NZ's dark day at Passchendaele: 'The cries of the wounded were pitiful indeed'
One hundred years after the darkest day of World War I, one man's heroism is remembered by his grandson. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.
Gallipoli has had most of the attention but for New Zealanders during World War I, the western front was the greater horror. At its apex, there is one word and one day: Passchendaele, October 12, 1917.
On just one day in Belgium, amidst mud and rain and trenches and barbed wire, 843 New Zealand soldiers were killed. Some of the wounded bled to death, unable to be rescued. Others who were injured died later.
Unlike Gallipoli, no complicated myth about national identity has been salvaged from Passchendaele. But while stories of heroism seem unlikely, they exist.
Christchurch man Doug Cockerell remembers the exploits of his grandfather, Allan Richmond Cockerell, who earned a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) at Passchendaele.
Some, including military historian and former Christchurch city manager, John H Gray, who died in 2016, thought Cockerell deserved better – he "clearly deserved" the Victoria Cross, Gray wrote in his book From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth.
Cockerell was a second lieutenant in the 8th company of the Otago Battalion. On October 12, the company was exposed to fire from two German blockhouses. The commander went down quickly and Cockerell took charge, but the Germans kept hammering at them. Cockerell soon "found himself alone and unsupported in this wilderness of shell-holes," as the official history of the Otago Regiment has it.
But he kept moving forward. He found 40 Germans in a trench. They were out of ammunition and surrendered to him. He then overpowered troops at one of the German blockhouses. He found private George Hampton from Dipton, Southland, who had a Lewis gun. The two of them attacked the second blockhouse.
Eighty German soldiers had surrendered to them by now. Cockerell and Hampton then teamed up with the remnants of an Australian division. Someone had to go back for reinforcements – Hampton volunteered and was killed after crossing about 180 metres of open country. Three Australians died the same way.
Cockerell was miraculously alive at the close of the worst day of the war. The official history spoke of an "extraordinary individual effort" that led to the award of the DSO, "rare for an officer of his rank".
Despite the heroic exploits and the recognition, Cockerell was struck by the enormous human cost. Ten days later, safely in France, he wrote to his future wife, Gladys, and explained that while his older brother Dave survived Passchendaele, his younger brother Jim was killed on the morning of October 12.
"I am terribly broken up over it," he wrote, knowing the news "will break my mother's heart", but he said he was consoled by the thought Jim died fighting gallantly.
The larger human suffering weighed on him.
"I can't understand how any man ever came through it at all," he wrote. "It has been the severest blow the New Zealanders have been in, absolute murder . . . someone no doubt made a terrific blunder."
He reflected: "I will never forget it all. The cries of the wounded were pitiful indeed. I pray God that I shall never experience the like again and I offer thanks to him for bringing me safely through."
Like thousands of others, Cockerell did experience it again. He rejoined the army and served in World War II. He died in Gore, Southland, in 1975 at age 83.
Doug Cockerell only saw his grandfather a few times, but he remembers a humble man who, like many of his generation, was reluctant to talk about wartime experiences. He too has reflected on the Passchendaele anniversary.
"I believe it is important to remember the sacrifices that generation made," he says. "They were thrown into battlefronts with horrendous conditions where the object was to kill the enemy while facing the high prospect of a sudden or agonising death themselves.
"It was largely a lottery who survived and was able to return to civilian life. We are very fortunate that our generation is one of the few not to have first-hand experience of major wars. We must never become complacent and overlook the destructive nature and futility of war."