Roland Blennerhassett was born in Auroa, Hawera on 3 May 1897. Coming from a large family of two girls and seven boys, six of the Blennerhassett brothers would find themselves enlisting for service before the end of WWI.
Roland enlisted in December 1915 while working as a teacher in Whanganui. He undertook his pre-deployment training at Trentham and Featherston Camp before embarking on 25 July 1916 aboard the Waitemata bound for Devonport, England. After entraining at Sling Camp, Roland arrived in France towards the end of the Battle of the Somme. He received further training at Etaples Camp and was part of the company involved in raiding German lines at Armentières.
He then moved up the line opposite Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres, where he faced a horrible winter of snow, ice and mud while patrolling no-man’s land. It was here that his regiment was withdrawn from the front line and received intensive training for six months in readiness for the Battle of Messines.
At 3.10am on 7 June 1917, a series of underground mines laid by Allied tunnelers exploded under German-held territory near the Belgian village of Messines. Just moments after the thunderous blast and backed by heavy artillery support, New Zealand, Australian and British forces began advancing across no-man’s land to capture their objective, Messines Ridge.
Roland, serving with the 3rd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, was in the thick of the action at Messines. Despite the relative success of the attack for the Allies, he was not to make it through the ordeal unscathed. While fixing a trip wire under heavy artillery fire a shell exploded near him, knocking him unconscious and lodging a shrapnel fragment on the inside of his right knee.
He was treated at a Casualty Clearing Station before being sent to England where he spent three months recuperating at Hornchurch Convalescent Hospital. Roland described his time in recovery as heavenly, quiet and restful. He was later invalided back to New Zealand in March 1918 aboard the SS Remuera.
Below is part of what Roland wrote in his ‘recollections’, which he titled After Thoughts.
“How does it feel to be under enemy fire or resisting enemy attack? Well, there is fear, deadly fear of being blotted out, or worse, being mangled and alive! But many factors help one in the hour of stress. Perhaps the strongest is the fear of showing fear. Then there’s the example and comradeship of one’s mates, that something called esprit de corps. There’s the background of months of training, discipline and hard living. And finally there’s the job to do – one simply hasn’t time to think of anything but the vital need to carry out his job. This is specially true of officers and NCOs who have the responsibility of men under their charge.
Finally I found battle action itself awful but very thrilling – a tense urge to acquit myself reasonably well.
The worse phase is the waiting before hand – nothing to do but think and wonder while awaiting the enemy’s attack or one’s own zero hour. It is then one’s thoughts turn to home and those thoughts tend to break one’s nerves.”
“Don’t worry Ro. This old boy and thousands more will be covering your attack.” They did too.
The Battle of Messines.
This was my greatest ordeal and responsibility. My platoon commander was Battalion bombing officer, and so I had to take charge of No. 3 platoon – 4 sections of 8 men each under a corporal, one of which was Dip Eade. At 9.30pm we moved up to our assault trenches in no-man’s-land. Planes flew up and down N.M.L to drown any sound made. Between 9.00 and midnight over 60,000 infantry moved up along the 4 mile front. A perfect night – calm, warm, moonlit. Dip and I had exchanged letters to our respective mothers – “in case”.
We waited for 5 hours. No sleep – everyone too keyed up. At 3.09am 19 land mines went up along the Ridge and the earth rocked like a severe earthquake. One minute later 8000 guns opened in our rear and put down the barrage we were to follow.
Whistles blew, we climbed out of our trenches and went up the long slope. The roar of guns and exploding shells deafened us – all orders had to be given by hand signals. Dawn was just breaking. We reached the top with very few casualties but there came under intense machine gun fire plus shelling – not so good.
Dip Eade took 3 men and went forward throwing grenades which knocked out the worst machine gun post. But in so doing he was shot to pieces by M.G Fire. We went on and a few minutes later reached our objective. I put up a red very light flare to show we had gained our objective.
We were on the extreme left of the NZ Front, the Irish Rifles on our left but had lost touch with them. (When under heavy fire men tend to move in close to one another. Leaving a gap.) Now our company CO arrived and sent me off to find our “neighbours”. I…
unreeling white tape as I went – battle smoke and dust made all dark. Found the Irish Rifles and returned to my platoon.
We had some trouble with Huns deep down in dug-outs but after a few grenades were thrown down the survivors came out and surrendered. I sent two men back with this bunch – about 20 Jerries.
As the day advanced the enemy shelling intensified and we suffered heavy casualties. By 4pm I was the only sergeant left and most of our officers had been scuppered or wounded. At this time a shell burst near us and a beam of wood got me on the thigh. (That was the incident which young Durfield saw, but I was not wounded.) A little later while fixing a trip wire with two others a shell collected us. The others were killed and I was knocked out plus some shrapnel in my knee.
Hours later I dragged myself back down hill to our old lines (stretcher bearers needed for more serious casualties.) It took me hours to cover that mile using a rifle as a crutch. Nerves shattered I was a wreck. Eventually I was picked up by an ambulance and taken to a forward dressing station. So ended combatant war for me.
At the F. Dr. St. I was given hot cocoa, a doctor probed my knee and gave me a shot of morphia. I went to sleep and when I awoke I was in a CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) at the rail-head. Hundreds of us there on stretchers.
Flash-backs- How does a man feel in battle? Well I don’t know how others felt. I only know my own feelings. There’s of course fear, the awful fear, not of being killed mercifully and quickly, but the horror of maiming and agony. At times I was almost paralysed with fear, but this was invariably when…
…one was inactive, waiting. In the heat of battle there’s so much to do, so much happening, so much tense excitement that the fear is submerged. And of course the training, the discipline, the morale, the pride in one’s own regiment – all these help to sustain one in the hour of stress.
The worst of all experiences is to be under heavy artillery fire, helpless, unable to hit back – that’s when nerves are stretched to breaking point.
Another aspect is comradeship – one’s pals seem so sure, confident, brave, dependable, that you can’t let them down. My four best pals, Dip Eade, Ted Inwood, Jack Richardson and Cyril Marsack were all killed – I the least worthy survived. Why?