Since 1917 Passchendaele has been a byword for the horror of the Great War. The name conjures images of a shattered landscape of mud, shell craters and barbed wire, and of helpless soldiers mown down by machine-guns and artillery. The capture of the Belgian village of Passchendaele (Passendale), near Ypres (Ieper) in Flanders, became an objective that cost the lives of thousands of people, including many New Zealanders. The ridge leading to the village was the site of the worst disaster, in terms of lives lost, in New Zealand’s history since 1840.
For the New Zealand Division, part of II Anzac Corps, major operations in Belgium began in June 1917 with the capture of Messines (Mesen) ridge. The battle for Passchendaele reached a climax in early October when a successful assault on Gravenstafel (Graventafel) Spur on the 4th was followed by a devastating defeat at Bellevue Spur on the 12th.
Even then, the misery was not over – in December, at nearby Polderhoek (Poelzelhoek), the New Zealanders suffered another costly setback. By the time they were finally withdrawn from the Ypres front line in February 1918, the New Zealand Division had suffered more than 18,000 casualties – including around 5000 deaths – and won three Victoria Crosses for bravery.
For the men in the trenches, Passchendaele was a living nightmare, but the impact of war reached far beyond those serving at the front line in Belgium. Many New Zealand families, communities, workplaces, schools and clubs were affected in a very direct way. Throughout the war, communities and patriotic organisations worked together to raise funds for Belgian war refugees and provide comforts for New Zealand soldiers at the front line.
In the years following 1917, New Zealanders remembered the sacrifice of Passchendaele and other battles in a variety of ways. Many returned servicemen suffered in silence, wracked by nightmares and lingering wounds. Families mourned lost loved ones in private and through public rituals.
The most visible symbols were the hundreds of war memorials erected by local communities across New Zealand. These became focal points of a shared sense of sadness and pride and surrogate tombs for those buried in faraway Belgium.
Next page: The battle for Messines