The khaki-clad figure in the muddy sap, stops, flattens to the ground, lies as inert as the broken revetment beside him; remains in this position for fully a minute, hugging the earth and listening to the roar and plunge of enemy shells a few yards distant from his shelter. Now he crawls forward again, foot by foot, yard by yard, towards that formidable block of posts, steel rails and barbed wire barricading the sap along which the Otago bombing party must force their way to gain the enemy trench, in this desperate struggle for mastery of the commanding position overlooking Pusieux Valley.
Between the opposing front lines, on this 24th day of July, 1918, is a stretch of bare, cheerless, muddy, pitted and scarred ground, a veritable pakihi swamp, littered with rusty wire, broken wooden beams, shattered trees, uprooted stumps, empty shell cases, discarded or broken rifles and bayonets—and worse—all the wreck and ruin of the greatest and most destructive war in the history of the world. The power of the Boche is not yet broken, but relentless pressure is being kept up—and the the New Zealands, in their sector, are doing all that is required of them, and more.
At five o'clock the Otagos go forward again, carefully, slowly, with the infinite patience and method born of long practice and unwavering resolution. If there is any luck to spare, then this lone figure needs it all, going forward in broad daylight under the very noses of the enemy. The seconds tick away; and now he is near enough to use his two Stokes Mortar bombs. “He waited till one minute before the attack,” runs the Official History, “and then blew up the wire block… The surprise aimed at was complete.”
And yet, even yet, after accomplishing a feat which in itself is deserving of the highest of military honours, the coveted Cross (of which the New Zealand Division were awarded eleven) his crowning effort is yet to be made. “Sergt. Travis had lit a cigarette and watching the left of the attack when he heard nearby the venomous crack of machine guns, which none knew better than he. Turning his head, he saw the check, and without hesitation, he leaped from the block, revolver in hand, and, rushing straight for the position, with rapid and unerring fire killed seven men of the crews and captured the guns. At this moment a German officer and three men came running round a bend in the trench and saw Travis and the dead gunners. They hesitated a moment and then charged him, but against that cool brain and steady hand hesitation was fatal. As they came down the open sap Travis slew all four. The attacking party rushed the trench the moment the guns were silenced, to find Travis calmly reloading his weapons.”
Twenty-four hours later, while walking calmly along the trench under heavy bombardment, this gallant soldier, known over the New Zealand Division, and further afleld too, by the title at the head of this article, was hit by a fragment of a shell and killed instantly.
Sergeant Richard Charles Travis, V.C., D.C.M., M.M., Croix de Guerre (Belgian) (in the Official History, erroneously, Richard Clark Travis) was born in Opotiki on 6th April, 1886, the son of James Savage, constable, and Isabella Savage. He was christened Dickson Cornelius, and was known familiarly as Dick Savage until the outbreak of war, when he enlisted from Ryal Bush, Southland, in August, 1914 under the assumed name by which he is now known. It is interesting to note that, for reasons that are not readily apparent, he took further special pains to disguise his identity. Several of his comrades tell me that Dick stated his birthplace was Seattle, U.S.A., though it has been ascertained definitely that until he sailed with the Main Body he had not left New Zealand shores. Even to-day many refuse to believe that his name was anything else but Travis, though I notice on the soldiers’ memorial at Opotiki that the two names are given side by side (D. C. Savage—R. C. Travis).
From an early age Travis had followed the occupations of horsebreaker, drover, shepherd, and general farm labourer. “I frequently met Dick,” writes an Opotiki resident, “when engaged in his former task, which he performed with consummate skill and no little daring. I saw him once taming a wild brute that a Maori brought along. I remember this distinctly, as the horse ran at me squealing, and with its teeth showing…. Travis used to harness them to logs, and tire them out…”
It is not surprising, then, that he joined the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment. His regiment having been temporarily detained in Egypt at the moment the New Zealand Infantry sailed for the Peninsula (the Gallipoli campaign), he made an unofficial departure to the seat of war. With the close of that campaign, and the return of the New Zealand Forces to Egypt, Travis, with many others of the Mounted units, transferred to the Infantry, joined the 2nd Battalion of the Otago Regiment, and was posted to the 8th Southland Company. With that Battalion of the Regiment he fought till the close of his career.
So far as general physique is concerned, Travis was 5ft. 6in. in height, and in weight some pounds under 10st. He was, however, ruggedly built, and his strength, especially in the hand muscles, was prodigious. He had two pecularities of dress: he preferred a woollen balaclava to a “tin hat,” which he rarely wore, and he carried two revolvers, strapped cowboy fashion about his waist. But there was nothing of the theatrical about his makeup. When one is lying within a foot of an unsuspecting enemy, right within his wire entanglements, one must have one's weapons close handy! As concerns the “tin hat,” it was more awkward to wear than the balaclava, and there was the possible danger of its reflecting the light of flares.
