In terms of lives lost on a single day, this was the greatest disaster in New Zealand’s history. The tragic events of 12 October 1917 took the lives of 45 officers and 800 men, and left more than 2700 wounded, all within the space of a few hours. Ever since, Passchendaele has been a byword for the horror of the Great War.
Eight days earlier, on 4 October, 320 New Zealanders had been killed during the capture of Gravenstafel Spur, one of two spurs on the ridge above Passchendaele in Flanders, Belgium. Although this attack was successful, it had a tragic aftermath. The British High Command mistakenly concluded that the number of German casualties meant enemy resistance was faltering and resolved to make another push immediately. An attack on 9 October by British and Australian troops was to open the way for II ANZAC Corps to capture Passchendaele on the 12th. The plan failed at the first hurdle. Without proper preparation and in the face of strong German resistance, the 9 October attack collapsed with heavy casualties.
The New Zealanders nevertheless began their advance at 5.25 a.m. on 12 October. The preliminary artillery barrage had been largely ineffective because of the near-impossibility of bringing the guns forward through the quagmire, or stabilising those that were in position. Exposed to raking German machine-gun fire from both the front and the flank, and unable to get through barbed wire that had not been cut, the New Zealanders were pinned down in shell craters. Orders for another push at 3 p.m. were postponed and then cancelled. The troops eventually fell back to positions close to their start line. For badly wounded soldiers lying in the mud, the aftermath of the battle was a private hell; many died before they could be rescued. The toll was horrendous: 845 New Zealand soldiers were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines.
On 18 October, II Anzac Corps was relieved by Canadian troops. In a series of well-prepared but costly attacks in atrocious conditions, they finally occupied the ruins of Passchendaele village on 6 November. The offensive had long since failed in its strategic purpose and the capture of Passchendaele no longer represented any significant gain.
Image: Tyne Cot Cemetery near Passchendaele (Passendale) – it contains more New Zealand First World War graves than any other cemetery.