Delville Wood:
Gethsemane for the
South African Brigade

by I.S. Uys

The Garden called Gethsemane, In Picardy it was...

Rudyard Kipling

Panel at South African Memorial, Delville Wood, Somme Battlefield

The 1st South African Infantry Brigade was recruited at Potchefstroom in August and September 1915 for service overseas. It comprised four battalions (or regiments) of infantry. In order to render these battalions as representative as possible, they were designated as follows:

  • 1st South African Infantry Regiment (Cape of Good Hope Regiment)
  • 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (Natal and Orange Free State Regiment)
  • 3rd South African Infantry Regiment (Transvaal and Rhodesia Regiment)
  • 4th South African Regiment (South African Scottish Regiment)
It is apparent, therefore, that the first three battalions were representative of all four provinces of South Africa, whilst the fourth was strongly representative of the Scottish military tradition in the country. In overall command of the brigade was Brig Gen H.T. Lukin, a seasoned campaigner who had seen service in the majority of South African campaigns during the preceding 35 years. Lt Col F.S. Dawson commanded 1st South African Infantry Regiment; 2nd South African Infantry Regiment was commanded by Lt Col W.E.C. Tanner; 3rd South African Infantry Regiment was commanded by Lt Col E.F. Thackeray; and 4th South African Infantry Regiment by Lt Col F.A. Jones, DSO. Each battalion had its Honorary Colonel; Sir Charles Crewe was Honorary Colonel of the 1st, Gen Louis Botha of the 2nd, Gen Jan Smuts of the 3rd, and Col W. Dalrymple of the 4th. All the members of the brigade were strictly volunteers. There were proportionately fewer Afrikaans speaking personnel in the Brigade. This may well have been due to the fact that the Afrikaner military tradition was predominantly orientated towards cavalry and not infantry. Further, the recent Rebellion of 1914 may possibly have cast a shadow over recruiting. However, it should he noted that before the end of the War their representation in the 1st South African Infantry Brigade had increased from 15% to 30%. It should be noted, within this context, that after the publication of his work The South African Forces in France, John Buchan wrote in the flyleaf of one of the copies:

It is invidious to compare the worth of gallant men, but I think all soldiers would agree that at any vote the South African Infantry Brigade had no superior. The large Boer contingent, many of whom had fought against us in the South African War, gave it a special romance.

The Brigade, numbering 160 officers and 5 648 other ranks, embarked for England from Cape Town. The spirit of these young South African 'colonials' exuded the highest degree of enthusiasm and patriotism. One of these young volunteers, Arthur Betteridge, later recalled the esprit de corps then prevailing within the brigade, and stated that 'Everyone of the five thousand men who left these shores in 1915 was proud to call himself a South African.

Most of them keenly anticipated 'getting to grips' with the Germans. The brigade was quartered at Bordon in Hampshire, where, for the next two months, they underwent training.

Fighting the Senussi in Egypt

During December 1915 it was decided to send the South African brigade to Egypt, where the Senussi tribe led by. Gaafer Pasha, was threatening to overrun the country. On 23 January 1916 the 2nd South African Infantry Battalion first saw action at Halaxin.

Brig Gen Lukin's column comprised; 1st and 3rd South African Infantry Regiments; Dorsetshire Yeomanry; lst/6th Royal Scots; a squadron of The Royal Buckinghamshire (Yeomanry) Hussars; and the Nottinghamshire Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery.

They marched along the coast and engaged the enemy at Agagia on 26 February 1916. With the aid of the Dorsetshire Yeomanry's cavalry the Senussi were routed and Gaafer Pasha and his staff captured. After successfully bringing this brief campaign to a close, Brig Gen Lukin and his brigade were transferred to France.

Introduction to the Western Front

The brigade sailed to Marseilles, where the 4th South African Infantry Regiment were placed in two weeks quarantine due to a case of spinal meningitis. The remainder of the brigade entrained for Armentieres in Flanders, where they underwent training in trench warfare. They formed part of the 9th (Scottish) Division, in the place of the 28th Brigade, which had suffered extremely heavy casualties at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

On 31 May the brigade left its training area and marched 72 km to the Somme area. Four days later they arrived at Enguingatte, where they would spent the ensuing ten days in intensive training. Thereafter they moved closer to the front in several stages. Together with thousands of other combatants, the newly arrived South Africans were utilized to move supplies, shells and other materials. The massed British artillery commenced a heavy bombardment on 24 June. For a week the Germans were subjected to a terrifying barrage from over 1 500 guns. Victor Wepener(1), a proud descendant of Cmdt Louw Wepener (who had been killed in the assault on Thaba Bosiu in 1865, and after whom the Louw Wepener Decoration and Louw Wepener Medal are named) wryly recalled that it was not only the Germans who were affected by this bombardment:

Click Here to See a Schematic Map of the Somme Sector

We marched down to the Somme where there were thousands of heavy guns. I got the fright of my life when a battery went off close behind us and the shells went over our heads.

The fact that Allied artillery fire was by no means an unmixed blessing to the South Africans was to be forcibly impressed upon them at Delville Wood. Writing in the Salstaff Bulletin of July 1936, Arthur Betteridge, then serving in the 4th Battalion, vividly records his early experience of the Western Front:

July 1st found the brigade at Grovetown, receiving fighting equipment and watching German prisoners being escorted to the cages: two nights later we occupied some small French dugouts in Billon Valley . .

The Frenchies manned heavy guns and let many of us watch the huge projectiles from their guns travelling in the air on their missions of destruction . . The following day we entered the line and found a wounded Frenchman as happy as a sandlark. A sympathetic South African officer had given the fellow a stiff dose of rum, and a missing arm held no terrors for the wounded man who was happily looking for a casualty clearing station.

At the Glatz Redoubt, a cement dugout made cosy by the Germans who had been there for more than a year, a wardrobe containing women's clothing, apparently used for amateur theatricals, was found. Many strange sights were seen when the troops arrayed themselves in sundry pieces of intimate female attire. This joke soon ended when one of the company picked up a German helmet attached to a bomb. Several members of the SAI [1st South African Infantry Brigade] lost their lives as a result of 'booby traps' of this kind

Mr Betteridge's reminiscences clearly evoke that juxtaposition of farce and tragedy which is such a recurrent characteristic of war; illustrated in the final paragraph, where a humorous situation proves to be prelude to sudden death.

