100 Years of Delville Wood.

The Battle of Delville Wood lasted from 15 July – 3 September 1916, however, South Africans commemorate the portion of the battle where the 1st South African Infantry Brigade was involved in, and that runs from the 15th till 20th of July.

My late grandfather was one of the men who entered that wood on the 15th, and today, 100 years later I cannot quite picture him with his mates digging shallow scrapes in the tree root entangled earth  of the wood. I cannot imagine him experiencing the bombardment that the Germans threw at that small portion of France, at times as high as 400 shells a minute. I cannot imagine him fighting hand to hand with Germans, and most of all I cannot even begin to imagine what the wood looked like when his comrades staggered out of it on the 20th. He was luckier than most because he was evacuated on the 18th with a shoulder wound, and as a result I am here today.

(Drawn by Frank Dadd from a description by a British Officer. The Graphic  Aug 19, 1916)
(Drawn by Frank Dadd from a description by a British Officer. The Graphic Aug 19, 1916)

I have never had the privilege of visiting the wood myself,  but I have had the privilege of sorting through over 113000 record cards from World War One and photographing nearly 8500 of them.  I would come across a lot of cards where the soldier in question had died in the wood and it was really a sobering glimpse at what we lost as a country in the month of July 1916. 

Image courtesy of Brian Roberts

However, when compared against the overall slaughter of The Somme, our casualties are mere drops in an ocean of dead soldiers. And once the last survivor had passed on Delville Wood seemed to have been finally forgotten by South Africa. The Delville Wood Memorial in France is really one that very few South Africans will visit, although I believe it is a very beautiful place.

Image courtesy of Brian Roberts

Yet, there are still many who ask about those who fought in that hell of a battle, they ask the same questions as I do, and possibly cannot picture the same things that have plagued me over the years. 

In fact Delville Wood has always been contentious in our national psyche, it is untouchable because of the blood that was shed and that small part of France that is really a small part of South Africa now. Many of those who died in the wood have no known grave, they are names on a memorial, their physical bodies vaporised or smashed to pieces in the barrage of steel:  the wood is still the real cemetery for Delville Wood.

In 2014, the remains of Private Myengwa Beleza, a black soldier, was re-interred at the memorial and in 2016, a new Roll of Honour was unveiled to honour all those South Africans who lost their lives in the First World War, and to ensure that the role played by South Africans of all races in the First and Second World Wars was accorded the necessary recognition. A new Garden of Remembrance was to be created for those who fell but whose remains were never recovered.

The list of of all South Africans who died during the battle of Delville Wood 15/20 July 1916. It lists all those who died in France. Of note, many of them are listed as having a date of death (particularly the 3rd Regt. SAI) of 1 August 1916. It wasn’t until that date a roll could be completed. Many of the prisoners taken by the Germans at Delville Wood were originally on the roll until the Red Cross could determine who had actually died in the battle. 

A SOLDIER’S SONG

Lt Frederick Carruthers Cornell, S. Africa Native Labour Corps

In Delville Wood – in Delville Wood,
The German foe in thousands lay,
And no-man’s land, with British blood,
Ran red as wine that summer’s day
We’d sworn to take it – and we would!
 

God help the Bosche in Delville Wood!
To Delville Wood – to Delville Wood,
We faced his fire, and forced our way
To where his grim machine guns stood,
And where he fiercely turned at bay –
We’d sworn to beat him – and we would!
We’d turn him out of Delville Wood!
 

In Delville Wood – in Delville Wood,
As inch by inch the ground was gained,
With bullet, steel, and smashing butt.
We fought and fell, till few remained;
But Boer and Briton steadfast stood,
For Freedom’s sake – in Delville Wood!
 

In Delville Wood – in Delville Wood,
Midst splintered trees and shattered wrack,
From morn till night we still made good
Gainst shot and shell and massed attack,
We’d sworn to win, so firm we stood –
Or died like men – in Delville Wood!
 

In Delville Wood – in Delville Wood,
The shattered trees are green with leaves,
And flowers bloom where cannons stood,
And rich the fields with golden sheaves –
Sleep soft ye dead, for God is good –
And Peace has come to Delville Wood!

© DRW 2016-2018. Created 15/07/2016. 2 Images by Brian Roberts, “In Vlaandere se Velde” courtesy of Karen Dickens.  

