Passchendaele was "nothing but utter desolation ... just one shell hole touching another"

by Greg Hall / 13 October, 2016
October 12 marks the 99th anniversary of the worst day in New Zealand military history, when 846 young New Zealanders were killed during the attack on Bellevue Spur, Flanders, in Belgium. New Zealand troops had also been in action eight days earlier at the Battle of Broodseinde, when another 320 lost their lives. Many more were wounded. We remember these actions as the Battle of Passchendaele. Although we tend to regard World War I as “ancient history”, there are Kiwis still alive whose fathers fought in one of these engagements.
Passchendaele – an illustration of World War I soldiers in mud near Ypres in Belgium in 1917. Photo/Getty Images
Passchendaele – an illustration of World War I soldiers in mud near Ypres in Belgium in 1917. Photo/Getty Images


In late September 1917, the four infantry brigades of the New Zealand Division left their training areas behind the lines and headed toward the Belgian town of Ypres. Three years of intensive German artillery bombardment had reduced the medieval town, once centre of the European textile trade, now the centre of the “Ypres Salient”, to ruins. Fires illuminated the remains of the great Cloth Hall and the nearby cathedral was a pile of rubble.

“Wipers” was the gateway to a hell that awaited the New Zealanders a few miles to the northeast. Beyond Ypres, the near-flat ground folded over creeks and spurs and a low ridge to the village of Passchendaele. In 1917, the six short miles between were a water-logged morass of shell craters and mud, with decomposing bodies of horses and men being slowly absorbed into an apocalyptic quagmire.

Tom French. Photo/French Family Collection
Tom French. Photo/French Family Collection


The New Zealanders had acquitted themselves well at Messines on June 7 and in the actions that followed, and they were battle-hardened, experienced front-line troops. Every engagement, however, carried a severe cost in men killed or wounded, and newly trained reinforcements arrived daily. For many of those men, the ground over which they now struggled would become their grave. For those who survived, the name Passchendaele would cause heads to drop, eyes to narrow and lips to become tightly sealed.

As the 1st Infantry Brigade made its way toward Ypres, 2nd Lieutenant Edgar Young marched at the head of his platoon. At 31, the peacetime solicitor from the Taranaki town of Stratford was relatively old. As Lance-Corporal Young, he had been chosen to attend officer training school on arrival in England, had graduated and was now attached to 2nd Auckland Battalion.

After the war, Young returned to the law in Stratford and married a teacher from Western Australia. They raised four boys, all high achievers. The eldest, Bertram, was president of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners and retired from general practice some years ago. Venn would become a Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister and an early proponent of homosexual law reform. Arthur Young was head boy and dux of King's College in Auckland. He followed his father into the legal profession and later co-founded national law firm Chapman Tripp Sheffield Young. John, the youngest, received the ONZM for dairy industry and community services in Taranaki. Arthur remembers his dad as a forthright man and an excellent father – heavily engaged in community affairs and respected and loved by all.

A British Mark IV tank stuck in mud following combat at St Julien, Belgium, in October 1917. Photo/Getty Images
A British Mark IV tank stuck in mud following combat at St Julien, Belgium, in October 1917. Photo/Getty Images


Ninety-nine years ago, all of that lay ahead of Edgar Young. Although his thoughts may have fleetingly turned to his Taranaki home, his focus, and that of those in his platoon, was on what lay ahead. For Young, Thursday, October 4, 1917, was to be the end of his short war. During the day, he was badly wounded and his distinguished and gallant service and devotion to duty at this Battle of Broodseinde would earn him a “Mentioned in Dispatches”. A superior officer, Captain CH McClelland, wrote to him after the battle, in which McClelland was wounded and awarded the Distinguished Service Order, to say that in his opinion, Lt Young should have been awarded a DSO or Military Cross. He concluded that “all the awards must have been made … c’est la guerre!”

