The New Zealand Division
In an upheaval at Moascar the NZ and A Division, less the mounted rifles brigade and Australian light horse and plus new or newly arrived units, became the New Zealand Division. The Otago Mounted Rifles were reduced to a squadron, nine artillery batteries were raised, and a second infantry brigade emerged from the doubling of existing battalions, so that the infantry became established as follows:
1st Infantry Brigade (1st Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, and Otago Battalions).
2nd Infantry Brigade (2nd Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, and Otago Battalions).
3rd (Rifle) Brigade (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Battalions).
Major-General A. H. Russell became divisional commander, but Godley continued to command the NZEF.
Destined for the Western Front, the Division reached Marseilles in April 1916 and entered the line in May south-east of Armentières. The land was low lying and soggy, and trenches shallow, but living conditions were far better than at Anzac, except for the weight and vigour of artillery. It was a “quiet sector”, but trench warfare was already highly developed and there was much to learn. The Division, under I Anzac Corps (Birdwood) and then II Anzac Corps (Godley), staged 11 major raids (against four German ones) in three months and countless patrols on its 8-mile front and when relieved in mid-August had lost 2,500 men, nearly 400 of them dead.
The Somme, 1916
In September the Division was committed to the gigantic offensive on the Somme which had begun on 1 July. The 2nd Brigade attacked at dawn on the fifteenth on a 1,000-yard front behind a formidable artillery barrage to seize two trenches on the way to Flers. The Rifle Brigade passed through with two tanks – a startling novelty introduced to action that day – and helped to capture the village. The 1st Wellington went on next day to gain a trench north of Flers. Then rain set in. Fierce night fighting with bomb and bayonet by the 2nd Canterbury followed on the twentieth, a short but economical advance by the 1st Brigade on the twenty-fifth, and a partially successful one on the twenty-seventh in which the 1st Otago suffered grievous loss. On 3–4 October the Division withdrew from the muddy horrors of the Somme. It had lost in 23 days some 7,000 men, 1,560 of them killed. The gunners stayed behind, as usual, and endured three more weeks of toil and danger in worsening conditions, a nightmare of flooded gunpits in a shell-torn swamp.
Winter on the Lys
Winter of 1916–17 passed coldly but quietly at Fleurbaix, near ArmentièGres, where the 1st Brigade was reorganised to include all North Island battalions and the 2nd Brigade commanded all South Island battalions. There also the 2nd Auckland on 21 February staged with mixed success the heaviest New Zealand raid of the campaign. Next day the Division sidestepped to the left and then left again a few days later, settling for three months between Ploegsteert and Wulverghem facing the strongly fortified Messines ridge.
At 3.10 a.m. on 7 June nearly 500 tons of explosives in huge mines on both sides of the New Zealand sector blew up with a thunder heard in England. The earth was still trembling when the 2nd and 3rd Brigades scrambled over the top, in and out of shell holes, and up the battered slopes. Carrying the German front line and supports, they were soon into the ruined village. The 1st Brigade passed through, helped on the left by a solitary tank, to the final objective. With prisoners and booty including many guns it was a striking success at no great cost; but the German artillery revived and by the time the Division was relieved on 9 and 10 June it had lost 3,700 men, evenly distributed between the three brigades.
The 4th New Zealand Brigade, formed from reinforcements in England, had served in Corps reserve and on the tenth entered the line, passing to New Zealand command two days later. Back in the line the Division gained further success and worked hard to consolidate before handing over to the Australians at the end of the month. In two more attacks in this area on 27 and 31 July the Division finally gained and held La Basse Ville. Heavy artillery fire in the first fortnight of August caused the loss of nearly 1,000 men and rain made conditions miserable.
Many valuable weeks of the 1917 summer were wasted and when Field-Marshal Haig started his great offensive from the Ypres Salient on 31 July autumn rains had begun. Hope of strategic objectives faded; but successes in late September and early October made him try to win the rest of the Passchendaele ridge for his winter line. The New Zealand Division had been training since the end of August to overcome the numerous concrete “pillboxes” in this sector. The first objective of the Division was the Gravenstafel Spur, attacked before dawn on 4 October, as part of a major advance. The 1st and 4th Brigades forestalled a heavy German counter-attack, and the supporting artillery barrage inflicted frightful slaughter on the waiting Germans. Crossing this scene of carnage, the 1st and 4th Brigades gained their objectives after a hard fight, inflicting exceptionally heavy loss on the enemy and capturing much equipment. For such a resounding success the 1,700 New Zealand casualties, though a sad loss, did not in current terms seem excessive. But heavy rain turned the countryside into a bog and tragedy lay ahead.
