The Third Battle of Ypres, as General Haig's offensive was called, began on 31 July 1917. Passchendaele was the initial objective. At first, the Fifth Army, under General Gough, made limited progress against fierce opposition. The advance quickly bogged down, though, when heavy rain turned the battlefield into a morass. Although Gough’s men made several attempts to press forward in these dire conditions, no progress towards Passchendaele could be made.
With visions of a strategic breakthrough fading fast, Haig now looked to General Plumer’s Second Army (which included the New Zealand Division as part of II ANZAC Corps) to seize Passchendaele. Using the bite-and-hold tactics he had employed at Messines, Plumer launched his first attack on 20 September. He aimed to take the plateau in a series of short steps, each carefully prepared and well supported by artillery fire.
The New Zealand Division made its first attack on 4 October 1917. Its role was to provide flanking cover for an Australian assault on the Broodseinde Ridge. The New Zealanders’ objective was Gravenstafel Spur, the first of two spurs from the main ridge at Passchendaele (the other was Bellevue Spur). Once again artillery played a big part in the success of the attack, which was made by 1st and 4th brigades.
The bombardment, which began at 6 a.m., caught many Germans in the front lines, causing heavy casualties and disrupting the defence. Although the going was difficult – ‘The mud is a worse enemy than the German,’ divisional commander Sir Andrew Russell complained – the New Zealand troops advanced 1000 metres to secure the spur and consolidate their position. More than a thousand prisoners were taken, but the attack cost more than 320 New Zealand lives, including that of the former All Black captain Dave Gallaher.
The events of 4 October had a tragic aftermath. The British high command mistakenly concluded that the number of enemy casualties meant enemy resistance was faltering. It 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.
In the rapidly deteriorating conditions, this timetable was a recipe for disaster. 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.
Preparations for the 12 October attack on Bellevue Spur, especially the positioning of the supporting artillery, could not be completed in time because of the mud. As a result, the creeping barrage was weak and ragged. Some of the shells dropped short, causing casualties among the New Zealanders waiting to advance. To make matters worse, the earlier artillery bombardment had failed to breach the obstacle presented by the German barbed wire. Another key target, the Germans' concrete pillboxes with their deadly machine-guns, were also left largely undamaged.
Troops from 2nd Brigade and 3rd (Rifle) Brigade advanced at 5.25 a.m. in drizzle that soon turned to driving rain. As they struggled towards the ridge in front of them, they found their way blocked by the uncut barbed wire. Exposed to raking German machine-gun fire from both the front and flank, the New Zealanders were pinned down in shell craters in front of the wire. A few determined individuals tried to get through the barrier, but they were quickly killed.
Orders came for another push at 3 p.m., but this was mercifully 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. There were about 3700 New Zealand casualties, of which 45 officers and 800 men were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines. In terms of lives lost in a single day, this remains the blackest day in New Zealand’s post-1840 existence.
The battle ends
On 18 October, II Anzac Corps was relieved by the Canadians. In a series of well-prepared, but costly, attacks in atrocious conditions, Canadian troops finally occupied the ruins of Passchendaele village on 6 November.
By this time, the offensive had long since failed in its strategic purpose. The capture of Passchendaele no longer represented any significant gain. With winter approaching, Haig closed down the battle on 20 November. Apart from pushing the enemy back about 8 kilometres, the offensive had achieved nothing.