Passchendaele In The Context of WW1

By Iain MacKenzie, former President of the Passchendaele Society

1.0 Origins of the First World War (1914-1918)

2.0 New Zealand’s First Act of War (1914)

3.0 Gallipoli (1915)

4.0 The Western Front (1914-1918)

5.0 The Battle of the Somme (1916)

6.0  Flanders and Passchendaele (1917)

7.0  New Zealand’s Contribution to the First World War (1914-1918)

8.0  New Zealanders’ Perception of the First World War (1914-2011)

1.0 Origins of the First World War (1914-1918)

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.