South African Military History Society



JULY 2001

PAST EVENTS: Our May meeting started off on a hilarious note with a "serious" slide show on our 2001 Battlefields' Tour presented by fellow-member, Dave Matthews. His candid camera shots depicted several of our members in what can only be described as embarrassing and almost compromising situations. Reminiscent of Darrell Hall's dreaded MGH presentations of yesteryear, Dave added a commentary that had most of us rolling in the aisles while the 'victims' (including our Chairman) loudly protested their innocence. Well done, Dave, it helped those of us who were not able to attend to share some of the enjoyment of our Battlefields' tours.

Our DDH talk was given by fellow-member, Major John Buchan who stepped in at a very late stage to fill the gap caused by the re-arrangement of our talks, which in turn had been caused by the absence of our main speaker, Prof Phillip Everitt, who had been summoned to attend a mandatory meeting at the University of Durban. Major Buchan opted to speak on the French industrialist, "Louis Renault". It could not have been more appropriate in that it was supplementary to both our last month's meeting's main talk on "Gas-The Second Battle of Ypres", and that evening's main talk of "The Battle of Delville Wood", but more on that later.
Our speaker started off with a resume of Louis Renault's life. Briefly Louis Renault was born in Paris in 1872 into a family of drapers and button-makers, but unlike his two elder brothers, he showed no interest in the family business and much preferred tinkering in his workshop. After leaving school before he had completed his final exams, he became an assistant to a boilermaker, but had to undergo his 2-year military call-up shortly thereafter. With the money he saved from his stay in the Army, he bought a motorized tricycle that was to change the course of his life. His entry into the world of car-manufacturing was with the design and manufacture of a 4-wheeled motorized 2-seater vehicle. His first patent was for the centralised prop-shaft transmission and the resultant royalties, together with the assistance of his brother, Marcel, helped him to found the firm of "Renaults" as a car-manufacturer in 1899. Both Louis and Marcel took part in motor races that were held between Paris and the various European capitals at that stage and in 1902, they won the Paris to Vienna race. Marcel died in 1909, leaving Louis as sole owner of Renault, which company was to achieve world renown as a car-manufacturer and which has survived to this day.

So popular were his early models that by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, he had already made his fortune. However, with the advent of flying, Louis also entered the field of aero-engines and by the end of the War had produced over 15,000 engines. The other event that was to enhance his name was the use of Renault taxis from Paris to convey the French troops to the vital Battle of the Marne that stopped the German advance on Paris in the opening stages of the War. In addition, Louis Renault's war efforts included the mass production of artillery guns and shells, military transport vehicles, tractors and last but not least the famous 2-ton light tank that had the added advantage of being transportable by road rather than rail. For his outstanding efforts, he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour - a rare distinction for a civilian. And in 1935 he became a Member of the Legion of Honour Council - another rare distinction normally reserved for military officers only. He survived the Depression in spite of France's decision, based on a resolution passed by the old League of Nations, to scrap all offensive weapons including tanks. This was to be a contributory factor in France's surrender to Germany in 1940. At the time of the French armistice Renault was over in the USA trying to obtain American military equipment, but on his return three weeks later, the Vichy Government was in power. During the German occupation of France, Renault successfully warded off German attempts to relocate his factories in the Reich, but it cost him dearly for his so-called collaboration with Nazi Germany. They had bought his tanks and vehicles and used them against the Allies. When De Gaulle returned after the liberation of France in 1944, Renault was arrested and as a punishment, his factories were taken over by the French Government. While in prison he was assaulted by a warder and died on 24 October 1944 without regaining consciousness. Thus died one of France's greatest industrialists.

