Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, October 12, 2017

100 Years Ago: 12 October 1917—The Blackest Day in New Zealand History

New Zealander Reinforcements Advancing to the Front in the Rain

In October 1917 four Anzac divisions, three Australian plus the New Zealand Division, were in the center of action in the attempt to take Passchendaele Ridge.  On 4 October the Anzacs had a major success taking Broodseinde Ridge, advancing the front line 3,000 meters.  The New Zealanders played a major role in the advance, seizing a key position on the ridge, Graventafel Spur.  The division attacked up hill, over open slopes, and against pillboxes and barbed wire. It was a victory on the scale of the New Zealand Division's capture of the fortified town of Messines in June. The Broodseinde assault was during a dry period, however, and the troops did not have to deal with the famous Flanders mud. 

The Battlefield of 12 October 1917—There Was No Advance at All Across This

After a rest, the high command ordered a renewed assault in an operation referred to in some sources as the "First Battle of Passchendaele."  The next objective was Bellevue Spur, the second of the small rises leading to Passchendaele Ridge.  In the interim, though, continuous rain made the entire area an almost impassable quagmire.  The attack of 12 October was a disaster for the division.  Any advance was impossible and 846 men were killed in the first four hours of the attack.  The New Zealand government's history site puts it plainly: "12 October is undoubtedly, in terms of lives lost in a single day, the blackest day in New Zealand’s post-1840 existence."

Commemorative Panel at Nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery

The suffering did not end in a single day, though. The division spent a week stuck in the mud, absorbing enemy fire. There were 1,135 New Zealanders who were killed that week and another 3,178 wounded.

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