Welcome to Passchendaele Stories

Welcome to Passchendaele Stories. This blog is set up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele in the First World War.

Over the coming weeks, stories and information will be posted, which has been collected from people’s families all over Otago and Southland concerning their links to the catastrophic happenings at that grim battle. We will post every Friday. If you would like to contribute through sending in stories, copies of letters or photographs please email us at passchendaele-stories@otago.ac.nz or leave us a comment.

As a sample of what you will be able to find on this blog, below is a letter which Leonard Hart, a railway clerk from Southland who grew up on several lighthouses scattered around the New Zealand coast, wrote to his parents from Passchendaele:

France

Oct 19, 1917

Dear Mother, Father and Connie,

In a postcard which I sent you about a fortnight ago, I mentioned that we were on the eve of a great event, and that I had no time to write you a long letter. Well that great event is over now, and by some strange act of fortune I have once again come through without a scratch.

The great event mentioned consisted of a desperate attack by our Division against a ridge, strongly fortified and strongly held by the Germans, but the name of which I had better not mention. For the first time in our brief history as an army the New Zealanders failed in their objective with the most appalling slaughter I have ever seen. My Company went into action 180 strong and we came out thirty-two strong. Still, we have nothing to be ashamed of as our commander afterwards told us that no troops in the world could possibly have taken the position, but this is small comfort when one remembers the hundreds of lives that have been lost and nothing gained. I will give you an account of the battle as near as I can without meaning any names or exasperating the censor (should he happen to open this) too much.

On a certain Wednesday evening our Brigade received orders to proceed to the firing line and relieve a Brigade of Tommies who had two nights previously advanced their positions a distance of two thousand yards and had held the captured ground against several counter attacks by the Huns. These Tommies had, however, failed to take their last objective and we knew before we left that we were going to be put over the top to try and take it. At dusk we started off from the town where we had been billeted for a few days, in full fighting order, to proceed to the front line. Our track led over five miles of newly conquered ground without lines of communication, roads, or anything but shell holes half full of water. The weather had for some days been wet and cold and the mud was in places up to the knees. We struggled on through this sea of mud for some hours, and everyone was feeling pretty well done. It was quite common for a man to get stuck in the mud and have to get three or four to drag him out. You can have no idea of the utter desolation caused by modern shell fire. The ground we were traversing had all been deluged with our shells before being taken from the Germans, and for those five miles leading to our front line trench there was nothing but utter desolation, not a blade of grass, or tree, here and there a heap of bricks marking where a village or farmhouse had once stood, numerous ‘tanks’ stuck in the mud, and for the rest, just one shell hole touching another.

The torn up condition of the ground made the mud ten times worse than it would otherwise have been. The only structures which had stood the bombardment in any way at all were the German machine gun emplacements. These emplacements are marvellous structures made of concrete with walls often ten feet thick and the concrete reinforced throughout with railway irons and steel bands and bars. There is room inside them for a large number of men but of course they vary in size. Many of these emplacements had been shattered to pieces in spite of their strength but

others had withstood the bombardment. The ground was strewn with the corpses of numerous Huns and Tommies. Dead horse and mules lay everywhere, yet no attempt had been made to bury any of them. Well, we at length arrived at our destination – the front line and relieved the worn out Tommies. They had not attempted to dig trenches but had simply held the line by occupying a long line of shell holes, two or three men to each hole. Many of them seemed too worn out to walk properly and I don’t know how some of them must have got on during their long tramp through the mud back to billets.

Each of us had a shovel with him, so we set to work to make some kind of trenches. We were at this point about half way up one slope of the ridge which in the course of fortyeight hours we were to try and take. The mud was not so bad here owing to the water being able to run away into a swamp at the foot of the ridge. Anyway by daybreak we had dug ourselves in sufficiently and, although wet and covered in mud from head to foot, we felt fit for a feed of bread and bully beef, for breakfast. We stayed in our new trenches all that day and the day following during which it rained off and on, and Fritz kept things lively with his artillery. At 3 o’clock on the third morning we received orders to attack the ridge at half past five, which was just before daylight. We were accordingly arranged in three successive waves or lines; each wave about fifty yards ahead of the other. There was a certain amount of difficulty in this operation as it was pitch dark and raining heavily. When all was ready we were told to lay down and wait the order to charge. My Company was in the first wave of the attack which partly accounted for our heavy casualties. Our artillery barrage (curtain of fire) was to open out at twenty past five and play on the German positions on top of the ridge 150 yards ahead of us. It was to move forward fifty yards in every four minutes – that is to say we were to advance as our barrage advanced and keep 100 to 150 yards behind it.

