Remembering New Zealand’s ‘Darkest Day’
The stories, poems, notes and photos contributed to Online Cenotaph help us to give a rich account of significant WWI events like Passchendale, which came to be known as New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’.
The plan to undertake this tragic battle which took the lives of 843 New Zealanders on October 12th 1917 began eight days earlier at Gravenstafel Spur.
High from a success at nearby Gravenstafel Spur, the British High Command concluded that the German casualties were so great that it was imperative to push forward on the Western Front.
Despite a failed attack on the 9th of October to open the way, the II ANZAC Corps began their advance at 5.25am to capture the Belgian village of Passchendaele and quickly discovered they were fighting in a stinking quagmire of mud.
Described as shell-filed porridge, the mud swallowed up men, horses, tanks and – importantly – heavy guns which were critical to the success of the campaign.
The guns sunk axle-deep into the sludge and when they were fired they were pushed deeper into the mud, throwing off the accuracy.
Left without many options, the men struggled forth through the mud in their greatcoats and heavy boots as the Germans sat in their pillboxes picking off the soldiers.
Since that day, Passchendale has become a byword for the horror of the Great War.
The impact of what has become one of New Zealand's darkest days reached far beyond the battlefield, leaving deep scars on many communities and families.
In the past 20 years, many of the families of these soldiers have shared the stories, memories, medals, portraits, photos and even poems of their loved ones through our database Online Cenotaph.
These contributions help us to build a richer picture of that tragic day and learn more about the personal stories of these valiant soldiers.
Today - one hundred years after this tragic battle - we remember some of the soldiers who fought on this dark day.
A poem written in memory of Corporal Alfred Shakeshaft describes the feeling of loss and symbolizes the forlornness of war.
Titled “Tyne Cot” it references one of the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery on the Western Front in Belgium located on the high-ground from which the Germans looked down across the Allied forces.
Corporal Shakeshaft was born in Widnes, England before he sailed to New-Zealand and settled in Wanganui. He was killed in action on the 24th of October, and is named on the Tyne Cot Memorial, as well as on a family grave in Widnes England, and the Whanganui Cenotaph.
Contributed photographs of him can be found on Online Cenotaph, including a photo of his Medallion and a family portrait.
A brave and quick-thinking soldier: 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Harold Mintrom
A courageous and determined soldier, 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Harold Mintrom was awarded a Military Cross for his duty on active service.
A number of New Zealand soldiers who fought at Passchendaele were later honoured with medals for their gallantry and quick thinking, such as Mintrom, who is remembered by the courage and initiative he showed at Passchendaele:
"East of Le Quesnoy on November 4th, 1918, 2nd-Lieut. Frederick H. Mintrom, M.M., N.Z.M.G. Corps, commanded a section of machine-guns attached to an assaulting battalion of infantry and led forward two guns with the leading waves of the right leading company in the attack. By engaging strong enemy opposition he assisted the advance of the infantry, and he took up a well-chosen position on the objective gained".
A valiant military man: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tilsley
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tilsley displayed courage and strategic thinking during the Battle of Passchendaele, and was later presented with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
"For conspicuous gallantry on the night of of the 4th-5th June, 1915, on the occasion of a sortie from Quinn's Post (Dardanelles). An enemy trench had been carried by assault, but was enfiladed by the fire of a machine-gun.
Sergeant Tilsley commenced to build up a sandbag traverse, and notwithstanding that the sandbags were being constantly blown away by the enemy's bombs, he, with great courage and regardless of danger, continued his efforts until he was severely wounded". London Gazette, 06/09/1915.
Lieutenant Colonel Tilsley went on to survive the war, despite his wounds at Passchendaele. A photograph of him in uniform was contributed to Online Cenotaph.
To view more stories, discover your own connection or lay a poppy, visit Online Cenotaph
You can also visit the Pou Maumahara Gallery, our physical space for Online Cenotaph. Our friendly staff and volunteers are here to help you 7 days a week, located up on Level 2 of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
AWARDS AND DECORATIONS., Press, Volume LVI, Issue 16764, 21 February 1920
'1917: Arras, Messines and Passchendaele', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/western-front-1917, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Sep-2017
Harper, Glyn (2000). Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand story. Auckland, New Zealand: HarperCollins.
'New Zealand's ‘blackest day’ at Passchendaele', (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Sep-2017
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Do you have a relative who fought at Passchendaele? To find more information about your whānau who fought in WWI, you can begin searching straight away and leave your own contributions for Passchendaele.
Many of our contributors have helped to add memories in the form of notes. These are often moving tributes dedicated to loved ones, or those who never got the chance to meet them. These written contributions are also used as a space for family members and researchers to connect and share information.
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Cite this article
Remembering New Zealand’s ‘Darkest Day’ . Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 10 October 2017. Updated: 12 October 2017.