Passchendaele centenary: New Zealand's blackest day in Flanders fields

by Matthew Wright / 25 April, 2017
Soldiers gather around an ambulance and a wounded soldier lies on a stretcher on the muddy ground at a battleground dressing station near Ypres on October 19, a week after the fateful Battle of Passchendaele. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/ 1/2-012928. Colorised by Harry Burgess

Soldiers gather around an ambulance and a wounded soldier lies on a stretcher on the muddy ground at a battleground dressing station near Ypres on October 19, a week after the fateful Battle of Passchendaele. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/1/2-012928. Colorised by Harry Burgess

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Our most lethal military campaign was on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. This edited extract from Matthew Wright’s new book, The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, describes the worst day, a century ago this year, when 845 Kiwis died trying to take a small Belgian village.

The meanings of history can seldom be found in single events or moments. But the tragedy of October 12, 1917 – the black day when the New Zealand Division tried to take the small village of Passchendaele – summed up the image of the First World War as pointless death in shell-torn mud. At Passchendaele, men died, horribly, and often without result for their sacrifice. And its terrible litany of disaster and grief came in spite of careful planning.

The battles for the Gheluvelt plateau, to the east of Ypres in West Flanders, fought over four months in 1917, were among the most difficult in the history of the British Empire. They spilt the blood of men from Wellington to Ontario across a stinking pug half a world from their homes.

Between October 4 and 30, New Zealand divisional casualties reached 5304: 952 killed, 3052 wounded and 1300 missing. But on October 12 alone, the 3200 New Zealand casualties included 845 dead. That was about 6% of New Zealand’s casualties for the entire war. It was a numbing total, and for those who went through it, survival seemed more deliverance than luck.

By mid-1917, the war was being fought in ways that were very different from those of three years earlier. Technology played a part: the push to find new weapons was joined by an equally enthusiastic drive to refine what was already available. Grenades replaced bayonets as close-quarter infantry weapons; pump-action and sawn-off shotguns also appeared – they were handier than rifles in the closed confines of a trench; the use of artillery as suppressor required co-ordination and razor timing. By mid-1917, these methods were producing results.

The corner of Flanders that includes Passchendaele had once been a delightful landscape scattered with villages, farms and woods that offered fruitful inspiration for artists. But by 1917, it was a wasteland of corpses and mines. Even in areas well back from the lines, the war seemed close. Soldiers had trouble finding accommodation, and artilleryman John Heseltine arrived on September 10 with his unit to discover that their billet was a stable. He recorded his reaction in his diary:

“Oh My God I nearly cried, an old shed at the back of the farmhouse, wet stinkin’ manure over the boot-tops … Two mules at one end and us to live at the other on lousy stinkin’ straw. I don’t know how officers can ask [us] to live in such dirty holes, they have white sheets and good beds but us boys that are fighting for our country, we are nobody, just like dogs and asked to sleep in pigstys.”

A few Kiwis went for a look-see in the nearby little village of Poperinghe, finding the place jammed with troops and the cafes doing a roaring trade. Ypres lay a little beyond, ruined by relentless bombardment. Heseltine said the town was “one mass of ruins, it’s an eye-opener I can tell you to see what shell fire does, there isn’t one intact building in the whole town … it’s cruel to see such a lovely town in ruins”.

New Zealand reinforcements near Ypres. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/1/2-012933-G

New Zealand reinforcements near Ypres. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/1/2-012933-G

Feeding the guns

The New Zealand artillery included 180 18-pounders backed by 60 4.5-inch howitzers and a range of medium and heavier weapons. Keeping them fed was made harder by mud, which could not be allowed to contaminate the shells. Heseltine led his horses on one night “about three miles through mud knee deep in many parts”. The effort drained his strength and he was “fair done for … when I reached the guns … the sweat run off me like water from a froggy’s pump”.

New Zealand forces entered the front lines west of Gravenstafel, and their initial objective was the Abraham Heights, part of the Gravenstafel Spur that projected out from the town of Passchendaele. The heights were, of course, relative by the flat Flanders standards, but that did not reduce their military importance – or the care with which the Germans had organised their defences.

The spur was held by 4 Bavarian Division. Tanks could not run in the terrain, but the plan was for a two-step infantry advance with artillery support. To avoid giving the game away, the weapons fired only short barrages during the lead-up, and plans were laid for a lightning bombardment before zero hour, designed to force the defenders to keep their heads down.

