In 1916 the Western Front comprised a 700-kilometre line of trenches snaking through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea, a front that had hardly changed since it was formed in late 1914. Parallel lines of trenches were divided by a no-man’s land exposed to artillery and machine guns and strewn with barbed wire obstacles. Attempts in 1915 to break the stalemate, including the introduction of poison gas, had been unsuccessful.
Although the fighting line in France and Belgium was known by the Allies as the ‘Western Front’ it was actually to their east. The front was Germany’s Western Front – it also had an Eastern Front, the line of engagement with the Russians. The Eastern Front was much longer then the Western – about 1,600 kilometres – and ran all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
New Zealand troops in France faced a very different environment from that in Gallipoli. One of about 70 divisions in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone, the division was a small cog in a massive military machine. Although the troops were deployed in a relatively quiet sector, at Armentières in northern France, they quickly became aware of the true impact of industrialised warfare. They were shocked by the scale of the artillery, which far surpassed that employed at Gallipoli.
The Battle of the Somme
Service on the Western Front involved a steady flow of day-to-day casualties, from artillery bombardments, trench raids and accidents. But the real bloodletting occurred when either side sent troops ‘over the top’ to assault the opposing trench line. This was dreadfully apparent when the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme opened on 1 July 1916: on that day alone the BEF suffered 60,000 casualties.
The New Zealand Division took part in the third major phase of the battle, attacking as part of a new ‘big push’ near Longueval on 15 September 1916, an effort notable for the advent of tanks. The New Zealanders captured their objectives, though at heavy cost, and assisted in the capture of the village of Flers, but the offensive petered out. By the time the New Zealand Division was withdrawn from the line 23 days later, it had lost 2,000 men – a death rate far exceeding that experienced at Gallipoli.
Allied plans in 1917 aimed to keep the pressure on the enemy with a series of offensives. The first, in April, at Arras, captured the Vimy ridge. In this operation, New Zealand tunnellers provided valuable support, expanding tunnels systems under Arras and opening up shafts to facilitate the attack.
After wintering in the Armentières sector, the New Zealand Division moved to Flanders in present-day Belgium, in February 1917. On 7–9 June it took part in the capture of the Messines ridge, a successful but costly battle that demonstrated the ‘bite and hold’ tactic of using well-planned artillery support to seize portions of the enemy front-line rather than attempting a wider breakthrough (as at the Somme). The New Zealanders captured the village of Messines without difficulty, but later suffered heavily from German bombardment, with more than 700 dying during the operation.
Messines was the prelude to the major British offensive that began on 31 July 1917. The New Zealanders were not involved in the initial stages of the Third Battle of Ypres, but they were committed in late September, and took part in two major attacks on the Passchendaele ridge in October. The first, at Gravenstafel on 4 October, was a relative success, costing 340 New Zealand lives. The second, at Bellevue Spur in atrocious conditions on 12 October, was a complete failure. In the worst fiasco in New Zealand’s military history, 845 men were killed in a few hours, the highest one-day death toll suffered by New Zealand forces overseas. Mud and rain had affected the ability of the artillery to provide a sufficient barrage to cut barbed wire and suppress enemy resistance.
A depressing winter in the line at Polygon Wood followed. Another failed attack, at Polderhoek in December, did nothing for the troops’ morale.