Corazon Miller is a NZ Herald reporter

Battle of Somme 100-year commemorations: A letter from the battlefields

Somme Mud. A postcard sent home by Captain Norman Prior shows soldiers assisting an ambulance, a common scene on the Western Front. Wairarapa Archive 11-72/3-10 WAG 15Jan16
Somme Mud. A postcard sent home by Captain Norman Prior shows soldiers assisting an ambulance, a common scene on the Western Front. Wairarapa Archive 11-72/3-10 WAG 15Jan16

A letter from the Battle of Somme 100 years ago

As the human carnage mounted on the Western Front, Private William Alfred Prince wrote to his loved ones back in New Zealand that "Old Fritz" was in for "a devil of a shock".

It was September 13, 1916, and the trooper and his comrades in the New Zealand Division were preparing to join the Battle of the Somme; along the Somme River in northern France.

William Alfred Prince. Photo / Auckland Weekly News, 1916.
William Alfred Prince. Photo / Auckland Weekly News, 1916.

In a moving letter which provides another look at the horror played out on the Western Front - a four year, three month and one week offensive which led to an estimated 8 million casualties, including the deaths of almost 12,500 New Zealanders - 30-year-old Prince wrote of preparing for a major push aimed at halting the German offensive.

"It is just about dark and I will have to knock off for the evening, the place will soon be lit up with flashes from the big guns at night, it looks great, they are roaring day and night. Old Fritz is getting something to keep him thinking," he wrote.

"There's a devil of a shock instore for him in a day or two, you will probably hear about them in the papers I must not mention them yet though."

It's believed this last line referred to when the First Army Tanks were put in service.

Just two days after penning the letter, on the day when the New Zealand Division joined the Battle of the Somme, Prince was tragically killed - just a week before his 31st birthday.

Telegraph of sympathy to William Alfred Prince's family. Supplied
Telegraph of sympathy to William Alfred Prince's family. Supplied

Prince's letter will be read out by his 65-year-old great-nephew Peter Thompson at the Battle of the Somme Centenary Commemoration to be held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum on Thursday.

He will be joined by his two brothers, with Thompson saying it was important for his family to be there and mark the sacrifice their relative had made.

Thompson said reading his great-uncle's letter was an "emotional" experience.

He said it was tough to imagine his own three sons, now in their 30s, on the battlefields.
"War has a tragic effect and the effect it has had on families."

He knew little of his great-uncle, but said he wanted to read some of the other letters his uncle had that were with the Auckland War Museum.

William Alfred Prince's letters to his mother, 1915-1916. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-2011-3.
William Alfred Prince's letters to his mother, 1915-1916. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-2011-3.

It's believed Prince had left behind several siblings and a fiancee who'd gone on to eventually marry and have children.

His great-uncle's final words, written just a day before he was killed in action - end the letter with a brief annotation.

"Have just received orders to move cannot write more. Fond love to all. Your loving son Will."

The body of the letter written the day before described the devastation of the past battles on French soil, the ongoing barrage of nearby gunfire and the young soldier's hopes of a successful offence against the German troops.

"There are guns all round us, hundreds of them all sizes and when they get going I'll tell you Mum there's some noise," Prince wrote.

"Yesterday I missed a sight I have been anxious to see and that was one of the enemy [planes] brought down.

"A couple of ours and one of theirs were having an air duel and I watched it for some time and then turned away to do something and just then the enemy plane was hit and plunged to the ground in flames."

William Alfred Prince's letters to his mother, 1915-1916. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-2011-3.
William Alfred Prince's letters to his mother, 1915-1916. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-2011-3.

Prince also described coming across the fallen enemy.

"We came across quite a few dead Germans in the wood...they had been missed and not buried. I took a button off one poor beggar's coat as a souvenir."

Prince seemed to steer clear of sharing with his family any of the emotions that might have been felt by a young man facing battle, but a few lines hint at some of the trepidation he might have felt.

"...there will be big things coming off shortly and I was afraid I may be left out, and I would not like that to happen, what ever happens I want to be with my mates."

According to NZ History, an online site produced by the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, early on the morning of September 15, 1916, about 6000 Kiwi soldiers engaged in action that by nightfall secured the village of Flers in northwestern France.

