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An unknown soldier is laid to rest in Longueval

The remains of an unknown New Zealand soldier who died on the Somme in 1916 were reburied at a moving ceremony at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval on 16 February 2011, writes New Zealand historian and author Brian Lockstone, who attended the ceremony.

For much of the day low cloud and fog shrouded the Somme Valley, in northern France.  But as 2pm approached on 16 February, the weather began to lift in time for the reburial of the remains of the unknown New Zealand soldier who died on the Somme in 1916.

For the  New Zealanders, British and French men and women assembled at the Caterpillar Valley war cemetery it was as though a sign that the soldier was being welcomed home to rest.

His remains, with two Auckland Regiment collar badges, were found  by a farmer in December, 2009. The identity of the soldier could not be established but the New Zealand Defence Force affirms that because of where he was found, he probably died in the Battle of the Somme in September, 1916.

A British clergyman resident in France, the Rev John Porter, conducted the service and the New Zealand Defence Attaché to France, Brigadier Phil Gibbons, commenced proceedings and reflected on the poignancy of the service and the overnight news from Afghanistan regarding the death of Private Kirifi Mila.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Powell, Commanding Officer 3rd Auckland (Countess of Ranfurly’s own) and Northland Battalion Group spoke of the impact of the battle on the Auckland Regiment today. After lying in a foreign field for 95 years, the soldier was now with his mates buried with the honour and dignity befitting a warrior, he said.

The Maire (Mayor) of Longueval, M. Jany Fournier, was present and New Zealand Ambassador to France, Rosemary Banks, said that at last the soldier’sremains would have their rightful resting place, in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and watched over with respect by the people of Longueval and the Somme.

“While we cannot know our lost soldier’s name, we give thanks to him and to all his mates who also met their deaths, those who suffered injury and also to those who survived – but carried their scars inside. For us they paid the price of liberty.  We owe them our eternal gratitude,” she said.

Renowned authority on New Zealand and the First World War and senior lecturer at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, Dr Chris Pugsley, set the scene of the 1916 battle.  He invited those assembled to turn about, face the east and look towards the ridge where stands the New Zealand Memorial near Longueval.

His voice ringing in the cold air, Dr Pugsley (a retired NZ Army Lieutenant Colonel) described how the New Zealand Division advance, from their trenches, with rifles at high port, carrying 200 rounds of ammunition, two Mills bombs, a pick or shovel and their kit on their backs, into the battle. 

The Rev Ford commenced the committal. The New Zealand flag was removed from the coffin and folded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery staff before they lowered the soldier into the grave.   The Last Post and Reveille was sounded, and Ms Rebecca Woodmore, from the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels, sang the New Zealand Anthem, in Maori and English.

The cemetery has the graves of 125 New Zealand soldiers.  The name of the unknown soldier buried on 16 February is mostly likely to be inscribed on the memorial at the cemetery to the 1205 who died in the battle and whose remains were never found.  In 2004 the remains of one New Zealand soldier were removed from the cemetery and laid in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, at the National War Memorial in Wellington.

Article reproduced from Army News, courtesy of the New Zealand Defence Force.

Updated on 23rd July 2015