At length our barrage lifted and we all once more formed up and made a rush for the ridge. What was our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully fifty yards deep. The wire had been cut in a few places by our artillery but only sufficient to allow a few men through it at a time. Even then what was left of us made an attempt to get through the wire and a few actually penetrated as far as his emplacements only to be shot down as fast as they appeared. Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades’ eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his

head was immediately shot. They were maravellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly eighty per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge. We hung on all that day and night. There was no one to give us orders, all our officers of the Battalion having been killed or wounded with the exception of three, and these were all Second Lieutenants who could not give a definite order about the position without authority. All my Company officers were killed outright one of them the son of the Reverend Ryburn of Invercargill, was shot dead beside me.

The second day after this tragic business, we were surprised to see about half a dozen Huns suddenly appear waving a white flag. They proved to be red cross men and the flag was a sign that they were asking for a truce to take in their wounded and bury their dead. It was granted and not a shot was fired on either side during the whole of that afternoon. It was a humane and gallant act and one worthy of such gallant defenders as those particular Huns certainly were. Our stretcher bearers were able to go and take all our wounded from the barbed wire, a thing that would have been impossible otherwise. Numbers of us who at ordinary times had nothing to do with stretcher bearing were put on and we had all the wounded carried out before nightfall. We had no time to bury many of our dead but the wounded should be the only consideration at times like that. I went out and buried poor Ryburn. He came with the Main Body, but had not been in France long. The proportion of killed to wounded was exceptionally high compared to other battles, owing to the perfect marksmanship of the German machine gunners and snipers. My Company has come out with no officers, only one Sergeant out of seven, one Corporal and thirty men. Even then we are not the worst off.

The third night after the advance we were relieved and taken back about three miles behind the line. Here we acted as a reserve to the Battalion which had taken over our sector for two days, and we were finally taken right out to billets well behind the line where we are now recuperating. The night we came out here I received a parcel from you. The note inside was dated 10/7/17, and I can tell you that I felt hungry enough to eat note and all. I received another parcel from you about three days before we shifted to this front which would be about three weeks ago. They were appreciated about as well as it is possible to appreciate anything, I can assure you. Your letters of Mamma’s 25/7/17, Connie’s of same date and Dad’s of 7/7/17 arrived about a week before the affair of the ridge. A number of our chaps who came through have since been sent to hospital chiefly with trench feet due to standing in cold mud for long hours. I have a touch of them myself but they are not bad enough to be sent away with. I have just decided to have this letter posted by someone going on leave to England, so I will tell you a few more facts which it would not have been advisable to mention otherwise…….

Fighting of a very successful nature had been going on around Ypres for some months previous to our late set back at the ridge where the British are now held up. I hear that another attempt is to be made to take it, but it will not be with our Division. The name of this famous ridge is Passchendaele Ridge, and it has defied two attempts to take it already – viz the one attempted by the Tommies whom we relieved and our own……

The results of our stunt you now know so no more need be said about it except that we did as well or even better that some of the Divisions on our right and left. None of them took their objectives and I know for a fact that our Third Brigade’s losses and those of the Australians were every bit as heavy as ours. The Second Brigade has at least the satisfaction of knowing that they held a few hundred yards of ground they took, and our commander has since told us that no troops in the world could possibly have taken the ridge under similar circumstances. 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 else is responsible for those machine gun emplacements being left practically intact, but the papers will all report another glorious success, and no one except those who actually took part in it will know any different.