The significant victory came at the cost of an estimated 2000 New Zealanders killed.

>> Battle of the Somme Centenary Commemoration
Auckland War Memorial Museum, Domain Dr, Auckland Domain, Parnell, Auckland
Thursday September 15, 2016, 10:55am

William Alfred Prince's last letter
France
Sept 13th 1916
Dear Mother, Jean & All
Yesterday I sent you a hurriedly written P.C. saying that in the evening of the day in which it was written, we were going into action in the new position we are to occupy. Well it has happened that only a portion of us were to go in, although at the time I wrote the P.C. I did not know it, & No 1 Platoon to which I have quite recently transferred were among those who were not to go to the front line for two or three days to come. I have transferred to No 1 on account of most of my old mates being in that lot. For some little time I have been orderly to Capt. Armstrong but I have not gone back into the platoon as there will be big things coming off shortly & was afraid I may be left out, & I would not like that to happen, what ever happens I want to be with my mates. For a couple of days we were living in trenches that were held a couple of months ago by Germans, in a wood that saw terrible fighting, but last evening those who were not going on up to the front, had to come back six or seven miles to a camp, where we will stop two or three days till we are to move up. I would just like you to see that wood, I cannot describe it, it would perhaps be as big as the bush at Papakura but now it is just a mass of broken timber hardly a decent sized tree stand all broken & smashed by shell fire. We used to read about the German trenches & the great deep dug outs they had constructed, now we have seen them forty & fifty feet deep, no wonder there was such fierce fighting to drive them out. A few days ago I wrote to you a very short letter & [told] you that close to us the guns were thundering now we are right up against them there are guns all round us, hundreds of them of all sizes & when they get going I'll tell you Mum there's some noise. I'm going to make this letter to you and Jean this time Mother as I have not had a great deal of time, I'll just send her a P.C. and tell her, she must go up to you & read it. Last night as we arrived at this camp someone told me there was a parcel for me, & in my hurry to open it I did not take sufficient notice of the address to see who sent it any how it was a nice tin of short bread all soldered up & in excellent condition& as we were hungry after our march & only had bread and bully beef my mates & I made short work of it, it was lovely. Then again to-night I secured another parcel from you Mother containing soup tablets, cigarettes, a tin of cocoa and milk and some sweets, thanks so much we will all enjoy the soup and cocoa greatly I'm sure. I also received two letters one from Dick, who says he is getting on fine & expects to be back here shortly, & one from George Crocrombe ; Elsie has told me in the letters I could expect a letter from him & they have given me an invitation to visit them if ever I get to England. Talk about aeroplanes. Theres hundreds of them about here & yesterday I missed a sight I have been anxious to see, & that was one of the enemy planes brought down. A couple of ours & one of theirs, were having an air dual& I watched it for a time & then turned away to do something & just then the enemy plane was hit & plunged to the ground in flames. I was so disappointed over it. There are hundreds of German prisoners working on the roads about here & judging by the look of them they are quite contented with their lot, they prefer it to the trenches. We came across quite a few dead Germans in the wood I referred to, they had been missed & not buried, I took a button off one poor beggars coat as a souvenir.
I had several letters of yours & Jeans to answer and as I thought I would not have time to answer them for perhaps some little time I burnt them, I wish I had kept them a little longer, as there were some questions that required answering, & now I have forgotten what they were. There is a mail expected in tonight I hope there are some for me. Douglas Bremner, is an officer in our Battalion now beyond a good day I have not had a yarn with him. Alf Prince & Bryon are quite well & I am tip top myself. The photo's I had taken recently have not arrived yet. I hope they come before we go in to the scrap. It is just about dark & I will have to knock off for the evening, the place will soon be lit up with the flashes from the big guns at night it looks great, they are roaring day and night, old Fritz is getting something to keep him thinking. There's a devil of a shock in store for him in a day or two, you will probably hear about them in the papers I must not mention them yet though.
14th Have just received orders
to move cannot write more
fond love to all from
Your loving son
Will

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 26 Sep 2016 21:50:56 Processing Time: 662ms