Base Wallahs: Story of the units of the base organisation, NZEF IP
Chapter Eight — Base Training Depot
Base Training Depot
A base training depot, whether at Maadi, or at Téné Valley,. New Caledonia, is not a romantic institution. Tt never sees action; it never stirs from its position behind the front lines; it is peopled with ghosts from the past—men who have spent their month or two there, and gone forward; and by transients in the present, who will soon go forward. So it does not get the character, the warm feeling of brotherhood, which is forged in an active unit, particularly a fighting one. Its history is a dull affair and difficult to write, because it has no purple patches which inspire the writer and absorb the reader. Yet it was not without humour, when one looks back, and after all, what matters more?
BTD was constituted a unit of the division on 25 March 1943. Its first commandant was also its last, Major F. C. Cornwall, MC, later lieutenant-colonel. At first it was used as a training institution for officers, both infantry and artillery, since the first direct reinforcements from New Zealand did not arrive till the end of April. There were also 600 men from Norfolk to swell the ranks, and by May the camp numbered over 1,000. The early organisation at Téné Valley comprised all arms of the service. Infantry wing, artillery wing, composite wing, and officers' school were all together. Later on, in July and August, after the break-up of the 15th Brigade, the artillery wing became a separate body at Neméara, and the officers' school and signals school both shifted to Moindah, leaving Téne Valley in sole possession of the infantry. Lieutenant-Colonel Cornwall became commandant of BTD as a whole, and Major V. Maxwell commanded infantry wing. 'Inf Wing,' as it was familiarly called, was divided into companies like a battalion, starting with headquarters and eventually en-page 55croaching upon all the letters of the alphabet as far as K by October. Training was on the basis of these companies.
It is time here to say something of the Téné Valley in which the camp was established. About five miles out of Bourail, it ran back from the racecourse, and BRD, well into the hills. By any standard, other than those of base trainees, it would have been considered beautiful. A fine deep river flowed on the right hand side, close to the hills, and this later served as a bulwark for the WAACs' camp and as an excuse for erecting a swing bridge which, owing to the activity there nightly at ten o'clock, came to be called the 'Bridge of Sighs.' The valley was contained by low, niaouli-clad hills, behind which the sun rose and set in rosy splendour day after day. Beyond the camp was the house of M. Coulson, the French owner of the land. The road along which M. Coalson trundled in his cart divided the camp in two. There were companies staggered on each side, each with its signboard, orderly room tent, quartermaster's marquee, and water-drum right close to the road. Wing headquarters was on a slight rise on the side nearest the river. Behind it was the screen of the picture theatre, seatless and grassless, and before it was the parade ground on which the hapless pack-drillers sweated and blasphemed as the sun went down. Beyond the parade ground was the canteen bure, with camp headquarters facing it on the other side, and further still was the Bourail Club and its football ground and picture theatre. The main swimming pool was just behind wing headquarters, and close to it were the showers. On the far side of the river was the quartermaster's store, presided over by Captain Watters, and then came the main football ground and then, just under the hill of the assault course, came the motor transport park, shrouded in tall niaoulis.
The buildings of BTD were of a more permanent character than in most camps of the NZEF IP. They endured for 15 months, most of them in spite of borer and hurricanes. Most prominent were the men's mess huts, one on each side of the road, shaped like right angles. These were roofed with niaouli bark, and in the beginning had walls of coconut matting. This gradually rotted and fell away as time went on. Wing headquarters had a more substantial bure, though smaller, and the officers' and sergeants' messes were both thatched, solid erections. The recreation hut, begun in December and not finished till several months later, was page 56a credit to the BTD pioneers, with a good wooden floor, a stage, and furniture made on the spot. The Bourail Club, built for the division as a whole, was the magnum opus of the pioneers, being a vast cathedral-like bure, built native-fashion, which some claimed to be the largest in New Caledonia. It had a smooth dance floor, a deep stage, and a projection-box, and was always cool beneath its native thatching.
So much, then, for the shape of BTD as it met the eye. Most important was its system of training. Naturally, as soon as the division had gone into action in Vella Lavella, the system was conditioned by the experiences of the fighting units. The emphasis was on jungle warfare and all training aimed at securing a fit, aggressive soldier, ready to take his place in any type of action in the forward area. Reinforcements first underwent a rapid course in arms drill, and then began a series of excursions into the upper Téné Valley. These excursions toughened as time went on until sleeping out, digging fox-holes, camouflaging positions, became a second nature. At the same time there was abundant range practice and training in all arms, from rifle to three inch mortars. Later came a battle inoculation, when the soldier underwent all the experiences of actual battle, bullets ripping up the leaves in front of him, mortars exploding around him, the fear of death bursting inside him.. For amphibious training a platform was thrown up in front of the MT park, which was humorously dubbed HMS Niaouli. Trainees learned to scramble up and down its corded ropes in full kit, at any hour of the day or night. Later on, a further course in amphibious training was developed in which a company at a time underwent exercises at Nepoui, under actual battle conditions of opposed and unopposed landings.
