DELVILLE WOOD

LONGUEVAL - SOMME - FRANCE

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THE FIRST WORLD WAR

South Africa in 1914

When the Great War of 1914-1918 broke out, South Africa, as a nation state, had been in existence for a mere four years. Only twelve years had passed since the conclusion of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, a war which brought economic and political havoc on South Africa and its population. The Union of South Africa came into being on the 31st May 1910 as a dominion of the British Empire, consisting of the former British colonies of the Cape of Good Hope and Natal, and the two Boer republics, the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and the Oranje Vrijstaat.

The Treaty of Vereeniging which brought the Anglo-Boer War to an end gave rise to a political situation fraught with difficulty. The difficulty was only resolved in 1994 when the first democratic elections took place in the Republic of South Africa. The political difficulty which emerged in 1910 lay in the fact that residual animosity existed between the Dutch and English-speaking former combatants and also in the fact that the Black population had been ignored in the settlement. The political exclusion of the Blacks led to the establishment in 1912 of what is today the African National Congress, the ruling political party.

The animosity felt by the Boer and Black populations of South Africa was understandable. The British stategy to hasten the end of the War resulted in the deaths of approximately 22 000 Boer women, children and elderly and an equivalent number of Blacks in concentration camps. Their farms, livestock, homesteads and livehoods were laid waste.

The majority of the South African population had little reason to assist Britain when the Great War broke out. Despite that, when General Louis Botha, the South African Prime Minister and former Commander of the Boer forces, attended the Imperial Conference in 1911, he undertook to lead 40 000 horsemen into German South West Africa and secure the territory for the Empire. Botha was true to his word.

Louis Botha (Fresco element of Delville Wood Museum)

At the outbreak of the War, the fledgling Union defence Forces were mobilized. Those forces consisted of a small Permanent Force element, supplemented by the Coast Garrison and Citizen Forces, the Rifle Associations (essentially former Boer Commandos) and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

The Defence Act of 1912 prescribed that every South African citizen between the ages of seventeen and sixty was liable for service in defence of the Union in any part of South Africa, whether in or outside the Union. That prescription included service in German South West Africa (now Namibia), but excluded service in German East Africa (now Tanzania), North Africa, Europe and elsewhere. The prescription was overcome by volunteers wishing to serve elsewhere joining what were designated "Imperial Service" units.

German South West Africa

The Union Defence Forces embarked on the German South West African campaign on the 18th September 1914 with a landing at Luderitz Bay. Before operations against the Germans could proceed, General Botha had to contend with a rebellion in the Defence Forces when certain elements in it were persuaded to support Germany. The Rebellion arose out of the political discontent already referred to. After the Rebellion was suppressed, the campaign in German South West Africa continued and was brought to conclusion in July 1915 when the governor of German South West Africa capitulated to General Botha. South African losses amounted to 241 killed and 263 wounded.

Jan Christiaan Smuts  (Fresco element of Delville Wood Museum)

German East Africa

At the end of 1915, the British position in East Africa seemed critical. South Africa raised an Imperial Service Contingent consisting of 10 mounted regiments, 12 Infantry battalions, 1 motorcycle Battalion, 6 artillery Batteries and 2 Scout (reconnaissance) units. The first units arrived in Kenya and Nyasaland (now Malawi) in January 1916 and were engaged in the battles around Mt Kilimanjaro in February and March 1916.  Under the command of General JC Smuts then Lieutenant General JL Van Deventer, the South Africans had as their adversary the wily German General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck who continued to fight until the end of the War.

Askaris in defensive positions at Melangali, 1917 (Photo : Delville Wood Museum)

During the advance from Mount Kilimanjaro to the Central Railway, the South Africans undertook the longest forced march of the First World War. After pausing to reorganize, the South African forces drove the German across the Rufiji river. In all, they marched 800 kilometres through some of the worst terrain in the World.

