by Ian S. Uys
Was it necessary that the Springboks were sent into a virtual death trap, an indefensible salient virtually surrounded by the enemy? With inadequate entrenching equipment, no reserves and no chance of relief they were ordered to hold the wood ‘at all costs’.
The German artillery bombarded the wood heavily, obliterating the meagre defences, It was estimated that at times the rate of shelling reached seven shells a second!
The defenders were decimated by shrapnel and falling trees and many of them were buried alive by the massive explosions. Fresh waves of enemy troops swept into the wood to be met by the few survivors who fought them to a standstill!
The 1st SA Infantry Brigade, under command of Brigadier-General Henry Timson Lukin CMG, DSO, arrived in England early in November 1915 where it underwent training at Bordon, Hampshire.
The brigade comprised four regiments. The 1st Regiment was from the Cape Province and was commanded by Lt-Col Frederick Dawson, the 2nd from Natal and the OFS under Lt-Col William Tanner; the 3rd from the Transvaal and Rhodesia under Lt-Col Edward Thackeray, and the 4th embodied elements of the various SA Scottish units under Lt-Col Frank Jones, DSO.
Two months later the brigade was in action in Egypt against Senussi tribes. Following its successful conclusion of the campaign in mid-April 1916, the brigade embarked for Marseilles whence it entrained for Flanders where it was attached to the famous 9th Scottish Division for intensive training and front-line experience. The division’s commanding officer, Maj-Gen W.T. Furse, was the brother of the then bishop of Pretoria.
At the end of May the division moved into the Somme area to take part in the coming allied offensive, The 9th Division formed part of XIII Corps of Gen Rawlinson’s Fourth army on the right flank of the British Army(2). On 1 July the ‘Big Push’ began.
The South Africans were initially the reserve brigade of the 9th Division. However, on 8 July the 2nd SAl relieved the 27th Scottish Brigade at Bernafay Wood. Trones Wood, immediately to the east, was attacked constantly but was not taken.
Due to the heavy losses inflicted by enemy artillery, the 2nd Regiment was relieved by the 4th. On 11 July, Col Jones of the SA Scottish was killed by a shell splinter. The Springboks who by that time had suffered over 500 casualties, were withdrawn for the impending assault on the village of Longueval, and the adjoining Delville Wood.
In the early hours of Friday 14 July, Gen Furse launched an attack with the 26th and 27th Brigades on Longueval which was found to be heavily defended with strongpoints, machine-gun posts, and tunnels. The 1st SAI under Dawson was sent to their assistance. By sundown the southern half of the village had been taken. That night the brigade numbered 121 officers and 3 032 men.
At 6 am the following morning the remainder of the brigade, with the exception of two companies of the 4th SAI, entered Delville Wood.
Delville Wood is slightly less than a mile square and is criss-crossed by open avenues, or ‘rides’. The wood is bisected from east to west by Princes Street. The rides to the north of Princes Street are named after London streets and those to the south after Edinburgh streets (of which one is, of course, Princes Street itself).
Tanner established his headquarters at the corner of Princes and Buchanan Streets.
The 3rd SAI moved rapidly to the eastern perimeter where two fighting patrols successfully attacked German trenches beyond the wood. Meanwhile, the 2nd SAI cleared the northern area with the exception of the strongly held north-western corner.
The remainder of the day was spent in repulsing strong enemy counter-attacks. Two companies of the 4th SAI were in reserve in the wood, while the remaining two companies assisted in an attack on Waterlot Farm, south of the wood.
The following morning, at 10 am two companies of the 1st Regiment attacked the north-western corner unsuccessfully. Private Mannie Faulds was to win the Victoria Cross during this attack. Heavy shelling of the wood, especially of the perimeter, then began. The attack was repeated early on the 17th but again failed.
Lukin then visited the wood and found the South Africans to be exhausted. He reported his observation to Furse who told him thaI the wood was to be held ‘at all costs’. Were they to give way, the flank of the British offensive would be enfiladed by the enemy.
The enemy artillery bombardment increased during the day, reaching an estimated rate of 400 shells a minute that night. Tanner was wounded in the thigh at 7 pm and was evacuated. Command in the wood then passed to Thackeray.
