Thursday marks the centenary of New Zealand's darkest hour. In our greatest military disaster, 846 Kiwis were killed on a muddy sliver of sloping land above a small village in Flanders, Belgium, on just one day. The Battle of Passchendaele has come to embody the senseless, industrialised slaughter of World War I. Those who came home - the "lucky ones" - rarely spoke about the horrors they witnessed on the Western Front. Veterans Walter Rushbrook and Edgar Young, returned and, after some years, found love and started families later in life. Kurt Bayer spoke to their sons, who remember Passchendaele a century on.

Bullets whizzed and zinged. Shells exploded, sending geysers of dark brown mud soaring, splattering Private Walter Henry Rushbrook. His chest heaving, puffed near exhaustion, and tin helmet pulled low, he gripped another stretcher and urged his fellow bearer onwards. As they crossed No Man's Land, dodging minced men and shell craters of drowning wounded, a silver watch bobbed around in his tunic pocket.

The square-dial watch, crafted by Rotherhams of London, had belonged to Corporal Joseph Johnstone Lawson. As he dragged Passchendaele's wounded behind the front lines, Rushbrook felt the watch beat by his side. Whatever happened, he wasn't parting with the timepiece.

"Snowy" Lawson, a 23-year-old clerk from Auckland, was a veteran of the Gallipoli disaster who had since become Rushbrook's best friend of the war. The pair, of similar size, weight, and temperament, worked closely as stretcher bearers for the Auckland regiment of the 2nd New Zealand Field Ambulance.

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Two months earlier, Lawson was cut down during a battle just over the border in France. He suffered terrible wounds to his abdomen and chest. Rushbrook stayed by his side in a field hospital and nursed him.

Before he died, on August 4, 1917, Lawson who, according to his military records was "popular to the highest degree with both officers and his men", asked his old mate to return his personal items to his family after the war.

Having survived Passchendaele, Rushbrook kept his word. Landing back home, he visited the Lawson family's Mt Eden Rd home.

"They thanked him for everything and insisted he keep Joe's watch," said Rushbrook's son, Charles.

"My father was obviously very touched by this because he wore that watch every day of his working life as a teacher at various North Shore and rural Auckland schools."

Private Walter Rushbrook.
Private Walter Rushbrook.

Auckland-born Walter Rushbrook was studying at Knox College in Dunedin when war broke out. He had contemplated becoming a Presbyterian minister but was now pursuing a career in teaching.

Charles suspects his liberal-thinking father might have been a pacifist, which clashed with his strong patriotism.

"He couldn't not have gone to war but that is probably why he went into the ambulance corps so he didn't have to bear arms," Charles says.

For Charles, his father was a true hero. But not for any valour or deeds displayed on the battlefield - he was mentioned in dispatches for "gallant and distinguished services in the field" - but rather for his selfless acts after the war.

In the 1920s, Walter's sister died suddenly, closely followed by her husband. Walter, a single man, unquestioningly took over the raising of their four orphaned children.

"He gave up half his lifetime to bring up these Lochore children who all went on to lead full, productive lives. That was the heroic thing in his life, not his war service," Charles says.

In the late 1930s, he finally met the love of his life. He married a woman 20 years his junior in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, and they enjoyed 20 happy years together before he died at 70.

Walter raised his family at Milford on Auckland's North Shore, where Charles said they were "the genteel poor, a few acres but not money".

Every Anzac Day, his father would pin his war medals to a civilian shirt before covering them with a gabardine raincoat. With his two sons, he would catch a bus to Devonport and watch the returned servicemen parade by.

"He would never take part or go to any function. And afterwards, we would catch a bus home. He was just an old guy in the crowd with two young children," said Charles, a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher.

Although Charles' father never spoke about the war, he must've confided in his wife, Julie, in their private moments.

"Mother would tell me about his war service and what he had done. That he was mentioned in dispatches for Passchendaele. She would say, 'Your father did some wonderful things there'," Charles says.

"He was such a gentle man, a strong outdoors guy, loving, caring father and husband, in the kind of way many New Zealanders would hope their men to be."

Second lieutenant Edgar Herries Young had just been made an officer. He had completed a crash course in England. And now, here he was leading a platoon attacking Bellevue Spur near Passchendaele.

