Lying squarely in the middle of the 1916 Somme Battlefield, Caterpillar Valley was the name given by the army to the long swale which rises eastwards, past “Caterpillar Wood”, to the high ground at Guillemont. Longueval village is on the northern edge of the feature and 500 meters west of the village, on the south side of the road, is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery.
Caterpillar Valley was captured during a successful night assault by the British 3rd, 7th and 9th Divisions on Bazentin Ridge on July 14th, 1916. It was lost in the German advance of March 1918 and recovered by the 38th (Welsh) Division on August 28th, 1918, at which time the cemetery was started (now Plot 1 of this cemetery) containing 25 graves of the 38th Division and the 6th Dragoon Guards. Post-Armistice, the cemetery was expanded when remains were recovered from other burial sites on the battlefields of the Somme. The great majority of these soldiers died in the autumn of 1916 and almost all the rest in August or September 1918.
The cemetery now contains 4,358 Commonwealth burials, 3,796 of which unidentified; there are special memorials to 32 men known or believed to be buried somewhere on the site and to three men buried in the closed McCormick’s Post Cemetery whose graves were destroyed by shell fire.
On a terrace on the east side of the cemetery is the Caterpillar Valley (New Zealand) Memorial, commemorating the men of the New Zealand Division who died in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, and whose graves are not known. This is one of seven memorials in France and Belgium to New Zealand‘s missing soldiers. These are all in CWGC cemeteries chosen as appropriate to the fighting in which the men died.
The monument is on the eastern wall of the cemetery and was designed by Sir Herbert Baker (1862 – 1946), one of the four principal architects employed by the CWGC and the designer of the memorials at Tyne Cot, Loos, Neuve Chapelle and VC Corner plus ten other cemeteries. Baker also created many important buildings in India and Africa.
This structure is quite like a small version of the Tyne Cot Memorial without the faux-chapels and wing walls at the ends. It consists of a straight wall of natural pebble-dash stone masonry on which ten large white Portland stone panels bear the names of 1,205 missing New Zealand soldiers. These men fell between August and October 1916 during the Battles of the Somme, and due to the conditions of the battle ground it was a long time until remains could be located and recovered for burial.
In 1914 the Dominion of New Zealand raised the ‘New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ (NZEF) from its militia, which during the Gallipoli campaign was two brigades strong and served with the Australian 4th Brigade to complete the ANZAC division. After arrival in France, reinforcements enabled the New Zealanders to form a third brigade, and so the NZEF became the NZ Division, which was assigned to the British XV Corps. By mid-1917, the NZ Division was one of the largest in the British Expeditionary Force, having grown to four brigades, and was serving in the Australian Corps.
The NZ Division entered the fight at the Somme on September 11th, 1916, taking over the tenuous line between Delville Wood and High Wood. They were a part of the British 4th Army’s attack on September 15th, the objective of which was to penetrate north and then east to capture the occupied city of Bapaume. The first part of this offensive became known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, and lasted from the 15th to the 22nd of September. On the first day the NZ and British 41st Divisions captured the village of Flers,
and the Germans were slowly pushed back for several more days. After resting and regrouping the attack was renewed on September 25th in the Battle of Morval, and the New Zealand Division captured Factory Corner, on the road between Gueudecourt and Eaucourt-l’Abbaye. By October 1st, they had captured and held Gird Trench, Circus Trench and Gird Support Trench as well. They were withdrawn from the battle on October 4th, and on the 10th they were sent north to the Pas-de-Calais to regroup, although their Artillery remained on the Somme for the rest of the month.
In these battles of 1916, the NZ Division had fought for 23 consecutive days, advanced more than two miles deep along five miles of enemy front line. They captured nearly 1,000 prisoners and many machine guns; they lost none of their Vickers and Lewis guns, and less than twenty prisoners. Their casualties were about 7,000, and of these 2,111 were killed in action or died of wounds, just 168 less than New Zealand lost at Gallipoli.
NZ government records list the dominion’s population in 1914 at 1,089,825 persons, of which 220,089 were males of military age. Further detail lists 135,184 of these as ‘mobilized’, 117,175 found fit for service and 98,950 persons sent overseas, including 550 nurses. Conscription was introduced in August 1916 and 19,548 conscripts served overseas. 2,688 Maoris and Polynesians also served, and at least 3,370 New Zealanders served with other armies, 2,533 of them with the Australians.
NZEF overseas casualties for the war were 16,697 killed or died and 41,317 wounded. Another 507 died in New Zealand and an estimated 1,000 died from wounds after the war.
If you’ve been doing the arithmetic here you now know that nearly ten percent of the population of New Zealand served overseas and well over half of the eligible male population was mobilized. This was a significant commitment for such a small nation, and the ratios of loss against size of force are also high: 17% killed or died and 58 % total casualties.
Thus it is not surprising that WW1 is still a big deal in New Zealand. Every year there are remembrance events at the memorial sites, including Caterpillar Valley. Shown here is Charles, the Prince of Wales, in attendance at the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which was held at Caterpillar Valley two years ago. Note that HRH exercised his sovereign right to ‘lead’ the NZ Forces and so was kitted out as a NZ Field Marshal, outranking the actual commander of the NZ Defence Force, Lt. General Timothy Keating, who was also present.