On the 18th a bombardment began at 8 am which was to last for seven-and-a-half hours resulting in the obliteration of the defences and the wood’s reduction to a shambles of churned earth and splinters. At 3.30 pm waves of fresh German troops commenced an assault on the wood.
In the east the 3rd Regiment was isolated and most of the survivors were taken prisoner. In the north, the 2nd and part of the 1st Regiment were almost annihilated. Thackeray rallied the survivors who fell back on his Headquarters and with their assistance he endeavoured to hold the south-western corner of the wood against repeated German assau1ts during the following two days.
At 6 pm on 20 July, elements of the 3rd Division finally relieved the bone-weary South Africans. Thackeray led two wounded officers and 140 men out of the wood. The following day the remnants of the brigade, five officers and 750 men, paraded before Lukin who took the salute with head bared and tears running down his cheeks(3).
The saga of Delville Wood will be remembered when other battles have long been forgotten. Among the reasons for this are the following.
1. The signal courage and tenacity of the troops. Of the many glorious deeds of the war, few compared with the manner in which the South Africans bore the rigours of five days and six nights of constant shelling and counter-attacks, South Africa’s first Great War (World War 1) Victoria Cross (VC) was won in the Wood.
2. The appalling casualties suffered. Approximately 750 of the 2 500 casualties were killed and no more than 200 of the bodies were ever recovered.
3. The bitter lessons learned. Although it was not the brigade’s first engagement, it could be regarded as its true baptism of fire, The holocaust of Delville Wood taught lessons which would stand the South Africans in good stead through the remainder of the war.
Why did the South Africans remain in the wood only to be slaughtered by artillery fire? At the outset it should be understood that this was not the intention of the commanders.
Evidence for this is provided by Brigadier-General Lukin’s report. ‘My intention was to thin out the troops in the Wood as soon as the perimeter was siezed, leaving the machine-guns with small detachments of infantry to hold it. The enemy, by launching counter-attacks at once, prevented this intention being carried out and Lieut-Col Tanner reported that he required all the men under his command to hold off the enemy(4).’
The Lessons Learnt
On 21 July Gen Furse instituted an investigation into the week’s events and wrote(5) as follows.
‘l. The Division has done well in the recent fighting, we must now, while our several experiences are fresh in our memories, dig out and clarify by close discussion the lessons of the fighting so that we may do even better in the future.
2. The first thing to do is to get down to facts, as far as that is possible. Until we know what was tried and what were the conditions, and whether it succeeded, or failed, and, if the latter, how it failed, we cannot hope to discover the best way of dealing with similar situations in the future.
3. I want brigadiers both artillery and infantry, CRE and all commanding officers to organise this investigation at once in their several units, and I append a few headings as a guide. It does not pretend to be an exhaustive list of subjects.
4. I want everyone to be absolutely frank in this investigation. It is not a matter of fault finding but of fact finding. I also want everyone however junior in rank to be permitted to express his opinion if he has any suggestions to offer as to possible means of improving our methods.’
The South African Brigade’s report on the battle was to contribute to a foundation for future tactics and logistics.
ASSEMBLY FOR ATTACK
(a) Formations adopted by Brigades, Battalions and Companies for the assault on the morning of the 14th.
The SA Brigade did not take part in the attack on the first line trenches, but the general opinion of battalion commanders is that the assault formation as laid down in 9th Division Memorandum is the best.
(b) Would it have been better or practicable to have constructed assembly trenches for the assault bearing in mind that the time available for doing so was limited, and that the concentration of such trenches would have to a great extent eliminated the factor of surprise?
Battalion commanders are of opinion that to construct assembly trenches would have been impracticable under the circumstances, and certainly would have eliminated the element of surprise.
(c) The best hour for the assault to be launched. Is it better to reach the objective early in the day so as to consolidate during daylight with the probability of being heavily shelled during the process, or to reach the objective late in the day so as to consolidate under the cover of darkness with its accompanying disadvantages?
