October 12, 1917 was New Zealand’s costliest single day in combat, with 843 lives lost and 2700 casualties.
The objective of the attack was a ridgeline near the village of Passchendaele, Belgium.
Of the 1300 Southlanders who lost their lives in WW1, 105 were killed in action on that day alone.
Incessant rain had filled shellholes that riddled ‘no mans land’, and the Germans held higher ground on a ridge overlooking the battlefield.
A preliminary barrage meant to cut the German barbed wire defences, but artillery pieces floundered in the mud and shellfire often fell short. The Allied forces went over the top in the early hours and were met by enemy bullets and shells.
Only a few made it through the wire, found their position untenable and had to fall back.
Soldiers drowned in water filled shellholes and many were cut down by enemy fire.
Southlander Leonard Hart witnessed the carnage and wrote to his parents after the battle ‘‘the torn up condition of the ground made the mud ten times worse than it would have otherwise been. The only structures which had withstood the bombardment in any way at all were the German machine gun emplacements.
‘‘My company went into action 180 strong and we come out thirtytwo strong. The wire had been cut in a few places but only sufficient to allow a few men through at a time, even then what was left of us made an attempt to get through the wire only to be shot down as fast as they appeared. Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades.’’
The result was a comprehensive and harrowing defeat to the Allies, and the New Zealand Division was one of the hardest hit.
John Davidson was a farmer from Brydone who enlisted with the 22nd reinforcements New Zealand Rifle brigade.
He and three of his comrades formed a stretcher party, and brought in the wounded.
He was hit by shards of steel caused by a shrapnel shell, but survived and returned home.
Amongst his effects were photos of two of his comrades.
One was John Baird, a farmer’s son from Otapiri, who was posted to the 4th Otago Company 1st Otago Battalion.
In the first major action of his service he was killed at Passchendale, and like so many he has no known grave and is remembered on the Tyne Cott Memorial. He was just 22.
The other photo was of Patrick Joseph Duggan, a labourer from West Plains. He enlisted in with the 22nd reinforcements New Zealand Rifle Brigade.
On the western front he was shot in the hand and thigh while in action near the French town of Messines. After recuperating in England he returned to the front line and survived the battle at Passchendale. He was killed in action in February 1918, in the Ypres Salient.
The battle of Passchendaele was a testament to the hopeless futility of war. Many Southland families lost sons, uncles and fathers. Today it is still remembered by the families of the forebears who survived and in memory of those who did not.
Iain Davidson is an amateur military historian.
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Southlanders, from left, John Baird, John Davidson and Patrick Duggan fought at Passchendaele.