First Battle of Passchendaele, 12 October 1917
Although the entire Third Battle of Ypres is normally known as Passchendaele, that name officially belongs to two battles late in the campaign. After a period of failure at the start of the battle, late September and early October had seen some British success. General Herbert Plumer had abandoned the idea of the breakthrough battle in favour of a series of “bite and hold” battles, each designed to take a chuck out of the German lines. In dry weather his Second Army had won a series of victories on the Menin Road Ridge (20-25 September 1917), at Polygon Wood (26-27 September) and at Broodseinde (4 October). The German lines had been pushed back to the edge of the Passchendaele ridge.
The dry period came to an end after the first week of October. The British attack, at Poelcapelle on 9 October, came after 25mm of raid fell over two days. That may not seem a vast amount of rain, but it did represent close to half of the expected average rainfall for October. Worse, the flat ground around Ypres relied on its field drainage system to stay dry. Three years of constant bombardment of the area around Ypres had destroyed that system, while also churning up the soil. The attack at Poelcapelle made some limited progress, but began bogged down in the mud.
The rain continued over the next few days. Another 14mm of raid fell between 10 and 12 October. Any further British advance would have to be made over (or through) fields of mud.
The successes of late September had been won with the aid of a well planned artillery bombardment. A similar bombardment was planned for the attack on Passchendaele, but the mud dramatically reduced its impact. Shells buried themselves in the mud, and either failed to explode at all or had the force of the explosion absorbed by the mud.
Haig did have some fresh troops. The 3rd Australian Division and the New Zealand Division had seen relatively little combat, and were allocated the task of leading the assault on Passchendaele.
The attack on 12 October was a total failure. Part of the 3rd Australian Division came under German artillery fire before the attack even started, causing confusion. Forward patrols reached Passchendaele village, but were not strong enough to hold the village and were soon forced to retreat to their starting point. The 10th Australian Brigade was stopped by machine gun fire from its flank. The New Zealand Division ran into unbroken German wire and suffered heavy losses (nearly 3,000 men) attempting to pass through a single gap in the wire. At the end of the day, all of the attacking units had been forced to pull back almost to their original position.
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Battle of Passchendaele: 31 July - 6 November 1917
Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele became infamous not only for the scale of casualties, but also for the mud.
Ypres was the principal town within a salient (or bulge) in the British lines and the site of two previous battles: First Ypres (October-November 1914) and Second Ypres (April-May 1915). Haig had long wanted a British offensive in Flanders and, following a warning that the German blockade would soon cripple the British war effort, wanted to reach the Belgian coast to destroy the German submarine bases there. On top of this, the possibility of a Russian withdrawal from the war threatened German redeployment from the Eastern front to increase their reserve strength dramatically.
The British were further encouraged by the success of the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917. Nineteen huge mines were exploded simultaneously after they had been placed at the end of long tunnels under the German front lines. The capture of the ridge inflated Haig's confidence and preparations began. Yet the flatness of the plain made stealth impossible: as with the Somme, the Germans knew an attack was imminent and the initial bombardment served as final warning. It lasted two weeks, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns, but again failed to destroy the heavily fortified German positions.
The infantry attack began on 31 July. Constant shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems. The left wing of the attack achieved its objectives but the right wing failed completely. Within a few days, the heaviest rain for 30 years had turned the soil into a quagmire, producing thick mud that clogged up rifles and immobilised tanks. It eventually became so deep that men and horses drowned in it.
On 16 August the attack was resumed, to little effect. Stalemate reigned for another month until an improvement in the weather prompted another attack on 20 September. The Battle of Menin Road Ridge, along with the Battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September and the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, established British possession of the ridge east of Ypres.
Further attacks in October failed to make much progress. The eventual capture of what little remained of Passchendaele village by British and Canadian forces on 6 November finally gave Haig an excuse to call off the offensive and claim success.
However, Passchendaele village lay barely five miles beyond the starting point of his offensive. Having prophesied a decisive success, it had taken over three months, 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties to do little more than make the bump of the Ypres salient somewhat larger. In Haig's defence, the rationale for an offensive was clear and many agreed that the Germans could afford the casualties less than the Allies, who were being reinforced by America's entry into the war. Yet Haig's decision to continue into November remains deeply controversial and the arguments, like the battle, seem destined to go on and on.
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The battle begins
After a preliminary artillery bombardment of two weeks - which saw 3,000 guns fire millions of shells at German positions - the great offensive began at 3.50am on 31 July 1917.
On the first day, at Pilckem Ridge, the British, and particularly their French allies, were able to make some gains, but not without cost.
Second Lieutenant James Sutherland was killed at Pilckem Ridge on 31 July 1917, the opening day of the battle
James’s last diary entry reads, ‘Hope this is as good as the last show. Cheerio everyone and don't worry', 30 July 1917
During the afternoon of 31 July, it began to rain heavily. British artillery observers lost sight of the advancing troops and were unable to support them as the Germans counter-attacked. This resulted in the loss of captured ground.
The rain continued and quickly turned a landscape already smashed by three years of fighting into a swampy quagmire. It affected the British and French, as they tried to advance across heavily contested ground, more than the German defenders. In particular, the rain made supplying the guns, and moving them forward, virtually impossible.
