12 October 1917 – Machine guns poked over the parapets and bayonets were at the ready. Soldiers in khaki approached tentatively, but this wasn’t a battlefield – it was a military-themed ballroom. This is the little-known story of a grand ball that was held in Wellington at the exact same time as New Zealand’s worst military disaster unfolded at Passchendaele.
I’ve been collecting New Zealand dance cards and ball invitations for several decades; finding them in stamp and collectable stores, second-hand bookshops, antique shops and on internet auction sites. I know – it is an unusual obsession – but I’m fascinated by the stories that they tell. Over the years I have only come across a small number of invitations for balls and dances held in New Zealand during the First World War. Social events like these weren’t as common during wartime as they were in the years before and after. So I immediately knew that this ball invitation was something special, but then I recognised the date and a shiver went up my spine. That doesn’t happen often. There had to be a mistake. The ball was held at the exact same time as the infamous attack at Passchendaele. Here is the invitation:
To tell this story I’ve calculated the time difference between those two events – the New Zealand Division’s assault on Bellevue Spur – and the Returned Soldiers’ Ball at the Wellington Town Hall. This way we can follow them in tandem – as they happened.
5:00 PM Wellington / 5:30 AM Passchendaele
The excitement had been building up all week. Tonight was the night! For the first time in what seemed like a century, there was a bright and fancy ball to look forward to at the Town Hall. As final preparations were being made at the venue, the attendees were getting ready for the big night.
The Returned Soldiers’ Association had formed the previous year with the aim of providing assistance to wounded and returning soldiers. There were some critics of the decision to hold a ball while blood was still being spilt on foreign fields, but the committee forged ahead with two objectives; to raise funds for the association and to also give the wider community an opportunity to show gratitude to those who had ‘done their bit’ and returned from the battlefield due to injuries or ill-health.
They made a point of acknowledging wartime conditions; the supper to be served at the ball wasn’t going to be elaborate and ladies had been encouraged to not all rush out to buy fancy new frocks. Yeah, good luck with that. This was also a rare opportunity for Wellington’s young women to enjoy a small slice of the peacetime fun that their older sisters still raved about. Screw wearing Nancy’s hand-me down from the spring of ’13. There was fun to be had, social status to convey and eligible bachelors to impress. Just the previous day Herb Price on Willis Street had advertised dainty silk hose for ladies attending the ball; available in pale pink, mauve, green, biscuit and white. New dress suits and dinner suits were advertised for men as well. Perhaps some of the more disorganised attendees were only just making their way home with their newly purchased frock or suit.
Soldiers didn’t have to worry about what to wear. Special concession had been made to allow returned soldiers to wear their uniforms. At around this time in the afternoon soldiers were likely arriving in Wellington by train from camps at Trentham and Featherston. Extra carriages had been arranged specially for them.
“A large number of soldiers from the camps are attending, so that there should be no scarcity of dancing men, as is so often the case whenever dances are given in these days.”
Dominion, Volume 11, Issue 15, 12 October 1917
As the soldiers arrive, Wellington’s women are getting ready for the big night out. One of them is Miss Isabel Massey. The twenty-four year old has decided to wear white ninon with touches of pale blue. Her mother would be accompanying her; she was planning to wear black satin with jet trimming. Isabel knew that the eyes of the city would be on her, as she had been asked to participate in the official set at the opening of the ball. Her older brother Frank was serving on the Western Front, in fact little over a month earlier the exciting news had come through that he had been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Isabel was always doing her bit on the home front, regularly assisting and organising fundraisers for the Red Cross. Her father was serving the country as well. He was New Zealand’s Prime Minister.
At the Town Hall the members of the Returned Soldiers’ Association had been busy putting the finishing touches to the venue. Helping them were the ladies of the decoration committee. Some of them had always volunteered for ball committees, even before the war. Others had sons fighting overseas and this was a way that they could contribute to the war effort. Women like Jessie Adams, whose only son was serving on the Western Front. There are floral arrangements to complete, flags to drape from the ceiling, tables to set and special lighting to test but the pièce de résistance is the elaborate military themed centrepiece.
The stage was transformed into a redoubt lined with sandbags. Complete with menacing machineguns aimed at the dance floor and bayonets poking out from behind the imagined entrenchment. The defences are nearly ready. If only the organisers knew what was taking place on the other side of the world.
