By Dr Ian McGibbon, ONZM
The site of New Zealand’s agony on 12 October 1917 is today a picture of rural peace and contentment. Cows graze in pastures where troops once struggled forward in a quagmire, fields of corn occupy the spur on which so much New Zealand blood was spilt, and trees and copses dot the landscape. The alert traveller will not have difficulty finding signs of the terrible struggle that convulsed these parts 90 years ago: a rusting sheet of iron here, a collapsed bunker there, shrapnel balls in the soil everywhere. More evident reminders of the battle for Passchendaele are provided by the memorials and cemeteries that are a feature of the area.
New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, in 's Gravenstafel
There are many indications of New Zealand’s participation in the fighting in the Ypres salient, one of the most bloodstained places on the planet. Cemeteries throughout the area have their contingent of New Zealand headstones among the serried ranks, each proudly sporting the silver fern. But there are two sites in particular that relate to the New Zealanders’ efforts in the battle for Passchendaele in October 1917 – the New Zealand battlefield monument and the cemetery at Tyne Cot.
Standing majestically amidst trees beside the road at 's Gravenstafel, a few kilometres from Ypres (now known as Ieper) is a tall stone obelisk. On its front is a badge incorporating a fern leaf and the words ‘New Zealand’ – the same motif that appears on New Zealand headstones – superimposed on crossed taiaha with a frame of Maori carving.
A plinth at its base has the words ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’. This is New Zealand’s memorial to those who fought and died in the Ypres salient, and especially at Passchendaele.
On rising ground overlooking the slope up which the New Zealanders advanced during the successful attack on 4 October 1917, this memorial is one of three such New Zealand monuments on the Western Front – the others are at Messines and Longueval on the Somme – designed by Christchurch architect S. Hurst Seager. In unveiling it on 2 August 1924, New Zealand’s High Commissioner in London, Sir James Allen, referred to the ‘super-human task’ undertaken by the New Zealanders at Passchendaele and, somewhat strangely, described it as ‘one of thegreat successes of the war’. Perhaps fittingly, in light of the 1917 experience, the ceremony took place in pouring rain.
A little more than a kilometre away Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, the second major memorial to the New Zealanders at Passchendaele, lies in an area attacked by the Australians on 4 October 1917. Once the area had been taken, an advanced dressing station was established next to a captured German blockhouse, and a rudimentary cemetery grew beside it. After the war, this small cemetery became the nucleus of a giant British war cemetery as bodies were re-interred here from many parts of the battlefield.
The largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, Tyne Cot is now the last resting place of nearly 12,000 soldiers. Several blockhouses captured by the Australians on 4 October lay within the boundaries of the cemetery, and on one stands the cemetery’s Cross of Sacrifice.
Because of the nature of the fighting, terrain and weather, many of those who died on the field sank into the morass, never to be recovered, or were buried in graves later obliterated by gunfire. Many others, though located after the war, were in a state that did not allow identification.
As a result, about 70 per cent of those interred in Tyne Cot – 8400 men – are unknown soldiers.
Of the 520 New Zealand headstones in the cemetery, the largest outside New Zealand, 322 have the inscriptions ‘A New Zealand Soldier of the Great War’ and ‘Known unto God’. There are almost certainly many more New Zealanders among those whose nationality could not be determined.
All these unknown soldiers, and those never recovered, just under 35,000 in all, are commemorated on a vast memorial to the missing on the back wall of the cemetery. Near the centre, in an apse curving between two domed pavilions, is to be found a New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, one of three in Belgium (the others are at Polygon Wood and Messines). A panel states that “Here are recorded the names of the officers and men of New Zealand who fell in the Battle of Broodseinde and the first Battle of Passchendaele, October 1917, and whose graves are known only to God”. Most of the New Zealand unknown soldiers buried in the cemetery are no doubt among the 1,179 names recorded on flanking panels. The lists starkly reveal the scale of the tragedy. They include at least five sets of two brothers (Carmody, High, Leslie, McIlroy and O’Gorman), most of whom died on 12 October. There are also three brothers – Newloves from Takaka, one of whom died on 4 October, and the other two in the disaster eight days later.
Not all the victims of Passchendaele are commemorated at Tyne Cot. Many men lay in the mud in agony for hours before being found and carried back to field ambulances, only to succumb to their wounds before they could be evacuated to hospitals further back. They lie in cemeteries that were established near these facilities such as Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery near Poperinge, 11 kilometres west of Ieper. With 291 New Zealand graves, this is the second largest New Zealand cemetery in Belgium. Another 118 are buried at nearby Nine Elms British Cemetery.
Among the victims of Passchendaele buried at Nine Elms British Cemetery is David Gallaher, the 43-three-year-old former All Black captain and Boer War veteran, who was struck down during the attack on 4 October. He died of his wounds near Poperinge. His grave has become something of a ‘Mecca’ for All Black tour parties, beginning with the 1924 Invincibles. More recent visits took place in 1991 and 2000. Gallaher is one of 10 former All Blacks who lost their lives on the Western Front.