One soldier's story of Passchendaele, 100 years on from New Zealand's darkest day
100 years ago today, New Zealand lost 842 soldiers during an ill-planned push to capture Passchendaele. It was the single worst loss of life in New Zealand's history. Letters home from one of those soldiers leading up to his charge into No Mans Land reveal a sad truth of the soldiers who signed up to see the world.
Zero hour and all is quiet on the Western Front save for the shick of bayonets sliding onto rifles. Gripping his Lewis model machine gun, Sydney Carl Jordan crouched against the life-saving trench as artillery soars over Flanders Field, in a bid to soften the German defence he would soon be running into.
"This moment is the most exciting moment of my life," Jordan wrote. "Seconds seemed like hours. At last there was the rattle of machine guns and the roar of guns big and small. Then the ground shook and the sky was ablaze."
Taking charge Jordan yelled "Up and over boys". The cliched line immortalised by war comics showed a glimmer of the excitement and hype the "sport of war" had become. A brave face belying the grim reality of what was about to occur. "Soon we were out of the trenches close to the curtain of fire, smoke and flying steel we followed."
Jordan, along with his Kiwi contingent, were about to charge into a machine-gun meat grinder that will claim more than 500,000 lives before the end of the conflict in the battle for Passchendaele. The Western Front would claim 5,000 New Zealand soldiers..
Approximately 4600 New Zealanders, like Jordan, remain buried there today. Passchendaele would claim 1726 lives, half of them in one day. It was one of the most bloodiest, and pointless 'big pushes' of World War I. On October 12, 1917, 842 New Zealanders would be killed in a bid to take the ground. Almost every family in New Zealand was affected.
Passchendaele was nothing more than a low ridge in Flanders. Sitting about 15 kilometres east of the war-torn town of Ypres, the area where the Western Front met. It stood just 60 metres tall but in the boggy swampland height was everything. Allied and German trenches sat staring at each other for three years with neither able to break the deadlock. Both sides brought in their elite forces and were very good shots.
The German trenches had built concrete pillboxes for protection not just from bullets but also trench foot. New Zealand troops made do dug into the mud. The Allied objective was to push through the German lines to capture channel ports to disrupt U-Boat activities. This masterstroke plan was the brainchild of British General Sir Douglas Haig. Most politicians and leader thought the push was impossible against such odds. Haig begged to differ again and again and again.
New Zealand entered the fray at Passchendaele late in September. By this time the British had advanced half way towards their target town at a cost of 90,000 casualties.
The brass had already resorted to desperate measures to capture the hill. Men afflicted with disease were dragged back from hospital given a rifle and sent to the front line. Haig regarded the Kiwis and Australians as his crack troops and brought them up to the front lines to bolster his beleaguered soldiers.
"Kiwis had already gained a reputation as being fierce trench fighters," Tauranga exhibition curator Fiona Keane said. "They were well adept at this type of fighting and sent on dangerous missions. They also had a reputation of being a bunch of magpies, taking trophies off enemies and trading them amongst themselves."
Heavy rain plagued the allied advance. Soldiers sank into mud making easy prey for gunners. Incoming artillery blasted holes in the advance while outgoing missed its mark helping the German forces. The failed barrage left the razor wire intact. Those that made it through hell were greeted with a barrage of machine gun fire or rifle rounds from well-protected German soldiers. Those who tried to crawl back were shot by snipers.
Jordan had lived through these blind charges before. The battle of Verdun claimed 400,000 allied casualties, the battle of the Somme claimed 615,000 allied lives and the battle of Passchendale would claim 315,000 more. The little soldier boy from Tauranga was literally one in a million, and remained so until October 12.
Jordan survived this early push into Passchendaele covering his mates with machine gun fire until the order to withdraw was given. While physically fine the experience left him shell-shocked to the point he needed to be hospitalised. Many of his friends had been killed while explosions rained down around him.
It was in the convalescence camp his letters home from his soldiering career would show the world the macho-bravado mannerism of soldiers was easily chipped away until they become nothing but dead men walking.
The tragedy is that even after surviving his many jaunts through the hell of no mans land he knew it would not be long before Haig would send him back again. If you disobeyed the orders you were court marshalled and shot. If he obeyed the Germans would shoot him. This was Jordan's Catch-22 moment well before the phrase was coined.
Jordan signed up "to see the world" as so many others had done before him. The promise of excitement and adventure in his majesty's service was all he wanted. This put him at odds with his father who had tried to keep him from enlisting. "Do you remember when Dad objected to me enlisting and I said I wanted to see the world? Well I am seeing it now," he wrote to his mother.
Jordan's family were well known in Tauranga. His father was Reverend Canon Charles Jordan who arrived in Tauranga during 1873 from Ireland. A minister of the first Church of England, the reverend served as the chairman of the town board before he was elected the mayor of Tauranga in 1887.
Jordan was a well-liked child and grew into a joker of a teenager. Blessed with a photogenic face the young boy had his picture taken often, a rarity in those days. With the old vicarage to romp around in he grew up to become an accomplished athlete and horseman. He secured a job as a clerk for an insurance company, like his father, and would break in horses during his spare time.
War broke and Jordan thought this was his chance. He enlisted as soon as he was able to embark on the Tahiti towards the Suez Canal and Egypt. He spent some time in Libya before embarking to France to join the great crusade that would eventually claim his life.
To start, Jordan took to soldiering well and was swept up in the action it provided. On December 27, he wrote: "The men treat it more as sport than fighting." He would refer to the enemy forces he would fire machine guns at as Fritz or the Hun.
During the battle for Verdun he volunteered to take a gun over the top to protect the flanks. "First stint brought back nine to our one. This time 19 for loss of 1 New Zealander. The fight is in good order," he wrote back to his family. "The Huns are getting a smashing."
The ANZACs had earned a reputation as excellent trench warfare soldiers and were often selected for elite missions. Jordan put this down to the generals, "Not forgetting good work."
As well as attract dangerous missions the work also rewarded shore leave. One weekend Jordan was awarded a week away in England and Scotland. It was the best thing that happened to him in his short life. He updated his family on the entire trip, as a teenager would do today via Facebook or Instagram 100 years later.
"I learnt more history in one day than I did all the time I was at school. We visited such places as the Tower, Westminster Abbey, St Pauls, Tower Bridge etc.
"I meet two Miss Galloways, sisters of John Galloway of the Thames, they are both fine girls and helped to make my three days in Scotland a pleasant three days."
When soldiers asked how he liked war he would respond, "It's good fun but the High Explosives are a bit rough."
He visited the world's fair. Caught the tube. Ice skated, drank tea and even met old family friends. He made plans to return to Scotland.
"It was an expensive holiday I'll admit but why not have a good time, it was the chance of the lifetime and I don't begrudge a penny of it."
The fact Jordan was able to keep his composure during the battle of Verdun and the Somme, among the worst conflicts of World War 1, before even reaching Passchendaele is a testament to the spirit of the young Kiwi living life as if each day was his last. But, his last letters would reveal his positive spirit was a veneer for a dark truth dawning on the soldier.
As he trudged into the muddy trenches of Passchendaele, Jordan's glass half full attitude began to rapidly drain, barely noticeable amid the poppy-coloured blood that soaked Flanders field.
Jordan noticed the flowers on arrival. "The ground between the trenches, it is covered with long grass. In one place there had been a garden but the flowers run wild now. Just behind us there is an orchard. The fruit is not ripe yet and when it is I don't want any. The trees are good aiming marks for Fritz so beware."
"I have been a soldier now for two years now," he wrote. "I am an old soldier." Most of his friends and allies were being replaced as often as he could meet them. He wrote a macabre list home about his friends starting to get picked off.
The wounded were no longer poor chaps. They were lucky. They got to leave.
"I suppose before this reaches you news will be through about Eric Williams," he wrote.
"He was wounded about a week ago for the third time, and the last. I think he will probably lose an eye. He was very game and although badly smoked he walked nearly all the way out. I was in the front line when he was hit so could not go see him."
His friend Buck Bowen was dying in Turkey. "They must have killed him as no strong chap would die there if given a fair chance. His people will be broken hearted."
"I saw his notice in the NZ Chronicles. Keith and Bunny are having a long spin in hospital. It is hard luck Keith being disfigured but they are both lucky if they only know it."
