This week marks the 100th anniversary of a single battle that took almost 1000 New Zealand lives over the space of a few hours. Anzac Cove may always be at the forefront of our minds, but Passchendaele took the greater toll – and, as Bruce Morris writes, the Newlove family of Golden Bay paid as high a price as any.
As you step from your car and walk the path to the small museum alongside Tyne Cot cemetery in rural western Belgium, emotion drips from the air. The poignancy smacks you between the eyes… and, more quietly, the ears.
Out there are 12,000 gravestones (520 for New Zealanders), sparkling white and proud, with a vast memorial to 35,000 others whose bodies could not be recovered, including many Kiwis.
For a place beyond the interests of most travelling New Zealanders, there is surely nowhere so lovely, tranquil and deep in meaning to our country.
Along the path, sound-system speakers set in the gardens above the gently rolling pastures carry the soft voice of a young woman on a continuous tape that gives, one other the other, full names of those who died – slow, sad and haunting.
Wait long enough and you may hear the names of forefathers if your family gave their best to the cause – brave, scared young men from this colonial outpost who served a distant king and died in the mud and trenches of the Western Front battles of the First World War.
Names like Leslie Malcolm Newlove, Leonard Charles Newlove and Edwin Newlove – three brothers, born in Takaka in Golden Bay, who went in search of adventure and were killed a century ago this year within a few days of each other in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Try to imagine that, and try to imagine the fourth brother, George Thomas Newlove, who was wounded in the same battle and was back in the trenches a month later – required to fight on in the face of his grief.
Then try to imagine how a widowed mother, 18,000km away in Takaka, might cope with such dreadful news… and the poor soul whose job was to deliver it.
In those early years in the development of New Zealand, where eking out a living from the land was the only option for many, the postmaster had a cushy number – a pillar of the community in a job for life.
What could be easier than the paid middleman in a business monopoly delivering generally glad tidings through letters and telegrams?
The men doing the job had a different tale to tell, certainly during the Great War, and certainly down Takaka way. Their offspring would learn it wasn’t all about birthday cards and happy family news.
As the machine guns on the Western Front clattered across the barbed wire, the postmaster in Golden Bay was directed to deliver one of the awful telegram messages that reached post offices throughout the country between 1914 and 1918.
Around Golden Bay the population was thin, so the assigment was hardly routine. But the postmaster did his duty in October 1917, breaking the heart of Mary Ann Newlove with a telegram telling her of the death of her 40-year-old son Charlie (Leonard Charles).
Mary Ann was surely devastated. Her family was everything to her; she was New Zealand-born, one of 13 children and, after marrying when she was 22, raised eight sons while husband Leonard, who arrived from England as a 15-yerar-old, broke in 30.3ha to create a productive mixed farm near Takaka.
By the time war broke out, the Newloves had retired to a cottage in the centre of town, leaving the farm in the capable hands of some of their boys.
It would not be a long and happy retirement for the pioneering couple. Leonard was 67 when he died in 1915, and a year later his wife – with four sons overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – would, like all war mums, soon live in dread of the postmaster’s knock.
When it came and the initial shock had passed, leaving her to fret about the safety of her three other boys in Europe, she may have looked back fondly at the life of her first-born, for Charlie was quite a character.
Marrying young and settling down was the path most men took back then, but Charlie was a free spirit, often disappearing for days, or even weeks, at a time. It was too much to expect him to be tied down to marriage, although he got close once, apparently leaving a young woman at the altar.
His habit of wandering at will apparently took him to Auckland in the early months of the war, and he wore the insignia of the third battalion of the Auckland Regiment when he fell in the Battle of Broodseinde at Passchendaele.
His war record is stark: “Killed in action in the field, Belgium, on October 4, 1917… buried about 100 yards north-west of Otto Farm pillbox.”
It’s hard to be precise about the days that followed that first telegram delivery to Mary Ann Newlove. But it was probably less than two weeks later that the nightmare returned to the Takaka postmaster and a family that had already suffered enough.
