The attrition rate in the First World War (1914-1918) was horrific. Huge numbers of casualties were inflicted on all sides. At the end of the four years of fighting, thousands of cities, towns and villages around the world had suffered the tragedy of the loss of their own. Communities had lost their young men and preserving the memory of those who never returned home became a priority in the 1920s. The war memorial to the lost men of the war, which took many forms such as monuments, sculptures, buildings and gardens, became a common feature in many places around the world, including South Africa, where a significant number of memorials, in every shape and size, were erected in similar fashion across the country. Some of these memorials are located in and around the City of Johannesburg. This article will pay attention to the memory of the men who died during a particular battle which took place from 12 to 20 October 1916 and are commemorated on these memorials.
The Butte de Warlencourt
The Battle of Delville Wood (15-21 July 1916) is often identified as South Africa's iconic participation in the British Offensive on the Somme in 1916. Less well known is the fact that the 1 st South African Infantry Brigade also took part in another epic action during the final phase of that offensive, in October 1916. The brigade's attack on the Butte de Warlencourt saw the loss of more than a thousand South African casualties.
After recovering from the wounds inflicted on it by Delville Wood and being reinforced by new drafts, the 1st South African Brigade, still under the command of the 9th Scottish Division, moved back to the Somme area of operations in early October 1916. There, the 9th Division once again came under the command of the British 4th Army, which was preparing itself for another attack on the German line. Their objective was the Butte de Warlencourt, a prehistoric burial mound located adjacent to the old Roman road which extended from Albert to Bapaume. The Butte stood several hundred feet higher than the surrounding countryside and had become a position of great strength along the German main line which cut the Albert - Bapaume road beyond Le Sars. Two German trenches, known as the Snag and the Tail, were situated in front of the main line, approximately 100 yards (91,4 m) from the British line.
The British attack, beginning on 9 October, was carried out in heavy rain which turned the battlefield and trenches into a quagmire. It was remembered by most who fought ther~ as one of the most exhausting and dismal periods of the war on the Western Front. The South African Brigade went into action on 12 October. The attack was carried out on a single battalion front with the 2nd SA Infantry (SAI) Regiment leading and the 4th SAI (SA Scottish) following up behind. The 1st and 3rd SAI were initially held in reserve. The attack on the Snag and Tail trenches soon faltered under heavy fire from German machine guns which had been placed well back in prepared positions. Both regiments were pinned down in various areas between the British line and the first objective and the 18t and 3rd SAI were ordered forward to relieve them. The 3rd SAI managed to occupy a deserted German strong point called The Pimple on 15 October and began to dig a new trench called Pearce's Trench. Eventually they were also forced to retire under heavy enemy machine gun fire.
Over the next few days the men continued to hurl themselves against the Tail and Snag trenches but the German machine gunners remained in command of the situation. Another attack by the 1 st SAlon the morning of 17 October saw the regiment lose its structure in the terrible conditions and suffer major casualties as German troops managed to infiltrate their ranks. Eventually the three companies of the regiment lost touch with each other. 'B' Company failed to realise that they had reached the Snag trench and continued beyond it. Neither 'A' nor 'B' companies ever returned.
During the night of 18 and 19 October, one company of the 3rd SAI moved forward again into Pearce's Trench. At 04:00 the Germans launched a counter-attack, using, amongst other weapons, flame throwers, and succeeded in driving the South Africans back to their original line. The situation had become hopeless, as there were very few men left. The thick mud interfered with the functioning of their weapons and the wounded in the trenches had to be dug out of the mud before they suffocated to death. Each stretcher required eight men to carry it. The battalion runners, too, became bogged down in mud and their progress was slow.
Eventually, the remnants of the South African Brigade were withdrawn on the night of 20 and 21 October and ordered back to High Wood. This ended the South African contribution to one of the most dismal episodes of the Offensive on the Somme. Several more attacks were made by other British units after the South African withdrawal, but the position would remain in German hands and was never captured, although elements of the British 50th Division were able to reach it for a brief period on 5 November. The Germans only relinquished their hold on the Butte when they withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in April 1917.
