Thursday two weeks ago, October 12, marked the centenary of one of New Zealand’s darkest days at war.
Not only one awful day, the Battle of Passchendaele was a series of Allied offenses during World War One, occurring between July 31 and November 10, 1917.
The offenses were an attempt by the British Allies to gain control of a series of ridges in West Flanders, Belgium, a region vital to the war effort due to its proximity to the coast.
Following the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the Battle of Passchendaele became one in a series of Allied attempts to reclaim Belgium, and is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
Before the war, Belgium was guaranteed as a ‘neutral country’ by the Treaty of London. This had made Germany’s invasion particularly shocking.
The extraordinary violence, illegality and surprise nature of the invasion motivated a strong international response to help the Belgians.
Ashburtonian’s support was no exception, with efforts mounted throughout the Dominion to build a Belgian Relief Fund.
Belgian Relief Fund
On August 23, 1914, the Hawke’s Bay Tribune newspaper announced the Belgian Relief Fund. The response was immediate. On its first day, the fund raised £724, or over $110,000 in today’s money.
The following week, Mr Whitlock, the editor of the newspaper, wrote a letter, published in the Ashburton Guardian, asking that Ashburton people contribute to the fund.
The Guardian’s editor was ‘most sympathetic’ to the idea. He pledged to receive and acknowledge local subscriptions to the fund.
Within two days, Ashburton people had donated £490, equal to $75,045 today, and over the following eight months, a total of £6394 ($934,331 today) was raised.
The fund continued throughout the war. On October 6, 1917, Ashburton County Council, donated £1794 ($217,443 today), in addition to the private donations of Ashburton’s citizens.
A fête and its Queen
On April 29, 1915 the Ashburton Belgian Relief Fund held a fête at the A and P showgrounds to raise extra funds.
This fete was an exceptional occasion in New Zealand, as it was the only event held for the Belgian Relief Fund to receive the patronage of the Belgian King Albert.
It is for this reason that Ashburton’s Albert Street was given its name.
Trains from Methven, Christchurch, Timaru and Mt Somers offered reduced fares, and return trains left at later times than usual to ensure a healthy attendance.
The owners of taxi cars also donated half of their profits to the fund.
The event included a Queen of the Carnival competition, won by Miss Harrison of Rakaia.
Total proceeds from the event were £13,012 12s 11d, ($1,901,400 today). Of this, the Queen of the Carnival competition alone raised close to £7000, comparable to that raised by Christchurch at their competition. A remarkable effort for what was then a small town.
When we think of World War One, we readily think of how troops came together to fight for King and Country.
Yet, as the success of the Belgian Relief Fund, and the Ashburton Fête and Queen of the Carnival shows, people at home also came together to help relieve wartime hardships for those less fortunate, far away on the other side of the world.
While not an Ashburtonian, Dave Gallaher was an inspiration and hero to many. He captained New Zealand’s 1905-06 national team, known as the ‘Original All Blacks’. The first to tour outside Australasia, they played in the United Kingdom, France and Canada, winning 37 of 38 games. Dave was one of 320 New Zealanders who died on October 4, 1917, in the attack on Gravenstafel Spur, during the Battle of Passchendaele. He features in the Balls Bullets and Boots: From Rugby Field to Battlefield exhibition at Ashburton Museum.
Charles de Chain Denshire
Born in 1882, the only son of William and Fannie of Thetford Farm, Seafield. Charles attended Ashburton High School from 1891 to 1899. He was regarded as one of the best cricketers and footballers the school had produced, and was prominent in tennis, shooting, golf and fishing. He worked for the National Mortgage and Agency Company, where he was in charge of the grain and merchandise departments. He enlisted in January 1916, and was killed in action on October 12, 1917 on Bellevue Spur, during the Battle of Passchendaele. At his death, National Mortgage flew their flag at half-mast as a sign of respect.
Leonard John Greenslade
The son of William and Alice, Leonard was educated at Borough School while the family were living in Allenton. He later lived in Anama, then Tinwald. An enthusiastic footballer, he held the medal for the seven-a-side tournament, and was an original member of the Cadet Corps formed in 1906. At high school he was known as Beetle, along with his friends Sutton and Kingham, known as Stalky and Turkey. Leonard enlisted in June 1915 and was killed in Palestine in November 1917. Sadly, his remains were never located by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. Although the location of his burial was detailed in his war record, he lies, unmarked, somewhere in a foreign field, a reminder that New Zealanders fought and died in many places.
By Max Reeves and Kathleen Stringer
- Queens of the Carnival held at fetes around Canterbury in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund fete, including Miss Harrison of Rakaia.
- A market held to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund.
- Dave Gallaher
- Charles de Chain Denshire
- Leonard John Greenslade
- A group of men dressed in national costumes at a Belgian Relief Fund fete in Ashburton.