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Hugh Sebag-Montefiore: the battle of the Somme

Radio New Zealand Radio New Zealand 10/09/2016
New Zealand infantry in the Switch Line at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette, September 1916. © Photo: Wikicommons New Zealand infantry in the Switch Line at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette, September 1916.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore has written a new history of the Battle of the Somme which, among other things, details war crimes on the part of New Zealandtroops. 

Somme: Into the Breach, is a fresh account of the most famous battle of World War 1, a battle that lasted over four months from July to November 1916 as the allies tried to break through the German front line.

Next week marks the 100-year anniversary of New Zealand’s involvement.

It was New Zealand’s first major engagement on Western Front: 15,000 members of the New Zealand Division were involved, one in seven of them were killed and thousands more wounded.

By the end of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916 casualties on both sides were about 1.3 million.

Sebag-Montefiore’s book draws on some vivid first-hand accounts. Some, including accounts from New Zealand soldiers, detail war crimes on the part of the allies.

“I’m not saying that the New Zealanders were the only ones who committed so called war crimes, there are accounts of all nations committing these war crimes,” he says.

He says troops were desensitised during the lead up to the attacks - almost brain-washed.

New Zealander Captain Lindsay Inglis, later a distinguished Major General in the New Zealand army, recalls how a Scottish major characterised the enemy to the men.

“He describes this red-bearded, red-haired Scottish major who toured around the front and lectured to all the New Zealand soldiers, he said we don’t want prisoners, we have to feed prisoners, what we have to do is kill Germans: the only good German, is a dead German,” Sebag-Montefiore says.

The Scottish major told the New Zealand troops that when the “sniveling cowards” threw up their hands, that was an opportunity to “stick the bayonet in”.

Sebag-Montefiore says the man also told the troops that the Germans were all dirty waiters and killing them by stabbing them in the throat with a fork was a fitting end.

This all happened before the New Zealand troops went into battle.

Sebag-Montefiore says there are many accounts of a no prisoner policy.

William Wilson wrote:

“The Huns never tried to escape, they threw up their paws and above the roar of the battle we could hear their cry, ‘Mercy kamaraden! Mercy!’ But they’d done too much damage with their two machine guns, and their cry for mercy was never heeded.”

Wilson recalls seeing a German on his knees with his hands above his head begging for mercy.

“A young chap, a New Zealander, walked up to him gazed at him for a few seconds and then deliberately, at three-yards distance, pushed out his rifle and blew the Hun’s head practically off.”

Sebag-Montefiore says there are other corroborating accounts.

"There are a six or seven other accounts of what we call war crimes being committed by New Zealanders. Once again, I must repeat, New Zealanders were not the only people doing this.”

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