Overwhelmed by the statistics, PATRICK GOWER says the Somme offers of a sombre reminder of one of history’s bloodiest battles.

I knew little about the Battle of the Somme, and I certainly didn’t know that they could hear the gunfire from here in France all the way back in London.

To most Antipodeans, the story of the Anzacs at Gallipoli is well known. But what do we know of our history in the Battle of the Somme, the biggest and bloodiest battle of World War I, when the British and German fronts faced off in France?

What do we know of the one million casualties and 300,000 dead? Or of the estimated 23,000 Australians dead and wounded, the 7000 New Zealand casualties, and of the 3000 casualties from South Africa?

Standing in a paddock in southern France, which was in the heart of the 25-mile battle zone, it is not this horrid barrage of statistics that haunts me the most.

It is the thought that on that first day, when some 19,000 men were killed, the thunder of the gunfire could be heard all the way back in London, where I have just come after a 10-hour coach ride.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of that bloody first day of the Somme – July 1, 1916. Not only has it become a byword for bloodbath, it is also a literal graveyard of statistics – the dead, the casualties, the shells fired, the average age of the soldier.

But while here, I put the statistics to one side and, instead, I imagine a New Zealand soldier. By my age, 28, he may have already survived Gallipoli, before being sent here.

I imagine him spending day after day in the trenches, not fighting, but waiting. Waiting and waiting for the call to rush. Thinking about the Germans, little more than a stone’s throw away, doing the same.

Today, the Somme is dotted with war memorials and museums. There are books and maps and guides and, of course, statistics.

The battlefields have been returned to farmland and the ground beneath is teeming with soldier’s remains (so close to the surface that skeletons are uncovered when a farmer digs a drain, or heavy rainfall washes away a bank) and shells and grenades, some of which still live and claim victims every year.

So when you are standing here, it doesn’t take much for the imagination to run. I imagine a New Zealand soldier standing here on that first day of mighty bloodshed listening to gunfire so loud they could hear it back in London.

From the uttermost ends of the Earth” – New Zealand

Along a quiet country road and on a rise in the fields is something that reminds me of New Zealand – a white obelisk, just like the war memorials in just about every town at home. This is the New Zealand national memorial. It is inscribed: “From the uttermost ends of the earth.”

Nearby is the Caterpillar Valley cemetery where the remains of a New Zealand soldier were exhumed two years ago and taken to a new tomb in Wellington.

I searched for the headstones carrying the Silver Fern. Barely any carried the names – it was one unknown grave after another.

Here too, is New Zealand’s memorial to the missing – 1205 soldiers lost at the Somme. On the wall are familiar names to me: Coxhead, Ewing and Bourke. All are from places just as familiar: Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury.

It is worth remembering that New Zealand’s 7000 casualties at the Somme were comparable to more than the 7000 at Gallipoli, 2721 of whom were killed.

And remember the poor Kiwis who came from the uttermost ends of the Earth to see not just the bloodbath in Gallipoli, but the one here at the Somme as well.

No ordinary Digger – Australia

It is by no means an official memorial to the Australian soldiers at the Somme, but the collection of rusty battlefield bric-a-bac at the Tommy Bar café in Pozières salutes a digger surely like no other.

The Tommy Bar is strewn with images of Private John “Barney” Hines.

Like the owner of Tommy Bar (where there’s even a trench in the garden), Hines had a habit of collecting things.

He was known as the souvenir king for his penchant for stealing anything from helmets to watches off the German dead. He even took a grandfather clock and a grand piano back to the trenches. He was apparently caught in the deserted Banque de France where he had tucked away millions of francs into suitcases.

A Liverpudlian, he had followed the gold rush to Australia, but it was as a forty-something soldier at the Somme that he made his name.

His legendary pillaging saw the German Kaiser put a price on his head, dead or alive, and brand him a barbarian “typical of the Australian troops on the Western Front”.

Typical he was not. But at the Tommy Bar they say Hines was as brave as they came and would have been decorated many times if it wasn’t for his issues with discipline.

There are a number of memorials to different Australian divisions and heroes on the Somme, but none quite as quirky as the tale of Barney Hines that entertains visitors to the Tommy Bar. It is probably the way Hines would have liked to be remembered.

In the Devil’s Wood – South Africa

The South African brigade had just arrived in World War I as reinforcements when they were told to take tiny Delville Wood from the Germans at all costs.

Three thousand or so South Africans went in, only 768 came out again just a few days later.

Once they had taken the wood, they were told to hold onto it – again at all costs.

And, of course, the Germans came back, firing up to 400 shells a minute into the wood. After a day or two, the South Africans cried “get us out of here”.

The reality was there wasn’t any relief.

They were stranded, and as each day went by, the thick forest – known as Devil’s Wood to the troops – was cleared out further by the machine gun fire reducing every tree, except one, to stumps. Despite being filled with shrapnel, that tree is still in the forest today.

After seven bloody days and nights fighting for every metre of forest, the South Africans were relieved, the wood still in their hands, but only one of out every four men who entered still standing.

The wood is in South African hands again today as a memorial to their heroics.

It has been replanted, but you can still see the shallow trenches – the tree roots made it impossible to dig anything useful – from which Private William Faulds twice ran to drag wounded men to safety, the deeds making him the first member of the South African forces to win the Victoria Cross.

You can follow the point where the South Africans entered the wood and see the stone which marks the site of the South African’s headquarters during the battle. Or walk the “streets” of the forest, the tracks through it that the soldier’s nicknamed Regent, Princes and Buchanan after those in their home country.

The memorial’s museum tells not only the story of South Africa’s soldiers in the woods, but of their roles in subsequent battles around the world.

The memorial itself reads: Their sacrifice is our legacy.”