Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Kiwis at the Somme Remembered


An Ammunition Train of the New Zealand Division
Passing Through Longueval Village, September 1916

By James Patton

In 1916, New Zealand troops endured 23 days of unbroken fighting—the longest of any division on the Somme. As a result, there are two notable monuments to their sacrifice in the area.  Near the extreme point of their advance is the New Zealand Division Memorial about a mile from their 15 September jumping off position around Longueval village. It stands on the site of the German defense line, known as the Switch Trench. From the memorial, looking to the south, the line of the New Zealand attack can be seen from Caterpillar Valley cemetery and the open slope up which they advanced.

New Zealand Memorial

Lying squarely in the middle of the 1916 Somme Battlefield, Caterpillar Valley was the name given by the army to the long swale which rises eastwards, past Mametz and Caterpillar Woods, to the high ground at Guillemont. Longueval village is on the northern edge of the feature and 500 meters west of the village, on the south side of the road, is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery.

Caterpillar Valley was captured during a successful night assault by the British 3rd, 7th and 9th Divisions on Bazentin Ridge on 14 July 1916. It was lost in the German advance of March 1918 and recovered by the 38th (Welsh) Division on 28 August 1918, at which time the cemetery was started (now Plot 1 of this cemetery) containing 25 graves of the 38th Division and the 6th Dragoon Guards. Post-Armistice, the cemetery was expanded when remains were recovered from other burial sites on the battlefields of the Somme. The great majority of these soldiers died in the autumn of 1916 and almost all the rest in August or September 1918.

The cemetery now contains 4,358 Commonwealth burials, 3,796 of which unidentified; there are special memorials to 32 men known or believed to be buried somewhere on the site and to three men buried in the closed McCormick’s Post Cemetery whose graves were destroyed by shell fire.

Eastside Terrace with Panels Listing the Missing

On a terrace on the east side of the cemetery is the Caterpillar Valley (New Zealand) Memorial, commemorating the men of the New Zealand Division who died in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, and whose graves are not known. This is one of seven memorials in France and Belgium to New Zealand‘s missing soldiers. These are all in CWGC cemeteries chosen as appropriate to the fighting in which the men died.

The monument is on the eastern wall of the cemetery and was designed by Sir Herbert Baker (1862–1946), one of the four principal architects employed by the CWGC and the designer of the memorials at Tyne Cot, Loos, Neuve Chapelle and VC Corner plus ten other cemeteries. Baker also created many important buildings in India and Africa.

This structure is quite like a small version of the Tyne Cot Memorial without the faux-chapels and wing walls at the ends.  It consists of a straight wall of natural pebble-dash stone masonry on which ten large white Portland stone panels bear the names of 1,205 missing New Zealand soldiers. These men fell between August and October 1916 during the Battles of the Somme, and due to the conditions of the battle ground it was a long time until remains could be located and recovered for burial.

Dedication Panel

In 1914 the Dominion of New Zealand raised the "New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ (NZEF) from its militia, which during the Gallipoli campaign was two brigades strong and served  with the Australian 4th Brigade to complete the ANZAC division. After arrival in France, reinforcements enabled the New Zealanders to form a third brigade, and so the NZEF became the NZ Division, which was assigned to the British XV Corps. By mid-1917, the NZ Division was one of the largest in the British Expeditionary Force, having grown to four brigades, and was serving in the Australian Corps.

The NZ Division entered the fight at the Somme on 11 September 1916, taking over the tenuous line between Delville Wood and High Wood. They were a part of the British 4th Army’s attack on15 September, the objective of which was to penetrate north and then east to capture the occupied city of Bapaume. The first part of this offensive became known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, and lasted from 15 to  22 September. On the first day the NZ and British 41st Divisions captured the village of Flers, and the Germans were slowly pushed back for several more days. After resting and regrouping the attack was renewed 25 September in the Battle of Morval, and the New Zealand Division captured Factory Corner, on the road between Gueudecourt and Eaucourt-l’Abbaye. By 1 October, they had captured and held Gird Trench, Circus Trench and Gird Support Trench as well. They were withdrawn from the battle on 4 October, and on the 10th they were sent north to the Pas-de-Calais to regroup, although their artillery remained on the Somme for the rest of the month.

In these battles of 1916, the NZ Division had fought for 23 consecutive days, advanced more than two miles deep along five miles of enemy front line. They captured nearly 1,000 prisoners and many machine guns; they lost none of their Vickers and Lewis guns, and less than 20 prisoners. Their casualties were about 7,000, and of these 2,111 were killed in action or died of wounds, just 168 less than New Zealand lost at Gallipoli.

Field Marshal HRH The Prince Charles Lays a Wreath
at the Memorial to the Missing

NZ government records list the dominion’s population in 1914 at 1,089,825 persons, of which 220,089 were males of military age. Further detail lists 135,184 of these as ‘mobilized’, 117,175 found fit for service and 98,950 persons sent overseas, including 550 nurses. Conscription was introduced in August 1916 and 19,548 conscripts served overseas. 2,688 Maoris and Polynesians also served, and at least 3,370 New Zealanders served with other armies, 2,533 of them with the Australians. NZEF overseas casualties for the war were 16,697 killed or died and 41,317 wounded. Another 507 died in New Zealand and an estimated 1,000 died from wounds after the war.

If you’ve been doing the arithmetic here you now know that nearly ten percent of the population of New Zealand served overseas and well over half of the eligible male population was mobilized. This was a significant commitment for such a small nation, and the ratios of loss against size of force are also high: 17 percent killed or died and 58 percent total casualties. Thus it is not surprising that WWI is still a big deal in New Zealand. Every year there are remembrance events at the memorial sites, including Caterpillar Valley. Shown here is Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, in attendance at the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which was held at Caterpillar Valley in 2016. Note in the photo above that HRH exercised his sovereign right to "lead" the NZ Forces and so was kitted out as a NZ Field Marshal, outranking the actual commander of the NZ Defence Force, Lt. General Timothy Keating, who was also present.

An earlier version of this article was presented on the Kansas University, Kansas WW1 Website in August 2018.

1 comment:

  1. It sure looks like HRH is wearing the epaulette insignia incorrectly