The Somme offensive and its aftermath

The ill-fated Somme offensive opened on 1 July 1916. The horrific artillery bombardment, commenced on 24 June and recalled by Mr Wepener, was the prelude to this disastrous offensive in the Somme valley. The High Command hoped that the preliminary week's barrage would totally destroy the enemy trenches, exterminating their defenders and thus enabling the Allied infantry to occupy the German lines with minimal opposition. This design, a recurrent feature of the major attacks on the Western Front throughout the War, was to prove totally illusory, on this and on both preceding and succeeding occasions. The shelling completely failed to neutralize the German infantry in their dug outs, and they were ready to meet the assaulting waves of infantry behind the former's emplaced machine guns and barbed wire. The attackers, hurled against the strongest points of the German defences, suffered in excess of 54 000 casualties in the first day's fighting, of whom over 19 000 were killed. Only XIII Corps achieved its objectives; on 30 Division's front the shellfire had done its work in smashing the defences and, in addition, much of the German artillery beyond Montauban had been immobilized. The village of Montauban was deserted and Montauban Alley, at the top of Montauban-Mametz ridge, was secured by llh00.

The scale of the British failure of 1 July 1916, combined with the extremely limited successes achieved on that day in Gen Rawlinson's XIII Corps sector, exercised a great influence upon the future course of the offensive and, in so doing, proved to be one of the major factors in propelling the South Africans into the awesome experience of Delville Wood a fortnight later.Haig realized that he had to capitalize on the limited successes achieved on the right of the British line. He urged Rawlinson to exploit this by securing Mametz Wood and the Contalmaison area in order to prepare for an attack on the German second line on the Longueval-Bazentin le Petit ridge, for he realized that the advance from the line Montauban-Fricourt would attack in the rear of those German defences facing west. The attack would extend on the right to Longueval Village and Delville Wood. First, however, Bernafay Wood and Trones Wood, which were situated to the south of, and below, Delville Wood, would have to be captured.

After capturing the German second line on both sides of Longueval village, the task of XIII Corps was to establish a strong defensive flank around the village. There the German front turned southwards by Trones Wood, facing Guillemont and across the head of Caterpillar Valley. It was thus of the utmost importance - both for the success of the immediate attack and for the preparation of subsequent assaults - that the right flank of Longueval should be consolidated and held as a corner buttress of the new line.

Delville Wood at Mid-Battle

In accordance with this plan, the reserve division was brought forward to the new line, extending from Montauban to the south of Trones Wood. This reserve division was the 9th (Scottish) Division which included, of course, the 1st South African Infantry Brigade. On 7 July the 9th Division was told to prepare for the second stage of the battle, an assault on Longueval. The reserve battalion, the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment, relieved two battalions of the 27th Brigade in Bernafay Wood. The 2nd South African Infantry Regiment incurred over 200 casualties in the process.

Hugh Mallett(2), serving in C Company, recalled his experience of this fighting in the following manner:

Well at last we got the order to pack up, and we were told that we could make up our minds that we would at last have the chance of coming to grips with the enemy, an opportunity we had been waiting for for many months . . .

On our way up the German artillery spotted us and gave us a pretty warm welcome. We lost many men that day. The remainder pushed on and clung for three long days to the position. Then we were relieved and taken back to the guns for a few days rest . .

On 10 July, B and D Companies of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment relieved the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment in Bernafay Wood. On 11 July Lt Col F Jones, OC of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment, was killed by a shell as he emerged from his dugout in Bernafay Wood. This loss of a battalion commander vividly impressed the fact that the war was no respecter of persons. The carnage among the rank and file was yet to follow. It should be noted that, whilst B and D Companies were engaged in Bernafay Wood, A and C Companies of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment had been involved, from 9 July, in the fighting for Trones Wood. On 10 July Capt S.C. Russell, of A Company 4th South African Infantry Regiment, was mortally wounded, dying on the following day

Longueval: 14 July 1916

In planning his assault on the German second line, Gen Rawlinson decided on a night advance and dawn attack. The attacking force was to consist of the 26th and 27th Brigades of the 9th Division, which would assault the village of Longueval on the dawn of 14 July; the South African brigade would remain in reserve. The 26th and 27th Brigades formed up near Montauban and were led to the start line of the attack. As arranged, at dawn they stormed the German positions and fought their way into Longueval, where bitter hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The intensity of the fighting led Maj Gen W.T. Furse, commander of the 9th Division, to offer (at 08h05) the assistance of the 1st South African Infantry Regiment in support of the 27th Brigade. Pte Sidney Martin Carey, aged 21 years, serving in D Company of the 1st South African Infantry Regiment, vividly recalled his experience of the fighting on that day:

We all knew that we were going against a pretty tough enemy - but we didn't expect anything like what actually happened. While going up to Longueval my friend next to me [Pte G.F. Greenwood] said, "Man, but there're a damn lot of bees around here!" I said, "Bees be blowed! Those are bullets flying around." Unfortunately about four minutes afterwards a bullet caught him and killed him right out. Then I began to see that things were getting bad. Then another went over. Then another. Then I thought, "It's my turn next'. There were machine gun posts at the flour mill at Longueval and we got it very heavy from there. I got hit at the beginning of the wood. The lower part of my jaw was shot away, they reckon by a ricochet. It felt like a mule-kick.

Pte Carey was evacuated together with other wounded.(3) The commander of Pte Carey's company, Lt W. Nimmo Brown (from Rondebosch), had been killed on 5 July, and the company was led into Longueval by Lt 'Ginger' Brown, who had taken over command of D Company.

At 12h30, on l4July, Maj Gen Furse advised Lukin of the objective of the remaining three battalions of 1st South African Infantry Brigade; viz. Delville Wood:

The 27th Bde is using your 1st Battalion for the capture and consolidation of the northern half of Longueval, pushing patrols into Delville Wood, west of the Strand and north of Princes Street. As soon as Longueval is in our hands you will capture and consolidate the outer edge of the whole of Delville Wood. The whole of your Bde less the 1st Battalion will be at your disposal and artillery barrage which will remain for the present on Buchanan St/Strand will be lifted onto Campbell St/Regent St and King St/Bond St and finally off the wood at half hour intervals.

