The South Africans’ defence of Delville Wood

E5 of Collected Articles

THE SOUTH AFRICANS’ DEFENCE OF DELVILLE WOOD:

15TH TO 20TH July 1916.

By Dr George Bailey, 1998 and 2007

Chaplain Eustace Hill MC, (1872 -1953), the padre who survived Delville Wood, writing in 1926:

“Again, if one penetrated below the talk of our men, and sought out the spirit which remained constant in the hearts of the fellows, one found the crusaders’ spirit.”1

It was that spirit which for 80 years has linked the heroism of the First South African Infantry Brigade to the battle within the infamous ‘Devil’s Wood’.2

“… in the grim litany of the Somme’s savagery of sustained attack and counter-attack, Delville Wood stands unenviably pre-eminent.”3

The selection of the South Africans’ defence of Delville Wood

During six days of July, 1916, the First South African Infantry Brigade earned their distinguished place in military history. Between the 15th and the 20th of July some 3153 officers and men held at bay within the depths of Delville Wood three of the best German divisions.4 When they paraded on the 21st, just 755 officers and men were present. Whereas in four years on the Western Front, one in two British soldiers became casualties,5 the rate was three out of four (76 %) for this stand of just six days

The memory of their stand remains bright despite the continuing gloom cast by the battle of the Somme. Although no black South Africans appear to have fought at Delville Wood, even after the internal strife of the intervening 80 years, the new South Africa remembers those who were wounded and killed, by flying its new flag on the Memorial. It is the symbolism of the ‘crusaders’ spirit’1 that has drawn this author to visit the wood, and to write this essay.

In terms of the overall Somme battle, the Brigade was attached to the 9th (Scottish) Division, part of the XIII Corps. The soldiers of this Dominion were too small in number to be part of their own division, whereas the Canadians, the New Zealanders and the Australians had their own. In recognising the quality of their defence of Delville Wood, this essay will focus on this Brigade alone.

However this is not to overlook the strenuous efforts made by other battalions in the 9th Division, such as the 5th Camerons at nearby Waterlot Farm, the 11th and 12th Royal Scots at Longueval, and the Pioneers of the 9th Seaforths. In addition, battalions of the 18th and 3rd Divisions gave assistance to sustain the position of the Brigade within the Wood. On the 18th of July, the charge at Longueval by three of the Highlander battalions from the Division (the 8th Black Watch, the 7th Seaforths and the 7th Camerons) brought relief to the few gaunt South Africans survivors when the Germans had temporarily retaken most of the wood.

After the 20th July, seven other Divisions were sucked into the battle for Delville Wood. Finally on the 15th September, a tank assisted in clearing the last of the enemy clinging to the Wood thus becoming the first tank to fight in battle.6 Almost two months had elapsed since the Brigade were withdrawn. However the intensity of the later fighting did not match that of the six days.

This essay draws heavily upon the book ‘Delville Wood’7, written by the South African author Ian Uys. Although it focuses on “testimony by recollection”, Liddle nevertheless supports it as conveying a convincing image of the conditions overcome by the Brigade.9 The essay will explain the strategic performance of the Brigade during their stand rather than the performance of individuals and during particular days. In the roll of honour, 64 gallantry awards were made. However it is not the individual acts that are remembered but the overall performance of the whole Brigade in repelling these enemy divisions during those crucial days.

The events leading to the battle: the first two weeks of the Somme

The battle of Delville Wood was part of the British Army’s major effort in 1916. After the bitter disappointment of the 1st of July, and its ‘…over 54,000 British casualties…’9, the major assault on the 14th July, and the subsequent days, became the pivotal phase of the Somme offensive, and perhaps of the war in the Western Front. For the German Commander, General von Falkenhayn, demanded that his troops must not retreat10 and most did not. The German forces fought with determination; and their best regiments experienced rates of attrition from which they never recovered.

Despite the enormous casualties of the 1st of July, the British Divisions continued to advance where they had successfully breached the German front-line trenches on the right flank. Bernafay Wood was captured on the 3rd, and on the 12th, Mametz Wood was finally cleared after the sacrifice of the 38th (Welsh) Division. Then during the morning of the 14th, Trones Wood was captured after 6 days of unsuccessful assaults. This cleared the way for the general assault on the Second Line, along the Bazentin Ridge, of which Longueval, Delville Wood and Waterlot Farm were major objectives.

Unfortunately the initial break-in was poorly exploited; by the time the 7th Dragoon Guards and 20th Deccan Horse made their cavalry charge towards High Wood the German machine-gunners were able to re-establish their supremacy. This temporary success left Longueval and Delville Wood partly held by crippled battalions. Hence on the 15th, three battalions of the First South African Infantry Brigade were ordered to advance and take the wood, which they did during the morning.

