Thursday, 12 October 2017

"It kept pouring..." On one of the worst days in NZ military history, 100 years ago today...


“It kept pouring. [Australian commander] Monash found himself the odd one out in the attitude to attacking in the bog…[Commander-in-Chief Douglas Haig’s] push to Passchendaele had to go on. It was now an obsession. Even a close aide remarked that it would take the impact of a travelling planet to shift him … Monash spoke bluntly about the futility of attacking in a bog. [General] Godley said it didn't matter. The C-in-C was set upon the 9th as attack day, and taht was that.
    “The rain became torrential on 8 October, making a cavalry division redundant. But it was still held in reserve. [Supreme Commander Douglas] Haig and some of the other British commanders wanted the horses there as a symbol of successes in the previous century. In the swampy conditions, they were useless…
    “The intense bombardments in the area over the last two years had ripped the land to shreds, breaking up the drainage system of the flat land. The effect was accentuated by the first British artillery barrage... The rain of the last few days had transformed the battlefield into a horrible slush, getting worse all the time. The troops went over the top and straight into a quagmire...
    “On 11 October the rain had not abated. Every dip in the land, crater or shell-hole was flooded... The British High Command was now a bunch of the deaf and blind. They couldn't see what would happen, and they refused to listen to anyone with a contrary view to that set in train by Haig...
    “At 6am the [troops] went over the top... The conditions were the worst they had encountered. The ground was a mud pond. Guns and ammunitions were sinking in the slush. The artillery shells didn’t explode, making it impossible for the diggers to follow a barrage, even if they could make it through the shell craters. They couldn’t link up. Supplies couldn’t get through. The soldiers who managed to get somewhere were soon knee or waist deep in mud. In much of the battlefield the only way across the bog, which was now akin to quicksand, was by duckboards (slatted footways). Soldiers falling or being blown off the duckboards needed aid to climb back on. Wounded soldiers, who under dry conditions could have been saved, had little hope. They would sink and drown. There was no hope of even a vaguely uniform or quick straight-line attack. Even those who managed to stay on the duckboards or find their way through the mud were slow-motion targets. Entire platoons, waist high in slime, were wiped out by machine-gun fire. Those who struggled on encountered the enemy in bayonet fighting.
    “The New Zealanders had encountered trouble crossing the wide, flooding Ravebeek River. It had been wired on the northern (enemy) bank. The New Zealand Division therefore could not get a foothold on the Bellevue Spur, which led to Crest Farm… But at 1.15 p.m. Godley called off the New Zealand attack. Monash was forced to do the same. The mass withdrawal of the two divisions was nearly as tough as the attack... By 3 p.m. the 3rd Division, depleted in numbers and morale, had mostly withdrawn to within a hundred metres of the start line. Passchendaele – the mission that should never have been started in such atrocious conditions – was over…. 
    “The [Australian] 3rd Division suffered 3200 casualties out of 5000 soldiers who went over the top. Among those to lose his life was Lewis McGee, attempting another smash-through act. He would never know he had been awarded the VC for his courage at Broodseinde. The New Zealanders had 3500 casualties…
    “In the end the New Zealand and the 3rd Divisions had to take on the failed objectives of the two British divisions. ‘It amounted to this,’ Monash wrote, ‘Russell [New Zealand] and I were asked to make a total advance of 1.75 miles [nearly three kilometres] – in a day.’13 So much for the limited objective. Three kilometres in the mud would have been twelve kilometres in the dry. It was an impossible task. But once the battle began on 9 October, [Generals] Godley, Plumer, Harington and [Supreme Commander] Haig would not quit until 12 October – after four days of fighting in which several thousand British and Anzac soldiers were killed or injured advancing less than a net 100 metres….
    “[Australian 3rd Division commander] Monash was not amused. He was now fully aware of the British regular leadership’s attitude to the soldiers at the front. They were machine-gun fodder that was expendable… ‘I had formed the theory that the true role of the infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, nor to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, nor to impale itself on hostile bayonets, nor to tear itself to pieces in hostile entanglements,’ Monash wrote. Instead, he wanted his force ‘to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, mortars, aeroplanes (also tanks); to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as is possible of the obligation to fight their way forward’…
   “Monash’s [own battle] plans were … structured for a minimum of casualties. That was a novelty in July 1918.”  But it was what eventually turned the war.
~ from the highly-recommended book Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War by Roland Perry



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