Maj Gen Furse included in the above communication the following code words: 'Venice' (1st South African Infantry Brigade), 'Rome' (26th Brigade) and 'Norway' (artillery).

At 13h00 the 9th Division's commander reported further:

12/R Scots [12th Royal Scots] pushed through Northern half of Longueval Village but were forced back by a machine gun about N.W. corner of Delville Wood. Artillery is being turned on to machine gun. FOO [Forward Observation Office~ reports "German artillery shelling Waterlot Farm. No troops of 9th Div believed to have reached this point."

At 14h16 the first troops entered Delville Wood, and at 15h00 Lukin advised his remaining three battalion commanders of the planned assault on Delville Wood. The hour of attack was to be postponed, however.

At 19h20 Brig Gen Lukin was ordered to attend a meeting, at which it was decided to alter the hour of attack to 06h00 on 15 July (i.e. on the following morning), as Longueval village had not yet been totally captured, and, as this was considered to be the essential prelude to the capture of Delville Wood, the assault upon the latter would have to be initiated only after the former had been secured. Maj Gen Furse impressed this fact upon the 27th Brigade:

Approaching Delville Wood

Since GOC's [General Officer Commanding's] visit to you urgent orders have been received that Delville Wood must be taken tonight. You must at all costs get possession of the Northern half of Longueval before daylight today in order that the South African Bde may be able to form up to west of village for capture of Delville Wood at dawn . . .

At the same time that this signal was sent (12h15), Maj Gen Furse informed the 26th Brigade:

Waterlot Farm must be captured and consolidated by you tonight. You will establish connection with 18th Div in North of Trones Wood. You will also push patrol through the southern part of Delville Wood as far as possible tonight

Taking the Wood: 15 July 1916

The three battalions of the South African brigade which were to attack Delville Wood were placed under the command of Lt Col William Tanner He was an exceptionally gifted military leader; courageous, much respected by his men, of high intellectual calibre and a charming personality. One of his fellow officers later wrote of him: 'A man of iron and a strict disciplinarian. He was about the most brilliant soldier sent out from SA. His records at the British Military Staff College prove him to be an exceptionally keen student. He gave the impression of being a master at the game. Would go to any amount of trouble to explain difficulties to puzzled 'subs' [subalterns].

The following testimony to his leadership and character is furnished by a 'ranker' who was wounded at Delville Wood:

Tanner took us in and he stayed with us there. His headquarters was Longueval, right on the edge of the wood. He was a man's officer You could go to him, or the corporal could, or the lieutenant, and he'd listen. He was our friend. We'd have followed him through any fire, anywhere. He was a trim, wiry man, and a great smiler: I never think of him but I think of his smile.

To reiterate, Tanner was OC of the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment.(4) Tanner commented that Brig Gen Lukin had allowed him a great deal of latitude in the planning and execution of the attack:

Two hours before dawn the 2nd and 3rd Regiments left Montauban for Delville Wood followed by the 4th Regiment which was to support the attack. The exact position of our own troops in Longueval was still unknown as Lieutenant Roseby [the brigade intelligence officer] had not returned from his difficult reconnaissance and the probable impossibility of executing the existing order was still a difficulty. In the circumstances I was instructed by General Lukin to ascertain the position of affairs in Longueval and to base the plan of attack upon the result of this reconnaissance.

He comments upon his plan of attack in the following terms:

I visited the CO's [Commanding Officers] of the 26th Infantry Brigade and found the northern part of Longueval and all the wood adjoining the streets were still strongly held by the Germans, but the position in the greater part of the wood was obscure. Also it was ascertained that a company of the 5th Camerons {Editor's notes: Lt Col Tanner is referring to the 5th Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders,} had during the early hours of the morning occupied and dug themselves in along the line of Buchanan Street in the southwest corner of the wood. The position of this company offered a covered approach to the wood which would otherwise have proved a difficult undertaking, therefore it was decided to attack from a position of deployment along the line of Buchanan Street.

The OC, 5th Camerons supplied a guide and the troops were skillfully conducted, in single file, from the junction of the Montauban and Bazentin Roads through a portion of the south end of Longueval thence across the fields to Buchanan Street trench which was reached by the leading Battalion, the 3rd Regiment, at 6 am [06h00].

Tanner established his headquarters at Buchanan Street.{Editor's notes: The South African forces allocated English place names to the locations in Delville Wood, for the purposes of easy reference.} Thackeray remained with him and sent his 3rd Battalion to the far side of the wood. Tanner's 2nd Battalion followed the 3rd Battalion to the east, then branched off to the north. C Company, 2nd Battalion, manned the southern perimeter close to Longueval.

Hugh Mallet was a member of that company, facing Waterlot Farm, and he vividly recalled his experiences on that day:

We arrived at the edge of the wood at about dawn, everybody on tenterhooks and just as the last man got in old Fritz opened fire with big and little guns, rifle and machine-gun fire.

What a time we had! Our men were being rolled over like ninepins, but on went the boys and by 8.30 we had accomplished our task. We gave old Fritz the time of his life. I took a slow and steady aim and made every shot tell. My only regret was that I did not get my bayonet into him. Later there was a lull and it was during this lull that I was hit. I was on guard at the time and it was my duty to keep a sharp lookout over the parapet. I had only been on a few minutes when old Fritz sent a huge shell right in front of our trench. It blew away a portion of the trench and knocked a tree over on top of us.

One of the splinters of the shell landed me one on the right cheek, which of course put me out for a few moments. It made a nasty hole. I did not wish to leave, but I was told to take another wounded man into safety. We were shelled all the way to the dressing station, but I got him away without any further mishap.. On my way through the wood I saw many of our brave lads dead . . Both my captains [H.E. Clifford] and [WJ. Gray] are killed and my platoon lieutenant is seriously wounded - hit in eight places, I hear. He is a brave fellow. I hope he gets over it

The platoon commander to whom Mallett refers was Lt Walter Hill. Earlier in the day, Mallett relates, Lt Hill was taken prisoner and had a German placed over him as sentry When an opportunity presented itself, Lt Hill took the German captive and marched him back to the South African lines. Lt Hill died of his wounds (on 20 July). Hugh Mallett remarked on the strain placed on the medical personnel:

The medicals cannot do more than they are doing. They are overworked and many of them are also being killed or wounded. Our own doctor was shot while attending the wounded, and our chaplain was killed.