Another young man killed in action. Another telegram to deliver. Another Newlove boy the victim.
The war records held at the National Archive are as terse and curt as the generals who demanded so much of the men they commanded. Edwin (Ted) Newlove was “killed in action in the field, Belgium, October 12, 1917…buried at Passchendaele Bellvue Spur.” The only other reference of interest, beyond the strapping six-foot build that he shared with his soldier brothers, was the poor state of his teeth, “which need attention”. A man who died in the mud with his boots on and with his teeth in decay.
When the postmaster delivered the news about 27-year-old Edwin, fifth of the eight sons and killed on the front line at Passchendaele, it must have been unbearable for his grieving mother.
But she barely had time to absorb the shock before the military disaster of the Western Front brought a third telegram to the Newlove door.
Leslie Newlove, 22, and married to Maude Grooby in October 1916, just a month or so before leaving New Zealand, was the youngest in the family and died in the same battle as Ted. Both were privates in the second battalion of the Canterbury Regiment.
There is no record these days of the postmaster, but he was obviously no cold fish who separated his emotions from his job. He found the prospect of delivering yet another blunt dispatch of faraway tragedy too much to endure and instead passed the task to a junior colleague.
Leslie’s war record gave no comfort to his mother, but at least it is a little more forthcoming to those today who search for answers. He was declared “missing, killed in the field, October 12, 1917” by a subsequent court of inquiry, and this time there was more detail of his death.
Lance Corporal Bell, supported by a private, told the inquiry: “On the morning of 12 October Mr Newlove was with my section up until we reached about 50 yards [from our trench]. At this spot we met very heavy machine gun fire. I noticed Newlove at this spot and saw no more of him.”
On the file, immediately before Corporal Bell’s disclosure, is a note from Leslie’s medical assessment as he entered the services. “He has a scar one-and-a-half inches above the outer end of his right elbow – kicked by a calf when two years old.”
It’s the sort of detail that every mother retains, passing on to their children when they are old enough to think for themselves – and the very detail of a son’s life that would probably have passed through Mary Ann’s mind as she coped with her grief and remembered gentler times.
The odds of losing three sons within eight days might seem incalculable, but they were not. They were merely tragic and heartbreaking. If you were a New Zealander serving at Passchendaele in October 1917, there was a good chance of collecting a bullet in the chest when you followed orders and went over the top.
The three Newlove boys and brother George – who survived the front line and returned home with an English bride – did their duty; they did what they were told, with pride, for their country and Empire.
Their mother, who died in 1932, must have wished for less heroic sons who stayed on the family farm; the postmaster may have prayed each day that George would return home unharmed to save him the agony of yet another postman’s knock.
The names of the Newlove boys are engraved on the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Cemetery with those of 1176 countrymen who died in the various battles of Passchendaele and whose bodies were never recovered.
In a few hours on one day in that campaign, October 12, 1917, nearly 1000 New Zealand soldiers were mortally wounded or died in the mud, trenches, shell-holes and barbed wire. It is our highest death toll in war or peace, yet the day passes each year with barely a head bowed.
If you’re ever down Takaka way, call into the local Anglican church. There you’ll find a plaque mounted on a piece of Takaka marble and provided by the Government at the end of the war, recording Leslie Newlove’s service to King and Country. The metal tributes for Charlie and Ted are held by the family.
Around the country there will be scores of similar plaques, and they deserve dusting off. This week, a century since the battle, New Zealanders might think of more than Anzac Cove as the symbol of commitment to our country.
Young men went naively in search of adventure and instead found that war was indeed hell, with cavalier regard for life from within as well as from the machine gun turrets.
Records tell of a general who shouted at a junior officer drilling his men: “You can forget all your training. You have come here to show all your men how to die.”
That was the sort of miserable hell across the battles of the Western Front that inspired Siegfried Sassoon, an English poet and solider decorated for bravery, to write:
Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell-
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light
At least he got home to write about it.