September 2016 marks the centenary of New Zealand’s entry into the Battle of the Somme. The Battle was fought by Britain, France and their allies against Germany. It was a hard fought campaign, characterised by poor weather conditions and thick mud, and both sides suffered huge numbers of casualties which can be difficult to put into perspective 100 years on.
The New Zealand Division first entered the Somme Offensive, along with the Canadian Corps, during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. This was the third big battle of the Offensive, and took place 15-22 September 1916. Flers-Courcelette also marked the first time tanks were used in battle, and the first time New Zealand forces employed poisonous gas as a tool of warfare.
Battle of Flers-Courcelette. New Zealanders making a trench by joining up shell craters, near Martinpuich, 15th September 1916. © IWM (Q 193)
During the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the New Zealand Division successfully gained roughly 3km of ground following successful attacks between High Wood and Delville Wood, helping capture the village of Flers from German forces.
Though gains were made during the battle, the strategic objective of a definitive breakthrough on German lines was not achieved. Flers was taken at great cost – over 600 New Zealanders died on just the first day. One such soldier was Private Angus Cameron, one of a family of 6 sons from Mataura, who was killed in action on 15 September 1916 and whose photograph can be found in the collection of Mataura Museum.
Sergeant Donald Brown (1890-1916) of the Otago Infantry Regiment was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery and determination during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Sadly, this award was posthumous as he was killed in action just days later.
Following the tactical success of Flers-Courcelette, New Zealand troops were involved in attacks on Morval and Thiepval Ridge later in September 1916. The German Army was further weakened, but there was substantial loss of life on both sides.
Troops of the New Zealand Army on the Amiens-Albert road, September 1916. © IWM (Q 1243)
During October, what remained of the New Zealand Division was withdrawn from the Somme – first the infantry, and later the artillery. At this point, the men had spent several weeks in unrelenting mud and cold, enduring near constant shelling and gas attacks. Still, the anticipated decisive breakthrough of German lines had not occurred.
The Battle of Flers Courcelette 15 -22 September: Men of the 2nd Auckland Battalion (New Zealand) in a switch trench near Flers. © IWM (Q 194)
By the end of the British campaign on 18 November 1916, the Allies had advanced a total of 12km into German territory. The German Army withdrew, severely damaged. A technical win for the Allies, but at huge cost. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended, over 1,200,000 men had been injured or killed.
New Zealand’s casualties at the Somme were in the greatest number than at any other time during WWI. 2,000 New Zealanders were killed and a further 6,000 injured – a significant portion of a contingent numbering 15,000 in total. Over half of those killed at the Somme have no known grave. One such soldier was exhumed and returned to New Zealand in 2004, to be buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Wellington – a symbol of the more than 18,000 New Zealanders who lost their lives during WWI.
Tamara Patten, Content and Resource Adviser, National Services Te Paerangi