When the Regiment, in the middle of 1916, entered into occupation of its first sector at Armentieres, his native ability began to assert itself.
“He was,” writes one of his officers, “a born scout. His enthusiasm for his hazardous work was unbounded. He made No Man's Land his playground, and appeared to delight in spending his time out there and in rooting out snipers and machine gun nests, which he tracked with consummate skill. Against the blackness of a mound or bush, the smoke from an overheated machine gun could be faintly discerned trailing upwards. If Travis was about, it was tough luck for that nest. Snipers met with a similar fate. He won the D.C.M. by going out by himself and destroying snipers who were firing on a working party. Yet it should not be thought that his stunts were all mere madcap adventures; on the contrary, his plans were, I should say, carefully thought out, and the ultimate success that invariably attended his efforts was the result of long and patient toil. He was an indefatigable worker, nightly tracking out courses and establishing listening posts, making thorough preparation for that final sharp foray, in which he was always victorious.
“For forty days and nights,” runs the Official History, “Travis spent both night and day in No Man's Land. Not content with night work, he frequently led daylight patrols close up to the enemy wire.”
“The battalion happened to be out of line, but hearing that identifications were urgently wanted in connection with the expected enemy attack, Travis at once volunteered to obtain them. His party (a trained band of daredevils) left the lines east of Hebuterne on the 14th May, a little after 7 p.m., in broad daylight. Working down a sap and making skillful use of the ground, they reached, unobserved, a suspected enemy post. The post was rushed and the garrison completely surprised. The commotion in the post roused the occupants of a neighbouring trench, who hurried to their comrades’ assistance… Travis covered our withdrawal with the utmost coolness and dexterity, emptying his revolver at the infuriated enemy.”
It is hard, even at this stage, to estimate the value of a man of Travis's calibre, but one thing is certain, that the moral effect of his forays was tremendous. The tales of his gallantry passed from man to man, until every man in the New Zealand Division knew of him—and were fired with the ambition to emulate him. One needs to read Marshal Petain's “Verdun” to understand how the morale of troops wilts under continued strain—and it is then that a leader is needed to revive flagging spirits, to put vim into dying efforts.
“Mud, mud, mud and slush, day in and day out, always the same,” runs a soldier's diary, at present in my possession. “Mud, mud and shells—and it all seems endless, week after week, months on end.” It was difficult for such entries to be made when Travis, cool, cheery, enthusiastic, was in the vicinity! His name was, and still is, a rallying cry.
“There are times,” said Sergt. Len. Berg, M.M., D.C.M., to me when discussing Passchendaele, “when one would think, ‘By—, I would not be out there!’ But Travis would go….”
“I was chaffing him one day,” writes Major-General Sir A. H. Russell, “and mentioned that I might like a prisoner at that moment, which was broad daylight. Travis grinned and said: ‘Any time you like, sir.'”
Students of war-time personalities will be struck with the resemblance, in many respects, between Travis and the German ace, Baron von Richthofen. Both agree in their tenacity, their devotion to duty, utter disregard for danger, and, finally, their ruthlessness. The difference is, though, that whereas Richthofen boasted of his prowess, and even went to the length of buying himself a silver trophy for each separate victory, Travis remained, till his death, a true New Zealander, keeping his own counsel and carrying on without ostentation. Indeed, on one occasion, as I am informed on unimpeachable authority, he was stopped fourteen days pay for “being intoxicated on line of march!”
And the closing scene. “I was at his funeral,” writes one of his mates. “It was a rotten day, cold, wet and miserable, and there was not a man present at the military cemetery at Couin, from the lowest soldier to the Divisional Commander, but had a lump in his throat and more than the suspicion of a tear in his eye. There was poor old Dick, the finest chap I have ever known, and the bravest, being buried within sound of the enemy guns against which he had fought so long. But still, if he is dead and buried, he lives yet to all New Zealand Diggers, and his name will be on our lips when ever there is mention of brave men and brave deeds.” In the records of the 2nd Battalion of the Otago Regiment in the Field, dated 26th July, 1918, these words are written: “His name will live in the records of the Battalion as a glorious example of heroism and devotion to duty.”
He will never be forgotten while New Zealand is under British rule.
By M. S. NESTOR. HE NEW ZEALAND RAILWAYS MAGAZINE, VOLUME 8, ISSUE 8 (DECEMBER 1, 1933)