Our speaker on 9 June 2016 was Mr Ian Uys whose topic was the South African Brigade at Delville Wood, July 1916. Mr Uys is a leading expert on Delville Wood in the context of the Battle of the Somme regarding South Africa's part in World War One. He is a past national chairman of the SAMHS and also a former member of the Cape Town Branch. Ian, and his wife Barbara, now reside in Knysna, where he is still professionally active, as well as involved with the local MOTH Shellholes.
He introduced his lecture by explaining why he became involved in this field of study and how it came about that he published his first book on the Battle of Delville Wood in 1983, simply titled "Delville Wood". His involvement resulted from an initial request by the SAMHS's national executive to record the oral histories of the survivors of the battle by interviewing those still alive. Four books were to follow, one from the German point of view called "Longueval" (1986, archive translations done by Mrs Irmgard Weisser of Germany), "Rollcall" (1991) which lists names of participants (thanks to the then Minister of Defence, Gen Magnus Malan, for his assistance in arranging for servicemen to analyse personnel record cards), "Devil's Wood" (2006) and the latest, "Hold at all Costs." (2015), which had more personal accounts. July 2016 not only commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but also the battle for Delville Wood.
Brigadier General Henry Timson Lukin CMG DSO was appointed to command the 1st South African Infantry Brigade. He had been wounded at the Battle of Ulundi during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, then served during the South African War, the 1914 Rebellion and in German South West Africa. He selected young men for service rather than veterans as he knew that trench warfare would be extremely demanding. Initial training took place at Potchefstroom, whereafter the unblooded Brigade left for England.
On a lighter side, Pte Albert Marr brought his pet baboon, Jackie, along as they were inseparable. Jackie became the unit mascot. He learned to salute officers, give warning of German attacks and won a wound stripe, when he lost a leg, but survived the war.
The brigade consisted of 5 000 men organized into four regiments1, the First from the Cape; the Second from Natal, Free State and Border; the Third from the Transvaal and Rhodesia, and the Fourth from the Cape Town Highlanders, the Transvaal Scottish and various Caledonian Societies. Subordinated to the brigade was a detachment from the SA Medical Services and a Trench Mortar battery.
Our speaker then introduced some of the officers of the various battalions, illustrated by period photographs. The First Regiment was commanded by Lt Col Fred Dawson. One of his officers was Lt Sidney Style from King William's Town who was shot through the throat. He wrote a note to his CO, stating "I am sorry sir. It wasn't my fault. I'll get back as soon as I can." Major Burges commanded D Company from Cape Town. The officers included Lt Liefeldt well-known in Cape Town and who passed away not too many years ago. He is fondly remembered by our speaker as he was often of great assistance in tracing survivors and clarifying specific details concerning the battle. Lt Reid was from Knysna.
The Second Regiment was commanded by Lt Col William Tanner formerly from Hilton College and the Natal Carabineers. Its officer casualties were 100% - every officer was either killed, wounded or taken prisoner during the battle. Notable among them were Capt Billy Barlow (founder of the Barlow's dynasty) and Lts Errol Tatham and Walter Hill of Pietermaritzburg.
The Third Regiment was commanded by a former cowboy, Frank Thackeray, whose father had won the Victoria Cross in India. Lt Edward Phillips was one of the officers who was with him to the end in Delville Wood. The Medical Officer was the very popular Capt Steven Liebson, brother of the authoress Sarah Gertrude Millin.
The Fourth Regiment was commanded by Lt Col Frank Jones, who won the DSO during the South African War. His 2IC was Major McLeod who won the DCM at Omdurman. The statue to the South African Jocks erected in Joubert Park2 was modelled on Capt Thomas Ross. Lt Sandy Young was a madcap Irishman who had won the VC in the Northern Cape.
They embarked for England, but due to the unhealthy conditions at the camp at Borden in Hampshire, many South Africans - used to a warmer, sunnier and drier climate - became ill, so they were transferred to Egypt. In the warmer climate there they fought and won two battles against the Senussi, at Halazin (Mersa Matruh) and Agagia. One battle they never won was that against lice. These plagued them right to the end of the war.