South African gunners in German East Africa (Photo : Delville Wood Museum)

While the South African forces in German East Africa suffered relatively few casualties from ennemy action, they were ravaged by tropical diseases. South Africa sent 43 477 men to German East Africa. 75 per cent of the South African force were evacuated, suffering malaria, dysentery and the more virulent forms of tick fever.

1st South African Infantry Brigade

The Imperial Government requested South Africa to provide further troops for service in other theatres as early as April 1915. As a consequence, the 1st South African Infantry Brigade was formed for service in Europe under command to Brigadier general HT Lukin.  The 1st South African Infantry Brigade, comprising four regiments, namely, 1st SAI (Cape Province), 2nd SAI (Natal and Organge Free State), 3rd SAI (Transvaal and Rhodesia) and 4th SAI (South African Scottish), numbered 160 officers and 5 468 other ranks when it arrived in England in November 1915. Although the Brigade was trained for service on the Western Front, it was sent to Egypt where it, together with other Imperial forces, engaged the Senussi supported by the Ottoman Turks. The campaign was successfully concluded and by 20 Avril 1916 the Brigade disembarked at Marseilles in France to enter the European theatre of War.

Nancy in Marseilles (Photo : Delville Wood Museum)

Launched on the 1st July 1916 after a week's bombardment, the Battle of the Somme ended in the mud in November. As a component of 9th (Scottish) Division, the South African Brigade moved into the battle zone on the 2nd July and by 4 July was embroiled in relief operation at Glatz Redoubt, near Montauban-en-Picardie. By 8th July, elements of the Brigade were in Bernafay Wood and, by 10th July, supported the British attacks on Trône Wood. Its first week in the battle cost the Brigade 537 casualties.

Between 15th and 20th July 1916, the Brigade consisting of 3153 men, having entered Delville Wood, a tactically important salient protruding into the German second line, was subjected to an onslaught of such unrelenting and unmitigated violence that the wood itself disappeared, shattered and sundered by the ferocity and intensity of the artillery bombardments of friend and foe alike. Having expended their ammunition, the men resorted to hand to hand combat. When the Brigade was relieved, a mere 142 souls emerged from the shambles. Eventually 780 men of the Brigade assembled ; 1709 had been wounded and 763 killed (457 killed in action, 120 died of wounds and 186 missing in action, their deaths assumed).

THE BATTLE OF DELVILLE WOOD

The battle

The Roll of Honour

South african awards

Victoria Crosses

The Rollcall

British infantry in Delville Wood

Private Giddy' s diary

Memoirs of Arthur Betteridge

German Infantry

Letter from Lance Corporal Frederick Charles LEE (3rd S.A.I.)

British Delville Wood / Longueval Roll of Honour

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The Brigade remained on the Somme and in October 1916 was involved in the Battle of Warlencourt. It later fought on the Arras front and in the 3rd Battle of Ypres. In March 1918, during the German offensive, it was almost annihilated at Marrieres and Gauche Woods on the Somme. The remains of the Brigade fought in April and May at Messines, Wytschaete, around the Mont Kemmel and, reduced to  a battalion-scale, they took part in the capture of Meteren in July. The Brigade left the 9th (Scottish) Division, was re-formed in England and joined the 66th (East Lancashire) Division in September 1918.

66th (East Lancashire) Division

Involved in the Advance to the Victory, the South African Infantry Brigade had the honour, on the 11th November 1918, to be at the easternmost point gained by any troops of the British Army in France.

The casualties of the Brigade were close to 15 000, nearly 300 per cent of the original strenght. Of these some 5000 were dead.

South African Heavy Artillery

Six batteries of the South African Heavy Artillery fought in France and Belgium from 1916 to 1918.

71st (South African) Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery

The 71st Battery arrived at Havre on the 16th April 1916, under the command of Major H.C. Harrison. It was destined for the impending operations on the Somme, and its first position was at Mailly-Maillet in the VIII Corps area. On 2nd June, however, it was ordered north to Ypres, where the Canadians at the moment were heavily engaged. On the 18th it returned to Mailly-Maillet, where it participated in the opening days of the Battle of the Somme. On the 5th July it moved to Bécordel, and supportedthe attack on Mametz Wood, Ovillers and Contalmaison, and the September attack on Martinpuich and Flers.

