Our speaker on 13 March 2008 was Mr Johan van den Berg whose subject was The South African Brigade in France, March 1918 - 90 Years On. South Africa had only a relatively small number of troops serving on the Western Front. These comprised an Infantry Brigade with four regiments (which, in fact, were only at battalion-strength each), some heavy artillery batteries and a large contingent of "native" labourers (the other theatres of operations of SA ground forces were German South West Africa (Namibia), East Africa (Tanzania), Egypt & Libya and Palestine).
At the Battle for Delville Wood (and Longueval) in 1916, the South African Infantry Brigade suffered horrendous losses, but in the process earned undying fame and the respect and recognition of the world's combatant nations for its fighting prowess as a nation. Later-on the Brigade suffered further heavy losses at Butte de Warlencourt on the Somme (1916), at Fampoux during the Battle of Arras (1917) and during the Third Battle of Ypres (1917). The last great battle of the Brigade was to follow in March 1918. Their reputation as fighting men were lauded far and wide, but, today, their ultimate sacrifice is largely forgotten and neglected by the country in whose honour they sacrificed their lives.
The 9th Division, to which the South Africans belonged, had been withdrawn from the line after Third Ypres to rest and absorb the replacements for their losses. The Battle of Cambrai followed and the division was ordered south to again take their place in the line at Gouzeaucourt (approx. 24 km due east of Delville Wood), under 6th Corps. This was the line reached by the Guards Division during their advance up to the main German defensive line, the "Hindenburg" line. The line was merely a trench with few shelters and little wire, and was under German observation. The next weeks were spent in digging, shelter construction, wiring and patrolling. The Germans were very vigilant and their artillery fire heavy and accurate. The weather was also appalling. Casualties were constant and high for a "quiet" sector, while the fighting strength was further incapacitated through illness, being the highest number of men unfit for service in the history of the brigade. They were withdrawn for a rest period with a heavy training programme, as well as a commemoration service that was held at Delville Wood on 17 February 1918. Genl Lukin had relinquished command of the 9th and was replaced by Genl Tudor (in acting capacity), who remained in command during the coming battle. In line with the British restructuring of the line divisions from 13 to 9 battalions due to manpower shortages, the 4th Regiment was disbanded to reinforce the other regiments (read battalions) for the very same reason.
Early in March, the Division returned to the line east of Heudicourt on the extreme left of the Fifth Army, with the 21st Division (Fifth Army) on its right and the 47th (Third Army) on its left. With a "defence in depth" strategy, there were three defensive lines - the forward zone, battle zone and reserve line, but the troops available were too few to hold the front in any strength. All that could be done was to place a series of posts at key positions. The forward zone consisted of a number of strongpoints - specially fortified areas of resistance with interlocking fields of fire.
By November 1917, the Russian Revolution was in full swing and Russia had virtually retired from the war. However, on the Western front, large numbers of Americans were arriving and, by 1918, Germany would be heavily outnumbered. New tactical methods were developed on the Eastern front and selected divisions were being trained in open fighting. The entire war in the West revolved round the development of new tactics devised to break the deadlock of trench warfare. The system developed required the movement of troops into attacking positions by night marches just before zero hour, thus ensuring surprise. There were to be no long bombardments to alarm the enemy prior to the actual attack. Artillery would open fire as the infantry advanced with heavy concentrations on forward lines and the enemy's artillery positions. The advance would be by infiltration, defences would be by-passed and left to the reserves following up. The advance would be directed at the enemy's artillery lines and further. These new methods had been tested at Cambrai on the Western Front and Riga on the Eastern Front, but successfully applied at Caporetto on the Italian Front.
An important part of the new tactics involved the artillery - the use of huge numbers of medium and heavy guns to neutralise command and communications centres and hammer both artillery positions and infantry defences with a mixture of high explosive, shrapnel and gas shells (a practice to all participants). The bombardments were to be short, only a few hours' duration, not weeks. This new system was evolved by Lt-Col Bruchmüller, nicknamed Durchbruchmüller (Breakthrough Müller)! The bombardment was a surprise to the British and was the most concentrated barrage of the war, involving the use of 6 473 guns and 3 500 mortars! The attack was made by 1 000 000 men in 32 divisions, supported by a further 39 divisions. The attack pushed back the British line weakly held by Gough's Fifth and Byng's Third Armies and in a state of disrepair and neglect. The line was never completely broken, which was to a large extent due to the SA Brigade's tenacious and heroic rearguard action at Marrières Wood. Gough had 12 divisions to counter 43 and 6 Third Army divisions were faced by 19 German divisions. British divisions were in a weakened state as Lloyd George had held back infantry reinforcements totaling 350 000 men! The German divisions were at full strength. They would be used to reinforce success, with reserves channeled to those areas of maximum success.
On 21 March, the attack started with a vicious bombardment on communications, command and forward positions, followed by German "Stormtroopers" infiltrating between the outposts in the forward zone, their movements hidden by a fortuitous dense fog, bypassing any positions of resistance. The German offensive resulted in the capture of ten times the area that was captured in the 41/2 months of the Somme offensive in 1916. In the four months following March 1918, the Germans advanced to within 64 km of Paris, took 225 000 prisoners and 2 500 artillery pieces and inflicted 1 000 000 casualties! But it was a victory without a morrow.
As far as the South Africans were concerned, the main attack hit Gauche Wood. This was held but the Germans broke through further south. Brig-Gen Dawson was in a serious quandary as the Germans had made a massive breakthrough. Byng's army was forced to withdraw and this meant that 9th Division would also have to withdraw to the reserve position of the battle line. The 21st Division had been seriously penetrated.
