A hundred years from the Allied campaign at Passchendaele, renowned actors Dean O’Gorman (New Zealand) and RH Thompson (Canada) return to the deadly fields to find traces of family and rediscover the reality of war.
Canadian forces began their two-week push on October 26th, finally advancing less than 1km to gain the famous ‘ridge’. 15,654 Canadian casualties included three thousand killed. RH’s great-uncle George Stratford was hit by a shell on top of Bellevue Spur.
The New Zealand attack toward Bellevue Spur on October 12th lasted just a few hours, cost 843 New Zealand lives and severely wounded another two and a half thousand men. John O’Gorman is among those men lost in the mud on the worst day in New Zealand history.
The First World War (1914–1918) was the bloodiest conflict in New Zealand and Canadian history. As British dominions, neither country actually issued a declaration of war on Germany.
In total, 425,000 Canadians and 100,444 New Zealanders served in British forces. The Stratford and O’Gorman families each sent five sons to the front. George Stratford’s remains is believed to be an Unknown Soldiers grave. The O’Gorman boys have two unmarked graves near Passchendaele.
The northern summer of 1917 was relatively kind to New Zealand and Canadian troops, with victories around Arras, Vimy Ridge and Messines.
After enlisting in 1916, the O’Gorman brothers first arrived in Belgium for these battles. The Stratford boys also had experience of the fighting around Ypres, where, after seeing the destruction, they realized they may never return home.
How did this experience affect young men, fighting and killing for the first time?
The Belgian front line moved short distances forward, then often back again, in September and early October 1917.
Soldiers went missing, fatally wounded and hurriedly buried, lost in the mud, or blown into small pieces by high-explosive shells. Attack and counterattack buried their remains.
A century later Dean and Robert can visit monuments and museums, but both discover the reality of war is best uncovered by dirty hands.
The ruined landscape that greeted soldiers during autumn storms in 1917 is now pristine and well kept. Especially the British cemeteries. False confidence born by early advances in October led commanders to push toward their final objective as rain set in.
The New Zealand Division were thrown hard into the first advance on October 12th, while Canadians waited behind the lines.
Canadian troops took over from the poorly planned advance that killed so many New Zealanders. Canadian commander Sir Arthur Currie prepared his plan carefully, firstly by rebuilding the shattered roads, tramlines and gun pits.
Attacking from October 26th, and expecting 16,000 casualties, Currie’s men took two weeks to win the Passchendaele ridge at great cost. The ground they won was given up again, just four months later.