On 15 September 1916 New Zealand soldiers joined the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the time. Letters and images from those involved tell us of the horrors.
Three days prior to the infantry entering the battle, the New Zealand artillery had started shelling the lines. At 6.20am on 15 September 1916, the infantry received the order to go over the top and climbed up out of the trenches and advanced into enemy fire.
At the top of the above image is the switch trench, one of the objectives. The overall expansion into enemy territory in the months to come would cover some ten kilometres. The below image shows the village of Flers, another key objective on the New Zealanders' first day.
On 9 September, Sergeant Harry Norton wrote of the battle to come:
And now our marching is just finished, & we are within range of the huge guns, & in a very few days, we will be in to the Big Push…
Just imagine rushing through a hail of schrapnel & machine gun fire, & then the bayonet work to follow. Oh it will be fine, & will show up who has grit in them.
The “Dinks” have just passed us with their bands playing, so you will see we are all going into it, in the Big Push. Don’t worry, or be anxious about me, as I am light hearted & happy & will be a credit to you my Chum.
The day before the big push Norton sent one more letter to his children:
We gave the Huns a fright last night. They thought we were going to attack. They opened up with Artillery, machine gun, & rifle fire. It was great I can tell you. We are going over the parapet to take their trenches tomorrow morning at dawn. So we are having a spell today. Getting water bottles filled & our rations for a few days. I will have lots to tell you in next letter. God bless & keep you my dear children. Be good to mother. My love to you all. Your Soldier Daddy X X X X X
Killed in action on 15 September 1916, this was the last letter Harry Norton sent home. In an unfinished letter he wrote, 'We are going to take 3 lines of Hun trenches on Friday. "My Lucky Day". I expect we will go over at Dawn.'
The landscape consisted of the twisted remains of trees, charred from the top down, standing on the edge of muddy craters. Entanglements of barbed wire were set to slow advancement, though the muddy quagmire presented an equally challenging obstacle.
A letter dated 18 September 1916, written by Gunner Charles John Warren from France to his aunt back home in Auckland, relates the following concerning the first few days of the Somme Offensive:
Some of the infantry who were over say that the enemy dead were piled up in hundreds and hundreds all along the captured positions. Besides there were some five thousand prisoners taken altogether. A great number came past our position and they look a very unshaven unkempt lot.
On the 16th it rained, adding further misery to the sleep deprived men.
The worst thing about this place is that for every day’s fine weather we get a week wet. That is exaggerating a little but still – . Also I used to think all the flies in the world were in Cairo but there are just as many here.
Mechanised warfare added a new dimension with the introduction of the tanks which made their first appearance on the Somme. The interlinked metal tracks on these new vehicles were specially designed to allow them to run along the battlefield, breaking through entanglements and clearing the way for advancing soldiers. A special corridor was kept clear of friendly artillery fire with the aim of allowing these metal beasts to advance.
On a handwritten draft of a tank battle order for Battle of Somme, dated 15 September 1916, the following is recorded:
One tank will arrive on the 1st objective 5 minutes before the infantry arrive there. (see appendix "D")
Lanes of at least 100 yards will be left in the barrage for the tanks.
One of the group of 3 tanks will stop on the Crest Trench & will assist in dealing with any opposition met there.
It will then rejoin its group on the Switch Trench.
At 1.00 hours after zero the barrage will start creeping forward to the 2nd objective at the rate of 100 yds in 3 minutes.
The infantry will above all things hug the barrage.
Along with the introduction of tanks came the now familiar sound of aircraft. Harry Norton noted "there are a lot of Aircraft. Can you imagine thirty two close together, coming home? It is a grand sight."
The Somme took a heavy toll on human life leaving scores of dead, many of which could not be recovered.
New Zealand-born Charles McGrath was living and working as a clerk in Canada when he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Regiment. A little over a year later, in October 1916, McGrath was awarded the Military Medal for bravery he showed at the Somme helping wounded in the Field during actions undertaken on 15 and 16 September by 42nd Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada. He was reported as missing on 8 October 1916, north of Courcelette, during an attack on the Regina Trench by the 1st and 3rd Canadian Divisions. Having no known grave, Charles McGrath’s name is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, France.
This memoriam, crafted by an unidentified family member back in New Zealand, represents a deeply symbolic object of family remembrance. The clover leaf and the silver fern-adorned cross with sacred heart and Latin wording Spes Unica are allusions to the McGrath family’s Irish origins, Roman Catholic faith, and subsequent migration to New Zealand. There are also clear representations of his war service: the Military Medal, including the Canadian Memorial Cross (also known as the Silver Cross), along with the text of McGrath's gallantry award inscribed upon a stylised depiction of a knight’s shield.
Cite this article
Collett, Martin and Higgins, Shaun.
September on the Somme. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 21 September 2016. Updated: 24 September 2016.