Remembering Passchendaele, 101 years on

This week marks the 101st anniversary of Passchendaele, the New Zealand part in the Third Battle for Ypres – and the day of New Zealand most lethal human catastrophe of all time.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

On that dark day, 12 October 1917, some 843 New Zealanders were killed – either outright, or left dying on the battlefield. And more than 2000 were wounded. It came hard on the heels of another 320 causalties incurred during an effort to take Gavenstafel Spur eight days earlier. The impact on a small South Pacific Dominion of a little over one million souls was colossal.

Why did it happen? We can disregard the ‘Blackadder/War Poet’ version in which lion-hearted men were sent out to die by donkey-brained generals. By 1917 the realities of the First World War battlefield were well understood by those in command. Indeed, to a large extent the British army, a small but intensely professional service, had understood and tried to tackle them before the First World War broke out.

George_Edmund_Butler_-_Messines_Ridge_from_Hill_63 - 650 px
Messsines ridge from Hill 63, in 1918, artwork by George Edmund Butler. Archives New Zealand, CC 2.0 license.

The problem was as simple as it was hideous. Industrial technology had transformed warfare in several ways. Infantry weapons such as the magazine rifle had far higher range than the one-shot muskets of earlier years, expanding the battlefield from perhaps 150 yards of Napoleonic days to around 400-500. Into this mix then came other industrial-age factors, including the machine gun, mines and barbed wire. The result was that, in order to come to grips with the enemy, soldiers now had to cross three or four times the distance of a century earlier, and the obstacles were massively more lethal. Yet there was no alternative to using infantry; mechanised fighting vehicles had certainly been thought of, but in 1914 nobody had built any for practical service use.

The outcome was deadlock – hence the largely static trench lines of the Western Front. However, for political reasons the Allies – in particular – were determined to push the offensive and leaned on their field commanders to find ways around the problem with the military means available. By 1917 there were fair, if difficult, ranges of tactics for doing just that. None of them were particularly easy, nor necessarily desirable: by 1917, new technologies were also emerging that looked likely to transform the battlefield, including tanks in useful numbers, coupled with practical close-support aircraft and means of co-ordinating all of these with the soldiers. That actually happened in mid-1918, which is partly why the war ended when it did.

However, that didn’t save the men who had to prosecute assaults on well-defended German positions in 1916 and 1917. And the Ypres salient was, in any case, too muddy for tanks.

In theory, the attack on Passchendaele was planned out in detail, and included heavy artillery support designed to suppress the opposition. The problem was that when the moment came, that artillery support failed, largely because neither the guns nor their ammunition could be brought forward properly amidst the mud of the Ypres salient. And the cost of that, inevitably, was in lives.

If you want more of the details, I’ve written about that terrible day in several of my books, including in Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018