In conclusion I will relate to you another little incident or two which never reaches the press, or if it does it is ‘censored’ in order to deceive the public. This almost unbelievable but perfectly true incident is as follows. During the night after we had relieved the Tommies prior to our attack on the ridge we were surprised to hear agonised cries of ’stretcher bearer’, ‘help’, ‘For God’s sake come here’ etc, coming from all sides of us. When daylight came some of us, myself included, crawled out to some adjacent shell holes from where the cries were coming and were astonished to find about half a dozen Tommies, badly wounded, some insane, others almost dead with starvation and exposure, lying stuck in the mud and too weak to move. We asked one man who seemed a little better than the rest what was the meaning of it and he said that if we cared to crawl about the shell holes all round about him we would find dozens more in similar plight.

We were dumbfounded, but the awful truth remained. These chaps, wounded in the defence of their country, had been callously left to die the most awful of deaths in the half frozen mud while tens of thousands of able bodied men were camped within five miles of them behind the lines. All these Tommies (they were mostly men of the York and Lancaster Regiment) had been wounded during their unsuccessful attack on the ridge which we afterwards tried to take and at the time when we came upon them they must have been lying where they fell in the mud and rain for four days and nights. Those that were still alive had subsisted on the rations and water that they had carried with them or else had taken it from dead comrades beside them. I have seen some pretty rotten sights during the two and half years of active service, but I must say that this fairly sickened me. We crawled back to our trenches and inside of an hour all our stretcher bearers were working like the heroes that they were, and in full view of the enemy who, to his credit, did not fire on them. They worked all day carrying out those Tommies of whom I am afraid some will be mad men for the rest of their lives even if they do recover from their wounds and exposure.

Carrying wounded over such country often knee deep in mud is the most trying work imaginable, and I do not say for a moment that the exhausted Tommies (the survivors of the first attack on Passchendale Ridge) whom we relieved should have tried to carry them out for I do not believe that any of them were physically capable of doing it, but I do say that it was part of their officers’ duty to send back to the rear of the lines and have fresh men brought up to carry out the wounded that they themselves could not carry. Perhaps they did send back for help, but still the fact remains that nothing was done until our chaps came up, and whoever is responsible for the unnecessary sacrifice of those lives deserves to be shot more than any Hun ever did.

If they had asked for an armistice to carry out their wounded I do not doubt that it would have been granted for the Huns had plenty of wounded to attend to as well as the Tommies. I suppose our armchair leaders call this British stubbornness. If this represents British stubbornness then it is time we called it by a new name. I would suggest callous brutality as a substitute. Apparently this is not an isolated instance of its kind. While we were in reserve for two days to the Brigade which finally took over from us I was having a look around some old German dugouts and in one of them I came upon about fifty dead Tommies all lying spread out over the floor as though they had been thrown in there hastily. They had evidently been dead some months. I asked an artillery Sergeant Major standing near by how they all came to be in there and he told me that they had been put in there (while wounded) during the advance last July, and had been forgotten. If this were true then it is even worse than the case just mentioned, for these dugouts must have been within a mile

of our main dressing stations at the time when the advance took place, and the distance to carry them was thus five times less than in the other case.

After reading this do not believe our lying press, who tell you that all the brutality of this war is on the Huns’ side. The Hun is no angel, we all know, and the granting of an armistice such as that which we had is a rare occurrence. The particular Regiments who were holding the ridge at the time our attack are known as ‘Jaegers’. Probably the Prussians or most of the other Hun Regiments do not ask for armistices, but for all the terrific casualties those Jaegers inflicted on us, we survivors of Passchendaele Ridge must all admit that they played the game on that occasion at any rate……

I remain

Your affectionate son

Len

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Gerard Shaw’s Passchendaele Story

Please click the link to access the PDF.

Charles Jelly In Memorium

Posted in Stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jim Sullivan’s Passchendaele Story