Second Lieutenant Edgar Herries Young.
Second Lieutenant Edgar Herries Young.

It had rained for weeks, the place was a killer quagmire. August had seen the worst rainfall in Flanders for 70 years. It meant the big guns behind the lines, which were supposed to soften up the German entrenchments and machinegun pillboxes with their "creeping barrage", were slipping in the mud. Shells were falling short, missing their targets, failing to knock holes in the expanses of barbed wire, and even killing their own men.

When the whistle came to "go over the top", the Germans were shell-shocked and afraid, but they were ready. The attacking Commonwealth troops were lambs to the slaughter.

"Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades' eyes," wrote Southland railway clerk Private Leonard Hart in an extraordinary uncensored letter smuggled out to his parents on October 19, 1917.

"It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot. They were marvellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly 80 per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge."

Young, born in 1886, the year of the Mt Tarawera eruption, was older than most in the trenches.

The Taranaki solicitor had been refused enlistment in early 1915 because of a hernia. After it was fixed, he reapplied. By mid-1917 he was deployed to the Western Front as a second lieutenant, now attached to 2nd Auckland Battalion.

Eight days before Passchendaele, at the Battle of Broodseinde near Ypres, Young led a section of men in an attack deemed a resounding success. His distinguished and gallant service and devotion to duty that day also warranted his being mentioned in dispatches.

A superior officer, Captain C.H. McClelland, wrote to Young afterwards to say he should have been awarded a Distinguished Service Order or Military Cross. But he concluded that "all the awards must have been made ... c'est la guerre [that's war : it can't be helped]!"

Come Passchendaele, Young again did his duty. The fighting was fierce and just as his men were being relieved after more than 36 exhausting hours, Young was hit by a blast. Shrapnel tore through his right leg, nearly severing the sciatic nerve. His war was over.

Like Rushbrook, Young took time to find a family after the war. He plunged himself into his work, but would later marry and have four sons.

Arthur Young, 81, holds a photograph of his father, Second Lieutenant Edgar Herries Young. Photo / Dean Purcell
Arthur Young, 81, holds a photograph of his father, Second Lieutenant Edgar Herries Young. Photo / Dean Purcell

Arthur Young says that, like so many others, his father - whose younger brother died from wounds suffered at the Battle of the Somme - didn't talk about the war.

Growing up during World War II, Arthur recalls a staunchly patriotic, pro-Empire and pro-royal family household. His father was a member of the Home Guard wartime armed service and would make his boys stand to attention while listening to the crackling radio news reports of the war in Europe.

Arthur, who at 82 still works every day at the law firm Chapman Tripp (formerly Chapman Tripp Sheffield Young) that he co-founded, is pleased the World War II centenary commemorations are helping right history and raise awareness of major battles, like Passchendaele, that have fallen outside of the Gallipoli national narrative.

"It might well be that it was so awful that it was too hard to talk about [for survivors]," Young said.

"My father never spoke of it but I know that he was always intensely proud of what he had accomplished.

"It has only been with the passage of time, and thanks to people like the Passchendaele Society, that it's now getting the recognition that it deserves."

Vietnam veteran Lieutenant Colonel (Rtd) Chris Mullane, Passchendaele Society vice president, said that by the mid-point of the 1914-18 war, the New Zealand public was "punch drunk" from the sobering news from the other side of the world.

He believes the authorities mitigated the bad news and dreadful losses as the Western Front stalemate endured.

"Whereas, with Gallipoli being the first big stoush, where the reports rightly or wrongly painted our chaps as pretty much superheroes, and there was a bravado around it although the losses were grieved, nobody wanted to listen by the time Passchendaele rolled around," Mullane said.

"It's quite right and proper that we should remember Gallipoli and the terrible losses, some 2700 New Zealanders having died there. But 5000 died in Flanders alone in less than 12 months, 846 in a day [at Passchendaele] in what was really half a day of fighting, and it took two days to clear the dead and dying from the battlefield.

"I've always struggled with body counts, often used to say 'My war was more important than your war'. That's not what it's all about.

"But how do you express the impact?

"I would rather think about just how many people back in New Zealand - family, loved ones - how many were affected by those casualties? With a population of a million people a century ago, there would hardly have been a household in New Zealand that wasn't affected."