Passchendaele is a name which still recalls the full horror of the Western Front, even 100 years on. It was the first and only time when the combined forces of First and Second Anzac Corps were committed side by side to an offensive, and though the battle itself raged for weeks, the single day which defines it in the Kiwi psyche is October 12 — rightly called ‘our darkest day’.
The town of Passchendaele lies in the Flanders region of the European Low Countries and was strategically important to the German defenders as it held some of the scarce high ground in the area, commanding views and artillery lines of fire. After the victory at Messines, allied commanders were keen to press on, but a combination of bad timing, atrocious weather and stern enemy defence would come together to visit a punishing toll on the attacking elements of the Fifth Army, including the battle-hardened Anzac men.
On September 20 the first of five projected ‘bites’ or targeted assaults was launched, a new tactic which threw the Germans into consternation. However, by the time the Anzac troops were in position for the fourth such ‘bite’ on October 4, conditions were harsh — ‘The mud is a worse enemy than the German’, divisional commander Sir Andrew Russell is quoted as saying — but despite 500 killed or mortally wounded, the Kiwis took their objective at Gravenstafel Spur, supporting the flank of the Australian advance. One of the dead was a legend in New Zealand — former All Blacks captain and member of the 1905 ‘originals’ Sergeant Dave Gallaher.
Through thick, sometimes waist-deep mud, the Anzac soldiers made their way up the spur and consolidated their hold.
They found massed German casualties in the forward enemy trenches — evidence, they assumed, that not only had they foiled a massing German attack, but also that the artillery barrage launched ahead of their advance had decimated the foe, leaving them vulnerable. High command were of the same opinion. It was to prove a grievous error. In fact, the German Commander Von Lossberg had ample troops in reserve, and had devised a formidable maze of barbed wire and machine gun posts to thwart further incursions into his lines. Hampered by rain and mud which made it impossible to bring the big artillery guns forward, with supply lines patchy and troops struggling to move into position, Field Marshall Haig strictly adhered to his timetable. The assault on Passchendaele went ahead unprepared, and the Anzacs paid a heavy price.
A landscape of devastation — the road to Passchendaele was erased by
artillery fire into a slurry of mud and barbed wire
Advancing soldiers met wire and obstacles uncleared by a sporadic, weak opening barrage on October 12. The mud slowed the advance, making the attackers an easy target. Then came the driving rain, blinding the allied troops as they came forward. Pinned down in rapidly filling shell craters, it was all the Anzacs could do to hold on. The toll was catastrophic. On this one day more than 3,700 New Zealanders were killed or wounded, 800 slain outright. So terrible was the carnage that the Germans agreed to a temporary truce to allow stretcher bearers into no man’s land.
Both allied and enemy accounts of this battle note the horror of the mud and the ferocity of the fighting. It was a turning point for New Zealand, and for how we perceived warfare in general — no longer a crucible of glory, but a tragedy in which deeds of great valour shone out among a background of senseless horror. Today, 100 years on, the fields of Flanders are a touchstone for the memories of all those who served in this war and others, and the legacy of our darkest day is still felt in our nation’s attitude to war.