After the opening day, both sides made efforts to strengthen their positions. But by 2 August the rain had made any kind of strategic movement all but impossible. As a result, the whole Passchendaele offensive was postponed for several days.
World War One Battlefields
Now spelt Passendale, the small village of Passchendaele five miles north-east of Ypres is the name by which the final stages of the Third Battle of Ypres is known. It is the name, along with the Somme, which has come to symbolise the Great War for many. The Third battle of Ypres was preceded by the attack on Messines ridge in June 1917. The main battle commenced on the 31st of July 1917, and stretched on until November the 10th, 1917. This year, 2017, marks the 100th Anniversary of this phase of the conflict. To visit the area see the Travelling to Ypres and Staying in Ypres pages
The Passchendaele Battlefield
The final phase, the advance on Passchendaele, took place in October and November, the aim being to take the strategically important high ground of the Passchendaele ridge. The first battle of Passchendaele, on the 12th October, failed to take the village, and the second battle of Passchendaele lasted from the 26th of October until the 10th of November. The map below shows the sites described on this page. Just south west of the village is the large cemetery and Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot, covered by a separate page.
For battlefield touring in the area, the Holt’s Guide to the Ypres Salient is the guidebook I would recommend to visitors it contains specific itineraries covering the relevant sites, a really useful map showing all the sites, and I still carry my copy on every visit I make to the battlefields.
Passchedaele locations map
Good books covering the battle are Lyn MacDonald’s Passchendaele and The Sacrificial Ground by Nigel Steel and Peter Hart.Jack Sheldon’s The German Army at Passchendaele gives the German perspective.
Passchendaele church was totally destroyed by shellfire in 1917. However, it has since been reconstructed and now dominates the village square. Within the church are three stained-glass windows in honour of the 66th Division.
The left window shows″ at the bottom, with the names and shields of several northern towns above, including Bury, Accrington, Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan. The larger central window states th Division, British Expeditionary Force, In Memoriam”. St George is shown above, and further up a shield with three lions representing the Duchy of Lancaster. The shields and names of Manchester and Salford are towards the top. The right window states ” and has more shields, of Padiham, Bacup, Todmorden and others.
Outside the church in the central village square is a bronze plaque. This was sculpted by Ross Bastiaan, and shows a relief map of the Ypres Salient, along with some information on the battle of Passchendaele. There are also some statistics: the plaque states that 1,000,000 from the British Empire were killed, and 2,000,000 wounded on the Western Front during the Great War. It was unveiled by the Honourable Bill Hayden, Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia, on the 1st of September, 1993. There are similar bronze relief plaques at Messines and the Menin Gate in Ypres.
The Ross Bastiaan Plaque in Passchendaele square
Passchendaele New British Cemetery
Just to the west of Passchendaele on the road to s-Graventafel is Passchendaele New British Cemetery. This was created by concentration of graves following the Armistice. The structure of the front of this cemetery is somewhat unusual, with almost a barred window appearance such as a prison might have (see picture below). Almost all the graves date from the autumn of 1917, and therefore from the Third Battle of Ypres.
There are 2101 burials here, and more than three-quarters are unidentified. The cemetery is set on three tiers, with steps down to the lower tiers as you move away from the road. The very large proportion of unknown burials is obvious as you walk along the rows. Right at the back are seven special memorials to men who are believed to be buried here.
Just outside the Cemetery is the last of the Albertina markers to be erected by the Belgians in the 1980s to commemorate the death of King Albert I. This one states “Ein defensiv Passendale 28th September 1918”, and marks the end of the last Passchendaele offensive towards the end of the War.
Other Sites Nearby
The site of Crest Farm lies just south of the village, on a street called Canadalaan. This fortified farm on the high ground was on the line of the final offensive to take the village. This is one of several official Canadian memorial sites, and marks the attack made from here by the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions on the 6th of November 1917. The Australian 9th Brigade had previously taken Crest Farm on the 12th of October, but it had not been held. It was retaken by the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada on the 30th October.
The layout and the commemorative stone is similar to that at Hill 62 (and other Canadian memorials on the Western Front), and below is a picture of the memorial, showing Passchendaele church in the centre of the village in the background. It was not a great distance, but the price in blood for those few yards was very high. The village and the ridge were finally taken on the 10th of November, 1917.
Heading south from the village on the N303, just as the houses in the village end and before large modern warehouses (with the name PASFROST), a grass track leads off to the left which is signposted to the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion Memorial. The 85th were part of the 4th Canadian Division.
The memorial is a short way along the path, and the plaque records that it was erected by the battalion ‘in memory of the gallant comrades who gave their lives in the operation before Passchendaele at Decline Copse and Vienna Cottage October 28th to 31st 1917‘. The names of those who die are listed – 12 officers and over 130 other ranks.
On the 17th and 18th of October 1917, men from the battalion viewed a relief map (made at 1:1000 scale in concrete at Ten Elms Camp near Poperinghe) of the area they were to attack. On the 17th Lieutenant Frank Hutchinson joined the battalion. He was one of those who would die in the attack less than two weeks later (like many of the others he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate).
The battalion spent the next few days practicing for their attack, and on the 27th Lieutenant Walter Martell led an advance party into the line, with the remainder of the battalion following the next day.
On the 28th of October the 85th Battalion moved to Potijze, where they had supper, and then moved up to the front line. A German counter-attack had driven the 44th Battalion (which they were relieving) back, and men of the 85th helped out.