5:00 PM Wellington / 5:30 AM Passchendaele
It had been a cold and miserable night for the New Zealand infantry as they made their way to their starting positions and waited for the assault to begin. They were tasked with taking the Bellevue Spur. The ground was already a sea of mud even before the rain started again.
At 5:25 am, artillery opens up along the front. The barrage is expected to suppress the German positions, but the plan goes wrong before the assault even begins. Some field guns sink into the muddy ground. There is a lack of stable platforms and when each round is fired the guns sink further. There are also problems with the ammunition supply. The barrage is erratic and inaccurate; some shells dropping short and others finding their mark but sinking into the mud, which absorbs the blast and showers the defenders with muck instead of shrapnel. The opening barrage was supposed to cut the barbed wire and suppress the German defenders. It doesn’t do either effectively.
The whistles blow and the New Zealanders start to advance. They are saturated from lying in the drizzle all night and have to struggle up the slope through mud that is knee-deep, thigh-deep, maybe even waist-deep in parts. Their heavy gear weighs them down further. They are supposed to advance behind the creeping barrage, but in some places the ground conditions are so bad that the men are unable to keep up with the schedule and in other places some of the shells are falling so short that they are landing among their own men.
As the New Zealanders advance towards the deep rows of barbed wire, the German artillery and machine guns open up. It is the machine-guns that do the most damage – cutting the New Zealanders down by the score as they struggle through the mud and wire. Unlike the machine guns aimed at the dancers in the Wellington Town Hall, these ones are lethal. The deadliest day in New Zealand’s military history has begun.
8:30 PM Wellington / 9:00 AM Passchendaele
Excited guests arrive at the Town Hall. They are welcomed at the entrance by members of the organising committee, proudly wearing white badges. The entrance hall is an avenue of palms and bamboo, leading through to the main chamber.
One of the guests is Sir James Allen, the Minister of Defence. He has a lot on his mind. A couple of weeks earlier there had been a minor scandal of sorts involving Ada Reeve, a visiting English actress. During a reception for her at the Returned Soldiers’ Club, Allen had gushed over her and this was used as ammunition against him by an opposition MP – much to the amusement of the media. It had clearly been taken out of context but maybe a few members of the public were wondering if that was what concerned him, but there was more on Allen’s mind than Ada Reeve.
Allen knows that there is a major campaign underway on the Western Front and that the New Zealanders were likely to be in the thick of it again sooner or later. Just in the last week news arrived of an attack on 4 October involving the New Zealand Division. News of casualties had already started coming through and Allen knows it is likely that there would be more before the campaign was over. He also knows the personal cost of war, having lost his own son at Gallipoli.
Waiting for the guests in the main chamber is a sea of flags, hanging from the ceiling, covering the walls and hanging over the railing. Alcoves are decorated with yet more flags, and with the names of battles that New Zealanders had fought in. There is also a khaki theme. The invitations, programmes, tablecloths, even bronze polyanthus – and of course the hundreds of soldiers in their khaki uniforms.
Then there is the centrepiece. The sandbagged stage armed with machine guns and bayonets. Behind and to the side of them are foliage and scenery illustrating woodland glades. This is an imagined European battlefield, void of mud and death. In front of it is the Trentham Band, cleverly surrounded by a sandbag effect designed to make it look like they are in a trench. From this fortified position they safely play to the appreciative guests. The official set is about to start. The dancing is about to begin.
Sir James Allen walks onto the dance floor and takes Mrs. Coleridge by the hand. Isabel Massey steps forward wearing white ninon with touches of blue. She is to dance with Major Sleeman, a British veteran who had fought in India, South Africa and, more recently, in some of the first engagements on the Western Front. Sir Robert Stout is paired with Mrs Montgomery, who is wearing floral ninon over maize silk, the many frills edged with brown, Colonel Hughes with Miss Russell, Commander Keily with Mrs Sleeman, Mr Harper with Miss Fraser, Captain Bryan with Mrs Harper and General Robin with Lady Stout, the latter wearing lilac-coloured velvet with lace fichu. In unison they take the first steps of the first dance. The ball is officially underway.
