musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Tag: Delville Wood

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. 


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.  


Updated: 01/01/2018 — 16:26

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


© 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.
Updated: 01/01/2018 — 16:27

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 list of 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 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016, some images by Brian Roberts. 
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:12

Reading the Cards

One of the biggest problems that The South African War Graves Project has with the Roll of Honour for South Africa, are inaccuracies and omissions. Given that there was a war on, and given the authorities tendency to overlook portions of the population it is no wonder that we need to access the cards for individual servicemen.  
There are roughly 11000+ cards for World War 1 alone, and each has to be examined for the crucial rubber stamp that indicates where the servicemen/women ended up. There are a number of stamps in use. “WOUNDED IN ACTION, KILLED IN ACTION, DIED OF WOUNDS, MISSING, DEATH ACCEPTED ON OR SINCE, DIED; and possibly a few others that I have left out.  
Ironically, the stamp that does not interest us is the one that reads “DISCHARGED“.   Occasionally we will find one that has “PRISONER OF WAR” on it, followed by “REPATRIATED“, this is one that bears scrutiny as repatriated POW’s could die of influenza in 1918 or as a result of their war service.
The  cards also provide a fascinating glimpse of the military mind and the way that it’s system worked during World War 1. When I first saw “Discharged: Dentally Unfit” I thought there was typo on the card, but later on I found more like it, and on a few occasions servicemen being discharged for refusing dental treatment. It does leave me pondering the quality of military dental practioners, as well as the state of the teeth of some of the men involved. On some of the records are long paragraphs about punishment received for infringements of military discipline. These can range from being docked  3 days pay, up to 14 days “confined to barracks” or being discharged completely from service.  The usual incidents warranting such punishment ranged from loosing a piece of equipment, to being absent from parade, drunkedness, or disobeying a “superior” officer.  One incident did stick in my mind and that was “being in possession of a towel“. 
Some of the cards tell unique stories, the case of the man promoted to temporary Lieutenant in October, and loosing his life in February of the next year. Or the man who died of dysentry while waiting for a ship to repatriate him back to South Africa. Or the man that died during the voyage home and who was buried at sea; there is a story behind each one of these cards.
A few things stick in my mind though, many servicemen died of malaria, blackwater fever, enteric fever and dysentry as a result of their service in the East African Campaign. Many survived to return home, only to be struck down by the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Some were discharged after the South West African Campaign, only to re-attest and then get killed in France.  Many would die later as a direct result of their service in the military, and some would attest once again when called upon during World War 2. Most of the cards that I photographed tie into a grave, or into a name on a memorial.
Of interest to myself is the names of troopships that carried these men back and forth, many were Union-Castle Line vessels and their names would have been familiar to those who were ship watchers on our coast.  I have yet to find the name Mendi on any of those cards, but it is early days yet.
Irrespective of their military achievements, each one of these was an individual. Some had wives and children, all had mothers, some were poor, some were middle class, some were of African extraction, some were of European extraction. Many of their lives were cut short in a war that probably was not really necessary. That war would change the face of Europe and would be followed by an even greater carnage in 1939. Once again the military machine would haul out its pens and cards and start all over again, creating records of lives that were in their keeping until the day they were filed away with that rubber stamp.     

© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 24/03/2016

Updated: 26/12/2017 — 15:31

St John’s College. 26-11-2011

In my quest to hunt down war memorials I have always had St John’s College in Houghton in the back of my mind. There is a link between the college and Delville Wood, and one of the 6 Delville Wood Crosses is inside the Delville Wood Memorial Crypt. Another tangible link to World War 1 is on the inscription of the SOE Memorial in Patterson Park.

“This cross erected in 1917 at the Butte
De Warlencourt was presented by the
Surviving Officers, NCO’s and Men of the
3rd S.A.I Transvaal and Rhodesian Regt
The names of the fallen are inscribed
In All Souls Chapel

Before doing the Saturday afternoon visit, which was arranged by the Joburg Photowalkers, I did some reading about the long history and tradition of St John’s College which can be found on their website The weather was reasonably good that day although clouds did scud across the sky while we were there and that messed up some of my pics. However, photographs aside, it is a magnificent structure and one that never really gets seen by the casual passer by.

St John’s from the edge of the playing fields

We had free rein to go where we wanted to, but that crypt and chapel was sadly not one of them, so I have to try make alternative arrangements to photograph it. However, there is still a lot to see in the extensive grounds of the school and I think I covered most of it. The blending of old and new has been very effective, and parts of the school had a distinct “English Public School” feel about them. I expected to bump into a master striding down the corridors in his black robes and brandishing a cane at every turn. 