Because the wood stuck ‘like a sore thumb’ beyond the Second Line, the troops within it would be able to overlook and enfilade the newly-dug Switch Trench towards High Wood and Martinpuich. This trench was vital for giving the counter-attacking Germans a secure route back to the Bazentin Ridge. Also the troops would overlook the open ground surrounding Guillemont and Ginchy which was being heavily contested, as Junger testified.11 Hence the German commanders recognised the necessity of recapturing the wood. Their strategic decision was the cause of the Brigade’s agony during the next 5 days.

The strategic impact of the villages and woods upon the Somme battle

Until the battle of Flers on the 15th September, the only means of exploiting any break-in was the cavalry. However the patchwork of small, heavily-fortified villages and woods such as Mametz, Bernafay, High, and Delville gave command over the open fields in between. Hence the German machine-gunners could put devastating fire into these fields but remain hidden within the villages and woods. In addition they served as reasonably secure observation posts from which to direct artillery fire. Thus the means then available of achieving an effective break-out, the cavalry, were rendered impotent – as shown by their failure at High Wood. Only with the first use of the tank at Flers came the means to turn the break-in into a break-out. But it took two further years of development of this technology and the military tactics to properly exploit it, together with advanced artillery firing programmes, to give the infantry on the 8th August 1918 the means to begin the final defeat of these machine-gunners.

The composition of the Brigade and its route to the Somme

The 3153 South Africans available at the beginning of the assault on Longueval and Delville Wood were in four battalions, the 1st Cape of Good Hope Regiment, the 2nd Natal and Orange Free State Regiment, the 3rd Regiment from the Transvaal and Rhodesia, the 4th Regiment drawn from South African Scottish regiments. Some of the older soldiers had been on opposite sides in the South African War just 14 years before. English and Scottish were the main nationalities represented. The Boers made up only 15% because the British Government had requested an infantry based brigade – and they were superb horsemen rather than infantrymen. Nevertheless the Brigade was seen as representing the four parts of the Union of South Africa, and Rhodesia.

After reaching England in November 1915, the Brigade was posted to Egypt, and helped defeat the Senussi tribes in early 1916. Reaching France by the port of Marseilles in April, the Brigade joined the 9th Division at Bailleul where their superb marksmanship (15 accurate rounds in 40 seconds) brought them renown. This skill later served them well in Delville Wood. After learning the rigours of trench warfare at Armentieres, they went up the ‘sharp end’ on the Somme on the 4th July, taking part in the taking of Bernafay and Trones Woods during which actions they suffered 396 casualties.

On the 14th July, the 1st Regiment (the Regiments were also called Battalions) was used to support the attack on Longueval but joined up later with the other three battalions in the Wood. One of its soldiers, Private William Faulds, was to rescue his platoon commander near the Wood on the 16th and gain the Victoria Cross.

Supporting these regiments were a machine-gun company, Royal Engineers, a light trench mortar battery and a field ambulance.

The environment within which the battle was fought: The Bazentin Ridge, Longueval, and Delville Wood

Longueval was and is a tiny village built around a crossroads on the Bazentin Ridge between the two villages of Bazentin-le-Grand and Ginchy. The roads link the villages of Flers and Montauban to these three villages. The houses of Longueval were characteristic of this part of Picardy, of little architectural importance, but constructed out of local materials and used to house the farming community. The sturdiness of its buildings made it natural for the Germans to incorporate the village into the defensive positions within their Second Line.

Partly engulfing the village on its eastern side is Delville Wood. The 156 acres of this wood consisted of dense oak and birch wood, with their understorey of hazel. In military terms, the two locations can be considered as being one position since neither could be held independently of the other. From Delville Wood, it was possible to see some five miles into German ground thus making the Wood of great strategic importance to the enemy to prevent their being observed.12

The environment within which the battle was fought: The Rides within the Wood

Before the War, wide paths had been cleared through the Wood both to enable the landowner to ride through it and to allow cut wood to be taken out to the local sawmill. After the fighting of late 1914 between French and German units during the ‘Race to the Sea’, the Germans strongly fortified the north-western corner of the wood to guard the Longueval-Flers road. When the British came to the Somme in early 1916, the Rides were given the names of famous English and Scottish streets.

Princes Street, running east to west, was the ‘backbone’ of the Wood from which three ‘ribs’ ran to the north, Strand Street, Regent Street, and Bond Street, and three to the south, Buchanan Street, Campbell Street and King Street. These were crossed by Rotten Row and they joined South Street, the road from Longueval to Ginchy. In addition, the various trenches were given names mainly inspired by the British soldier’s national drink, beer, such as Beer Trench, Ale Alley, Pilsen Lane and Hop Alley.

