Passchendaele, The Darkest Day

12 October 2017

For good reason, the title “New Zealand's Darkest Day” was given to the Dominion Museum exhibition marking the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele in the muddy fields of Flanders during World War I (1914-1918). In a matter of hours on this darkest day, October 12, 1917, 843 men of the New Zealand forces were killed, the largest loss of life in any one day in the country's military history.

Those are official figures but there were more. Among the 2700 New Zealand casualties (dead and wounded) on that day, those killed and who died later from wounds received on October 12 actually totalled 957, according to historian Ian McGibbon who searched individual service records. For the New Zealand Government website marking the World War I centenary, McGibbon, author of “New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign,” writes, “Even this is not the full figure, however. A few more men no doubt died of their wounds after 12 January 1918, some lingering on even for years before doing so.”

The figures mount. McGibbon says New Zealand’s dead in the Passchendaele conflict from 31 July to 10 November 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres, approached 2000. There are 1796 NZEF men buried or commemorated in Belgium in October 1917. Centenary commemorations in 2017 in New Zealand and throughout the world show that Passchendaele in the slaughter of World War I remains a vivid and emotional emblem of the horrors of the Western Front. In the 103 days of the Battle of Passchendaele, there were more than a quarter of a million Allied casualties for a gain of eight kilometres and more than half a million casualties in total on all sides. During weeks of unending rain, in sodden ground awash with destroyed streams and drainage systems and where mud was waist-deep, death was ceaseless under the barrages of more than four million shells from thousands of heavy guns, from the unremitting machine-gun fire that cut down men exposed in remorseless charges across the sticky mud of no man's land or caught in barbed wire. There was death from agonising mustard gas, in hand-to-hand combat and bayoneting, and from the hazards of massive shell holes the size of large ponds filled with viscous but sloppy, porous mud where men, horses and pack mules fell irretrievably and died drowning.
The New Zealand Division, as part of II Anzac Corps, was engaged in two major pushes in action to capture Passchendaele village: the drive for Gravenstafel Spur in the Battle of Broodseinde (October 4) and for Bellevue Spur (October 12).

On October 4, the 1905 All Black team captain Dave Gallaher was one of the 449 killed among the 1853 casualties suffered by the New Zealand Division (it was able to capture 1159 German prisoners in reaching the ridge). Gallaher (43) died some hours after being wounded and is buried in Nine Elms Cemetery which All Black teams touring Europe normally visit to pay tribute. Gallaher enlisted after the death of his brother Douglas, a company sergeant major with the Australian Infantry 11 Battalion who was killed in fighting at Laventie in northern France on 3 June 1916, aged 32. Another brother, Henry, was killed by shellfire during the attack on Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918. Of eight Gallaher brothers, five served in World War I.
Family tragedies of several sons lost were repeated at Passchendaele. Farmhand George Knight was one of three brothers serving. He was in the Otago Infantry Battalion with Herbert; their brother William was with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. In a letter sent to George from Dannevirke after they enlisted, George's mother Ellen said, “I tried to write last night. I had to tell Dad I could not face it alone. I had a good blub and feel better. It will be very hard to part with any of you and I dare say it will mean the three of you," she wrote.
Herbert and George  left Wellington in February 1915. In May, 20-year-old Herbert was killed by a sniper at Gallipoli. “ is a hard task to be a mother of soldiers,” wrote Ellen to George. On 12 October 1917 George (23) was killed by machine gun fire in the attack on Bellevue Spur. A day later, Douglas [William] left Wellington for the Western Front and was among 34 men killed in the attack on Bancourt Ridge on 1 September 1918. He was 25. A fourth brother, Captain Maurice Knight, died in 1944 while serving with the Royal Artillery in India.

At Passchendaele, Victor Scott was killed in action on October 4; his brother Robert had been killed at Flers on 15 September the previous year.
Leonard Newlove was killed on 4 October 1917, and both of his brothers Edwin and Leslie (who was married) on 12 October. Leonard and Edwin gave as next-of-kin their mother Mary Ann Newlove of Takaka, Nelson. Brothers Arthur and George McIlroy, serving with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, were both killed on 12 October.  No graves exist for the Newloves or McIlroys who are all commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial wall.

Eyewitnesses tell what it was like.
“I know of men who collapsed wounded, dropped… never seen again, disappeared into the mud, floundered into that and were gone. You couldn't do anything about it, nothing at all. Between our attack and the 12th it rained, it absolutely came down in torrents....If you got off the track you were gone, you were never seen again. Oh, it was shocking.” Jim Warner of Te Awamutu, Auckland Infantry Battalion, was at Passchendaele on 4 October, 1917. [Recorded, 1980s, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision archives.]
“For miles to the right or the left the country was fouled with the rotting dead, and the country in front and to the rear. There were fragments of horses, mules, men – death was indeed a leveller – disabled tanks, equipment sinking in mud, helmets riddled with shrapnel. There were boots, flesh, arms and legs protruding from the mud. It was as if land and men and war material had been churned in some giant mixer and spread over land pitted with craters to hold the enriched mixture.
“The verdict of history is that the higher command did not know how impossible the bog was through which men were ordered to advance…Wire had not been cut. The men were slaughtered as they climbed out of mud to try and pass the wire.” [Author and MP John  A Lee, Wellington Infantry Regiment. Recorded 1968, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision archives.]

