Massacre at Passchendaele
By Dr Glyn Harper
The New Zealand attacks made in October 1917 in the Flanders region of Belgium rank among the most significant military engagements the country has ever undertaken. It is easy to see why.
Both attacks were part of the British offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Beginning on 31 July and ending on 10 November 1917, Third Ypres consisted of eight separate battles.
The New Zealand Division took part in just two of these. They were the battle of Broodseinde on 4 October and First Passchendaele, fought just over a week later on 12 October.
The Battle of Broodseinde was a stunning success especially New Zealand’s part in it. The New Zealand Division easily captured all its objectives, advancing the British line by nearly 2,000 yards and taking 1,159 German prisoners. Success did not come cheaply though. It never did on the Western Front. New Zealand casualties numbered 1,853 of which more than 449 had been killed. And this was a battle where everything had gone according to plan.
First Passchendaele on 12 October, an attack that should never have gone ahead, was an absolute disaster.
Nothing at all went to plan and, as a result, New Zealand suffered not only a severe military defeat but its greatest ever human catastrophe. Not a single objective was taken and the cost was massive.
Some 846 New Zealanders were killed on this one morning and a further 2,000 soldiers were wounded. Another 138 New Zealanders died of their wounds over the next week. More New Zealanders were killed or maimed in these few short hours than on any other day in the nation’s history.
The Massacre at Passchendaele left a bitter legacy and cast a long shadow over all that New Zealand achieved on the Western Front. Passchendaele, along with the Somme battle in 1916, came to epitomize the suffering, tragedy and futility of the First World War.
The First World War on the Western Front
The first great clash of arms of the First World War resulted in what became universally known as the Western Front. The rapid thrust of the bulk of the German Army through Belgium and north eastern France was stopped by the French and British at the battle of the Marne in September 1914.
There followed sporadic military actions in which side tried to outflank each other or seize places of strategic importance. By December 1914 both sides had settled behind hastily dug trench fortifications that stretched some 750 kilometres from the English Channel in the north to the Swiss frontier in the south. This was the Western Front and it was both an unexpected and unwanted development. Despite numerous attempts to break it, this battle line remained stationary until the last months of the war.
The Western Front was the decisive theatre in the First World War. It was here that the war was eventually won by the allies after four long years of costly endeavour. It was here too, that the British, French and American armies made their main effort of the war and suffered the bulk of their casualties. The Western Front also produced those haunting images by which most people remember this war: bleak, muddy trenches, huge, costly battles achieving little, callous, uncaring generals, terrifying new weapons of destruction and brave helpless soldiers enduring the unimaginable. While these images are a little misleading, to this day they remain immensely powerful in all those nations who fought on the Western Front.
The Western Front is of immense significance to New Zealand. For the only time in its history, New Zealand military forces engaged the main army of their opponents in the decisive theatre of war and played a key role in that enemy’s defeat. From the middle of 1916 until the end of the war the New Zealanders were involved in some of the most lethal battles of modern history. Some of these include the battle of the Somme in 1916, Messines and Third Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917, the German Spring Offensive and the final allied offensive in 1918.
The cost of being centre stage in world affairs was extremely high. More New Zealand casualties were suffered in this one theatre of war than on any other place on earth. A total of 102,438 New Zealanders embarked for overseas service during the war years, most serving on the Western Front. More than half that number, some 59,981 soldiers, became casualties and 84 per cent of these were incurred on the battlefields of France and Belgium.
Some 12,483 New Zealand soldiers remain buried in the soil of the Western Front and 4,227 of them have no known grave. Many thousands more carried the physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives.
The Western Front then is of immense significance to New Zealand’s military history and the nation’s heritage. The campaigns in which the New Zealanders were involved certainly deserve to be more widely known.
The Battles Of Ypres
In the First Battle of Ypres, in the late autumn of 1914, a relatively small British Expeditionary Force was operating in close proximity to Belgian forces to the north and French to the south, in an allied command structure. Advancing through Ypres, they met a larger force of young and untrained Germans, the Volunteer Reserve Corps, and pushed them back to the Passchendaele Ridge. After attack and counter-attack, notably in Polygon Wood, the Germans were finally driven back and Ypres was saved before winter set in and warfare temporarily ceased. Losses on both sides were considerable.
The events of late 1914 saw a change in the nature of warfare from mobile infantry, with some use of cavalry charges, to full scale trench warfare where defence was the best form of attrition.
The Second Battle of Ypres commenced in April 1915 when the Germans released poison gas against the Allied lines north of the city, this being the first time that the deadly weapon had been used in the war. The fleeing battle-weary troops were replaced by the fresh 1st Canadian Division who steadfastly resisted a second gas attack and stood their ground. However, the force of the first attack had seriously indented the Allied-held Ypres Salient and it was necessary for the British to shorten their lines of defence by withdrawing.
There was little more significant activity on this front until 1917 when, in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), it fell to the British to divert German attention away from a weakened French front. A first offensive was launched, to dislodge the Germans from the Messines Ridge, and the attack was a complete success. A few weeks later the main assault began and after a long and dogged struggle, often in appalling wet weather, Passchendaele Ridge and village were taken.
The struggle continued in 1918, with early German success, but a final great effort was undertaken by the Allied in September and in mid-October the last shell fell on Ypres and the Fourth Battle ended.
Associate Professor Glyn Harper is the Director of the Centre for Defence Studies at Massey University, and the author of Massacre at Passchendale.