"It was a bitterly cold night with a steady fall of rain, and no one will ever forget that dark passage among the shell-holes and the swamps."

Nearly 100 years on from the battle of Passchendaele in World War I, the words of E. P. Williams of the 1st Canterbury Battalion live on.

"Corporal Duval's section was annihilated by one shell. I saw limbless men and dead men on all sides, and yet the feeling was not one of horror or fear, but simply that it was all so natural and ordinary in occurrence."

Williams' description of the nightmare that was Passchendaele has been revived at the Great War Exhibition in Wellington's Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.

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Soldiers struggle to free a field gun from the swamp-like conditions at Passchendaele. Photo/National Army Museum NZ
Soldiers struggle to free a field gun from the swamp-like conditions at Passchendaele. Photo/National Army Museum NZ

Visitors can hear his words echo around the room as horrifying glimpses of the scene of the battle flash across the screens.

Passchendaele - New Zealand's Darkest Day is a new temporary exhibition about Kiwis' experiences in the battle, described by the great grandson of one soldier as "probably one of the most extreme human experiences one could ever imagine".

Jack Gradwell has loaned his great grandfather's bayonet and camera to the exhibition as a way of creating a more personal connection for visitors.

Captain George Gradwell was buried alive, gassed, and had his skull fractured over the course of the war, but still managed to survive and serve on the home front in World War II, though the after-effects of the gas meant he was ruled out of active service.

His camera and bayonet "survived all the way down from Passchendaele to here, now they're in the exhibition as well", said one of the minds behind the concept, Steve La Hood of Story Inc.

A line of infantry march along a muddy corduroy track strewn with debris at Westhoek. Photo/State Library of NSW
A line of infantry march along a muddy corduroy track strewn with debris at Westhoek. Photo/State Library of NSW

Exhibition manager Ian Wards said the "audio visual experience" was set up as a way of introducing people to "the horror of Passchendaele".

The battle on October 12, 1917 came after weeks of heavy rain, turning the Belgian plains into a quagmire.

An earlier battle on October 4 had been deemed a success, so the commanders agreed to send the troops in again on the 12th to take Passchendaele from the Germans.

"Our soldiers climbed from their sodden trenches on to the water-logged muddy morass of no-man's land," Wards said.

"They struggled through water-filled shell holes, past the broken bodies of dead soldiers and shattered equipment towards the German lines. The mud made the artillery hard to aim, so they were unable to break German barbed wire or take out their machine gun emplacements."

The day was a "complete disaster", with 843 New Zealand soldiers dying, and another 2000 wounded.

Soldiers walk along duckboards among wire and mud at Carter Point, 1917. Photo/Captain F Hurley, State Library of NSW.
Soldiers walk along duckboards among wire and mud at Carter Point, 1917. Photo/Captain F Hurley, State Library of NSW.

"The artillery couldn't be brought forward to support the advancing troops, the artillery when it fired would sink down into the mud."

Jack Gradwell said his great grandfather was a runner at Passchendaele.

"He ran back and forth under heavy shell and machine gun fire, as well as through the gas, through mud . . ."

At some points the mud would reach up to his waist. The mustard gas would affect him for the rest of his life.

Gradwell said the gas would burn and blister the skin, but for those not wearing gas masks it would cause major respiratory problems and cut off oxygen to the brain, leaving many people with permanent brain damage.

"There were tens of thousands of men coming home from the war who suffered that fate."

Captain Gradwell was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, as well as a Military Medal for gallantry.

The exhibition was important for Kiwis to see because it was an illustration of "what really was the most traumatic event in New Zealand history".

Soldiers had to navigate mud and barbed wire during the battle of Passchendaele. Photo/Library and Archives Canada
Soldiers had to navigate mud and barbed wire during the battle of Passchendaele. Photo/Library and Archives Canada

Gradwell loaned his great grandfather's items "in hopes that that personal element of it could maybe generate some greater, renewed interest in it . . . get New Zealanders to understand what their grandfathers or great grandfathers went through."

The exhibition takes photos from the scene and combines them with verbatim dialogue from soldiers who had written or spoken about the battle. Sound and visual effects are wound in as a way of immersing visitors in the experience.

"We have stepped through from the night before, when the rain began . . . and then watching the rain become the enemy," said La Hood.

"Worse than the Germans, worse than machine guns, was the rain."

The exhibition was meant to make visitors experience the reality of what the soldiers went through.

"You just feel wet, and muddy, and unable to move, and bogged down in it all.

"It's a very tragic story. It was a terrible error and a terrible mistake and it lost so many lives, so it's really important to tell that story in the hard, cold way that it must have felt for those soldiers."

The exhibition will run until early December.