A truly nightmarish world greeted the New Zealand Division when it joined the Battle of the Somme in early September 1916. The division was earmarked to take part in the third big push of the offensive, designed to crack the German lines once and for all. When it was withdrawn from the line a month later, the decisive breakthrough had still not occurred.
Eighteen thousand members of the division went into action. Nearly 6000 men were wounded and more than 2100 lost their lives. Over half the New Zealand Somme dead have no known grave. They are commemorated on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, near Longueval. One of these men was brought home in November 2004; his remains lie in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the forecourt of New Zealand’s National War Memorial in Wellington.
The battle was a pivotal event in the Great War. In retrospect, it was seen to have laid the basis for the Allied victory two years later, though at huge cost. Ten decades on, the numbers still have the power to shock. At the end of 4½ months of fighting, up to 1.2 million men on both sides had been killed or wounded. There were about 8500 casualties for each of the 141 days of conflict. But some days were worse than others. The opening day of the offensive, 1 July 1916, was arguably the worst day in British military history: 19,000 men were killed and another 38,000 wounded. By the end of the campaign on 18 November 1916, the Allies had advanced, at most, 10 km into German-held territory – about the distance a fit young man could run in an hour.