One soldier's story of Passchendaele, 100 years on from New Zealand's darkest day

Sydney Jordan's entry into the Roll of Honour after his death on October 12, 1917.

Sydney Jordan's entry into the Roll of Honour after his death on October 12, 1917.

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."

A wrecked tank on the battlefields of Passchendaele.

A wrecked tank on the battlefields of Passchendaele.

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."

New Zealand's darkest day at Dominion Museum exhibition
Massey University war historian leads pilgrimage to Passchendaele
New Zealand's blackest days

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..

Soldiers sit by their gun emplacement used to cover the advance of allied troops.

Soldiers sit by their gun emplacement used to cover the advance of allied troops.

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.

Sydney Carl Jordan's in the battle lines of Passchendaele

Sydney Carl Jordan's in the battle lines of Passchendaele

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.

Ad Feedback

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."

Sydney Jordan's entry into the Roll of Honour after his death on October 12, 1917.

Sydney Jordan's entry into the Roll of Honour after his death on October 12, 1917.

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.

The little boy who grew up to become a soldier marched into hell. Sydney Carl Jordan, age unknown.

The little boy who grew up to become a soldier marched into hell. Sydney Carl Jordan, age unknown.

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.

Mina Bixley, a Year 13 Tauhara College student, won the Ministry of Veteran Affair's 2016 Battle of Passchendaele ...

Mina Bixley, a Year 13 Tauhara College student, won the Ministry of Veteran Affair's 2016 Battle of Passchendaele Multi-Media Competition. The win means Mina Bixley will attend the 100 year anniversary commemorations of the battle in Belgium this week.

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.

Poppies with personalised messages from members of the British public are seen at the Tyne Cot Cemetery on July 29, 2017 ...

Poppies with personalised messages from members of the British public are seen at the Tyne Cot Cemetery on July 29, 2017 in Zonnebeke, in the Ypres Salient battlefields area of Belgium.

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."

A scene from the frontlines of Passchendaele. Mud was a real problem on the battlefied and in the trenches.

A scene from the frontlines of Passchendaele. Mud was a real problem on the battlefied and in the trenches.

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.


* 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

550 nurses served in the NZEF, 12 died 

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


Ad Feedback
special offers

Holiday traffic turns deadly

Traffic heading south out Auckland will test weekenders' patience. And the roadworks don't help.

Labour Weekend off to a tragic start following a fatal crash on SH2 in Wairoa as traffic builds nationwide.

Cliff-fall victim an avid walker

Cliff stabilisation works are being carried out nearby.

Elderly woman Ruth Sutherland fell to her death at the bottom of her own garden in Auckland.

Top aviation student flying high

Mt Cook Airlines pilot and mentor Keegan Caarkeuken, right, presents Marc Icaro with the Air New Zealand Flying Award.

Marc Icaro earns his wings and steers toward a career as a commercial airline pilot.

Actor's son reunited with iPad

Shane Cortese and his son were intimidated and robbed on a train.

Outrageous Fortune actor's son reunited with iPad after being robbed on a train.


Blind bowling: easier than it looks  video

The white ball is called a jack or kitty.

How do you bowl when you can't see the balls?

Vaping fears evaporate

The Ministry of Health believes e-cigarettes have the potential to make a contribution to the Smokefree 2025 goal.

The Ministry of Health now supports vaping as a way to reach the Smokefree 2025 target.

Mixed bag for Labour Weekend video

Wellington weather will be a mixed bag this weekend.

In true spring fashion, the region's Labour Weekend weather will bring a bit of everything.

Passenger train hits truck

The train crossing at Norman Ave Carterton where a train collided with a logging trailer.

No injuries after passenger train and truck crash outside Masterton.


New technology hub in CBD

The building has eight storeys and large floors.

An education, research and technology transfer hub is to be established in an old office building in Christchurch's east frame.

Elderly man hit by car

A St John ambulance transported a 90-year-old man to Christchurch Hospital after he was hit by a car in St Albans.

A 90-year-old man was taken to hospital with moderate injuries after being hit by a car in Christchurch.

Christchurch motorway open day

Drone images of the Western Belfast Bypass, which is set to open in November.

Walkers, runners and cyclists will be the first to travel on Christchurch's Western Belfast Bypass next weekend.

Charge dropped over bomb scare video

Dene Barnes appears in the Dunedin District Court.

Charge dropped against Dunedin musician who sparked a bomb scare in the CBD.


Wheelie boys rile police

Hamilton has a new gang the H-Town Wheelie Boyz.

You can recognise them from the gang-like patch, and the fact they're doing wheelies in traffic.

Crash spot work eyed

The Gordonton and Thomas Road intersection was the site of 12 crashes in nine months.

A roundabout or lights possible for the Gordonton and Thomas roads intersection.

Anxiety, elation in PM's hometown

Kiwitahi farmer Paddy O'Shea and his 10 year old daughter Danielle. O'Shea was disappointed with Peters' decision to ...

The new government means good times ahead or off to hell in a hand-cart, depending on who you ask in Morrinsville.

Students abandon pets

The Waikato SPCA is expecting a lot more abandoned cats like Necky as students move away in November.

Students are dumping their pets as they head away from their study cities.


