Passchendaele 100 Years – Uncle Jim’s last day on the job

Guest Post

Not much good comes from decisions made when drunk, whether drunk from immersion in alcohol’s charms, or intoxicated with success in arms. That’s how it; The Great Disaster, came to be.

They were drunk with victory at British High-Command in early October, 1917. Literally and figuratively drunk, euphoric, giddy with proximity to the ‘decisive breakthrough’, bristling with belief in hibernating the 1917-18 winter with the Holy Grail of Western Front warfare safely tucked under the British pillow; the indisputable empirical measures of ground gained, territorial victories exceeding losses, and good news all-round to report to Allied cabinets dotted about the globe: A strangle-hold on ‘The Hun’, along with hosts of back-slapping’s and self-aggrandisement. ‘Congratulations; General. Aren’t you a clever thing, when do you imagine Germany will capitulate?’  

The New Zealanders in the field didn’t delude themselves nearly so; they knew they had as much been gifted their amazing victory the previous week, on October 4th at the battle of Broodseinde, as earned it in blood. The weather had been dry until then, the roads passable, they had a coordinated, integrated, supremely powerful and deadly-effective artillery barrage clearing the way of enemy defenses, backed by a plague-proportions rain of lead disgorged from the barrels of sixty machine-guns which, together with artillery, shredded many thousands of enemy caught in the open as they marshalled, a mere three-hundred yards from the Anzac lines, for an attack of their own designed to begin ten minutes later than the Anzac attack of Zero: 6 am.

The Anzac troops put their collective foot on the German throat October 4th, 1917, taking full advantage of the opportunities they were handed, moving with remarkable speed and ferocity, taking German positions well to the rear of the action completely by surprise, over-running all their stated objectives; some say they stampeded all the way to Passchendaele itself. A Senior British officer engaged in the battle reported how “the New Zealanders and Australians raced into Passchendaele, which was nearly a thousand yards beyond their objective—and had to retire again. I do not mean they were compelled to retire; they simply had to retire because we did not want them there. That was not the objective; but there was no enemy at all to be seen, except prisoners coming in by hundreds with their hands up.”

Even the stirrup-cups of HQ’s high-horses brimmed with excited rumours about the scale of Anzac achievements at Broodseinde, so much so it earned General John Monash, in command of Anzac’s 3rd Australian Division—fighting directly alongside the New Zealanders on the 4th, a gentle rebuke from the British Commander-in-Chief in the days following; a polite warning to tone-down the boisterous anecdotes following victory, lest press get the whiff of a sensational story:

My Dear General,

I told Gen. Kiggel* about your flag in Passchendaele and he told C-in-C**. The latter sent a message last night to say that we were to tell you this discretely; your report as to the [flag] flying in Passchendaele-it will be wired to England & to Australia and that the C-in-C knows well that once it is put up nothing will bring it down again.

*British Chief of Staff in France. **Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Commander of British Forces on the Western Front

There is absolutely no doubt the lingering, ethereal, almost hallucinogenic effect the huge victory at Broodseinde had on British leadership led to disaster on Bellevue Spur; both for Kiwis and for our Aussie cousins, but it was, in fact, poor Tommie’s from Mother-Country who paid the first mound of flesh.

Push on with the attacks, came the order after the 4th, push on, push on, and push on; at any cost. The enemy have withered and wilted, came the call; ‘Germany is on her last-legs.’ Looking forward to delivering a knock-out punch the next scheduled attack, tentatively designated for 10th October ‘in case of’ victory on the 4th, was pushed forward, foolishly, to the 9th with nary a soul at HQ emerging from the shelter of their concrete umbrella long enough to observe the weather; the bad weather.

Rain began falling in some sectors on the eve, others during the day, of 4th October and kept up all week. Some say the rainfall on several days was ‘monsoon-like’ and while that may be an exaggeration, the facts are that Flanders normally receives 75mm of rain during the entire month of October but in the period from the 4th to the 9th alone it received 30mm; very manageable if drains and streams had been open, but they weren’t. They were morasses, clogged with innumerable tons of earth dislodged by shell-bursts, clogged with abandoned equipment, and clogged with abandoned human remains.

