South African Military History Society


Past meeting - Johannesburg - 14th July 1983

The large number of members and guests who attended the meeting were met outside and piped into the hall by pipers from the Pretoria Boys High School. This effectively put everyone into the proper spirit for the evening's talk. Although pipers may be considered an unusual introduction for oneof the Society's more usual speakers, they were merely typical of the meticulous attention to detail paid by Mr. Ian Uys. Ian is probably one oft he better known members ofthe Society as he is always active in its affairs and has authored four books on military history. He was educated at Muir College and the University of Cape Town where he captained the UCT boxing team. His profession is that of chartered accountant, in which capacity he also serves the Society as he is the Honorary Auditor of the books. Ian has served with the Heidelberg Commando as a platoon commander in teh operational area and has written 'For Valour, the History of Southern Africa's Victoria Cross Heroes', 'Die Uys Geskiedenis' and 'Heidelbergers of the Boer War'. His fourth book and the subject of his talk on this occasion is 'Delville Wood'.

67 years prior to the date of the July meeting the 1st S.A. Infantry Brigade began their part in the assault on the second line of German defenses on the Somme. When they had finished, they had won imperishable fame for themselves and earned a special place in the history of warfare and the annals of courage. Sir Basil Liddle Hart called Delville Wood "the bloodiest battle hell of 1916" and John Buchan wrote that the South Afgricans' Defence of the wood was "a feat of human daring and fortitude ... worthy of eternal remembrance". During Ian Uys' description of this battle there was an unusual stillness in the hall, a tribute to both the quality of the talk and to the men who fought and held the tortured earth of that wood.

In July 1915 South Africa's offer of a brigade of troops to serve in Europe was accepted with the stipulation that it be an infantry unit. As the Afrikaners were more disposed to light cavalry units only 15% of the brigade were of Dutch extraction. The men were all volunteers and were encouraged to join the battalion of their choice. These battalions corresponded roughly to the provinces of the Union with the 1st SAI representing the Cape, 2nd SAI from Natal, the Border and OFS, 3rd SAI from Transvaal and Rhodesia and the 4th SAI composed of men from the various Scottish regiments. After assembly at the depot in Potchefstroom, they sailed to England arriving in November 1915. They had only two months in the UK before being sent to Egypt to fight the Senussi whom they beat and to begin the never-ending campaign against the lice. One South African is quoted as having remarked after a battle in France "That's the end of the Hun, now for the Greybacks."

On 19th April, 1916 the brigade arrived at Marseilles and entrained for Flanders in the standard '12 horses 40 men' French railway trucks (many of which had been very recently occupied by horses). Upon arrival at Armentieres, they were attached to 9th Scottish Div. to replace the 28th Bgde. which had been destroyed at Loos. Although the men of the 26th and 27th Bgde. initially resented this arrangement, the accurate fire of the South Africans soon impressed them enough that they admitted Afrikaans as a form of Gaelic and happy relations were established. The first initiation into trench warfare took place under the tutelage of the Scots of 9th Div. and the SAI soon learnt the necessary techniques for survival and dealing with the enemy. At the end of May the Brigade began the 50 mile march to the Somme arriving on 4 June when they began to train for the "Big Push".

Following a week of bombardment from 1500 guns (1 per 20 yds. of front) the great attack was launched on a 14 mile front and generated 54 000 casualties on the first day. After a week of fighting the German front line had been taken and their second line was encountered. Gen. Henry Rawlinson decided to put his 4th Army in the area between Bazentin-le-Petit and Delville Wood. However, before the attack could be launched on this area, it was necessary to clear Bernafay Wood and Trones Wood which covered the approaches to Longueval and Delville Wood. The 2nd and 4th SAI took part in this fighting from 8 to 13 July and lost over 500 casualties. On the evening of the 13th the brigade was at Talus Boise as the reserve of the 9th Div. Their strength at this stage was 3 153 consisting of 121 officers and 3 032 other ranks.

On the 14th July, 26th Bgde attacked Longueval village with the 27th Bgde and 1st SAI following to lend support and mop up. They managed to penetrate as far as the center of the viullage before being held up by strong fortifications. On the 15th, the 2nd, 3rd and two companies of the 4th SAI entered Delville Wood while the 1st was still involved in the struggle for the village and adjoining portions of the wood. They moved through the thickly tangled undergrowth and fallen trees to the edges of the wood and began to dig in. Unfortunately the ground was full of tree roots which made it extremely difficult to dig to any depth. The shallow entrenchments led to many casualties from shelling in the following days. By mid-afternoon the South Africans held most of the wood and had beaten off the first German counter-attacks. The enemy continued to shell and attack the Wood for the rest of the day and the night having brought up reinforcements and entrenched raound 3 sides of the woods. On the morning of the 16th an attempt was made in concert with the 27th Scottish to take the north part of Longueval and an orchard to the NW of Delville Wood. This attack failed with the South Africans suffering heavy losses. The survivors spent the remainder of the day under intense shell fire (400 rounds/min) which prevented food, water and ammunition from being brought up and the wounded from being evacuated. Further German attacks were repulsed that morning and evening. At dawn on the 17th, the attack on the orchard was repeated and again failed. Intense bombardments were laid on the SAI and they were forced to repulse enemy incursions into the wood by counter-attacks. Early on the morning of the 18th, the Springboks and the Scots finally joined up NW of the wood after 76 Bgde of 3rd Div had taken the village. Unfortunately, this success was short loived as the Germans shelled the Wood for 7.5 hours and then launched an assault with 3 regiments which swept into the Wood from the N and E. The South Africans were reduced to several small pockets of men fighting desperately as they fell back on the HQ position. Many were cut off and forced to surrender when they ran out of ammunition. For the next two days, the remnants of the brigade held out in the SW corner of the woods against repeated attacks from between 3 and 9 times their own number. When they emerged on the evening of the 20th, 3 officers and 140 OR mustered, less than 5% of original strength.

Delville Wood today is consecrated ground and a favourite spot for quiet weekend picnics by the local people - a marked contrast to the shell-torn wasteland of 1916.

Pat Rice offered Ian Uys the thanks of the Society for "a great story, well told".

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Prior to the main talk, Metro-Goldwyn-Hall presented the current installment[sic] of 'Military Magazine' entitled "Guns of the Great" showing the personal sidearms and rifles of several famous and infamous personalities. Following the short subject, the Chairman thanked Bill Garr for his service as Scribe, announced that the Index to Vol. IV of the Journal will be available at the end of August and welcomed this scribe back from his travels. Col Duxbury described the facilities of the new auditorium which is nearing completion and due to be opened by the State Presidnet on 23/11/83.

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The Old Kit Bag - Various Items
Member Mr. P.R. Irwin informs us that there is alternative accommodation in the Mafikeng area for those doing the tour which is relatively inexpensive.
Crewe's Hotel - Tel. 32364 Single: R24 Double: R44
Protea Hotel - Tel. 32404 Single: R23 Double: R39

Member E.G. Gearing has pointed out an error in a previous newsletter for which we are most grateful. Guy Gibson did not receive his VC posthumously, it was awarded to him some time before his death.

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Rod Murchison (793-6518(H))


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