Generally agreed that early morning, just before dawn, is the best for attack, as it enables the troops to see what they are doing whilst they are consolidating.
(a) Village Fighting.
(i) The formations adopted and found most suitable for fighting in a village.
In the opinion of battalion commanders the first troops should be a line of scouts in couples. These should carefully examine all ground passed over. They should be supported by fighting sections with Lewis and Maxim guns. Great care should be taken to clear out all dugouts and other places where the enemy may have been hiding, and all ground taken should be made good by dropping posts of 3 or 4 men at suitable points, e.g. cross-road — any commanding spot.
(ii) Did grenades prove useful weapons?
Yes, most useful — especially in clearing out dugouts and cellars.
(iii) Use of machine (Vickers) and Lewis guns in such fighting.
The Vickers gun is not regarded as sufficiently mobile for street fighting. Lewis Guns would no doubt be useful in special circumstances, but the consensus of opinion is that the rifle, bayonet and bomb are the weapons for fighting in a village.
(iv) When held up by a strong-point or by a machine-gun in the village what was found the most suitable method of dealing with it? Was smoke found useful to cover the movement? If not, why not? Instances where it was tried. Was it in any case found practicable to arrange a simultaneous attack from all sides working by the clock?
Consensus of opinion is that it is useless to attack in face of machine-guns, even if there is no wire obstacle. If covered position could be secured within 400 yards for Light Trench Mortars or 600 yards for Medium Trench Mortars these could be moved forward to bombard the strong-point. After the bombardment a few men should be sent to reconnoitre the position.
If the enemy has in the strong-point sufficient machine-guns to give all round fire it is thought that simultaneous attack from all sides would be of little if any advantage. In the case of the strong-point in the attack against which portions of this brigade participated it was impracticable to attack it from all sides as the enemy held the approaches to it from the north.
The OC 1st SAI who was in command of the portion of this brigade which participated in the attack on one of the strong-points in Longueval considered the employment of smoke. He came to the conclusion that launching men into direct fire of machine-guns, concentrated on a very confined space over which the attackers must move under cover from view created by smoke was not justified. He therefore did not try it. In this opinion the other battalion commanders concur.
(v) Method of consolidating the village of Longueval.
Troops occupied trenches which had been dug by the Germans. These trenches were consolidated.
(vi) Use of snipers.
Considered that snipers should be given a free hand. The qualities of resource and daring are essential to make a good sniper; more so than being a crack shot. There should be at least 50 snipers to each regiment.
(b) Wood Fighting.
(i) The formations found most suitable for fighting in a wood. Were advances made in line or by small columns?
The best formation for advance in a wood is a scouting line, followed by small columns of fighting sections. Great care should be exercised in clearing up ground. The ground cannot be thoroughly examined unless very close touch is kept, and it is therefore a mistake to have a thin skirmishing line.
(ii) Method of keeping control, and of keeping in touch with units on either flank.
Touch on the flank was kept by dropping files when necessary.
(iii) Method of consolidating Bernafay and Delville Woods.
It is not considered advisable, after taking a wood, to retain it, but to push out in front and consolidate in the open. Considered impossible to consolidate in the wood. The system of consolidation carried out in Delville Wood was:
1. Rifle pits were dug immediately the objective was gained. These were in most cases capable of holding two men.
2. Lewis guns were brought up and placed in position around the perimeter.
3. Vickers guns were brought up as soon as possible and placed around the perimeter.
4. Rifle pits were connected up to form a continuous trench, and strong points formed at salients.
5. Supporting trenches were dug in Buchanan Street and Princes Street.
6. Trench was dug in Strand Street by the Engineers.
7. A strong-point was made by the Engineers about 150 yards NE of the junction of Buchanan Street and Princes Street.
(iv) Means of obtaining information as to position of units.
Can only be done by runners.
(v) When held up by a strong-point or machine-gun how best to deal with it.
Same as in a village.
(vi) Use of snipers.
Same as in a village.
3. VICKERS AND LEWIS GUNS
How were they used?
They were placed in selected positions.
Did arrangements for ammunition supply prove adequate?
The system of supply worked all right, but the circumstances were abnormal.
