Passchendaele: The real reason behind New Zealand's greatest tragedy

News 12/10/2017

New Zealand has suffered its fair share of tragic events leading to a great loss of life.

Recent tragedies such as Pike River and the CTV building collapse during the Christchurch earthquake sparked inquests and furore - but what of New Zealand's greatest disaster in history, our so-called blackest day on October 12, 1917, near a Belgian village called Passchendaele during World War I?

A total of 845 New Zealanders were killed in just a couple of hours trying to capture German positions that morning, while another 1900 were wounded.

Only 21 Germans were killed in the attack and their comrades did not give any ground - so almost 3000 New Zealanders were killed or wounded for no military gain.

The great tragedy of New Zealand's experience at Passchendaele is that it was possibly avoidable; at least, without the same wonton loss of life.

Dr Andrew Macdonald interviewed the last surviving Kiwi veterans of Passchendaele in the 1990s and has written the only detailed history of New Zealand's part in the battle - Passchendaele: the Anatomy of a Tragedy.

He singles out one man to hold account for the disaster: Lieutenant-General Alexander Godley.

"I don't think it's too far to say that Godley set the tactical parameters against the New Zealand and 3rd Australian Division from having any chance of success whatsoever," Dr Macdonald told Newshub.

Photo credit: The man most responsible for New Zealand's disaster at Passchendaele, Alexander Godley. Photo credit: NZ History

Godley was commander of the II Anzac Corps, to which the New Zealand Division was attached. It was his decision to attack Passchendaele, even when most soldiers under his command knew the attack would fail.

Godley promised the man in complete charge of the British Army, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, that his soldiers would plant an Australian flag in the ruins of Passchendaele village on October 12.

"Godley was a guy driven to please Haig, he wanted to secure Haig's praise, he wanted to advance his own career," Dr Macdonald said.

"Most importantly he wanted the New Zealand and 3rd Australian divisions to perform well and ultimately for his II Anzac Corps to capture the village of Passchendaele, allowing the allied strategy of 1917 to be, at least, partially achieved."

That strategy was the Third Battle of Ypres, a bold and ambitious plan to punch through the German positions east of the town of Ypres, and capture important railway lines and U-boat submarine bases along the Belgian coast.

Photo credit: The initial battle plan compared to what was actually achieved before October 12. Photo credit: Newshub

The initial battle plan foresaw an advance of hundreds of kilometres, but by the time the New Zealanders joined the battle two months after it had begun, the British had advanced barely four kilometres and suffered 150,000 casualties.

Godley first ordered his II Anzac Corps to attack on October 4, the Battle of Broodseinde, but crucially, his forces had time to prepare adequate artillery support.

With artillery fire strong enough to sweep away barbed wire and protect its advance, II Anzac captured almost two kilometres of German-held ground.

However the New Zealanders paid a heavy price for their success, with almost 500 being killed and another 1300 wounded.

Buoyed by this result, Godley attacked again on October 9 with two British divisions, but he didn't give them enough time to properly prepare their artillery and the attack was a bloody disaster.

Dr Macdonald believes Godley took steps to hide this battle's failure from Haig.

"I think that Godley, if he wasn't directly lying about the performance on the 9th of October by the two British divisions, he was very definitely embellishing their performance.

"At the most charitable his reports on the gains of the 9th of October, and let's not mince words here, they were essentially nothing, his view of that action as signalled to Haig's office was optimistic at best, it was probably embellished and may have even met the bar for falsehood."

There was also another element hindering Godley's II Anzac Corps apart from its impatient commander: consistent rain.

Photo credit: The mud made it near impossible for the artillery men to get their guns into position in time for the attack on October 12. Photo credit: National Army Museum

It had turned the battlefield into a quagmire but determined to win another victory for himself and once again impress Haig, Godley ordered another attack on October 12.

