The 24th March 2018 was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Marrières Wood and a day which should be commemorated as one of the finest days in South African military history.
The German Spring Offensive
On 21 March 1918 General Ludendorff launched his massive Spring Offensive, Operation Michael, against the British 3rd and 5th Armies in a desperate attempt to win the war before the Americans arrived in force. The South African 1st Infantry Brigade, which formed part of the Scottish 9th Division and of the British 5th Army, held the line at Gauche Wood on the boundary between the 3rd and 5th British Armies.
Aided by mist and complete surprise, the offensive started with a tremendous artillery barrage firing gas shells into the rear areas to disrupt the artillery and supply lines. Sixty-five divisions attacked over a 100 km front. The South Africans held on at Gauche Wood but had to withdraw in the afternoon as the division on their southern flank had been pushed back. Everywhere the front was collapsing, with 21 000 British soldiers being taken prisoner on the first day. It looked like Ludendorff had won the war.
The South Africans conducted a fighting retreat over three days under the most difficult circumstances, as the units to their flanks kept falling back. Eventually they were ordered to hold 'at all costs' a line at the village of Bouchvesnes on the strategic Peronne - Bapaume road.
The brave stand at Marriéres Wood
Major-General Dawson was in command, and he conveyed the orders to the South African Brigade, by then reduced to only 500 men. There would be no further retreat. They would stand and fight to the last. Dawson decided to defend a line to the north-west of Marrieres Wood astride a minor road leading from Bouchvesnes to Combles and utilising some old trenches.
The battle started at 09.00 on Sunday, 24 March 1918. The South Africans had no artillery support nor support on either flank and were soon surrounded. They were pounded all day by artillery fire and their position was swept with machine gun fire. Their ammunition was rationed and yet they managed to beat off repeated attacks. Eventually, at 16.00, surrounded, with no ammunition and with only about 100 men left, General Dawson decided to surrender. Some men tried to flee, but they were mowed down as the ground to the west was open with no cover.
At the probable site of the battle, looking east towards the farmhouse and Marriéres Wood
(Photo by courtesy, A Crozier, 9 June 2015).
What was the point of this last brave stand? General Dawson saw it for himself as he trudged into captivity. The road for miles east of Bouchvesnes was blocked with a continuous double line of transport and guns. By their stand, the South Africans had prevented the Germans from exploiting the gap that was widening between the Third and Fifth Armies. The day had been saved, giving the British vital time in which to re-establish a defensive line.
Peter Digby, in his book, Pyramids and Poppies: The First SA Infantry Brigade in Libya, France and Flanders 1915-1919 (p 329) writes: 'The SA Brigade had achieved much through their dogged stand ... They had provided the obstacle, the blockage that held back the flood. In doing this the SA Brigade had saved the situation for both the Third and Fifth Armies ... If Dawson had given up in the morning, disaster would have resulted. The link between ... (the 5th and 3rd Armies) ... would have been severed completely. By holding on after the capture of Combles and Morval, Dawson provided time for a line to be established between Etinehem on the Somme River to Longueval to the north.' It can thus be argued that the action at Marrières Wood was of far greater military significance than the action at Delville Wood.
Afterwards, the commanding officer of 9th Division, General Tudor, had this to say: 'I think everybody should know how magnificently the South African Brigade fought ... The story of the magnificent stand made by the Brigade, when afterwards surrounded, can only be told by those who were there at the last; but this much is certain, that it was a shortage of ammunition alone which made the survivors surrender' (Buchan, 1920, pp 189-190).
General Dawson wrote in his report: 'It is impossible for me to do justice to the magnificent courage displayed by all ranks under my command during this action. For the two years I have been in France I have seen nothing better. Until the end they appeared to me quite perfect. The men were cool and alert, taking advantage of every opportunity and when required moving forward over the open under the hottest machine-gun fire and within 100 yards of the enemy. They seemed not to know fear, and in my opinion, they put forth the greatest effort of which human nature is capable. I myself witnessed several cases of great gallantry. But I do not know the names of the men. The majority of course will never be known. It must be borne in mind that the Brigade was in an exhausted state before the action and in the fighting of the three previous days was reduced in numbers from a trench strength of over 1800 to 500' (quoted in Buchan, 1920, p 190).
Memorial and battlefield
Of the 500 South Africans who started the battle, it is uncertain how many were killed. Only 100 survived to be taken prisoner. There is no graveyard at Marrières Wood and the names of the dead are listed at the Memorial to the Missing at Pozières in the Somme area.
Where is Marrières Wood? Unfortunately, the site of the battle bears no memorial or even a sign. Thanks to postings on the internet, the writer was able to locate it in 2015. One turns off the D1017 between Bapaume and Peronne at Bouchvesnes and drives up the minor road past the farmhouse. The wood still exists, but the battle did not take place in the shattered wood but rather on a ridge to the north-west of the wood and astride the minor road that passes the present-day farmhouse. Hopefully, one day a memorial or signpost of some sort will be erected so that visitors to Delville Wood can also visit this site.
A detailed account of the battles at Gauche Wood and the retreat to Marrières Wood can be found in The History of the South African Forces in France written by John Buchan, which can be read online at https://archive.org/details/historyofsouthaf00buchrich
Buchan, J, The History of the South African Forces in France (London, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1920).
Digby, P K A, Pyramids and Poppies: The 1st SA Infantry Brigade in Libya, France and Flanders, 1915-1919 (reprint, Solihull, Helion & Co Ltd, 2016).
Evans, M A, Victory on the Western Front (London, Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2013).
Gilbert, M, First World War (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994).
Wilmott, H P, World War One (London, OK, 2012).
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / email@example.com