In 2017, Robin Ensoll, of the New Zealand Veterans Band, will be 80 when he travels to Belgium to play at a ceremony commemorating the centenary of the Battle of Broodseinde. It will be his second visit and an especially poignant one. On October 4, 1917, his father, John Ensoll, a 22-year-old infantryman from Tainui Rd, Devonport, waited in the rain with his company of 2nd Auckland Infantry Battalion for “zero hour” to signal the commencement of the attack that would mark the start of a terrible week for the New Zealand Division taking part in the Battle of Passchendaele.

John Ensoll and 2nd Lieutenant Edgar Young. Photo/Ensoll family collection/Young family collection
John Ensoll and 2nd Lieutenant Edgar Young. Photo/Ensoll family collection/Young family collection


Private Ensoll wanted to be no more than “one of the boys”. Two months before, he had relinquished his corporal’s stripes and “reverted to the ranks at his own request”. Before the war he had been an engineering cadet with the Public Works Department; six months after Passchendaele, he was classified as permanently unfit as a result of inhaling gas.

Ensoll returned from the war and in 1930 married a girl from Mt Rosa Station in Gibbston. They had four children, of whom three survive, and lived most of their lives in Whanganui, where John was a Public Works Department engineer. He passed on his love of music to Robin and this led him to join the New Zealand Army as a bandsman attached to the New Zealand Infantry Regiment, in which capacity he served for 20 years.

Robin, who was very close to his father, recalls that “Dad never talked about the war”. To return next year on the 100th anniversary and play at the commemoration will be a “proud and emotional moment and a chance to give something back to Dad for everything he gave me and to remember Dad’s mates who didn’t come back”.

Soldiers on duckboards among wire and mud at Carter Point, 1917. Photo/National Army Museum
Soldiers on duckboards among wire and mud at Carter Point, 1917. Photo/National Army Museum


As the 1st Brigade cleared Ypres and headed toward the front-lines, Corporal Tom French of 1st Auckland Battalion, a renowned Maori All Black before the war, might have flexed his right arm, perhaps still a little stiff from the effects of the wound received a year earlier on the Somme. An experienced soldier, Tom would be talking to the men in his section, trying to ease the anxiety in the new boys. They would be glad to have someone of Corporal French’s experience with them, if not a little surprised to see a Maori face in an otherwise almost entirely “Pakeha” battalion.

Tom’s youngest son, Karl French, from his second marriage in 1962 when the old soldier was in his 70s, remembers his father well even though he didn't know him for long, but such was his mana that you didn't even have to know Tom French. His life, his exploits, his courage are part of our history and his name will live forever on the Tom French Cup, awarded by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union since 1949 to the Tom French Memorial Maori Player of the Year. The list of recipients are rugby legends: Johnny Smith, Sid Going, Wayne Shelford, Zinzan Brooke, to name just a few.

Captain Stuart Varnham. Photo/Croad family collection
Captain Stuart Varnham. Photo/Croad family collection


On the night of October 3, the New Zealand 1st Brigade was in place, waiting in the rain for the artillery barrage at dawn to signal the start of the attack. Corporal French’s 1st Auckland and the 800 men of 1st Wellington were to lead off, and when they had reached the first objective, the Red Line, 2nd Lieutenant Young, Private Ensoll and the men of 2nd Auckland and 2nd Wellington would “leapfrog” the starting battalions and take the final objectives, the Abraham Heights and Gravenstafel Spur. When the attack commenced Tom French was grievously wounded and would lose his left arm. His workmate, mentor and close friend Sergeant David Gallaher, All Blacks captain and later Auckland Rugby selector of the team in which Tom French played, and at 43, one of the oldest men in 2nd Auckland battalion, died.

On the right of 1st Brigade was the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade and they also waited in the rain and gale-force winds for the 6am artillery barrage that would signal the start of the attack.

Captain Stuart Varnham of 3rd Wellington had memorised the map references and objectives for his battalion. Perhaps these were not the only things on his mind. He may have also spared a thought for his fiancée, Dorothy Knight. Perhaps he had written to her in the previous few days to tell her of his love and his hope that he would one day return to her. He can’t have rated his chances too highly. They had said goodbye more than two years before and Varnham had already seen action at Gallipoli and on the Somme.