There were four officers killed here, even before the main attack (due on the 30th). Captain MacKenzie was shot in the abdomen by a machine gun, and survived a little while to direct operations, dying shortly afterwards. Lieutenants Martell and Anderson were killed, whilst Lieutenant Christie was wounded. He was taken back to the Regimental First-Aid post, but there he was killed by a shell, as was his batman who had come back with him. This Aid Post was located at ‘Tyne Cottage’ – Tyne Cot.
The preparations for attack were made after dusk on the 29th, and the next morning, the attack was scheduled to begin at 5.50 a.m. ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies were to make the attack, on ground from where the railway used to run (to the south of where the monument stands), across to the road which is now the N303. ‘D’ Company was in reserve. There was a preliminary barrage, but it was felt to be light and of little use in this sector.
The attackers were met immediately with rifle and machine-gun fire from the Germans, with nine officers hit immediately, two Company Commanders (Captains Hensley and Clayton) being killed outright. The fire-fight continued, and progress could only be made by the men leaping from shell-hole to shell-hole. Anyone attempting to walk or stand upright was hit – such as Sergeant Rushton of ‘A’ Company, who stood up, shouted “Come on ‘A’ Company!” and was instantly killed. Listed as a Corporal on the CWGC website, Oscar Rushton has no known grave.
At this point, Major Anderson brought some of the reserves of ‘D’ Company forward. This gave the Canadians the impetus they needed and they pushed on, capturing machine gun posts and ‘putting the crews out of action’. They took their objective (the Blue line) at 6.38 a.m., nearly an hour after they had started out.
It was just after this that Lieutenant Hutchinson, in charge of the battalion Tump Liners (a group which carried supplies and equipment in containers partly supported by a band around the forehead) led them up carrying ammunition but was killed after being with the battalion less than two weeks. Major Anderson, Second in Command of the Battalion, was also killed about this time.
The 85th Battalion held their positions for the remainder of the day and the next, although Germans could be seen firing and trying to counter-attack from Passchendaele village and Hill 13. The 85th were relieved on the evening of the 31st of October. They had captured ten machine guns and a field gun, taken a large (but unknown) number of prisoners and expended around 50 rounds of ammunition per rifle.
The cost to the 85th Battalion had been considerable. Of 33 officers involved in the attack (including those at Battalion Headquarters), twelve were killed (those listed on the memorial here), whilst another 11 were wounded. Of the 20 officers with ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies, only one, Lieutenant W Bligh, came through unharmed.
Like most War Diaries of the Great War, this one does not give much information on other ranks, although the number of names recorded on the memorial shows that over 130 were killed, and Brigade records show over 320 recorded as ‘wounded’ or ‘missing’ in the attack – and this was just one small part of the Third Battle of Ypres.
Erected just after the war, the memorial is set on a herringbone pattern brickwork base, and the stone of the monument looks completely unweathered. The memorial stands near the site of one of the 85th Battalion’s objectives – a German strong-point marked as ‘Vienna Cottage’ on trench-maps, and mentioned on the memorial itself. This spot is worth visiting, not only to see the memorial but also because there are excellent views from here, back to the village and also in other directions.
Continuing south on the N303, the village of Broodseinde is located where the N332 crosses the N303. There is a roundabout where the roads meet, with a modern sculpture in the centre and just off the roundabout is a memorial to French soldiers.
Tactical developments [ edit | edit source ]
In July 1917, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig began the Third Battle of Ypres campaign, in an attempt to break out of the Ypres Salient. At the Battle of Messines Ridge the far side of the ridge had been captured down to the Oosttaverne Line and a substantial success gained in the subsequent Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Β] At the Battle of Langemarck there was an advance of 1,500 yards (1,400 m) around Langemarck village by XIV Corps. In view of the failure of the British Fifth Army to advance on the Gheluvelt Plateau in August, Haig ordered that artillery reinforcements be added to the south-east along the higher ground of the Gheluvelt plateau, Broodseinde ridge and the southern half of Passchendaele ridge. Γ]
The main offensive was switched to the British Second Army under command of General Herbert Plumer. Plumer refined the tactics of bite-and-hold that had been used in July and August. By a succession of attacks with objectives of diminishing distance, with increasing numbers of infantry, behind a bigger multi-layered creeping barrage and with standing barrages on the objective lines during consolidation, German counter-attacks would be confronted by a defence in depth, with infantry in communication with its artillery and with much more local support from the Royal Flying Corps, rather than the former practice of looking to exploit success by occupying vacant ground beyond the final objective. Δ] Strictly limited advances at the battles of the Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde produced a 4,000-yard (3,700 m) advance in two weeks, heavy German casualties and a search by the German high command for a remedy to the refined British attacking methods. Ε] The British attacks from 4 October put severe strain on the German defence and Generalleutnant Hermann von Kuhl, Chief of Staff of Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, later claimed that conditions in the field were much worse for the Germans and that sickness had put further strain on manpower. Ζ]
Description 10 October 2.5 48 cloudy 11 October 4.9 50 cloudy 12 October 7.9 55 cloudy Weather data from
McCarthy, C. Passchendaele:
The day-by-day Account (1995)
In the lower ground west of the Passchendaele Ridge, three months of constant shelling had blocked the watercourses that normally provided drainage. On the night of 4 October it began to rain and continued intermittently for the next three days. Much of the battlefield again became a quagmire, making movement extremely difficult. ⎖] Had the German defence collapsed during the attack on the first objective at the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October, the reserve brigades of II Anzac Corps were to have passed through later in the day to continue the attack. ⎗] On 7 October the afternoon attack, which was to have reached the far side of Passchendaele village and the Goudberg spur to the north, was cancelled by Haig because of the heavy rain. The final plan for the attack of 12 October was decided on the evening of 9 October. ⎘] Plumer had received misleading information about the progress of the attack that day and believed that "a sufficiently good jumping-off line" had been achieved, passing the erroneous information back to Haig. ⎙] [Note 2] The decision was made to continue the offensive in order to gain more favourable winter positions on higher ground, to assist the French with their attack due at Malmaison on 23 October and to hold German troops in Flanders during the preparations of the offensive at Cambrai. ⎖]
New Zealand’s Darkest Day
On the 12 th of October 1917, 846 young New Zealanders were killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, with many more to die over the coming days from the wounds received on this one day. By the end of the day the total number of casualties, the wounded, the dead and the missing was 2,740. It took two and a half days to clear the battlefield of the dead and injured.