The statue of “David” and the Bell Tower

I did learn that the exterior of the chapel walls do have the badges of the Infantry regiments from Delville Wood on them and I was keen to photograph those. The confirmation of my grandfather’s Delville Wood service was very much on my mind when I saw the 1SAI badge.

The South African Infantry Regiment badges.

In a modern context, I was in both 1 SAI in Bloemfontein and 3 SAI in Potchefstroom during my national service, although they bear no resemblance to those regiments that went overseas during WW1. 
Darragh Hall above was a beautiful space, and I suspect it was used for meals, but I could not help thinking that it had an almost church like feel about it with the flags and high windows.
While the hall I found with its exam room seating was more of a faded lady relegated to the occasion theatre production.
There are some beautiful open spaces in the school and artwork abounds, but during our time there it was comparatively quiet, but what was it like when school was in session? 
I liked to think I caught those two frozen in time, but again it was just another piece of artwork in one of the courtyards. 
There is a lot to like about the school. Its beautiful buildings, the shaded lanes, dormer windows, the artwork, the sense of history and tradition. 
The only thing that seemed to be missing was the “thunk” of a cricket ball on a bat. Oh, they have that too. 


  I loved the quirky things I found in odd places. Like this old school desk in a space under a building.
Or the old steam radiator on the stage where the exams were being held. We had those at my old primary school too, but they never seemed to work. 
However, one find brought it all back to me. It reminded me how some traditions will never die, no matter how prestigious the institution.
Boys will be boys.

Boys will be boys.

It was an interesting afternoon. I did not complete my mission, but have not given up on the objective, and will still get those photographs of the chapel to make sense of the SOE memorial. To be honest I would never be able to go to a school like St John’s, but I think it is the type of school that instils a pride in where you came from. My high school only instilled loathing. 
© DRW 2011-2018. Images recreated 20/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 13:49

Lest We Forget. 11-11-11.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent. Signalling the end of “The War To End All Wars” . The generals went home to their medals and memoirs, the mothers to mourning their lost sons and husbands, the soldiers to their memories and their homes. The dead were collected and laid out with military precision in vast cemeteries dotted across the world, but mainly in Europe. Those who could not be identified or whose bodies could not be found became names on memorials, or figured in wartime stories told by their comrades. Politicians gloated and preened as they recalled how they almost won the war single handed.  And children found out that their uncle or father or brother would no longer be coming home.
We are so far removed from World War One today that any archive footage does not seem real. Those images of uniformed troops crossing barbed wire and disappearing into barbed wire have a surreal feel about them. We cannot picture the sun shining or birds singing in trees, while below men were fighting it out in vast armies of canon fodder. 10 000 casualties does not seem like a lot until you see how much space 10 000 graves take up. We cannot begin to fathom the amount of lives destroyed because somebody had a treaty with somebody else, or because some person with a gun shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Why did we actually go out there and throw lives away the way the we did? 
What drove men to enlist for a war thousands of miles away from their homes? Yes, it was supposed to be over by Christmas, but nobody said Christmas 1918. Why did my Grandfather fight in France? did he even know where Delville Wood was?
What about the soldiers that came home wounded? or those who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? And how did those who handed out white feathers feel when the casualty lists grew longer and longer?
Today the survivors of World War One are no longer with us. They are faded names on memorials and photographs, silent rows of graves,  or maybe a handwritten letter that survived over the years. They could be a tarnished medal in a second hand shop, or the strange military terms on a military record.  
For me the ultimate World War one relic is at the National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold. It is a candle, inside a lantern, that was found at Delville Wood. It reminds me that amongst all the horror of that battle there was still light.  
The “War To End All Wars” was merely an introduction to what was to come just over 20 years later when once again we took up the call. The generals, veterans of the previous slaughter, were wiser and knew the consequences of prolonged trench warfare  so tried their best to avoid it. However, the lesson of war had not been learnt by those who dragged the world into it once again. 
As Remembrance Day comes to a close, let us remember those who went away to war, and those who were affected by its horror. Sadly though, we cannot stop those people who are hell-bent on dragging us into a global conflict because they are the ones who have never realised what war is all about. 
© DRW 2011-2018. Images recreated 20/03/2016
Updated: 26/12/2017 — 13:58
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