LONGUEVAL - SOMME - FRANCE
EXTRACTS OF COMBAT IN AND OVER DELVILLE WOOD
ARTHUR HENRY BETTERIDGE
Arthur Betteridge has the rather unique distinction of being the only South African to have fought on the ground at and in the air over Delville Wood. Hence the title of these Memoirs. In July 1916 took place the bloody battle of Delville Wood where he was severely wounded. Two year later, when a fighter Pilot in the R.A.F., he fought in the air over the Wood...
MONTAUBAN, BERNAFAY WOOD AND TRONE WOOD
July 5th, the 1st Regiment and we Scottish took over the new front line near Montauban, the Scottish at the extreme right of the British mingling with the French. Approaching this line my great friend, Bill Fisher was hit in the stomach by a large piece of shrapnel. He was sent to England and remained in hospital for many months. Several other men were killed and more wounded. The Germans were recovering from the shock of the original attack and bringing up numerous new Divisions of men and artillery...
On the 6th July we took over Bernafay Wood. On the main sunken road alongside the wood we made a deep German dugout Battalion Headquarters. Several casualties occurred at this time. The German gunners knew the territory and were virtually sniping at us with whizzbangs. Lieutenants Brown and Oughterson were killed at Glatz Redoubt. Captain Shenton, our signals officer, was wounded in the foot. Captain Guest was also wounded. Our casualties were rising significantly. On the 8th we attacked Trones Wood which had been the scene of bitter fighting. Ennemy machine gunners were well entrenched in the wood and some of them supported their snipers hidden in the trees. The 2nd Regiment lost five officers and 200 men before the wood was cleared the next day. Captain Russell, commanding D Company of the Scottish and 40 men were killed before the wood was cleared, and handed over to the Liverpool Regiment.
After capturing Trones we moved to Glatz Redoubt where Lieutenant Sinclair was killed by a booby trap cunningly concealed under a loose board...
July 11th I had brought a message from C Company in the front line, to Headquarters at Bernafay Wood. The opening to this dugout naturally faced the new German front lines. Within seconds of leaving, a salvo of German shells burst a few yards away, knocking me sideways. Two men nearby were killed and one of those shells entered the dugout I had just left. Colonel Jones and an orderly were climbing up the steps at that moment. As the shell exploded, both of them were killed instantly and several in the dugout wounded and shocked. I rushed down the dugout after the explosion and assisted in bringing the Colonel's body to the road where we placed it on a stretcher and covered it with a ground sheet. The body of that popular Officer Commanding was taken to a nearby cemetery. This loss was felt by all ranks of the Scottish.
I took a map of the area from the dead hand of our O.C. and gave it to Major Hunt. He told me to keep it as he already had one. Major Hunt there and then appointed me as his temporary orderly and signaller.
Major Hunt took command until Lieutenant Colonel D. MacLeod arrived from Divisional Headquarters the next morning. From this day our casualties increased rapidly. New arrivals at the reserve in Happy Valley were rushed to the front line to replace wounded and killed.
I was sent with a message to C Company in the front line and returned to find the Major in a trench near Headquarters, half buried. Corporal Hockey who was with him was killed and three men of a ration party all badly wounded. The Major told me that a shell burst almost in front of him, killing Hockey, who was at the back of him. Two privates of the Black Watch were about 20 feet from that shell burst, and they ran to help the Major to his feet. One of them told me the shell burst almost next to the Major and it was a miracle he was not blown to pieces. An astonishing escape. I had evidence that day of the several escapes from death "Dolly" Hunt, as he was affectionately known, was to experience.
A few hours after this incident I had to accompany Major Hunt on a round of the shallow trenches leading to the new front line. Most of these trenches were clearly within sight of German gunners. I tried to get a line back to Headquarters through wires which had been run along the trenches. We stopped half a dozen times to do this and were never successful. All lines of communication had been damaged by shell fire. It was most noticeable that immediately we left one of these stopping places, a salvo a whizzbangs exploded near the spot we had just left. After a fouth instance, I looked anxiously at the Major when my impossible task was done. "Yes, Betteridge", he said, "I think it's time for them to have reloaded their beastly whizzbangs - let's go". He must have been a mind reader because the next salvo arrived immediately we departed. I never met a luckier man, nor a braver one.