On the 4th October 2007 (the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Broadseinde) the Rt.Hon Helen Clark ONZ representing the Government of New Zealand was in Ypres where together with the Flemish Government they signed the Ypres Agreement. The agreement committed New Zealand to co-operate in “… increasing broad community recognition … educating younger generations … honouring the war dead … preserving heritage material … and encouraging tourism to commemorative and historical sites in Flanders and New Zealand…” This agreement inspired the 2009 exhibition “Passchendaele: The Belgians Have Not Forgotten”. and the erection of 5,000 white crosses on the parade ground of Fort Takapuna. The Passchendaele Society (Inc) was formed in March 2011 by a dedicated group of enthusiasts who want to ensure New Zealand’s darkest day is not forgotten.
More information on the Passchendaele Society may be found via the “About Us” button at the top of this page and our Newsletter is available under the “E-news” button. This website seeks to provide Society members, students and casual visitors alike with a channel to e-sources and resources on the First World War. Please explore our website for links to World War I websites, information on the Passchendaele Offensive, it’s context in the First World War, and the annual Veteran Affairs multi-media competition “Why do we remember Passchendaele?
Click on Membership for options to join the Society. This remains a small fee of only $20 per year.
The Passchendaele Society acknowledges the generous support of:
The Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association (RNZRSA), The Auckland RSA, The Devonport RSA, The Auckland Officers’ Club, and The Rotary Club of Newmarket and Student Horizons who is assisting us in our quest of educating the Younger Generations by sending them to Belgium to see and learn everything first hand.
The purpose of the Passchendaele Society:
The Society was set up in 2011 to:
• increase community awareness of New Zealand’s history in the First World War at Passchendaele and the Western Front
• educate younger generations of New Zealand about this history
• facilitate access and promote visits to historic and commemorative sites.
• support conservation and interpretation of heritage material from Passchendaele and the Western Front.
• maintaining contact with the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage and other organisations who share our objectives.
• Raising the levels of awareness in the community .
• Greater knowledge of Passchendaele and the Western Front in young people.
• Commemorating the war dead through commemoration services.
• Encouraging the community to visit Passchendaele and the Western Front.
• Making it possible for the community to view heritage material
• Anecdotal and quantifiable levels of awareness
• Number, quality and awareness of ceremonies
• Tourist numbers to Passchendaele and the Western Front
• Exhibitions in New Zealand
We Have Succeeded in:
• providing information to television, radio, newspapers and magazines
• setting up Fields of Remembrance Trust which established more than 100,000 personalised white crosses in fields of remembrance throughout New Zealand
• setting up Fields of Remembrance Trust which established Fields of Remembrance in almost all New Zealand schools .
• with Ministry of Education established a competition “Their Stories-Our Stories”. Presentation at Parliament by Minister of Education.
• planning competition through Ministry of Education “Why I Want To Be In Passchendaele in October 2017.” Winners 10 students to Passchendaele.
Honour the War Dead
• established the annual Passchendaele Commemoration Ceremony at the Auckland War Memorial Museum
• described by Museum Director Roy Clare as “ the perfect blend of reflection , thoughtfulness, music, reverence, honour and ceremony.”
• publicising details of 1914-1918 commemoration ceremonies in Passchendaele and the Western Front.
Historic and Commemorative Sites
• planning a New Zealand Garden and Memorial in Passchendaele Area to be opened at the Centennial Commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele.
• Supported exhibitions of heritage material supplied by Passchendaele Memorial Museum 1917 and the New Zealand Defence Force.
Contacts with Ministry of Culture and Heritage
• established regular and continuous contacts with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the WW100 and other related organisations.
The assassination of Archduke Frans Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on the 28 June 1914 by the “Black Hand” a Serbian nationalist society , set in train a mindless series of events that culminated in the world’s first global war. One thing led to another so quickly that within two months of the assassination the first world war was underway.
Austria-Hungary issued a strong ultimatum to Serbia. If it had been accepted it would have nullified Serbian sovereignty so the Serbians rejected this ultimatum on the 28 July 1914 and Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia the same day. Austro-Hungarian troops joined by soldiers from their provinces of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia invaded Serbia which was conquered in little more than a month . There the matter should have ended- a little skirmish settled !
