For the descendants of Leslie Taylor, who was born in Napier in 1887, learning what he had been through during WWI was difficult to completely take in.

Especially the events of October 12, 1917 - now a century ago - at the Battle of Passchendaele.

It was a military disaster and in terms of lives lost became the blackest day in New Zealand history.

Poor decisions and planning by the commanders steering the campaign and atrocious conditions churned up by months of rain led to a horrendous loss of life with about 2700 New Zealand casualties - there were 843 soldiers killed on that one day of October 12 with more than 100 succumbing to their wounds over the following weeks.


Captain Leslie Jude Taylor, of 3 Battalion Rifle Brigade, was Hastings woman Glenis Tyson's grandfather and she and two of her cousins, Ian McSporran and Margaret Wirepa, got together this week to remember that time, and to admire the medals he earned, including the Military Cross he was later awarded for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" during that terrible battle.

Mr McSporran has long been passionate about the history of Passchendaele and what it meant for New Zealanders, and Mrs Tyson had come across her grandfather's war records as well as a 1924 story he had about the Rifle Brigade he was part of.

The story came together.

On Mrs Tyson's wish list is to stand on the ridge at Passchendaele.

"Ian has been up there on that ridge and I want to go there."

She has previously been to the Somme and saw the gravesites of three of her grandfather's cousins who are there.

"You walk into the graveyard - you see it and you just burst into tears."

The family has researched Leslie Taylor's war service, committed to ensuring his story was told, and would not be forgotten.

It was pretty much inevitable that Leslie Taylor turned toward the military as it ran strongly through his family.

His paternal grandfather, John Taylor, served in the 65th Regiment during the Maori Wars and his maternal grandfather, David Leslie, was in the Napier Militia during the Land Wars in the 1860s.

His father, William Taylor, was a member of the Napier Volunteers while his uncle, Edward Taylor, volunteered for service with the Imperial Troops and fought in the Boer War in South Africa.

And his own brother, Ernest William Taylor, also served during WWI with the NZ Rifle Brigade and went through Gallipoli, the Middle East and France, where he lost his right eye in 1917.

In 1904, while a plumbing apprentice, Leslie joined the Napier Senior Cadets and received his commission to second lieutenant in 1909 before eventually leaving them two years later.

At that time the Territorial Scheme was introduced and he was recommissioned into the territorials as a second lieutenant in 1912.

Around the time he was going through training at camp at Takapau he met his wife-to-be, Violet Beachen from Onga Onga, and settled in Waipukurau where he worked as a plumber.

After WWI broke out he enlisted with the NZ Expeditionary Force and in December 1915 he was posted to the 13th Regiment NZ Rifle Brigade as lieutenant.

Training completed, he was headed overseas, and it was a solemn day for the family when he said his farewells before getting aboard the train at Waipukurau bound for Wellington.

He said goodbye to Violet and their two little sons, Norman and Leslie, and left the country on May 29, 1916, to arrive in England in July.

His introduction to Europe was not a comfortable one. After being posted to France in February 1917 he contracted rubella and was hospitalised.

Lieutenant Taylor's introduction to the front line was one of straight into the heat of battle, and he fought at the battle of Messines in Belgium on June 7, 1917.

The German forces had set up major resistance points at the villages of Messines and Wytschaete using farms, small hamlets and the woods as strong points.

He was promoted to captain the following day in the wake of Captain Dee of 3 Battalion being killed in the battle.

For the New Zealand Division the main objective of the Passchendaele campaign was to take the spur about Goudberg which overlooked the village of Passchendaele and part of the massive build-up for Captain Taylor's 3 Battalion was to lay extensive networks of cables between Hooge and Ypres.

It meant long, exhausting marches over difficult and dangerous shell-hole land, with much of the work being done at night and often with the need to wear gas masks while under shell fire.

The weather became bitterly cold and there was rain. The terrain was as unfriendly as the German forces ahead, and the Kiwis were not equipped with warm gear or blankets.

About 50,000 yards of cable was laid by the four battalions of the brigade, and all the cable had be carried by hand by the men, so they were weary and worn and certainly not at their prime for immediate combat action.

On October 9 the Rifle Brigade were concentrated near St Jean north of Ypres and came under bombing and shellfire, and by 6am on October 11 the four battalions of the brigade were in position for the opening barrage of October 12.

The weather was cold and the shell holes used as cover were filling with rainwater - the terrain turning the mud.

After an opening barrage which had little effect on the well-protected German pillbox positions the Kiwi soldiers, sent into battle, fell under a hail of machine-gun rounds.

They struggled up muddy slopes and were confronted by wire entanglements which just got thicker and thicker as they tried to advance.

Only a few managed to get through the wire but they soon also fell, while their comrades sought whatever shelter they could get in the mud of the shell holes.

Captain Taylor was leading B Company of the 3 Battalion and soon realised the wall of gunfire was not going to breached as men fell around him.

It all came to a standstill, but the commanders of the battle, both British and New Zealanders, ordered a second push at 3pm, which was mercifully cancelled at the last moment and the battered troops made their way back to where their starting point had been.

The walls of wire and the weather, which meant guns could not be set in place due to the mud-oozing ground, created a disaster.

For the wounded out in the mud and rain the aftermath of battle was a private hell, with many dying before they could be rescued.

This was when Captain Taylor earned his Military Cross from King George V for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty - as the citation reads "at a critical moment under an extremely heavy fire he reorganised his company and ensured the successful consolidation of the line against counter-attack".

Captain Taylor, using only his army poncho for cover and while under heavy fire, crawled through the mud and got to those still alive, organising their movements back to their company so they could consolidate the line against possible counter attack.

He was one of those who defied the terrible odds. Ironically it was during the more peaceful pursuit of playing rugby (before the war he played two games for Hawke's Bay at fullback) for the New Zealand Army team against France where he received a serious leg injury which later saw him hospitalised.

Toward the end of the war he was made Company Commander of the 5 Reserve Battalion and also as a small arms instructor.

He arrived back in New Zealand in October 1919 but his military service was not over - he was responsible for forming the Home Guard Company at Waipukurau and Porangahau.

Leslie and Violet stayed in Waipukurau, where he returned to his plumbing trade, and they had five boys and four girls.

He died on August 30, 1957, and was given a military funeral and now lies in the Great War Veterans Section of the Waipukurau Cemetery.