DELVILLE WOOD

LONGUEVAL - SOMME - FRANCE

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EXTRACTS FROM "ECHOES OF WAR" (1915-1918),

memoirs of Geoffrey George LAWRENCE (1st S.A.I.)

"Echoes of War" was presented in October 1986 to the Delville Wood Commemorative Museum by Barbara Smith, daughter of G.G.J. Lawrence.

Second Lieutenant G.G.J. LAWRENCE, Le Touquet, December 1917 (Commissionned in May 1917).

About the middle of June [1916] we commenced our march South and were dispersed in company strenght amongst the little villages or farms to the rear of the aera we were scheduled to attack in the great battle of the Somme. We were several days on the road and moved through the busy old Cathedral town of Amiens. It took us two hours to pass through this big town of broad cobbled streets lined by a mingling of ancient and modern buildings. Out and beyond once more amongst the farmsteads, woods and fields - on and on. The weather certainly favoured us in that golden summer of 1916 as we marched through lovely green peaceful country far removed from the sounds of battle. It was hard to believe there was a war on and that each day brought us closer to the belching guns and the slaughter that awaited us.

One was struck by the neat fields of ripening crops, the propusion of red poppies and deep blue cornflowers and the birds. The larks in particular were new to us - so numerous and strangely interesting with their happy singing high above, almost out of sight in the clear sky. What lovely memories of beautiful countryside and of wonderful comrades.

On our march southwards we stopped for a week end near a village called section de Longpré and our platoon with company headquarters was billeted on a small farm holding. The owner, a widow, was so kind to our men and made us as confortable as possible in the only barn or outhouse she posseded. The company officers and Padre HILL (1) had their quarters in the dwelling house. The good madame was greatly impressed by our tall fine-features saintly chaplain. She came out the next morning to tell us all about him and described him as très grande - très grande - and much else. Were reached the area near the town of Corbie and were billeted at Sailly-le-Sec until moved close to the line at Welcome Wood and sheltered there safe from observation.

The great bombardment of the German trenches had commenced and continued for seven days. We arrived in the wood in time for the last two days of the terrific battering and wondered if anything in the ennemy trenched could possibly survive.

I have very clear and happy memories of our few days in this well-named wood. For once we were free of all parades and duties and able to wander and mingle with friends in other companies or regiments and also fortunate in having unclouded skyes and dry conditions for camping, our only cover the beautiful overhead foliage of the trees.

A most inspiring sight and sound was the marching and plying by the massed bands of the 9th Division's Highland Brigade [26th Brigade]. Each of the four famous Scottish regiments, The Black Watch, the Camerons, the Seaforths and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders seemed to be playing their hearts out and vying with each other for the best performance. To a man we were thrilled and spellbound.

Even after sixty years a memory of comradeship and kidness in that wood is indelibly etched in my mind. I looked up a friend named KENSIT (2) in another company who with two others was just about to finish the last of his parcel from home, a tin of canned peaches. The generous fellow insisted on me joining in though it meant one less peach all round. With the dull roar of the great bombardment as orchestra those peaches were eaten with deliberate and thoughtful relish. This was a man with a lovely unselfish spirit, very cultured and knowledgeable. He was killed in Delville Wood two weeks later, mortally wounded whilst trying to run through an impassable barrage of bursting shells with an urgent message to our command post. He struggled through, delivered the message and collapsed and died almost immediately. One of the four of us besides myself survived the battle and told me of his death.

On 1 July the great battle started and the first we knew of it was Germans were brought to the prisoner-of-war cages in the valley below us. A number of us gathered to see them being brought in. There were far fewer by mid-morning that expexted and it was only then that we began to fear that all was going according to plan. A dazed little man of the 18th Manchester's said he was one of the few survivors of his company. Being in a vey shocked state we hoped he could be wrong. The casualties were very heavy. However, in the area to our front the attack had been successful and a considerable penetration had been made into the enemy defences. It was here that our division was to come in and exploit the success.

The 9th Division was now moved closer to the original trenches and we in conformity left our wooded shelter for the artillery lines and were put into dugouts on the side of a hill. French heavy guns and our own South African heavy artillery were all around us firing continuously. Being as yet reserve troops we were used to dig emplacement for the bigger guns that were moving up as the firing range extended. Shelling by the enemy batteries was sporadic. Il had a narrow escape when a shell burst a few yards on my left, knocked over a man in front of me and killed a French soldier further on. We had to carry on and only take shelter when things became too hot. After two days here we moved to the original front line and entered the trench system after dusk. It was very close humid weather, there were no dugouts and sleep was difficult on the duck boards. Desultory shelling went on all night but only one man in our company was killed. Most of those killed five days previously in the early morning assault from these trenches had been buried yet there remained the reek of death everywhere. My half-section and myself hunted around for an unburied body for the air was so thick and overpowering we could not sleep. At dawn we collected and buried the small scattered remains of a poor fellow who had, got a shell to himself, as the saying was.

