National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Battle of the Somme

On 15th September 1916 the New Zealand Division, together with other countries of the Empire including Australia, Canada and India, began their assault at the Somme. They attacked at dawn, advancing heavily laden across ‘No Man’s Land’ to fight the enemy hand to hand in a maze of trenches. When they withdrew on 3-4 October 1916, 1560 men had died and 5400 were wounded.

“Clearly Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin…..are we all going to get killed? Yes.”  Edmund Blackadder, BBC Series

The satirical portrayal of the Western Front in the Blackadder Goes Forth series only touched upon the utter chaos the British soldier experienced during the Battle of the Somme. The reputations of British commanders responsible for the Somme became caught up in controversy after accusations of stupidity, arrogance and complacency.

The British first went “over the top” at the Somme on 1 July 1916 and by the time the New Zealand Division arrived in September of that year, the British Army had suffered some of the heaviest battlefield losses ever inflicted in their history.

8/3155 Corporal Ernie Newton wrote home “Someone has said…..that war is hell, and he was right, war is hell. The sights one saw and the experiences one went through down there, one cannot adequately describe. Dead men lying in the mud in the bottom of the trenches, and on the open ground round about, some of them having been there over a week, the horrible crashing and bursting of the shells, and the whole rotten business, was enough to drive one mad…….No one who went through that business wants to go through it again…..”

By the time the battle ended, stopped by mud and exhaustion in November 1916, over one million men had been killed or wounded for only a few kilometres of ground taken.