Neil Ingram was a 21-year-old infantryman who took part in the New Zealand Division’s first attack at Passchendaele, on 4 October 1917. The experience was to become a defining moment during his time on the Western Front.
This attack was known as the Battle of Broodseinde, and Ingram’s diary entries give a vivid account of the assault – the successes in action and the horrors of the casualties and the conditions.
Born on 9 March 1896, Ingram was a bank clerk with the Union Bank of Australia in Taneatua, near Whakatane. He enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in January 1917, aged 20.
After training in England and France, he joined his unit as part of the Wellington Infantry Regiment and moved into Belgium.
On 4 October 1917, Ingram’s battalion took part in the Battle of Broodseinde at Passchendaele.
The objective was to clear the Germans from the surrounding ridges – making it possible for the capture of Passchendaele Ridge – and denying the Germans the dominant high ground.
The New Zealand Division was tasked with capturing Gravenstafel Spur, and on the morning of 4 October, Ingram was ready to attack.
It was a relief when at long last, in the light of bursting shells and glow of the Verey lights as they soared over No-man’s-land, we were stirred and mustered into order for the attack.
It was a wet bleak morning and a cold wind was blowing from across No-man’s-land, bringing with it the stench of the dead and a message of death.
Shiveringly we formed up in line of sections and at six o’clock to the second our artillery barrage came down with a roar of thunder, and off we moved.
The attack had commenced – now for it!
As Ingram and his fellow soldiers made their way forward, he described the difficult load that the soldiers bore.
Heavily laden, carrying rations, rifle, entrenching tools, shovels, bombs, extra panniers of ammunition and box respirator, we advance, skirting the edges of water-logged shell holes under a rain of bursting shells and spitting bullets.
As they advanced across open ground, the Germans opened up.
Their machine guns rattle out their message of death and their whole artillery vomits forth its message of hate as it lays down the counter-barrage – a curtain of flame, mutilation and death, lashing the earth with its fury, through which we must pass before we can come to grips with the Hun.
Ingram and his battalion made it forward and met their first objective.
A large pill-box appears immediately before us and a rain of bullets lashes the air all around. Down we flop into a shell-hole, the Lewis Gun is set on the brink and we get into action in earnest. We have made contact with the enemy infantry at last. As fast as the drums of ammunition are used up we refill and hand to the number two of the gun who clamps them on and hands back the empty, while number one peppers away at the loophole of the pill-box.
While Ingram and other machine gunners provided covering and direct fire, soldiers worked their way around the flanks of the pillbox and threw bombs into the rear doorway, successfully taking it out.
Ingram advanced past the silent pillbox, only to be caught in a counter-artillery barrage from the Germans. Thinking he was hit, he jumped into a shell crater to inspect his wound.
I discover that the solid brass buckle of my box respirator shoulder strap is bent almost double and my tunic at the top of the shoulder is cut clean through to my shirt. An escape! Whatever hit me first struck the heavy buckle which deflected the missile at an angle over my shoulder. What a nice Blighty wound it would have been!
Miraculously, Ingram had survived. Reaching Gravenstafel Spur, the attack had been a success.
The Huns can be seen running to the pill-boxes or over the crest of the ridge, while here and there from our side a machine gun barks furiously at them. If we were still at full strength and freshly organised nothing could stop us from continuing – right up the Passchendaele itself, but, alas, we are now but a skeleton of the force that started forth at six a.m. and are dead-tired and thirsty.
By the end of that day, the New Zealanders had taken all their objectives. They had captured 1,100 prisoners and 60 machine guns, but at a cost of 1,700 casualties, including 350 killed.
Ingram’s day was not yet over, and he helped tend to the mass of wounded, strewn around the battlefield.
On reaching the aid post we put a poor fellow who had been shot through the lungs - a gory mess of exuded and vomited blood - onto our stretcher and hoisting it to our shoulders, started rearwards for the dressing station from whence we had been sent. Unencumbered as we were, the going out taxed our strength, but the return, with our burden, was the limit.
Neil Ingram survived the war, returning to New Zealand on the Waimana in June 1919. He died in 1976, aged 80.