Altogether, the South Africans suffered 1 150 casualties during the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt. In many ways, this unsuccessful action was more typical of the nature of the fighting on the Somme Offensive than had been the heroic stand of the South Africans at Delville Wood some three months earlier. The popular image of a trench assault is of a wave of soldiers, bayonets fixed, going 'over the top' and marching in a line across No-Man's Land into a hail of enemy fire. This was the standard method of attack early in the war; it was rarely successful. The Somme Offensive was planned as a breakthrough event. Masses of British soldiers, advancing in lines, were mowed down by German defenders using machine guns. Within minutes of the first day of the Somme, 60 000 men were killed, wounded or missing. The South African attack at the Butte de Warlencourt involved this type of offensive; at Delville Wood the South Africans were entrenched in defensive positions within the wood, fighting off wave after wave of German assaults, also at very high cost.
In memory of the Butte de Warlencourt
The SOE Memorial at Patterson Park
Most of the war memorials around Johannesburg include the names of men who were killed or died as a result of the attack. One memorial, the Sons of England (SOE) Memorial in Patterson Park, was raised and dedicated entirely to the memory of the men of the 3rd SAI who had died in the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt. This battalion was made up of volunteers drawn mainly from the then Transvaal Province and from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was under the command of Lt Col Edward Thackeray, a man who had previously held the appointment of District Staff Officer in Kimberley and who had distinguished himself particularly at the Battle of Delville Wood in July 1916.'
After the First World War, a patriotic society called the Sons of England raised the funds needed for the construction of the memorial. This society was originally founded in Canada to promote friendship and patriotism amongst English people resident far from their country of birth. It was established in South Africa in the 1880s as one of many friendship societies and by 1910 twenty lodges had been opened around the country. Other such societies included the Oddfellows, the Loyal Orange Order, the Grand Black Chapter of Ireland, the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes and the Good Templars, all of which had lodges in Johannesburg by 1911. A similar society of ladies was the Guild of Loyal Women. None of these societies exist anymore. The Sons of England disappeared from South Africa in the 1950s.
SOE Memorial, Patterson Park, in Johannesburg,
commemorating the South Africans who fell at the
Butte de Warlencourt in France during the First World War.
The SOE Memorial is a symmetrical triple arched structure, made of fine hammer-dressed quartzite with the central taller arch flanked by two smaller arches. The central semi-circular arch consists of an infill panel of bluefaced brick pierced with a circular opening which provides a visual frame for a timber cross. The two flanking arches are set slightly back from the central arch and also have an infill panel created in stone. Both arches have a semi-circular plinth at the base which provides for small flowerbeds.
The cross, one of several battlefield memorial crosses erected on the Butte by the troops that fought there, was brought back by the men of the 3rd SAI in the 1920s. It was vandalised in 2012 by persons who were intent on setting it on fire. It was fortunately rescued by an official of the City of Johannesburg's Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage and placed in the Sparks Gallery in Orchards for safekeeping. The inscription on the memorial states the following:
'This Cross, erected in 1917 at the Butte de Warlencourt was presented by the surviving officers, NCOs and men of the 3rd SAI (Transvaal and Rhodesian) Regt. Their names are inscribed in the All Soul's Chapel'. (This chapel is located in St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg).
The inscription on the cross reads: 'The officers and men of the 3rd SA Infantry Regiment who fell during the Battle of the Somme in October 1916'.
The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation took a decision in 2015 to prioritise the restoration of this memorial.
Other memorials in Johannesburg The names of the men killed during the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt appear with other names on a number of other memorials in Johannesburg:
The Bezuidenhout Valley War Memorial
Private William Ferguson, 1st SAI (Service No 8031), went missing in action and was presumed dead on 18 October 1916 during the attack on the Snag and Tail trenches. Ferguson has no known grave and is listed on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was married to Mary Ferguson of Dumfries in Scotland.
City Deep Memorial at Herbert Park Bowling Club in Turffontein:
Lance Corporal Cyrus Henry Emery, 3rd SAI (Service No 5507), died on 22 October 1916 from wounds received on the night of 12 and 13 October when his battalion relieved the 2nd and 4th SAI after they had suffered heavy casualties during the attack on the Snag and Tail trenches. Emery is buried in the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension. He was married to Theresa Ellen Emery of Belgravia in Johannesburg.
Private Ewart Gladstone Harris, 2nd SAI (Service No 8211), was killed in action on 12 October 1916 during the assault by the 2nd and 4th SAlon the Snag and Tail trenches. Harris has no known grave and is listed on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was the son of Stephen and Emily Harris of Bezuidenhout Valley in Johannesburg.
Private Harry Holliday, 2nd SAI (Service No 8205), was killed in action on 12 October 1916 during the assault by the 2nd and 4th SAlon the Snag and Tail trenches. Holliday is buried in the Warlencourt Military Cemetery and was the son of Mary Ann Urquhart of Belgravia in Johannesburg. His brother also died on service.