On the 13th we were relieved by the British Middlesex Regiment. These fine fellows and those of the Royal Surrey's had concentrated at Talus Boisé with the 9th Division. Some 550 S.A. Brigade replacements had arrived there from Bordon to replace some of our casualties. On reaching the support line we found another dugout near that in which Colonel Jones had been killed, had received a direct hit from a heavy shell, blasting the beams of the dugouts and burying all six of the occupants. Only three of the buried men were brought out alive. One of them was a signalling pal of mine, Jim Scott, who was badly crushed. He had a streak of white hair showing through his normally black hair. This was supposed to be biologically impossible at that time, but several of us who knew Jim well, actually saw it.
While we were out of the line, an ammunition dump next to Glatz Redoubt received a direct hit. Luckily it did not blow up. C Company chaps promptly tore off the covers of the dump camouflage and saved a nasty situation...
LONGUEVAL AND DELVILLE WOOD
The general attack was resumed on the 14th. Several Scottish Regiments of the 9th Division attacked the village of Longueval, captured it and a small portion of Delville Wood alongside the village. The S.A. Brigade was in support. As we advanced I saw many dead kilties, one of the Cameronians had rammed his bayonet into the chest of a German when both were killed by the blast of a German shell. This was a gruesome sight among many others in the vicinity of Longueval village.
That afternoon we moved up to the fringe of Longueval, digging shallow trenches when time allowed. The Germans had started a frightening barrage on our exposed positions and sent over a gas attack. Captain Farrell was gassed and wounded and Lieutenant Taylor was among others taken by stretcher to the field hospital erected at the side of Bernafay Wood. This hospital was within range of the German heavy guns and carried on attending to the thousands of wounded under shell fire.
... our advance had caused a huge salient, resulting in Longueval and Delville Wood coming under fire from three directions, a most unpleasant and dangerous situation. Delville Wood was on high ground, commanding a view of the Germans in a shallow valley. It was imperative that this important wood should be held at all costs. The safety of our other divisions depended on it.
At 2 a.m. on the 15th, B and C companies of the Scottish attacked a small orchard alongside the Cameronians [in fact 5th Cameron Highlanders]. Our boys were led by Major Hunt and I accompanied them as signaller, carrying a rifle and ammunition, hand grenades, shovel and trenching tool with a small havresack on my back filled with emergency rations, a few personal possessions, small towel, hair brush and comb and my diary. I was wearing an overcoat owing to the rain. A and D companies led by Lieutenant Colonel MacLeod at the same time move rapidly into Delville Wood on our right. Our artillery had been brought forward and put up an intensive barrage on the ennemy infantry advancing from Guillemont. Many of our field artillery fired with open sights and inflicted serious damage on the attacking infantry.
From this day onwards German gunners drenched Longueval, Delville Wood and the back areas with shells, almost obliterating the wood and reducing the houses in the village to rubble. Within 24 hours no wall of any house was higher then three feet. All of the hundreds of trees in the wood were reduced to a tangle of greenery and stumps. Not one tree was intact. The whole area was a shambles. Under this unbelievable rain of shells we had to clear paths and small communication trenches of rubble to brung up ammunition and what replacements we could find for the casualties. It was not possible to bring out the wounded for hours at a time, and then a lot of them were killed or wounded again on their way to the back lines.
In the wood itself the few men still surviving repulsed numerous counter-attacks of the enemy. Germans recaptured a small portion of the wood, but all of them were killed by the South Africans still standing and capable of firing a rifle or using a bayonet. For a time there was a shortage of hand grenades, but somehow or other supplies were brought through that hellish hail of shells. It is a sorry fact to record that on recapturing that bit of the wood, it was found two of our badly wounded men who could not be evacuated, had been killed by Prussians bayonetting them. This news flashed through to the men still alive and fighting, who were very bitter. No Germans were taken prisoner by our chaps in the few days following this sorry, inhuman act.
By this time we had become thoroughly fatalistic. So many of our pals had been killed or wounded, we simply carried on, half-dazed by the interminable shell fire, doing just what we had been trained to do. We lived mostly on our emergency rations and surprinsingly enough a cup of hot tea brewed somewhere in the wood by our chaps. Only rarely was food or tea safely delivered from the rear. Many of the attemps to bring rations through ended in the carriers becoming casualties in that continuous rain of shells on what was left of the wood.
Lack of sleep, after hours of continuous action was beginning to take its toll. On the night of the 16th our platoon was relieved by a platoon of the 2nd Regiment. We staggered back to the support line behind Longueval, only to find the shelling there was nearly as intense as in the village and wood. Through it all, we did manage to get a hot meal from our field kitchens and a welcome cup of really hot tea, before collapsing to sleep for nearly six hours.