You could smell the Western Front ahead of Passchendaele long before you could see it.

Passchendaele. Australian troops march forward to take up positions prior to the assault planned for Oct.12th.

Into that fraught and stinking mudscape, from the position New Zealanders occupied on the 4th, went the 49th Division from South-Yorkshire against reinforced and strengthened German defenses on the 9th; with horrible consequences. Many of the Tommie’s wounded lay there unaided and un-evacuated, dying from blood-loss and shock, drowning in shell-craters even as Kiwi engineers attempted to lay out new boardwalks for our troop’s advance, only to watch them wash away again in rivulets.

The most frequently used words to describe the morale of New Zealand troops leading up to the attack on October 12th were ‘sombre’ and ‘low’. These were men who had encountered German soldiery face-to-face, kill-or-be-killed, and knew what hard fighters they were; they understood that while some would give up easily when overwhelmed, others would fight like men-possessed, die rather than surrender.

They knew what a great advantage they had been handed at the battle of Broodseinde, yet that stunt still cost them 356 dead on the day, another fifty in the next couple of days from wounds, and 1700 further casualties; a finger lost here, a limb there, perhaps an eyeball, an ear, or a jaw, some of their loved ones would burst into tears when they met again in God’s Own Country.

They knew how effective the artillery barrage had been on the 4th, and they knew, as motorised transport sank in the mud, pack-horses nearly drowned and as limbers sunk to the axles, that there was no way the artillery were going to be anywhere near as ready, or useful, for the new assault planned for the 12th. They gritted their teeth against the ridiculous haste, the insane temerity of another assault destined to be as futile as the most-recent and muddy macabre of October 9th, while all around the complete and living remnants of those left alive on the battlefield were disregarded in the rush for the ‘decisive’ new victory. Wounded Brit’s from the action of the 9th, those lucky enough to have been recovered, lay scattered, shattered, in their hundreds about Waterloo Farm, the British Dressing Station, even as the Anzac medical staff moved in prior to our planned assault.

They knew the machine-gunners were struggling to get in position; their orders had been changed three times within the space of four days. The sixty combined guns of the attack on the 4th were reduced to thirty-eight for the 12th, with twenty-six to cover the initial assault: Group ‘A’ with twelve and ‘B’ with fourteen guns, but due to late changes in orders the latter group could not get the vital devices and their ammunition reserves in place on time and thus; just a dozen guns would herald the Kiwi advance.

They knew their stated objectives of the 4th were achievable and reasonable given good weather and immaculate planning, yet for the 12th they were required to do more; much more. Some form of mass derangement had completely seized the senses of British Command: they’d set an objective 2,000 yards forward in relatively good conditions for the 4th, but demanded 2,500 yards a week later while troops plugged mud, in some places knee-high, in others: more. It was a ridiculous ambition to impose upon the Anzac infantry brigades, especially when paired with ‘support’ best described as far-less than profoundly imperfect.

And they knew there was no chance, none whatsoever, thousands of Germans would muster silently in the dark, in, and in front of, their front-line trenches to be butchered alive by the British artillery Armageddon-machine, or to be cut down by scores of machine-guns firing together over 9,000 rounds-per-minute into the body of enemy; thanks simply to an unhappy accident of timing.

They knew.

11 October, 1917. Otago and Canterbury move into position for the assault.

 

“There was overwhelming and gruesome evidence of the disastrous results of the British attack launched on the 9th. To say nothing of the dead, scores of men, wounded and near to death, still lay out over the country, unattended and without protection from the weather. The 148th Brigade, so heavy were its losses, had apparently found it impossible to cope with the task of clearing the wounded. At Waterloo Farm the congestion was such that many of the wounded were still lying above ground and in the open, and frequently enemy shells burst among or near them and put an end to their miseries. There were probably 200 stretcher cases lying over the area, and it was doubtful if any of them had been fed until our troops provided them with rations on the morning of the 11th.”

