‘…there is something doing soon.’September 15th, 2016
New Zealand soldiers erecting a commemorative cross to New Zealanders killed at the Battle of the Somme. 15 October 1918. Photographer: Henry Armytage Sanders. ATL: 1/2-013632-G
September 2016 marks the centenary of New Zealand’s participation in the Battle of the Somme – this country’s first major engagement on the Western Front. The battle, in which New Zealand and its allies attempted to breach the German front line, involved 15,000 members of the New Zealand Division – one in seven of whom were killed and thousands more wounded.
As historians have noted, even after a century, the numbers associated with the Battle of the Somme still have the power to shock. ‘At the end of 4½ months of fighting, up to 1.2 million men had been killed or wounded. There were about 8,500 casualties for each of the 141 days of conflict. But some days were worse than others. The opening day of the offensive, 1 July 1916, was the worst day in British military history: 19,000 men were killed and another 38,000 wounded. By the end of the campaign on 18 November 1916, the Allies had advanced, at most, 12 km into German-held territory.’ (www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/the-battle-of-the-somme).
While statistics like this are one way of understanding the enormity of the Battle of the Somme, it’s also important to acknowledge the many individual, human stories behind the casualty figures.
These stories can be accessed via the first-hand accounts left for us by the people who were there. Thanks to the digitisation programmes by institutions like the Alexander Turnbull Library, these accounts are now easier to access.
‘…there is something doing soon.’
[L] Portrait of Cyril Brimer from Auckland Weekly News, 1916 Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hīra: Online Cenotaph C1630. [R] Inside front cover of Brimer’s diary with the inscription, ‘To dear Sid, Hope you will find this useful. Love from Beth. Nov. 30th 1915.’ ATL: MSX-8772-2
This prediction ends the brief diary entry for Friday 26 August 1916 of Cyril Brimer, a sergeant in the Wellington Infantry Regiment. He was right; the ‘something’ in question was the involvement of the New Zealand Division in the Battle of the Somme from 15 September, 1916. Brimer’s diary ends a short time later on 4 September. His war service record states that he was ‘Killed in Action in the Field - 23 Sept. 1916’, though from two other places in the record, we learn he was killed on 16 September. Cyril Brimer was one of 1,560 New Zealand soldiers killed during 23 days at the Somme.
Pages from the WWI diary of Cyril Brimer. ATL: MSX-8772-2
The Turnbull Library holds the two Great War diaries kept by Cyril Brimer; both have been digitised. Brimer, a twenty two year-old carpenter from Hastings, enlisted on 14 August 1914, the day war was declared. By Wednesday 3 February 1915, he was with New Zealand troops on the Suez Canal and noted that in ‘fighting further along the canal, ‘Nelson boy killed.’ The Nelson boy was Private Ham, the first New Zealander killed in action in the Great War.
Brimer served at Gallipoli, and in banner capitals for 25 April 1915 his diary announced ‘GREAT DAY’, but his anticipation and excitement were soon tempered by reality.
‘Tue 27 – In firing line, drove the Turks back… heavy list of killed & wounded. Took up position on hill & entrenched ourselves. Turks try to draw us out.
Wed 28 – In first trench behind firing line all day, in firing line at night. Heavy fighting daytime, not much at night. Terrible cold & raining at night. No overcoat, wet through.’
Brimer was wounded on 8 August 1915 and evacuated to Lemnos together with 2,400 other casualties. At the end of April 1916, he was in France.
Ross was appointed by the government as New Zealand’s official war correspondent, and was present at the Somme. In January 1917 the Evening Post ran his article, ‘On the Somme. After the Big Advance. 1st NZ Brigade takes a hand. Fierce fighting beyond Flers’. In his piece he described the New Zealand Division’s position near the town of Flers.
‘It is somewhat difficult without the aid of a map to explain the fighting that ensued during the next few days. On the left of Flers ran the Flers Trench, heavily wired, and the Flers Support Trench. In front of that again, from a point opposite the middle of the village, ran Fort Trench joining on to Abbey Road – in which there were German dugouts – on the left. Just beyond Flers there were two strong points known as Box and Cox and on the left of these positions Grove Alley and Goose Alley running forward in irregular lines at right angles to the line of Abbey Road. Still farther ahead and yet more to the left was a strong point known as Factory corner. And in front of that were the Gird Line, well wired, and the Gird Support Trench. These trenches formed a salient, the apex of which was level on the left, with the village of Gueudecourt, the houses of which we could still see undestroyed amongst its trees… ‘
Detail of trench map with trench lines in red around Flers, Longueval, Delville and High Woods where the New Zealand Division was engaged. Longueval 2E – 1695883_Acc. 47100_recto
Diary of Private Cecil Jepson ATL: MS-Papers-1480-3/1
Cecil Jepson – ‘it was a perfect hell’
Cecil Jepson was from Whanganui. He left New Zealand on the Ulimaroa in May 1916 and by 21 August he was in France at the New Zealand Division’s Base Depot at Étaples. The Turnbull Library holds two accounts of Jepson’s experience at the Battle of the Somme, the first of which is contained in this diary. The second is a fuller description and may have been written later as part of a letter. Jepson survived the war and returned home on the Waimana in May 1919. He died in 1970.