The main talk of the evening was given by Lt Col Ray Lotter who spoke on the "Battle of Delville Wood", which took place from 14-20 July 1916. In 1915 there had been a major feud between Field Marshals Haig and French. French had been blamed for the heavy casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the Battles of Aubers Ridge and Loos. Shortage of artillery shells had been cited as the cause, but it was mainly due to the fact that there was no way that troops could advance through barbed wire while under machine-gun fire. Haig had used his position as a personal friend of King George V to oust French from his post as C-in-C of the BEF in December 1915, and to take over himself. He had visions of grandeur of leading the British Army to victory, but it did not include the terrible toll of lives. Also at that stage he had some 50 new divisions at his disposal due to a recruiting drive instigated by Kitchener.
His intention was to use this huge army to launch a massive affack (The Big Push) against the German lines along a 25-mile front in the Somme Valley. This was the infamous Battle of the Somme, which lasted over 4 months. The Battle of Delville Wood was a small but famous part of this major offensive. His idea was to bombard the Germans into submission with a heavy artillery barrage, roll up the remnants of the German lines with the infantry and then send the cavalry through the gap to end the War. The German positions along the Somme were bombarded for 5 days, but unfortunately shrapnel, which failed to cut the barbed wire, was used and after the barrage was over, the German machine-gunners climbed out of their bunkers and mowed down the Allied troops as they were struggling to advance in straight lines through the barbed-wire entanglements. There had been 59 000 casualties within the first two hours and all that they had achieved over a period of a fortnight was an advance of 1900 yards plus the capture of two villages! The only advance that had been made was in the area of Gen Congrieve's XIII Corps which was part of Gen Rawlinson's IV Army. The XIII Corps was composed of three divisions, one of which was the IX Scottish Division that included the First South African Infantry Brigade (SAI) which numbered 160 officers and 5648 other ranks. This Brigade comprised four battalions; one from the Cape, one from Natal and the Free State, one from the Transvaal and one composite which included the Cape Town and Transvaal Highlanders plus members of the Caledonian Society. Incidentally the IX Scottish Division accepted this latter battalion because they all wore kilts and the Scots were under the impression that Afrikaans was a Highland dialect!

The opening phase of the Battle of the Somme, which had taken place between 1 - 14, July 1916, had only extended the front line to Benefay Wood, which was supposed to have been the first objective on the first day of the offensive. Elsewhere along the Front only minor intrusions had been achieved. However, at Delville Wood, there was not only a bulge in the line, but it was also a high point in the surrounding countryside and commanded several villages. Thus it was thought to be of strategic importance to both the German and British forces.

From the British side the order was given at Divisional level for the IX Scottish Division to capture and hold Delville Wood at all costs. In the opening phases of the Battle of Delville Wood, the SAI had already been engaged in two actions, namely the capture of Benefay Wood and Tr6nes Wood where Lt Col F. Jones had been killed and Major McLeod had taken over command of the 4th battalion. They had already suffered 537 casualties before they had even reached Delville Wood.
The first attack by the IX Scottish Division came from Caterpillar Valley to the south of Delville Wood and the initial objective was to capture the village of Longueval, but the Germans counter-attacked and managed to reoccupy the northern part of the village. However, Maj.Gen. Furse who was in command was not aware of this German presence and ordered a further attack on to the south east of the Wood at Sugar Factory. In addition the SAI were ordered to occupy Delville Wood. The SAI moved in on the night of the 14th July and were supposed to deploy along the perimeters, but unfortunately, due to extremely heavy shelling, the various companies of the four battalions got mixed up and once again the designated objectives were not achieved. Also because of the confusion, command devolved onto the company commanders, who were forced to make their own field decisions due to lack [of] communications.

Another complication was that the Germans still occupied the northern section of Longueval village thereby causing a deadly salient into the perimeter that allowed the Germans to pour enfilading fire into the SAI lines. At this stage there were still a few trees left standing in the Wood, but the moment the SAI tried to move out of the perimeter, they were subjected to intense bombardment. Typical of the lack of centralized command was the incident where a corporal stumbled on what he thought was a pocket of Germans in an adjacent trench and reported it to his company commander. The latter set about capturing them, only to find that it was a whole German regiment! He immediately upgraded his force to company strength and succeeded in capturing 6 officers and 185 men. However, the SAI was completely outnumbered in the order of 8:1 at battalion level and came under heavy artillery fire yet again.
It was at this stage that the German commander ordered that Delville Wood be captured at all costs. Once more the SAI beat off a determined German attack, but again with many casualties.