The brigade was then sent to France, landing at Marseilles and moving to the area of Armentières/La Bassée in Northern France. Here the South Africans were to join the 9th (Scottish) Division. By that time of the war, trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss Border. The Scots had lost a complete brigade at Loos. The dour Scots were initially resentful at training the young colonials but, when they found out that some Afrikaners could not speak English and could outshoot all of the Scots, they became friendlier and accepted them as "ware Skotsmanne". Lt Col Winston Churchill commanded the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers in an area near the 9th Division at the time.
Toward the end of June 1916, the division marched south to the Somme River area for the "Big Push". The Germans were well entrenched with some dugouts going down 60 foot. The topography was such that their frontline positions dominated the Somme terrain from the high ground. After a week of bombardment, on 1 July 1916, the British attacked on a wide front and incurred approximately 60 000 casualties, of whom about a third were killed. Montauban village was taken and became Gen Lukin's headquarters. The German forces on the eastern side of Delville Wood were commanded by Oberst Baron von Wuthenau and the Bavarians held the village of Longueval, an important centre of communication, and the adjacent wood known as the Bois de Ville (Literally meaning "the forest of the village". The Delville Wood area is about half-way between Paris and the Channel ports). The powerful German artillery would be responsible for most of the casualties in the ensuing days.3 One of the artillery officers was Lt Arno Noack who so admired the South Africans that he later emigrated to South Africa.
Col Jones and his SA Scottish occupied Trônes Wood, where on 10 July he was killed by a shell. The shock of his death severely affected many of his young troops and made them feel vulnerable and insecure. Maj McLeod then took command. The 2nd (Natal) Regiment occupied Bernafay Wood where they suffered some 500 casualties, mainly through head wounds due to wooden splinters from shells bursting in the trees.
Longueval Village & Delville Wood (Bois d'Ville) - showing positions on the 14th
Delville Wood was divided into rides, or roads for bringing out wood. These were given London or Edinburgh road names to ease map reading. On 14 July, the two Scots brigades attacked Longueval and incurred heavy casualties. After lunch the 1st (Cape) Regiment were sent in to assist them in the street fighting. Private Nash from Steytlerville charged into an enemy position and died there. Lt Chauncey Reid of Knysna threw a grenade into an enemy bunker which turned out to be an ammunition store. This blew up and he ended up in hospital.
Early on the 15th July, Col Tanner led the rest of the brigade into the wood. The bush was very dense and it was difficult to locate enemy strong-points. The Vickers machine guns were set up in fixed positions while the Lewis Guns were carried with the troops just as LMGs4 are carried today. The South Africans took the wood and dug in on its perimeters. The masses of tree roots made it difficult to dig in. Private Eddie Fitz, who had earned the MM at Bernafay Wood for joining telephone wires under fire, thought that he had hit water while he was digging in, but found that he was digging in his own blood.
The Natal men fought their way up Strand Street, where Capt Barlow was blown up. He never really recovered from these injuries. Lt Walter Hill and his party ran out of ammunition and were taken prisoner. While under escort he knocked out their guard and escaped to continue the fight in the wood. He was killed two days later. In the morning haze and dusty conditions on the eastern flank the Transvalers thought that the French were ahead of them. Recognizing the Germans' helmets - and their mistake - in time, they attacked, capturing an officer and 135 men before being forced to retire.
All perimeters were manned as the Germans attacked from all sides. The headquarters trench was in Buchanan Street near Longueval and the Cape Town Company and two Scottish companies were in support. During the morning of Sunday 16th July, the Cape men attacked the north-west corner but were driven back. Some of the German snipers and machine-gun nests were positioned on platforms in the trees so that their machine guns could sweep the ground below. Lt Craig fell wounded in the open and Pte Manny Faulds from Cradock, with Ptes Baker and Estment, rushed out to bring him back. Faulds was awarded the VC for this and other later acts of bravery. Garnet Tanner, 22, from East London, was a signaller who was used as a runner. While carrying a message, a shell landed in the soft earth beneath him and blew him into the air. He landed head first in the shell hole and the soil collapsed on him. His "waving" legs were luckily observed by some of his comrades, who dragged him out - unperturbed, he went on to complete his mission. For this he was awarded the DCM. The young men of the brigade soon became veterans. Tanner's brother Douglas was awarded the MM at Ypres later in the war.