71st Siege Battery, R.G.A.

72nd Siege Battery, R.G.A.

73rd Siege Battery, R.G.A.

1916-1917 Ypres, Somme

1917  Bullecourt, Croisilles, Ypres, Cambrai

1918  Givenchy, Hulluch, The Scheldt

1916-1917 Ypres, Somme

1917  Arras, Lens area, Ypres

1918  Ypres, Arras, Cambrai

1916-1917 Somme

1917  Vimy, Ypres

1918  Givenchy, Hulluch, The Scheldt

74th Siege Battery, R.G.A.

75th Siege Battery, R.G.A.

125th Siege Battery, R.G.A.

1916 Somme

1917  Arras, Ypres

1918  Ypres, Arras, Cambrai

1916-1917 Somme

1917 Ypres

1918  Ypres, Arras, Cambrai

1916-1917 Somme

1917  Arras, Lens area, Steenvoorde

1918  Givenchy, Hulluch, The Scheldt

South African Native Labour Corps

As the campaign dragged on, the battlefields of the Somme and those in Flanders became an insatiable maw, demanding ever more men to replace those who had been killed and wounded. The men at the front had to be supported by those in the lines of communication.

90 000 Black and coloured South Africans were raised in South Africa for labour and transport duties. Among them, more than 25 000 Blacks volunteers served in  France in the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) to provide that support. Many of them were exposed to the dismal scenes of the battlefield. Most, however, served at the great French ports, Le Havre, Rouen, Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk, where they were engaged in offloading the millions of tons of munitions and supplies necessary for continuing the War on the Western Front.

The 16th January 1917, the SS Mendi troopship sailed from Cape Town en route to Le Havre in France carrying a contingent of the SANLC, comprising 802 Black soldiers, 5 white officiers and 17 NCO's as well as 89 crew members. On the morning of 21st February 1917, another ship, the SS Darro, travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals, rammed the SS Mendi, which sank in 25 minutes. 626 men of the SANLC perished in this wreck. Most of them are commemorated on Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton.

The total losses of the SANLC in Europe amounted to 1120 men. 260 of them rest in Arques-la-Bataille British Cemetery, near Dieppe, where the N°1 General Labour Hospital was established.

Arques-la-Bataille

During the German East Africa campaign, the support of the South African Native Labour Corps was essential and a lot of men of this corps lost their lives because the awful working and sanitary conditions.

The Cape Corps

In December 1915 was formed the Cape Corps, unit of coloured troops. The 1st Battalion fought under British command in East Africa then in Palestine distinguishing itself at the taking of Square Hill, an important turkish position, in September 1918. The 2nd Battalion served in German East Africa.

Men of the 1st Battalion, Cape Corps (160th Brigade, 53rd Welsh Division) - Palestine 1918 (Photo : Delville Wood Museum)

The total losses of the two battalions amount to 545 men.

Other South African units serving in Europe or in Palestine

South African Medical Corps

A South African General Hospital was installed at Richmond, England, and another was at Abbeville, Somme.

Bailey's South African Sharpshooters

Recruited and financed by Sir Bailey, this small shrapshooters unit (a total of 24 men served in it) fought on the Western front from 1916 to 1918 in a British division.

South African Field Artillery

Several batteries fought in Palestine under British command.

Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Companies

8 companies of Coloured drivers serving with the Army Service Corps in North of France.

South African Signal Company (Royal Engineers)

XV Corps Signal Company : 1916-1917 Somme, 1917 Flanders Coast, 1918  Lys and advance in Flanders.

South African Railway Companies

Light railway work in forward areas.

Miscellaneous Trade Companies

Locomotive workshops of St Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen.

Staff and patients of the South African Hospital, Abbeville (Photo : Delville Wood Museum)

Battle Honours of the South African forces

Fatal Casualties

 11575 South Africans lost their lives during the Great War. Of them, more than 3000 served in Imperial units.