The Battle of the Somme, September 1916: survival and loss

Guest blogger and long-serving, recently retired Te Papa history curator Michael Fitzgerald introduces the Battle of the Somme, and one man who survived the ferocious fighting that occurred there 100 years ago and another – one of Te Papa’s ‘Berry Boys’ – who lost his life.

As visitors leave Gallipoli: The scale of our war (the exhibition developed by Te Papa with Weta Workshop), they encounter a figure of a New Zealand soldier standing knee-deep in the mud of a flooded and frozen shell hole. The soldier’s facial expression shows extreme fatigue, and his fixed gaze into the far distance indicates his shocked reaction to the horrors he has endured.

Cecil-Malthus on the Somme, September 1916. Gallipoli: The Scale of our War. Te Papa with Weta Workshop

Cecil-Malthus on the Somme, September 1916. Gallipoli: The Scale of our War. Te Papa with Weta Workshop

Cecil Malthus on the Somme

Our figure represents a real soldier, Sergeant Cecil Malthus of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion. With a steel helmet and heavy winter clothing, he is dressed and equipped quite differently from the Gallipoli veterans whose stories are told in the rest of the exhibition. Malthus survived Gallipoli, and he appears as he would have after enduring a period of combat duty fighting German forces on the Western Front in France.

So, while our soldiers suffered terribly on Gallipoli, the conditions that awaited the survivors as well as the thousands of reinforcements sent from New Zealand sent to the Western Front were even worse. The losses and suffering were to continue for over two years, until the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

Western Front trench warfare

In the ferocious fighting known as the Somme campaign of 1916, New Zealanders were to have a brutal introduction to the horrors of warfare against a modern, technologically advanced enemy. Sometimes described as ‘industrial warfare, this mode of fighting involved huge masses of men on the ground, massive artillery bombardments, machine guns and the first use of mechanised fighting vehicles (called ‘tanks’ by the British to confuse enemy spies – see below) and the increasingly sophisticated use of aircraft to photograph enemy positions and attack enemy troops.

'A British tank in action', circa 1916-1918, Te Papa Archives, CA000316/001/0005/0005. Te Papa

‘A British tank in action’, circa 1916-1918, Te Papa Archives, CA000316/001/0005/0005. Te Papa

Breaking the deadlock

Opposing troops on the Western Front in France and Belgium had, since late 1914, been deadlocked in dense networks of opposing systems of trenches and fortifications that enabled defenders to repel infantry attacks. From the British point of view, mounting a massive attack in the Somme area would hopefully open a gap in the German defences and enable cavalry to advance rapidly over open country. Infantry and artillery would follow, thus breaking the deadlock of the trenches.

The Somme and Verdun

Another motive for the British attack was to help the French army, which had since February been enduring horrendous losses defending the fortress of Verdun. Both the Somme and Verdun are remembered as among the most destructive battles in history.

For Britain, the disastrous opening day of the battle, 1 July 1916, when the British army lost 19,000 men killed in one day, has become embedded in national memory. For France and Germany, Verdun is remembered as the slaughterhouse in which about 700,000 men were killed or wounded between February and December 1916.

By the time the British army finally called a halt to the Somme campaign on 18 November 1916, there and been a total of around 1,200,000 Allied and German troops killed and wounded. The figures are mind-boggling – and New Zealand was to suffer its full share of losses in the battle.

New Zealanders on the Somme

About 15,000 men of the New Zealand Division went into action on the Somme 100 years ago, in mid-September 1916. They were taking part in the third phase of the battle (also known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette). Six years later, a memorial was erected on the site the Switch Trench, the New Zealanders’ first strategic objective, which they achieved on 15 September (see the unveiling of the memorial below).