At 0500 on the morning of Monday 17th, the north-west corner was attacked again but the South Africans were beaten off. Gen Lukin went forward to talk to his officers in the wood. Pte Victor Casson, 17, rushed up to Lukin to report that he was the only survivor of the Kimberley Company. The General replied "Well done. Now go back to your position until relieved". This Casson did, throwing grenades until he was taken prisoner.
Gen Lukin telephoned Gen Furse, the divisional commander, to ask that his men be relieved as they were exhausted after 48 hours of non-stop fighting. Furse replied that there were no reinforcements available and that they must hold the wood at all costs. The Germans attacked Longueval but were beaten back. At 1800 Col Tanner was wounded in the thigh. He was carried from the wood and Col Thackeray took command of the defence. At 0800 on Tuesday 18th the German artillery opened up and shelled the wood for the next 7.5 hours. At times up to 450 shells per minute were incoming, virtually obliterating the wood. Padre Eustace Hill was berated for making tea and hot Bovril for the wounded "as his fire might attract German shells" - a little unlikely with the volume of shells already dropping into the area. When he called for volunteer stretcher-bearers, he would say "Do you believe in God? If you do follow me". One reluctant volunteer replied "It is all very well for you, Father. If you get hit, you know where you are going."
Private Loubser from Sir Lowry's Pass was a burly Afrikaner lad who served as a stretcher-bearer. His strength and bravery became legendary as he carried wounded men out of the wood, at times with one under each arm and a third on his back. When he stopped to rest an officer took his name. At the time he thought he was being put on a charge for some-or-other misdemeanour. He was, however, recommended for, and in fact, awarded the DCM. Col Dawson sent the Trench Mortar Battery into the wood as infantry. Pte Gordon Forbes, uncle of the later tennis player, thought this was an insult. A biplane flown by Maj Alister Miller of Cape Town spotted for the British artillery.
When the bombardment ceased, three German regiments attacked from the north and the east. They broke through the thin South African line in the north and swept through the wood, taking those on the southern flank in the rear. In the east Capt Medlicott managed to hold on while in the west Col Thackeray defended the headquarters trench with remnants from all battalions. They ran out of ammunition on the morning of Wednesday 19th and were taken prisoner. Col Thackeray fought on, with his men so exhausted that they fell asleep during the fighting and whilst under bombardment. They were finally relieved on the evening of the 20th. Three wounded officers (Col Thackeray and Lts Edward Phillips and Garnet Green) and 140 men were all that remained. The brigade regrouped at "Happy Valley", south-west of Delville Wood. Eventually some 750 men out of the original 3 000 assembled with only 5 officers out of 121 answering rollcall.
On 21st July the brigade paraded before Gen Lukin. He took the salute with tears running down his face. He had known not only the boys but their parents as well. A shock ran through the country when the casualty lists appeared.5 Normally troops are withdrawn after 30% became casualties. The South African NCOs and men had suffered a 77% casualty rate and the officers 85%. Lts Phillips and Green were awarded the MC. Lt Phillips was mortally wounded at Butte de Warlencourt in October 1916 and Lt Green was killed in a rearguard action at Gauche Wood during the German offensive in March 1918. (At the time of Lt Green's death, he held the rank of Captain.)
Thereafter the wood was known as "Devil's Wood" by survivors. An eminent British historian, Sir Basil Liddel Hart, has stated that it was the bloodiest battle hell of 1916 - and this in a campaign when a million men (on both sides) were to fall. Fighting continued in the Delville Wood area until September 1916 when tanks were used for the first time. The village of Longueval was flattened. There were no houses left and only one tree remained standing in the wood - a hornbeam - and it is still standing proudly.
Two years later, in February 1918, Gen Lukin held a remembrance parade at Delville Wood. The following month, the Germans launched a massive offensive. The brigade retreated and then was forced to surrender at Marrières Wood, about 10km south-east of Delville Wood, after a gallant stand that severely impacted on the German advance. Padre Eustace Wood survived Delville Wood. During the battle he had made tea for the soldiers and had tended the wounded. He also buried many of the dead. He lost an arm at Butte de Warlencourt and eventually became headmaster of St John's College in Johannesburg. His bravery was unparalleled and he became a legend in his lifetime.
