The battle of Passchendaele

17:00, Apr 22 2012

The remains of dozens of New Zealand soldiers still lie beneath the earth at Passchendaele, Belgium, nearly a century after they fell. Many, if eventually found, may never be identified. Hundreds of others lie in military cemeteries nearby. These men, and comrades who survived, had taken part in the Third Battle of Ypres, in World War I.

The battle was fought over land near the town of Passchendaele. The first two Ypres battles were fought in the wider area earlier in the war.

The Passchendaele offensive was planned to force a breakthrough of the German lines. The main fighting began on July 31, 1917. It did not finish until British Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig called it off, on November 10. Meanwhile heavy rain in the early winter had turned the land into an almost impassable quagmire.

The New Zealanders were part of large British and Empire forces that massed for the battle. After a long artillery barrage had dug up the mud even further, the New Zealanders joined in the assaults on enemy lines. Nearly 500 New Zealanders were killed while charging at the enemy on October 4. Eight days later, 850 more were killed in another charge.

Such numbers, for such a small country, represented one of the greatest disasters of the war. Some small gains were made at Passchendaele but the overall result left both sides in similar deadlocked positions to where they had started. That so little was achieved at such indescribable cost brought condemnation on British army commanders. Military historians to this day make harsh judgments about Passchendaele - a name that meant Hell to the men who were there.