It’s hard to imagine the horrors that greeted New Zealand soldiers when they entered the Battle of the Somme. The many young Ashburton men who joined the battle must have been acutely aware of how far they were from home. Instead of the familiar farms, rivers and mountains of home, the battlefield was a desperately awful and disturbing place.
Also known as the Somme Offensive, the World War One battle took place between July 1, 1916 and November 18, 1916. It was fought between the allied British and French armies against the German Empire. The fighting took place along a front about 25 kilometres long, across both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France.
The French and British plan was to break through the German defenses and hasten a victory for the Allies. This was never achieved. Over 141 days, or four and a half months of fighting, nearly 1.2 million men were killed or wounded – about the same number as New Zealand’s entire population of the time. 600,000 of those casualties were German soldiers.
New Zealand at Somme
The New Zealanders joined the battle on September 15, 1916. They remained at the front for 23 days. 15,000 New Zealand soldiers took part in the action, and the casualty rate was huge. Nearly 6000 men were wounded and a further 2111 were killed in action. Ashburton too, suffered heavy losses, with 51 young men from the District losing their lives. Half would die in the first three days of fighting. The lives of those 26 would be lost before local papers even had opportunity to write of their engagement.
For those back home, it would take some time before letters arrived to tell of the horrors. There were no radio stations in New Zealand until the 1920s, so the opportunity to learn, discuss or consider what was happening was reliant on newspaper reporting. What were locals reading about the offensive? And what role did the paper play in their experience of the battle and loss?
Over the weeks leading up to the battle, newspaper reports conveyed a remarkably positive narrative. As late as September 14, Ashburton Guardian readers were reminded that other battles were also being fought – and that New Zealanders, were demonstrating ’great self-sacrificing heroism worthy of their best traditions’ on those other fronts.
Except to tell that reinforcements had arrived at the Somme, there was no detail to learn of until Monday, September 18. By that time New Zealanders had gone over the top and were deeply engaged in securing the village of Flers and Grove Alley, a communication trench behind the Flers support line, in an attempt to cut off supplies to the Germans.
Reports instead focussed on a startling new weapon – a new ‘mysterious armoured car’ which the soldiers nicknamed tanks or willies. Along with air fire, these new machines made a decisive and advantageous entrance.
Also described as ’prehistoric monsters’, it was to be the first time that tanks were used in battle. As the Ashburton Guardian reported:
No vehicle mounted on ordinary wheels could hope to survive the shelltorn, roadless, and trench-intersected wilderness. Moreover, the cars must be invulnerable to machine-gun fire … Friday, saw an array of unearthly monsters advancing, cased in steel, and spitting fire, crawling laboriously, but ceaselessly, over trenches, barbed-wire, and shell-craters. It is understood that the cars are really forts on wheels. Their chief work is to locate the German machinegunners.
The slow but persistent assault these tanks allowed was hailed as sign that the end of trench warfare was approaching.
Five days after their men had entered the battle, those at home gained a more vivid description of the New Zealanders in action. The tone was celebratory, and it was not until a news cable on September 22, that locals would read that “many New Zealand wounded men have arrived in Britain. Sir Thomas Mackenzie visited them, and found them cheerful and doing well.” Over the coming days readers would be reassured that although there were many wounded New Zealanders, “all their stories confirm the accounts of their splendid courage on the morning of September 15 in the face of the greatest trial they have yet experienced.”
The battle would continue brutal and bloody. Locals would continue to monitor the increasingly descriptive despatches from the field. Eventually, fighting was ended, largely by the onset of winter, which left military operations on both sides of the battlefield restricted. In the snow, rain and fog, with waterlogged trenches, shell-holes, and impossibly muddy ground, survival became the priority. Early in 1917 the Germans withdrew, pulling back some 40 km to a formidable defence line prepared over the winter, known as the Hindenburg Line.
Remembering the Fallen
For those at home, the sorrow would continue. For years to follow, ‘In Memoriam’ notices ran in the paper, placed by soldier’s parents, sisters, brothers, friends, and children. They make for sad reading and demonstrate enduring connections. Others dies, or wounds much later, such as Captain Chaplain John Burgin, who died in 1920 of a heart attack, brought about by gassing in the trenches of the Somme battlefield.
Many never came home. More than half of the 2111 New Zealand soldiers killed remain in the battlefield, with no known grave. They are commemorated through the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near Longueval, France. In 2004, one came home, to lie in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior before New Zealand’s National War Memorial in Wellington.
We too remember those who fell through the Honouring the Fallen project that runs as a banner across the bottom of this page for each week during World War One that a local soldier died. You may also have noticed the flag that often flies outside the Ashburton Museum – this one flown on each day that a soldier lost his life.
Lest We Forget
By Tanya Zoe Robinson
- Chaplain John Robert Burgin, 34th Battalion New Zealand Rifle Brigade, who served in St Stephens, Ashburton, from 1912 – 1915. He died in 1920 of a heart attack, brought about by gassing in the trenches of the Somme battlefield. He was buried at Purewa cemetery, Auckland. ©Ashburton Museum.
- New Zealand Division Infantry, in the Switch Line near Flers, September 1916, after the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.