Cecil Jepson’s diary, showing entries for 19 and 20 September 1916, describing the wretched conditions at the Somme. ‘Tuesday 19 – Up in Front Line again digging trenches deeper. No sleep. Trenches full of mud. Wednesday 20 – Still in front line. Germans bombarded us at night very heavily. No sleep, feeling absolutely knocked out.’ ATL: MS-Papers-1480-3/1
Jepson’s detailed account of the Battle of the Somme, 15 September 1916. ‘At 6 a.m. bombardment which had been continuous throughout the week reached a climax & at 6.20 a.m (zero time) the attack commenced.’ ATL: MS-Papers-1480-4
‘About 9.20 a.m. the 1st Brigade attacked & everything was drowned in the continuous roar of our artillery & almost immediately the whole village was deluged in fire. Trees were stripped of branches & fell in all directions. Houses were flattened out & as it increased by 10.30 it was a perfect hell – hard of imagination.’ ATL: MS-Papers-1480-4
‘We were never so thankful in all our lives than when we were relieved by Canterbury at midnight… Rations & water were again a great trouble & we eventually got rations for 8 men & two tins of water for the Coy. During this time I had a slice of Hun bread & a tin of beans between 3 of us.’ ATL: MS-Papers-1480-4
Randolph Norman Gray. Archives New Zealand, AALZ 25044 Box 3/F1247
‘…now nothing could be seen for the awful curtain of death...’
Randolph Gray served as a stretcher bearer during the Battle of the Somme, and his account of this time is eloquent, harrowing and detailed. A recent blog about Gray written for the National Library’s website by Camus Wyatt gives a full description of Gray, the collection of his papers in ATL, and his experience of war.
The following extracts from Randolph Gray’s letter book provide additional detail of his time at the Somme.
‘7 September 1916
Moved off at 11.30 a.m. March of 9 miles brought us at 3.30pm to St Gratien. Billets very indifferent. Guns still booming. We have never heard anything approaching this roar. There must be hundreds of guns firing continuously. On arrival we learnt that in the capture of High Wood yesterday, the Br. casualties were 12,000. We are expecting big things for our division during the next week. There is a general feeling of elation behind the line. We feel things moving…
Saturday 9th 6.30pm [On historic ground just on the outskirts of what was Fricourt. The line of July 1st lies just ahead – a distance of 2 miles. We are camped on the ridges just behind Fricourt Wood, where the Br. Troops were massed for the great attack.] On Frid. 8th moved out of St Gratien at 9 a.m. and marched 15 miles to Dernancourt south of Albert. We marched the main high road for several miles and thousands of motor transports passed & we passed. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of operations behind the line. Railways have been constructed and roads made, the whole landscape transformed – in preparation for the Big Push. Reached our camping ground at 3 p.m. & made our bivouacs for the night. …
Thousands of acres are covered with tents, huts, dumps, etc, and along all the roads there is a continual stream of troops & transport. We have never imagined anything like it, and no man will ever adequately be able to describe it. The camps in Egypt were big – 20,000 to 30,000 men: but here you can walk for miles and as far as the eye can see there are tents and bivvys on every ridge & in every valley… Shell holes cover the hillside. On the edge of them are graves – rough mounds with a simple board containing the names of officers and men, and the date, the date which will be sacred in Br. history – July 1st 1916…
Sept. 22nd [For the first time since the 2nd Big Push started on 15th inst, I have time to write up a few experiences which will serve as aids to memory when I can tell you the whole story. We have lived a year in these 8 days, and the rush of impressions has been almost overpowering...]
14th. We had heard that the 2nd effort to force the Huns back from the Somme was to commence on the 15th. And there was abundant evidence in the preparation today that something was sure going to happen... As I have indicated, the N.Z. medical service had already taken over the forward dressing stations, collecting posts etc, and our troops were taking over a section of the line between Delville and High Woods, supported on each flank by a division of Tommies. Artillery action commenced in earnest at 6pm and every gun on the front – I should be afraid to say how many – began its 12 hour bombardment of the German line…
On his work as a stretcher bearer…
I had the cold fear of death on me for the ½ hour it took to get over the top, shells landing before and behind and on both sides, and by the time I reached the RAD I was done. Infantry with a bayonet and with spirits running high for a charge face barrage fire constantly I know, but it is a vastly different thing with a sling around your neck supporting a dead weight, and crawling at a snail’s pace over shell torn ground…
23rd Quiet day. 1st shave in 9 days.