On September 27, New Zealand Divisional commander Major General Andrew Russell discovered that the attack on Broodseinde Ridge had been moved forward by two days and all was not quite ready when the time came. Men sent to procure divisional stores from dumps at Poperinghe sent dressings, blankets and stretchers up the line, but the hardest task went to the sweating artillerymen trying to bring the shells forward – 960 rounds per gun for the 18-pounders and 760 for the howitzers.

Major General Andrew Russell, commander of the New Zealand Division.

This work put fantastic demands on men and beast alike as they slogged across the churned ground of old battlefields. Scattered corpses lay around and the guns were hampered by lack of cover. In the end, the New Zealand artillery was jammed wheel-to-wheel in the shelter of a small rise. Heseltine was among those bringing the “iron rations” forward: he brought 132 rounds up in eight trips. A dozen wagons hauled the munitions from the dumps to within half a mile of the guns. At that point, Heseltine and his colleagues transferred the shells to their horses and packed them into the battlefield, negotiating shell holes and dodging enemy fire all the way.

The weather closed in and then, on the stormy night of October 3, the German artillery erupted in a sudden volcano of fire that pasted the New Zealand positions. As Captain James Evans recalled, the New Zealand guns “replied tenfold”, ending with a practice shoot that was “a sight worth seeing”.

That was the positive side, but the weather did not co-operate, and what JP Houper called a “scrap” went ahead on a “miserable dark morning with drizzly rain and cold wind”.

It was terrible to fight in, although Evans thought the two brigades were in “good spirits” as they squelched through the stinking morass to their start points. And then, in the pre-dawn gloom, as the men tensed themselves for the “off”, the Germans opened fire again.

What followed was chaotic: three German divisions, massed for the attack, came under bombardment from the British and were cut down. The men of 1 Auckland Battalion pushed into one of these divisions during their own advance, finding 500 corpses and stunned men who were, Evans wrote, “all glad to get in & all more or less suffering from shell shock caused by our barrage”.

German shells in turn burst across part of the Wellington Battalion soon after they “hopped the bags”. Death and confusion spread across the battlefield. “Our OC seemed to lose his sense of direction,” Houper recalled, “and we found ourselves amongst the Australians on our right … I have a dim impression that I saw Jack Muir badly wounded but didn’t have time to get to see him.”

Passchendaele, in the western corner of Belgium, was the site of the campaign’s bloodiest day.

The red line

The Kiwis eventually pushed to Hanebeek Stream, a quagmire overlooked by pillboxes. Here they paused, shielded by the artillery barrage, with the Abraham Heights ahead of them, grey in the dawn. They reached the initial objective, the “Red Line” on their battle maps, at 7am and began digging in. They were expected to pause for an hour and a half to consolidate; but it did not take the Germans long to find the range and make life “fairly warm”, as Evans put it. Fresh forces from 3 Wellington and 3 Canterbury battalions took the pillboxes on the slopes ahead, finally reaching the so-called “Blue Line” at 9.10am. Then, wrote Heseltine, the artillery came under air attack:

About 11 o’clock one of Fritz’s aeroplanes came over our guns and dropped three bombs quite close to our guns, right on our track and killed three horses and wounded three, also wounded two of our drivers, one chap had his legs badly smashed. I was lucky I was only about 50 yards from where the bombs dropped. I got a fright I can tell you, the ground was very soft, therefore pieces of shell and earth didn’t fly very far; there were dozens of horses and men around our guns unloading their shells at the time, it’s marvellous how so few were hit.

A little to the north-east, the men of 1 Brigade tackled pillboxes and machine-gun positions with heroic disregard for personal safety. Sergeant KA Goldingham, covered by rifle-grenade fire from his men, plunged into a German machine-gun position and bayoneted the occupants before they could respond. Meanwhile, Private Tom Geange, armed only with his service revolver, joined another man in taking a second machine-gun post.

The Wellington Battalion began taking fire from a machine-gun at Korek, the miserable ruins of a village that lay just beyond Gravenstafel. Sergeant FE Chappell led men from 1 Wellington and 3 Otago battalions forward to tackle it with grenades. One group pushed into a pillbox to find dead Germans in the outer chamber and survivors deeper within, trying to set fire to secret papers. Other New Zealand forces pushed on to Korek, but the advance was diverted by German forces in what was left of Kronprinz farm – a cluster of buildings beyond the Stroombeek stream that had been turned into a strong point. The Kiwis took it, got in touch with 48 Division, and dug into their new positions.

