Michael Fowler: Letter tells of WW1 Somme horror

By Michael Fowler

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The first contingent of men to leave Hastings for World War I in 1914
Credit:  Michael Fowler Collection
The first contingent of men to leave Hastings for World War I in 1914 Credit: Michael Fowler Collection

The full horror of World War I was being felt, as it was elsewhere in the Dominion of New Zealand 100 years ago during September and October 1916.


Although it was springtime, it may as well have been the depths of a bleak winter as news of those killed and wounded from the Battle of the Somme came daily via telegram and listed in newspapers in the Roll of Honour.


The Gallipoli campaign in 1915 has been credited as being the significant moment in our history which giving us a sense of our nation's identity, and as such tends to get most of the focus from World War I events. But in terms of sheer hell of warfare and overall casualties the Battle of the Somme far exceeded Gallipoli. The battle took place near the River Somme in France and began on July 1 and ended on November 18, 1916, and attempted to break through the German lines on the Western Front.


A letter posted from the front from signalman Frank Foster to his father in Havelock Rd told of his experiences at Somme after a month at the front, describing it as a "lively time".


Frank's brother Victor worked for the Hastings Standard as a reporter (now Hawke's Bay Today) and had been wounded at the Somme. Frank wrote that Victor was in a bomb attack by the Germans and out of the 250 in his company only 37 survived after the British brigade on their left withdrew and "Fritz" (name for the Germans) took the opportunity and came in behind Victor's company.


The New Zealand Division, wrote Frank, had been involved in four attacks in September and the "boys were simply great, but we lost a lot of fine fellows. We lost our officer on the first day; he was a fine chap. It almost makes one cry to think of the fellows who have gone. Some of the things were awful. I would rather not write much about it.


"There is no doubt the Germans are beaten down at the Somme. One hardly ever sees a German aeroplane, while we often have 30 up. We drop bombs on observation balloons, and while we have over 30 up all day he may have two or three up for a while, but hauls them in as soon as our planes go up.


"Our artillery fire is terrific. It must be something awful for them when our bombardment is on - the ground is one long black patch of bursting shells. We had several days of cold and wet weather. In the new trenches the troops had no cover, they had mud up to their eyes with only bully beef and biscuits to warm them. It was bad enough for us. Just imagine a signal office in a shell hole with an oil sheet for a room, everything wet and muddy, shells landing all around, and dead men everywhere."


Both Frank and his brother survived World War I.


Fifteen Thousand New Zealand troops took part in the campaign on September 15 with 2111 men killed and nearly 6,000 wounded. The campaign only gained ground of around 10km at the loss of 1.2 million men on both sides.

Michael Fowler (mfhistory@gmail.com) is the heritage officer at the Art Deco Trust, and trainer in accounting for non-accountants www.financialfitness.co.nz

- Hawkes Bay Today

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