The Gallipoli experience of 1915 has overshadowed New Zealand's enormous contribution on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. It was on the Somme that the majority of New Zealanders were killed or wounded during the First World War. And it was here that New Zealand experienced its worst days in military history in terms of loss of life. The Battle of the Somme was New Zealand's first major engagement on the Western Front. It took a huge toll on the 15,000 members of the New Zealand Division who were involved. Roughly one in seven of the division who fought on the Somme was killed, and about four in every ten were wounded.
The New Zealand Division was part of XV Corps of the British Fourth Army. New Zealand's Somme experience began on 12 September 1916 when the artillery went into action. Three days later, on 15 September, it was the infantry's turn. By midnight on the 14th, the New Zealand Division was in place in their trenches around High and Delville woods. 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 in the previous year. Poison-gas shells, relentless artillery fire and a highly professional opposition took a physical and psychological toll.
The New Zealand Division went over the top at 6.20 a.m. on 15 September. About 6000 of them saw action that day, and although nothing went quite to plan, by nightfall the Division had secured their immediate objectives and had assisted in taking the village of Flers.
It was an expensive victory, like so many in this war. Some 1200 men of the division were wounded or missing, and about 600 were dead. Among the casualties were 52 members of the Pioneer Battalion (which included the Maori Contingent) who were building vital communication trenches under heavy artillery fire. At the time, it was the single worst day in New Zealand's military history in terms of loss of life, but in the following year, it would be surpassed by the horrors of Passchendaele.
Among the more than 2000 New Zealanders who died on the Somme was Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown (1890–1916). He was the only member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to receive a Victoria Cross for action in 1916. On the opening day of New Zealand's Somme campaign – 15 September – and again on 1 October, Brown captured key German machine-gun positions, and this enabled the New Zealand forces to push through the lines. 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. During the action on 1 October, he was hit in the head by fire from a long-range machine-gun and killed. Brown is buried in the Warlencourt British Military Cemetery in France.
The gains made on 15 September were not the breakthrough that the Allied command had hoped for. That would never occur in this campaign, but in the following three weeks the New Zealand Division went into action again and again – on 16, 25 and 27 September and finally on 1 October. On each occasion the division did its job but with losses each time.
'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, from Andrew Macdonald, On my way to the Somme
Sometimes the soldiers spent more than 24 hours under fire in the front line. 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.
There was still no sign of the Germans cracking when the New Zealand Division began to be withdrawn from the line in early October. 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 leastly almost devoid of energy and only half fed'.
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. For 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, going back to the bloody battlefields of the Somme.
More than 2000 New Zealanders lie buried on what was once the battlefield of the Somme. Their known graves are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Over half of the members of the New Zealand Division who died on the Somme have no known grave. The names of over 1200 men are inscribed on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery west of the village of Longueval. Cemeteries throughout the area contain the graves of New Zealand soldiers: Dartmoor Cemetery, Warlencourt British Cemetery, Bulls Road Cemetery – the list goes on.
It is almost certain that New Zealand's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial contains the remains of one New Zealand soldier killed on the Somme in 1916. 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 relating to the Somme offensive of 1916. Their names echo the places where the New Zealand Division fought and fell in 1916: Delville Wood, Flers, Longueval and High Wood. The bell 'The Somme' is there too, dedicated 'To the Glorious Memory of The New Zealand Division, 1916–18'.