On 3 December 1917, the men of the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago battalions assembled along the front line opposite a German strongpoint that was backed with pillboxes, machine-guns, trenches; and at the heart of the position, the ruins of Polderhoek Chateau. At midday the whistles blew and the New Zealanders went over the top.
It has been a while since I’ve shared one of my First World War postcards. I’ve collected them since I was a teenager; finding them at stamp fairs, second-hand bookstores, antique shops and more recently on Internet auction sites. Sadly, many of them have lost their provenance, but with a bit of a research I do what I can to give each one context. The one I’m sharing today gives a unique and personal insight into a desperate battle on the Western Front.
The image on the front of this example shows a pre-war view of Polderhoek Chateau in Ypres, Belgium.
The message on the back is among the most poignant of any in my collection.
“This is where I was wounded, at the foot of the tree at the left hand side of this picture” – George Cochrane
It is hard to not do a double take when you read this short but striking message; quickly turning the card over to see the tree the soldier is referring to – and the story immediately seems clear – one imagines a serviceman who while recovering from his injuries finds a postcard with a pre-war view of the exact spot on the battlefield where he had been wounded. The contrast between the peaceful scene on the front and the message from the soldier on the back is compelling. I made it my mission to find out what I could about both the place and the person.
Polderhoek Chateau was the scene of more than one bloody battle, falling into German hands early in the war and witness to fierce fighting in the following years. It came under heavy shellfire and was apparently used as everything from a headquarters and dressing station to a fortified machine gun position and sniper nest. In October 1917 it was even briefly recaptured by the 5th British Division, before being retaken by the Germans. In December it was the New Zealand Division’s turn to storm the ruins.
Considering the multiple battles fought at this site I couldn’t be sure if the message on the postcard was written by a New Zealander, or perhaps by another Allied soldier who fought during one of the earlier battles, at least, that was until I tracked down the service record of a soldier by the name of George Cochrane. The same name that was written on the back of the postcard.
Private George Cochrane embarked with the 13th Reinforcements Otago Infantry Battalion in May 1916 – at about the same time that the New Zealand Division first arrived at the trenches of the Western Front. Cochrane’s military record confirms that after being promoted to Lance Corporal he was wounded in action on 3 December 1917. The same day that the New Zealanders assaulted Polderhoek. It seems highly likely that he was the one who wrote the message.
The attack on Polderhoek is one of the many lesser-known episodes of New Zealand’s military history. Its memory has remained very much in the shadow of the disastrous slaughter at Passchendaele, only a few months earlier. Polderhoek would take yet another heavy toll on the New Zealanders.
This fantastic interactive map on NZHistory shows how the planned attack was to take the strategic position of the chateau and its surrounds. On the right the 1st Canterbury were tasked with taking out a series of pillboxes and other German defensive positions, while on the left the 1st Otago were to take the chateau on directly. At least, that was the plan.
The weary troops assembled in the forward trenches. Some were veterans but many were inexperienced reinforcements. At noon the signal was given and they climbed over the top and advanced towards the German positions. Unfortunately, the attack seemed doomed to fail from the start.
Things first went wrong when Allied artillery shells fell short of their mark and landed among the advancing New Zealanders. This was followed by a hail of machine gun fire from the entrenched Germans, followed shortly by their artillery. Even the account published by the official war correspondent paints a pretty bleak picture.
“Officers and men strode forward with elan across the open ground towards the chateau and the tree trunks of what had been Polderhoek wood. Meantime the enemy had sent his S.O.S. soaring heavenward, and in six minutes his stopping barrage had come down, while his machine guns were spitting venomously from the chateau and the adjacent “pill-boxes.” The German gunners on the Chelevelt ridge added their streams of machine bullets to those already sweeping the position, and officers and men began to fall.” – Malcolm Ross, War Correspondent with N.Z. Forces, Hawera & Normanby Star, 22nd March 1918
The troops of the 1st Canterbury bravely advanced through the heavy machine-gun fire and assaulted the German pillboxes. Notably, one position was rushed by Private Henry Nicholas who single-handedly overwhelmed the sixteen defenders. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action. Despite the exceptional gallantry displayed by Nicholas and other soldiers of the 1st Canterbury, the assault came under concentrated enemy fire and eventually ground to a halt.
Things weren’t going much better for the men of the 1st Otago Battalion. After emerging from the chaos caused by the shortfall of the opening barrage their smokescreen dissipated in the wind and they came under concentrated fire from the German pillboxes, entrenched positions and distant artillery. Despite the overwhelming opposition, they slowly advanced towards the fiercely defended ruins of Polderhoek Chateau. They fought desperately among the shell-holes on the edge of the ruins, at times even advancing slightly beyond them, but despite their best efforts the chateau itself remained in enemy hands.
The message from Lance Corporal Cochrane is firsthand evidence of how tantalizingly close the New Zealanders got to the chateau – if the message on the postcard is accurate then he must have sustained his injury within what seems like only yards of the ruins.
By the end of the afternoon both the Otago and Canterbury battalions were pinned down, trying to hold onto the ground they had gained. Total casualties were as high as fifty percent. The Germans were reinforcing the chateau. And it was snowing.
Lance Corporal Cochrane was admitted to No. 3 N.Z. Field Ambulance and then to hospital. At some stage it seems that he managed to find a postcard of the Chateau to either keep for himself or send to someone as a souvenir. His war wasn’t quite over yet – he returned to the front line and was taken as a prisoner of war at Meteren in April 1918. By coincidence my great great uncle was also captured during that same action. Fortunately, both of them survived their time in captivity, dodged the influenza and returned to New Zealand after the war.
Sadly Private Henry Nicholas was killed near Le Quesnoy on 23 October 1918, less than a month before the armistice. His Victoria Cross is on display at Canterbury Museum and his memory is immortalized in the form of a bronze statue in Christchurch.
Today, nothing remains of the Polderhoek Chateau in Belgium and the events of 3 December 1917 have largely been forgotten, surviving almost only as a footnote to Passchendaele. It was just one in a series of battles fought by the New Zealanders on the Western Front – but after learning about it, and discovering a message from one of the soldiers that was wounded there, it has really brought home the senselessness of a conflict that rendered picturesque chateaus into ruins and brave young men into names on memorials.
I’m greatly indebted to Paul Reed at GreatWarPhotos for giving me permission to share the 1915 postcard showing the battle-scarred chateau. His site includes many fantastic images from the First World War.
For further reading on the New Zealand attack at Polderhoek I recommend the Official History’s of the Otago Regiment, and the Canterbury Regiment both of which are available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection. Check out this excellent article at NZHistory. I also recommend ‘New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign‘ (published after this article was initially written).
© Lemuel Lyes