The death of over 840 troops over a single day during the Battle of Passchendaele, compounded by a further 1,860 wounded, was a low point in New Zealand’s military contribution to WWI, 100 years ago today.
History curator Kirstie Ross outlines the impact of the battle on seven New Zealand soldiers, all of whom were photographed at the Berry & Co studio before they left for service overseas.
The Third Battle of Ypres
On 12 October, the New Zealand Division attempted but failed to secure Bellevue Spur, one of two strategic spurs on the Passchendaele Ridge in the Ypres salient. This was an episode in what is known as the Third Battle of Ypres, an unsuccessful Allied campaign spearheaded by British military commander Sir Douglas Haig (above), that ground on from 31 July to 20 November 1917.
The events that took place on 12 October have been described by military historian Ian McGibbon as a ‘disastrous fiasco’. In terms of lives lost in a single day, he ranks this as ‘the most devastating in the country’s post-1840 history’.
In 1924, when a New Zealand memorial was unveiled close to Passchendaele, at Gravenstafel (below), a commentator recalled that the battle ‘was undertaken without preparation, against uncut wire, and by worn-out troops, amidst a wilderness of mud, and in the drenching October rains’ (Evening Post, 20 September 1924).
Each of the seven ‘Berry Boys’ featured below – soldiers photographed at the Berry & Co studios in Wellington – participated in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Harry Luckman (1891–1977)
Harry survived the first day of the attack but at about 8pm on 13 October he went to get some water and was buried by an exploding shell. His Commanding Officer reported that Harry was ‘quite demented’ when he was dug out.
Harry was in such a bad state that he had to be ‘almost carried’ to a regimental aid post. The Medical Officer there later reported that he was suffering from severe shell shock.
Harry ended up at the New Zealand Stationary Hospital on 17 October. The hospital’s Commanding Officer reported that Harry ‘has marked hesitancy of speech and increased reflex action. Complains of pains in legs’, and that he could not remember the explosion.
An ambulance train took Harry to a Base Hospital; he then crossed the channel and was admitted to a hospital in Birmingham on 6 November. On 26 November, Harry was transferred to the New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst, then on to the Convalescent Depot at Torquay on 4 January 1918.
On 18 January 1918, Harry went before a Medical Board which classified him as ‘unfit’ due to ‘Neurasthenia’, a term used for shell shock. As a result he boarded the troopship Tahiti and headed for New Zealand and was from the NZEF on 11 June 1918.
After he came home, Harry’s marriage to Ellen broke down, and his family remember that he suffered nightmares in the post-war years.
John Edgar Vaughan (1896–1987)
John fought in and around Passchendaele. On 16 October 1917, during the New Zealand Division’s offensive to secure the Abraham Heights in the vicinity of Passchendaele, he was wounded and gassed.
Herbert Costello (1882–1950)
Herbert (left) was wounded on the 12 October 1917. His left forearm was hit by machine-gun fire. He was sent to England recover at the New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst and then went to Hornchurch Convalescent Home.
Jack Braddock (1895–1917)
Jack survived Paschendaele only to be struck down within weeks by cerebrospinal meningitis on 3 December, in the midst of a ferocious snowstorm, and died just two days later at a Casualty Clearing Station.
Harold Batten (1892–1955)
Harold was wounded in his lower left forearm by an exploding shell on 12 October. He was hospitalised in England with the wound, first at Lewisham in London, then at the New Zealand General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames.
William James (1894–1969)
William was engaged in the major battles of 1917, including Messines and Passchendaele.
Francis Beaufort (1887–1930)
On 31 October 1917 Francis was awarded the Military Medal for his gallantry in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Cecil Coate (1889–1950)
On 4 October, during the successful attack on Gravenstafel Spur (and preceded he disastrous one on Bellevue Spur), Cecil was hit in his face by an enemy bullet. He was admitted the same day to a New Zealand Field Ambulance, then to a Australian Casualty Clearing Station.
On 5 October, Cecil was sent far behind the lines to hospital at Le Treport, on the French coast.
If you want to know more about where and how the Battle of Passchendaele took place, follow the trail on Ngā Tapuwae, the award-winning website and app.