Sunday, 19 November 2006

Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme, Glyn Harper, 2003

SPRING OFFENSIVE: NEW ZEALAND AND THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE SOMME Glyn Harper, HarperCollins, Auckland, New Zealand, 2003, 284 pages, hardback, NZ$49.95.
ISBN 1-86950-481-X

Reading Martin Middlebrook’s poignant account of the first day of the 1918 German Offensive, The Kaiser’s Battle, I came across his only comment on the New Zealanders. “…none were involved on the first day.”
For an account of the New Zealand part in the Second Battle of the Somme, we have had to wait until Glyn Harper, one of our most reliable military historians, was able to assemble this detailed and readable book.

The German High Command’s last desperate gamble came in spring 1918, when a German onslaught of heavy artillery, gas barrages, flame-throwers and specially trained storm troops was thrown against the under-strength Third and Fifth Armies, between Arras and St Quentin. It nearly succeeded. Gains of four and five miles were made on the first day.

Meanwhile the exhausted New Zealand division had only just come out of the trenches after the disastrous Battle of Passchendaele and a bitter winter on the Ypres salient. Their time for rest and training was short. The Division was moved into a gap on the Third Army’s exposed right flank, linking up with 4th Australian Brigade. The New Zealanders were able to repel major German attacks, helping prevent a break-through while the German forces were in Harper’s phrase “bled white”.

As well as setting the New Zealand achievement into its Western Front context, Harper describes key actions and provides a balanced assessment. In cool, reasoned prose, enlivened by eyewitness accounts from diaries, letters and memoirs, he provides a good record of how the New Zealanders hastily took up their positions and held them with the “colossal toughness” that so dismayed a German officer who had hoped to reach the sea in a fortnight. “The resistance had so strengthened that we could no longer generally break it down…neither could the troops who relieved us.”

As John Coleman of Nelson recalled it, “The Germans came over three times. Three times the next day in close formation…And they just wiped them down. Wiped them down. And he sent another lot and he got wiped down the same. Terrible!

On Easter Sunday, 30 March 1918 at the remarkable hour of 2pm, three battalions advanced to capture the strategic high ground of La Signy Farm. From their sound defensive positions, the New Zealanders then weathered the major assault of 5th April, including the heaviest artillery bombardment of the war.
Harper makes the human cost of these weeks all too clear. An important feature of this book is the 91-page list of names and details of those killed, with next-of-kin and burial sites. It makes poignant reading.

Spring Offensive is another significant advance in Glyn Harper’s campaign to achieve a balanced account of New Zealand’s role in the First World War. My only quibble is that there is no list of illustrations or maps. However the photos are very well captioned and the four maps (once found) are useful.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on February 21st 2004

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