National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : World War One Centenary

The Battle of the Somme Online

 

Somme Ring FrontThe Battle of the Somme which began for our troops on September 15th 1916 marked New Zealand’s first major engagement on the Western Front.  The price our troops were to pay for their involvement in the offensive was a heavy one. More than 2100 New Zealand men were killed at the Somme over a period three weeks, a loss close to that of Gallipoli yet suffered over a much shorter span of time. 

Delve further into the National Army Museum’s collection of military-related artefacts with our online exhibition showcasing a selection of items attributed to the Battle of the Somme. From sweetheart souvenir brooches sent to loved ones at home to weapons captured from German forces on the front line, discover the legacy of the Somme experience and the impact it had upon the lives of New Zealanders at the time and continues to have for generations of today, 100 years later.

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During the early stages of 1916 the battle-hardened veterans of Gallipoli were combined with newly arrived reinforcements to create the first New Zealand Infantry Division in history. The Somme campaign, in which they were about to enter, had been underway for almost three months with bloody results yet little progress to show for it. The September phase was hoped to be the ‘final push’ which at last broke through the formidable German lines. The NZ Division was withdrawn from the comparatively quiet Armentières sector of the front line in August and began a long march through the French countryside toward the battlefields of the Somme.

men-marching NZ troops marching through a French town on their way to the Somme, September 1916

By 10th September the NZ Division had moved into the trenches at the Somme. In the days leading up to the imminent attack our artillery units kicked into action with a thundering bombardment upon German lines. At approximately 6.20am on 15th September, the NZ infantry left the relative protection of the front line trenches and went over the top. What ensued over the next 23 days was a bloody and fierce battle, characterized by unrelenting artillery barrages, poison-gas shelling, attacks and counter-attacks upon contested positions, not to mention the harsh living conditions of the trenches which left the men mud-caked, sleep-deprived and shivering.

The NZ Division was successful in carrying out many of its assigned objectives during the battle, capturing the crucial German Switch Trench and assisting neighbouring units in securing the village of Flers. They were involved in the historic unveiling of the world’s first Tanks which rumbled onto the shell-torn battlefields of the Somme on September 15th, an ominous sight for the opposing Germans soldiers. Following the initial advance the NZ assault battalions were to go into action several times again, with significant attacks taking place on the 16th, 25th, 27th September and 1st October.

somme-full NZ troops, including some wounded, resting in a wood at the Somme.

After three weeks of action the NZ Division finally withdrew from the Somme on 4th October. The New Zealanders had proved their worth on the battlefield however the casualties endured as a result were numerous. Of the 15,000 New Zealanders who passed through the trenches over half, 7959 had become casualties. The NZ artillery units who continued on at the Somme until October 25th lost 135 men by the end of their campaign. A total of 2111 New Zealand soldiers died fighting at the Battle of the Somme, a staggering number for the relative amount of time they had spent in action. More than half of the soldiers who lost their lives did not receive a formal grave. They are commemorated at the Caterpillar Valley Memorial Cemetery near Longueval in France, the site of the former battlefields of the Somme.

From the squalor of the trenches to the memories of death and suffering during battle, recollections of their time at the Somme for the soldiers who survived often haunted them far away from the battlefield. Each soldier who died meant years of mourning and heartache for loved ones and families at home who had lost their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers on foreign soil. The effects of the Somme experience on New Zealand were profound and far-reaching and it remains one of the darkest periods in New Zealand’s history.

 

 


 

Zero hour for the New Zealand Division’s first advance at the Somme was set for 6.20am, 15th September 1916. As the final days, hours and minutes began to count down, what must it have felt like for our troops awaiting the signal to go over the top and face the deadly expanse of no-man’s land? The diaries of three NZ soldiers present at the Somme are profiled in the days leading up to and following the first New Zealand advance. These men lived to tell the story of the Somme and their words offer a brief glimpse into the reality of life in the front line trenches.

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25/614 Corporal Edward Douglas Duthie

 

Corporal Edward Duthie embarked for Suez, Egypt aboard the Ulimaroa on 5th February 1916. He was in active service in both France and Belgium as a Rifleman in the 3rd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, D Company. Corporal Duthie was wounded at the Somme on 15th September while attempting to get communications through to a neighbouring NZ unit near the village of Flers.

Click below to read diary entries

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An abandoned tank (Mark 1) in the village of Flers, 1918. This was quite possibly one of the tanks that went into action with the NZ Division in September 1916 during the capture of the village. 1990.1716

 

9/1827 Sergeant Alexander William Dallas

 

Sergeant Alexander William Dallas of the Otago Reserve Battalion ‘hopped over’ the top during the Somme offensive on 15th of September. His diary states that he was one of only two survivors remaining from his platoon, alongside the legendary Dick Travis who was later awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his feats of bravery on the day. Sergeant Dallas passed through the captured German Switch Trench during the first advance, one of the NZ Division’s main objectives in the attack.

Click below to read diary entries

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Transcript

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A New Zealand soldier dives for cover in the foreground as German artillery explodes behind him. 207.549.

 

23/2021 Corporal Patrick John Keegan

 

After five consecutive days in action on the Somme battling to secure the village of Flers, Corporal Patrick Keegan was wounded on 21st September by exploding shrapnel which struck his eye. During his time on the Western Front he served with the 10th Reinforcements of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, E Company. Corporal Keegan enlisted on 16th November 1915 and was originally from Taihape. 

Click to below to read diary entries

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In the diary of Corporal P. J Keegan, his days taking part in the advance on the village of Flers are described simply as ‘In action‘. He was wounded at the Somme when struck in the eye by exploding shrapnel.