By Western Front standards, it had been a successful day. Russell initially estimated casualties at between 1500 and 2000, remarkably close to the actual loss of 1853, including 200 missing and 330 dead – among them Edwin Clark and Boer War veteran Hugh Boscawen. Evans was surprised: “Casualties not very heavy considering the extent of the operation,” he wrote. TR Preston was similarly enthused: “We made a good success & only had 32 casualties in my company.”

The funeral of Lieutenant Colonel George Augustus King, commander of 1 Canterbury Battalion, at Ypres, October 17. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/ 1/2-013803-G

The funeral of Lieutenant Colonel George Augustus King, commander of 1 Canterbury Battalion, at Ypres, October 17. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/ 1/2-013803-G

Hot food and a tot of rum

So the battle came to what, on the front, passed for an end. Rain poured down in sheets. The men were exhausted, though as Evans pointed out, “considering the tiredness & exposure [they] took it well”. Houper thought everyone “happy with the cheerfulness of victory”. However, most of the Kiwis were more interested in hot food and the tot of rum issued soon after the battle. Heseltine met a friend the day afterwards: “He looks a complete wreck, spent all the afternoon with him[,] his company was supposed to stay in the line for 23 hours but were not relieved for 56.” They had “lived all the time in a shell hole they dug in and lived on bully beef and hard biscuits, poor kid he had a rough time”.

Two days later, the New Zealanders were relieved by 49 Division and marched west, “not sorry to leave the Ypres sector”, said Heseltine. But it was a temporary respite: the successes of October 4 had ended talk of closing the front down for the winter. In fact, there were good reasons – both tactical and political – for reaching Passchendaele and the adjacent high ground before then.

All rested on the weather, and the relentless autumn rain made the whole valley a puddled, impassable bog. Although the downpour eased on 7 October, officers were reluctant to support the assault.

But the British commander, General Douglas Haig, was determined to advance on Passchendaele, even when another torrent of rain the next day reduced movement up to the start-point to an exhausting struggle over slippery duckboards. Cold and tired Tommies pushed through the New Zealand lines ready for the “off”, but their assault on October 9 was disastrous. Artillery failed to cut the nests of wire, with the result that Bellevue Spur was not taken; and then 66 Division on the other ridge came under fire from German positions further up the spur.

Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of British forces in France. Photo/Getty Images

The British took more than 5700 casualties to achieve an advance of just 500 yards. Many of the fallen were left on the battlefield, screaming for help. Many died of their wounds or from exposure or by sniper fire before they could be reached. Their plight was heart-wrenching for the Kiwis in the trenches behind them, and although their trenches were, as Ernest Langford, a private with 2 Otago Battalion, put it, “in full view of Fritz who is sniping continuously”, many Kiwis went forward to rescue British soldiers lying in no man’s land.

Now the New Zealanders were ordered to advance on Passchendaele. Corporal Neil McCorkindale of 3 Battalion got his orders to move on the 9th. He recorded in his diary that he slept in his “first little dugout” under shellfire with two other soldiers. He met the moment with prayer: “Also asked Him to take care of my own little wife & grant that we should be spared to one another.”

Moving next day was a difficult trek through a road left “terrible rough & muddy”, pocked with shell holes and “blocked with carts & wagons of all descriptions, dead horses & mules & men”. The New Zealanders did not reach their destination until 3am on October 11. Late in the day, men braved German fire and laid out a tape along the front line. Units began moving up to it during the night in miserably overcast weather that soon turned to rain, making the advance to the start line a challenge. Vincent Jervis and his companions of 1 Battalion lost the track altogether at one point and walked in a circle, but eventually found their intended starting position:

It was raining & things were in a hell of a mess. I had to wander round with Bricky looking for Capt. Collier. The old – did not have as much to carry as I and I could not keep up with him. I fell down numerous times and it was all I could do to get up. We found Collier in the end and then went back to Kronprinz farm. I was exhausted when we got there. I lay down in the rain for a while.

The assault was scheduled to begin at 5.25am, heralded by a four-minute artillery barrage, but the New Zealand gunners were in dire straits. Some of the weapons sank axle-deep into the morass, and when they fired, their trails rammed deeper into the bog, throwing off the accuracy. Even makeshift platforms did not ease the problem. Fire was still sporadic and slow, partly because it was hard to get munitions, partly because the mud had to be cleaned off the shells before the guns could be loaded. And the shells that did land around their targets were often ineffective, because the sludge was not hard enough to trigger every fuse, and the blasts of those that did burst were muted by the gloop into which they fell. The wire was unbroken and the German machine-gunners, safe in their concrete pillboxes, were virtually untouched.