The unveiling of the New Zealand Memorial at Longueval, on the Somme, 8 October 1922. Photographer unknown. Te Papa

The unveiling of the New Zealand Memorial at Longueval, on the Somme, 8 October 1922. Photographer unknown. Te Papa

At the end of the campaign, a total of 2111 New Zealanders had been killed and over 8000 wounded. Of the 2111 dead, over 50% (1205) are listed on the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery near the village of Longueval. Some of the men buried at the Cemetery are unknown; one of them was exhumed in 2004 and returned to New Zealand, where he is entombed as the Unknown Warrior in the National War Memorial in Wellington.

Norman Cummins’ story

100 years after his death, Te Papa remembers one of these men, Norman Cummins, whose photograph (below) is among our collection of soldiers’ portraits from the Wellington photography studio of Berry & Co. Norman was the son of William Henry and Julia Cummins. He was born in 1893, the fourth child in a family of twelve. As a young man, Norman became a well-known Wellington athlete. He belonged to the Brooklyn Harriers Club and won many championships including, in 1915, the Wellington Provincial five-mile cross-country championship.

Copy of a portrait of Norman Cummins, 1916-1917, Wellington, by William Berry. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.045351)

Copy of a portrait of Norman Cummins, 1916-1917, Wellington, by William Berry. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (B.045351)

Aged twenty-one when the war began, and working as a storeman packer for Alex Cowan and Sons, Norman enlisted in the 5th (Wellington) Regiment and went to Samoa with the Advance Party to capture the German colony. It was a bloodless affair, and on a spell off-duty Norman may have sampled too much lager. On 12 February 1915, a court-martial found Norman guilty of drunkenness and he was sentenced to thirty days’ imprisonment with hard labour.

Field Punishment No. 1

It seems that Colonel Robert Logan (below), Commanding Officer of the New Zealand troops in Samoa, wanted to make a public example of Norman’s offence, so he ‘commuted’ Norman’s sentence to thirty days of the Army’s notorious ‘Field Punishment No. 1’.

’Colonel Logan Reading Proclamation - Samoa’, 1914, New Zealand, by Malcolm Ross. Purchased 2011. Te Papa (GH023109)

’Colonel Logan Reading Proclamation – Samoa’, 1914, New Zealand, by Malcolm Ross. Purchased 2011. Te Papa (GH023109)

Undergoing this punishment, Norman would have had to stand full-length tied to a fixed post or gun wheel for up to two hours each day. As soon as possible after completing his punishment, Norman returned to Wellington where he voluntarily discharged himself from military service on 15 April 1915.

Re-enlistment

However, Norman voluntarily re-enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in August 1915. With a new service number (8/3550) he became Private Norman Cummins of ‘D’ Company, 9th Reinforcements. He sailed from Wellington on 8 January 1916. In England, he joined the 2nd Battalion, Otago Regiment, and went to France on 9 April.

On 15 September 1916, the Battalion was one of the leading New Zealand attacking units. As the official history of the Otago Regiment records, ‘the advancing waves [of men] had not proceeded far before officers and men began to drop from the ranks, for heavy machine-gun fire was coming from the left and from the front of High Wood.’

Otago’s losses

Losses were indeed heavy, and Norman was one of 126 men of the Otago Infantry Regiment, almost all from the 2nd Battalion, who were killed that day. Norman Cummins does not have a known grave and his name is listed on the New Zealand Memorial at Caterpillar Valley Military Cemetery in France.

A token of sympathy

Early in October, after news of Norman’s death reached Wellington, a ‘Soldier’s Gift Fund’ fete was held at the Basin Reserve, near Norman’s family home in Drummond Street. A marathon race on the programme was abandoned as a token of sympathy for Norman’s family and respect for his athletic achievements. Tragically, Norman’s parents were to lose another son in the war, when Private Durrell Henry Cummins of the Canterbury Infantry Regiment was killed at Bapaume on 28 August 1918.

  • Learn more about the Somme from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s website, nzhistory.net.nz
  • Leave a message to commemorate the 100th anniversary of New Zealand’s participation in the Battle of the Somme

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