On the third day (Bloody Sunday), the SAI continued holding the perimeter despite extremely heavy shelling and sniper fire. On the fourth day, the Cameron Highlanders supported by two companies of the 4th battalion of the SAI finally succeeded in capturing Waterlot Farm, but once again with extremely heavy casualties. On the same day, the Germans attacked from the northwest, but were halted and driven back. The British artillery opened up on the Germans while they were still in Delville Wood, but unfortunately their shrapnel shells were bursting right over the SAI lines causing havoc. In addition that night, the German artillery commenced their heaviest bombardment turning Delville Wood into a holocaust. On the following morning, the Germans continued with a 7 hour bombardment at a rate of 7 shells per second from three sides surrounding the Wood which was approximately one mile square in area. And still the SAI managed to hold on, but by that evening the position was untenable. Nevertheless the Divisional Order "to hold at all costs" still stood. This time the Germans launched an infantry attack from the rear through the Wood and several SAI were taken prisoner. Ammunition was beginning to run out and what remained was being ruined by the mud. At this stage the SAl were even prepared to use their bayonets at close quarters to hold off the enemy attack. The remnants of 'A' and 'C' companies were overpowered and taken prisoner. Despite desperate pleas to Divisional HQ for water, supplies and ammunition, no relief was forthcoming.

This situation of attack and counter-attack interspersed with intense artillery bombardment continued until the 20th, when some relief in the form of supplies arrived, but by that time the men were half dead on their feet. They had not slept for 6 days and had been without water for the previous 3 days. Eventually they were allowed to withdraw and their positions were taken over by the Suffolk and Royal Berkshire regiments.
Of the 160 officers and 5648 other ranks that marched up to the Front a week before, only the CO, Col. Thackeray, 2 officers and 120 men came out. They had held their position at Delville Wood, but at a terrible cost. What was so deplorable was that the whole action served no military purpose whatsoever and to military analysts over the years, Delville Wood was always going to be a death-trap.

After the usual question time, our fellow-member and former Chairman, Ken Gillings thanked all our speakers for a most interesting and informative evening.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : August to October 2001

16 Aug 2001
(3rd Thursday)
DDH The last man to leave Delville Wood Brian Thomas
MAIN Sergeant Thomas Lane ("ex" VC) Fiona Barbour
13 Sept 2001
DDH In Burma. On the Run Lt.Colonel Channing Pearce
MAIN The Indian Mutiny Ganes Pillay
11 Oct 2001
DDH Rudolph Hess: His Flight to Scotland Paul Kilmartin
MAIN Conflict in the Crimea Robin Smith


The July meeting is our annual BASE VISIT meeting. This year we are visiting the Head Quarters of one of KwaZulu-Natal's oldest and most distinguished regiments - The Natal Mounted Rifles.

By kind favour of the Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel PAT ACCUTT, MMM, JCD., and as guests of the NMR, we will be given a talk by Lt. NIGEL LEWIS-WALKER on the History of the NMR - a regiment that has served South Africa through every campaign since its inception in 1854. This will be followed by a tour of the HQ and their newly opened Regimental Museum, both of which are housed in the historical Old Stamford Hill Aerodrome Buildings, situated next to the Durban Country Club. Access is via Walter Gilbert Road (and not the direct access road to the Country Club) off NMR Avenue. The officer's mess has been made available to us for refreshments after the meeting.

We will all meet in the NMR car park from 7.15 pm onwards with the aim of moving into the NMR HQ at 7.30 pm. It should be an excellent evening


For any members who have not yet paid their subs for 2001, this is a gentle reminder to do so as they are now WELL overdue!!. Rates are R 90.00 - single, R 99.00 - family.


Due to the untimely rain experienced during our February Battlefield's Tour to Majuba, it had been decided to make a second visit to the area and complete the original programme as far as climbing up Majuba, to the scene of the action. This had been provisionally booked for some time in July but due to the absence of Ken Gillings on an overseas trip, we have finalised the date for the climb as the 15 September. We have started to collect names of those members and friends who want to join "another of Ken Gilling's famous climbs", and if you wish to attend please ring CHARLES WHITEING on 082-555-4689 to add your name to the list.


We are pleased to report that our program of speakers has already been filled for 2002 and we already have 8 speakers booked for 2003. It is a reflection on the activities and reputation of our Society that we have so many speakers wanting to talk to us and that a number of them are prepared to travel some distance to share their research with us. However, your committee are keen that we ask regular members who have not given a talk before, or who have not spoken for some time, to offer their services as speakers. As we are now filling up the 2003 program, anyone interested has plenty of time to prepare, so please ring our Chairman on 082-449-7227, 268-7400 (o) or 561-2905 (h) to discuss the subject of your choice.


Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983

South African Military History Society /