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Advancing across no man's land in the mist. An assault force advancing across no man's land in what apprears to be either a morning mist or a gas cloud ...

Advancing across no man’s land in the mist. An assault force advancing across no man’s land in what appears to be either a morning mist or a gas cloud …

The Battle of the Somme

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’

The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. The aims of the battle, were to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German Army. However, the Allies were unable to break through German lines. In total, there were millions dead and wounded on all sides.

The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. Fought between July 1 and November 1, 1916 near the Somme River in France, it was also one of the bloodiest military battles in history. On the first day alone, the British suffered more than 57,000 casualties, and by the end of the campaign the Allies and Central Powers would lose more than 1.5 million men.

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 When it was withdrawn from the line a month later, the decisive breakthrough had still not occurred.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: 20,000 men were killed and another 40,000 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.

‘Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more gruesome word.’ This is how one German officer described the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It was here that, day after day, lines of advancing soldiers were cut down by machine-gun fire; here that the shriek and thud of hundreds of thousands of artillery shells shattered the air. In the desolation of no-man’s-land between the British and German lines, men floundered and drowned in the mud or lay in agony, awaiting rescue.

The British and French offensive on the German-held territory around the river Somme in northern France in mid-1916 was intended to be a key breakthrough on the Western Front. Five months earlier, French and German forces had clashed around the medieval French fortress town of Verdun, 250 km south-east of the Somme. It became a war of attrition in which the Germans aimed to bleed the French dry. Much blood was certainly being spilt, but neither side showed any sign of cracking. With French losses at Verdun mounting, the British took charge of the plan to attack on the Somme to relieve the pressure.

Meticulous planning – much of it the brainchild of British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig – lay behind the Somme campaign. An intense week of shelling the German lines would destroy all forward German defences. Allied troops would then move across no-man’s-land and overrun the Germans. It was expected that the surprised Germans, exhausted by the week-long bombardment of their trenches and bunkers, would put up little fight. The Allies would then advance on the next line of trenches, with troops moving forward safely behind a curtain of artillery fire. With the German defenders extended, a cavalry charge would eventually rupture the entire line.

The German soldiers retreated to heavily fortified bunkers while the Allies lobbed 1.6 million shells at their positions. Some of the shells were duds and failed to explode – even today, French farmers unearth unexploded shells. When the shelling stopped, the Germans simply emerged from their bunkers and took up position again behind their machine guns. That is where they were as the whistle sounded for the British to ‘go over the top’ at 7.30 on the morning of 1 July 1916.

Eleven divisions of men – heavily laden and ordered to walk slowly – headed towards the German lines. Mere flesh never stood a chance. By the end of the day, nearly 60,000 British men were wounded, dying or dead.

The same tactics were repeated in the following days, but no decisive breakthrough was achieved. The Allies’ gains over two months – achieved at massive cost – could be measured in metres. The Germans held onto most of their positions, but they too suffered huge losses.

On 15 September, the British made another major attack on the German lines, this time using a new weapon of war – the tank. These lumbering machines made little real impact. They were lightly armed, unwieldy and unreliable, although their appearance at a key moment helped the British to capture the village of Flers. Other key positions fell to the Allies, including Courcelette and the region around High Wood.

Rain came the following day. The downpour turned the battlefield into a quagmire and halted any further British advance. Soldiers huddled in their trenches, sometimes knee-deep in mud and often without proper cover. From the end of September – and with a short break in the weather – the Allies managed to take other areas: Morval, Thiepval Ridge and Beaumont Hamel.

The slow, painful progress of the Allies finally halted on 18 November. The rain had given way to snow that made the conditions even more intolerable for the exhausted men. The British and French line had advanced, at most, 12 km since July. In February/March 1917 the Germans withdrew a similar distance to the ‘Hindenburg Line’ which they had constructed over the winter.

The Battle of the Somme had ended. The human cost for both sides was staggering. The German army was severely damaged; the Somme was ‘the muddy grave of the German field army’. And while the British refined their tactics over the course of the battle, almost a century later, opinion remains divided about the strategy that ‘won’ the Battle of the Somme for the Allies.

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 10 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 infantry 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 its immediate objectives and had helped take 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 greatest loss of life in a single day in New Zealand’s post-1840 military history, but in 1917 it would be surpassed by the horrors of Passchendaele.

Donald Forrester Brown, of Totara, near Oamaru.

Donald Forrester Brown, of Totara, near Oamaru.

Donald Forrester Brown VC – 1916; High Wood, France

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 15 September, and again on 1 October, Brown captured key German machine-gun positions, enabling 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.