12 October, 1917. Zero: 5.25 a.m.

Immediate debacle. Although the artillery barrage begins exactly on time; punctuality is the single highlight of the day. The barrage is both wildly inaccurate and hugely ineffective; the big guns lack both numbers and secure platforms. Instead of arriving 150 yards in front of the men as they advance, destroying the menacing barbed-wire obstacles and enemy in their path, the shells burst behind and upon them, and achieve…nothing. There must have been some choice French spoken by the New Zealanders as the shells penetrated deep into the soft surface about them and exploded with all the turbulent anger and timidity of a Rotorua mud-pool eruption. However; orders are orders, and those men were soldiers. Soldiers that had never tasted defeat in Europe.

British troops advancing across their own wire, which has been cut to allow a passage through. The German defensive wire entanglements were very much more formidable.

“The barrage opened on a line behind our forward assembly lines, and continued for four minutes before moving forward. Luckily for the troops under it the barrage was a feeble one; but naturally neither the inaccuracy of the fire nor the scanty sprinkling of shells tended to increase the confidence of the infantry. However, as the barrage moved forward it was followed by the leading troops of the 2nd Otago Battalion, who at once came under very heavy machine-gun fire which was causing such heavy casualties among our leading lines that they soon were unable to keep up with what barrage there was. Immediately after crossing the Ravebeek Stream, the advancing troops found themselves confronted by the Staden-Zonnebeke Line.” (The Staden-Zonnebeke Line was a mutually self-supporting arrangement of very strong, diagonally-placed, concrete machine-gun emplacements, or pillboxes, protected from infantry approach by swathes of barbed wire entanglements)

“It was these masses of uncut wire, in many cases fifty yards across, and the pill-boxes inside them just beyond the enemy’s side of the Ravebeek which held up the 2nd Otago Battalion; and it was clear by 6 a.m. that this battalion could not get on. The artillery barrage, such as it was, had gone on; and there was nothing to hinder the activities of the enemy machine-gunners but the weapons of the infantry. Small parties of Otago men attempted to get at the pill-boxes by crawling under the wire, but all their heroic endeavours were in vain. The 2nd and 12th Companies of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, attached to the 2nd Otago Battalion, were called up from reserve, and tried to work round the flanks of the pill-boxes at Bellevue, on the Gravenstafel-Mosselmarkt road.”

“Party after party made the attempt from either flank; and though some got as close as fifteen yards from the pill-boxes, none succeeded in reaching them. There can be no praise too high for these troops, who, with the example of failure after failure before them, undauntedly threw themselves against the impenetrable wire, raked by the heaviest machine-gun fire. Nor did the efforts of the brigade cease with the leading troops: the 1st Otago and 1st Canterbury Battalions, with the remaining companies of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, now advanced against the wire. Some men got through the first belt, but all were held up by the second belt and by the machine-gun fire from the pill-boxes immediately behind it.”

By 10.00am: “the main attack was broken, the task of the enemy defending the line became easier: isolated attempts to advance received the concentrated fire of all machine-guns within reach, and the enemy’s snipers became bolder. At last even the smallest movement became impossible, as any man who exposed himself became the target not only of numerous snipers, but even of machine-gun sniping.”

And that’s approximately the time James Finlay appeared in front of his brother; Thomas. Tom was thousands of miles away, serving with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles in Palestine, but Jim came to him, very briefly, perhaps only for a second, saying nothing. Tom was not a religious man, not described as especially spiritual nor psychic, some said he was one very hard man. But he relayed the story, many years later, to his daughter. He told her how Jim, his younger by four years and one day, didn’t say anything, he was in uniform and instantly recognisable even though he was completely soaking wet; absolutely saturated. He faded just as suddenly as he appeared.

“And that’s how Dad knew it had been Uncle Jim’s last day on the job.”

Pvt James Finlay 26256 Ist Company, Canterbury 2nd Battalion

 

Stretcher party bring a fallen comrade back behind the wire at Passchendaele. October 1917

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

We will remember them.

 

-idbkiwi

 


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