Battle of Passchendaele
The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres or simply Third Ypres, was one of the major battles of World War I. In this battle, British, ANZAC, Canadian and South African units engaged the Imperial German Army. The battle was fought for control of the village of Passchendaele (Passendale in modern Flemish, now part of the community of Zonnebeke) near the town of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) in West Flanders, Belgium. The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines, advance to the Belgian coast and capture the German submarine bases there. It was intended to create a decisive corridor in a crucial area of the front, and to take pressure off the French forces. After the Nivelle Offensive the French Army was suffering from extremely low morale, resulting in mutinies and misconduct on a scale that threatened the field-worthiness of entire divisions.
Although the period of the battle saw spells of good weather lasting long enough to dry out the land, Passchendaele has become synonymous with the misery of fighting in thick mud. Most of the battle took place on largely reclaimed marshland, swampy even without rain. The extremely heavy preparatory bombardment by the British tore up the surface of the land, and heavy rain from August onwards produced an impassable terrain of deep "liquid mud", in which an unknown number of soldiers drowned. Even the newly-developed tanks bogged down.
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The Germans were well-entrenched, with mutually-supporting pillboxes which the initial bombardment had not destroyed. After three months of fierce fighting the Canadian Corps took Passchendaele on 6 November 1917, ending the battle, but in the meantime the Allied Powers had sustained almost half a million casualties and the Germans just over a quarter of a million. Passchendaele was the last gasp of the "one more push" philosophy which posited that the stalemate of attritional trench warfare could be broken by brute offensive action against fixed positions. Its comparative failure and the horrendous conditions in which it was fought damaged Field-Marshal Haig's reputation and made it emblematic of the horror of industrialised warfare.
New Zealanders at Passchendaele
The New Zealand Division had been training since the end of August to overcome the numerous concrete 'pillboxes' in this sector. The first objective of the Division was the Gravenstafel Spur, attacked before dawn on 4 October, as part of a major advance. The 1st and 4th Brigades forestalled a heavy German counter-attack, and the supporting artillery barrage inflicted frightful slaughter on the waiting Germans. Crossing this scene of carnage, the 1st and 4th Brigades gained their objectives after a hard fight, inflicting exceptionally heavy loss on the enemy and capturing much equipment. For such a resounding success the 1,700 New Zealand casualties, though a sad loss, did not in current terms seem excessive. But heavy rain turned the countryside into a bog and tragedy lay ahead.
A British attack on the ninth on Bellevue Spur and part of the main Passchendaele ridge gained a little ground at prohibitive cost. Heavy swathes of barbed wire still girdled the hillside, however, and belated and meagre heavy artillery made no impression on them, nor on the many pillboxes beyond. New Zealand gunners slaved to breaking point to get only a few guns and howitzers forward, but stable platforms and accurate fire were unattainable. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades the latter weary from heavy work in the salient nevertheless renewed the attack early on the twelfth.
There was little to encourage the men as they waited overnight in a morass under steady rain. Shelled in their assembly area, some were shelled again by their own guns when the thin barrage opened at 5.25 a.m., and then they led off into a deluge of small-arms fire, speckled with geyser-like eruptions as shells exploded in the mud. Worst of all was the wire, covered with deadly fire, its few gaps deliberate deathtraps. Some men tried to crawl under it, some threw themselves at it, two got right through and were killed in the act of hurling grenades at the loopholes of the nearest pillbox. The left gained 500 yards of slippery slope, the centre 200 heartbreaking yards, the right nothing until the 80-odd occupants of two blockhouses and a trench used up all their ammunition. Then they were captured, blockhouses and all, by two brave and skilful men, sole survivors of two Otago platoons.
The cost of these small gains, 640 dead and 2,100 wounded, made the Passchendaele mud in New Zealand eyes rich soil indeed and what the wounded suffered in drenching rain is another chapter of horrors. For the first time the Division had failed in a major operation; but what New Zealander can look back in memory or imagination on those dogged thrusts, time and again, by the Otago and Canterbury Battalions and the Rifles across the boggy flat and up the bullet-swept slopes of Bellevue Spur, without being stirred by their resolution in the face of hopeless odds.
The steady drain of men while units only held the line was less spectacular, though it made up half the losses of the Division. Here, before withdrawing from the front, 400 more men were lost in the 4th Brigade alone.
During the fighting at Passchendaele in October 1917, the New Zealanders were bloodily repulsed in its second attack, with 850 dead in exchange for no more than 500 yards of ground gained.
This was the worst disaster in New Zealand's history in terms of lives lost in a single day.
Passendale Zonnebeke Belgium Map
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