A World War 1 Story, Part 8
The Otago Infantry Regiment suffered a higher proportion of casualties than any other military unit at Passchendaele.
These are the surviviors of Walter Parker's company on the 20th. October 1917. The next day he himself was killed.
On the back of this photo there are a lot of notes about his pay, and some rapidly scribbled notes that I can't decipher. What I can read says:
From Walter to mother with best wishes
This is the six of my mates that we have left from Trentham
4th. Oct. 1917 killed at Passch 3590
" Many valuable weeks of the 1917 summer were wasted and when Field-Marshal Haig started his great offensive from the Ypres Salient on 31 July autumn rains had begun. Hope of strategic objectives faded; but successes in late September and early October made him try to win the rest of the Passchendaele ridge for his winter line. The New Zealand Division had been training since the end of August to overcome the numerous concrete “pillboxes” in this sector. The first objective of the Division was the Gravenstafel Spur, attacked before dawn on 4 October, as part of a major advance. The 1st and 4th Brigades forestalled a heavy German counter-attack, and the supporting artillery barrage inflicted frightful slaughter on the waiting Germans. Crossing this scene of carnage, the 1st and 4th Brigades gained their objectives after a hard fight, inflicting exceptionally heavy loss on the enemy and capturing much equipment. For such a resounding success the 1,700 New Zealand casualties, though a sad loss, did not in current terms seem excessive. But heavy rain turned the countryside into a bog and tragedy lay ahead.
A British attack on the ninth on Bellevue Spur and part of the main Passchendaele ridge gained a little ground at prohibitive cost. Heavy swathes of barbed wire still girdled the hillside, however, and belated and meagre heavy artillery made no impression on them, nor on the many pillboxes beyond. New Zealand gunners slaved to breaking point to get only a few guns and howitzers forward, but stable platforms and accurate fire were unattainable. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades – the latter weary from heavy work in the salient – nevertheless renewed the attack early on the twelfth.
There was little to encourage the men as they waited overnight in a morass under steady rain. Shelled in their assembly area, some were shelled again by their own guns when the thin barrage opened at 5.25 a.m., and then they led off into a deluge of small-arms fire, speckled with geyser-like eruptions as shells exploded in the mud. Worst of all was the wire, covered with deadly fire, its few gaps deliberate deathtraps. Some men tried to crawl under it, some threw themselves at it, two got right through and were killed in the act of hurling grenades at the loopholes of the nearest pillbox. The left gained 500 yards of slippery slope, the centre 200 heartbreaking yards, the right nothing until the 80-odd occupants of two blockhouses and a trench used up all their ammunition. Then they were captured, blockhouses and all, by two brave and skilful men, sole survivors of two Otago platoons.
The cost of these small gains, 640 dead and 2,100 wounded, made the Passchendaele mud in New Zealand eyes rich soil indeed and what the wounded suffered in drenching rain is another chapter of horrors. For the first time the Division had failed in a major operation; but what New Zealander can look back in memory or imagination on those dogged thrusts, time and again, by the Otago and Canterbury Battalions and the Rifles across the boggy flat and up the bullet-swept slopes of Bellevue Spur, without being stirred by their resolution in the face of hopeless odds.
The steady drain of men while units only held the line was less spectacular, though it made up half the losses of the Division. Here, before withdrawing from the front, 400 more men were lost in the 4th Brigade alone."
.... and then