What Allen, Massey and Lady Stout in her fichu don’t know as they dance to the music of the Trentham band is that a military catastrophe is unfolding at that very moment on the other side of the world – and the New Zealanders are right in the thick of it.
8:30 PM Wellington / 9:00 AM Passchendaele
The assault has been a complete failure. The thicket of barbed wire is directly in the firing line of German pillboxes and the supporting artillery fire has done little to either break the wire or suppress the defending machine-gunners. Some soldiers from 1 Otago have managed to push through the wire in places and assault some of the pillboxes – notably with a brave attack led by A R Cockerell – but this is an exception. Most of the surviving New Zealanders are pinned down.
The remnants of platoons shelter in shell craters and hope that the others have fared better further along the line, but the defeat is absolute and the New Zealanders are ordered to dig in where they are as the commanding officers debate what course of action to take next.
“All ranks were drenched to the skin and plastered with shell-hole slime from head to foot; a large proportion of the rifles and Lewis guns were choked with mud; and, taking advantage of the decrease in the volume of our fire, the enemy was rapidly reinforcing his forward line and even placing machine-guns on the top of his “pill-boxes.”
Machine guns keep the New Zealanders pinned down as German artillery ranges in on their new position. German snipers are also at work. Hundreds of bodies lie were they fell – sunken in the mud, entangled in the wire. Many will never be recovered.
11:00 PM Wellington / 11:30 AM Passchendaele
It is a cold night but the six hundred or so guests are having an absolute ball. The dance floor is packed with revellers, enjoying the tunes of the Trentham band. (Sadly I’m yet to find a copy of the official programme – I only have an invitation – so I can only guess what music was played. It is likely there were waltzes, quadrilles and two-steps. Reviews of the evening simply describe the music as “delightful”).
Chaperones watch from the gallery above. Admiring the pretty frocks, commenting on the proceedings and no doubt gossiping as well:
“Overheard at returned soldiers’ ball: ‘What side Miss So-and-So puts on! I suppose she has all the arrogance of wealth?’ ‘Oh, nonsense’ was the reply, ‘she is not wealthy, and earned her living as a dressmaker.” This with a sniff that spoke volumes. “Dot” felt like boxing the ears of that would-be ‘lidy’.”
NZ Truth, Issue 645, 27 October 1917
Underneath the gallery the space is divided into alcoves by flags. Above each of these is a name of a battlefield that New Zealanders had fought at. Anzac. Suvla Bay. Cape Helles. Falkland Isles. Jutland. Somme. Messines. Ypres. Armentieres. These act as meeting places for the guests.
“To meet at Anzac,” “at Ypres” “at the Somme” and other places that have become so memorable, was heard on all sides and must have brought back memories to some of those present last evening.”
Dominion, Volume 11, Issue 16, 13 October 1917
It must’ve seemed like a good idea – but surely it was uncomfortable for some. These were battles where soldiers had lost mates. Only a few of the soldiers still show physical signs of injuries. A small number from the Victoria Military Hospital have attended. Others are well on the way to recovery. Nurses are in attendance as well – although not in uniform.
Not all the soldiers had been sent home due to physical wounds, many had suffered from sickness. That seems to be the case with N. C. C. Shepherd, the recipient of this invitation. Norman had been sent home from Egypt after contracting rheumatism while on active service. I don’t know if he attended the ball or not – only that he was one of the hundreds of soldiers that were invited.
It is a particularly special evening for a few of the young women present. Some of them have chosen this as an opportunity to “come out” as debutantes. This mostly forgotten tradition has its roots in aristocracy – marking the coming of age of a young maiden that was now old enough to hit the social scene and get married.
There haven’t been many opportunities for debutantes to come out in wartime, so a number seized this rare chance. Among them are Miss Agnes Duncan, Miss Newton, Miss Ismene Mantell, who is wearing a dainty frock with touches of pale blue and Miss Marchbanks, who is wearing a simple yet becoming frock of white net over silk. I suspect that Miss Marchbanks was likely Miss Mary Venables Gore Marchbanks, born in Wellington in October 1898. She would’ve turned nineteen years old the month that the Returned Soldiers’ Ball was held.
Supper is served in the Concert Chamber. It was a bad look to host a banquet during wartime so the food had specifically been advertised as not elaborate – the newspaper reviews are suspiciously silent on what was served. The small tables are covered with khaki cowslips and the large table in the middle is decorated with pale pink cherry blossoms. Remember that this was a war when Japan was on the same side as the British Commonwealth. The Japanese navy had even escorted New Zealand troopships.
