Helping civilians

After the Armistice, the pace was less hectic and left a little more free time to the tunnellers for playing rugby and football games. Nevertheless, works continued on a bridge at Pont-sur-Sambre, a village located at about 13 miles to the east of Le Quesnoy, whereas half Company was sent to Maubeuge, 3 miles to the north of Pont-sur-Sambre, for the erection of two new bridges[1].

The Maubeuge inhabitants waving tricolour flags and Union Jacks warmly welcomed the tunnellers[2]. Part of the city was built on an island in the middle of the Sambre River. Thus, the Germans had cut off all communications and the islanders were isolated. The only access was a small wooden walkway laid on barrels floating on the river.

The tunnellers began the erection of the two bridges at 6am on 15 November 1918. The first bridge was 76ft long, rising above the main canal and the second 96ft, connecting the island to the outer gate. While the tunnellers set to work, numerous refugees who had heard about the construction of the bridges, streamed in the town and waited in front of the banks[3].

The population of Maubeuge was fascinated by the work of the New Zealanders. Every day, curious onlookers have looked at the tunnellers raising both bridges on each side of the island. In the evening of 18 November, both bridges were ended. The mayor of the town expressed his deep thanks to the New Zealanders for the speed with which the work was carried out. The municipality even wanted to hand the medal of the town to the Company, but the official thanks will never be organized due to lack of time[4].

The Company received orders to move to Fayt-le-Franc in Belgium on 20 November. The Company left France, but some men came back at the end of December. The tunnellers were always employed in the erection of bridges. The rhythm of work relaxed. The New Zealanders were in the habit to not working on Sundays, while the first demobilized left their companions[5].

Bridge n°2 in Maubeuge

Photographed by Lieut. Robert H.P. Ronayne NZE

MS 2008/45, Auckland War Memorial Museum

A quick demobilization

From the signature of the Armistice, the question of the return of the men raised an enormous problem of logistics. Demobilization began with the soldiers who had been first to join and based upon length of service[6]. Then, at the beginning of December, married men were also sent back home from all the New Zealand units.

The demobilization of the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company was however an unheard-of case. Although some men were demobilized with the system set up from the end of the war, the tunnellers were urgently required at home. Indeed, members of the Tunnelling Companies were perceived as a latent working strength, whose mining industries implored the immediate demobilization[7].

To send back the New Zealand tunnellers as quickly as possible, two important groups of men were demobilized at the end of December 1918[8]. The tunnellers were not enough anymore to be maintained in four sections. The Company was reorganized in a headquarter and two sections, including men enlisted in 1917 in the first group and those joined in 1916 in the second.

After several months of urgent requests for the return of miners and engineers, the Company was fully demobilized on 22 January 1919. Only the New Zealand Māori Pioneer Battalion had the same return to home as a formed body[9]. The trip to New Zealand was still long. In early 1919, the important number of demobilized soldiers made the departures towards New Zealand very difficult to organize.

Before their embarkation, the tunnellers had to wait at the New Zealand Depot in United Kingdom, located at Larkhill in the Salisbury Plains. The wait became endless. The tunnellers were busy during the first days of February. They were medically examined and their kitbags were packed from 7 February even though their departure date was not fixed yet. This one was finally announced for 14 March 1919.

On board the Ionic

Photographed by Lieut. Robert H.P. Ronayne NZE

MS 2008/45, Auckland War Memorial Museum

An immediate dissolution

The Company, under the command of Captain Daldy, sailed aboard the Steam Ship Ionic for the final trip home. Most of the tunnellers left the United Kingdom and Europe for ever. The trip took place without incident. The troopship navigated via the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal before crossing the Pacific Ocean and joining the New Zealand isles.

In the evening of 23 April 1919, the last tunnellers arrived in the port of Auckland. Such a journey, such war and violence experience, but also such community life left necessarily traces in each of these men.

While the tunnellers left little by little their companions to return to their lifes, the military authorities had already made the decision to put an end to the small Company[10]. On 24 April 1919, the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company was dissolved. It had no more utility in an ending conflict. Moreover, the majority of the tunnellers was quickly expected in their work.

Miners, Engineers or Public Work Department labourers could not stay in the Army. Their employers were informed about their return and waited for them with the same impatience as the military authorities during the recruitment of the Company in September 1915. Without men and utility, the Company had not reason any more for being.

Dissolved so quickly as it was created, the unit knew a short existence and only in wartime. Its sustainability within the regular army was not wished[11]. Even without the tunnellers, the art of the mining and sapping should be perpetuated. Nevertheless, no particular measure was taken in spite of numerous statements of interest[12].