Clark: Address at Somme Commemoration
Embargoed until 10.44 pm
Friday 15 September 2005
Rt Hon Helen Clark
Tomb of Unknown Warrior
National War Memorial
Friday 15 September 2005
Rt Hon Lord Falconer and Lady Falconer.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It is ninety years since the Battle of the Somme raged in northern France. The numbers of deaths and casualties have not become any less horrific with the passage of time. At the end of the four and a half months of fighting, perhaps as many as 1.2 million men were dead, dying or wounded. Imagine it, if you can — that’s approaching the population of the entire Auckland region. Maybe 300,000 of these men were killed — close to the population of Wellington’s wider metropolis. There were 8500 casualties for each of the 141 days of the battle. But not all days were alike; some were worse than others. The opening day of the offensive was the worst ever day in British military history: 20,000 men dead, 40,000 wounded.
The battle was a pivotal event which laid the basis for the final allied victory in the Great War. But it has also become a byword for almost indescribable slaughter on a vast scale.
A nightmarish world greeted New Zealanders exactly 90 years ago today when they made their debut on the Western Front. This was the place where lines of men were cut down by machine guns, where soldiers floundered and drowned in the mud, and where the full horror of war was laid bare.
Today we remember those men who crossed the world to serve in that battle, — those who returned home, broken in body or spirit, and those who lie buried in the cemeteries on the Somme. Fifteen thousand members of the New Zealand Division went into action on the Somme. Nearly 6000 were wounded, and more than 2000 lost their lives. The bodies of many were never recovered or identified. Over half the New Zealand dead have no known grave. They are commemorated on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near
Longueval. It was from that cemetery that the remains of one of those unidentified young men were disinterred to be buried here in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
The Somme campaign had begun with high hopes ten weeks before New Zealanders were pulled into the line. The offensive was meant to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. It went horribly wrong from the start. German trenches and bunkers withstood 1.6 million shells fired upon them over the course of a week in late June. Once the shelling had stopped, the Germans emerged from their bunkers and took up position again behind their machine guns. That’s where they were as the whistle sounded for the British to ‘go over the top’ at 7.30 on the morning of 1 July 1916. Mere flesh never stood a chance.
The New Zealand Division was part of the second ‘big push’ to crack the German lines once and for all. The poison gas, the scale of the artillery bombardment and the trenches were unlike anything they had experienced before. New Zealanders took their turn to ‘go over the top’ at 6.20 on the morning of 15 September. About 6000 men went into action that day, and they secured their goal of occupying the village of Flers. It was on this day that Sergeant Donald Brown made the first of his dramatic charges on German machine guns which would earn him — posthumously — the Victoria Cross, the first member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to win such an award on the Western Front.
But it was an expensive victory, like so many in the Great War: by evening on 15 September, some 1200 New Zealanders were wounded or missing, about 600 were dead. Among the casualties were 52 members of the Maori ‘Pioneer Battalion’, building vital communication trenches under heavy artillery fire.
Many of the New Zealanders who served on the Somme would have had little idea of what they were about to face . This battle became a test of their courage, endurance, and humanity. As one New Zealand soldier said: ‘I shook off our conditioned callousness, shook off the feeling, now taking root, that this world of arbitrary violence and random death was the real world, and that justice, mercy, peace and love were phantasms that had never been.’
The New Zealanders remained on the Somme for another 23 days, some of them spent huddling in scant cover as torrential rain turned the ground to mud and slush. They went into action again and again, pushing the line forward in gains measured in metres. There was no sign of the elusive breakthrough when the New Zealanders began to be withdrawn from the line in early October. By the end of the month, the gunners were the last of the New Zealand Division to leave the area, after firing half a million shells at the Germans in their five weeks of battle. The entire offensive fizzled out on 18 November, as the snow came down. The allies had advanced, at most, 12 kilometres — the distance that could be run by a relatively fit young soldier in an hour.
The Battle of the Somme rightly holds an important part in the history of many countries. The million or more casualties came from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other places too. Many nations have paid tribute to these men in this anniversary year, and they will be in our thoughts again when the New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London is dedicated on Armistice Day this year.
In New Zealand, the knowledge of the Gallipoli experience has often overshadowed that of the enormous sacrifice on the Western Front during the Great War. Yet roughly one in every seven New Zealand soldiers who fought on the Somme was killed, and about four in every ten were wounded — rates which far exceeded those at Gallipoli.
Loss on this scale was felt for years afterwards. The effect of casualties on the Somme rippled through New Zealand society. For these men were more than soldiers; they were also sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, sweethearts. To this day, countless families and communities in New Zealand carry scars on their hearts, going back to the battlefields of the Somme.
Despite the small size of this country, our service commitment on the Somme, in other battles and in other wars, has been huge. Our defence forces today continue to show the characteristics which distinguished New Zealand on the Somme and in many other places.
We have no more Somme or other First World War veterans alive in New Zealand, but it is important that we continue to honour the service and sacrifice of all those who took part in this bloody conflict. Back in the 1960s, Cecil Malthus reflected on the ‘dreary, stirring months’ he spent on the Somme. He spoke of the reunions where, ‘always, present in our memories, are the good friends who died in battle….Their various names are legion to every one of us…Who, when we are dead, will remember them?’ he asked. That important duty lies with us, and with future generations. The thousands of New Zealanders who gave up so much in this battle will not be forgotten; we will remember them.