The revelry continues until well after midnight. Special tramcars leave the town hall at about 1:30 am for Lyall Bay, via Kilbernie, Island Bay, Newtown and Karori. I don’t know what time Miss Massey got home.
“The whole affair was an unqualified success, enjoyed by old and young, who look forward to other even more joyous occasions, when the hall will be packed with hundreds more of our bravest and best who by then will have returned to the land which loves them well. May it be soon”
Free Lance, Volume XVII, Issue 901, 19 October 1917
1:30 AM Wellington / 2:00 PM Passchendaele
Sadly, many New Zealand soldiers would not be returning home. The attack had been a complete failure. Hundreds are dead, many more are injured and the survivors are pinned down in atrocious conditions.
The day is far from over. Plans are being made to continue the assault. At 1:56pm, 2 Brigade receives a message to prepare to renew the attack at 3pm. At 2:10pm Brigadier-General Braithwaite is advised that the attack on his front has been postponed. The survivors wait for their fate to be decided. Surely a renewed assault would be pointless against these odds.
Fortunately for them the attack is not renewed. At the last moment Godley calls it off – the damage has already been done and the day is unsalvageable. Instead there is a small German counterattack at around 3pm, but it is weak and it is driven back. Many of the Germans refuse to advance due to a heavy artillery barrage. The field guns are finally finding their mark. Others come under fire from Lewis guns and trench mortars. If not for this there may have been even more New Zealand casualties.
The New Zealanders continue to dig in to their new positions and for the rest of the afternoon make the most of the little shelter they have. As the sun goes down at the end of the darkest day in New Zealand’s military history soldiers continue to keep their heads down and dig in.
Hundreds of badly wounded New Zealanders lie stranded in the sea of mud and wire. Rescue teams work through the night and the following day to retrieve many of them but others succumb to their injuries before help arrives. The conditions are so challenging that it sometimes takes six men, or even up to eight, taking turns to carry one stretcher.
The day after the battle both sides for the most part respect a sort of unofficial ceasefire – allowing each other to attend to their wounded men. This no doubt saves some lives, but there is no changing the fact that the New Zealand Division have suffered their heaviest losses of the war.
The ball committee dismantled the decorations and cleared out the hall. The machine guns were packed away, the woodland scenes returned to the theatre and the Town Hall returned to its pre-war state. Then the news arrived on Monday. The New Zealanders had been involved in another major battle on the Western Front.
Despite the usual fanfare and praise there was no glossing over the reality that the assault on Bellevue Spur was a failure. The conditions, the wire, the ineffective artillery support, the heavy machine-gun fire, it seemed that everything had conspired against the New Zealanders. The country braced for the casualty lists. Even victories usually meant losses. Defeats were much worse. Telegrams started arriving; bringing heartbreak to families up and down the country. Wounded. Missing. Killed.
Jessie Adams, one of the volunteers that had helped organise the Returned Soldiers’ Ball, received a private telegram advising her that her only son had been killed on 5 October while serving with the Royal Field Artillery. It is likely that some of the ball attendees were among those that received similarly tragic news that month. Perhaps of loved ones who had been killed at the exact same time that the ball was underway.
Sir James Allen faced the House of Representatives on 26 October, summarising the role that the New Zealand Division had played in the recent offensive. Rumours of heavy casualties were circulating and then on 1 November, Allen made another statement – this time acknowledging that since 4 October nearly 1400 New Zealanders had been killed in Flanders with another 4000 wounded. The following day, the first casualty lists were published and people the length of the country rushed through the list checking for news of friends and family. This had become a familiar routine.
