Athol Stretton – #42838, 3rd Akl Bn., 4th Brigade N.Z.E.F.

Posted on August 28th, 2017

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Passchendaele as I saw it: The storming of the Abraham Heights – by Athol Stretton (his diary)

Chapter 1.

Already our light guns had been moved to their forward positions when during the late afternoon of October 2nd, we advanced in single file into what remained of a trench, a hundred yards or more in front, so badly battered was the trench, that our men were huddled together in small groups, each separated from the next. Desultory firing took place day and night from our guns of the heavier calibre, the shells from which whistled overhead to their targets well to the rear of the enemy front lines. These guns had taken up positions behind the 18 pounders, and near the latter were our Vickers machine guns, although I did not see them. Some enemy shells came back, but during the day most of them passed high overhead, being evidently directed at our artillery. After dusk, we got out share.

We held this line for about forty-eight hours. The suspense at night was nerve wracking. All night long, shells crashed round our positions. The whine of flying fragments in the darkness, the wailing cry of “Stretcher bearer”, the mud, the inky blackness, and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, all added to the horror of the night, till the suspense became almost unbearable. Poor Coad, he was stretcher bearer for our platoon. A rather slightly built fellow with a heavy job to do. We all liked and admired him, but no one envied him. When that awful call for help pierced the blackness of the night, Coad would bravely leave the scant shelter of his shell hole (the trench was a little more than a series of these) to render what help he could to the stricken man. A brave fellow was Coad.

At exactly six o’clock each morning and evening, our guns opened up practise barrages. In this sector, at least we had great superiority in artillery. When a 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 noise was indescribable. We risked a peep over the parapet, as we considered it reasonably safe to do so, since enemy troops would be forced to take what shelter they could from such devastating tornadoes. Indeed, I wondered if a rat could survive. The spectacle I saw appeared like the edge of a giant rainstorm as it traversed an area of water. I could only see the near edge of the barrage, and could not see into 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. Darkness fell once more but we got little, if any sleep. We were told we would storm the ridge at daybreak. Unpleasant news but news it was.

Our Battalion, the Third Auckland, consisted of four Companies, each one hundred and sixty men strong. These Companies were the Third Auckland (of which I was a member), the Sixth Hauraki, the Fifteenth North Auckland, and the Sixteenth Waikato. The Battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Blair and formed part of the Fourth Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Hart. Each Company was divided into four Platoons, each commanded by a Commissioned Officer of lower rank. Our own Platoon Commander, together with a small number of other men received orders to remain behind and take no part in the forthcoming battle as the Company was over the required strength. This had occurred a week or so beforehand, so the honour of responsibility of commanding the Platoon fell to the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, Sergeant Lloyd, who afterwards received a Distinguished Service Medal. Platoons were then divided into four sections. Number One Section – riflemen (although all infantry carried rifles and gas helmets), Number Two (my own section) – rifle grenades, Number Three – Mills bombs, while the men of Number Four Section carried a Lewis machine gun with them and formed its crew.

Upon receiving the news of the impending battle, I was approached by Corporal White, the N.C.O. in charge of our Section, with a request that I would assume charge of the Section, should he become a casualty. This I refused as I was probably the youngest man in the Section. “Only if you order me to Jack” I persisted. “Then I order you to”, was his reply.

The hours of darkness slowly passed and drizzling rain set in. Some time between three and four o’clock in the morning, we advanced in single file along duckboards towards the enemy lines. We could have been moving in the opposite direction for all we knew. The mud, the drizzle, and the blackness of the night killed all sense of direction but a guide led our Company to its position. Evidently the enemy was aware of our movements, for our environment was heavily shelled. Our Section led by Corporal White was following close behind Number One Section, when this order was quickly changed by an explosion directly abreast of our Section. Corporal White lost an arm, Robertson and Nannestad were both wounded and were taken or walked to our rear, while Wright and I both found ourselves in the mud beside the duckboards where the blast from the shell had sent us sprawling. Neither was hurt so we struggled to our feet and scrambled on. Not far ahead lay a tape line put down by our engineers as a starting point for the attack. This was obviously necessary as there were no trenches at the base of that part of the Gravenstafel Ridge which is known as the Abraham Heights. The crest of this ridge was being held by a Bavarian regiment and it was our assignment to wrest it from enemy hands. We reached the tape safely with enemy barrage pounding continuously upon us. The Sections were all mixed up and it was certainly no fit time to parade the Company to straighten them out. Each man found what shelter he could in the shell holes.