The Delville Wood Cemetery has 5,000 graves, only 151 of which are South Africans. The rest of the 766 killed are still in their trenches and foxholes. A memorial was unveiled in 1926 by Gen Hertzog, then the serving South African Prime Minister.
Our speaker also reminisced about interviewing the last survivor, Joe Samuels, 99, who lived in Florida, and is since deceased. He had been one of the Transvalers in the south-east of the wood who were taken prisoner. In September 1918, he survived the torpedoing of the Galway Castle, which was transporting wounded back to South Africa.
Since then many groups have visited the wood. In 1984 a party included Generals Black, van der Riet, Webster and Van der Spuy. A museum was built in the wood. Remembrance of Delville Wood became a national holiday and was celebrated annually until 1994. The MOTHS still have services to remember the bravery of the men who held the wood "at all costs". We will also remember them and honour their memory.
Why did South Africa commemorate Delville Wood Day for so long? Our speaker believes it was mainly to honour the steadfast courage of so many who paid the supreme price. Delville Wood was purchased and became a small part of South Africa in France, to be held forever as a tribute to the brave men from our shores who fought for freedom from tyranny in a distant land.
The memorial there has since also commemorated the South Africans who fought and died in the Second World War and the Korean War. In 2014, there was a symbolic reinterment of a black South African soldier of the SA Native Labour Corps, Private Myengwa Beleza, who died during the First World War. This brought together all our nation in tribute to our gallant soldiers.
There is a link between Delville Wood and the SS Mendi disaster of 17 February 1917 when 647 South Africans, mainly blacks, died. One of these was Lt Samuel Richardson from Durban, one of the ship's officers who died while trying to save others. He was married to the then Lt Garnet Green's sister. Green was one of the three officers to leave the wood on 20 July and who later died at Gauche Wood in March 1918.
Though all the men of the old First South African Infantry Brigade are gone, the legacy they have left us is their belief in the undying spirit of youth and comradeship under the most trying circumstances. For this very reason the Comrades Marathon was instituted to honour their memory.
The chairman thanked Mr Uys for his talk which provided a vivid picture of the ordeal which the officers and men of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade suffered at Delville Wood and congratulated him for having collected and recorded so many personal accounts of the fighting, before presenting him with the customary gift.
1 The various regiments were "regiments" in name only as the individual unit strengths were comparable to that of an ordinary line infantry battalion. - Ed.
2 The statue has since been moved to the grounds of the Regimental Headquarters, of the Transvaal Scottish at the 'The View' (18 Ridge Road, Parktown, Johannesburg, Gauteng). - Ed.
3 From the personal accounts of many of the survivors it is quite clear that considerable casualties were also suffered from their own artillery fire, either firing short or resulting from worn gun-barrels. Even in modern times it is known to happen - a sad state of affairs where troops are killed by mistake or accidentally by their own side, colloquially known as "friendly fire". - Ed.
4 LMG - Light Machine Gun.
5 Although not as catastrophic as the losses which some of the British "Pals" battalions suffered on the 1st of July - that infamous "First Day of the Somme" - which represented the single most severe loss suffered by the British Army in one day. It left entire English communities and rural towns without young men - a whole generation wiped out in one fell swoop. The South African losses, taken into account that its European population was small by comparison, (but with the memory of the ravages and losses suffered in the South African War (1899-1902) and the recent Rebellion (1914) still fresh in most peoples' minds), and hailing from English-speaking urban- and Afrikaans-speaking rural communities - the effect was as traumatic. - Ed.
We welcome Dr Sydney Cullis who joined us at the June meeting and hope to see him at our future meetings.
14 JULY 2016: LORD KITCHENER AND THE BATTLES OF ATBARA AND OMDURMAN by Mr Alan Mountain
Lord Kitchener was a stern, taciturn, determined, strong-willed, unconventional, self-assured and enigmatic man who had little, if any, patience. He was well-qualified intellectually, diligent in whatever he tackled and was fluent in English, French, German and Arabic.