The environment within which the battle was fought: The climatic conditions13

Whereas in popular imagination, the Somme is thought of as being either stiflingly hot or rain and mud, the records show the Brigade’s stand took place under tolerable climatic conditions:
Saturday the 15th, a bright day with temperature of 72oF.
Sunday the 16th, a dull, overcast day with some 4mm of rain and temperature of 73oF.
Monday the 17th, a misty and overcast day with temperature of 70oF.
Tuesday the 18th, another overcast day with temperature of 72oF.
Wednesday the 19th, a cloudy day with temperature of 70oF.
Thursday the 20th, a fine morning with clear sky and a temperature of 75oF.
Except for the rain on the 16th, generally the conditions were cool rather than being hot with a clear sky, as might be expected in this part of France at this time of the year. However the micro-climate of the wood was greatly different because of the smoke and dust resulting from the intensive shellfire. Indeed survivors mention the gloom within the wood, but not because of shade cast by the leaves – which had all been blown away.

There is no doubt that this smoke and dust were the major causes of the thirst experienced by the South African soldiers, made worse by the near impossibility of replenishing empty water bottles because of the accurate German sniping which rendered exposure a guarantee of severe injury or death.

The conditions of the fighting within Delville Wood

Because visibility within the wood was limited to some 30 yards by the tree trunks during the first days of the stand, the fighting was at close quarters. By the time the defenders saw their enemy, they were on them. The South Africans defended their positions with hand grenades, rifles and Lewis guns, and the bayonet. Unusually, they had to rely on these infantry weapons as their main defence because, unfortunately, the height of the trees made it impossible for the British artillery to give close support. Normally the artillery would have been used to harass and destroy enemy forces as they formed up and before they got to close quarters. That vital support was denied the South Africans.

But before the Germans launched their counter-attacks, especially on the 18th14, their artillery was able to blast the wood with explosive, shrapnel and gas shells. The mature trees were reduced to splintered wreckage, whilst the floor of the wood was so pulverised the soldiers sank into the freshly turned earth as they moved over it. The defenders were put at a serious disadvantage because the tree roots made it difficult to dig deep shelters and trenches. Hence the South Africans had to crouch in scrapings in the ground whilst being subjected to some of the severest periods of bombardment of the whole War. 32,000 shells fired from 600 German guns trained on the wood are said to have fallen hit the wood within one 24 hour period during the 16th/17th15 with another even more intensive ‘…seven-and-a-half hours…’ bombardment on the 18th.16 Many soldiers not killed by blast died when hit by falling trees.17 To contain fear under these conditions demanded the highest courage. None of the survivors’ reports speak of soldiers running away.

The grim reality is the South Africans stayed to die in their shallow graves, but determined to kill as many of the enemy as possible before being killed. During the six days, the 16 companies fought as individuals, as small fighting sections, and in company formations to hold their part of the Wood. Keeping them supplied with water, food and ammunition was made extremely difficult by the intensity of the German artillery and machine-gun fire and the sniping, many of the ration-parties suffering severe casualties. Evacuating the many injured was extremely hazardous for both the stretcher-bearers and the wounded. The regimental medical officers did their best to ease the suffering of the injured, and Padre Hill comforted the dying. Indeed, the conditions were as bad as any soldiers have ever had to face in battle and show why the Wood gained its unpleasant nickname ‘Devil’s Wood’.

However a survivor , L/Cpl Morgan, was critical of the trenches not being camouflaged, their banks of brown earth giving German snipers aiming points. Also he felt they should have been connected up to allow safe passage for officers and the wounded.18 Although partly justified, the tree roots made deep digging with the available entrenching tools very tiring, especially when the soldiers had lost most of their officers, and were being subjected to intensive artillery, machine gun and sniping fire. They were also having to learn a novel form of warfare the British troops had experienced for nearly 2 years.

The significance of this necessary stand

During the battle of the Somme and so many other battles between 1914 and 1917, victories were measured by the taking and the holding of small areas of land. Often these areas had great strategic and tactical significance for holding them denied the enemy the opportunity to use them as secure bases from which to launch their counter-attacks. Because machine-gun and artillery fire made it almost impossible for large companies of troops to remain in open land, the fortified farms, villages and woods had the military significance of the medieval castles. Whoever dominated them held the superior position.