A British attack on the ninth on Bellevue Spur and part of the main Passchendaele ridge gained a little ground at prohibitive cost. Heavy swathes of barbed wire still girdled the hillside, however, and belated and meagre heavy artillery made no impression on them, nor on the many pillboxes beyond. New Zealand gunners slaved to breaking point to get only a few guns and howitzers forward, but stable platforms and accurate fire were unattainable. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades – the latter weary from heavy work in the salient – nevertheless renewed the attack early on the twelfth.
There was little to encourage the men as they waited overnight in a morass under steady rain. Shelled in their assembly area, some were shelled again by their own guns when the thin barrage opened at 5.25 a.m., and then they led off into a deluge of small-arms fire, speckled with geyser-like eruptions as shells exploded in the mud. Worst of all was the wire, covered with deadly fire, its few gaps deliberate deathtraps. Some men tried to crawl under it, some threw themselves at it, two got right through and were killed in the act of hurling grenades at the loopholes of the nearest pillbox. The left gained 500 yards of slippery slope, the centre 200 heartbreaking yards, the right nothing until the 80-odd occupants of two blockhouses and a trench used up all their ammunition. Then they were captured, blockhouses and all, by two brave and skilful men, sole survivors of two Otago platoons.
The cost of these small gains, 640 dead and 2,100 wounded, made the Passchendaele mud in New Zealand eyes rich soil indeed and what the wounded suffered in drenching rain is another chapter of horrors. For the first time the Division had failed in a major operation; but what New Zealander can look back in memory or imagination on those dogged thrusts, time and again, by the Otago and Canterbury Battalions and the Rifles across the boggy flat and up the bullet-swept slopes of Bellevue Spur, without being stirred by their resolution in the face of hopeless odds.
The steady drain of men while units only held the line was less spectacular, though it made up half the losses of the Division. Here, before withdrawing from the front, 400 more men were lost in the 4th Brigade alone.
The Ypres Salient
Winter of 1917–18 passed busily in the Polygon Wood of Becalaere sector at Ypres, a scene of utter desolation. The Germans were bound to attack in the spring with forces released from Russia, and the Division worked hard to turn the wrecked trenches into a defensible front. An attack by the 2nd Brigade on 3 December gained useful ground but failed to capture Polderhoek Chateau. When the Division was relieved, on 24 February 1918, its three “quiet” months had cost 3,000 men, more than 470 of them killed.
Before and after the relief many changes took place. II Anzac Corps (in which the Division served), now minus Australians, became XXII Corps (commanded throughout by Godley), and the New Zealand part of its corps troops included the Otago Mounted squadron and a cyclist battalion. The 2nd Field Artillery Brigade was at the disposal of the Second Army and did not return until May. The 4th Infantry Brigade, to save manpower, became the Entrenching Group, a labour and reinforcement depot (though it soon saw hard fighting). A machine-gun battalion was formed from the brigade companies and the pioneer battalion became exclusively Maori. Allied and enemy divisions were by this time reduced in strength; but the Division retained four battalion brigades and remained the strongest division on the Western Front.
The Division and the many non-divisional units of the NZEF were also strong in the knowledge that they were members of a warmly united family. Men at the front knew that behind them were reliable supply services – field bakery and butchery, motor workshops, depots, even a light railway operating company. Their medical and dental services were unsurpassed in skill and devotion. In France and in England hospitals and convalescent homes were staffed by hundreds of New Zealand nurses and aides. On leave the men had good pay, and could use if they wished comfortable establishments provided through voluntary channels by the people of New Zealand. At home needy dependants were cared for. Above all, reinforcements well trained in the six reserve depots in England were always ready.
The Somme, 1918
In the great German offensive on the Somme, in March 1918, the Division was rushed to help stem a dangerous breakthrough towards Amiens. Unit by unit, as each arrived, it hastened to fill a gap between IV and V Corps in the Ancre Valley on the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh. In confused fighting the New Zealanders gradually gained the upper hand against an enemy flushed with victory. A surprise attack on the thirtieth regained advantageous ground overlooking the valley, taking 300 prisoners and much material. With further fighting, much of it at night, a stable line emerged here and elsewhere on the Somme front, and German pressure was promptly transferred to the Lys (where non-divisional New Zealand units became engaged from April onwards). In June the Division was able to enjoy three sunny weeks in reserve.