Florida War Memorial, Dardenelles MOTH Shellhole
Private James Leonard Davidson, 4th SAI (Service No 6699), was killed in action on 12 October 1916 during the assault by the 2nd and 4th SAlon the Snag and Tail trenches. Davidson has no known grave and is listed on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was the son of Richard and Marion Davidson of Woodstock in Cape Town and is listed on the Florida War Memorial as Pte J V Davidson.
Jeppe Boys High School War Memorial
Private Gordon Raymond Pater, 4th SAI (Service No 7907), was killed in action on 12 October 1916 during the assault by the 2nd and 4th SAl on the Snag and Tail trenches. Pater is buried in the Warlencourt Military Cemetery and was the son of John Raymond and Belinda Rosalie Pater of 'Toolanji', Eildon Road, in Kensington in Johannesburg.
King Edward VII School War Memorial
Private Morris Feinberg, 2nd SAI (Service No 7502), went missing in action on 12 October 1916 during the assault by the 2nd and 4th SAlon the Snag and Tail trenches. Feinberg has no known grave and is listed on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was the son of Louis Aaron and Rachel Feinberg.
Private Lawrence Joubert Hogan, 2nd SAI (Service No 8767), was killed in action on 12 October 1916 during the assault by the 2nd and 4th SAlon the Snag and Tail trenches. Hogan has no known grave and is listed on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was the son of John and Mary Helen Hogan of Durban.
Private William Gordon Lomas, 2nd SAI (Service No 8749), died of wounds on 21 October 1916. He is buried in the St Sever Cemetery at Rouen. Lomas was the only son of William Herbert and Ann Sarah Elizabeth Lomas of Doornfontein in Johannesburg.
Maraisburg War Memorial
Private Thomas Eli, 3rd SAI (Service No 7492), died of wounds on 12 October 1916 when the 3rd SAI relieved the 2nd and 4th SAI after they had suffered heavy casualties during the attack on the Snag and Tail trenches. Eli is buried in the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension. He was married to Gertrude Eli of Fordsburg in Johannesburg.
Roodepoort War Memorial
Private James Jamieson, 3rd SAI (Service No 9124), killed in action on 11 October 1916. Jamieson is buried in the Delville Wood Cemetery at Longueval. He was the son of Peter Jamieson of Selkirk in Scotland.
Southern Suburbs War Memorial, Rotunda Park, Turffontein
Private John Richard Dansie, 3rd SAI (Service No 8074), killed in action on 15 October 1916 after the 3rd SAI had taken the Pimple. Dansie has no known grave and is listed on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was the son of J R and Agnes Dansie of Johannesburg.
VFP War Memorial, Rosherville
Sergeant Edward John Maeder, 4th SAI (Service No 5895), killed in action on 17 October 1916. Maeder is buried in the Warlencourt Military Cemetery. He was the son of Robert and Charlotte Maeder of Colesberg.
Wanderers Club War Memorial
Private Robert Ray Lillico, 4th SAI (Service No 8194), died on 17 October 1916 from wounds received on the night of 12 and 13 October when the 2nd and 4th SAI attacked the Snag and Tail trenches. Lillico is buried in the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension. He was the son of James and Margaret Ford Lillico of Bellevue East in Johannesburg.
War memorials stand primarily as permanent monuments to the men and women who fought and died in conflict. They say much about the battles that were fought and the huge task of accounting for the dead long after the fighting had ceased. They speak of small incidents and large, disaster and success, the aftermath and the appalling waste of life. Each memorial contributes its own part to the story of warfare. Each has its own history.
The SOE Memorial at Patterson Park tells the story of a specific battle while the other memorials mentioned in the article focus on individuals who lost their lives in this battle. It is a personal point of view that these memorials serve not to celebrate any victory, nor to boast about our achievements in conflict, but to show respect for those who were willing to serve their country and to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we who are here today now can have the life we know. Is it unfortunate that many of these memorials are unseen and forgotten, as are the people and the battles that they recall. Let us heed the words of the Remembrance Prayer and remember that 'They shall not grow old; As we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them; Nor the years condemn them. At the going down of the sun; And in the morning; We will remember them.'
Buchan J, The History of the South African Forces in France (London, Nelson and Sons, no date).
Immovable Heritage Form, SOE Memorial Patterson Park (Register of Monuments, City of Johannesburg Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage).
Commonwealth War Graves Commission, First World War Master Database (South African entries).
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