Donald Forrester Brown was 26 years old, and a Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion , Otago Infantry Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force fighting in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette during the Somme Offensive of the First World War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.
On 15 September 1916 south-east of High Wood, France, when his company had suffered very heavy casualties from machine-gun fire, Sergeant Brown, with another man, advanced to a point within 30 yards of an enemy gun, killing four of the crew and capturing the gun. When the advance of the company was again held up, Sergeant Brown and his comrade rushed another gun and killed the crew. On a third occasion the sergeant attacked single-handed a machine-gun, killed the crew and captured the gun.
He was later killed in action near Eaucourt L’Abbaye, France, on 1 October 1916.

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.

Sometimes 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. The known graves are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. More than half of the members of the New Zealand Division who died on the Somme have no known grave. The names of more than 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 a 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’.

Men of the 10th (Service) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment of the 31st Division marching to the frontline, 28 June 1916.

Men of the 10th (Service) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment of the 31st Division marching to the frontline, 28 June 1916.

Zentralbild 1. Weltkrieg. Westfront 1916. Deutscher Soldat eines Sturmtrupps.

A young German Sommekampfer in 1916.

British Mark I male tank near Thiepval, 25 September 1916.

British Mark I male tank near Thiepval, 25 September 1916.

‘A steady pandemonium’

Men were jolted from sleep as explosions ‘pounded the tortured ground; the splitting hiss and bang of the field-guns screaming above the deep, earth-shaking thud! thud! of the heavies until they blended into a steady pandemonium. The trenches rocked and trembled, while their garrisons, blinded by the flashes, choked by the acrid fumes, pressed themselves tight to the sodden walls.’

Sidney Rogerson

Halfway through the Great War, the big guns roared into life along the New Zealand Division’s sector on the Somme in support of a major attack on 15 September 1916.

In the preceding days, field gunners tried to blow gaps in the barbed-wire entanglements in no-man’s-land and between trench lines, while howitzers pulverised trenches, lines of communication, machine-gun nests, observation posts and other strongpoints. New Zealand gunners also fired poison-gas shells for the first time on 12 September.

Targets were identified from balloons or aircraft, or by forward observation officers – artillery officers stationed in the front line. These observers called down concentrated fire from groups of batteries, called crashes, on anything that moved around the German lines, while British heavy guns sought out enemy batteries. At 6 p.m. on the 14th a continuous heavy bombardment began.

At 6.20 next morning, all the hundred-odd field guns attached to the New Zealand Division opened fire along the 1000 yards of trench line which was the infantry’s first target. Enemy troops who had been kept awake all night by the preliminary shelling, and who were now terrified at the prospect of imminent attack, took cover from a rain of steel that lasted for minutes but felt like hours. Then the creeping barrage began, starting in no-man’s-land and lifting (advancing) by 50 yards each minute until it reached the second trench line, which was pounded for some time. In large-scale attacks like this one, a combination of stationary and creeping barrages was repeated several times.

The Allied infantry advanced at a theoretically safe distance behind the creeping barrage. (Some rounds always fell short, because of defects in the shells, mistakes in calibrating the guns or imprecise knowledge of where soldiers were.) German attempts to move up men from the rear trenches would falter against this curtain of fire. Other guns continued shelling the front trenches, pinning the defenders down while the infantry moved towards them.

On this morning, as was usual, enough Germans – especially machine-gunners and artillerymen – survived to obstruct the advance once the barrage lifted. Many sheltered in the lanes that were left unshelled so British tanks – being used in battle for the first time – could move unimpeded. The New Zealand infantry, advancing in waves, took all their targets for the day, including the village of Flers. One-third of those who fought in the battle had become casualties – a typical toll on the Somme.

Because of setbacks elsewhere along the front, the anticipated breakthrough was not achieved on 15 September, or subsequently while the New Zealand gunners remained on the Somme.

New Zealand’s artillery war on the Somme lasted another three weeks after the New Zealand infantry left the front line. It was a miserable time for the artillery. There was rain, shellfire, little cover and, sometimes, insufficient food.

By the time New Zealand’s artillery was withdrawn from the line in the last week of October 1916, it had suffered about 500 casualties. The gunners had fired half a million shells at the Germans.

The estimated human cost:

Australia: 23,000 casualties

United Kingdom: 360,000 casualties

Canada: 24,000 casualties

France: 204,000 casualties, including 50,000 killed

Germany: 450,000–600,000 casualties, including 164,000 killed

New Zealand: 8000 casualties, including 2000 killed

New Zealand artillery in the field 191418,

NZHistory.net.nz team

The Battle of the Somme – History Learning Site

The Battle of the Somme, as it happened on July 1, 1916

BBC – iWonder – The Battle of the Somme: 141 days of horror

The Battle of the Somme, 1916 – The GreatWar 1914-1918


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