Delville Wood by its forming with Longueval a salient was a threat the Germans could not ignore. Hence their determination to recapture these small areas even at a high cost in casualties. But what ultimately was crucial about the South African’s stand was its strategic importance. The position of Delville Wood made the wood the breakwater resisting the waves of the vigorous German counter-attacks at the time when the capture of the Second Line was not yet consolidated. If the Brigade had been over-run, the British forces would have been driven off the Bazentin Ridge. Retreat to and beyond Caterpillar Valley, with the abandonment and capture of much artillery,19 would have left the German Army the victors of the Somme battle. General Haig would have been relieved of his command, and possibly the British government would have actively sought peace terms.20

The stand of the South African Infantry Brigade denied Germans this victory and in doing so blunted the aggressive capabilities of some of their best divisions. Although no record has been found of how many German casualties the Brigade inflicted, the tenacity of its stand and the recorded observations of its survivors suggests very high German casualties.21 The quality of these troops made them irreplaceable. Perhaps the sacrifice by the Brigade was a significant element in Ludendorff’s claim that the Somme was the graveyard of the professional German army.

Although the Brigade was too small in numbers to be an independent division, it fought as having the numbers of a division. Its performance at Delville Wood and Longueval has stood the test of time and become an example to others, which is why the Memorial and the replanted wood continue to attract visitors.22 They recognise that the stand produced little movement for high casualties. It was an attritional action but whose necessity was brought about by the Germans’ strategic need to regain the wood.

Even today the rides and paths should be walked with respect because the whole wood is consecrated ground holding the remains of some 600 South Africans as well as unknown numbers of British and German soldiers. It is fitting that, each year on the battle’s anniversary, the schoolchildren of Longueval lay flowers on the graves of the South African soldiers who lie in the cemetery facing the wood they fought to hold.

Not the end of the Brigade’s involvement with the Somme

After its gallant stand at Delville Wood, the Brigade spent 3 months in the Vimy area where it was brought back up to strength. In October it was returned to the cauldron of the Somme and on the 12th attacked the Butte de Warlencourt, a chalk mound of Roman origin,23 just to the side of the main road between Albert and Bapaume. This mound had been made into a fortress and for a week the Brigade tried unsuccessfully to capture it. Its casualties of some 1,150 included 8 mentioned in ‘Delville Wood’ who had survived the six days in July.

References

1. Ian Uys: Delville Wood (Johannesburg, Uys Publishers, 1983), p. 238.
2. John Giles: The Somme Then and Now (London, Battle of Britain Prints
International, 1986), p. 65.
3. Peter H. Liddle: The 1916 Battle of the Somme: A Reappraisal (London,
Leo Cooper, 1992), p. 77.
4. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 214.
5. John Ellis: The Sharp End: The fighting man in World War II (London,
Pimlico, 1993), p. 156.
6. A.H. Farrar-Hockley: Somme (London, B.T. Batsford, 1964), pp. 229-231.
7. Ian Uys: Delville Wood (Johannesburg, Uys Publishers, 1983).
8. Liddle, Battle of the Somme, p. 77.
9. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 28.
10. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 36.
11. Ernst Junger: The Storm of Steel: From the diary of a German
storm-troop officer on the Western Front (London, Chatto and Windus,
1929), pp. 92-110.
12. Gliddon, When the Barrage Lifts, p. 130.
13. Chris McCarthy: The Somme; The Day-by-Day Account (London,
Greenwich Editions, 1993), pp. 49-53.
14. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 181.
15. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 119.
16. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 158.
17. Uys, Delville Wood, p. 154.
18. Uys, Delville Wood, pp. 156-157.
19. Uys, Delville Wood, pp. 159-160.

References and Notes

20. David R. Woodward: Lloyd George and the Generals (Newark, University
of Delaware Press, 1983), p. 124 – indeed the British Cabinet discussed
possible peace terms on the 10th of August although the proposal went no
further.
21. Fred R. van Hartesveldt: The Battles Of The Somme. 1916:
Historiography and annotated bibliography (Westport, Greenwood Press,
1996), p. 109.
22. Those of a cynical mind might also draw attention to the shaded car park
and the shop where mementoes, books and refreshments can be bought.
However it can be noted that the late part of this century is the age of
Forrest Gump and Flashman, one a Vietnam hero through stupidity, the
other an anti-hero ‘cad’.
These cynics may also point out the casualties suffered by Pals battalions
and the Newfoundlers on the 1st July. The percentages cannot be
directly compared because the tactics were different. The Brigade was
not ordered to walk into a storm of machine-gun fire; their casualties
came once they fought to defend their positions.

23. Having explored the Butte de Warlencourt, the author is reminded of a
similar mound built for the Roman general, Julius Caesar. The Butte de
Tumiac allowed him to watch his galleys defeat the Gallic warships in the
Golfe de Morbihan, close to Vannes in southern Britanny. The author
wonders if that at Warlencourt was built as a military observation platform
during the Roman conquest of Gaul – then, as now, the site would have
given marvellous views over the Picardy countryside taking into account
that shell-fire between 1914 and 1918 will have reduced its original
height.

Essay prepared 6 February 1998 for the KCL Great War seminars. Later presented to the Earl and Countess of Leicester on the occasion of their site visits to the Somme, 8 June 2007