I found myself in a shell hole beside Corporal Cartwright of Number One Section. I am no hero I can assure you. I felt more excited than scared but badly shaken by the shelling of the previous night. Cartwright and I both laughed as we tried to stop the movement of our quivering hands.

Chapter 2. The Assault on the Ridge

We had been briefed. The advance would be made in artillery formation, the Auckland Battalions forming the first wave of the attack, would take the crest, and dig in. The Wellington and Canterbury Battalions would follow us, passing through our ranks on the crest of the ridge and advance further as the second and third waves of the assault to form the new front and support lines on the further slope of the ridge, while we would then become the reserve line. Our previous training had taught us that to attack in artillery formation meant that we must proceed forward in countless single files each of six or eight men. By so doing fewer men would be presented to the enemy directly in front, while gaps between the Sections, were intended to minimise the risk of casualties from falling shells. Our briefing further informed us that we would cross a creek and capture a Pill box* on our left during our onslaught. Personally, I do not remember crossing any creek; the Hannebeek, as I afterwards learned had become a quagmire and that is why it appeared to me no different from the sea of mud with which we were surrounded. I heard later that some fellows had trouble getting across.

We crouched in our shell holes as zero hour drew nigh. It would be a walk over, so we  were told at the briefing. We hoped so. There was no harm in hoping. The drizzle continued. A grey misty light enveloped the battlefield. We could see each other’s faces now. Dawn had come at last, we glanced at our watches, only a minute or two to six o’clock. There did not seem time to be afraid. The barrage opened – a terrific barrage. We had never seen nor heard the like.

Zero hour had arrived. The faint sound of a whistle reached my ears then yells “They’re over”. Our men jumped up from their shell holes and pressed forward as a seething mass of men. We seemed laden with gear. If we were light infantry, whatever was heavy Infantry like! Our pouches were bulging with rifle cartridges and we each carried an extra cloth bandolier full, over our shoulders. Each man had a shovel stuck blade uppermost into the back of his web equipment. We carried our spare parts as well. The Lewis gunners had their gun and parts, Bombers had their bombs, beside my rifle grenades I was asked to carry a small bag of Mills bombs on my belt. Dangerous! I didn’t think so at the time, but had a bullet or shell fragment struck them, I hate to think how many poor chaps would have exploded too. A perfect barrage! I cannot speak too highly of the skill of our gunners who fired that creeping barrage. The light guns fired this, while the heavier guns shelled the enemy. The creeping barrage provided a curtain of bursting shells behind which we were briefed to follow at a distance of 50 yards. We allowed it to be about a hundred yards for safety’s sake. We could see only the curtain of shells ahead and that through an atmosphere of smoke and drizzle. Hell was certainly loose this time and there was no curbing it.

We New Zealanders had the central position of the advance, with Scottish troops on one flank and Australians on the other, so were not in danger of being outflanked. Our advance did not have the precision of a parade ground march. Our Sections got mixed up, men got separated from the fellows and Australians ran amongst us, as that colossal mass of men, hurled itself at the ridge.

Although we were unaware of the fact, enemy machine gunners in a pill box on our left had been enfilading us all the time until this stronghold was captured by oncoming troops. I did not even see the pill box in the smoke of battle, and must have passed right by. Shells fell continuously amongst us but the ground was so soft that most of them sunk deeply in, and blew geysers of the mud into the air. Had the ground been hard, much heavier losses would have been sustained.