On the eastern perimeter of the wood there was some confusion as to whether the men moving about outside the wood were French or German. At 07h50 Thackeray replied to a query from Capt D.R. McLachlan, of C Company, 3rd Battalion, positioned on the southwest perimeter:

Your query re trenches South Can inform that C [Cameronians] took Waterloo [sic] [i.e. Waterlot] Farm and hold it. But this not quite certain. Keep sharp look out and warn other CO [Commanding Officer].

Thackeray also replied to a similar query from Capt R.F.C. Medlicort (OC B Company, 3rd Battalion):

Your note at . . . East of Wood. Probably German. Keep sharp look out. Consolidate and build good MG [ machine gun] emplacements and dig in and hold on. Will send MG when good emplacements [i.e. for the machine guns] built. Use LG [Lewis Gun] in main trench.(5)

At 08h40 Medlicott became more insistent:

Report Capt McLaughlan [sic] [i.e. McLachlan] wounded. Many men in trenches on E & SE of wood, about 400 yards range. Owing to mist difficult to be certain whether Germans or French Colonial. Firing commenced on SE between A Coy & these people - could a patrol go out on SE side of wood? Can effect little damage to these people owing to the good cover afforded them from their trenches. Several heavy shells coming from Maricourt direction fell near these trenches for the last hour or so. Personally seen reinforcements arriving for these people from direction of Sugar Factory; These people have been sending up flares - which fizzles but showed no light. If here are Germans the 2nd Regt could bag the lot by getting out of wood to SE and enfilading them.

This problem of identification deeply disturbed Capt E.V. Vivian of A Company, who signalled Thackeray [at 09h15]:

We are engaging troops advancing on wood from south and east. Here is some uncertainty as to who they are. Can you say whether French or Huns . . . Am much perturbed as to uncertainty who we are fighting'. In the same communication Capt Vivian informed Thackeray that Capt McLachlan had been killed,* together with some six other casualties.

At l0h00 Capt Medlicott reported on the fighting in the entire southern sector of Delville Wood:

B & A reinforced with C & D Coys held the portion of Delville Wood S of Princes St. Men are digging themselves in - a few yards inside the wood Strong points at junction of Princes St & Buchanan. Campbell & King Sts have been started with M [machine] gun in each. Owing to fire from Troops Captain McLoughlan [sic] retaliated with L [Lewis] gun & Rifle fire - from area E of Rotten Row to centre of 8m 18 on map.

{Editor's Note: The Roll of Honour is incorrect in stating that Capt McLachlan's death occurred on 16July (i.e. on the following day). There was a great deal of confusion, understandably regarding casualties during the first few days of Delville Wood. Capt McLachlan had died between Capt Medlicott's first report of the former being wounded and Capt Vivian's communication (08h40 and 09h15 respectively).}

Lt Harold George Elliot, of C Company, assumed command of the company following the death of Capt McLachlan, and at l0h00 reported:

We are engaging enemy to our south. Also some in a trench running east from the edge of the wood. We understand they were supposed to be French but this appears to be quite erroneous. Its impossible to give the numbers but the trenches appear to be well manned

Thirty minutes later Lt Elliot sent a further message:

Vivian [i.e. Capt E.V. Vivian] says better have another Coy up to reinforce along south side of the wood to SE corner. Casualty roll as before. McLachlan & 2 killed. Vivian & four wounded. Thompson now also wounded. This for A & C Coys.

From the Inside
At 10h40 Maj D.M. Macleod, OC of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment, which was supporting the battalions manning the perimeters, made an urgent request for two Lewis or Vickers guns. The German attacks on the perimeters increased steadily At 12h15 Lt Elliot sent a runner to Thackeray, with the following message:

Enemy shelling wood heavily and their rifle fire getting very brisk. Reinforcements are being supplied to them. Please send some more ammunition and if you could get artillery on the enemy trenches it would be a great help to us. Enemy have trench parallel to south road, also another on east. At 12h50 Capt L.W. Tomlinson, commanding D Company, wrote to Thackeray:

About four companies enemy observed . . . Probably forming up for attack . . Enemy advancing to the attack from my left, i.e., from the hill overlooking Longueval. Westerly direction. Enemy attack now launched on my left where CO and 2nd Regt. Please do they connect?

Capt Medlicort's B Company had successfully repulsed some attacks. At 14h30 he sent a runner to Thackeray with the following message:

(1) In view of the fact that there is no wire in front of my firing line - Neither is there any in front of the Huns & No-mans-land is only about 300 yards - I think an ample supply of ammunition for L [Lewis Guns] chiefly should be on hand with me. It was most difficult work getting the men to husband their ammunition - especially as we had to allow several hundred Huns to go in peace at a range of 800 yds. But it paid as we caught them at 500 yds. My supply of ammunition is very short.

(2) Re Barrage. The Huns who have carried out their 1st phase of an attack - and at present are in trenches marked on map (with bearer & which return) were massing near the church in Ginchy. Our heavies [heavy guns] shelled them & they were forced to take to the trenches. We have been intermittently shelled with the enemy's heavy artillery - but along our firing line we have been almost continually under "Pip Squeaks" and Whizz-Bangs. If our guns would fire on these trenches with H.E. [High Explosive shells] & shrapnel I am sure it would reduce the number of the Huns & bring casualties?

As the day progressed casualties increased whilst ammunition grew scarcer. Capt Stephen Liebson, the medical officer; bore witness to the former:

Compelled to leave the shell hole finally. Got wounded away as far as possible and am still evacuating from village. Am here now in Longueval hoping to be able to organize relief party to pick up wounded from wood. Am slighily wounded

With regard to the shortage of ammunition, Lt Elliot requested:

Can you let bearer have two cases of ammunition?

(In the same message he provided a casualty report, to the effect that Capt McLachlan and four others had been killed, whilst Lts Baker, Thompson, Scallan and four others had been wounded, as well as one machine gunner; all these casualties being incurred by C Company).

At 16h15 Capt Tomlinson advised that the enemy were massing for further attacks:

Enemy heavily reinforcing from direction N of Flers. About two companies now in view and taking up position shown on map sent.