Jordan had a lucky stay in the hospital while he penned his letters home after surviving his charge into No Man's Land. All sense of honour and glory was now washed away. Seeing the world and living the best weekend of his life had come at a high cost that he was becoming all to aware needed to be paid. A letter to his father on September 26, weeks before his death showed how the war had finally broken the little soldier boy.
"I don't see what we are fighting for," he wrote. "They say freedom but we are only being made bigger slaves everyday to say nothing of the poor English Tommy who is treated a thousand times worse than a Hun prisoner. It is high time the whole murderous affair was over."
Then, a rare glimpse behind the curtain.
"We have got to try and believe we are winning and look cheerful but it is a hard job to do that now. Just think it is a year ago since I was in this place last and it was here I spent my last birthday. I hope I can hang out here until my next."
His marching orders arrived leaving him just time to write a quick, final note to his mother on October 10, 1917.
"Just a short note before I go up the line in the morning," he wrote. "I am still fit and well and feeling all the better after the spell down here. According to the papers our boys are in the thick of it and carried everything before them. In a way, I am not sorry I missed it.
"I will close with best love and Xmas wishes from your son."
By the time she received the letter Jordan, and 841 other New Zealand soldiers, all with ambitions of seeing the world and doing their part had been gunned down in a 'big push' to capture Passchendaele. Nothing had changed. It was steel and smoke and barbed wire and bullets and death. The artillery missed its mark again and there was no cover to shelter from the onslaught of machine-gun fire.
On 18 October, Canadian Corps relieved the beleaguered II Anzac Corps. Haig was nevertheless determined to persist. Passchendaele would be taken. After a series of well-prepared attacks, supported by Kiwi gunners, the Canadian troops finally occupied the ruins of Passchendaele village on November 6. It cost 12,000 people their lives.
German forces would soon recapture the town during the Spring Offensive cementing Passchendaele as a symbol for the futility of the war.
The relative he stayed with in England for his best weekend away, Margaret Wilson, wrote to Jordan's mother.
"I find it hard to think fine Carl will not go home to you again. What a price to pay for peace and honour. A mother's heart is not easily healed of such a wound."
And as the mothers and brothers and sisters and fathers and children all wept for their missing soldiers lost forever to foreign battlefields the little soldier boy's last letter arrived back to his mother's house after his name had already appeared in the paper.
Jordan's letters were kept by his mother and handed down to her daughter and ended up in the hands of his niece, Helen Graham from Tauranga.
"I never knew him but I got to know him through these letters," she said.
"My mother used to talk about him a lot when we were growing up so we had stories of Sydney."
Sydney's letters, now donated to the Waiouru War Museum, have been compiled by the Tauranga City Council as part of their I Died in Hell exhibition for the four Tauranga soldiers lost 100 years ago but not forgotten.
PASSCHENDAELE'S BLOODY TOLL
* Of the 18,166 New Zealanders killed in action before 12 November 1918 and December 23, 1923 there were 12,4683 casualties on the Western Front. That represents 74.8 per cent of all New Zealand casualties at that time.
* 98,950 served in New Zealand units overseas
* 80% were volunteers
* 20% were conscripted
* 2227 served in Maori units
* 461 came from the Pacific Islands
* 7036 served in New Zealand
* 9% of the population served
* 0.9% New Zealand units as a proportion of the British forces
* 286 men were imprisoned for rejecting military service
* 6400-7900 men refused, objected to, or avoided military service
* 18,058 total deaths
* 1796 died during the Passchendaele offensive
* 5 were executed
* 41,317 occurrences of injury or illness
* 501 prisoners of war
Four Tauranga men died during the bloodiest period of Passchendaele – Albert Wasley, Sydney Carl Jordan, William Cunningham and Cecil Guinness. I Died in Hell tells the story of Carl Jordan through his own words and those of his friends.
The exhibition includes excerpts from letters written by Carl and his friends and gives attendees an insight into what these men experienced and endured during the battle. The exhibition also includes film footage from WW1.
Tauranga City Council's Heritage Collection in partnership with WW100 Tauranga have created this latest From Tauranga to the Trenches exhibition, which will be on display at three different locations across the city.
The series has been made possible thanks to a grant from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board.
- Sunday Star Times