Later that day, Varnham took command of the battalion during fierce fighting when his colonel, Claude Weston, was wounded. Varnham was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry. Later in life Varnham became general manager of Weston’s family newspaper, the Taranaki Herald.

A pack mule loaded with ammunition. Photo/National Army Museum
A pack mule loaded with ammunition. Photo/National Army Museum


Varnham returned home in 1919 and married Dorothy. Their daughter, Nancy Croad, 89, of Auckland, recounts that although her father had been spared, her mother’s family, from Dannevirke, had not been so fortunate. Dorothy’s parents had received three of “those” telegrams in World War I: 20-year-old Herbert, killed in action at Gallipoli; 24-year-old George, at Passchendaele on October 12, 1917; and the eldest, Douglas, on the Somme in 1918.

For Varnham, later colonel of the Taranaki Regiment, the Great War was not his last. Nancy remembers cycling to school in tears after saying goodbye to her soldier father at the New Plymouth Railway Station in January 1940. He did not return until 1942.

Nancy has fond memories of her father, weekend picnics with other Taranaki families and Anzac Days when she would help polish his medals and walk beside him carrying wreaths. Although he marched each April 25, Varnham never talked of that day, October 4, 1917, when he took command at the Battle of Broodseinde and won his Military Cross.

Private Athol Stretton with son Russell. Photo/Stretton family collection
Private Athol Stretton with son Russell. Photo/Stretton family collection


Private Athol Stretton was 20 and employed as a cadet weather forecaster by the Meteorological Department in Wellington when he enlisted on November 9, 1916. He left New Zealand with the 24th reinforcements and was posted to 3rd Auckland Battalion, joining his unit in Belgium in August 1917. Perhaps if the generals planning the October offensives had had the services of a weather forecaster, the disaster that awaited them on October 12 might have been avoided, but Stretton was not there for his weather-forecasting skills. He recorded his impressions of the artillery barrage that preceded the attack on October 4:

“When the barrage commenced, the earth shook like a jelly from the firing of hundreds of guns from whose muzzles belched forth smoke, fire and shells. The spectacle I saw appeared like the edge of a giant rainstorm as it traversed an area of water. I could see only the near edge of the barrage, and could not see its depth for smoke and flying debris. So close together were the shells falling that we could watch a selected tree stump or piece of debris and see it hurled into the air.”

The New Zealanders performed with distinction in the Battle of Broodseinde and achieved their objectives. The battalion histories are littered with accounts of individual heroism and astonishing perseverance in the face of enemy fire. Their “rolls of honour” record about 300 killed in action and perhaps 1500 wounded. A relatively “light” day.

Jacking up a field gun at Passchendaele in an attempt to move it. Photo/National Army Museum
Jacking up a field gun at Passchendaele in an attempt to move it. Photo/National Army Museum


It was the 1st and 4th Infantry Brigades who saw action on October 4. The 2nd and 3rd being held in reserve in case of a German counterattack, but the enemy had been dealt a severe blow and the counterattack didn’t materialise. The 2nd and 3rd battalions did not have to wait long for their turn. The British high command, buoyed by its success at Broodseinde, pressed ahead with plans to consolidate the gains and to capture the village of Passchendaele.

The rain that had arrived on October 3 signalled a change in the autumn weather, and although the underfoot conditions on the fourth were sufficiently firm for infantry and artillery alike, the following eight days of wet, miserable weather turned the marginal ground into a terrible confusion – a hellish swamp in which guns could not be set and through which men could not pass except by wading sometimes thigh deep in black oozing mud. Horses, men and guns that strayed from narrow marked trails and duckboards would sink and disappear.