For five more days we remained in this line of trenches close to Maricourt and were occupied on fatigue whenever there was a quiet spell of shelling. Enemy observation balloons floated in the distance and could report any undue movement on our part. A number of men on our left were killed and wounded by shell fire in this way. In fact before advancing on Longueval and Delville Wood the 1st Regiment had fifty casualties during our occupation of these trenches.

On our second day the prevailing cloudy conditions cleared and apparently gave the enemy observers in their sausage balloons full scope. Our cook had so far been able to continue producing meals above ground behind very scantly camouflage. Suddenlly we heard the scream of heavy shells coming and two five-point nines burst with a crash on the cook house and poor Jock MUNRO (3) was very badly wounded and his dixies of food destroyed. He was carried off on a stretcher during a quiet spell to the field dressing station where he died soon afterwards. Poor old Jock, a very loveable, happy-golucky Scotsman. One company commander once said of him he had never known a man wrote so many letters to so many differents girls.

On the evening of the 13th we left our trenches at Maricourt and dug ourselves in on a hillside some distance in front. Here we were given our orders for the big advance the next morning in support of the 26th Highland Brigade. Our trench being sufficiently deep, I moved aside to a highter point and watched the intense shelling of the wood we were to assault the next day. It was a most fearsome sight to see the wood a mass of flames rising to the full height of the trees, a perfect hell, and this was our objective for the following day. I felt terribly afraid. I think all of us before battle were jolted into facing the facts of fear and death and knew they must be fully dealt with. In my case I was granted a peace that remained throughout my days in the wood.

Returning to my place in our trench I was keeping a sharp lookout with my rifle at the ready and must for an instant have fallen asleep with my eyes open when a Major peered at me from in front of the trench and said "Are you awake?" I jerked to reality and promptly said "Yes, Sir". Warning us to be wakeful he passed on. Our officers were constantly on the move in front of us that night seeing that we were wakeful, evidently expecting an enemy counter attack.

We were up at 2.30 the next morning, 14 July (Bastille Day), and moved off at dawn. We made our way up through a valley alongside a light railway line passing on the way streams of Highlanders wounded in the taking of Longueval at daybreak. Higher up the valley we saw a fine and unusual sight, a squadron of Bengal Lancers mounted on horses, their long lances at the ready and the metal tips glinting in the sun. Understandably they were soon spotted by the enemy observation balloons, heavily shelled and dispersed with a number of losses. Even to us it seemed a wasteful and misguided appreciation of the stubborn enemy defences held in strength behind wire ahead of them.

We fired into a captured German communication trench and remained there until our call came to advance two hours later. In this time we were able to have a meal though the trench was packed with dead Germans laid out in rows inside and outside on the parapet and very old. Our shelling here must have been deadly.

From here we moved out into the open plain and headed for Longueval. We soon came under fire from shrapnel bursting overhead, also high explosive and tear gas shells. The latter forced us to put on eye goggles partially blinding us. It seemed to be indirect fire and luckily our platoon escaped casualties. The next company, not so lucky, had several casualties here from shrapnel balls, amongst them my later friend, MACKAY. We reached the German line of trenches on the outskirts of Longueval and occupied them all afternoon. The enemy gunners had the exact range and shelled us with un comfortable accuracy.

In mid-afternoon I was told to go off on a fatigue party to carry plum pudding type mortar shells through the village to the mortar battery on the fringe of the wood in front of us. It was a vary tricky affair carrying a 60 lb bomb on one's shoulder plus our usual equipment. Our route took us through broken-down houses and streets where many of our dead were lying. At one corner we dodged around, quickly stepped over two dead men, and round the next shelter before the snipers could get us. Bullets pinged and richochetted everywhere. We were relieved to return to the less dangerous shelter of our trench.

That night we had a bad time and little sleep. Added to the type of shelling we had all afternoon, a battery of long-distance heavy naval guns was ranged onto us and fired all night. In the early morning one of these heavy ones fell on our parapet and buried a man close to me. We dug him out as quickly as possible though I was too shocked by the blast to help much. He was carried away unconscious but we heard recovered only to be lost in Delville Wood later.