"Godley did not visit the frontline battlefield until after the 12th of October and I think this was one of his greatest mistakes," Dr Macdonald said.

"Had he been not so reliant on maps and reports flowing into his office, had he ventured forward, he would have been able to see what the state of the ground was like, he would have seen what the state of the road network was like, he would have been better informed to make decisions on the reality of the situation.

"The logistics network was failing, it was at the point of failure even when there was dry ground on the 4th of October, but then the rain set in that evening and it continued essentially uninterrupted until the 12th of October.

"If Godley had gone forward his staff car would have been bogged down in the mud, he would have known immediately that it was impossible to get artillery guns forward and he might have been able to do something about it.

"Instead, the reflux of warning signals from his artillery men, his staff officers, his engineers… they went unheard by Godley.

"In fact he became more determined to launch the attack on the 12th of October as the conditions worsened."

The attack went ahead and it was an unmitigated disaster. There wasn't nearly enough artillery fire to sweep away the barbed wire and many shells landed short amongst the Kiwis, causing hundreds of casualties. Those who survived were cut down by German machine gun and rifle fire as they advanced towards the German lines.

Thousands of families throughout New Zealand lost a brother, cousin, uncle or father.

Dr Macdonald came face to face with the pain and anguish the New Zealanders suffered on October 12 when he interviewed two survivors, who were then in their late 90s. Dr Macdonald was only a teenager.

"They talked about moving forward and the chattering of the German machine guns, of seeing the flashes of flare, shell bursts, machine gun muzzle flashes, seeing friends fall around them, one was wounded in the foot, the other went to ground to shelter.

"Both spent the day in shell holes with their friends either wounded or dead lying around them.

"That long wait after the initial attack was the worst part, because that mental focus they'd worked up to go into battle, for an attack that they knew was going to be a failure, had been broken and the grizzly reality of it was all around them.

"Having a look over the rim of a shell hole was to court death by a sniper's bullet, and one of these old guys I spoke to… one of his good friends was shot straight through the head by a sniper, and this old guy then had to spend several hours in that shell hole with his friend.

"It's a very humbling experience when you're 18 and sitting next to a man who's nearly 100, 80 years between us, but even in that length of time the grief, the post-traumatic stress of having seen all those things is seared into their minds.

"It was not uncommon for these old boys to sob quietly and confess to having nightmares about Passchendaele over the years.

"It's not just something in the history books for me, it's about people I knew, and that's really important to me."

So did Dr Macdonald set out to hold Godley accountable for the Passchendaele disaster when he began writing his book?

"When I wrote Passchendaele I know that I was very harsh on Godley and his performance there, but I did weigh it up - I didn't have any fixed opinions on him - and I weighed up the evidence.

"It's very easy to look at the First World War now, and just receive it as a series of battles where civilian soldiers flung themselves naively at massed German machine guns. It was nothing like that at all… the process of turning civilian soldiers into battle technicians was a very detailed, complex process, and I fear some of that is lost in war history."

Dr Macdonald's research has led him to believe Godley even tried to hide the failure of the October 12 attack from the New Zealand Government.

"You only have to look at his correspondence to New Zealand Minister of Defence James Allen, Godley is issuing letters that contained kernels of truth, but by in large they were essays in deceit."

The surviving New Zealanders at Passchendaele were well aware something had gone terribly wrong before the attack. Perhaps the most famous account is from Leonard Hart, who served with an Otago regiment.

He wrote a letter to his family which was smuggled home without the British censors getting hold of it:

"Some terrible blunder has been made. Someone is responsible for that barbed wire not having been broken up by our artillery. Someone is responsible for the opening of our barrage in the midst of us instead of 150 yards ahead of us. Someone is responsible for those machine gun emplacements being left practically intact."

That someone, thanks to Dr Macdonald's meticulous research and passion, can now be revealed to all: a British military careerist named Alexander Godley, who unlike most of the men he commanded, lived to the ripe-old age of 90.