Photos: Mimi School Pet Day gallery

Amaya Ellis, 5, and her calf 'Maisey'

Photographer Simon O'Connor went along, this is what he saw.

Coalition reaction

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters

"It's the start of a distinguished political career for Jacinda Ardern," says Corie Haddock.

Car rolls in South Taranaki

The crash happened on Wiremu Rd in South Taranaki

Emergency services were on their way to a crash which happened on Wiremu Rd.

Butler, Hutchieson look to defend

Kehu Butler is chaired up the beach at Trigg Point in Perth after winning the a leg of the World Surf League Junior Tour.

Some of New Zealand's top surfers will be competing in Taranaki this weekend.


Building her body

Jose Marshall has gone from learning how to walk again to competing at the bodybuilding nationals.

Jose Marshall was almost killed in a crash. Now, she's competing at the bodybuilding nationals.

Finding freedom video

Four-year-old Fowya Julsalam is getting to grips with his new life in New Zealand.

He was thrown into jail and beaten. Now, Musti Rahman and his family are free.

On the road again

A scheme offering passenger services to the elderly and people with mobility issues is now available to private ...

Law change tipped to improve transport options for people with mobility issues.

Karting kid to F1 video

Brendon Hartley gets fitted into his new car ahead of the United States Grand Prix.

Brendon Hartley has 21 years of motorsport experience to draw on in the F1.


Makos fans jet into enemy territory

Originair flight OG3313 Captain Warwick Wild shows his support for the Tasman Makos before a flight to New Plymouth today.

Look out Ferdinand - there'll be a few more fins up in the crowd at Yarrow Stadium this weekend.

Tale of two MPs

Nick Smith says National will be a formidable force in opposition.

The top of the south looks set to swap one cabinet minister for another.

Salisbury takes heart 

Salisbury School at Richmond is the only national single-sex residential school for girls with intellectual disabilities.

Could the long fight to save Salisbury School be over with the change of government?

Sanctuary given $150k

The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary says water testing shows no poison residue has been detected in water tests following the ...

The Brook Sanctuary has recieved $150,000 in funding from the NCC.


Building blocks for a happy family

Vanessa Hopkins is in charge of paperwork while Mathew, left, and Glenn drive heavy machinery to lay and smooth out the ...

Workers on the highway rebuild are like one big family. Especially these three, who are family.

The cats nobody wants

Manager, Kaycee Polkinghorne (pictured) said sending the cats to Wellington gave them a better chance of adoption.

Thirteen cats took an early morning flight to Wellington on Saturday hoping for a fresh start.

Doggie Gold Card with benefits

Winston Peters may leave a political legacy with pooches at Marlborough if a doggie Gold Card goes ahead.

Winston Peters may unwittingly leave a political legacy at Marlborough as councillors consider a Gold Card for dogs.

The long and winding dead end

The Acheron Rd, through Molesworth Station, is open again, but only from the Marlborough end.

It's a long, dusty through-road that doesn't go through anymore. The Molesworth road reopens ... kind of.

South Canterbury

It's coming down

Owner of the Hydro Grand, Allan Booth.

Timaru's Hydro Grand Hotel could be reduced to rubble by the end of November.

Disease 'contained'

22092017 News Photo: TOM LEE/STUFF - Dairy Cow, Farming, Fonterra, Cattle. Milking, Dawn Morning.

Ministry for Primary Industries confident Mycoplasma bovis is contained.

Farewell to commissioner

Fairlie Primary School commissioner Terri Johnstone has said farewell to the school.

Fairlie Primary School is in a state of self-governence once more.

Hottest spots as spring sizzles

Peta Couling and Zion Reihana, both 13, were getting their feet wet at Caroline Bay on Wednesday as the hot weather set in.

Otematata hottest in country on Thursday with 30.1 degrees, while Mt Cook set new record.


MP wants to get 'stuff done'

Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker said he will lobby for tourism levy and better transport system in Queenstown.

 "When an MP phones up departments they treat you a lot different than an average Joe Bloggs," Hamish Walker said.

Southern temperatures soar

Archie Livingstone, 6, of Cromwell, cools down at the Lowburn Inlet on Thursday when temperatures reached 28.6degC  - ...

Sunhats are out and sprinklers working over time as record October temperatures hit the south.

For sale: Big-city escape gallery

The house has been extensively renovated, both inside and out, and is a landmark property in Lawrence.

Looking at moving out of the big smoke? Here's what $865K gets you in Lawrence - a home and income.

Charge dropped over bomb scare video

Dene Barnes appears in the Dunedin District Court.

A judge has dismissed a charge against a Dunedin noise band musician who sparked a bomb scare in the CBD.


Ardern: 'Honour and privilege'

Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern will be the country's new prime minister.

Jacinda Ardern will become prime minister as the Labour Party regains power after nine years in the cold.

Burnoff out of control

Fire crews are attending a blaze near Te Anau, in Southland.

Fire crews are attending an out-of-control burnoff near Te Anau.

Tania needs new liver

James Hargest College science teacher Tania Lineham is in need of her second liver transplant, her first was in 1995.

An award-winning science teacher is in urgent need of a second liver transplant.

Woman steals $100k

Court gavel.

A Southland woman stole more than $100,000 from her employer because she wanted to start her own business.

Ad Feedback