One hundred years after the battle at Passchendaele, renowned actors Dean O’Gorman (New Zealand) and Robert “RH” Thomson (Canada), return to the once deadly region in search of family who died on the battlefields.
Canadian Forces began their carefully planned advance on October 26th, 1917 and two weeks later, they successfully captured the ruined town of Passchendaele. There were 15,654 Canadian casualties, and thousands killed. Robert’s great uncle, George Stratford, was among the fallen.
The First World War (1914 – 1918) was the bloodiest conflict in New Zealand and Canadian history. As British dominions, both countries found themselves automatically involved, even though neither country ever issued a declaration of war on Germany.
In total, 424,000 Canadians and 100,444 New Zealanders served in the British Forces. The Stratford and O’Gorman families each sent five sons to the frontlines. Of the Stratford sons, one died in France and two died from gas, whilst George Stratford was killed and buried in the fields of Passchendaele. Similarly, two O’Gorman sons died on the battlefields and are buried in unmarked graves near Passchendaele.
The northern summer of 1917 was relatively kind to the New Zealand and Canadian troops, with victories in other parts of Belgium (Messines) and France (Arras and Vimy Ridge).
These victories, however great, were still won with high casualties and under atrocious conditions. The O’Gorman brothers had arrived in 1916 and had fought in some of these battles, before the fight in Passchendaele. The Stratford boys had a shared experience in some of their earlier battles of Ypres, Belgium. Upon seeing the conditions and destruction of war, these men realized they may never return home.
How did this experience, and killing for the first time, affect these young men?
In the months prior to October 1917, most of Belgium had experienced the “heaviest rains in 30 years”. This would make conditions even more difficult for the cold and now wet soldiers on the battlefields given that firm ground was non-existent. Relentless attacks and high explosive shelling took their toll on the soldiers and many of the missing and severely wounded were lost and buried in the mud.
A century later, both Dean and Robert visit monuments and museums, only to discover that the reality of war is best uncovered by dirty hands.
The ruined landscape that greeted the soldiers in 1917, is now pristine and well kept. Early advances on the nearby land in October 1917, yielded a false confidence that led commanders to continue their push forward, despite the heavy rains and human loss.
The New Zealand Division were thrown hard into the first advance, on October 12th, while Canadians awaited their fate behind the lines.
Canadian troops arrived in mid-October, 1917 to re-gain the advance that had killed so many New Zealanders. Canadian Commander Sir Arthur Currie, carefully prepared his plan of attack and worked to rebuild the shattered roads, tramlines and gun pits, prior to the battle.
The Canadian offensive began on October 26, and the Passchendaele ridge was won exactly two weeks later – but at a great cost of more than 16,000 Canadian casualties. The ground that was won, was given up again only four months later.