On the second day the Germans had succeeded in pushing the 21st Division back, thus leaving the 9th Division's right flank uncovered. The South Africans were in danger of envelopment. A partial breakthrough had been made at the point where the Fifth and Third armies joined and the withdrawal was un-coordinated. Gough was forced to abandon the Péronne bridgehead. The 9th Division was now "in the air" with the armies separated with a 2 km gap between them.
Gen Tudor instructed Brig-Gen Dawson and the remainder of the brigade to form a blocking position and hold it at all costs, which they did, but at an appalling cost in men to the brigade. By Saturday, the remnants of the South Africans had taken up their positions at Marrières Wood. Exhausted, with few rations and little ammunition, isolated from other friendly forces and under heavy artillery fire, they had little knowledge of the situation except that it was desperate.
On the Sunday, the South Africans were well placed for defence with a clear field of fire but this meant that there was no possibility of retreat. The Germans massed for an attack and the South Africans were even bombarded by British artillery! The fighting raged all day and ammunition was becoming very scarce with no fresh supplies coming forward. Casualties were heavy and, despite many gallant deeds by all ranks, the position had become untenable. Surrender had become inevitable. Outnumbered and out of ammunition, but by no means outfought, Brig-Gen Dawson realised that any further resistance would be futile. It would lead to unnecessary loss of lives on the part of the South Africans and it would not serve any tactical purpose. What they had set out to do was manifested in the delay of the German advance, with kilometres-long traffic jams that they witnessed while being marched as prisoners of war through the rear area behind the German frontline. Out of an initial 500 men, all ranks, at the end of the battle about 100 men were left, including the wounded. It was a deed of self-sacrifice, valour and unparalleled heroism in the spirit of, and comparable to, the heroic stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans during the battle of Thermopylae.
The 9th and the South Africans had held their ground to the best of their ability but the adjoining divisions had not been as successful. An interesting aspect of the outcome of the retreat was the unwarranted accusations that the Fifth Army, and for that matter, Gen Gough, did not perform well, by retreating before the ferocious assault of the superior German Army. In fact the opposite is true - had the Fifth Army not retreated in good order to keep the line intact and prevent a German breakthrough, the British Army might have been defeated and the outcome of the World War might have turned out differently! At the core of this achievement was the resistance of the tattered remains of the 9th (Scottish) Division, and none more so than its one brigade, consisting of the South Africans. The 9th Division had to contend with the slur that it left the Third army in the lurch - in fact, it was the other way round as the 9th had to extend its defensive line (with it's meagre forces) into the operational areas of the abutting divisions to stave off a breakthrough (in the case of the 47th Division, up to 2 km). All these issues were glossed over in the official communiqués and histories! Recognition and praise for their magnificent performance in retreat and their final stand was sparse from the allied side but the Germans were not as reticent. The Kaiser himself said that, had all divisions fought as well as the 9th, the Germans could not have continued the attack as they would not have had enough troops left.
By holding on for as long as he did, Brig-Gen Dawson provided time for a line to be established between the Somme and Longueval. This achievement has never been adequately recognised. There are no memorials at Marrières Wood as there are at Delville Wood. Very few medals were awarded as the heroic feats and the voices of the men who performed them was forever stilled. Compared to Delville Wood, the battle at Marrières Wood was, from a strategic point of view, by far a more important event. The brigade was later reformed as a weak composite battalion, each old regiment represented by a newly constituted company made up of survivors, the wounded fit again for duty and a paltry number of replacements.
After Johan had answered the inevitable questions, Maj Tony Gordon thanked him for a most interesting talk which, as usual, was very well researched and profusely illustrated. The scribe has a full set of Johan's notes and, should any member want a copy, this can be arranged.
Some three-quarters of our members have paid their 2008 subscriptions to date. Many thanks to those who have paid. If you have not yet done so, please let us have your cheque or pay the Treasurer at the next meeting or deposit the amount due into our bank account at Nedbank Foreshore Branch, branch code 108309, account number 108 333 2058, noting your name in the Remarks column. Thank you.
Subscriptions are R210 for full members or R60 for affiliate members.
Two members have not yet paid their 2007 subscriptions. Unless payment is received by the end of April, your membership will be cancelled.
We welcome Messrs J R Leslie and A Standish-White who joined us in the past month. We wish them a long and happy association with us in the years to come.
One of our very long-standing members, Dr H Migeod, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Our congratulations and best wishes go to him on the auspicious occasion.
We will, in the future, be keeping members informed of any new books on military historical subjects, especially those written by Society members.
We are always interested in new members so, if you have a friend or acquaintance who is interested in military history or might want to join, bring them along to a meeting and persuade them to join. They will be most welcome.
A 26 episode series on the Border War of the 60's, 70's and 80's will be broadcast on the TV channel Kyknet (DSTV Channel 105). The first episode will be broadcast on Sunday, 6 July 2008 at 20:30 and thereafter on each successive Sunday evening. This is apparently a very well-produced series and should be of interest to members.
The Annual General Meeting will take place on Thursday, 13 March 2008 at 2000.
Thursday 8 May 2008 - The Action at Ebo - Operation Savannah 1975
Our speaker is Mr Stephan Fourie who will speak on the Battle of Ebo in Angola. This took place on 23 November 1975, during "Operation Savannah" and was a defeat for the hitherto victorious South Africans. It took place just prior to the victory at Bridge 14. Members will recall that Stephan spoke to us previously on the role and military successes of the various "combat groups" in the early stages of "Ops Savannah", as well as the crucial battle at Bridge 14. He participated in both the battles at Ebo and Bridge 14 and is therefore in a unique position to give an eye-witness account of events.