After covering the cost of catering for the “not elaborate, we promise” supper, the Returned Soldiers’ Association had managed to raise £150 to further their cause. Their work was only just beginning. The ball in Wellington was actually one of many that were held that month all over the country. It appears to have been a concerted effort to raise funds for the organisation and draw attention to the needs of returned soldiers. The balls were well-intentioned but did receive some criticism from those who felt that it wasn’t appropriate to hold extravagant events during wartime. This letter to the editor was written in response to a Returned Soldiers’ Association ball held in Dunedin on 16 October (four days after the one in Wellington, and exactly three years since the departure of the NZEF Main Body):
“The returned heroes’ ball is hardly so unseemly, but surely this could be postponed until victory is ours and the war is over. With France a sea of blood and our nation in death grips, what man or woman with a realisation of the world’s sorrow has the heart to deck himself or herself up in costly attire and take part in a dance? I quite admit that we may at times need relaxation, but you will probably find that notwithstanding the Empire’s desperate need of money for war purposes many expensive gowns will have been bought and unnecessary food expense incurred over this ball. I trust our patriotic women will see the wisdom of either absenting themselves of stipulating that only necessary street dresses be worn. I shall probably be called a “wowser”, but, not-withstanding that I have enjoyed many a dance, I feel that to go to a ball now is disloyal to our men in the trenches and extravagant from a national point of view.” – I am, etc., SWEET TWENTY-ONE
Otago Daily Times, Issue 17139, 19 October 1917
‘Sweet Twenty-One’ had a point, but the Returned Soldiers’ balls in Wellington and elsewhere played a part in helping to raise funds and awareness of the need to rehabilitate returned soldiers. Society was grappling with the challenges of having to assimilate war veterans back into their community and attending to their unique needs. Some initiatives may have been a little clumsy but they came from good intentions. Just as the soldiers fumbled their way through the dances, civilians were finding their feet as well.
The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) are now well-known to New Zealanders and they continue to do the good work that they started a century ago. For a while their balls were regular fixtures throughout our towns and cities, but nowadays most young people tend to go clubbing or stay at home and watch Netflix. The social scene has evolved and balls aren’t as popular as they were several generations ago.
I don’t know if Miss Isabel Massey met any admirers at the Returned Soldiers’ Ball or not. In late March 1918 her brother Frank was shot in the chest while leading a charge on the Western Front. Miraculously he survived. On 28 June 1919 her father represented New Zealand at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Isabel married Cedric Whitby Salmon on 28 February 1923. He was also a veteran of the Western Front.
Recent research by historian Ian McGibbon has revised the casualty figures for the 12 October attack and calculated that, including those who later died from the wounds they received that day, a total of 957 New Zealanders lost their life as a result of the attack on Bellevue Spur. This is the highest death toll that post-1840 New Zealand has experienced in a single day – in any war. It also eclipses the highest death toll of any of our natural disasters – truly making it our darkest day.
If you would like to read more about the experience of New Zealanders at Passchendaele and the reasons why so many lives were lost, then I recommend ‘The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front’ by Matthew Wright, ‘New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign’ by Ian McGibbon, ‘Dark Journey: Passchendaele, the Somme and the New Zealand experience on the Western Front’ by Glyn Harper and ‘Passchendaele: The Anatomy of a Tragedy’ by Andrew Macdonald. All these books are currently available.
All of the above were referred to – as were the official unit histories available online at the NZETC. Other online resources I can recommend on the New Zealand experience on 12 October 1917 include NZHistory, Nga Tapuwae and also check out the WW100 site to see what commemorations are happening.
To learn more about the history of the Returned Services Association I recommend ‘After the War: The RSA in New Zealand’ by Stephen Clarke. Also check out this wonderful audio recording of an interview with two of the founding members of the Wellington Returned Soldiers’ Association. There is also lots of other great content to check out on that site while you are there.
If you want to read more about the Returned Soldiers’ Ball that was held in Wellington on the same day as the attack at Passchendaele… well, you’ll just have to read this post again. It seems to have mostly been forgotten until now. I gleamed some information from the original invitation in my collection, but most details I’ve pieced together from the many newspaper articles that were published at the time and biographical information from numerous sources. I’d love to hear from anyone who has an original programme from this ball so I can update this post with more information about the music that was played and any other details. If you found this article interesting then you might like to check out this previous one about a Freezing Works Fancy Dress Ball held in Ashburton in June 1914.
Any mistakes are my own. This post was a little rushed due to other commitments but I felt that it was important to share this home front story on the centenary of the battle. Often we forget to remember the activities and experiences of civilians during wartime and the impact that military disasters had on them as well. This post is dedicated to the memory of all those on both sides who lost their lives at Passchendaele and also to those back home who had their lives changed forever.
© Lemuel Lyes