Was asked to do Maniototo Anzac address this year and told stories of WW1 men on Patearoa memorial
There are thirteen names of First World War soldiers on the memorial outside this hall, one was killed during 3rd Ypres.
Private John Morris was rabbiter on Puketoi Station and joined up July 1916. In France he joined the 2ndBattalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment on the 29 November 1917 at Bellevue Spur he went missing, believed killed. So many bodies were never found that a court of enquiry was held and was told by John’s mate Alex Matheson, “there was heavy shelling and machine gun fire and the company suffered heavy casualties. I did not see him again. He did not come out with the company. The ground was well searched for wounded men.” John Morris was 32.
One who survived the carnage of 1917 was George Hall – The story of George Hall can be told because his diary survives. At Passchendaele in 1917 he went over the top with the rest of the Otago Infantry Regiment. The slaughter was horrendous. William’s battalion lost 111 men that day. Wounded or missing were another 292 men. A casualty rate of about 50 percent. But George Hall survived and in the diary he kept until his death in 1988 at the age of 92 every 12 October he wrote, “Still alive. Lucky!” [Diary is held by Barclay Hall, Patearoa)
Next year have been asked to do Anzac address at Omakau and find one late 1917 casualty of heir memorial
George Colling a farm labourer at Dumbarton Roxburgh for Robt Westcott, born Cambrians 1882 kia Belgium 12 Oct 1917
father John Colling Cambrians
COLLING.—On October 12, 1917, killed while in action in France,GeorgeColling(15th Reinforcements), second son of John.Colling,Cambrian; aged 36 years. COLLING.—On October 12, killed while in action “Somewhere in France,”George(15th Reinforcements), the cousin of Mrs W. Gerrie, Dunedin; aged 36 years. He did his duty.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Madge’s Passchendaele Story

My father was at Passschendale.  He enlisted on the 27th July 1916 after getting permission from his mother who said he couldn’t go unless his brother Ellis returned from Gallipoli.

His name was Stanley Llewellyn Peacock and he was born on the 25th Oct 1896 in Ophir, then called Blacks.  He was the youngest of, I think seven children.   His father was a gold miner and his mother a dressmaker who sewed to support the family after his father became ill and died while the family were still young.   He enlisted in the army and was in the 3rd Battalion Otago Regiment.

He left Wellington on the15th Nov 1916 and arrived in Deveonport 26th Dec 1916. Next stop was sling camp at Codford I think… writing hard to read.  Left for France 28th May 1917.   He was wounded in action on the 22nd Nov 1917… gassed.

Reported missing on the 19th April 1918 and believed to be prisoner of war.

Released from captivity at the end of the war, in fact he said they woke one morning to find there were no guards… war was over.
He spoke of the mud at Passchendale and the lice in captivity.   He spoke of being sent as a runner only to find on his return that his group had been bombed and no one was alive.

I don’t know much more about his war service unfortunately, although I ‘m sure there is a lot more.

Posted in Stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Josephine Crooks’ Passchendaele Story

My great Uncle,William Armstrong McCaw – Service no. 3/602, served in the NZ Medical Corps and was killed in action at Ypres, on 12/10/1917.
There is a memorial at Tyne Cot. He was from Invercargill.
His brother,Douglas Victor McCaw also died in World War 1. In fact, 8 members of the McCaw extended family from Southland and Otago sacrificed their lives.

 

Posted in Stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Marijke Vandevyvere’s Passchendaele Story

Dear Sir/Madam,

First of all I want to apologize if my English is not always correct. I try to be as clear as possible to express what I want to say, but sometimes it’s hard to find the right words. But I’m working on it!

Today I have read an interesting article on Facebook about the project to encourage Otago and Southland people to come forward to the university to share stories about the campaign at Passchendaele. The New Zealand Pilgrimage Trust posted this article, this is a non-profit organization set up in my country (Belgium) to assist New Zealand schools, groups and individuals for visits to the Western Front. 
 
I really want to tell you ‘my’ story, because it relates to a soldier from Invercargill. 
 
So, where do I start…
 
33 years ago I was born in Moorslede, a small village just next to the more famous Passchendaele. In my childhood I visited many military cemeteries, along with my parents and sister. My mum and dad found it very important that the memory of what happened here 100 years ago was kept alive. So I grew up in Flanders fields, between cemeteries and memorial sites. Bombs and shells are removed still very often over here during excavation works. This war has made many scars in our region and so it’s quite present in our daily lives. 
Every school day I drive past the Menin Gate in Ypres, the place where each evening the Last Post is performed at 8 pm, and still it gives me cold shivers. During my ride I pass along Tyne Cot Cemetery too. It is located on my way to school (I’m a teacher by the way). I visited this cemetery several times in my life but seven years ago, during the ceremony on 11 November 2010, I had the idea to visit one particular soldier from then on, someone I would commemorate. I was looking for a soldier who drew my attention in one way or another. I wandered a long time in the cemetery and read a lot of headstones, and then I suddenly bumped into J.W. Stevens Private 53276, N.Z. Otago Regiment, died on December 24, 1917, age 26. He was exactly my age (at that time) and he was one of the few who died on Christmas Eve. A day that really should be celebrated, was suddenly the saddest day for a family far away in New Zealand. From this day on I visited his grave very often. In fall, winter, spring or summer, whenever. Almost every month I take the time to visit his grave. Sometimes I put a flower from our garden on this headstone while listening to the birds chirping in one of the trees nearby his grave. I can clear my head and put things in perspective when I’m there. Even blindfolded I would manage to find the way to his grave, among the thousands other graves, each with their own story. From that day I have ‘adopted’ him.
 