One of the most popular institutions was the band which periodically toured the forward areas, giving concerts to American and New Zealand units Base Training Depot, pictured below from under the overhanging limb of a niaouli, was sited in a river valley among low-lying hills
A piper from the Scots Battalion. Below: Brigadier L. G. Goss, commander 15th Brigade, with officers of the Ruahine Battalion. The large seascape shows the rock formations as seen from the look-out lower at Bonrail Beach. The allied cemetery at Maravari on Vella Lavella, with the chapel built by the natives as a memorial, is seen on the opposite page
Natives preparing turtle steaks for a picnic meal on a Fiji beach Non-commissioned officers and men of the Ruahine Battalion during manoeuvres in New Caledonia in 1943
One factor, however, which seriously interfered with the progress of the trainee was the system of guards which devolved upon BTD when the division quitted the island. Guards had to be supplied for the Houailou camp and for the 4th NZ General Hospital, first at Boguen and later at Dumbéa. Also, working parties were always being required for the dock at Népoui or at Nouméa. These interruptions were not always a hardship, since they often gave the soldiers a change and almost a holiday. Houailou in particular was a quiet haven, and most members of BTD will remember the loquacious old Mazurier, and have probably bought his wine at two dollars the bottle.
But training, after all, is not what one remembers about a camp. It is more the hot games of football played, and the sweltering Sundays at cricket; the cups of tea drunk when somebody had filled the billy from the mess-room, and the days out deerstalking over Jejehari. As far as sport went, BTD was very well supplied. There were two football grounds and they were always in use, either for football, baseball, tabloid sports, or athletics. The main swimming pool, whenever the dam could be kept secure, was excellent and at its best gave a 75-yard stretch of clear deep water. But each company had its own section of the river for swimming and washing, and some of the bank installations, constructed from steel jungle matting, were miracles of engineering. The great hurricane of 18 January 1944, however, and the big floods in February, made havoc of the river banks from which they never recovered.
No history of BTD could be written without mention of the bands, both the brass and the pipe variety. These two noisy organisations were inherited from the Ruahines and the Scots respectively, and were employed in BTD as a disciplinary measure in as much as no one could resort to the old excuse for late rising: 'I didn't hear the reveille bugle,' if the band had first paraded its blistering din outside his tent flap. This was not their only offence, however. During the day they would retire to the bush behind the MT park, and from there would emit such howlings and wailings as were never heard even in hell. Often page 58these would continue late into the night until someone yelled: 'For God's sake kill that snake!' No wonder men wanted to get out of BTD as quickly as possible!
Bourail Club came to play a big part in the camp's social life. The presence of the other sex so close at hand, although it gave rise to much heated controversy, imparted not a little smartness and life to the camp. Also, its comfort was a palliative to the uncouth tent life, and the meals there were a pleasant, if frugal, change. For many, the Bourail Club softened the blow of return to civilisation. At least it compelled them to moderate their flow of language.
Apart from large institutions like the club, there were many minor peculiarities which distinguished BTD. There was Horace, for example, the pet deer who used to appear on wing parade alongside the major, and usually insisted on doing the inspection with him. There was the youngest Coulson in his floppy hat and blue pants, trudging barefoot behind the cattle. There was Boujieres with his arms full of washing, and Monsieur Tulu, the Kanaka, who rode through the camp on a horse. There were the beer queues, the mess queues, the queues outside the RAP. There was the hurricane blowing the tents flat, and the home-made primuses burning them flat (until a routine order stopped it). There were the glasses 'acquired' from the Bourail Club (4,000 in all), and the vast blanket-washing that occupied weeks, when 350 posts turned the football ground into a barbed wire entanglement. There were pictures at night with torches on the screen, and there were the crops of rumours chasing each other from impossibility to impossibility. There was the great New Year celebration with the Convalescent Depot concert party doing a harem scene, and two movies on at once, and ice cream by the bucket. There were boxing and wrestling at BRD, and standing still if you got caught outside your tent when retreat sounded. There were the AEFs and the APRs and the periodical stabs in the arm. All these were part and parcel of the life which no one will ever forget, however much they troubled him at the time. All this was BTD.
Base Training Depot was closed on 17 June 1944 by order of the GOC after having been in existence for 15 months. In the last days of its life it had not done much training. In April all the various training schools had been closed down, and the first page 59drafts had been sent back to essential industry. From that time on the camp was a turmoil as successive drafts arrived from the north and had to be accommodated before they, too, left the island. It was obvious then that BTD's function was at an end. It was disbanded, its personnel split up, and its installations taken over by the returning brigades.