The Gallipoli experience of 1915 has overshadowed New Zealand’s much larger contribution on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. The Battle of the Somme was New Zealand’s first major engagement on the Western Front and remains its mostly costly. It took a huge toll on the 18,000 members of the New Zealand Division who were involved. More than one in nine of the division who fought on the Somme was killed, and about one in three was wounded. Whereas New Zealand’s eight-month campaign at Gallipoli cost 2700 lives, more than 2100 men were lost in just 45 days on the Somme. Scores more were killed while fighting as members of British imperial units.
Over the top
The New Zealand Division was one of 55 (of the total of 57) British Expeditionary Force divisions that took part in the battle. It was moved south and attached to the British Fourth Army’s XV Corps for the purpose in early September. Preceded by its service corps, sapper and pioneer units, the division moved into the line between High and Delville woods on 10 September. The infantry found the sappers and pioneers busy digging communication trenches in readiness for the assault.
The gunners were also already in action. They had entered the line on the night of 5/6 September. They began preparing advance positions to support the attack and worked on their fire-plan for the assault. In addition to standing barrages on the objective line, 16 guns (a puny number compared with 1917 attacks) would provide a creeping barrage that moved forward in a series of lifts at a speed calculated to allow the infantry to follow it closely. On 12 September the New Zealand gunners joined the preparatory bombardment.
All was in readiness when the men of the assault battalions moved into position during the night of 14/15 September. Morale was high, but the soldiers did not know what to expect, ‘and perhaps it was just as well that we did not’. The Somme would be a very different battle from the one New Zealanders had fought on Gallipoli. Poison-gas shells, relentless artillery fire and a highly professional opposition would take a physical and psychological toll.
The New Zealand infantry went over the top at 6.20 a.m. on 15 September. Their immediate goal was the German Switch Trench, about 400 m away. Once 2nd Brigade secured this line, 3rd Brigade’s four battalions leapfrogged through to seize the portion of the German Flers trench system (the German third line) that lay in the New Zealand sector, just to the left of the village of Flers. They also helped secure Flers, which had been taken earlier by the neighbouring British division. The riflemen were unable to secure the final objective, Grove Alley, a communication trench along a spur behind the Flers support line, which involved a wheel to the left. This position would be taken next morning by troops of 1st Brigade, which had followed the other brigades forward.
Although a successful assault, it was, like all Western Front attacks, very expensive. Of the roughly 6000 infantry involved, some 1200 were wounded or missing and about 670 were dead or dying. Among the casualties were 52 members of the Pioneer Battalion (which included the Maori Contingent), who were helping to build vital communication trenches under heavy artillery fire. At the time, this was the greatest loss of life in a single day in New Zealand’s post-1840 military history, but in 1917 that dubious record would be surpassed amidst the horrors of Passchendaele.
VC on the Somme
Among the more than 2100 New Zealanders who died on the Somme was 2nd Otago Battalion’s Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown (1890–1916). He was the only member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to be awarded a Victoria Cross for action in 1916. On 15 September, and again on 1 October, Brown captured key German machine-gun positions. According to the official citation for his VC, Brown’s ‘utter contempt for danger and coolness under fire’ helped keep up the morale of his companions. On 1 October he was killed when a machine-gun bullet hit him in the head. Brown is buried in the Warlencourt British Military Cemetery in France.
Two other New Zealanders won VCs on the Somme while serving in other forces: Private Thomas Cooke (8th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force) and Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Freyberg (Royal Naval Division).
On the front line
Although significant progress was made on 15 September, the hoped-for breakthrough remained elusive. In the following three weeks the New Zealand Division made three more assaults – on 25 and 27 September and 1 October – and grabbed part of the German fourth line (Gird Trench system). Losses mounted not only as a result of these attacks but also because of the incessant German artillery bombardment.
Cold and miserable
‘We were reduced to a miserable condition, with deep mud everywhere and no greatcoats or blankets. For night after night … we hardly slept. Sleep was a matter of bits and pieces amounting to very little. One night there was a thin cover of ice on a path beside us. We thought with longing of fires, dry clothes and hot baths. We became unspeakably weary, dreary and sick of it all.’
Sergeant-Major Cecil Malthus, in his memoir, Armentières and the Somme
Sickness spread, morale plummeted, and men wondered what they were becoming: ‘I shook off our conditioned callousness, shook off the feeling, now taking root, that this world of arbitrary violence and random death was the real world, and that justice, mercy, peace and love were phantasms that had never been.’ Cold was added to exhaustion and, once the rain began on 16 September, a wetness that soaked to the bone.
Although encouraging progress had been made, no breakthrough was in sight when, on 5 October, the New Zealand Division began to pull out of the line. For the soldiers, the end of the battle could not come soon enough. Rifleman Sidney Gully described some of his fellow soldiers as ‘half demented during the last couple of days. Unshaven, unwashed, covered in mud and lastly but [not] leastly almost devoid of energy and only half fed’.
Short-term exhaustion, soon overcome with rest, was matched by a strong sense of satisfaction. While mourning lost comrades, survivors emerged from the battle with heightened morale. They had been through the crucible of what they considered real warfare (on a different scale to Gallipoli) and had emerged with flying colours, highly praised by British generals. They believed they had the measure of the Germans, and looked forward to a resumption of the offensive in the following spring.
Remembering the Somme
New Zealand’s losses on the Somme were felt for years to come. One casualty there meant mourning or suffering for entire families and communities at home. These men were more than soldiers; they were also sons, fathers, brothers, husbands and lovers. To this day, countless families and communities in New Zealand carry scars on their hearts from the bloody battlefields of the Somme.
More than 2100 New Zealanders are buried on what was once the battlefield of the Somme or near the sites of casualty clearing stations or hospitals further back from the front. Those with known graves now lie in carefully tended Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries throughout the area: Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Dartmoor Cemetery, Warlencourt British Cemetery, Bulls Road Cemetery – the list goes on.
More than half the New Zealanders who died on the Somme in 1916 have no known grave. Some, unidentified, lie in cemeteries with their headstones inscribed ‘Known unto God’; the rest remain lost on the battlefield. All of these missing soldiers, more than 1200 men in all, are inscribed on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, west of the village of Longueval.
New Zealand’s Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Wellington contains the remains of a New Zealand soldier killed on the Somme in 1916 and buried in a ‘Known unto God’ grave in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery. The remains were interred in the tomb in November 2004.
Amongst the 74 bells of the Carillon at New Zealand’s National War Memorial are several commemorating the Somme offensive of 1916. Their names echo the places where the New Zealand Division fought and fell in 1916: Delville Wood, Flers, Longueval, Mametz, Fricourt and High Wood. The bell ‘The Somme’ is there too, dedicated ‘To the Glorious Memory of The New Zealand Division, 1916–18’.