None of this was known in detail to the men waiting nervously for the “off”. Flares sputtered in the darkness. At zero hour, the whistles blew and, wrote McCorkindale, “away we went, nearly wet through & plastered with mud”. The New Zealand objectives – the ridges straddling the Ravebeek stream with Passchendaele itself just beyond – were perhaps 45 minutes’ walk away in peacetime conditions. 

NZ artillerymen in a shot probably taken on October 12. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/1/2-012946-G

NZ artillerymen in a shot probably taken on October 12. Photo/Henry Armytage Sanders/ATL/1/2-012946-G

Knee-deep mud

Now the Kiwis had no option but to struggle slowly forward through knee-deep mud, weighed down by their heavy boots, thick greatcoats, helmets and canvas webbing that was typically hung with battle equipment such as a heavy box respirator, knife, .303 rounds and grenades, water bottle, field dressings and iodine.

To this they also added a bulky haversack jammed with trenching tools such as folding spades and picks, wirecutters, iron rations, tea, and sometimes personal toilet items such as toothbrush, shaving soap, razor, comb, spare braces, sugar, knife, spoons and spare underwear.

It seemed an absurd load for a battlefield where even unladen men had to struggle to move, but they had to have the gear in order to dig in and hold on until they could be supplied.

So they struggled forward in pouring rain, across ground still littered with fallen Tommies from the disastrous British advance three days earlier, some of whom were still alive, feebly calling for aid. As they pushed through the filth and cloying mud, gasping for breath, the air all around them sang with death.

Few got very far. The men of 2 Otago Battalion were heading for Bellevue Spur, but were held up by nests of uncut wire, up to 50 yards deep in places. German machine-gunners poured fire into the Kiwis, who tried to wriggle under the obstacles. Major WW Turner, commanding 10 (North Otago) Company, wriggled through the first line of wire but was killed trying to cut the second. When 1 Otago Battalion arrived, they had no better fortune.

Where the Kiwis could come to grips with their enemy, they gave as good as they got, and in places the battle descended into brutal hand-to-hand fighting. A platoon under Second Lieutenant AR Cockerell took two pillboxes in the Ravebeek Valley, killing many Germans and taking 80 prisoner. It was an astonishing feat of arms, inspired by Cockerell’s drive and leadership, and he was later awarded the DSO.

But these small victories did not take the New Zealanders towards their objectives. Attack after attack failed, leaving Kiwi soldiers dead and wounded in the field. Just before noon, the battalion commanders in 2 Brigade decided to call the assault off in their sector. They dug in where they stood, principally on the Ravebeek flats.

They were not alone. Men of 3 (Rifle) Brigade fell as they crawled towards “Wolf” farm, their first objective. German soldiers, visible against the skyline, were apparently withdrawing, but the pillboxes were strongly held. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Puttick reached the forward positions around 8am and discovered that the men could get no further forward. He ordered what was left of the force to dig in. By around 10am, the battalions were dug in between 200 and 500 yards ahead of their starting point, east of the farm buildings that had been dubbed, without the slightest trace of irony, “Peter Pan”. On their left they were in touch with British forces – the legendary Black Watch.

The news spread

As the sun set over the scene of carnage, the New Zealanders dug in and thanked God they were alive. Darkness made it possible for Russell to send 4 Brigade, along with Army Service Corps personnel and artillerymen, into the field to start collecting the wounded. Conditions were so appalling it took six or eight stretcher-bearers to carry out each casualty. Many of the wounded remained to be collected next morning.

It took a while for news of the disaster to spread. As early as the evening of October 12, Jervis heard “a rumour about the whole advance being held up by pill boxes”. Most of the soldiers, however, had seen only their own tiny slice of the fighting, and the enormity of what had happened did not strike them until the next day.

It was miserably cold and wet the next day, and Evans was just realising “how the 2nd & 3rd Bde has suffered” when his own unit was pushed forward to relieve them. Jervis “did a bit of sniping but did not do much damage”, finally joining stretcher parties where he “also ‘ratted’ a few dead Huns”. Rain gave everybody the shiver, he said. He saw the wounded being brought off the field – assisted by “what was practically an armistice on both sides for the purpose of getting wounded out” – and suddenly realised “what a sad failure yesterday’s attack had been”.

Edited extract reproduced with permission from The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, by Matthew Wright (Oratia Books, $49.99). Wright is a prolific author, who has written more than 50 books, principally relating to New Zealand history, including many military histories. Among his works are the Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand and Two Peoples, One Land: The New Zealand Wars. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

This article was first published in the April 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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