However Russia, although not bound by any formal treaty, announced the mobilisation of its vast army to come to the defence of Serbia.
Germany, was allied to Austria- Hungary by treaty and after Austria- Hungary declared war and attacked Serbia, regarded the Russian mobilisation as an act of war against Austria- Hungary and declared war on Russia on 1 August 1914.
France was bound by treaty to Russia and found itself at war against Germany and by extension against Austria-Hungary.
Germany mobilised its forces to attack France and in order to reach Paris by the shortest route invaded neutral Belgium on 3 August 1914.
Britain found herself obligated to defend Belgium and also had a treaty agreement to come to the defence of France. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and like France was also by extension at war with Austria-Hungary.
With Britain’s entry into the war , her colonies and dominions were also at war and offered military and financial assistance. Thus Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand came into the war.
The Turkish Ottoman Empire signed a pact with Germany in August 1914 and a front was established at Gallipoli.
Japan honoured a military agreement with Britain and declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914.
Italy declared a policy of neutrality but in May 1915 joined the conflict on the side of the Allies.
The United States of America declared a policy of absolute neutrality which lasted until 1917 when Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann telegram seeking an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States forced America to enter the war on 6 April 1917.
2.0 New Zealand’s First Act of War (1914)
And so the young British colony of New Zealand was engaged in a World War far from it’s own shores and it’s first act of the war was to send an expeditionary force to seize and occupy German Samoa in August 1914.
3.0 Gallipoli (1915)
After training in Egypt New Zealand’s first major involvement of the great war was at Gallipoli in 1915 where they fought as a brigade with the Australians (the ANZACS) The chaotic landings at Gallipoli have been well documented and although Gallipoli saw many courageous New Zealand actions and brief successes (Chunuk Bair) Turkey successfully repelled the British, French and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The Ottoman Forces were not defeated until 1918. More than 2,700 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli. The battles with the Ottoman Turks continued on different fronts and the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade fought in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Jordan. After Gallipoli however the main force of New Zealanders were formed into an Infantry Division and sent to the Western Front in Europe where they performed as a Colonial Division of the British Expeditionary Force.
4.0 The Western Front (1914-1918)
The German invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 as the quickest way to Paris was brought to a halt in September and the Western Front became a static battle arena with a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the Belgian coast. On one side of the Front the British and their allies- on the other the Germans and theirs. Massive armies locked together with their enemies in a landscape which was to become unbelievably desolated. In four years of fighting more than ten million soldiers lost their lives. The battle lines barely moved for most of the war as the opposing sides artillery pounded each other again and again and again. It was a war of attrition and the loser would be the one who first ran out of ammunition, equipment and men. By June 1917 German submarines were sinking one out of every four merchant ships headed for Britain. Admiral Jellicoe the British First Sea Lord warned that if nothing was done to stop this Britain would not have enough supplies to go on fighting. The British Expeditionary Force was under the control of British General Sir Douglas Haig. History has criticised the performance of the Generals involved in the first world war and certainly Sir Douglas Haig has to take his share of that criticism. He was under enormous pressure however to change the stalemate and his strategy to do so was a planned breakthrough on the Ypres front accompanied by an attack by the Royal Navy on the U – Boat bases in the German occupied Belgian ports of Oostende and Zeebrugge. The task of breaking through the Ypres front was entrusted to General Hubert Gough and the major problem was how to break through the defensive positions which the Germans had taken up on the West Flanders Ridge – a line of low hills between forty to sixty meters in height. A key to the breakthrough plan was taking the village of Passchendaele sitting atop the Bellevue Ridge. This proved to be the most difficult part of the plan to achieve and in achieving it the sacrifices made by New Zealand soldiers on 12 October 1917 made this the blackest day in New Zealand’s history. The Germans were eventually driven back in a series of successful offensives in 1918 and by that time it was the Germans who had run out of resources. A cease fire was agreed on 11 November 1918 (Armistice Day) by which time more than 12,500 New Zealanders had died on the Western Front out of a total of 18,188 for the entire war.
5.0 The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme was actually a series of battles over five months which itself resulted in more than a million and a half casualties. More than 2,000 New Zealanders were killed at the Somme and New Zealand’s Unknown Soldier who now lies at the National War Memorial in Wellington is one of those soldiers. With more than 7,500 casualties the Somme was New Zealand’s most costly battle ever.
6.0 Flanders and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917)
Throughout history many wars have been fought on Flanders Fields. Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars spring to mind but Germany’s invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 brought the First World War to Belgium and brought with it an unimaginable scale of carnage to that country.
Just as the Battle of the Somme was a series of battles over five months the Battle for Passchendaele was a series of battles fought between July and November 1917 – La Basseville, Pilkem Ridge, Langemarck, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcapelle – all leading up to the disastrous first Battle of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 – New Zealand’s greatest ever military disaster!
The story of Passchendaele is not an uplifting story, but the story must be told. We must tell the story of New Zealand’s worst ever military disaster. We must tell the story of a complete massacre. We must tell the story of a battle that never should have happened but it did and we must tell the story of the disastrous consequences of the Battle of Passchendaele for New Zealand and New Zealanders.
Two conditions are essential when troops are advancing into enemy territory and neither was present at Passchendaele. One is that the front line must be straight and the other is that you must be on firm terrain.
