We were treated to an excellent, detailed and superbly illustrated talk by Johan van den Berg on the operations and activities of the South African Brigade at the Somme in 1916 at our Society evening of 8th June 2006. The talk was well received, while favourable mention was made on the maps of trench systems and cemeteries.
Following the South West African Campaign in 1915, the Union government decided to approve the formation of an infantry brigade to serve on the Western Front in Europe. This followed on the urgent need for manpower for the Imperial war effort as a result of the dreadful attrition of the war in the trenches, as well as to defuse a threatening situation of labour unrest in the Union due to rising unemployment, surely to be exacerbated by the demobilisation of the Union troops after the SWA campaign.
The 1st SA Infantry Brigade was recruited and trained at Potchefstroom from August 1915 onwards. The Brigade consisted of four regiments (each in reality of battalion strength) representative of the four provinces of the Union, inclusive of Southern Rhodesia:
* 1st South African Infantry Regiment (Cape of Good Hope Regiment)
* 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (Natal and Orange Free State Regiment)
* 3rd South African Infantry Regiment (Transvaal and Rhodesia Regiment)
* 4th South African Infantry Regiment (South African Scottish Regiment)
The Brigade, numbering 160 officers and 5 648 other ranks, embarked for England from Cape Town in September 1915, under the command of Brigadier-General H T Lukin. After further training in England at Bordon Camp, the brigade shipped out to Egypt in December 1915/January 1916, to participate in the expedition to suppress the Senussi Uprising. Following the successful quelling of the uprising, the brigade shipped out in April to Bordeaux, France, en route to the Western Front. The first introduction to trench warfare was in the Hazebrouck sector in Flanders, where the brigade joined the 9th (Scottish) Infantry Division initially as the reserve brigade. This was the beginning of a long and illustrious union between the South Africans and the Scotsmen.
The most famous and illustrious battle-honour of the brigade was the sacrifical stand in Delville Wood in July 1916 as part of the Somme Offensive. From July 15th to July 20th the brigade gained immortal fame and battle honours for the attritional battle in Delville Wood - after six days and 5 nights of unadulterated hell, 3 officers led 120 bone-weary, dirty and dazed men out of the wood. On the 14th of July the 1st SA Infantry Brigade mustered 3 155 men. By the 21st of July the total of 2 536 casualties consisted of 557 killed in action, 186 missing in action, 120 died of wounds and 297 prisoners of war.
Although Delville Wood is generally regarded as one, if not the, major South African feat of arms in the 20th century, Johan emphasised that the SA Brigade should not only be remembered for the Battle of Delville Wood, but that it had a fateful rendezvous with the horrors of trench warfare on the Somme on three different occasions. The second was the muddy hell of the Butte de Warlencourt under the most atrocious weather conditions, in October 1916, where men were needlessly sacrificed for hardly any tactical advantage at all. The third such fateful rendezvous was the heroic withdrawal from Gauche Wood (on the Hindenburg Line) and the sacrifical stand at the Bois de Marrières in March 1918 in the face of the whirlwind German onslaught - the famous Ludendorff offensive. The supreme sacrifice of the South Africans not only saved the Allied front from collapse (at the junction of Byng's 3rd Army and Gough's 5th Army), but paradoxically enough, their courage and sacrifice were more appreciated by the German High Command than the Allied! This was indeed the South Africans' Thermopylae - compare the stand of Leonidas' brave band of 300 Spartans and Brig-Gen Dawson's gallant band of 500 South Africans. Paradoxically, for Marrières Wood there is no monument and hardly any medals - a forgotten battle indeed.
After the vitual annihilation of the brigade at Delville Wood, the depleted ranks were filled by replacements from Bordon, but the continuous attritional battles and the dwindling number of recruits saw to it that the brigade never regained its former glory. During the later battles the brigade was a mere shadow of its former self and at times its total strength never mustered more than that of a reinforced infantry battalion, but such was the fame and respect of the South Africans' fighting prowess that it retained its "brigade" designation right up to the end of the Great War.
Other than the battles of the Somme (through 1916 and again in 1918), the SA Brigade also served at Vimy Ridge between the battles for Delville Wood and the Butte de Warlencourt; it took part - and suffered tremendous casualties - as part of the disastrous Arras offensive in 1917, and finally it participated (in a much weakened state) in the final victorious Allied advance in 1918 up to the Belgian border by the time the armistice came into effect.
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HISTORY COMES ALIVE: MAJOR GENERAL DANIEL HERMANUS PIENAAR CB DSO & Bar
An audio-visual Talk by Simon Norton
THREAT PERCEPTIONS AND STRATEGIES DURING THE 1960s & THE SADF'S ASSESSMENTS AND RESPONSES
An illustrated talk by Rodney C. Warwick
AN UPDATE ON THE MILITARY/POLITICAL SITUATION ON THE AFRICAN CONTINENT
A talk on the South African involvement in this pivotal battle.
Speaker: Major Helmoed-Roemer Heitman
THE FINAL BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN IN OCTOBER 1942
A talk on the South African involvement in this pivotal battle. Speaker: Colonel Lionel Crook SM JCD
TRAGEDY AT KUFRA
An illustrated Talk by Francois de Wet on the disappearance of 3 SAAF Blenheims in North Africa in 1942 in which his uncle, Major de Wet, was lost.
December: In recess
Society meetings are normally held on the 2nd Thursday of every month at 20:00 in the recreation Room of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road (off Liesbeek Parkway/Alma Road), opposite Rosebank Railway Station. Secure Parking inside. All visitors welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served.
Jochen (John) Mahncke