Did the hand carts for Lewis Guns prove satisfactory?
The hand carts for Lewis-Guns proved of no use for rough handling, they were too frail. The wheels were too small and the handles broke off.
Best form of cover to be provided for Vickers and Lewis-Guns.
The best form of cover is either a natural position or very deep trenches, and then they should only be used when the enemy is attempting to rush the trenches.
Hand, rifle P (smoke) and smoke rifle grenades. Were these much used, did the supply prove adequate and was the method of carrying them satisfactory?
Unanimously, yes! — both hand and rifle; not smoke. The supply available proved adequate, as there was a dump near at hand. It is considered that the establishment laid down for a regiment should be increased.
5. SAA (SMALL ARMS AMMUNITION)
Did the supply prove adequate?
Supply was adequate.
Method of bringing up fresh supplies to the fighting troops.
Special carriers took fresh supplies from dump to the fighting troops.
6. RE (ROYAL ENGINEERS) MATERIAL
Were supplies sufficient? How was it brought up?
Supplies of entrenching tools were at the dump, and all demands were met. In future arrangements must be made for more carriers in the event of consolidation. It is considered that a larger number of entrenching tools should accompany a regiment than is laid down in the memorandum.
7. ARTILLERY SUPPORT
How to ensure co-operation between the Artillery and Infantry. Methods adopted. Was the time given between lifts too long or too short or right?
Telephone cannot be relied upon. The Germans had some system of coloured rockets by which they could notify their artillery when and where to place their barrage. It is suggested that we should have a similar system of communication.
8. USE MADE OF TRENCH MORTARS
Two-inch very effective in demolition of houses, Stokes did good work against trenches. Both found very useful.
How was this carried out?
(a) Between platoon commanders and the front line.
(b) Between platoons and companies.
(c) Between companies and battalions.
(d) Between battalions and brigades.
Runners only way possible for (a), (b) and (c). Telephones did not last long, and runners were used the major portion of the time for (d).
Was visual signalling used to any extent? How far forward was it found possible to run telephone wires?
Visual signalling was not used to any great extent. Conditions in the Wood were absolutely against this. Colonel Thackeray had his ground sheet and signal lamp destroyed by fire very shortly after they were put out.
On arrival at the given objective, what was done and how soon, in the way of sending out contact patrols to discover the enemy’s dispositions? In what strength? Ditto, as regards covering parties to our own diggers and wirers?
Colonel Thackeray sent out two patrols, each of a platoon. Brought back 130 prisoners and a machine-gun. Covering parties were supplied from various companies to cover the various portions of the perimeter.
11. ADDITIONAL POINTS
Colonel Dawson stated that in practice it was found to be extremely difficult to bring about an attack at a fixed time unless ample warning was given.
12. GENERAL REMARKS
Digging in the Wood was extremely difficult owing to the continuous shell fire and the thick roots of trees. As soon as
anything in the nature of fair cover was made it was blown to bits.’
Observations made by other survivors are equally revealing. On the 28th July Lieut W.D. Charlton, 4th SAI wrote as follows
‘Notes on events in Bernafay and Delville Woods. The main point that came to my notice was that if
each regiment had found its own reserves instead of the 4th being used as a brigade reserve, the
effectiveness of the latter and consequently that of the brigade would have been increased.
The yellow squares on the haversacks can I think be done away with. They form a splendid mark for hostile snipers especially if, as happened in Delville Wood, the latter managed to get on the flank or behind our men.
The shoulder colours for companies were most useful.
The co-operation between the infantry was not quite all it should have been, I think, perhaps visual signalling might be more used’(6).
The following observations were made by D Company 4th SAI.
‘Holding the extreme margins of Delville Wood, as was done, gave no honourable opportunities of concealment, and this was more especially difficult in the case of the Vickers Guns — accustomed to concrete emplacements and trench facilities. In many instances the guns were boldly mounted, confidently shrouded in a ground-sheet which, as one may imagine, proved of little avail. Further, whenever there was an alarm the gunners opened fire and again disclosed their positions unnecessarily as it seems. The one result was that the positions were ‘spotted’ so that the gunners and those about them suffered heavily from shell fire. The Vickers, too, were found cumbersome. However, on occasion, those few which survived the bombardment were able to do effective work, and in one case accounted for an entire German bombing party. The Lewis appeared more serviceable, more easily moved from point to point and attracted no great attention, and its convenient lightness rendered it more suitable for the work.