“At dawn on the 13th, my CO [Commanding Officer] woke me up and said 'You are to take a party of 400 men from the brigade with stretchers to evacuate the wounded.' He had tears in his eyes. 'They are slipping into the shell holes and drowning in the mud.' When I arrived with my party at Gravenstafel the scene was grim. The stretcher-bearers were bogged down by their burdens and sank to their armpits in the gluey mud.

“We'd sent for ropes and a party of Māori Pioneers came up and began extricating the bearers by passing ropes under their shoulders and pulling them out like gaffed fish. These wounded, bogged down, had been carried from Waterloo farm a distance of some 1100 yards and the bearers were in a state of extreme exhaustion. The Māoris at once stepped into the breach and carried the stretchers away – eight men to a team – to Spree Farm, a long, heartbreaking carry of some four to five hours. It was a scene of utter desolation, of great suffering, but of supreme courage." [Christchurch lawyer John (JK) Moloney, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, charged with evacuating wounded men from Passchendaele the day after the 12 October battle. Nga Taonga Sound and Vision archives. Recorded 1960s.]

Passchendaele was no respecter of rank. Among the many officers killed in action were Major Adam Mahan (October 4), Major Leonard Ford, Lieutenant-Colonel George King, DSO and bar, Mentioned in Despatches, Croix de Guerre (France), Captain Cyril Molloy, Military Cross, Regimental Sergeant-Major Albert Guy, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Winter-Evans, DSO, Mentioned in Despatches, Major W W Turner (October 12) (“2nd Otago fought desperately to break through the wire and reach the pillboxes before the barrage, such as it was, lifted from them. Among these brave men Major W. W. Turner showed surpassing bravery. He cut his way through the first belt of wire before being riddled with bullets”).

Nor did bullets care about status. Killed in action on October 12 were Corporal Mostyn Fleming, accountant and town clerk for the Alexandra Borough Council from 1909 to 1916, solicitor Hugh Forrest, son of the postmaster Devonport, Auckland, after whom the suburb of Forrest Hill on Auckland's North Shore is named and reporter Cyril Carncross, son of MP, newspaper proprietor and subsequent Speaker of New Zealand's Legislative Council, Walter Carncross.

The highest single occupation represented were farmers and farmhands, writes historian Glyn Harper in Johnny Enzed, The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-1918. “The number of small tradesmen and professional people was also high...Overwhelmingly, though, a large proportion of the NZEF came from occupations associated with the working class. This included those classified as labourers, some 11,091 men, and the second largest category of occupation. The number of people in working-class occupations was just over 50,000, which is around 65 per cent of the force.”  There were 1627 registered as bushmen, 1087 as butchers, 2584 as carpenters 2392 as carters, carriers, teamsters and wagoners, 1190 as blacksmiths and farriers.

Passchendaele's New Zealand harvest on October 12 reaped many and varied civilian occupations and included 22-year-old architect Donald Hosie, carpenter Paul Sotnikoff who had as next-of-kin, his mother in Irkutsk, Siberia, barman Private E L Warren, ceiling fixer James Keogh, seedsman Ernest Bennington. There were two cheesemakers Albert Cumberland from NZ Rifle Brigade 3 Battalion and Archibald Wakefield from NZ Rifle Brigade 4 Battalion, hulk keeper (shipwreck caretaker) George Abbott and 21-year-old telegraph cadet Francis Aisher.

The official New Zealand government website for the centennial commemorations of World War I asks the rhetorical question, “Why don't we commemorate Passchendaele Day?”

Contemporary opinion
“The New Zealand Roll of Honour had a cut-off date of 31 December 1923. At that point the official number who lost their lives while in service of 'King and Country' stood at 18,166. Of this total, 2700 died during the Gallipoli campaign and 12,500 on the Western Front, the zone of fighting in Western Europe - including Passchendaele...the 12,500 New Zealanders who died on the Western Front is more than the total number of New Zealanders who died in the entire Second World War.”

Passchendaele: “one of the greatest disasters of the war” (British Prime Minister Lloyd George); “a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility” [Winston Churchill]; “ a tragedy that left scars that have endured for generations” [Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating]; “the massacre at Passchendaele” [Historian Glyn Harper]; “an inexcusable piece of pigheadedness on the part of Haig” [British military historian J F C Fuller].

In The New Zealand Division 1916 - 1919: A Popular History based on Official Records (1921), Colonel H Stewart writes at the end of his report on October 12, 1917:  “The following extracts from the private diary of a senior and experienced officer are of interest:— “October 12th—Today has been a very bad day for us... My opinion is that the senior generals who direct these operations are not conversant with the conditions, mud, cold, rain and no shelter for the men. Finally, the Germans are not so played out as they make out. All our attacks recently lack preparations, and the whole history of the war is that when thorough preparation is not made, we fail.… You cannot afford to take liberties with the Germans. Exhausted men struggling through mud cannot compete against dry men with machine guns in ferro-concrete boxes waiting for them.”

Last word
World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon in Memorial Tablet, writes in the voice of a dead soldier:

I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.