After the fighting, the occupation
CHARLIE GOSSAGE, a bank teller in Dunedin when World War 1 began, was a temporary major and on leave in London when the armistice took effect. Since he’d left New Zealand with the Main Body — as the first batch of troops was called — in October 1914 and had served throughout, reason and fairness would suggest he could finally pack up and go home.
But no. Gossage, who began his army life with the Otago Mounted Rifles and ended it with the Ordnance Corps, was sent back to France. There was no more fighting, but there was a mass of work for ordnance men, and Gossage rejoined the New Zealand Division.
He was back just in time for the long weary march from northern France, through Belgium to the German border.
Of all the Dominion and colonial troops in France at the end of the war, the New Zealanders were the only ones assigned to the British occupation force in the Rhineland, based on Cologne.
It was a British decision that did not meet with universal approval. Some of the New Zealand troops protested to the division commander, General Sir Andrew Russell.
They would much rather have been heading west to wait in Britain for ships home instead of making a forced march east.
Their job in Cologne was to ensure Germans complied with the conditions of the armistice; they were, in effect, New Zealand’s first peacekeepers. But first they had to get there. The long march began on November 28. French people — still mostly women, children and old men — lined the footpaths and leaned out of windows, waving flags and handkerchiefs and blowing kisses. By the time the column had cleared the outskirts of the village, the band had finished its first set. The marching men took over, whistling one of the signature tunes of the war, The Long Long
Malcolm Ross, the Dunedinborn journalist who was New Zealand’s only official war correspondent, was with the march for some of the time. He noted that the great majority of men were naturally anxious to be going home instead of to Germany, ‘‘but any slight unwillingness’’ quickly vanished as the interesting experiences and possibilities of the journey gradually unfolded.
The hours of march each day were determined partly by the sheer logistical exercise of getting such a large mass of men, machines and horses to move at a measured pace, and partly because overnight stays had to be determined ahead of the march.
The march began with the laudable intention of three days’ march and one day’s rest but towards the end, in an effort to make up time, it became almost a forced march. In all, the Division trekked about 320km in 23 days.
There was some excitement at the prospect of crossing the Rhine and occupying a part of German soil; they had the attitude and manner of tourists rather than of conquerors or occupiers. They wanted to see what Germany was like; they wanted to see the mighty Rhine, majestic Cologne Cathedral. Along the way, on their overnight stops, they could wander with the freedom of tourists, not cautiously as a soldier in a war zone. They did not have to wait in a reserve trench for a spell in the front line; their waiting was for the food wagons to catch up; their fear was losing at twoup or crown and anchor, two popular games of the war for New Zealanders and Australians.
Everywhere the troops went, they were showered with greetings from the locals. Flags were waved and flown, whether the tricolour of France or the red, black and yellow ensign of Belgium. One gunner wrote: ‘‘Every village and every town vaunted its happiness with a profusion of colour; some places had even small floral arches and festoons of flowers and greenery’’.
Printed notices were waved or propped up in windows: ‘‘Welcome to our liberators’’.
One placard sat in a window of a house in Charleroi: ‘‘Thanks to New Zealand.’’
Practically every New Zealander who wrote of the march mentioned Verviers, a textile town in the province of Liege and only a few kilometres from the German border. Thousands lined the streets as the army from the other side of the world came into town. ‘‘We passed through streets lined with townspeople, who cheered us again and again,’’ the Field Ambulance correspondent wrote. ‘‘The triumphal march of our imagining had become a reality. Of all our wanderings through the towns and cities of France and Belgium, the Digger will have no pleasanter memories than of Verviers.’’
The German frontier was reached at Herbesthal, a major railway transit point. Under the terms of the Versailles agreement, Herbesthal became Belgian territory but in the meantime it was still German and was where troops heading for the Rhineland could at last sit down in railway carriages.
Since the Allies had not destroyed German railway lines and the Germans would not have mined their own, travel by rail on the last leg to Cologne was perfectly safe, if uncomfortable.
The Division’s artillery, ambulances and other motor transports continued by road but the entraining of the Division was a significant undertaking. It took three days and 21 trains, each comprising 48 carriages drawn by German locomotives, manned by German drivers and stokers. Horses had also to be loaded. A train left every three hours for the fourhour journey to Ehrenfeld, a citydistrict in the west of greater Cologne. There, troops fell in and made a ceremonial march into Cologne proper across the Hohenzollern Bridge to their designated area of occupation at Mulheim on the right bank of the Rhine and opposite the Cologne old town. The trek was finally over. Among the occupiers was Charlie Gossage, who didn’t get home from his war until December 1919. He’d been away more than five years and along the way had been mentioned in dispatches, been made an officer of the Order of the
British Empire, and lost a brother (at Gallipoli).
A regimental band leads part of the march through a village in northern France.
Charlie Gossage (back row, extreme left) with other troopers of the Otago Mounted Rifles.
The map shows western Europe at the end of the war with the red line indicating the New Zealanders’ march route.