Somme 100: NZ's national character was revealed in battle, says Prince Charles

By Kieran Campbell

Surrounded by those who never made it home, hundreds of people filled the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery to mark 100 years since the first day New Zealand entered the "nearest approach to hell imaginable".

They sat among the headstones of the soldiers they were there to remember, including the 1200 New Zealand men commemorated at the cemetery who entered the Battle of the Somme and whose graves are unknown.

Children too young to understand the significance of the day bounded between the rows of graves playing cheerfully as those who fought 100 years ago for their freedom were remembered for their "boundless courage and tenacity".

People stand during a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Photo / AP
People stand during a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Photo / AP

Two historic military planes flew overhead, dropping hundreds of poppy flowers to spread in the cool morning breeze over the cemetery.

French military stood to attention beside their New Zealand allies and the descendants of the young men who fought at the Somme.

"Standing in this peaceful scene today it is hard to imagine that a century ago this was an infernal blasted wasteland," said Prince Charles, dressed in full New Zealand military garb.

"We are gathered here today to honour New Zealand's role in the Battle of the Somme. That calamitous engagement represented what was, for a new nation, the greatest loss of life it had experienced in one day, only to be exceeded the following year.

"None came further to serve here than the New Zealanders, who, on the Somme, confirmed their reputation as exceptional soldiers. They engaged with boundless courage and tenacity in defence of values of liberty that we still hold dear to this day.

"What occurred here 100 years ago did not create national character, it revealed it."

Prince Charles joked after the service with Lance Corporal Karl Manuel that the day was fortunately not too cold.


The official party was escorted into the cemetery by the New Zealand Defence Force Maori Cultural Group assembled in a spear shape, karakia (prayer) karanga (a spiritual call) simultaneously with clearance from Manuel as the warrior in the front.

The Caterpillar Valley Cemetery ceremony was the second of three to commemorate the centenary of New Zealand's role in the Battle of the Somme.

As dawn broke over the paddocks of farmland that once were ghoulish battlefields, about 250 people walked from Longueval to the New Zealand memorial about 1.2km away. The trek retraces the path marched by Kiwi troops on that first morning they arrived on the Western Front.

Within weeks they would suffer almost 8000 casualties, including 2000 killed.

Gathering to walk to the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial in Longueval, northern France. Photo / AP
Gathering to walk to the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial in Longueval, northern France. Photo / AP

Bob Hill, the vice president of the New Zealand Returned Services Association, read from the diary of an unnamed Kiwi soldier on the Somme describing the agony of watching his mates die:

"A new battlefield has a smell very hard to explain. High explosives ... Gasses, mixed with rotting corpses. A rotten egg being rammed down one's throat may come near it. If the civilian police could bottle the smell it would be a great thing for breaking up riots.

"A wild screech, a crash ... The mud was our saviour. We were plastered with it. I had a piece of mud the size of my two fists ... My tongue and lips were dry. Had the ground been hard we would have been blown to pieces.

"A corporal from another battery had been killed during the night. The body is lying on the road. The ammunition wagons are running over him.

"This particular bit of road is under direct observation and we do it at a gallop. It would be suicide for us to stop to remove the body ... (four days later) he is still where he fell.

"Going in this afternoon, the wheels went right down his backbone, the head became adrift from the body and was pushed out of sight in the mud. Another New Zealander who will be reported missing, believed killed in action."

New Zealand officers stand during a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Photo / AP
New Zealand officers stand during a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Photo / AP

Mr Hill said the confronting details of the battle were important to be told "to know just what these people put up with and the sacrifices they made".

"I must admit when I was first given (the soldier's diary entries) to read I thought 'goodness gracious'. It's so hard to think back and put yourself in their place," he said.

"All the readings said it the way it was and not the way some people might like to hear it. It was graphic but it was true.

"I served in Borneo and Vietnam and even that compared to what these people put up with, it's chalk and cheese.

"I think it's important that it's told the way it was and not just in pretty words. We need to know just what these people put up with and the sacrifices they made before we can move on."

Able musician Rebecca Nelson, who wore a cloak of New Zealand bird feathers, stands at the Caterpillar Cemetery in Langueval, France, after performing at the dawn service. Photo / Kieran Campbell
Able musician Rebecca Nelson, who wore a cloak of New Zealand bird feathers, stands at the Caterpillar Cemetery in Langueval, France, after performing at the dawn service. Photo / Kieran Campbell

Able musician Rebecca Nelson, who wore a cloak weaved of New Zealand bird feathers, said she cried in the days leading up to the ceremony.

"I look at it as a proud Kiwi moment, and so I get all the emotion out days before, I cry for days before," she said.

"I'm singing for my country, I just breathe through it.

"This cloak represents the New Zealand Defence Force, the past and the present through every single commemoration and war."

The blue feathers represent the oceans crossed by New Zealanders heading to battle and Gallipoli where weaving of the cloak began at its centenary last year. The green and yellow represent the land travelled through Europe by troops and finally the red is the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

"And every soldier. Not just New Zealanders, every soldier," Nelson said.

Being the voice of the dawn ceremony was an immense honour for the 28-year-old Auckland singer, who only three years ago was scouted while busking in Devonport.

Today she roused those commemorating with renditions of the New Zealand and French national anthems and hymns as the sun rose over Somme.

"I love singing and I love being the voice of a nation, to help people remember.

"When I sing I sing for us but I also sing for the ones who aren't here and I just look out and go 'this is for you'."

As New Zealand wakes on Friday, a final sunset ceremony will bring the day of remembrance to a close.

There will be fewer speeches and at its centrepiece will be a performance of a musical item both called and depicting A Day in Battle.

It ends with a single bass drum beating sporadically as if it were the heart slowly taking its last beat. A reminder of all those men who were left behind but will never be forgotten. The price of peace is high.

- NZ Herald

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