Thursday, October 12, was the centenary of the battle of Bellevue Spur, when 846 New Zealanders were killed, the single greatest loss of life on any day in New Zealand’s history. Reporter Koren Allpress talked to some who have researched the traumatic eve
It was the blackest of many black days in New Zealand’s war history. However for the families of the more than 800 Kiwis, of the nearly 70 South Cantabrians, who died in battle, or as a result of wounds suffered, in the First Battle of Passchendaele, on October 12, 1917, the news they dreaded every day would not arrive for up to a month.
Concerned mothers, fathers, spouses, siblings and extended family members, wouldn’t find out for some time that a loved one had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Nowadays, news can be shared online, and within seconds reach many, many people right around the world. In 1917 things were considerably slower.
One can only imagine the torment family members experienced on learning a son, brother, uncle, spouse had been wounded, not knowing how he was faring, the gut-wrenching agony of hearing later that he had died, or the relief of finding out he was ok.
Former Timaru Herald news editor Carol Bell is a member of the South Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.
In 2014, Bell said she had the ‘‘bright idea’’ of putting together a tabloid about the start of World War I 100 years earlier.
She worked with the South Canterbury Museum and a crew of other interested parties to put it together and it was published that August. She has also been involved in the South Canterbury Roll of Honour (SCRoll) project, which can be viewed on the Timaru District Council South Canterbury Museum website
Bell said WWI left a generation of South Canterbury men not wiped out, but ‘‘badly bent’’.
She believed the obituaries for the South Canterbury men who died at Passchendaele would have appeared in the Herald a day or two after families were notified.
‘‘It appears it was well into November before South Canterbury became aware they had suffered the loss.’’
She said details of a loss would have taken a lot longer to arrive than they did now, as telegrams would not have been sent until officials were ‘‘extremely sure’’.
Bell said it wasn’t until the Vietnam War, when journalists ventured further than they had in the past, that the world really started to see war up close.
‘‘The world started to realise just how horrible everything was. I don’t think they had much idea in World War I of the terrible details of what their families were going through.’’
Helping to compile the biographies of soldiers had been a huge project, she said.
‘‘It’s extended not only to those who died but those who survived.’’
She said those who survived had their stories to tell and deserved recognition.
She had compiled hundreds and hundreds of biographies and said some of them were ‘‘really sad’’.
‘‘Most of the guys who died don’t have descendants,’’ because they went to war so young, she said.
It was nieces and nephews who were doing the remembering at memorial events a lot of the time, as the men who died were often not old enough to have started families of their own, she said.
‘‘They didn’t have the chance to have children. It’s seldom grandchildren [at the events].
‘‘There were men, of course, there with children, but few in the scheme of things.’’
Looking at the SCRoll project would show people the reality of just how many men South Canterbury had lost in the war.
‘‘South Canterbury isn’t a highly populated district, and it was certainly a lot less highly populated 100 years ago.’’
On the battlefield
South Canterbury Museum curator social history Chris Rapley said conditions were wet and sodden at Passchendaele.
The Battle of Bellevue Spur, on October 12, was the most disastrous event in New Zealand’s war history, Rapley said.
‘‘The Kiwis attacked strong defences across bog-like ground,’’ he said.
The massive offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres, had started at the end of July, with the overall aim of driving towards the Belgian coast, but progress had faltered and rain soaked the battlefield.
New Zealand attacked early on October 12. The mud-clogged artillery could not break through the barbed wire and hit the German strong points. ‘‘The result was slaughter.’’ Between October 1917 and the end of the year, 141 South Canterbury soldiers died there.
A report in the Timaru Herald, published on Monday, October 15, 1917, stated there was heavy rain as troops progressed along the front.
‘‘Fighting was especially severe on the slope of the main ridge southward of Passchendaele.’’
Heavy rain continued with ‘‘increasing violence’’ all day, impeding progress, the report said.
Another report, on October 16, outlined further what had happened on October 12.
‘‘The Germans on Friday afternoon opened an intense barrage, lasting all night ... the enemy has never massed so many machine-guns on his front.
‘‘Machine-gun fire and rifle fire never ceased for an instant during the attack.’’
‘‘Our men, floundering in bogs, were unable to keep up with the barrage, and the German snipers and gunners shot with cool aim while our men struggled forward.’’
A Herald report on October 20 outlined how New Zealanders were proud of how they got their wounded out on stretchers in spite of the mud.
‘‘A former guide at Mount Cook was among the bearers whose courage and endurance saved many lives.’’
The report noted how German and New Zealand troops alike gave each other safe passage while removing their wounded from the field.
One of the first mentions of a South Canterbury casualty was the death of Captain Leslie O’Callaghan.
The report in the Herald on October 22 said the news had been delivered to Timaru on Saturday and was received with ‘‘profound regret’’.
‘‘At the same time it did not occasion surprise, for everyone who knew him felt when he left as officer commanding his company that wherever the fight was hottest there he would be.’’