Even during this spell away from the wood our casualties continued to rise. I never shall forget the magnificent work of the Scottish Medical Officer, Major Power. He set up an advanced dressing station in a small hollow in the ground two hundred yards behind the sunken road at the edge of the wood. He and his small staff were constantly under fire. Only badly wounded men were attended there, others walked or were carried to the Medical Clearing Stations further in the rear. There was always a collection of a dozen or more badly injured cases in the small space in which the doctor and his staff worked ; no cover was available. Many of the wounded died before they could be taken to the rear. I saw at least twenty bodies near that dressing station covered with ground sheets.
Many men were killed or wounded while snatching a few minutes' sleep in the open, uncaring about the rain ot the constant blasting of shells immediately around them. At times it seemed to be safer in the front line itself even though dazed from the shelling and lack of sleep...
By the 17th July there were only three officers remaining in the wood. Lewis gunners in the front line lost 80 per cent of their men, but the remainder still inflicted serious damage on the numerous German troops who made repeated attacks, some of them in close formation when their ranks were decimated. It was evident that a handful of men holding higher ground had a great advantage over far greater numbers attacking over open ground. This day every available man was pressed into service. Batmen, headquarters sanitarymen even some of the cooks were given rifles and hand grenades to replace the large number of casualties. The few inexperienced new arrivals from Bordon had already been rushed up as replacements, many of them became casualties within hours of their first taste of war.
The previous night our boys had been able to erect a few strands of barbed wire in front of the trenches. This proved helpful when a Regiment of Prussian Guards attacked in daylight in massed formation from German trenches half a mile away. Gunners took a heavy toll of these masses troops. Our chaps fired incessantly into the bunched infantry. A handful managed to reach those few strands of wire before being killed. This was one of the most stupid attacks made by brave, determined soldiers. The valley was strewn with dead and dying men who had been repulsed by a handful of tired but resolute South African troops. It was clear illustration that the High Commands of both sides were willing to send their best troops to certain death in order to secure negligible results. In spite of their ferocity we had to admire those brave men who carried out orders without breaking line in their abortive attack.
On the 17th I saw Captain Marshall of C Company blown into the air by the explosion of a large shell which killed four men in the advance dressing station. The Captain was unconscious and badly shell-shocked but by some miracle unwounded. He never recovered completely from that experience. Whenever possible, troops frantically dug their shallow trenches deeper to avoid the deadly shrapnel shells. Cries for stretcher bearers were heard from every quarter, but these Red Cross men had also sustained serious casualties. Most of the seriously wounded lay unattended for several hours. Quite a number of slighty wounded men stayed in the wood helping the dwindling number of their pals still firing at those persistent Germans, or assisting Machine Gunners reload their hot guns. Some of the less seriously wounded men did a good job of work trying to assist those unable to move. Lots of the latter simply lay where they were hit and fell asleep from exhaustion.
The earth still shook and heaved under the roar of uncountable explosions of heavy shells and crump of shrapnel missiles. Then an unusual roar was heard from the rear, followed by the most terryfying explosion ever heard. It was an 18 inch shell fired from almost 15 miles behind our salient. The Germans had a special train for this huge naval gun. One of these incredible explosions fell a few hundred yards from us, among other Scotties of the 9th Division. Every hour for more than ten hours. Most of them thought our guns were firing short of the German positions.
Such havoc was caused by this outsized missile that some of a Scottish Regiment, dazed and bewildered, ran to the rear of their front trench. This happened just as General Tim Lukin was inspecting that particular sector. He stopped the terrified men and turned them back. An officer, one of the few Cameronians still alive, came running up and apologised to the General. He explained his men were so shocked and exhausted, they repeated an order to retire when some unknown person started a rumour that our gunners were doing the firing of that huge missile. That junior officer was most grateful that the General had stopped what could have been a bad incident.
It must be mentioned that our popular General "Tim" was right among the shells near the front line on numerous occasions seeing for himself what his men had to contend with and giving much encouragement to those of us who saw him.
On the morning of the 18th, only 50 men of the 250 in B and C companies of the Scottish remained. They were mustered to join similarly depleted ranks of the 1st and 3rd Regiments holding the wood. Some stray Highlanders from other Regiments of the Division were ordered to accompany our boys. German shellfire again rose to an unbelievable peak and many of these chaps never reached the front line itself, where they were woefully required to strengthen the depleted ranks. At that time, on the evening of the 18th, there were no officers to give orders, the few N.C.O.'s still alive carried on half stupid from fatigue and lack of sleep. There were enough emergency rations collected from the haversacks of dead companions but hot meals and tea had not reached the wood for three days.
During the whole of the battering not a single telephone line was kept intact from the front line to Battalion Headquarters. Every important demand for replacements, etc. had to be conveyed by runner. Only half of these messages reached their destination.
