Leonard Hart was a New Zealand soldier who saw action on the Western Front and was involved in the battle of Passchendaele. That battle was to become the worst day in New Zealand’s military history, with more soldiers dying in just a few hours than in any other engagement.
Hart’s letters, which he managed to smuggle past the army censors, contain some of the most graphic descriptions of the battle and the terrible conditions that the soldiers endured.
The son of a lighthouse keeper, Hart enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1915, when he was 21, and served at Gallipoli before being evacuated to hospital in Egypt to be treated for enteritis. On recovery, Hart was sent to the Western Front in Belgium, where he joined the New Zealand Division and began to prepare for the assault on German positions.
British Field Marshal Haig’s plan was to push the Germans back from their high ground and capture the vital railway lines behind them. After the success of the 4 October attack, in which significant gains were made, Haig thought the Germans were at breaking point and further gains could be made at Passchendaele.
The New Zealand Division was called on once again to be involved in this attack across a wide front – but the conditions were atrocious. The constant shelling and rain had turned the earth into a giant quagmire.
... there was nothing but utter desolation, not a blade of grass, or tree, here and there a heap of bricks marking where a village or farmhouse had once stood, numerous tanks stuck in the mud, and for the rest, just one shell hole touching another.
Hart was right in the thick of it, as they prepared to advance.
At three o’clock on the third morning we received orders to attack the ridge at half past five, which was just before daylight. My company was in the first wave of attack which partly accounted for our heavy casualties. Our artillery barrage (curtain of fire) was to open out at twenty past five and play on the German positions on top of the ridge 150 yards ahead of us.
Hart and his fellow soldiers knew they had to face formidable German defences: bunkers and pillboxes that were armed with machine guns, and nestled in extremely difficult terrain.
These emplacements are marvellous structures made of concrete with walls often ten feet thick and the concrete is reinforced throughout with railway irons and steel bands and bars. There is room inside them for a large number of men but of course they vary in size.
When the artillery barrage began, the New Zealanders launched from their positions and slowly made their way through the mud-filled wasteland to attack the ridge.
What was our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully 50 yards deep.
The British heavy artillery had failed to have any real impact on the German bunkers and had barely destroyed any of the barbed wire blocking the way. The Germans had rushed out of their bunkers, set up their machine guns, and got to work.
They were marvellous shots those Huns. We lost nearly 80 per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us as the Germans still held and dominated the ridge.
Passchendaele was becoming a disaster. The advance halted, and the soldiers were forced to take whatever cover they could find. Casualties mounted swiftly.
All my company officers were killed outright, one of them, a son of the Reverend Ryburn of Invercargill, was shot dead beside me.
The New Zealanders fell back. The attack had failed. Now began the dreadful task of collecting the wounded amongst the hellish mud and fire. 845 men were dead or dying. New Zealand suffered 3,000 casualties in total.
Leonard Hart had survived. But he was bitterly aware of how things had gone.
Some terrible blunder has been made. Someone is responsible for that barbed wire not having been broken up by our artillery. Someone is responsible for the opening of our barrage in the midst of us instead of 150 yards ahead of us. Someone else is responsible for those machine gun emplacements being left practically intact, but the papers will all report another glorious success, and no one except those who actually took part in it will know any different.
Hart continued to serve on the Western Front until he was wounded by a mustard-gas shell near Polygon Wood in 1918. He was sent to hospital in England before being sent back to New Zealand after the war ended.
Hart served with the New Zealand Army during the Second World War and returned to work for the railways, where he stayed until his retirement.