A critical part of the front as it approached Passchendaele was not a straight line. There was in the line a curve because of the enemy positions on the West Flanders Ridge. This curve had to be taken out before the advance on Passchendaele could take place. A group of engineers tunnelled under the German lines and laid twenty one high explosive mines and at 3.10 am on the 7th of June 1917 nineteen mines exploded simultaneously along the curve. It was the most powerful man made explosion ever made up till that time. It was heard across the Channel in London. It was in fact so powerful that it caused an earthquake ! The line was straightened out . The Germans abandoned their positions. The Allies advanced and by 7 am the New Zealanders had taken Messines and had suffered relatively few casualties in what was generally regarded as one of the greatest military successes of the entire war. The Germans however began to bombard the newly captured areas with increasing ferocity and by the time the New Zealand Division was relieved two days later 700 of them had been killed and another 3,000 wounded. The territorial success gained at Messines was not followed up quickly enough however because the troops north of the New Zealanders were not ready to move forward and this gave the Germans time to reorganise themselves into their three line defensive format.
On 12 July 1917 the Germans used mustard gas which caused untold suffering on both men and horses. The New Zealanders had taken 1,000 horses with them to Flanders and there are many stories told of how well they looked after their horses. Many of the soldiers were country boys who grew up with horses and they knew how to look after them, grooming them and feeding them before they ate themselves. Of the thousand horses who went to Flanders only four survived.
At the end of July 1917 the New Zealand 1st Brigade was involved in battles at La Basseville, a few kilometres south-west of Messines and the main objective of this was to create a decoy from the preparations taking place near Passchendaele.
The New Zealanders were then engaged in the Passchendaele Offensive itself. In muddy conditions the Australians were sent up the Broodseinde Ridge whilst the New Zealanders objective was to take s’Graventafel Spur, the first of two small rises leading to the Passchendaele Ridge. On the 4th October 1917 at the Battle of Broodseinde the New Zealanders took s’Graventafel and opened up the way to Passchendaele. The victory at Broodseinde was one of the New Zealanders greatest war successes. The artillery of the allies had decimated the first two lines of the German three level defensive system but it was the spirit, determination and aggressiveness of the New Zealanders which broke through the third level and a bloody series of bayonet fights left the area littered with German dead.
Whilst the First Auckland and Third Otago attacked on the left and the First Wellington and Third Auckland on the right, the Second and Third Wellington together with the Second Auckland and Third Canterbury pushed through the middle and penetrated the Germans third line of defence. All the German pillboxes were captured one by one an accomplishment which could only be achieved by acts of individual bravery.
The New Zealanders and others gained a kilometre in territory at s’Graventafel which was a huge success in world war one terms and took a thousand prisoners. They lost 320 lives however, including Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 original All Blacks and a Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the Auckland Regiment who had lowered his age in order to get to fight.
At Poelcapelle on the 9th October 1917 several high ranking British Officers wanted to halt the Flanders offensive due to the deteriorating conditions as the winter approached but Field Marshal Haig would have none of that. The victories at Messines and s’Graventafel had led him to believe that the impasse could be broken , a breakthrough on the Western Front was possible and that just another push at Passchendaele would do it. On the 10th October 1917 Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig is quoted as saying…” the enemy is now much weakened in morale and lacks the desire to fight.” This was to be proved as a tragic delusional statement to support the key element of his plan to take Passchendaele – a formerly quiet village sitting on the top of a ridge called Bellevue Heights.
As the winter approached one of the essentials which had to be in place for advancing into enemy territory had been taken care of –the front line had been straightened out, but what about the other-the requirement to be on firm terrain?
The autumn of 1917 had been the wettest in Belgium for 70 years and the flat landscape around Passchendaele had been churned into a porridge of mud. The British Artillery had pounded the German positions with 4.2 million shells in the two weeks before the Battle of Passchendaele and had completely destroyed the drainage system around Passchendaele . Every tree, house, church and street had been blown to pieces so that the entire terrain between Ypres and Zonnebeke had been turned into a pitiless, cratered landscape which sucked men , machines and horses into a vacuum of mud. The bombardments had been so destructive that they made the advance of troops impossible yet at the same time they had not been precise enough to take out the German defensive system of concrete bunkers.
”Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted” is a piece of solid military wisdom and yet reconnaissance on the battle terrain at Passchendaele could only have revealed the mud, the rain filled shell craters, the war debris and the uncut barbed wire sloping towards the German machine gun posts stretching all the way along the Bellevue Ridge, the second small ridge leading to the Passchendaele Ridge . The mud had meant that the New Zealand artillery could not be properly positioned and so the barrages were weak and ineffective, some shells dropping short and causing deaths and injuries to our own soldiers. The German pill boxes at the top of Bellevue Ridge were left undamaged.
The terrain to be taken by the New Zealanders was just a sea of mud, rain filled shell craters, uncut barbed wire and war debris and on top of this when it began to rain with a vengeance – a human tragedy of epic proportions was inevitable.
The New Zealand Commander General Andrew Russell complained that “the mud is a worse enemy than the Germans” but Field Marshal Haig was adamant. One almost senses his desire for success, regardless of the cost of New Zealand lives.
The order was given to attack the Bellevue Ridge before daybreak at 5.25 am on 12 October 1917 and so began the most tragic day in New Zealand’s history.