 


 

The NZ Division’s arrival on the Western Front brought our Kiwi troops in direct opposition with the main force of the German Army. Traces of the resulting encounters can be seen in various items of German origin ‘souvenired’ by our soldiers and brought back home at the end of the war. Many of these objects are associated with the Battle of the Somme and hint at the once bloody and ferocious fighting which took place between New Zealand soldiers and their German opponents.

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German Luger P08

Carved Trench Knife

Leather Cigar Case

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This German Luger P08, 9mm calibre was captured at the Somme during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette by 16/304 Captain Pirimi Pererika Tahiwi.

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Taken from the Somme battlefield, this trench knife was originally carried by Strosstruppe (Shock Troops) and features a Māori design carved upon the grip.

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A black, leather cigar case of German origin accompanied by a postcard stating its capture from enemy forces at the Somme.

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NZ troops in the captured German Switch Trench at the Somme, one of the NZ Division’s main objectives during the first advance on September 15th. 2007.549.


 

The Somme proved to be a brutal introduction to the methods of warfare on the Western Front for the newly formed NZ Division. The battlefield was distinguished by it’s thundering artillery barrages, intense machine-gun fire and if the wind was right, clouds of poison delivered across no-man’s land in an attempt to gas out the opposition. The result was heavy casualties and around 2000 New Zealand soldiers were dead or wounded by the end of the first day. The shocking number of casualties experienced during the first advance at the Somme were the highest yet for a single day of action by NZ troops, surpassed only by the tragedies at Passchendaele a year later. 

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Bayonet Battlefield Relic

First Field Dressing

WWI Gas Hood

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The remains of a heavily rusted 1907 pattern bayonet, souvenired from the battlefields of the Somme during the return of the Unknown Warrior in 2004.

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An example of first field dressing attributed to  23/1445 Lieutenant Neil McKinnon, wounded on 20th September 1916 at the Somme.

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Poison gas was a commonly-used weapon on the Western Front and NZ artillery fired gas shells for the first time during the Somme offensive.

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An Endless Barrage of Shell-fire

 

In the days leading up to the first New Zealand advance at the Somme our artillery units came to life, keeping up an aggressive barrage towards German lines. Intense and prolonged bombardment before an advance helped to keep the enemy tied down as the infantry readied themselves to finally scramble over the top into no-man’s land. The continual shelling from both Allied and German forces rendered the surrounding countryside unrecognisable. Nearby villages and forests were reduced to ruins and no-man’s land became a confusing expanse of churned-up earth, muddied and water-logged by the frequent rain. It was through this disorientating landscape in which the advancing New Zealand troops had to navigate as they fought doggedly to capture their objectives at the Somme.

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 An image from the diary of 24/1352 Rifleman C. Collingwood, captioned ‘Shell-fire on a road at the Somme.’ 2007.139. 
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 NZ 18-pounder artillery in recoil. 1992.773

The Arrival of the Tanks

 

September 1916 brought with it the hopes of a final push through German lines at the Somme and the Allied offensive had a secret weapon, the Tank. Tanks were introduced to the battlefields of WWI for the very first time on 15th of September and the NZ Division was allotted four to aid their advance upon the village of Flers. Unfortunately the Tanks, though greatly anticipated at the time brought mixed results during battle. Some fell victim to artillery shelling and were left abandoned as the fighting continued, others progressed slowly and awkwardly through the thick mud and shell-torn landscape characteristic of the Somme. Nevertheless, the Tanks did play an important role in the capture of the village of Flers. Their ominous appearance reportedly sent the enemy running, sweeping aside barbed wire entanglements and destroying enemy machine-gun posts along the way. According to an eye witness on the day, one tank was seen entering the village of Flers during its successful capture with a group of cheering infantry following closely behind.

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  Tanks were used for first time at the Somme in September 1916. 1990.1712.

 

A range of souvenirs were collected by soldiers during WWI which found their way back to New Zealand when the war ended in 1918. Encapsulated in these objects were memories of the faraway places our soldiers had visited and battles they had fought in. The brutality of fighting and high rate of casualties suffered at the Somme had a lasting effect upon its veterans. Haunted by the hammering of artillery, witness to friends suddenly wounded or killed on the battlefield, dejected by the poor living conditions of the trenches, the experience of the Somme was often a grimly unforgettable one for those who took part.

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Somme Ring

Matchbox Holder

Embroidered Cloth

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Inscribed with the word ‘SOMME’, this ring is an example of WWI era Trench Art, most likely produced during a soldier’s downtime away from the front line.

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An aluminium matchbox holder attributed to 12/3680 Private George Hingston engraved with the words ‘Souvenir de la Somme’.

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Souvenirs such as this embroidered cloth were produced during the war for soldiers to collect and show those back home where they had been.

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Souvenir Sweetheart Brooch

Commemorative Medal

 

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A more romantic relic of WWI, sweetheart brooches were given by soldiers as gifts to wives, daughters, mothers and sisters at home.

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This unofficial Commemorative Medal, available to veterans of the Battle of the Somme, was awarded to Donald McConnell of the NZ Machine Gun Corps. 

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NZ troops at the Somme with what is left of High Wood in the background. 2007.139.

¹MacDonald, Andrew. On My Way to the Somme. (Auckland: Harper Collins 2005) p.270

²Malthus, Cecil. Armentières and the Somme. (Auckland: Reed 2002) p. 116 

³Malthus, Cecil. Armentières and the Somme. (Auckland: Reed 2002) p. 141