DELVILLE WOOD

LONGUEVAL - SOMME - FRANCE

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The six days and five nights on which the South Africans held the most difficult post on the British front, a corner of death on which the enemy fire was concentrated at all hours from all sides... constitute an epoch of terror and glory scarcely equaled in the campaign.   John Buchan - The South African forces in France.

THE BATTLE OF DELVILLE WOOD

The battle

The Roll of Honour

South African Awards

Victoria Crosses

The Rollcall

British Infantry

German Infantry

Walter  Giddy

Arthur Betteridge

British Delville Wood / Longueval Roll of Honour

Frederick Charles Lee

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PRELUDE TO DELVILLE WOOD

The 1st South African Infantry brigade was affected to the 9th (Scottish) Division in May 1916, replacing the disbanded 28th Brigade.

The 9th (Scottish) Division on the 14th July 1916

On the eve of the Battle of the Somme, the Brigade was composed as follows :

General Officer commanding : Brigadier General Henry Timson LUKIN

1st South African Infantry Regiment (Cape of Good Hope)

Lieutenant-Colonel F.S. DAWSON

2nd  South African Infantry Regiment (Natal and Orange Free State)

Lieutenant-Colonel W.E.C. TANNER

3rd South African Infantry Regiment (Transvaal and Rhodesia)

Lieutenant-Colonel E.F. THACKERAY

4th  South African Infantry Regiment (South African Scottish)

Lieutenant-Colonel F.A. JONES

28th Brigade Machine Gun Company, composed of men of the H.L.I. reinforced by South Africans

South African Trench Mortar Battery

64th Field Coy, Royal Engineers (attached)

1st South African Field Ambulance, South African Medical Corps

The 9th (Scottish) Division arrived in the Somme area in mid-June 1916 for the Great Push planned for the 1st July. The Division was not to take part in the first day of the battle and was placed in reserve in the XIII Corps at the right hand of the British front. It was instructed to be ready to do so when called upon.

Before the battle : men of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment take a rest along a road (Delville Wood Museum)

On the 1st July 1916, at 07.30 am, after a week's bombardment (more than 1500 guns and an expenditure of one million and a half shells), almost 60 000 British soldiers, followed later by 50 000 others, attacked the German positions in the North of the Somme river. The attack was a bitter and deadly failure. The British suffered over 54 000 casualties of whom 21 000 killed.

Only the XIII Corps attained its objectives but a great opportunity was lost when the 30th Division, which had took Montauban, was not ordered to push on Bernafay Wood and Trônes Wood, then devoid of defenders. The definite taking of the latter, on the 14th July, would cost thousands of men to the British.

During the night of the 2nd-3rd July, the 27th Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division relieved the 90th Brigade (30th Division) in Montauban and captured Bernafay Wood in the afternoon of the 3rd July after a feeble resistance.

The 9th (Scottish) Division relieved the remainder of the 30th Division in Montauban in the night of the 4th/5th July, the South Africans taking over the Glatz Redoubt sector and in junction with the French troops.

BERNAFAY WOOD

On the 8th July, elements of the 2nd SAI occupied Bernafay Wood, relieving the 27th Brigade. They were relieved on 10th July by the 4th SAI after sustained some 200 casualties from heavy shelling. From the 10th July, the South African Scottish supported the  British assaults on Trônes Wood. Bernafay Wood was subject to the accurate German shell fire, and on the 11th July, Lieutenant-Colonel F.A. JONES, the Commanding officer of the 4th SAI, was killed by a shell-splinter as he get out from his dugout. On the 13th July, orders were issued for the attack on the German Second line at Longueval, and the 4th SAI was relieved by the 2nd Royal West Surrey and the 7th Middlesex of the 18th Division.

Its first week in the battle cost the Brigade 537 casualties. The strenght of the Brigade was now 3153 all ranks (121 officers and 3032 other ranks).

LONGUEVAL AND DELVILLE WOOD

The village of Longueval is situated on a ridge at the junction of four roads and had, in 1914, 130 houses and 406 inhabitants. Its most important building was the Sugar Factory (Waterlot Farm) on the Guillemont road. Adjacent to the village is Delville Wood, 156 acres with a dense undergrowth and seamed with grassy rides.

Longueval houses near Delville Wood in 1915 (from An der Somme)

Longueval church in 1915 (with the western edge of Delville Wood in the background of the picture) (from An der Somme)

Waterlot Farm in 1915 (from An der Somme)

The control of the wood was essentiel to ensure the capture of the village and the continuation of the offensive towards Flers.

The battlefield

As with many of village in the area, Longueval had been turned into a fortress, equipped with re-enforced cellars, underground tunnels, and machine gun nests, manned by German  soldiers who had been told not to yield a meter of ground. On the 14th July 1916, the 2nd Battalion of the 16th (Bavarian) Infantry Regiment was in line in Longueval.

14th JULY

The ridge was attacked at 03. 35 am by the 26th and 27th Brigades of the 9th (Scottish) Division. The South African Infantry Brigade was in reserve and was initially planned to take part to the "cleaning" of the village and the wood. The Scots seized the southern part of the village and patrols of the 8th Black Watch got into the wood. But Germans held in the northern part of the village, strongly fortified, and strengthened in the wood. The fierce fighting in the village and around Waterlot Farm had caused heavy losses among the assailants. The 1st SAI was sent in the village to assist in clearing the South of Longueval and the three others South African regiments were to be ordered to penetrate the wood, but the advance was postponed for the following morning.