Back in the line on 2 July, this time facing Puisieux-au-Mont, the Division gained ground against lively opposition in a series of strong thrusts, preceded by bold daylight reconnaissance and fighting patrols – though not bold enough for the more ardent spirits, who had to be restrained. First, there was Rossignol Wood, seized in hard fighting in mid-July. A few days later the whole Division mourned the death of that peerless trench fighter, Sergeant R. C. Travis, V.C., D.C.M., M.M., of the 2nd Otago. Puisieux fell on 14 August, then Grevillers, and on the twenty-ninth, Bapaume, a bigger prize. As the enemy fell back on the Hindenburg Line he showed increasing reluctance to be hurried and the last fortnight of August cost the Division 2,500 men, 411 of them killed. The morale of the New Zealanders, however, fed by success and the change to a war of movement, bounded upwards.
The Hindenburg Line
In September the tempo increased: Haplincourt, Bertincourt, Ruyaulcourt – all in ruins – and then the southern half of Havrincourt Wood, from the deep thickets of which on the ninth the Division assaulted the Trescault Spur, the last position before the Hindenburg Line. There the defence hardened. Picked German troops threw everything into the battle – flamethrowers in the front line, intense gassing of rear areas, heavy counter-battery fire – and the New Zealanders gained only a slight advantage in five days of bitter fighting, though this check cost the enemy heavy loss of first-class units. When the Division was relieved on the fourteenth the crest of the Spur remained in no-man's land.
Against the Hindenburg Line proper the 2nd Brigade gained ground on the twenty-ninth and the 1st Brigade was irresistible, sweeping past the first objective and over the Cambrai Road to pause breathlessly before the Escaut or Scheldt Canal and river below, the spires of Cambrai to the north, and the inviting land to the east, unscarred by war. After an awkward pause, the 1st Auckland and 2nd Wellington crossed the canal and river lower down in the VI Corps sector and seized CrèGvecoeur on 1 October against stiffening opposition. The Division now faced the very last of the Hindenburg defences on heights to the east. On 8 October, under a barrage, the 2nd Brigade hacked its way through wire 50 yards deep – a hopeless task had the enemy not lost heart. Linking up with the Rifles pushing on from CrèGvecoeur, the advance quickened, Lesdain and then Esnes fell, a short step next day and then a long one on the tenth to Viesly. On the eleventh the 1st Brigade crossed the River Selle south-west of Solesmes. There on the twelfth, a year to the day from the reverse at Passchendaele, the Division attacked another Belle Vue Spur and had some sharp fighting before it fell. In five days the Division had advanced 11 miles and had taken over 1,400 prisoners and much material at a cost of 536 casualties. The pace, to men used to advancing yards rather than miles, was exhilarating; but supplies now had to catch up.
The Division gained Beaudignies after dark on 23 October and the high ground beyond next day, bringing into view the mediaeval fortress of Le Quesnoy, ringed with 60-ft ramparts and full of civilians. A barrage, of extraordinary complexity, planned so that not one round fell in the town, led the infantry round both sides on 4 November, with batteries leapfrogging forward to cover the advance nearly to the Mormal Forest. Bypassing the fortress on both sides but taking four neighbouring villages, the infantry reached the edge of the forest at 2.15 p.m. A standing barrage meanwhile played on the ramparts and with the aid of scaling ladders the Rifles carried the outlying bastions and entered Le Quesnoy soon after 4 p.m. Nearly 2,000 prisoners, 60 field guns, and hundreds of machine guns were taken in this fitting climax to two and a half years on the Western Front. The infantry were relieved on the eastern side of the forest at midnight on 5–6 November and the war ended five days later.
The Division left the Third Army on 28 November, warmly farewelled by the fine 37th Division, its companion almost throughout the long advance to victory. A memorable march through Belgium followed, to entrain at the German frontier for Cologne and take up billets in neighbouring towns as part of the army of occupation. Demobilisation soon started and at Mülheim near Cologne the Division was finally disbanded on 25 March 1919.
The cost of maintaining the Division for two and a half years on the Western Front was appalling. Altogether some 13,250 New Zealanders died of wounds or sickness as a direct result of this campaign, including 50 as prisoners of war and more than 700 at home. Another 35,000 were wounded, and 414 prisoners of war were ultimately repatriated. The total casualties therefrom approached 50,000, well over half the number of those who served in France or Belgium.