The New Zealanders advanced toward the ridge in a drizzle which turned into driving rain and as they tried to get through the uncut barbed wire, some of them up to their hips in mud, they were exposed to raking German machine gun fire from both the front and the flanks. Most were then pinned down in the rain filled shell craters and those who tried to get through the barbed wire were killed instantly. 846 young New Zealanders were killed in the first four hours of the Battle. This information was conveyed to Command. It is difficult to believe that the response from Command at 3 pm was to order another push on Bellevue Heights. This was mercifully postponed and eventually cancelled but by the end of the day the total number of casualties, that is the dead, the wounded and the missing was 2,700. It took two and a half days to clear the battlefield of the dead and the injured. The total death toll when those who died later because of the injuries received was taken into account was more than a thousand. It was New Zealand’s darkest day.
What was left of the New Zealand Division retreated and Passchendaele was eventually taken by Canadian forces on 6 November after two further battles. The village had been completely destroyed. By the time the New Zealand Division was finally withdrawn from Flanders in February 1918 three Victoria Crosses had been awarded for bravery but they had suffered more than 18,000 casualties including around 5,000 deaths.
So what does the chronicle of history conclude about the Western Front and the gallant New Zealand involvement at Passchendaele? Well after more than three months of fighting the allies had advanced eight kilometres and lost more than 250,000 soldiers. The German losses were similar. But those 500,000 lives were all for nothing because in March 1918 the Generals abandoned every inch of territory gained to cover a new German offensive towards Ypres…..
Nevertheless the importance of the Battle of Passchendaele is that in a strategical sense it contributed to the reasons which brought World War 1 to an end. Because the Germans were kept busy in the north for so long, they were unable to attack the defenceless French to the south. They were also unable to support the Belgian ports of Oostende and Zeebrugge where German U boats were based. Perhaps most importantly they lost so much equipment that the German industry could not replace and so the war of attrition ended because the Germans were deprived of the resources which they needed to win the war.
7.0 New Zealand’s Contribution to the First World War
New Zealand sent 100,000 from a population of 1 million to the First World War. This was a huge contribution from a small country in the fight for freedom from German domination in Europe but the consequences for the country were that more than 2,700 soldiers were to die at Gallipoli in 1915, then 2,000 at the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916, then 5,000 were killed in Flanders in a series of battles leading to the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. All in all 12,500 New Zealanders died on the Western Front out of the total of 18,188 who lost their lives in this war. The magnitude of the death toll in the First World War is put in perspective when it is realised that more soldiers were killed in this war than the total of the Boer War, World War Two and Vietnam combined.
8.0 New Zealanders’ Perception of the First World War
No less a person than the President of the New Zealand Returned and Services Association was quoted in the media ,whilst talking about New Zealanders knowledge of their history and such historical events as Gallipoli, the Western Front and Passchendaele as saying that when New Zealanders think about our military history they instinctively think about Gallipoli which they also see as our greatest military disaster. He said…” this seems immersed in our belief but historically it is not accurate”.
Now if our perception of our own history is not accurate then there is work to be done to change this and that is an important role for the Passchendaele Society.
So for many New Zealanders the First World War means Gallipoli, and what happened after that at the Western Front and Passchendaele became our forgotten war. Back home in 1915 New Zealanders had to absorb the shocking news of 2,700 deaths at Gallipoli, but as our war moved into Europe and the Western Front with the death toll mounting throughout 1916 , 1917 and 1918 to its final count of 18,188, New Zealanders had become war weary and by the time the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 there was untold grief in almost every family around the country. People however simply had to get on with their lives and were encouraged to do so by governments which did not give them the opportunity to commemorate the battles of the Western Front and Passchendaele in a similar manner to that which had been done with Gallipoli.
As a nation we have commemorated the Gallipoli landings on the 25th of April 1915 every year since 1916 but we did not commemorate as a nation the battles fought on the Western Front such as Passchendaele which played a much more significant role in the context of the war and contributed significantly in bringing about the end of the war which we have commemorated since 1919 together with our First World War allies on Armistice Day.
So whilst Gallipoli has over the past one hundred plus years become a major shrine and a place of pilgrimage, the Western Front and Passchendaele has been allowed to slip from our national consciousness. It is not surprising therefore that our perception of history is not accurate.
In 2008, the MMP1917 becomes a regionally recognised museum. It also won the Public Prize for Flemish museums. Both facts are the culmination of all the hard work that took place in the years before.
In 2009, the MMP1917 comes with a new, ambitious plan. Besides landscaping the museum gardens, the MMP1917 extends the existing dugout with a new underground museum building, which specifically focuses on the Third Battle of Ypres. There is a greater focus on the role the landscape played in the battle and on the various nationalities that took part. A network of replica trenches and hideouts is constructed in the museum garden. You arrive in the old building through the &lsquoRemembrance&rsquo gallery. The total length of the museum trail is doubled to 650 m. The necessary funding was found and work started in October 2010. The new museum opened on 12 July 2013.