Amid the smoke, noise, and shellfire, we pushed steadily forward. We did not know who had been hit. Some shells burst in front of me and I felt momentary safe by diving into their smoke. I figured that it would take extraordinarily good shooting to place two in exactly the same spot. Artillery men afterwards told me I was crazy. Perhaps I was, but I didn’t know it at the time. We could see only a very short distance ahead and then, with the precision of a parade ground performance, the creeping barrage lifted and the curtain was falling further up the slope. Not a shell fell short. Those splendid gunners. What would we have done without them.

My tin hat was annoying me. It kept falling forward over my face and with my rifle in my hand I had trouble in getting it back on my head. On the Parade ground, it weighed a ton, but now under fire it felt the size of a peanut shell. The wave of infantry pushed on. Things seems to be going quite well until suddenly I experienced a heavy blow on top of my steel helmet. I thought at the time it would be falling mud or debris, however I would see later if I survived**. Again the barrage lifted. A man beside me lifted his hand, one finger was gone. A bullet had cut it clean off at the base. We were nearing the crest of the ridge; hazy grey figures were disappearing over the brow and our men were having pot shots as the enemy fled. I was close to the front but other men were ahead of me. Two were converging on something. I saw then, what it was. A lone German machine gunner had his gun on us***. I raised my rifle to draw a bead on him. Once I held a badge for marksmanship but just then my rifle barrel whirled about like a bottle in the hand of a drunken man. The two men ahead of me were rushing the German. He shot one of them. I had drawn the first click of my trigger (there are two clicks before the rifle discharges) when Khaki ran into my sights. Startled in the extreme, I lowered my rifle. I had nearly shot one of our own men, who, one moment later accounted for the German. We were nearly there now. The ridge seemed clear of the enemy, except of course the wounded.

One big Australian gained the summit ahead of others. Using a Lewis machine gun as a rifle, he kept firing bursts at the fleeing enemy until the recoil of the gun pushed him backwards. He looked quite comical. An officer dug his heel into the soft earth and then came the order to dig in. Through our ranks went the Wellington and Canterbury Battalions. They too would dig in further down on the slope beyond. We could rest a little now. We had won the ABRAHAM HEIGHTS – Time about 9am.

Chapter 3. Epilogue

The attack by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (Dinks) on the Passchendaele Village a week later, October 12th, ended in a calamity for our troops. This was no fault of theirs. So great was the bravery and devotion to duty of every man, that my bother-in-law’s Company alone, which went into action one hundred and sixty strong, nine men came out unscathed. The reason for the failure was not difficult to find. Our artillerymen, who had already proved their excellence, found it impossible, on moving their guns forward to support the infantry, to embed these in solid ground. In consequence, the guns fired wildly cutting no enemy barbed wire, nor pounding out the machine gun nests as we had hoped. Thus, our fellows could not negotiate the wire entanglements and were mown down almost to a man. The casualties sustained in these two battles were so heavy that the Fourth Brigade was at once disbanded and its personnel drafted as reinforcements into other units. So ended the Battle of Passchendaele. The many broken hearts and long casualty lists told their own grim story of two of the greatest engagements in the annals of British history.

The End

*Pill box, a strong boxlike structure of concrete from which machine guns were fired.

**Our steel helmets were covered with hessian. Had mine been struck with falling mud, some would have been caught in the mesh. As there was not a mark showing, I concluded that a machine gun bullet had hit it, but I will never know.

*** When the position had been consolidated a few of our men made a hobby of collecting German machine guns, which littered the battle field, and placing them in heaps. How many of these had been firing at us and how many were abandoned or put out of action by our barrage, is anybody’s guess.


  • Athol Stretton was severely wounded in the 12th October 1917 attack on Bellevue Spur but survived. He died in Auckland New Zealand in 1968.

Submitted by Russell A Stretton (Son), Sydney Australia, August 2017

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