The Western Front, 1916
But all that my mind sees
Is a quaking bog in a mist — stark, snapped trees,
And the dark Somme flowing.
Vance Palmer (1885–1959), ‘The farmer remembers the Somme’
A truly nightmarish world greeted the New Zealand Division when it joined the Battle of the Somme in mid-September 1916. The division was part of 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 When it was withdrawn from the line a month later, the decisive breakthrough had still not occurred.
Fifteen thousand members of the division went into action. Nearly 6000 men were wounded and 2000 lost their lives. More than 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 returned home to New Zealand in November 2004; his remains lie in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior outside New Zealand’s National War Memorial.
The battle was a pivotal event that laid the basis for the Allied victory in the First World War. But 10 decades on, the numbers still have the power to shock. At the end of 4½ months of fighting, up to 1.2 million men 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 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, 12 km into German-held territory – about the distance a fit young man could run in an hour.