The digging of trenches was delayed by the men chiefly through ignorance of the true state of affairs and many lost their lives simply for want of the shallowest form of trench. There was a shortage of spades and picks’(7).
C Company 4th SAI recorded that during a partial withdrawal L/Cpl R.H. Morgan was in charge of the covering party. He remained facing the advancing Germans until the movement was complete then brought away his party under a heavy fire. Morgan was later to criticise aspects of the defence. Trenches, he said, should have been hidden with branches of trees and leaves on both sides. In most cases a bank of brown earth was left as an excellent mark for snipers — as opposed to our hopeless view of stumps of trees, broken branches, dead men and wounded moving about, etc.
Trenches should have been improved as soon as possible. In most cases they were not deep enough and too narrow. In one case trenches occupied by a company for two nights were little better than the ordinary body cover about two feet in depth.
Digging should have been continued as long as possible and at every opportunity they should have been deepened but not made too wide. Small recesses were necessary for men to get into while officers or wounded were passing, preventing them from being exposed on the parapet to sniping and other fire as well as exposing the position to the enemy.
He added that trenches should have been connected up and screened with canvas or fallen branches. Each individual should also have been told of the objectives in the Wood and the position of other trenches and their machine-gun strong points.
The presence of officers invariably established confidence, especially after heavy bombardment, and they should therefore not unnecessarily expose themselves in dangerous zones. Passing of orders verbally was difficult during heavy fire or deafening bombardment. Written messages were quicker and more accurate, especially messages as regards wounded or fallen officers, want of immediate reinforcements and other messages calculated to dishearten the troops.
There was a tendency for cartridges to jam in the chamber after firing 15 to 30 rounds. He suggested that this was due to bad powder. On one occasion four men out of six near him had their rifles jammed at the same time. The remedy was to clean the chamber with a rag and stick when the bolt showed stiffness. Spare rifles from the dead and wounded should also have been available in case of counter-attack.
Captain R. Anderson of D Company 4th SAI was later to write his observations on the holding of Delville Wood. ‘Men did not show enough eagerness in digging themselves in, probably they were not aware of the large number of enemy opposing them. It would have been better to have paid less attention to the approach of the enemy in the distance and to have persevered in getting good protection as soon as possible.
Lewis guns had very poor protection. Trenches along the north-east side were in some cases never connected up and there was a lack of sandbags. Probably well-protected and well manned machine-guns would have proved as effective with less than half the men who actually manned the very bad trenches.’
Pte Hugh Boustead, C Company 4th Regiment. On the 14th, the 4th Regiment had moved up in the early evening during daylight and were seen by enemy observation balloons. Heavy shelling of their positions followed(8).
Pte Dudley Meredith, C Company 3rd Regiment. On the 15th there was confusion as to whether there were German or French troops south of the Wood. The South Africans held their fire until they sustained casualties(9).
Pte Arthur Bettenidge, C Company 4th Regiment. The value of air cover was shown by Capt Allister Miller from South Africa. He dived on enemy strong-points, thereby assisting our artillery to eliminate them(10).
Pte James Simpson of the Machine-Gun Company. The Springboks on the perimeters had no flares for night fighting. This enabled the Germans to advance their trenches under cover of darkness(11).
The battle had revealed a major flaw in tactical planning. With too little room for cavalry to manoeuvre around the natural obstacles presented by the Woods, the only course left open was to occupy them by means of an assault by Infantry which led to the decimation of the latter by artillery fire. The carnage which resulted from taking and holding these positions could only have been avoided had the enemy lines been captured across a broad front.
Possibly the greatest lesson of Delville Wood was that the fledgeling Union of South Africa could stand proudly alongside its allies in the cause of freedom. South Africans of all races, colours and creeds had fought together — and emerged with a reputation second to none.
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