On Capt Tomlinson's left flank the 2nd Battalion had been subjected to severe enemy pressure on the north and north eastern perimeters, as evidenced by the following message from Tomlinson:

Messages from Edward [i.e. the code name for 2nd Battalion] as sent over phone begins "Enemy resumed counter attack which was most determined and sustained." At 4.40 [i.e. 16h40] Edward reported enemy again massing on northern face and resumption of attack probable . . . have detailed special carrying platoon from Arthur (i.e. the code name for D Company, 1st Battalion] to keep up supply ammunition in wood and have instructed Arthur to put a Vickers and Lewis Gun [into positions] to cover southern face of wood. If SOS goes up from Delville Wood suggest barrage round both north and east faces. . .

Capt Vivian was wounded and Lt Owen Hubert de Burgh Thomas took command of A Company in his place. His first message to Thackeray was reassuring:

I have an adequate supply of ammunition & bombs for tonight, & will send for further supplies tomorrow if necessary. I have also drawn spades & picks sufficient for requirements.

Bloody Sunday: 16 July 1916

The South Africans manning the perimeters entrenched themselves during the night, despite continuous enemy shelling and sniping. Capt John Jackson was sent by Thackeray to organize the defences in the south-east of the wood, and reported back that morning as follows:

. . very heavily shelled during night. A Coy is very weak. The others are fairly strong but I would suggest having about 50 reinforcements somewhere behind A Coy, in the event of being attacked. We will however hold out in any case.

Brig Gen Lukin was ordered to support the attack of the 11th Royal Scots (a component of the 27th Brigade) on the orchard situated in the northern sector of Longueval, situated between North Street and Flers Road. The 11th Royal Scots would attack along North Street, whilst B and C Companies of the 1st South African Infantry Regiment would attack northwards in the wood parallel to the Royal Scots. The combined attack was launched at l0h00 and was met by withering machine gun and rifle fire. Both assaults failed and survivors scrambled back to their positions, to face a day of shelling and sniping.

Brig Gen Lukin visited Lt Col F.S. Dawson (OC of 1st South African Infantry Regiment) in Longueval. Dawson impressed upon the brigade commander that the men were exhausted, yet Lukin replied that there could be no relief for several days.

At 17h50 Capt Medlicott reported to Thackeray on enemy movements:

The enemy are sending up reinforcements to the extent of several hundreds & are going into trenches E & NE of E end of Princes St. These Huns are coming from Ginchy. My men are really shaken and OC A Coy reports that his men are in a bad way. This supply of reinforcements have been coming along for some 3/4 hour. I have done my best to cheer the men up. The enemy in trench E of end of Princes St are sending up green flares in communication with Flers.

Ten minutes later Lt Thomas, commanding A Company, sent the following situation report:

Casualties will be notified later Many rifles are . . . out of action, with mud and dirt being blown over them.

Fighting on: 17 July 1916

During the night of 16/17 July the north-west corner of Delville Wood was subjected to an Allied artillery barrage, in order to enable the combined attack launched by the 27th Brigade and 1st South African Infantry Regiment to be initiated by dawn. Once again the attack met with fierce enemy resistance and failed.

At 08h00 the Cameron Highlanders, supported by two companies of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment, attacked and captured Waterlot Farm. At the same time, Lt Thomas sent a further situation report:

The enemy continued shelling the wood very heavily all last night, inflicting many casualties. The Vickers machine-gun has been put out of action and the gun withdrawn. . . Nothing has been seen heard or seen of the 3rd Div [Division]*. I was given to understand that they were attacking at dawn. My Coy has been so depleted, & the remaining few are now so exhausted that I do not consider we could put up an effective resistance if the enemy were to attack.{Editor's note: The 3rd Division, commanded by Maj Gen A. Haldane, had replaced the depleted 27th Brigade; which was withdrawn.}

Brig Gen Lukin visited the battalion commanders in Longueval and at Buchanan Street. Upon his return to brigade headquarters he telephoned Maj Gen Furse and pointed out that his troops were exhausted. Furse replied to the effect that the wood was to be held at all costs.

At 09h30 Capt A. MacDonald (Battalion HQ) requested from Capt Liebson, the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment's medical officer; stretcher bearers, but the latter replied:

Cannot cope with situation here. Please remember that I shall send all I can . . . when possible.(6)

At the same time Capt MacDonald circulated to all the company commanders a request for machine gunners but, owing to the heavy casualties incurred by these specialist troops, Capt MacDonald's request could not be met.

The Germans were becoming more active in the north western sector of Delville Wood. At l0h00 Capt Sydney Style, acting adjutant of the 1st South African Infantry Regiment, requested mortar support from the South African Trench Mortar Company:

Lt Isaacs reports Germans are digging themselves in parallel to his trench about 60 yards from it . . . Could you give him a barrage? You had better see Lt English and find out from him the exact position of Lt Isaacs trench so as not to hit our own men.

At 14h00 German batteries from Ginchy began bombarding the wood. A patrol of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment erroneously reported the Germans to be east of Strand Street. Tanner advised Lukin of this state of affairs, and Lukin then sent the brigade intelligence officer, Lt Percy Roseby, to investigate. At 18h40 Tanner advised Lukin of the error Twenty minutes later Tanner was shot in the thigh and, despite his protestations, was evacuated. Lt Colonel Thackeray then took command. He was ordered to attack the German positions southeast of the wood, but refused as he had only 200 men available for such an operation. Brig Gen Lukin assisted in having this Divisional order cancelled.

The Germans then attacked from the north-west, reaching Princes Street, but were halted and then driven back by a counter-attack. That night the British artillery fired on the Germans who were east of Delville Wood. At 20h50 Capt Medlicott despatched the following irate message to those directing this fire:

Will you please get our artillery to lengthen range. Firing from south-west. They are breaching our front line and causing us considerable casualties

Lt Thomas of A Company seconded this request:

Our artillery are bursting on the SE fringe of Delvile Wood. Can you send back and ask them to range about 100 yards away from the Wood. Our men are in danger of being hit.

