12th October 1917
In terms of lives lost in a single day, 12 October 1917 ranks as the most catastrophic in the New Zealand's post-1840 history. On that day the New Zealand Division assaulted Bellevue Spur at Passchendaele, in Belgium. The second of two attacks made by New Zealand troops during the Third Battle of Ypres, it was a disaster.
The New Zealanders began their advance at 5.25 a.m. on the 12th. The preliminary artillery barrage had been largely ineffective because thick mud made it almost impossible to bring heavy guns forward, or to stabilise those that were in position. Exposed to raking German machine-gun fire from both the front and the flank, and unable to get through uncut barbed wire, the New Zealanders were pinned down in shell craters. Orders came for another push at 3 p.m., but this was mercifully cancelled at the last moment. The troops eventually fell back to positions close to their start line. For badly wounded soldiers lying in the mud, the aftermath of the battle was a private hell; many died before they could be rescued. Extensive efforts were made to get them out in the next two days, assisted by an informal truce that developed as Germans refrained from firing on stretcher parties.
On 18 October, Canadian troops relieved II ANZAC Corps. In a series of well-prepared but costly attacks in atrocious conditions, they finally occupied the ruins of Passchendaele village on 6 November. The offensive had long since failed in its strategic purpose and the capture of Passchendaele no longer represented any significant gain.
The toll was horrendous: 843 New Zealand soldiers were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines. After analysis of casualty figures it is estimated that fatalities as a result of the 12 October attack is 957 lives lost.
For more information:
Massacre at Passchendaele / Glyn Harper 2000
Passchendaele, the anatomy of a tragedy / Andrew Macdonald 2013
Read more on NZHistory
Counting the cost of Passchendaele
The Journey of the Otagos (who suffered especially high losses) has been documented by Toitū Otago Settlers Museum find out about their story HERE
Websites created by the winners of the Battle of Passchendaele schools competition: