Friday, 10 May 2013

Messines and Passchendaele; Zenith and Nadir by Logan Todd

If the battle for Messines was considered the high point of the New Zealand Division on the Western Front, then Passchendaele was surely the lowest. Yet if one considered these two battles, five months after the victory of Messines, the utter defeat at Passchendaele featured as the New Zealand Division’s worst performance to date. This calls into question whether any lessons had been learnt from the success at Messines that could have been applied at Passchendaele.  Furthermore, this leads one to ask what went wrong. Whilst the New Zealand Division suffered an inglorious defeat at Passchendaele, it must not be seen as a reflection upon the soldiers who took part, but due instead to a series of contributing factors. The following essay will discuss the battles of Messines and Passchendaele with reference to the role of Major General Andrew Russell, the preparations for each of the battles and the conditions during the battles in order to ascertain why the New Zealand Division fought so well at Messines but not so at Passchendaele.

Major General Sir Andrew Russell can equally take his share of the credit and of the blame for Messines and Passchendaele respectively.  According to Christopher Pugsley, Russell’s approach to command was not hundreds of miles to the rear of the frontline trenches, but instead he routinely toured the front line in order to ascertain the situation for himself. The battle of Messines well illustrates Russell’s “meticulous planning” and fine tuning through discussions with his Brigadiers, staff and even lower down the ranks in order to create a feeling of ownership of the plans. Passchendaele was an entirely different matter however. During the course of the battle, Russell was ill with bronchitis and “his usual attention to detail was lacking”. He neglected to visit the front line as was his wont, and thus was unaware that the artillery had failed to cut holes in the German barbed wire making the task of the infantry attacking upon the 12th October 1917 humanly impossible. He had become detached from what the men at the front line knew; and what was his duty as the commander of the New Zealand Division to know.

Russell unlike most First World War generals, admitted he had made a mistake, “Notably the crime of the Division in assuming the wire to be cut which ought to have been verified”. Russell was not the only one guilty for the disaster at Passchendaele. General Godley, Russell’s superior, and Field Marshal Haig, Godley’s superior, all share in the blame according to Glyn Harper. They were all officers trained in the British Imperial System that did not insist on leading from the front. Russell however must shoulder most of the blame as he should have made himself aware of the obstacles his soldiers faced and realised it was sheer madness to continue the attack with the barbed wire still intact. Whilst Matthew Wright is of the opinion that Haig was “unswervable”, Russell should have objected to the task his men faced with so little preparation, even though he would ultimately have to follow orders from his commanding officer. This is one of the contributing factors why Passchendaele was a disaster for the New Zealand Division, although I object to the notion that the soldiers involved ‘fought badly’ when they were in fact badly served.

Wholly different are the preparations for the battle of Messines and that of Passchendaele. Russell had been informed as early as November 1916 of the upcoming Messines offensive, and by March his Division’s role was confirmed. What followed was weeks of preparation for the upcoming offensive until every soldier had rehearsed six times over the planned events on similar terrain. This had the advantage of familiarising the soldiers with their objectives so that in the heat of battle losing one’s way would not be an issue. Russell’s Division also prepared for the upcoming offensive through physical fitness and training programmes, sports days and the inevitable game of rugby. The preparations for the battle of Passchendaele were not however, graced with the “luxury of time” that the Messines offensive had been. Russell had to organise an attack in just two days. Before the attack had even begun, the odds were heaped against the New Zealand Division. The objectives that should have been taken upon the 9th October 1917 by a previous assault were not. These now became additional objectives on top of the Division’s original plan. This added to around a 2,500 yard advance, ambitious in drier weather, but nearing folly in the morass that No Man’s Land had become with the rain.

The lack of time to prepare inexorably led to issues that required time to solve; time that was not available. This immediately produced difficulties as Russell records in his diary: “Napier Johnston came to see me after lunch. The guns are all forward but he evidently feels uneasy about the attack – says preparation inadequate.” The problem with the field and heavy guns was that unless they were given a firm platform from which to fire, the recoil would force the gun back into the mud and inevitably throw off the aim of the gun, taking precious time to reset the trajectory so that the shell lands in the correct place. This lack of fire power had the follow on effect that very little concentration of shells landed upon the German lines or barbed wire, thus the lines were not penetrated nor the shelling heavy enough to force the machine gunners into their bunkers. The attack that followed, and failed led Russell to write in his diary “goes to show the weakness of haste”. The preparations needed for this offensive were simply unavailable at the time as Haig believed one more ‘push’ after the success of October 4th would have the Germans retreating. Therefore no time could be spared to amass the resources needed for such an attack as time was of the essence. Thus, lack of preparation was another contributing factor of the failure that became Passchendaele. Little or no time to prepare in advance of the Passchendaele offensive meant that artillery support was ineffective leaving the barbed wire intact and the German trenches free to fire at will.

Finally, the last contributing factor that led to the failure of the New Zealand Division at Passchendaele was the conditions. In Matthew Wright’s Western Front he describes the ground condition at the time as “bogs”. The recent rains had turned the normally muddy ground into a morass. It was this morass that halted the progress of guns from supporting the troops at Passchendaele and left them stranded in the mud before they could even be brought to fire upon the enemy. Another major difference between Messines and Passchendaele was the state in which the enemy was found. During the Messines offensive at 3.10 a.m. on 7th July, 19 of 21 mines were exploded beneath the German lines. As Ormund Burton states in The Silent Division, “The Germans were still paralysed. Their whole system had been swept away.” The state of the enemy was somewhat different at Passchendaele. It was strongly suspected that the Germans had knowledge of the attack and thus, had re-enforced the line in anticipation of the attack. Another telling feature was the regiments that the New Zealand Division was opposite. They were the elite Jaeger regiments, equipped with 144 machine guns, twice the number of a normal regiment. This was to be an attack that “was a gamble” and the results were not expected to be great, but the idea of the demoralised Germans fleeing as they broke at last, made it justifiable. The odds were stacked against the New Zealand Division as they “had before them...upwards of six hundred yards of black swamp” and progress was slow. The odds told in the end and the assault upon the German line was a costly failure for the New Zealander’s in human lives.

In summation, there were several key reasons why the attack at Passchendaele upon 12th October 1917 failed. The lack of adequate time to prepare for the offensive firstly meant that artillery support would be next to useless. Combined with the fact that the entire offensive had begun in the starting throes of winter with the incessant rain turning the ground into a dangerous morass, this further halted the bringing up of guns to the front. This was due to the journey along the roads being slow as the guns frequently got bogged down and had to be extricated often. The attack also failed as the German’s knew in advance and had strengthened their defences. Russell failed to inspect the conditions of the defences to be assaulted and so is partly to blame. So too is Godley who should have realised more time was needed to co-ordinate the assault but said nothing due to the structure of command. Ultimately, the New Zealand Division fought so well at Messines due to concise and meticulous planning, through thorough investigation of the enemy’s defences, excellent artillery support that was planned down to the last minute and the complete confidence of the men in their officers. Conversely, the New Zealand Division fought “so badly” at Passchendaele as they lacked proper artillery cover, thus not destroying the barbed wire defences, had inadequate time to prepare for the assault, the commanding officer lost contact with the front line and lastly, the weather and ground conditions conspired to turn the terrain into a swamp of viscous mud that inhibited movement.



Burton, Ormund. The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front: 1914-1919. Sydney: Angus & Robertson Limited, 1935.

Harper, Glyn. “Major General Sir Andrew Russell: Divisional Commander on the Western Front.” In Born to Lead? Portraits of New Zealand Commanders, edited by Glyn Harper and Joel Hayward. Auckland, N.Z.: Exisle Publishing Limited, 2003.

Harper, Glyn. Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story. Auckland, N.Z.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.

Harper, Glyn and Joel Hayward, eds. Born to Lead? Portraits of New Zealand Commanders. Auckland, N.Z.: Exisle Publishing Limited, 2003.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J.. The World War One Source Book. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1997.

McGibbon, Ian, ed. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland, N.Z.: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pugsley, Christopher. On the Fringe of Hell: New Zealanders and Military Discipline in the First World War. Auckland, N.Z.: Hodder &Stoughton, 1991.

Pugsley, Christopher. The Anzac Experience: New Zealand, Australia and Empire in the First World War. Auckland, N.Z.: Reed Publishing, 2004.

Richardson, Colin. “General Sir Alexander John Godley: The Last Imperial Commander.” In Born to Lead? Portraits of New Zealand Commanders, edited by Glyn Harper and Joel Hayward. Auckland, N.Z.: Exisle Publishing Limited, 2003.

Wright, Matthew. Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front. Auckland, N.Z.: Penguin Books, 2010.

Wright, Matthew. Western Front: The New Zealand Division in the First World War 1916-1918. Auckland, N.Z.: Reed Publishing, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.