy's defence zone and did much damage. The front line was continually thrust forward, sometimes as a result of bitter little fights—sometimes by more or less peaceful penetration. There was much rain and the battlefield became a quagmire. Posts filled with mud and water. Men were wet, chilled to the bone and unable to sleep. Even when parties carried hot food up through smashed trenches where the duckboards were afloat in three feet of water or sunk under a like depth of mud, the food was often so coated with filth as to be half useless. Men stood in narrow ditches facing the front, their feet buried deep in the slush, at first numbed and then hot and burning as the first symptoms of trench foot made their appearance. Their clothes were wet through and stiff with clay; their fingers chilled and useless; their rifles choked with mud. They stood and waited with little food and without sleep. The enemy artillery shelled heavily.

"Whizz-bang! Whizz-bang! Zirr-zut-zut." A man slumped down and rolled over badly wounded. If the wound were merciful he relapsed at once into a blessed unconsciousness of all his misery, but if not he suffered the torment of the damned. The stretcherbearers could not come until after dark and then it took hours of heart-breaking efforts to get him to the light train-line and so on a journey that jarred and jolted agonizingly to Charing Cross. Even in the naked horror of such experience flashes of selfsacrifice—acts of almost womanly tenderness run like page 221threads of gold through the dark welter of agony, weariness and misery. A man gave his precious overcoat to a wounded friend or perhaps even to a stricken enemy and endured without complaint the terrible rigour of the cold and wet; or a carrying party volunteered to take back a stretcher case with them and added hours to their return journey; or a sentry wearied almost to death did a double watch so that a comrade who was exhausted could at least doze uneasily without the responsibility of being awake.

After bitter fighting on 27 and 31 August, 2nd Wellington captured La Basse Ville. This was the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres and the British line was aflame with fire from La Basse Ville to Dixmude. The new line was consolidated with great difficulty and for the next three weeks the men holding the fine suffered severely from the enemy fire and from the wet and mud. The British guns and aeroplanes were being rapidly withdrawn for the fighting to the north and the command of the air and superiority of gun fire passed to the enemy.

In the darkness half a dozen men would move out and relieve a post somewhere close down to the Lys. They found that the post consisted of a large shell crater with a little pool at the bottom and a short trench leading therefrom. At night there was room to move and the men took their ease round the lip of the crater. Two or three crept out and patrolled the bank of the Lys. Before dawn however they all assembled in the little trench and packed themselves uncomfortably into the little space, covering themselves with a piece of camouflage netting. Soon page 222after dawn there was a droning in the sky and the first enemy aeroplane commenced to sweep up and down, taking photographs, watching any movement that would enable the observers to locate the new posts. The men in the trench lie still, staring upward. Another plane comes over and all day long they go up and down, not more than two or three hundred feet up. No British pilots appear to challenge and they are too low for the anti-aircraft guns to reach them. The machine-gunners have been forbidden to fire, for fear of giving away their position. It is a nerve-racking business.

The infantrymen have an extraordinarily naked feeling. The aeroplanes fly slowly by, wheeling and turning just overhead. Often the observers can be seen leaning out, gazing below. Every now and again the nose of one goes down and bursts of machine-gun fire sweep the ground. Sometimes a bomb comes hurtling down through the air. And as all this goes on hour after hour, men could hardly keep from leaping out of their narrow hiding-places and hurling clods of earth at the hovering war birds. And there was another buzzing in the air; the mosquitoes that bred in the swamps of the Lys were of an enormous size and attacked with the utmost savagery. The enemy guns fire very heavily on any movement. A carrying party with the rations tries to get out too early and are spotted. After an hour's wait they come through when it is properly dark, but a chunk of shrapnel has holed the dixie of hot tea that they have carried up with enormous labour. The men in the post take pains to point out page 223that the ration party itself would be no loss—but the tea!

In the morning, after an all-night vigil, the German barrage crashes down with such intensity that all stand to, bombs uncovered and lying to each man's hand, Lewis-guns and rifles ready, all waiting for the wave of enemy infantry and a desperate fight against impossible odds. This time it does not come. One night a German patrol blunders upon them and is fired upon and bombed. The Germans get away but leave one man dead ten yards from the parapet. After six days the post is relieved and all go back to the canvas camps near De Seule.

Every night the German airmen come over bombing billets, stables, dumps and railheads. Back from the Y.M.C.A., from the pierrot show, from the estaminet or from a walk to Bailleul, miles behind the line and feeling unusually secure, men would go to sleep in comfort, taking off their boots and clothes and settling in luxuriously for a night of uninterrupted slumber. Lights out and the only sounds to be heard are a few whispers, coughs, the snores of the musically minded and the muffled report of a distant gun. There is a droning in the upper airgradually coming nearer and then the unmistakable beat of a German engine. A sleeper awakes.

"Hullo, boys! there is a b—— Fritz overhead!"

"Shut up, and go to sleep, you windy beggar," comes the unsympathetic response.

"Cr-r-r-ash-sh!" from somewhere a mile off. The whole tent is awake now and speculating.

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"The blankety-blank something has dropped an egg!"

"Cr-r-r-rash-sh!" This time the explosion is half a mile nearer and in a direct line.

"Cr-cr-r-r-r-r-ash-sh!" still in line and noticeably nearer.

A nervy individual picks up his boots and flies out into the darkness. Nothing is to be gained by so doing for he is as likely to run into the danger that he is seeking to avoid as to escape it. By this time the searchlights are flashing across the sky and the anti-aircraft guns barking furiously. The converging beams fail to pick the raider up and the crashes come nearer. Some find the strain of lying still too much for their nerves and get out and walk about. Others lie still but curse savagely. Many wait quietly but with muscles taut. No one sleeps, and even the quiet, cool men who show no slightest sign of strain, are desperately afraid. "Crash! Crash-sh! Crrash-sh" behind, level, and then there is a big sigh of relief for the last explosion is clear of the camp and the danger has passed. Perhaps no great material harm has been done; nevertheless it is just this kind of thing that in the long run breaks men's nerves and renders them useless for the moral strain of war. The Germans placed much faith in the "loud noise theory" and undoubtedly they were right. Frightful, crashing detonations have a demoralizing effect on even the best troops.

By the end of August the division was heartily sick of the whole area from De Seule and Canteen Corner to Messines, La Basse Ville and Ploegsteert.

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There had been one tremendous day of moving excitement, then three months of hard work, miserable conditions, heavy shelling, gas, and a continual drain of killed and wounded. The divisional relief was welcomed with joy and the men gladly entrained for the rest area on the St Omer-Boulogne road.

Training was commenced at once and as it was of a most practical nature it was very obvious that the spell was for the purpose of preparing for another great battle. The "taking of pill-boxes," "wood fighting," and the preparations for counter attack, were sufficient indications of what was coming. However the "stunt" was probably three weeks away and three weeks is a long time. Much living can be done in that time with Death on the horizon.