24th Sunshine still. The men regaining lost strength and spirits. Some of them are mere shadows, the awful strain leaving indelible marks. All are sobered, and you no longer hear talk of what the Anzacs can do…
A new attack…
An English division was attacking on each flank, the Black Watch being on the right, and as far as we could see the front was nothing but a chaos of bursting shells… It would be hard to find a better example of the phrase, the smoke of battle: 10 minutes before, the sun was lighting up the landscape for miles, now nothing could be seen for the awful curtain of death. Gradually it moved forward, and behind, steadily advancing, were the 1st Brigade troops. For 300 yards they advanced as if on parade, but when they got right up to the German trench, nothing could hold them. The Huns leapt from their trench and fled in disorder, and the NZ boys followed. It is hard to believe but 80% of the casualties were due to the impetuosity of the men. The barrage which had been advancing beautifully in front of them caught these wild spirits, who had disobeyed the orders upon which the success of the whole movement depended.’
From letter book No. 5, ATL: MSX-9371
Papers Past website
For WW100 the National Library has undertaken an ambitious digitisation programme of Turnbull Library content relating to the Great War. It has also expanded the volume of Great War-period New Zealand newspapers on Papers Past.
The following article sourced from the Taranaki Daily News provides a counterpoint to the manuscript material quoted in this blog. There is an interesting divergence of opinion between Randolph Gray and his observation about the ’impetuosity’ of the troops and the view of one of the returning soldiers interviewed here. It is impossible to know what being in the Battle of the Somme would have been like, but not hard to imagine the likelihood of the following, ‘…we were not taking much interest in (the bombardment) or anything else except our own particular job. Our objective had been explained to us, and we waited in the trenches for the word to start forward.’
‘There was death all around and a sort of mad excitement too.’
‘The Somme Battle
A Returned Soldiers’ Impression’
Taranaki Daily News 11 January 1917
‘Yes I took part in the big push! But I don’t think I can tell you anything about it that you have not read already in the newspapers. We saw our little bit of the ‘scrap’ and that was all. We did not know much about what was going on even half a mile away, and personally I had no clear idea of what we were about until I read the papers after my arrival in hospital. I knew that we had been in the thick of a mighty big fight, and that our boys had done well.’ This was the answer of one of the returned soldiers who reached Wellington on Tuesday, when we asked for his impressions of the Somme battle.
This soldier, like most of his companions, proved unwilling to elaborate his story to any extent. He mentioned that his company had been in billets in a quiet French village shortly before the big attack. Then they were moved forward and saw something of the stupendous bombardment that preceded their advance on the enemy trenches.
‘The guns had been thundering for days and their final effort was beyond anything that I could describe. The earth seemed to rock with the continuous concussion, and one’s mind was numbed in a curious way. There seemed to be guns of all sorts behind us, and the size of the shells they were sending against those Germans could be gauged by the noise they made overhead. But we were not taking much interest in that or in anything else except our own particular job. Our objective had been explained to us, and we waited in the trenches for the word to start forward.
Frankly, I have no very clear recollection of what happened after we went over the top and made for the enemy lines. There was nothing of the traditional charge about it... We did not dash impetuously forward, as one of the correspondents said; we plodded along with our heavy packs over ground inconceivably broken by our guns. There was death all around and a sort of mad excitement too. Suddenly we were in a German trench, where a few poor devils who had been under our bombardment put up a feeble fight. We were there a few minutes, I suppose, and then we were off again. I found myself on the ground and realised that I was a casualty. And that is all I really saw of the big push, for pretty soon I was moving to the rear with the other wounded, and presently I was in hospital, feeling very restful and wondering what luck my pals had experienced.’
CH Dickerson’s house on the corner of Karori and Bell Roads, Karori. 1909. Bell Road was renamed Flers Street in 1925, after the French town near which New Zealand troops fought during the Battle of the Somme. Other Karori streets with a Great War connection are Lemnos, Birdwood, Chaytor, Messines, Scapa and Verviers. Photographer: Harold Hislop. ATL: PA1-f-029-09
Coffin of the ‘unknown warrior’ carried by representatives of the combined services, Parliament grounds, Wellington, November 2004. Photographer: Dylan Owen. ATL: PADL-00091
The Return of the Unknown Warrior
More than half the New Zealanders who died in the Battle of the Somme have no known graves. They are commemorated on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, near Longueval, the site of the Battle of the Somme. In November 2004, the remains of one of these men were returned home to New Zealand and interred in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior outside New Zealand’s National War Memorial. The day before the interment ceremony, the coffin of the Unknown Warrior was carried to Parliament Buildings where it lay in state in the Legislative Council Chamber. This part of the ceremony was recorded by National Library staff member Dylan Owen, whose collection of photographs of events around New Zealand can be seen on the National Library website: Ref: PA-Group-00004.
How to find out more about New Zealand and New Zealanders during the Great War
The Alexander Turnbull Library has put together an online guide with research advice, information about the collections of the ATL and National Library, and how to find and use our Great War resources, with a special emphasis on online resources. The guide also has information about how to find important historical material that we don’t hold: www.natlib.govt.nz/researchers/guides/first-world-war
Unveiling of the memorial to the New Zealand dead at the Somme, Longueval, France, 8 October 1922. New Zealand representatives at the ceremony included Sir Francis Dillon Bell – watch chain visible on his waistcoat. ATL: Longueval Memorial Album, PA1-o-271
Paul Diamond, Curator Māori, Alexander Turnbull Library, initiated this blog and contributed significantly to the research and writing for it.