Thanks to the &lsquoImpulsfonds 100 jaar Groote Oorlog&rsquo (100 Years Great War Incentive Fund) in 2010, the Municipality of Zonnebeke also launched the Master Plan: &lsquoThe Legacy of Passchendaele&rsquo. The project is aimed at various target groups wanting to explore the former battlefield in Zonnebeke and its heritage. The project is divided into three core activities: creating tourist recreational routes, increasing accessibility to the WWI sites and extending the visitors&rsquo reception. In real terms, this consists of the construction of three walking trails, refining the cycle network, providing information on the grounds, and landscaping and improving accessibility to the Passchendaele Memorial Park situated next to the MMP1917. Finally, landscaping and opening up the WWI heritage sites in and around the Polygon Wood and in and around the command bunker in Zandvoorde.
1917 THE FIRST BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE - THE BATTLE OF THE MUD
The first battle of Passchendaele (sometimes called the Third Battle of Ypres) took place on this day, 12 October, in 1917 in the Ypres Salient area of the Western Front. Fought during the First World War, the Allied plan to capture Passchendaele village was Sir Douglas Haig's attempt to break through Flanders. The campaign, however, did not receive support from Britain's Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, but he agreed to it eventually, as the Allies had no other plan. Haig's believed that the German army’s morale was at a low, which made him believe that the Allies would move through Flanders without too much trouble. He was wrong and the Germans were fully prepared and the Allied attack only made minimal gains in the North and then in the early days of August the wet weather set in —the area received the heaviest rain seen in the region for 30 years.Guardsmen sitting in a captured German dug-out examining a German rifle during the battle of Passchendaele Oct 12 th 1917
The Battle of Mud The Battle of Passchendaele really encapsulates World War One and the campaign as a whole is remembered for the extremely muddy conditions in which it was fought – it was swamp like in places. For the soldiers who fought at Passchendaele, it was known as the 'Battle of Mud'. Tanks got stuck, fields became impassable and movement for soldiers was tricky — adding to the problems was the lack of drainage as many of the systems were destroyed by the artillery bombardment. One story published in the Telegraph recently about some soldiers who got stuck in their tank for three days and nights really highlights the difficulties faced by early tank crews. Just a stone’s throw from enemy lines and with only had revolvers, a rifle and two machine guns to fend off the attacks — the tank was in big trouble after being hit by machine gun fire which caused it to go off course and get stuck in a crater caused by a shell. Researchers have apparently pieced together details from an original newspaper of the time and for the nine crew of the F41 Mark IV tank, it was their first combat in the new machines. Named 'Fray Bentos' for the tinned meat firm, the tank got attacked by machine gun fire and was struck near the driver’s half closed visor, injuring soldiers Captain Donald Richardson and Second Lieutenant George Hill.Tank bogged down after a hopeless attempt to cross a sea of mud
Richardson before the war had been a wholesale grocer in Nottingham and held the agency for Fray Bentos canned meat - hence the tank's name. Driver, Hill, fell and knocked the throttle causing the tank to lunge into a crater surge into where it became stuck. On a slope it then began to sink further into the mud which made its two side guns useless — one pointing to the sky, the other into the ground. Private Brady, got out to try and unleash a beam designed to free tanks when they became stuck but he got hit by enemy fire which killed him. Another private, Trew, volunteered to get out, but Richardson wouldn’t allow it — they were in a very sticky situation, literally. Fire from shells and mortars kept on battering the tank and the carnage carried on outside, all around them. Luckily though, the tank's position in the crater offered them some protection and made it hard for the German gunners to score constant direct hits. According to the article one gunner, Private Arthurs, was hit by shell splinters and the other gunner, Private Budd, was wounded when the tank slipped after trying to restart it. The jolt caused one of the guns to strike the ground outside and the breach swung violently into him, crushing his ribs. It was then discovered that all the crew were trapped — Brady's body and the heavy beam, had fallen across the main door and nobody could get out. Temperatures rose to around 30C. The poor soldiers inside 'Fray Bentos' must have felt pretty cooked! The going got tough and the Brits got going – the crew were able fight the Germans by firing one of their Lewis guns to break up two counterattacks being drawn up on the main British positions. That night, the Germans attacked and one German was able to open the door and was about to throw in a stick hand grenade, but was shot by Richardson in the nick of time. There were various attempts to blow up the tank with explosives, but amazingly, the British were able to drive the Germans off with small arms fire. However, they didn't carry on without suffering and Budd died of his injuries and another soldier, Lance Cpl Binley, had part of his scalp removed by a shell splinter. Conditions were dire and the men's water ran out — they were forced to drink the fluid from the tank's radiator. Richardson tried to keep morale high by convincing his men they were hurting the enemy and they intervened when they saw a third German counterattack being formed for an attack on the main British positions. This brought another German attack though. Machine gun fire from the British positions helped drive off the attack and, from then on, regular flares were put up, to discourage further assaults. by the third day of the siege rations had been exhausted and ammunition for the revolvers, rifle and Lewis guns were running low — injuries continued and Trew's face was slashed by shrapnel, as he attempted to peer out of the tank. After darkness fell on the third night, the men decided they had to try and escape and slipped out of the battered hulk. Amazingly, the Germans didn't attack and all the men made it safely back to their own lines, around 72 hours after they had begun the assault. All the tank crew members received decorations while Richardson and Hill were awarded the Military Cross.18lb field gun stuck in the mud at the Battle of Passchendaele 1917
Revealing the war heroes in your family Do you know enough about your ancestors who fought in the First World War? Why not log on to Forces War Records and find out more – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered, and remembered… Why not delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting War diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there.