At 21h00 Capt MacDonald replied:

This has already been done. Please let me know if their registration is now better

Twenty minutes later he received a message from Lt Thomas, to the effect that the gunnery had not improved:

The Artillery are still bursting right over my lines, firing through Wood. They want to lift 400 yards. Firing on SE fringe of Wood. They want to fire 100 yds further away from Wood

At 21h30 Capt MacDonald acknowledged the complaints of the company commanders in the following message:

For your information the strafe discussed this evening has been postponed by the GOC [General Officer Commanding].

That night the German artillery commenced their barrage on the wood. Many of the 186 guns involved had been hurriedly transported from Verdun. The thunderous explositions illuminated the forest in flashes, making sleep virtually impossible.

The Holocaust: 18 July 1916

During the night of 17/18 July the Germans withdrew from the north-west corner of Delville Wood and northern Longueval to enable their artillery to bombard the entire Wood and village. Maj Edward Burges, second-in-command of the 1st South African Infantry Regiment and commander of D Company, pushed northwards and managed to effect a junction with the 76th Brigade (3rd Division), which was similarly advancing on Longueval. The junction was to be shortlived, for; at 08h00 on 18 July the German artillery commenced firing on Delville Wood from three sides.

Another View from Inside the Wood

The bombardment endured for seven-and-a-half hours. Burning trees came crashing down, adding to the sparks and smoke of the high explosive shells. At times the incidence of explosions was seven per second. On that day, in an area less than one square mile, 20 000 shells fell. Frank Marillier; serving in C Company of the 2nd Battalion, was sent to the northern perimeter, as a Lewis-gunner He later provided the following eyewitness account of the day's events:

We were holding the most advanced post in the wood. We did not realize that a couple of days earlier the survivors had been told to withdraw. In the circumstances this was understandable enough. The conditions were appalling. I have never known such shelling and how any of us lived is still a mystery. As the rate of shelling decreased after 14h30 Lt Edward Phillips and 79 men of his South African Light Trench Mortar Company were sent as infantrymen to reinforce the northern perimeter. { Editor's Notes: It was considered by many that Lt Philip's arrival in Delville Wood was instrumental in the success of the South African defence. Although severely wounded on the night of 18/19 July he remained at his post and was conspicuous in leading bombing counter attacks to meet the enerny's assaults. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC). He was wounded at the Butte de Warlencourt and died on 16 October 1916}. At 14h50 Lukin advised Thackeray that he had been superseded as commander of the forces in the Wood:

Col Dawson is being sent up on orders of Divisional Commander with the troops he can get together He will take over command of our South African troops in the Wood. He has orders to arrange a systematic examination of our front line by officers and to report as soon as possible how it is held and the present positions of our machine- and Lewis guns. Please show this to Col Dawson when he arrives.

Soon afterwards Dawson entered the Wood with 150 men, all of whom were battle-weary as the result of three days fighting. He discovered many wounded men lying close to the Buchanan Street headquarters, and so detailed some of his party to act as stretcher-bearers. Meanwhile, Maj Burges had been killed by a shell which exploded at the northern perimeter

Frank Marillier's life was saved by a courageous officer:

18th. Absolute hell turned inside out. I never expected to get out whole. Shells dropping everywhere. We get orders to return in the afternoon late. I think, in fact I am almost sure, that our lives were saved when a very brave officer; Capt Hoptroff, made his way to our position. He wasted no time. "Get out!", he said, and was almost immediately hit by a bullet and killed outright. It is strange how, in the most urgent and tragic circumstances, one notices things of minor importance. For as Capt Hoptroff dropped, my eye caught sight of his very beautiful gold wristlet watch; and I have never ceased to regret that I did not take it off, and send it to his family. I am sure that they would have appreciated it. Hoptroff lives on in my memory - a fine officer and a most gallant man.

{ Editor's Notes:Capt Wallace Hoptroff of the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment}

Mr Marillier also refers to the hazards of snipers:

. . . Return to the trenches (centre wood) and managed to hold on to first line, but oh! what a death-trap. We made our way back, joining Col Thackeray and about 70 survivors in a reserve trench. Here we set up our Lewis gun with tragic results. In succession ten of my mates were killed and it looked as if my own turn was next.

Whilst at the gun, one bullet grazed the side of my face, near the eye. Another hit the stock [of the Lewis Gun]. But the bullets were not coming from the direction our gun was facing. After our tenth comrade had been killed, one of our chaps thought he saw a slight movement in a tree, some distance to our rear We gave the tree a burst, and out dropped a German sniper A brave man, he must have crept into the wood in the darkness of the previous night, and set himself up, well hidden, in the branches. I am sure he would have known that his chances of survival were very slight. He had a telescope on his rifle, which I retrieved and presented recently to the Queenstown Museum. I was indeed lucky not to be his next victim.

At 17h30 Lt Thomas sent an urgent message to Thackeray:

Delville Wood. Mr [2 Lt] Pearson has just been wounded and is proceeding back. I am now the only officer left in A. Coy. One Lewis Gun crew have been blown up. Can you send another crew? I have wounded men lying all along my front & have no stretchers left, and they are dying for want of treatment, my field dressings being all used up. Can you obtain stretcher bearers? Urgent. I consider the position is now untenable, and have had my breastworks all blown in. It is impossible to spare men to take wounded away, and my front is now very lightly held with many gaps. To save the balance of men it will be necessary to withdraw. Most of the men here are suffering from shell shock and I do not consider we are fit to hold the position in the event of an enemy attack. Lt Thomas's communication was typical of the urgent demands for relief conveyed by all the companies. At 21h40 Lukin reiterated the uncompromising 9th Division Order G708, through the medium of Brigade Maj John Mitchell-Baker:

Delville Wood is to be held at all costs. Venice [i.e. 1st South African Infantry Brigade] will be relieved by Rome [i.e. 26th Brigade] tonight. 28 MG [Machine Gun] Coy will come under order of Rome. Naples [i.e. 27th Brigade] will take over a portion of South part of village to assist Rome by mutual arrangements between Brigadiers . . Our orders are to assist in every way to recover lost ground. If the Wood is retaken tonight the Brigade will in terms of 9 Div orders, as above, be relieved and you may, if the men are not too exhausted, withdraw them. It may probably be found better to let them remain in the Wood tonight. Please report progress . . . and let me know what you decide to do regarding bringing men out when relief effected by Rome.

