Ceremonies mark 100 years since NZ first fought on the Somme

Soldiers at the Somme (Supplied)
Soldiers at the Somme (Supplied)

Ceremonies have been held in northern France to mark 100 years since New Zealand soldiers joined the bloody battle of the Somme in World War One.

A few hundred Kiwis made the trip across the world to take part, including the descendants of those who fought.

However, some special guests arrived late to steal the limelight.

A century on since New Zealanders first left their trenches on the Somme, another army of Kiwis - much smaller this time - has walked out of the mist, to the very place their forefathers saw battle.

Where there was once a heavily defended German trench, now stands the New Zealand monument at Longueval - a sacred place for Kiwis, and veteran military historian Chris Pugsley.

"When you think that a country of 1.1 million people would send a hundred thousand of its men to war - 60,000 casualties, 18,000 dead - it just defies belief; and to come to these fields, and you think 'my god!'" he says.

Across the old battlefield, Caterpillar Valley Cemetery shows the exorbitant price of the New Zealander's advance, with a wall to the missing covered with the names of more than 1200 Kiwi soldiers whose bodies were never recovered for burial.

It was a fitting backdrop to another ceremony, but this one received a royal visit.

Dressed in the uniform of a New Zealand Army Field Marshall, was the Prince of Wales. His family too has ties to the Somme.

"My great uncle Edward described it as the nearest approach to hell imaginable," he says.

Back in 1916, almost everyone in New Zealand was related to someone who fought here, and there are plenty still today. Some Kiwis only recently learned of family ties.

"While researching those people that are on the contingent with us at the moment, I discovered that I had a great great Uncle who was one of the first over the ridge on September 15th, so that made coming here that much more special," says New Zealand Defence Force senior communications advisor Charlene Smart.

For others, the Somme is a long standing family legacy.

"Like a lot of New Zealanders I had a great uncle who was killed not too far from here," says New Zealand Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee.

"You just, in your head, start hearing what the sounds must be like, you hear the descriptions of what it was like, and then you look at the beauty of this place right now."

And as the ceremony drew to a close, some surprise guests appeared, a very tangible reminder of what the soldiers themselves might have seen in the skies a century ago.