 

Remember the Somme

The Battle of the Somme; a name to remember with sorrow because of the huge cost in human life. The campaign has long been picked part by historians and soldiers, and as always there are those who criticise the plan, the generals, the artillery, the weather, the Germans, the French and everything in between. Who is to blame? it is not my task to apportion blame, I am only here to remember those who never returned.

As with my Battle of Jutland post, I am using the Somme 100 toolkit provided by the Royal British Legion. I am afraid I could never explain the battle myself because I do not have the ability to describe such a monumental slaughter. Remember, I only photograph the graves. The Toolkit uses “The Battle of the Somme” From an original work for The Royal British Legion by Professor Sir Hew Strachan FRSE FRHistS. I am only going to reproduce excerpts from it.

The British folk memory of the Battle of the Somme is dominated by one moment: 7.30am on 01 July 1916. It was a bright summer’s day, the sun well up, and falling from the east on the backs of the German defenders and into the faces of the British. Officers sounded their whistles, and their men scrambled up ladders to get out of the trenches and into No Man’s Land. Sergeant R.H. Tawney, with the 22nd Battalion, the Manchester Regiment near Fricourt, recalled that:

“[We] lay down, waiting for the line to form up on each side of us. When it was ready, we went forward, not doubling, but at a walk. For we had 900 yards of rough ground to the trench, which was our first objective.”

By the day’s end 19,240 British soldiers had been killed and nearly twice that number wounded: the total of 57,470 casualties was and remains the highest suffered by the British Army in a single day. This single fact ensures that for most Britons the Battle of the Somme defines what they mean when they talk of the ‘tragedy’, the ‘waste’ and ‘futility’ of the First World War. Apart from the war’s opening and closing dates (for Britain 04 August 1914 and 11 November 1918), 01 July 1916 was the first day picked out for national observance when plans for the commemoration of the centenary were being drawn up.

On 01 July 2016, it will be 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. This was one of the largest battles of the First World War fought by the British and the French against Germany. It took place on both banks of the River Somme in France, and is remembered as one of the most tragic episodes in human history. 

  • The Battle of the Somme is synonymous with the United Kingdom’s Remembrance of the First World War and the futility of trench warfare.
  • Fighting at the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and lasted four and a half months.
  • In total, 60 nations from across the British Empire and Europe were involved in the fighting across a 25 kilometre front.
  • There were almost sixty thousand British and Imperial casualties on the first day of the battle, of which nearly twenty thousand were killed.
  • At the start of the battle, most of the British Army had been an inexperienced mass of volunteers.
  • Going over the top at the Somme was the first taste of battle for many men, as a large number were part of “Kitchener’s Volunteer Army” which was formed by Pals battalions, mainly recruited from the North of England. The Pals battalions were made up of groups of friends, team mates in sports clubs and colleagues, who had joined together expecting to fight together. The heavy losses in one battalion had a profound effect on Britain and were felt locally and nationally.
  • Of the approaching half a million British and Imperial casualties suffered in the 141 day-long battle, a third died. When the offensive finally came to a halt on 18 November 1916, the Battle of the Somme had claimed a million casualties; 430,000 from Commonwealth countries, with a third of this number killed. 
  • On 15 July the South African Brigade took Delville Wood, a thick tangle of trees, and held it against successive counter-attacks and under shellfire that shattered the forest. Of their original strength of 3,153, just 143 left the wood five days later.
  • 19,240 British soldiers had been killed by the end of the first day. It was and remains the highest suffered by the British Army in a single day. In comparison, the French Army had around 1,600 casualties and the German had 10,000–12,000 casualties.
  • The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days (from 01 July – 18 November 1916).
  • 1,700,000 shells were fired on to the German lines by 1,600 pieces of British artillery during the eight-day preliminary bombardment.(est)
  • The first tank to engage in battle was designated D1, a British Mark I Male, during the Battle of the Somme on 15 September 1916. 49 tanks of the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps of the British Army were sourced and were to reach Somme by September 1916. However, due to mechanical and other failures, only 36 of them participated at the Battle of the Somme.
  • 5 Miles was the furthest advance of any allied force during the whole battle.
  • During the Battle of the Somme, 51 Victoria Crosses were awarded – 17 of them were awarded posthumously.