As mentioned earlier, I was one of the runners for C Company. That day I had been given orders to take with me into the wood a cook named "Geordie" (I never learned his proper name).
The 18th will always remain in my memory as the worst of those five dreadful days. It seemed that the German gunners had increased tenfold. How anyone lived through that intense bombardement covering further German attacks is difficult to believe. This was the last night we held the Wood. In all that time it had been impossible to bury our own or enemy dead who now numbered thousands, along the Divisional Front.
Of the other Regiments in the S.A. Brigade, only two officers were alive in the Wood. One of them Colonel Thackeray, though slightly wounded, remained in charge of the Wood. The last of the Brigade were collected to assist the Colonel repulse the renewed attacks that day.
Colonel MacLeod had been wounded and Major Hunt was in charge at the Scottish Battalion Headquarters. In the afternoon, about 6 p.m., in pouring rain, I was sent with "Geordie", the ex cook, to deliver a message to whoever I could find there who might be in charge of the remnants of the Regiment. Owing to bursting gas shells among the others, we had our gasmasks on, most uncomfortable keeping the eyepieces clean in the rain.
Entering the Wood, just over the sunken road near Longueval, a particularly vicious salvo of shells exploded next to us. We ducked into a large shellhole and as I got up to go on, I felt as though a mule had kicked me and fell to the ground. I had been hit in the thigh by the nosecap of a 5.9" shell. I don't remenber hearing the burst of the shell that hit me. A four inch hole appeared in my left thigh, breaking my leg. As I sat up abruptly, I saw the nosecap next to me and tried to pick it up. It was still very hot and I dropped it. "Geordie" immediately pulled out my field dressing, carried inside my tunic ; this bandage fitted nicely into the hole in my leg. I tried to stand up but found it impossible.
"Geordie" left me there and took the message into the Wood. I learned later he delivered it to a corporal and returning from the Wood was killed. We had both taken off our gasmasks when I was hit. I left my rifle and haversack in the nearby shellhole and crawled towards the sunken road. In spite of the shelling, gas, and rain, I fell asleep, completely exhausted. I cannot recollect any pain from the wound at that time.
I woke at dawn, about 4 a.m. to find it was still drizzling, but the terrific bombardment seemed to have eased somewhat. I crawled towards a dead Scottie a few yards away and found emergency rations in his haversack. I promptly opened a tin of bullybeef and this, with an army "dog" biscuit and water from the dead man's waterbottle, filled my empty tummy. I had hardly eaten anything for 24 hours. I felt horribly tired and the smell of gas did not let me rest in one place for very long, notwithstanding the pain I now had in my leg. Several wounded men passed me on their journey through shell-pocked terrain. I fell asleep again for about three hours, and then ten minutes later two of our stretcher bearers came along and attended to my leg under still heavy shellfire. They placed me on their stretcher, my head next to the backside of a tall lad who was with me at school in East London ; I think his name was Nichols.
They had carried me about 150 yards when a shell burst alongside us. A large piece of shell hit the bearer next to my head, in almost the same place I was hit. I was summarily dropped off the stretcher. The other bearer attended to the wounded man, applying a tourniquet to the gaping hole in his leg, which looked much worse than mine. He then carried our pal to the Dressing Station, half a mile further to the rear. I lay there for another three hours before another party of bearers picked me up. Before they arrived, I crawled to another shellhole where I saw another dead Scottie, aiming to help myself to his emergency rations, which he would no need. I never took his rations ; he had both legs shot away and the shellhole was full of water stained red with his blood. A nasty sight in the midst of much death and destruction.
I finally reached the rear Dressing Station, lined up with many other wounded, unable to walk. Not far from us about thirty bodies covered with blankets and ground sheets awaited their last journey on this earth. The not so severely and walking wounded were crammed into motor trucks and taken to fully equipped hospitals in the rear. We lying cases were given injections, duty labelled and pushed into ambulances for the trip to the comparative quiet of the Field Hospital. After further attention there were driven in another ambulance to the railhead for transport to Blighty.
I must have done a lot of sleeping because the next thing I recalled was walking up in a hospital ship filled with all manner of officers and men who had an astonishing variety of wounds. We were bedded down in a series of bunks built in tiers. It was so refreshing to feel the unaccustomed cleanliness of sheets and to see the cheerful clean faces of V.A.D. nurses and sisters. Two of the wounded men died on the way across the Channel. They were buried in England. On arrival at Southampton we were relabelled for conveyance to various hospitals. I was taken to Chelsea Hospital in London...