Passchendaele - 100 years since New Zealand's darkest day of the First World War

The battle lines of Passchendaele
SUPPLIED

The battle lines of Passchendaele

"I died in hell (They called it Passchendaele)," is how the poet Seigfried Sassoon described the three month battle that left 500,000 casualties and became synonymous with the slaughter of the First World War.

It's exactly 100 years since the name of the tiny Belgian village on the Western Front name became linked to New Zealand's "darkest hour" of the 1914-18 conflict. 

On October 12, 1917 an Allied attack on heavily-defended German lines snuffed out the lives of 845 Kiwi soldiers in a quagmire of liquid mud, barbed wire and machine guns. The total rises to 950 after soldiers succumbed to their wounds in the following days. Some 1860 were injured.

A line of infantry marching along a muddy corduroy track strewn with debris
STATE LIBRARY OF NSW

A line of infantry marching along a muddy corduroy track strewn with debris

The dead included 23 men from Taranaki, according to Ancestry.com

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Soldiers with a gun at Passchendaele.
NATIONAL ARMY MUSUEUM

Soldiers with a gun at Passchendaele.

Among them was 2nd Lieutenant Cyril Cutten Carncross, of Eltham, the son of the Hon. Walter Charles Frederick Carncross, the Acting Speaker of the Legislative Council.

"When his father retired from the House of Representatives in 1902, and went to Taranaki to take over the Eltham Argus, Cyril accompanied him and did good work for that paper until he enlisted with the Rifle Brigade," read an obituary published on October 25 and recovered by historian Helen Vale. 

"He left for France on September 6, 1917 and joined his battalion in the field on September 21," she writes.

The muddy hell that symbolises the Battle of Passchendaele.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

The muddy hell that symbolises the Battle of Passchendaele.

Less than a year after enlisting, and three weeks after arriving in Belgium, Cyril Cutten Carncross was killed in action. He was 28 years old.

Carncross was one of 100,000 New Zealanders who went away to 'do their bit' in the war - a huge number considering the country's population in 1914 was 1.1 million.

About 18,000 died during or because of the conflict.

Others to fall on that grim October day included Private Leo Dawson Boswell, of New Plymouth, Rifleman Leonard Broadmore, of Inglewood, Private Montague D'Arcy Julian, of Opunake, and Private Henry Charles Wells, of Warea, Taranaki.

"In terms of lives lost in a single day, this was the most catastrophic in the country's history," Chris Turver, RSA district president of the Wellington-West Coast-Taranaki region, said.

Some 322 of the dead have never been identified and lie in the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery, he added.

"It was the darkest day in the whole of New Zealand's military history. At no other time have more than 800 died on the same day, with more dying in the weeks afterwards.

"New Zealand suffered the highest casualty rate per head of the population than any other Commonwealth country.

"Passchendaele was the worst of the worst."

Today, services are taking place in New Zealand and Belgium to remember the fallen.

The Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington will see a national commemorative programme at 3pm to mark the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, followed by a reflective event at 6pm at the Te Papa museum.

The ceremony will be live streamed on the WW100 website and Facebook page.

In Nelson, a joint commemoration will take place in the city's Cenotaph, in Memorial Square, from midday, organised by Napier RSA together with the Napier Red Cross.

And in Belgium the New Zealand National Commemoration will take place at 11 am at Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Zonnebeke, the largest Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in the world.

At 3pm local time, the New Zealand Passchendaele Centennial Memorial & Garden will be opened at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, and the day will conclude with a sunset ceremony in Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood.

The New Plymouth & District RSA has been unable to put on a service to mark the centenary, said Graeme Lowe, its president.

"Executive members have had a lot of illness this winter and the Events 100 committee has been heavily involved with planning for Armistice 2018."

The organisation remains committed to planning commemorations for ANZAC Day, Battle of Crete, and Armistice Day, he added, and last month held a Battle of Britain service and Merchant Navy Day.

 - Taranaki Daily News

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