The Passchendaele Disaster

Morale in the New Zealand Division was at its lowest after Passchendaele. The promise of Messines had not been fulfilled ….  Historian Damien Fenton

The country’s worst day’s losses

By Roger Childs

New Zealand soldiers heading for the front line.

A hundred years ago, on 12 October 1917, New Zealand troops serving with the ANZAC Corps advanced towards the German lines in atrocious conditions of rain and mud.

They also had to pick their way through the bodies of British troops who had fallen a few days before.

This was the Kiwis second engagement in the Third Battle of Ypres.

The first attack had gone well, although there were still large casualties.

Objective achieved at Broodseinde

Dave Gallaher died on Gravenstafel Ridge

Eight days before Passchendaele, New Zealand troops went into action to seize positions forward of the main ridge. Gravenstafel Spur was overrun, and the Division captured 5000 German prisoners.

Although there was stiff resistance from the Germans in the latter stages, all the assigned objectives were taken.

However, it came at a cost : more than  1600 casualties, including 500 dead.

Among the fallen was Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 All Blacks. (To read his story scroll down to October 5.)

New Zealanders meet barbed wire and machine guns

The Passchendaele attack was disastrous. The weather and mud made progress forward very slow and the preceding artillery barrage, which was supposed to have cut open the barbed wire and wipe out most German machine gun pillboxes, had not done its work.

The result was a slaughter. The Battle of Passchendaele is one of the greatest disasters in New Zealand’s history.

On 12 October, approximately 1860 New Zealand soldiers were wounded and 843 killed. And over hundred more soldiers later died from their wounds.

This devastating loss of life remains the highest one-day death toll suffered by New Zealand forces overseas.

Remembering a tragedy

An exhibition on the battle opens today at The National Library.

It looks at the experience of Passchendaele from the perspective of New Zealand soldiers who took part, including Jesse Stayte, Peter Howden and Leonard Hart, and draws on the letters and diaries they wrote, held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Open from 12 October | Location: Turnbull Room (next to HOME café), National Library Ground Floor

Also today, there has been a service at the National War Memorial with local dignitaries and representatives from Belgium.