Ambassador speech at Battle of the Somme centenary
New Zealand National commemorative service to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Longueval, Thursday 15 September 2016.
E nga mana E nga iwi E nga reo
Tena katou, tena katou, tena katou katoa
Your Royal Highness
Monsieur le Secrétaire d’Etat chargé des anciens combattants et de la mémoire, Jean-Marc Todeschini
Monsieur le Préfet Philippe de Mester
Monsieur le Gouverneur Militaire de Lille, Géneral Coqueblin
New Zealand Chief of Defence, General Keating
Mesdames et Messieurs les parlementaires et élus
Messieurs les maires de Longueval et Flers
Mesdames et Messieurs éminents invités
Mesdames et Messieurs
On behalf of Defence Minister Brownlee and the government of New Zealand, I extend a warm welcome to you all as we gather at this Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Longueval this morning to commemorate the sacrifices of New Zealanders and others who gave their lives in the Battle of the Somme and the defence of the French Republic.
The shared history of France and New Zealand takes many forms, of which our role in support of France through both world wars is of the highest importance. As we acknowledge 70 years of diplomatic relations and the cooperation between our two countries, we are reminded of the many ways in which our two countries and peoples now work together, whether through political, economic, cultural, sporting or other contacts.
We also recall that it was because of the British Empire, now the Commonwealth of Nations, that New Zealanders joined the call in 1914 and deployed troops in this country from March 1916. Some had already seen service at Gallipoli. It is therefore a particular honour for New Zealanders that the Head of the Commonwealth is herself represented here today by His Royal Highness. Not without reason, those of us who follow Commonwealth history know well the significance of the phrase “the ties that bind” – something very appropriate for today’s commemorations.
The majority of New Zealanders killed in the Battle of the Somme are buried or commemorated in this very cemetery. The New Zealand Division’s losses in the battle - about 8000 casualties, including 2000 dead - amounted to more than half of its strength.
Some units of the division were particularly hard-hit. The Otago Infantry Regiment, as noted in its official history “suffered almost annihilating casualties”. When that regiment’s second battalion went into attack for the last time at the beginning of October, it had been reduced to less than a third of its full strength.
One of the Otago soldiers killed in this attack and commemorated here is Second-Lieutenant Jack Foster, who had joined his unit only 10 days before he was killed. Foster had been determined to serve his country and after several rejections managed to convince army doctors that he was fit to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
The losses suffered on the Somme shocked New Zealand. One writer commented that the casualty lists “fully revealed the sacrifice New Zealand was making [for] freedom” and that the “sympathy of the whole community will go out [like] a wave to all who have sons and relatives among the fallen or the wounded”.
One hundred years have since passed by. In his speech in November 2014 at Notre-Dame de Lorette, President François Hollande spoke of the importance of the centenary commemorations. He also reminded us that these were “not simply to honour the dead and underline the suffering endured, but also to send a message and to engage the younger generation”.
It is therefore entirely fitting that young people from France, New Zealand and other Pacific countries who engaged on the Somme are participating in today’s ceremonies: they will in their turn shoulder the responsibility for the relationships we shall have in the future, while never forgetting the events – and lessons - of 1916 that bring us all here to Caterpillar Valley today.