Private Walter Rushbrook. Photo/Rushbrook family collection
Private Walter Rushbrook. Photo/Rushbrook family collection


The New Zealanders’ attack on Bellevue Spur on October 12 was to be a repeat of a disastrous British attack on the ninth that gained no new ground and cost 2500 casualties. The British wounded from that action still lay out in the open, abandoned and unattended, as the New Zealanders moved toward their start lines on the afternoon and night of October 11. If they looked ahead to the Bellevue Spur, they could clearly see the coils of wire protecting the concrete bunkers. Between them and the enemy: mud, barbed wire and hundreds of machine-guns. The attack on Bellevue Spur leading to the ruins of the village of Passchendaele was timed for 5.25am. When the day was done, 846 young New Zealanders lay dead – the worst day in New Zealand military history.

On that morning, Private Walter Rushbrook waited for daylight to appear over a battlefield that a New Zealand soldier described as “nothing but utter desolation, not a blade of grass or a tree, here and there a heap of bricks marking where a village or farmhouse had once stood … just one shell hole touching another”. Private Rushbrook and his friend Joe, both of 2nd NZ Field Ambulance, nervously gripped the stretcher they were to carry onto the battlefield with the infantry.

After the war, Rushbrook resumed teaching and in the 1920s, following the deaths of first a sister, then her husband soon after, took over raising their four orphaned children. In 1939, he married a woman 20 years younger and they had 20 happy years of marriage until his death at 70.

Stretcher bearers resting in 1917. Photo/National Army Museum
Stretcher bearers resting in 1917. Photo/National Army Museum


Son Charles, 69, was 11 when Walter died in 1959 and his memories of his father are fond ones. “He was a generous and a gentle man,” Charles remembers. Although Walter had his two sons later in life – he was 58 when Charles was born – he was nevertheless energetically engaged in their lives. He was a religious man despite his experiences in the war, liked a good laugh, played the piano and enjoyed the odd “spot”.

Now and again Charles glances at the framed “Mentioned in Dispatches” citation on the wall of his Christchurch home or holds the most treasured of his father’s possessions, a silver watch that belonged to Joe and which has both Walter’s and Joe’s initials inscribed on the back.

Charles recalls that “we attended Anzac Day ceremonies in Devonport every year, but my father wore his medals under his overcoat and stood with the public, never marching with the returned soldiers”. He says his father was a liberal thinker and that when the war broke out may have struggled with the ambiguities of patriotism and conscientious objection, and perhaps that is why he opted for the Ambulance Corps. It matters not how Walter Rushbrook resolved his personal dilemmas – his courage and that of his fellow stretcher bearers at Passchendaele are beyond argument, as is the framed citation on the wall.

“Children of Passchendaele”: Robin Ensoll and Nancy Croad. Photo/Croad Family Collection; Ensoll Family Collection
“Children of Passchendaele”: Robin Ensoll and Nancy Croad. Photo/Croad Family Collection; Ensoll Family Collection


Nearby, Private Stretton also waited. Although he had been in action with his 4th Infantry Brigade on October 4, Stretton found himself one of the few back in the line for the attack on Bellevue Spur. Historian Glyn Harper surmises that “it is likely that Private Stretton was one of the 1600 men from 4 NZ Brigade being used as stretcher bearers on October 12”. Whatever the reason, he was there, and by the time the day was done, he had been severely wounded in the leg and his war was over.

Stretton’s son Russell remembers his father as an “honourable and fair man. A musician, sailor and watercolour artist.” Russell was born in 1948 to Athol’s second wife. His first, Ruby, died after only 11 years of marriage.

Arthur Young of Auckland is 81 and still goes to the office every day. Robin Ensoll is retired and also lives in Auckland. Karl French is a designer residing in London. Nancy Croad leads an active life and in the past years has painstakingly reconstructed her father’s wartime diaries. Charles Rushbrook of Christchurch is 69. Russell Stretton, formerly of Auckland’s North Shore, lives in Sydney. They remember Passchendaele every year, that week in October 1917 when their fathers took part in one of the greatest battles of World War I. They are “children of Passchendaele”.

Greg Hall is a director of the Passchendaele Society.

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