As time passed, my curiosity became bigger every year. What was the story behind this grave? Who was he? How does he looked like? Was he married? Did he have children? I was wondering for a long time if ‘my’ soldier would still have family in New Zealand. In August 2016, I took my chance and I wrote a mail to the Invercargill City Council.  During the years I managed to collect some more info (thanks to websites such as www.archives.govt.nz), so I could give them a few details. So I knew already that he was married and he had a son (Arthur) who was 1.5 years old when he left NZ to come to Flanders.
 
One thing led to another… I never could dreamed the result of my first mail. Thanks to the great help of Wendy McArthur (an archives assistant) I could get in touch with one of the granddaughters of this soldier, Robyn Powley. Finally, John Wardlaw Stevens got a story, a face, a family… I was and still am so grateful! Since then Robyn and I are sending each other almost every two weeks a long letter. We talk about anything and everything. It is absolutely amazing that this deadly war gave birth to a beautiful friendship between her family and mine. I can not thank her and her husband Chris enough for this heart-warming gesture. It almost feels like Davy (my partner) and I are part of their lovely family.
 
At the beginning of this year Davy and I decided to go to NZ in December 2017, to visit John’s family and to see the country he left to fight for our freedom. We are very much looking forward to it. It will be a time to enjoy and explore the unknown, but it will have an emotional significance for me too, to travel to the home land of my ‘adopted’ soldier. It feels like I will be experiencing everything through his eyes, a kind of encounter of the past with the present. Celebrating Christmas Eve together with the Powley’s will be a very special moment, because on December 24 it will be exactly 100 years since J.W. Stevens gave his life for our freedom. 
 
This year has been an emotional rollercoaster for me. Even the Southland Times wrote a story about it, I have attached it in this mail. I also got the privilege to get to know nice people of NZ, such as mister Gregory Andrews, NZ ambassador to Belgium, or mister Freddy Declerck, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merits and former chairman of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 at Zonnebeke. Since Robyn and I started writing to each other, my interest in the First World War increased a lot. 2017 is an important year for our region. There are many commemorations because the battle of Passchendaele took place exactly 100 years ago and Davy and I joined most of these moments of reflections. We also did a special remembrance on John’s birthday, 27 May 2017. A local guide helped us locating the first temporary grave of J.W. Stevens, close to the frontline of 1917 near Polygon Wood, where he was killed – along with five other soldiers of his regiment – after a heavy attack by German shells in the afternoon of 24/12/1917. The five other soldiers who were killed on the exact same day as John were maimed beyond recognition because of the attack and did not get a personal grave. Their names are inscribed on the panels within the Buttes New British Cemetery Memorial. We had a wonderful day that ended with a Last Post, blown near his headstone, an experience never to forget.
 
Currently I’m volunteering to help registering the participants for ‘Silent City meets Living City’. Thousands of volunteers, one for each headstone, will provide a unique and powerful moment of silence and reflection on 14th October at Tyne Cot Cemetery. This will be probably one of the highlights during this commemorative year.
 
I could go on for another few pages and share more facts and pictures with you, but it is absolutely not my intention to bore you. I don’t know if the story of my ‘adopted’ soldier can be useful for your project, that is not even the main purpose of this mail, but I really wanted to share it with you, because the sacrifice these men did, men who came from the uttermost ends of the earth, may not be forgotten. And John Wardlaw Stevens was/is one of them.
 
All the best with this beautiful project!
Kind regards and best wishes from Flanders!
 
Marijke Vandevyvere

Posted in Stories | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment