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By late September all hope of the decisive breakthrough for which Haig had optimistically hoped had gone. The final objective to be seized in his Flanders Offensive before the winter set in was the heights of the ridge overlooking Ypres. The highest point of this ridge contained the ruined village of Passchendaele. Haig ordered Plumer and Gough to prepare a plan for the seizure of this ridge, using the now familiar approach of “bite and hold”. Haig proposed to use two armies for this final assault – the Fifth Army in the northern part of the Salient commanded by Gough and the Second Army in the southern part commanded by Plumer. The spearhead of Plumer's attack would be the two Anzac Corps, fighting side by side for the first time – I Anzac was commanded by General W.R. Birdwood, II Anzac by General Sir Alexander Godley. The New Zealand Division was part of Godley's II Anzac Corps.
The 23,000-man New Zealand Division marched to the Ypres area on 24 September 1917. It took six days, moving at a rate of 20 miles per day. They moved through the ruined town of Ypres and into the Salient to the area in which they would assemble for the assault. A number of spurs ran down from the Passchendaele Ridge. The New Zealanders were tasked to seize two of these spurs – the lower Gravenstafel Spur and the larger Bellevue Spur. Facing them was a quagmire, as incessant shelling had destroyed the stream beds that drained the ridge. Ruined farms had been replaced by pillboxes supported by tangled scrolls of barbed wire. The initial objective of the attack on Broodseinde, the section of the ridge opposite Ypres , was the seizure of the first low ridge in front of Passchendaele. This first “bite” would then be held, while the second “bite” would be the heights of Passchendaele itself.
The initial assaulting forces – 1st Auckland and 1st Wellington battalions from the 1st Brigade and 3rd Otago and 3rd Auckland battalions from the 4th Brigade – were in position by the evening of 2 October and received a thorough briefing from their commanders about their role. This initial assault group would seize the area up to a designated Red Line. They would then be leapfrogged by a second group consisting of 2nd Wellington and 2nd Auckland battalions from the 1st Brigade and 3rd Canterbury and Wellington battalions from the 4th Brigade, who were to capture the area up to the Blue Line. On the evening of 3 October, the weather changed, bringing gale-force winds and rain. The assault troops huddled uncomfortably in their assembly trenches and tried to sleep through this bleak night.
At 6.00 a.m. on 4 October, the British artillery barrage opened up across the whole of the front. A New Zealand artilleryman left this vivid description of the barrage from his perspective.
“Those who heard it say it was tremendous, the din, but we in the pit heard it not at all, or only in a subconscious way, to be remembered afterwards, heard nothing but the vicious whanging of our own guns, nothing but the jerk of the breech as it opened and the snap as it closed again, nothing but the clang of falling ‘empties' and the rattle of the live shells as the No. 4 jammed them on, nothing but the ticking of the watch covering the interval between the rounds and the No 1's voice: ‘Thirty more left! Elevate five minutes! Drop one hundred' then the watch's ticking again till he opened his mouth once more, and before the ‘Fire!' had hardly left it, the spiteful tonguing of the gun, the rattle and quiver as she settled down and the hiss of the buffer coming home.”
German pillbox captured by the New Zealand Division near Krak. Note the destructiveness of the artillery bombardment. (H299, Kippenberger Military Archive)
The infantry “hopped the bags” and moved onto attack, and for the first 200 yards, the advance was easy. Little resistance was experienced as a result of the artillery barrage. As they progressed, however, the New Zealand brigades ran straight into an intense German machine gun barrage. Using the now-familiar “fire and manoeuvre” tactics, sections laid down suppressing fire on pillboxes and strongholds while other men moved forward with grenades to clear the obstacles. It is possible that this was where Edward Miller and George MacIndoe were killed. Both battalions reached the Red Line on timetable, dug in and waited to be leapfrogged by the succeeding battalions while the artillery barrage continued. The Canterbury battalion advanced over the Abraham Heights , continuing to suffer heavy casualties from the intense machine gun fire from German defences further up the ridge. However, they pressed on and by 11.00 a.m., on schedule, the Blue Line had been reached and secured, and mopping up of all remaining centres of resistance had ceased.
German counter-attacks continued throughout the morning and early afternoon, but the troops, having reached the Blue Line, dug in and with the assistance of the continuing artillery and machine gun barrage, resisted all attempts to remove them from this hard-won advance. The Germans made three further attempts at dislodging the New Zealanders from their new front line, but each counter-attack faltered before withering machine gun fire and accurate artillery support. The Division held its position while the stretcher bearers began their exhaustingly grim task of locating and evacuating wounded men to regimental aid posts and casualty clearing stations. The following evening, the New Zealanders were relieved by the British 49 th Division and they retired back into the Salient to await their generals' next move.
From the perspective of the New Zealand Division, Broodseinde was a stunning victory. They had suffered 1853 casualties – one in four of the assaulting force, with 330 killed and 200 missing. They had advanced the line by nearly 2000 yards, taken over 1100 prisoners and killed a considerable number of the enemy – estimated at 800 in 1 Brigade's sector alone. Harry Highet, a Lieutenant with the Canterbury battalion, described this battle briefly in an interview in 1988. He stated, “During the twenty- minute artillery barrages I couldn't hear a thing. The air was quivering. The whole German line was just yellow dust and smoke. They (the artillery) stopped, the infantry moved in and it was a complete victory.” Gravenstafel Spur, now in British hands, provided a good observation point for a further advance on Passchendaele Ridge. The Germans had demonstrated that they had no answer to the British tactics of “bite and hold”, and evidence from German sources showed that they had been badly shaken by this assault. After so much stalemate, why had the British forces been so successful?
“The reasons for the success were obvious to those who participated. By attacking without a long preliminary artillery barrage, a tactical surprise had been obtained. Artillery support throughout had been almost perfect, paving the way for the infantry. Despite the change in the weather the ground underfoot remained firm, so although the infantry's task may not have been easy, it had not been made harder by having to battle through mud and slush as well. Despite the lack of preparation time, individual units had carried out a thorough reconnaissance of the ground across which they would have to assault and detected no major obstacles in their way.”
Why, having won such a comprehensive victory at Broodseinde, did the British suffer such a bloody reverse nearly a week later at Passchendaele? The answer lies partly in the decision of the generals to continue the offensive despite worsening conditions. They judged that the advances made at Broodseinde were not good enough for a winter in the Ypres Salient, and that control of the Passchendaele ridge was needed to achieve this. Furthermore, they believed (with some justification) that the Germans had been badly rocked by the events of 4 October, and that a final push would shatter their ability to maintain control in the Ypres area. This loss of control would enable an Allied breakout into the flat land beyond the Passchendaele Ridge that would eventually relieve the Belgian ports on the English Channel (from which it was wrongly believed that German U-boats that were sinking considerable quantities of British shipping were based).
But the most decisive factor in the failure of the Passchendaele Offensive was the weather. Rain had started on the 4th , and for the next three days torrential rain soaked the ground already churned up by incessant bombardment and the movement of thousands of men. This rain had several significant consequences. It proved impossible for the artillery, so decisive at Broodseinde, to be moved forward in sufficient quantities to support the attack on the Passchendaele Ridge. The Messines and Broodseinde attacks had been based on a planned accumulation of supplies, supported by a huge labour effort in building roads, tram lines, gun emplacements, trenches for burying telephone cables and assembly of troops. This could not be achieved in these circumstances within a week, despite herculean efforts by soldiers. There was inadequate reconnaissance, which in many cases was ignored by staff officers when told about conditions and defences by drenched, muddy patrols.
In fairness, both Gough and Plumer told Haig that they would prefer to suspend operations for the winter. Haig, however, buoyed by success and provided with overly optimistic intelligence reports, believed the Germans were on their last legs, and left over winter, would only grow stronger in 1918. The collapse of the Russian Front as a result of the Russian revolutions would soon enable the Germans to shift tens of thousands of troops westward. Besides, the new positions won at Broodseinde were not defensible long term and so the choice facing Haig was to either fight or withdraw. Haig chose to fight. Both British Armies were to renew the offensive.
At dawn on 12 October, a weak barrage opened up and the men of 2 Infantry Brigade and 3 Rifle Brigade climbed out of their trenches and moved up Bellevue Spur towards Passchendaele. Burton describes the artillery barrage as “thin and ragged” . Some of the shells dropped short and burst among their own men. The ground over which they were staggering made it impossible for them to keep pace with the creeping barrage. Under constant machine gun fire, they slipped and slithered and swore as they tried to get forward through Ypres ' glutinous mud. Percy Williams portrayed the initial advance.
“Along the line of barrage the ground was so swampy and difficult that it was necessary to advance with the greatest of care, lest we should become hopelessly bogged. One saw sickening sights in that brief interval. Without knowing, without caring, Corporal Duval's section was annihilated by one shell. I saw limbless men and dead men on all sides, and yet the feeling was not one of horror or fear, but simply that it was all so natural and ordinary in occurrence. We were soon beyond that fringe of death, and I concluded that our worst trial was over, when suddenly we found ourselves confronted by a formidable system of blockhouses. … On account of the wire, too, it was impossible to approach near enough to make an effective use of bombs.”
Williams had discovered the critical outcome of the poor artillery barrage – it had failed to cut the wire, as previous, more substantial barrages had done. Consequently, this frustrated the effectiveness of the “fire and manoeuvre” tactics. The attackers were pinned down by sustained machine gun fire and well-concealed snipers, and this took a terrible toll. The artillery attempted to support the attack, but constant firing had destabilised the gun platforms (resting on shifting foundations of muddy ground), and thus the accuracy of the shelling suffered. Such a problem was not facing the German artillery. It sprayed the attackers with shrapnel, and was not inhibited by the normal counter-battery fire. For the attackers, getting forward through the slushy slope was often terrifying enough, as Burton observed. “Men fell in the swamp and some were drowned in the brimming pools, others choked in the foul ooze, others more fortunate crawled despite ghastly wounds to the sodden lip of some crater and lay there to be hit again, and perhaps again.” Those men who did get forward often made heroic attempts to cut the wire with clippers, only to be shot down by snipers or German defenders.
Leonard Hart's description of the advance and the problems faced is equally graphic.
“What was to our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge was to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully fifty yards deep. … Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades' eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that they day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot.”
The attack had stalled soon after it had been launched. Those who had survived huddled in what cover they could. Rain poured down incessantly, while all around them, bullets whined above their heads and German shells burst, spraying shrapnel and causing many casualties. Communication between the front line and the commanders, difficult at the best of time once a battle had begun, broke down completely. Evacuation of the wounded was problematic. Exhausted from having to evacuate wounded from the 49th British Division of the failed Poelcappelle battle, the New Zealand stretcher-bearers also struggled to remove their own men for treatment. Percy Williams commented admiringly about how these men performed their duty under such difficulties.
“Heroic work was being done by the stretcher-bearers. The difficulty of removing the wounded was incredible. The regular stretcher-bearers worked indefatigably for three days, but owing to the extremely difficult going and the distance of the carry, six, or even eight, men were necessary for each stretcher. Therefore every man was detailed for the work; and it must be said in their praise that owing to their efforts, every one of our wounded was brought in. Not only our own, but many Yorks and West Ridings, who had been in shell holes for six days.”
Both he and Burton refer to an informal armistice where stretcher-bearers from both sides were unmolested while they cleared the battlefield of the accumulating casualties.
It was not only on the New Zealand front that the attack had bogged down. The same had happened to the Australians on the New Zealanders' left flank. Despite this failure and the appalling casualty rate, serious consideration was given by commanders to a renewed assault in the afternoon, only for it to be cancelled at the last minute. Jim Blakemore recalled that at “4.00 p.m. they ordered us to go over again … our officer refused to go … told them the state of affairs … had no men to go back with.”
At most, the attack had carried the British line forward between 200 to 500 yards from the line won the week before at Broodseinde. This advance had cost the New Zealand Division dearly. Glyn Harper, in Massacre at Passchendaele stated bluntly,
“New Zealand losses for the morning's action were catastrophic: 117 officers and 3,179 men within a few hours… More than 1,000 bodies lay in swathes about the wire, buried in the marsh and along the road. The ratio of killed to wounded was unusually high if those listed as missing are added to the number killed. Most of those listed as missing had in fact been killed, but their bodies were never located.”
One key reason for the high loss rate was that it was subsequently discovered that the Germans had prior warning of the attack. They had reinforced the sector with two elite Jaeger regiments with a greater proportion of machine guns than was normal. Harry Highet claimed that the Germans had prepared a trap for the Allied soldiers. “Hopeless looking place. They had eight days to prepare, they knew it was coming … they had machine guns to spare.” He described how it felt to be under fire from such defences. He had been moving forward, and came under fire from a German sniper. “This bloke had the range, they'd been there eight days all with their machine guns, all the range exactly to the yard where there's be a bit of cover. He missed me, he had several shots at the edge of the trench, then all of a sudden he opened up with a machine gun on the wire above us … talk about sparks!” Bright Williams described the sensation of being under machine gun fire. “That makes your ears ring, if you're close to it. When it cracks your ears, it's very close. Both ears were ringing there on Passchendaele.”
All of the veterans commented about the losses. Jim Blakemore noted that in his company “we had 21 men come back out of 160-170.” Harry Highest echoes this view. “I was told that 23 officers went in and 7 came out and I was one of them” Bright Williams, of the 3rd Rifle Brigade, in an interview with historian Glyn Harper, stated, “Two days after it (12 October) we (3Bn) mustered 123 and the 4th Bn mustered 85. And the 1st and 2nd Bns were nearly as bad.”
Writing a week after the battle, Leonard Hart was understandably bitter.
“Some ‘terrible blunder' has been made. Someone is responsible for the barbed wire not having been broken by our artillery. Someone is responsible for the opening of our barrage in the midst of us instead of 150 yards ahead of us. Someone is responsible for those machine gun emplacements being left practically intact, but the papers will all record another glorious success, but no-one except those who actually took part in it will know any different.”
Burton O.E. The Silent Division, Angus and Robertson, 1935.
Harper Glyn, Massacre at Passchendaele, Harper Collins, 2000
Pugsley Christopher, The Anzac Experience: New Zealand , Australia and Empire in the First World War, Reed, 2004