On the 15th our company was needed to press forward an attack in the Wood. We filed out of our trench and took up a position next to some of the Argylls. We lay down amongst the bracken waiting for orders to advance, meanwhile keeping very low and quiet. A yound Scottie of the Argylls, about my age, had opened a tin of sardines and was thoughtfully and carefully selecting and eating one at a time, slowly as if they were to be his last. I wondered at him not offering me one when I spotted the worsted star of a Second Lieutenant on the shoulder strap of his Tommies' tunic. Just then there was a great shouting and cheers and a long rattle of machine gun fire. It seemed Captain JENKINS (4) had given an order to his men around him to prepare to charge a strong point, and blown his whistle and as his men rose with him were swept down by the machine gun. Captain JENKINS and five men were wounded and one was killed. Owing to a gap in our extended line the order did not reach us.

There was heavy shelling all that day fter we returned to our trench. At dusk we moved into the wood and dug ourselves in. Amongst the tree roots digging was difficult and slow so that we worked until the early hjours of the 16th. At dawn we were ordered to move deeper into the wood. We filed carefully through the dense and beautiful forest to the furthest corner and were told to dig again and to dig quickly as the enemy was very near. Gussie HARRISON (5) and I paired off and dug down about three feet with only just room for us to squat. Lying close to us were two strapping young Bavarians killed during the night and mùany wounded Germans. I went over and took the water bottles, still full, from the bodies.

All was quiet for a short spell and we were able to look about us and admire the beautiful wood of tall trees above us and bracken and brambles below. The sun shone and everywhere great spider webs glistened with dew. The noise in the wood was terrific though in our area no shells were falling at the time.

Standing up and keeping a good lookout for an anemy attack, I noticed the tree leaves close above our heads dropping steadily every now and then. It suddenly struck me that it was not yet autumn - those leaves should not be falling - they were being cut down by bullets. We got down very quickly and soon machine guns were raking us from two sides. The fresh earth on our parapet came tumbling down on us as the bullets swept along it. Two men close by were wounded by this fire, one very badly.

There was as it were a blanket of supendous noise everywhere yet only now as heavy shells and falling trees crashed near us did we hear it. As the day wore on new artillery tactics were used on our line of slit trenches. At about 3 o'clock they used high velocity shells, the ones we called whizz bangs, searching up and down our line. They burst in pairs just above our heads. We heard them exploding on their way up over us, past and then coming down again. On the second trip up, the two burst just above our trench with a crash. A piece came flying back past my ear and drawn up legs and struck in my right thigh. There was a scream from the next little trench as a poor sergeant was badly smashed up and mortally wounded by the same shell. Gussie at once bandaged my leg and said "You have a lovely Blighty, get out". I was dazed and shocked by the concussion and at first refused to leave for what seemed a small wound. Soon the leg stiffened and I realized I would be useless in combat. Waiting for a lull two of us made our way slowly back through the wood. Midway we had to take shelter in a shellhole from the heavy explosions close around us. We went on though it seemed impossible to get through. We reached a log and sand bad shelter full of wounded in the care of a medical orderly, hoping to shelter from the terrific bombardment. The orderly said "Don't stay, rather take a chance outside. We expect to go up any moment". With the heavy shells falling we feelingly agreed there was little future for these poor fellows and went on.

With the aid of a branch as a stick I hopped along and somehow by watching the spots where there seemed fewer bursts we got through to the road leading to Montauban. There we were joined by a young fellow named BOTHA (6) wearing a German overcoat. His bare chest was bandaged and as we passed a dressing station sited in a shelter dug into the bank of the sunken road, a doctor ran out and looked at our late-comer in surprise for he had been shot clean through the chest, where the doctor said his heart should have been. The doctor then looked at us two and advised us to keep moving. We needed little encouragement for the Bosch was sending over regular salvos and the road was littered with dead. I suggested getting off the road and walking a little distance off and parallel to it. This we did and escaped the heavy stuff we could hear coming before they landed on the road. We reached Montauban and here returned to the now fairly quiet road. All along our way men ran out from these funk holes and gave us cups of lovely hot tea. Passing through the village we reached a light rail line and joined a number of wounded on a trolley that ran us down to a dressing station, and from there were taken by ambulance to clearing station some miles back. Here, of all luxuries, a warm bad on the grassed floor of the lanrge tented ward, and a hot meal.

Lying in the bed next to me was a young Highlander with bandages over both eyes. I was told a bullet had passed through behind his eyes severing the nerves and blinding him.

I could not sleep that night for listening to the roar in the distance and thinking of the fellows I had left in that awful wood. I was somewhat consoled about leaving them when my wound was examined and it was considered necessary to put the leg in splints, there being no exit wound. I was now a stretcher case and put into a nice bed in an ambulance train bound for Rouen and from there loaded on to the St George hospital ship. Stretcher cases were stacked far below ; knowing enemy submarines were about, I was pleased when we were safely put ashore at Southampton.

We reached Waterloo Station in due course and were stacked in long rows on the platform where some lovely nurses attended us. All South Africans were taken to Tooting Military Hospital and very well treated there by kind nurses and staff.