The Battle of the Somme did not produce a ‘decisive victory’ of the sort that was alleged to have characterised earlier wars, but the Somme could be seen as a waypoint on the route to winning the war in 1918. Certainly the Somme redefined modern industrialised warfare, and was fought as a battle of attrition. Within the ‘battle’ of the Somme were scores of other battles – the battle of Albert, the battle of Flers-Courcelette, the battle of Ancre; by the standards of the previous century, the Somme was a war within a war.

“As day breaks through wind and rain we form a line on rough terrain, to face a foe we’ll never know, we will fall and die where poppies now grow. Remember us the chosen ones, the lads the dads and someone’s sons. Be not sad, just be glad, knowing we gave all we had. As you walk on our fields of doom, places where our bodies were strewn, we will gaze on you through heaven’s door and hope our words stay for evermore. When you leave save a tear, for here we stay year on year, the lads the dads and someone’s sons, the boys who fell before German guns.”

Dave Callaghan. Taken from the wall of remembrance at www.somme-battlefields.com

 

 
© DRW 2016-2018. Created 30/06/2016. Period images are sourced from the Somme 100 Toolkit of the Royal British Legion, and they originate from the Imperial War Museum.  Most of the text in this post is copied from that toolkit and Remembrance pack. Some images are from my own collection.

Delville Wood

The Battle of Delville Wood is probably one of the most important, and most wasteful in terms of the South African military. It is also the first major engagement of  the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front and in terms of casualties the brigade also lost 80% of its strength. I am not able to describe that battle, which is described as “..the bloodiest battle of Hell of 1916” , in fact I don’t think anybody could really describe the carnage and devastation that was inflicted on that small portion of France.
 
My own interest in Delville Wood comes about as a result of my late grandfather being one of the few survivors of the battle. He was wounded on the 18th of July 1916, and was probably evacuated to a casualty clearing station and onwards for treatment.  He was luckier than most. 
 
 
Today the wood is home to the South African (Delville Wood) National Memorial Longueval, and while it has been replanted, the wood still holds the remains of many who never came home, or who have no known grave. It is a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the Western Front battlefields, and on my bucket list if ever I do get to France one day. 
 
 
 
My work with the WW1 record cards will often bring forward the card of a casualty of the battle and I do keep a special eye open for them. 
 
Unfortunately, surviving Delville Wood was no guarantee of a safe passage back to the Union; in fact many survivors of the battle would loose their lives later in the war, or die of Spanish Flu when they  returned home. Our family was one of the lucky ones.
 
In South Africa there are a number of interesting Delville Wood memorials and artefacts, the most obvious being the Delville Wood Memorial at the Union Buildings, and in Cape Town. I know of two Hornbeam trees that were planted from cuttings from the last surviving tree at Delville Wood, and The National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold has a number of artefacts on display, the most poignant being a lantern that was recovered from the battlefield. It still has the stub of the original candle inside it. 
    
That tiny light must have been a small comfort in the mass of death and destruction all around it. If only it could tell us what it witnessed in those fateful days. 
 
A lot has been written about the battle, and a lot of photographs of the battlefield and memorials have appeared in recent years. My personal favourite is the Official Website of Delville Wood, and I have found it to be an extremely helpful source because it gave me the final clue to finding my grandfather’s military records.
 
My grandfather never spoke about what happened to him, and while he was alive I never knew what questions to ask either. Only now do I have a new appreciation of what he may have gone through, but that probably pales into insignificance when viewed with hindsight 96 years later. 
 
The Chapel at St Johns College in Houghton has many links to the battle, the walls of the church still bear the insignia of the 4 South African Infantry Regiments from World War 1. Fr Eustace Hill served as chaplain to SA forces in Luderitzbucht, German West Africa, before ministering to the SA Brigade in Delville Wood, The crucifix he had made arrived at the college in 1917. 
 
The Transvaal Scottish Museum has an extensive collection of photographs and memorabilia from World War 1, and they also have an original Delville Wood Cross, one of at least 3 in South Africa. There is also a Delville Wood Cross in Durban, and the famous “Weeping Cross” in Pietermaritzburg.
Delville Wood Cross in Durban. Image by Eleanor Sue Garvie
Many MOTH Shellholes also have Delville Wood memorabilia, much of it donated by members who served during the Great War, and who were survivors too. But, I think that lantern still says so much about the lives that were extinguished so young, and the silent rows of graves are a reminder that the folly of war should always be avoided at all costs.
 
 
 
DRW ©   2012-2019. Images recreated 25/03/2016, some images by Brian Roberts.