Pont A Pierres 1918

This post is a personal reference but may be of a bit of interest to others.

Pont-A-Pierres is a small cluster of buildings between the villages of Escarmain, Salesches and Beauignies in northern France, about 7 km from Le Quesnoy, the walled town that has  become a part of New Zealand history.

Pont-A-Pierres is beside the Saint-Georges stream (ruisseau de Saint-Georges). That both are French versions of my name is a curiosity probably only to me.

The First World War was a major part of modern history, with a huge toll on human life and property. One relatively tiny event happened at Pont-A-Pierres in the closing stages of the war, involving the NZ Engineers, the Maori Pioneers and one of my grandfathers.

From: The Maoris in the Great War – CHAPTER XVII. — FINAL STAGES OF THE WAR, 1918

On October 23rd, the 42nd Division pushed on again, carried their objectives on time, and allowed the New Zealand Division to pass through and carry on the advance. The attack was completely successful, the Division advancing about 1,000 yards past their final objective.

That day the Pioneers moved on again, to billets in Solesmes. This was the first village in which civilians were living that the Battalion had yet occupied. The inhabitants gave the Maoris a vociferously hearty welcome. Next day the Pioneers moved on to bivouacs near Vertigneul. Most of the roads here were in pretty good condition.

There were very few demolitions except the Pont A’Pierres Bridge. The approaches to this bridge were repaired by B Company under heavy fire from the enemy. There were several British batteries of artillery waiting to get over, and becoming impatient they all opened fire on the foe—9.2-inch and 6-inch guns, and 18-pounders, and of course the Germans got on to them and, as the O.C. Pioneers recorded: “nearly strafed the place off the map.”

However, the work was completed in good time and on went the gunners. B Company also widened and metalled the Romeries-Beaudignies road from Le Trousse Mimon onward. The other companies repaired the roads between Solesmes and Romeries.

File:Bridge built by New Zealand engineers (21475640396).jpg

Bridge built by B company of the Maori Pioneer Battalion over the St George River at Pont-a-Pierre, France. Photograph taken late October or early November 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders.
Scource of descriptive information – Identification of Pont-a-Pierre and the bridge over the St George River by Franck Bruyere, a citizen of Le Quesnoy. He also cited the information from James Cowan’s history of Maori in the First World War. June 2008.
(National Library)

From: OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE NEW ZEALAND ENGINEERS DURING THE GREAT WAR 1914-1919. CHAPTER XIII — THE FINAL ADVANCE

The 3rd Company, who had been Company in reserve, were to have their special opportunity without delay. On the 22nd this Company moved to an assembly area south-east of Solesmes, where they joined the 2nd Brigade, who were to carry the St. Georges River crossings on the 23rd. The now usual success attended the day’s advance; so much so that the leading troops were able to cross the St. Georges River without much difficulty, and by most commendable enterprise pushed on into the village of Beaudignies and secured two bridges across the Ecaillon still intact.

Meanwhile the 3rd Field Company was busily erecting a bridge at Pont a Pierres to enable the Artillery to continue the advance. The enemy was already shelling heavily all possible bridge sites, and it was with great difficulty that the 3rd Company was able to complete its job by daylight.

Next day three Weldon trestle bridges were thrown across the river in this same locality. The 1st Field Company had been instructed to repeat its performance of the 20th by erecting another tank bridge at Pont a Pierres. Investigation of the situation disclosed an immense crater 80 feet wide and 20 feet deep which had been blown in the road by the departing Boches, and had involved the former bridge abutments in the general ruin. To repair this damage was impossible at the moment, but the erection of a fine double-way heavy bridge of two 20-feet spans supported by a massive trestle pier, quickly reopened the road to Beaudignies for the passage of guns and wagons. The new bridge was approached by a short deviation on either side of the stream. Heavy planks on one side and broken brick on the other furnished a temporary roadbed that successfully carried the weightiest traffic.

The road and bridge built by New Zealand Engineers in France, World War I

The road and bridge built by New Zealand Engineers to replace the one blown up by German troops in their retreat during World War I. Photograph taken at Pont-a-Pierre, France 28 October 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders.
(National Library)

Constant violent shelling of the area immediately surrounding these bridges caused repeated damage to the structure, to say nothing of the personnel employed. Colonel Stewart may be fairly quoted once more:—

“No unit, however, can boast of a higher standard of duty or hardier fortitude than the Engineers, who, making light of difficulties, dangers and disappointments, persevered with, completed and maintained their work.”

Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty were shown by 2nd-Lieutenant D. R. Mansfield, and Lance-Corporal E. R. W. Pledger, of the 1st Field Company, the latter’s efforts being rewarded with the Military Medal. Sappers G. M. Bennett and A. Newport of the 1st Field Company also came under official notice for their qualities of skill and courage shown under heavy fire during the bridging operations at Pont a Pierres. Both had also been prominent in the erection of bridges at Briastre a few days earlier.

The 3rd Company were no less assiduous in their efforts, nor less steadfast in maintaining a high standard of efficiency and cool bearing. 2nd-Lieutenant E. W. George was particularly prominent in the operations at Pont a Pierres and won the Military Cross, while a Military Medal was awarded to 2nd-Corporal George Campbell, whose performances on the 4th set the seal on a long period of courageous service.

Pont a Pierre

George Edmund Butler, Pont a Pierre, 1918
(National Collection of War Art)

Modern Pont-A-Pierres (with a newer bridge over the Saint-Georges stream):

E.W. George Gallant Conduct sheet:

London Gazette 02/04/1919:

2nd Lieutenant, 3rd Field Company, New Zealand Engineers On the night 23rd/24th October 1918. He was detailed to construct a bridge over the St. George’s River at Pont-a-Pierres. The crossing was subjected to very heavy shell fire, and his party was driven off the bridge three times, but by his coolness and courage he lept his men together and completed the bridge in time.

One of many involved in the final success in World War 1. In all, of those who who served with the Divisional Engineers Filed Companies and Field Troop:

Some overall statistics of New Zealand involvement in World War 1:

  • 98,850 served in New Zealand units overseas
  • 80% were volunteers
  • 20% were conscripted
  • 9% of the population served (about 1 in 5 of the male population)
  • 2,227 served in Maori units
  • 461 came from the Pacific Islands
  • 286 were imprisoned for rejecting military service
  • 18,058 total deaths
  • 2,779 died during the Gallipoli campaign
  • 2,111 died during the Somme offensive
  • 837 died during the Messines offensive
  • 1,796 died during the Passchendaele offensive
  • 5 were executed
  • 501 prisoners of war
  • 41,317 occurrences of injury or illness

That’s about a 60% casualty rate (died, injured or illness).

Many of us will also have had non-New Zealand relatives serving as well. My other grandfather then from Wales was badly injured (chest wounds).

As far as I know two great uncles from London were killed – my grandfather did further engineering studies after the war in England, met one of their sisters, married her and brought her back with him to New Zealand.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Such a waste of so many lives. I imagine the course of history would be altered considerably in ways we cannot know had these people survived.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  December 28, 2017

      The harridans-not here, thank Heaven-who handed out white feathers, not seeing any inconsistency in not going out themselves as nurses and ambulance workers-must have had vile minds. They had no idea why those men were not in the army. I knew a man whose father was the age to go in WWII but whose science (?) skills were needed in England….in WWI, he’d probably have been given a white feather although the work he was doing-I forget now what it was-would have saved many lives and much equipment.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  December 28, 2017

        I love the aerial photo, I have always wanted to make a patchwork quilt like that-but it would probably just look like a brown and green pattern rather than what it was meant to be, I did do a little painting on wood of brown fields and green ones with a road running through them.