Sailing to War

On the morning of the 18 December 1915 men packed their kit-bags and gathered in ranks on the Avondale racecourse. They all wore the khaki uniform and the official hat, which is special to the Engineers, ornamented with the “puggaree”, a three-line headband, two khaki lines encircling a third blue one, and the New Zealand Engineers badge with the motto: “Quo fas et gloria ducunt – Where Duty and Glory Lead”.

The training was not still over and men were not yet complete soldiers. Their formation was going to continue during the travel[1]. The tunnellers walked to the port of Auckland where the Steam Ship Ruapehu was waiting for them. After putting their kit-bags on board, they were allowed to enjoy a meager lunch. Indeed cooks were on strike to protest against the unbearable rhythm of military transport[2].

The tunnellers had a very early breakfast and the only meal they could now have was composed of old biscuits and cheese. So it was a hungry Company that it went down to the quay and parade through the town to the statue of Sir George Grey located at the intersection of Queen Street and Grey’s Avenue[3]. At that precise spot, James Allen, the Minister of Defence, and Christopher Parr, the Mayor of Auckland, delivered speeches in front of the troops and population. But the tunnellers only thought of their empty stomachs.

Then the tunnellers started walking back to the port. On the way, families, friends and people warmly encouraged them[4]. The night was already there when the tunnellers were back on board. The men were happy to know that the strike was over and everything was back to normal for the journey. The Ruapehu was about to start its long travel towards Europe and it slowly sailed into the Pacific Ocean.

Last parade in Auckland

Photographed by Lieut. Robert H.P. Ronayne NZE

MS 2008/45, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Around the Globe

After the Cap Horn, the southern point of the American continent, the Ruapehu headed to the port of Montevideo in Uruguay to halt there on 8 January 1916. Uruguay being neutral, the New Zealand tunnellers were not allowed to land there. The seamen of the Ruapehu were only authorized to load coal for the boat.

The ship sailed next from Montevideo to Dakar, in Senegal, on the western coast of Africa. Life on the Ruapehu was quiet but a training programme was established from the beginning and followed until the end of the journey[5]. Every day, to keep their shape, the men had to do some gymnastic and muscles-development exercises on the deck. Cultural activities were also provided to them. When they crossed the Equator, most of the men enjoyed the famous Equator baptism.

In Dakar, Major Duigan succeeded to have the French authorities' permission to disembark his tunnellers and to walk with them in town as long as they did not bring any trouble. The tunnellers had not disembarked for a month. They quickly shew friendliness singing and entertaining the population[6]. The Senegalese soldiers welcomed them in striking up a vigorous “Marseillaise”, the French national anthem. Before embarking, the tunnellers entertained the onlookers for the last time showing them the traditional Māori war dance: the “haka”.

A 4.7 naval gun had set up on the deck of the Ruapehu and gunners were on board to shoot if necessary. Indeed, when leaving Dakar, the ship entered the war zone and all the crew and men have been informed to be prepared for all eventualities[7]. Some German submarines have been seen along the Moroccan and Portuguese coasts. They have already captured and sunk several Allies ships. But the end of the journey was uneventful and the Ruapehu entered the port of Plymouth, along Great Britain on 3 February 1916.

The Equator baptism

Photographed by Lieut. Robert H.P. Ronayne NZE

MS 2008/45, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Towards the front line

The Company immediately disembarked. The tunnellers were going to start again their military training in better conditions than on the deck of the Ruapehu. All the men were gathered in a train heading to Falmouth where the population welcomed them with a banquet[8]. After the meal, the Company walked through the town to reach the camp of Hornwork located on a headland and surrounded by the Castel of Pendennis.

In a month, the tunnellers had a very light formation to the underground warfare. Their training was again composed of knowing how to shoot with a gun, how to fight with a bayonet and walking for hours[9]. On 7 March 1916, all the kit-bags were ready; the men could be ready to embark for France. The population gathered for hard and moving farewell. One officer and 69 men stayed in Falmouth as reinforcements, and then they moved to the New Zealand Depot in Hornchurch.

The Company was transferred to Southampton and embarked on a ferry on 9 March at 5pm. The men spent a cold night on the Channel and only reached Le Havre, in Normandy, at midnight. The New Zealand Engineers Tunneling Company became the first New Zealand unit to join the Western Front.

In Le Havre, a group composed of one officer and 25 men left the Company and joined the camp of the Royal Engineers settled in Rouen as another reinforcements. The unit took the train at 7am on 11 March and arrived on the next day at 6.30am at the railway station of Tincques, in Pas-de-Calais. Until 14 March, men were billeted in the barns of Chelers, a nearby village. They waited for their transfer to the front line.

On 15 March, the New Zealand tunnellers made their first steps in the trenches of the “Labyrinth” sector, located 3 miles north of Arras, between the villages of Écurie and Roclincourt. They relieved the French sappers of the 7/1 compagnie d’ingénieurs territoriaux[10]. After crossing the world, the tunnellers were finally able to start their secret mission.