If you withdraw the Brigade do so to Caterpillar Valley and send for orders
. Casualties continued to mount. In the late afternoon Capt ,Jackson was inspecting the lines held by A and C Companies of the 3rd Battalion when the Germans launched a heavy attack and he was killed. The positions of the two companies were overrun by the Germans, who approached from the rear; through the devastated wood. Capt Jackson was buried where he had fallen. Lt Thomas of A Company was hit in the left leg by shrapnel. He and the remnants of the two companies were taken prisoner and escorted out of the wood. It was initially thought that Lt Harold George Eliot had been taken prisoner, and his records were thus annotated. However; in November 1917 his personnel records were amended to the effect that he was regarded as dead on or since 20 July 1916.

Capt Medlicott, commanding B Company, managed to maintain their resistance on l8July. Capt Medlicott was captured on 19 July (c.f. below). Whilst in his POW camp (at Gutersloh, in Westphalia, Germany), he smuggled out a letter, undated, addressed to Lt Col Thackeray In the letter; which was received by Thackeray on 22 October 1916, Capt Medlicott graphically described the experiences of he and his company on 18 July:

Tell my Colonel by copy of this - The bombardment was intense all day Our fellows and a platoon of the 4th Regiment dug themselves in. Suffering from want of food and water; and the wounded impossible to get away D Coy retired without passing up any word, so did those on their left. MY ORDERS WERE TO HOLD ON. I was on point of salient and furthest force pushed out.

A and C Coys on my right not being dug in were scattered - 1 platoon D Coy under Somerset {Editor's note: 2 Lt Francis Henry Somerset, of D Company, 3rd South African Infantry Regiment He was killed on 20 July 1916.} did well on my left. I used 4th Regt in reserve trench as reinforcements. Ammunition scarce. Mud caused ammunition to be useless - also wounded mens' rifles jammed with mud. No cleaning material - all consumed. Two guns, one Lewis and one Maxim knocked out. Our own field guns killed and wounded many of us. Difficulty owing to this to extend to my left . . D Coy retired when the attack came at probably 5pm [17h00] or later; however beat Germans off. Many killed seven yards from my trenches. Remnants of A and C Coys overpowered . . . I learnt this after heat of attack abated, with machine-guns enfilading us from my right. By passing up five rounds at a time from each man I kept machine-guns and one Lewis gun going sparingly Killed many Germans. I divided my front i.e. alternate men facing alternate fronts. Sent bombing party and patrol under officer to try and clear my right and get away to retire to Waterloo [i.e. Waterlot Farm] or our old regimental headquarters.

German held trenches at latter place and machine-guns up trenches on my right. Determined to hold on. Sent up rockets. Signalled with platoon flag to aeroplane flying low over us. Felt satisfied that [our] brigade would counter-attack in the morning. I had observation post to my old rear towards regimental headquarters in the wood.

Cover parties resulted in my reserve trench being filled with 39 German prisoners (uninjured) and [a] few wounded ones. Our fellows did well. Got back A and C Coys [men] who had been captured - but no rifles [working] or ammunition for them.

The 3rd Battalion Overrun: 19 July 1916

At 05h15 on Wednesday 19 July Brig Gen Lukin replied to one of Thackeray's requests for relief:

Your report timed 3.50 am [03h50] received at 5.10 [05h10]. DLI [Durham Light Infantry] was NOT to relieve units in line. There is another Brigade relieving. It has gone up and should be there now. Whether it will be possible for it to carry out the relief before clearing the enemy out of the Wood - which it has orders to do - is uncertain . . .

Southeast corner

The Germans commenced their advance at 06h00. Col Konemann led a force comprising elements of the 153rd Infantry Reserve Regiment and two companies of the 52nd Infantry Reserve Regiment from the north into Delville Wood. Upon reaching the southern perimeter they swung to the left and attacked B Company of the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment.

In the letter smuggled out of his Prisoner-of-War camp, referred to above, Capt Medlicott recounted the dramatic events leading to the capture of he and the survivors of his company:

Dawn 19th. Exhausted machine-gun ammunition. Drove off attack from wood but had to chuck it [surrender] soon after 8 am [08h00]. Many of our buried were exhumed by our heavy artillery which hindered us at the wrong moment - at my trench east of wood. Damn those artillery garrison.

Handed back, sorry to say, all German prisoners captured during the day. I got not a wink of sleep for four nights. Could not sleep in the night of the 18th. Got Lieuts Guard and Thomas in a safe place (both wounded) with German prisoners - Irony. I was satisfied at our marksmanship, so many dead Germans round us in the wood. Notes: Germans useless as rifle shots, bar trained snipers, at over 300 yards. Their bombers trained to throw. [They] do not fancy coming on with bayonet, even knowing we had run out of ammunition. I could judge by their eyes. I was too busy waiting for the moment of attack which was maturing during the day.

The enemy shell fire was chiefly 5.9. Too intense to think of retiring. If [only the] other troops had avoided text-book rot, i.e. entrenching 15-30 yards inside the wood. I had entrenched deep and narrow, bang up flush with the edge of the wood. We could have withstood that attack which drove in [our] right and left flanks. This is the opinion of all officers with me.

The Germans were rattled with our gun fire. Our men, who at that time owing to want of water and sleep were cold and stiff, were calm and had a "dont's care a damn" appearance. Many Germans wanted to surrender but were afraid owing to a watch kept on them by comrades and machine-guns turned on them . . .