The first presentation covers Kitchener's early life in poverty-stricken rural Ireland and proceeds to the seminal battles of Atbara and Omdurman which were conducted entirely under Kitchener's control. These battles not only avenged Charles Gordon's death whilst almost singly defending Khartoum - a Victorian epic - but which also eliminated the threat of a massive Islamic religious uprising initiated and led by a charismatic Mahdi (a reincarnation of the prophet Mohammed). His aim was to seize control not only of Sudan, but also Egypt, the Suez Canal and ultimately the Ottoman Empire. After a heroic struggle which lasted two years against great odds, Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the Khalifa (successor to the Mahdi who had died) and returned to an adoring England who acclaimed him a hero and bestowed him the Freedom of many cities and towns, academic honours, titles and a handsome cash gift from Parliament. Part Two (the subject of the concluding lecture in September) will find Kitchener less than a year later joining Lord Roberts to save England from defeat following the disasters of Black Week in the Anglo-Boer War.
The lecture will be presented using an audio visual format.
11 AUGUST 2016: Part One - BATTLE OF BLAAUWBERG by Ms Barbara George
Our fist speaker for the evening will give an overview of a recent overseas visit to Europe and the United Kingdom, where 15 different Archive Repositories in 4 countries were visited in the space of eight 8 weeks to collect material - some of it hitherto not accessed since the battle itself.
She will share some thoughts on the similarities and differences, challenges, experiences, people and events during this hectic two-month whirlwind research endeavour in collecting material for fellow-member Ian van Oordt's in-depth study of the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806.
Part Two - THE BATTLEFIELD OF WATERLOO REVISITED by Mr Ian Van Oordt
Waterloo as one of the most famous battles in modern history, needs no introduction. Having recently visited the battlefield on its 201st anniversary, our speaker will present the talk as a photographic tour of the battlefield from a "then and now" perspective.
The whole battlefield today is protected and although it is still used for agricultural purposes, no further development is allowed and buildings can only be maintained and repaired, but not extended.
To orientate and inform the audience, selected old paintings will highlight specific areas of the battlefield, such as places where heavy fighting occurred or of prominent buildings, and recent photographs will show what these places look like today. There are a number of museums on the battlefield of which some are new, but most are housed in the original buildings that played a role during the battle. The museums are outstanding in their content, but under the poor lighting conditions, difficult to photograph properly. However, the photographs will give a good idea of what is displayed.
The photographic tour will start off at the battle of Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo itself, and move on to Waterloo proper. The viewer will see where the Allied and French lines formed up, Hougoumont farm, the killing field, and where Capt Mercer's artillery battery covered themselves in immortal glory, and the charge of the French Cavalry of Ney and Kellerman took place. Moving eastwards, in the vicinity of La Haye Saint, the assault by D'Erlon's Corps, the charge by the Scots Greys, Papelotte, La Haye and the sunken road will be graphically portrayed to give a clearer understanding of events on that fateful day. The audience will also follow the Prussian advance, the crucial clash at Plancenoit, view the Prussian monument, Napoleon's observation point, La Belle Alliance and the fallen eagle. Finally we will visit Napoleon's and Wellington's bivouacs the night before the battle.
All positions of the photographs taken will be clearly shown on a map prepared for this talk.
08 SEPTEMBER 2016: LORD KITCHENER AND THE ANGLO-BOER WAR by Mr Alan Mountain
The subject is the second and concluding part of Alan Mountain's biographical sketch of the life of Lord Kitchener, building his reputation upon his successful military campaigns in Africa. In part two we find Sir Herbert Kitchener having returned to an adoring England upon the defeat of the Khalifa (successor to the Mahdi). A grateful nation acclaimed him a hero and bestowed upon him the Freedom of many cities and towns, academic honours, titles and a handsome cash gift from Parliament. Kitchener was also ennobled as a baron, Kitchener of Khartoum, for his victory at Omdurman. Less than a year later Kitchener joined Lord Roberts in South Africa to save England from defeat following the disasters of Black Week in the Anglo-Boer War.
The lecture will be presented by using an audio visual format.
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