O’Callaghan had fought in the Boer War in South Africa, before starting up business in Waimate as an auctioneer, and growing it to Timaru. His wife and daughter returned to England when he left for war, while his parents remained in Timaru.
‘‘The deceased Captain was a son to be proud of, and his parents and widow have the satisfaction of knowing that he died as he lived – gallantly, in the service of others.’’
In the Herald of October 24, there was another report about October 12.
Lieutenant Grattan Guinness – Killed in Action
‘‘MR E. R. Guinness, of Timaru, has received advice that his second son, Lieutenant Grattan Guinness, was killed in action.’’
Guinness was in his late 20s, and educated in Timaru before attending Christ’s College. He worked for Messrs Guinness and LeCren, later on in Geraldine, the report said.
‘‘He was an all round sport, and a keen enthusiast at cricket, swimming, golf, and tennis, in all of which he excelled.
‘‘He was a young man of exceptional promise and made a warm friend of everyone with whom he had to do.’’
Information sourced from the SCRoll project, compiled by SC Genealogy Society members Liz Shea and Janette Clarke, showed Guiness’ father was Mayor of Timaru between 1914 and 1919.
Some South Canterbury families lost multiple children to war.
On October 29, a report in the Herald said Mr M Dennehy, of North St, Timaru, had learned that his son, Private T Dennehy, had been wounded, the second of his sons to be wounded during war. He had a third son who died in action on Gallipoli.
SCRoll states that Dennehy was killed in action on October 12, but does not say where.
On Friday, November 2, 1917, the Herald reported that two brothers had been killed in action during the Battle of Passchendaele.
‘‘Mr and Mrs A Hight, of High St, Timaru, received word on Wednesday evening that their two sons, Privates Leonard and Cecil High, had been killed in action.’’
Cecil was 22, and Leonard either 25 or 26.
‘‘Both were educated at the Timaru Main School and Leonard continued his education at the High School.’’
Cecil began working at Messrs Priest and Holdgate’s shop, in 1910, where he was still working at the time of his enlistment in 1916, the report said.
Leonard Hight was an employee at Beckingham’s Ltd as an upholsterer.
‘‘Both men were of quiet disposition and they were great hockey enthusiasts.
‘‘They won esteem and friendship of all with whom they came in contact.’’
Great sympathy was expressed in the report for Mr and Mrs Hight in their double loss.
One Timaru man made it from the 1915 Gallipoli offensive, to fight at Passchendaele, with a bullet lodged near his heart.
On Saturday, November 3 the Herald reported that Corporal R N Hawkes, of Wellington, but formerly of Wilson St, Timaru, had received word that his son, Corporal Richard Neville Hawkes, had been killed in action during battle on October 12.
‘‘Corporal Hawkes, who enlisted at the early age of 17 years, left with the Otago draft of the 3rd Reinforcements. He was present at the landing at Gallipoli, where he was severely wounded.
‘‘As a result of his wounds he was in hospital for four months, but the bullet which hit him was not extracted, it being too near his heart.
‘‘He participated in all the fighting in which New Zealanders took part, from the evacuation of Gallipoli right through every action in France, until his death on October 12.’’
Before departing for the war, Hawkes was employed by Messrs Wallace and Cooper as an engineer, the Herald reported.
A SCRoll listing compiled by Shea states he was the son of Richard Neville Nettles and Christina Janet Hawkes nee Russell (married 1892). Cpl. Hawkes’ name also appears on the gravestone belonging to his grandmother, Jean Hawkes, who died in 1919, in Timaru Cemetery.
Also listed on the same headstone is Jean’s son, Samuel Gibbings Hawkes, who died on 7 November 1917 (served in AIF, service no.5861) .
Also on November 3, it was reported that Mr and Mrs Hopkins, of Otipua and Hurdley Streets, were told their son, Leslie Gary Hopkins, Field Ambulance, had been killed during the Passchendaele battle on October 12.
‘‘Private Hopkins was a native of Sydney, and educated at the Opawa school, Christchurch, and was in his 25th year.
‘‘He was well known in the Geraldine and Kakahu districts, where he was partner with his brother in a chaff-cutting plant.’’
The report said he was the second son Mr and Mrs Hopkins has lost to war.
Flicking through the Timaru Herald between October 12 and early November, it’s hard not to notice the dramatic increase in the length of the rolls of honour reported each day.
Initially they were a couple of inches long, before becoming the full length of the page on October 19, twice that length on October 23, and three full columns by November 2.
It should be pointed out that not all of those deaths were from October 12, some came from other battles around that date, but it’s shocking nonetheless.
The South Canterbury WWOne Centenary Committee is holding a memorial event in Timaru’s Botanic Gardens at 2pm on Sunday. The committee has commemorated all major battles South Canterbury service personnel were involved in during WWI, starting with a service in August 2014 to remember the men and horses that left for the war, through to the Battle of the Somme, commemorated in 2016. Source: South Canterbury Museum - compiled by McGregor Simpson.