To go back to Devil's Wood, for knowing no other this was the appropriate name we gate it, until we read of the name Delville Wood in the papers. The bombardment of the Wood by the enemy was stepped up on the 17th when all hell was let loose and caused terrible losses. Our men were attached by a fresh enemy division on the 18th when ground was lost and retaken and partially los again. Our Brigade, decimated and exhausted, fought on until relieved by fresh troops on the evening of the 19th when 142 men under Colonel THACKERAY marched out.

My poor little half-section, Gussie, and most of my company fell in that holocaust of destructive fury. My first ten days in hospital were spent in bed. The comfort of cool sheets, good meals served by nurses or patients on the mend, made life in bed a restful and happy affair. For the moment our main worry was of the news in the daily papers and the long casualty lists. If only we could get news of the friends we left in the wood and how the battle as a whole was going. Reports in the papers appeared to us rather over-optimistic and yet progress was claimed and ground won, but at what a cost ? In our ward there were many of our men who could walk around being wounded in the arms or head. I had many of these as visitors and we would go over again our individual experiences. Some were wounded earlier than I was though a surprisingly large number were hit on the 16th as I was. A few were there who were wounded on the 17th and 18th July and described the terrific fighting and overwhelming shellfire of those days of sheer horror and grim holding on relieved by intense bouts of repulsing heavy enemy attacks when they were killed in their hundreds by our accurate rifle and Lewis gun fire.

A man in our ward of dormitory-like rows of beds kept walking up and down the ward in great pain clasping him armless shoulder. He came from the Bedford district and as far as I can remember his name was Ainslee. I know it was a Scots name. The poor chap had his right arm taken off very close to the shoulder and told us his still raw wound was paining him terribly and that he could distinctly feel his fingers that weren't there. He told me now his arm was shattered from the elbow down by a shell blast and as he was being dressed at a first aid post in the wood another shell fell alongside him and took the remainder of the same arm off as far as his shoulder and killed most of those who were aiding him. He got away somehow and after a further operation in France was evacuated to Tooting Military Hospital. All this happened only two weeks earlier and the fresh would was giving him great pain. Being a hefty and extremely fit fellow he was able to stand the shock, one that would have killed a weaker man. He was in the 4th (Scottish) Regiment of our Brigade and I remember wore his kilt with great dash. Unfortunately I lost touch with him when we left us for specialised treatment and a metal arm. He was a great chap andwas liked and admired by us all.

In bed on the other side of me was a young chap by the name of JONES, either 1st or 3rd South African Infantry who had a very narrow escape. He was firing at the enemy at the edge of the wood when a bullet struck him in the mouth, pushed his back teeth through his cheek and passed out at the base of his head only just missing his spine. He was wonderfully patched up and got a fine set of false teeth to boot.

Another young fellow came in whith shell shock ; he had been blown high up into the air by a bursting shell and miraculously came down without a scratch of any kind but was deaf and dumb. His deafness cleared in hospital but he was unable to talk. A few weeks later he was accidentally bumped and being annoyed, said "Damn!". From then on he was cured and spoke fluently and amusingly of his strange experience and of the frustration during his spell of speechlessness.

I was soon up and about and spent many cheery hours chatting with the less fortunate still in bed. An X-ray was taken of my leg and this showed up a nose cap screw from the shell that got me. Having burnt and sterilized its way in, it was decided to leave it and await further developments. My cousin, a doctor in the South African Medical Corps, promised to take it out free of charge whne we returned home. Unfortunately the poor chap did not survive the war. The screw remains with reminders at times of my lucky "blighty".

 

(1) Padre Eustace St Clair HILL, chaplain of the 1st S.A.I. Lost his right arm in front the Butte de Warlencourt and awarded the Military Cross. Returned in France in April 1917 and served at N°32 Casualty Clearing-Station. Taken prisoner in March 1918 at Marrieres Wood.

(2) Private Edward George KENSIT, 1st S.A.I. Killed in action on the 18th July. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial.

(3) Private Duncan MUNRO, 1st S.A.I. Died of wounds on the 16th July. Rest in Peace in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

(4) Captain Herbert Harold JENKINS, 1st S.A.I., C Coy. Wounded on the 15th July. Wounded again on the 18th October 1916 in front the Butte de Warlencourt. Twice mentioned in despatches. Lieutenant-Colonel at the end of the War and awarded the D.S.O.

(5) Private Guy Alexander HARRISON, 1st S.A.I. Missing in action on the 18th July. Commemorated on Thiepval Memorial.

(6) Private John Gabril BOTHA, of Pretoria, survived this severe wound and returned to the Regiment, only to be severely wounded in the last weeks of the War.