The Short  Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mark III was the standard rifle of the British Army during the First World War. It appeared in 1907 and was producted in India from 1909 and in Australia from 1913. It remained in British service until 1957. Many variants were producted during this long career. Accurate and reliable, the SMLE established itself as one of the best rifles of the war in spite of its relative complexity. An experienced soldier was able to fire as many as 15 rounds a minute in target.

15th JULY

At 05. 00 am, the first South African soldiers penetrated the wood under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tanner. The progress was slow because of the tangles of trees destroyed by the first shellings. At noon, the whole wood, except its northwestern part, too strongly defended, was under control. The entrenchment began, but this was difficult by the nature of the ground strewn with roots and by a  constant bombardment including gas shells, all under a stifling heat. Moreover, Germans launched three counter attacks, all repulsed. The brilliant marksmanship of the South Africans was given its opportunity. The rate of German shelling often reached 400 shells per minute, with all calibres. The casualties were heavy and the only reserve of the Brigade consisted of three companies, despite the fact that the 1st SAI had returned to Lukin's command.

Before the attack, two companies of the 4th SAI were detached to the 5th Cameron Highlanders.  They took part to the attack of Waterlot Farm, which was not taken till the following day. They joined the South African Brigade in Delville Wood.

16th JULY

All through the furious night of the 15th, South Africans were digging trenches to save their lives. At 2.35am, Lukin received orders from the Division  that the portion held by enemy must be taken. Without artillery preparation, the attack, by the Royal Scots from the village and the 1st SAI from Prince Street, was a failure and the attacking troops fell back.  It was then that Private W.F. FAULDS won his Victoria Cross. It was during this hot and dusty day that appeared the first difficulties to bring up food and water. Also, the evacuation of the wounded became perilous. Lieutenant Colonel Dawson, C.O. of the 1st Regiment, asked for a relief. But fresh troops could not yet be spared for the work. The Division ordered that the wood must be held at all cost. Moreover, another attack against the north-west corner was ordered for the next morning.

17th JULY

In spite of an artillery preparation, this attack, made shortly before dawn by the 1st and 2nd SAI, did not succeed. Germans were stubborn defenders. In the morning, General Lukin visited the wood and was worried about the fatigue of his men. He had now no troops which had not been in action for at least forty-eight hours. A fight in a wood was the most wearing king of battle and the most of the South Africans had to wait under a continuous machine-gun and artillery fire. On his return at his headquarters, Lukin discussed the situation on the telephone with General Furse, C.O. of the 9th (Scottish) Division, but could get no hope of relief or reinforcements. Moreover, the instructions from the XIII Corps stood that the wood must be held at any cost. Delville wood became a death-trap.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tanner was wounded in the evening and Lieutenant-Colonel Thackeray succeeded him in charge of the troops in the wood.

18th JULY

This fourth day was the crisis of the battle for the defenders. In the night, a strong enemy attack was launched and Germans advanced as far as Buchanan Street and Princes Street. A costly counter-attack expelled them. At 3.45am, The 3rd Division succeeded to take the orchard in the North of Longueval and the 1st SAI joined hands with the 1st Gordon Highlanders. But this sudden success was due to the fact that German infantry had evacuated the orchard for a barrage of its artillery. At 8.00am, a bombardment of an unprecedented severity was open on the wood and Longueval. Every part of the area was searched and smothered by shells until 3.30pm. The 3rd Division was expelled from the northern part of Longueval and fresh German troops began to enter the wood from all sides. To the great surprise of the attackers, the handful of South African survivors gave a stubborn resistance and took place a fierce fighting with high losses on both sides. In many parts of the wood, were "duels" between attackers parties and resistance pockets, sometimes at reversed front. It is not easy to reproduce the circumstances of events of this painful day, because many of the protagonists were killed. The South African soldiers, driven back to the southwestern part of the wood delimited by Princes Street and Buchanan Street, installed there a pocket of resistance, assisted by Highlanders of the division. A new German division was committed to expel them : it never succeeded.

19th JULY

           All through the 19th the gallant handful suffered incessant shelling and sniping and repulsed the attackers with heavy loss. On the eastern edge of the wood, the remains of the 3rd SAI, which had successfully resisted the thrust of the German infantry on their front, were now effectively cut off. 190 men were captured. The first relief  by the 26th Brigade begun in difficult conditions.

20th JULY

            Germans launched several attacks against Thackeray's band but could not overrun them. The colonel himself fought with rifle and grenade on the parados of the trench. Finally, in the evening the promised relief arrived with the men of the 3rd Division. Thackeray marched out with two officers, both of whom were wounded, and 140 other ranks, made up of details from all the units of the Brigade. He spent the night at Talus Boisé, and the next day joined the rest of the Brigade at Happy Valley.

Out of the 121 officers and 3 032 other ranks who formed the Brigade on 14th July in morning, only 29 officers and 751 other ranks were present at roll call when the unit was gathered some days after the battle. The heroic resistance of the South African Brigade, against the flower of the German Army, had saved the southern part of the British line.

The wood remained the scene of bitter fighting for more than one month and units of seven British divisions was committed there. Finally, Delville Wood was entirely in the hands of Allies at the end of August when the 14th (Light) Division captured it for good. It remained in the first line till 15th September 1916 when the great attack with tanks « took away » the front eastwards and northwards.

The battle

The Roll of Honour

South African Awards

Victoria Crosses

The Rollcall

British Infantry

German Infantry

Walter  Giddy

Arthur Betteridge

British Delville Wood / Longueval Roll of Honour

Frederick Charles Lee

Download section