It was New Zealand's darkest hour. On just one senseless day, 846 young Kiwi soldiers were slaughtered in a boggy foreign field. It took more than two days to clear the battlefield of the dead and injured. They were cannon-fodder. It was a massacre.

Telegrams darkened the doors of almost every home in young New Zealand. Parents, siblings, lovers, children, they all mouthed the name of the tiny Belgian village, unsure of its pronunciation. Scared to say it aloud. Sobbing. Passchendaele.

And now, a century on and most New Zealanders are still unsure how to say it, let alone know its significance. After all, it's not Gallipoli - the war story taught in schools, watched on TV, and marched for at Anzac Day.

So how do you tell the story of such a monstrous military disaster? A bloodbath borne out of an all-too-common perfect storm: heavy rain, deep mud, "friendly fire", unshelled German machinegun emplacements, bungling British generals.

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For the centenary of the World War I, New Zealand Post is issuing a series of stamps over five years to explain the wider story of the war "through the eyes of an everyday New Zealander".

This week sees the release of "1917 The Darkest Hour" commemorative stamps series.
It follows the heartbreaking story of Dannevirke mother Ellen Knight who lost three sons in the "War to End All Wars".

After hostilities broke out in early August 1914, men across the country volunteered in their droves, for King and Country, with many sensing a chance for adventure and travel.

While Ellen lived in Dannevirke, husband Herbert and his sons worked a farm between Whakatane and Opotiki.

Ellen Knight, mother of George Knight who was killed at Passchendaele. Photo / Alan Gibson
Ellen Knight, mother of George Knight who was killed at Passchendaele. Photo / Alan Gibson

Although farm workers were exempt from going to war in those early days, George Bernard Knight and younger brother Herbert Augustine Knight felt duty-bound and enlisted to do their bit.

"Men must work while women weep," Ellen replied to George after he wrote to say he was signing up.

"I had a good blub and feel better," added the mother of 10 children aged between six and 23.

"I dare say it will mean the three [boys] but I am ready to do my duty always as you are to do yours. But please God you may not be wanted or if you are will be spared to come back 'heroes'."

George and Herbert sailed for Egypt in February 1915 with the 3rd Reinforcements of the Otago Infantry Regiment, before landing at Gallipoli.

"Have no fear, we will both stick together and come back safe," George wrote home.
It wasn't to be.

On May 9, just two weeks into the ultimately-doomed stalemate, Herbert made a fatal decision.

Despite carrying ammunition to the front lines all day, he volunteered to help bury a mule carcass near Cape Helles when he was shot through the heart by an Ottoman sniper. The former prefect at Wanganui Collegiate School and star rugby player and boxer, was 20.

George had to write to his mum to inform her of "the greatest sorrow that has ever happened in our family".

He said he'd marked Herbert's grave under an olive tree with a named cross and planted flowers.

Ellen saw the casualty list before George's letter arrived. Later, she replied: "I prayed so hard that you might both come back to me, but it is part of God's great plan and we must bear it but it is a hard task bearing to be the mother of soldiers."

She wrote to her beloved son George every few days, downplaying her own fears, passing on snippets of family life and trying to keep his spirits up.

George Knight was one of three brothers to die during the First World War.
George Knight was one of three brothers to die during the First World War.

The light-hearted lovable George had scares - surviving shoulder and chest wounds, illnesses, a septic finger - after being involved in some of the heaviest trench warfare on the Western Front.

On October 4, 1917 George wrote home: "I am liable to be called up to go to the front line to help in the big attack. I have been looking forward to this for ever so long. As for coming through safely, it is in someone else's hands and I'll do my share."

But on New Zealand's darkest day, October 12, 1917 his luck ran out. Leading his men over the top, up Bellevue Spur, towards the small village of Passchendaele, the 23-year-old company commander encountered impenetrable German barbed-wire defences that the artillery barrage had failed to nullify.

George was cut down by a burst of machine gun fire only feet from the enemy positions.

His body was never recovered. His military service record states: "Many of these men were buried by stretcher bearers where they fell, to right and left of road beyond Waterloo Farm across Ravebeek and up towards crossroads."

Wanganui Collegiate School obituary paid tribute to "a soldier and a gentleman" who was both trusted and beloved by his men.

He was one of 846 New Zealanders killed at Passchendaele that day. The total number of casualties, wounded, dead and missing topped 2700.

William Douglas Knight was killed on the Western Front in 1918. Photo / Alan Gibson
William Douglas Knight was killed on the Western Front in 1918. Photo / Alan Gibson

The day after George's death, before the family was informed, Ellen's shy, serious eldest son William Douglas, known as Douglas, sailed from Wellington, having been excused from the farm.

On September 1, 1918 Douglas was killed during the Bancourt Ridge offensive, felled by a shell while returning with an arm wound to bring back a wounded corporal. The letter he wrote to Ellen earlier that day arrived after she heard the news. She never opened it.

Another son, Ken, who turned 18 in 1917, was never called up, and took over Douglas' farm.

But daughter Margarette was struck by rheumatoid arthritis in 1918, and her mother became her carer.

Ellen's marriage was a strained, distant one, and Herbert died in 1937.

Even the Second World War didn't spare Ellen more heartbreak. Her youngest child, Maurice, died of malaria aged 36 while training troops in India in 1944.

Margarette and Francis also died before their mother.

With her eyesight declining, she moved in with daughter Dorothy in Gisborne aged 87, then to a Whakatane nursing home.

When Ellen died aged 93, her family found a shoebox full of letters.

Loss of sons a blow for generations

Losing one child would be too much.

But for the Knight family, the impact of losing three sons - Herbert, George and Douglas - would reverberate down through the generations.

Growing up, Alan Gibson said the tragic tale of his great-great-uncles who all died during World War I was always spoken about around the family dinner table.

"My grandfather was a real tough hill-country farmer and the only time I ever saw him get emotional was when he talked about his uncles," said Gibson, a photographer for The New Zealand Herald.

"The sense of loss and grief had a massive impact on our family down through the generations."

The heartbreaking story is documented in a treasure trove of family letters and documents held in Alexander Turnbull Library.

A "book of letters" was collected and compiled by the cousin of Gibson's grandfather, and the family's self-appointed genealogist Nancy Croad.

The remarkable archive has helped New Zealand Post release its commemorative 1917 The Darkest Hour stamps and coins series along with a book following the story of Ellen Knight.

"The family is delighted that their sacrifice is being recognised - not just George at Passchendaele but all three brothers. It was a huge price to pay for any family," Gibson said.

His own children are well aware of the family's tragic past and attend dawn services every Anzac Day.

And in 1999, his grandfather made the pilgrimage to Gallipoli "after living and breathing the story" his whole life, to pay tribute to Herbert Knight who was shot dead by a sniper at Cape Helles on May 8, 1915.

Unfortunately, the tour group he was on ran out of time, and although was with metres of Herbert's grave, he never got to see it.

Alan Gibson visited the grave a few years later and paid his respects to Herbert on behalf of his family.

He also laid a poppy at the grave two years ago when he covered the 100-year commemorations of Gallipoli for the Herald.

Even a century on, Gibson wonders how the family ever coped after losing three boys in three years.

"It beggars belief how you would go on."