After the Battle

Among the survivors of B Company who were taken prisoner was Pte Victor Wepener (as he then was). He had served as a signaller in the company and also as a runner in Lt Guard's platoon. Two of his brothers served alongside him in Delville Wood; Eric, aged 22 years, who was shot through the cheek and Horace, aged 17 years, who was also wounded. Both brothers were evacuated. (His other brother; John, served as a corporal in the 9th Lancers). Lt Col Wepener also recalled two other brothers serving in his platoon, Percy and Victor King. He related his experiences immediately before and after his capture thus:

The 2nd (Natal) Regiment were decimated and left a large gap on our left flank. The Germans eventually came through there. Capt Medlicott's headquarters was in the front line, not in the rear as is usual. We were shelled from all sides. At times men were killed next to me while I was talking to them. Though I always had ammunition, the rain and mud got into our rifle bolts and caused them to jam. Our RSM, incidentally, was killed in the fighting. {Editor's Note: Lt Col Wepener, by referring to 'our RSM,' presumabty means the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 3rd South African Regiment. In this he is incorrect. The Regimental Sergeant Major of the 3rd Battalion was W.K. Lawson, a former member of the 10th Infantry Regiment (Witwatersrand Rifles) who survived both the battle and the war. However, the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 4th Battalion, RSM J Cameron was killed on 15 July, and it is perhaps he to whom Lt Col Wepener is referring.}

When the Germans eventually overran us, I was impressed by a very aristocratic officer who wore a cap instead of a steel helmet. He kept his hand over his pistol holster whilst we "remnants" were being collected in an open glade. A German soldier with a bandaged head and his rifle and bayonet slung over his shoulder called me "Kamerad" (comrade). I didn't quite know what to say as I didn't fancy being his comrade. The German soldiers on average were jolly good chaps . . . I then helped carry Lieut Guard who had been shot in the leg. Some of the wounded had to be left behind. I was one of the few to escape unscathed. We were then marched through their lines and we saw many Germans lying there waiting to attack A couple of our chaps carried a German with a stomach wound on a groundsheet. Our artillery opened up and we were amused to see our guards ducking away and running for cover. After what we had been through we didn't worry about shellbursts anymore.

South West Corner

At 09h00 the hard pressed medical officer of the 3rd Battalion, Capt Stephen Liebson, sent the following message to Thackeray:

Am still at Dressing Station, left centre village. Very few of our brigade wounded come here now, chiefly Durhams, Norfolks, Camerons, Black Watch. Germans advanced to my dressing station yesterday. Heard and I got Naseby [i.e. Naisby] away safe. Please send word of relief

In the southern perimeter; C Company of the 2nd Battalion was still maintaining its defensive position. Acting CSM James MacAulley Thomson advised Col Thackeray of their situation:

As Lt Green [i.e. 2 Lt Garnet George Green] was wounded yesterday I am in charge of C Coy 2nd Regt. We are holding our original position [on South St] with 15 men, one Lewis gun. Are there any rations to draw? Or any orders further than hold tight. . (7).

Thackeray was undoubtedly pleased to be informed that there were others, in addition to the force positioned at his Buchanan Street headquarters, who were still grimly holding on. His reply to Thomson, sent at 09h25, was as follows:

Thanks for note. Am only officer left as far as I know in forward line since yesterday afternoon. Like you am just about finished but thank God our fellows here have all held on to the finish. They have had a terrible time and the big majority have gone under. Am hoping relief today early - will let you know when we move Brigade HQ You have done splendidly together with the rest of the Reg [Regiment] and I hope I may see you today. Am informing Bn [Battalion] HQ about your position and relief.

That Thackeray had survived to send the messages quoted above was in itself a miracle. He had been hit six times, was twice knocked down by shells and once by a bomb. Yet he had remained unhurt.

Frank Marillier;(8), serving with Acting CSM J.M. Thomson(9) in C Company of the 2nd Battalion, commented upon the hazards presented by snipers:

Holding enemy back in 1st line trench, but enemy snipers seem to be everywhere. Poor Cecil Chilcott being among [the casualties] - shot through the eye. New division comes in and advances on the enemy right - but are repulsed. Enemy counter-attacks four times but SAI [South African Infantry Brigade] boys are too good though only a handful left. I am the only one left of my gun team. Only one 2nd Regt officer left - Lieut Green - and two of the 3rd Regt, Col Thackeray and Lieut Phillips . .

At 13h15 Thackeray expressed, in no uncertain terms, the desperate need for relief:

Our heavy artillery shelled our Buchanan trench some two hours and ground on either side east and west - injured several [of] our men and buried several. This in addition to enemy's fire which already killed two officers Lt Bell and Connock [i.e. 2 Lts C.S. Bell and Joseph G. Connock, both killed on 18 July] and many men . . . five days continuous work and fighting is becoming beyond endurance and as I have now only Lt Phillips [i.e. Lt E.J. Phillips] and one or two NCOs I do not feel that we can hope to hold the trench in the face of any determined attack.

The enemy attacked last night and this morning snipers and artillery casualties are continuing. I cannot evacuate my critically wounded or bury my dead on account of snipers. Four men have been hit helping one casualty. If the wounded cannot be moved, could not some medical assistance be sent up. My MO [Medical Officer] is far too busy at station and is completely exhausted. Will you manage his relief together with ours as soon as possible.

There is some hold up re our relief as OC 19th DLI [19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry] did not get any direct orders but [was informed] that 19th would be relieving. They have now gone forward East and I don't think they will be available. This relief is most important in view of enemy's close proximity, some 100 yards . . . They snipe continually and have MG [machine guns] both on west and east. I think they have hidden dugouts. So far the SAI [South African Infantry Brigade] have held on but I feel the strain is becoming too much so trust some special effort may be made. The stretcher bearers who came last night only moved our wounded men and left Capt Browne [i.e. Capt Claude Melville Brown], 4th Regt when Lt Style [Lt S.W.E. Style(10)] was hit in neck . .

There is a gap between my left on Princes St and the Village. Artillery observation from here is a farce . . .

Communication between Acting CSM Thomson and Thackeray continued, and at 13h40 Thackeray replied to a further note from Thomson:

I have just read your note. Well held. We have hung on too in Buchanan Trench and hope to be relieved tonight when you will also be relieved. Difficult to get rations up to you but will try. Better to send direct to Villages as heavily sniped here - day and night . . .

At 14h20 there appeared to be a ray of hope regarding relief when Thackeray received the following message from the 26th Brigade:

Please inform me reference your situation. Also extent of line held by you by map ref [reference] and what garrison required to relieve you . . .

At 15h20 Thackeray complained about the British artillery firing short:

Very urgent. To army officers on left or South end of B [Buchanan] Trench. Inform RFA [Royal Field Artillery] urgent that . . . barrage in front of Buchanan trench is short. A number of shells bursting in Buchanan Trench and amongst Royal Berks [i.e. men of the Royal Berkshire Regiment] in front i.e. East of it, causing them to retire on my line of BT [Buchanan Trench]. Five minutes later Thackeray received a message from Maj J.S. Drew, Brigade Major of the 26th Brigade, which appeared to answer his prayers:

As soon as 19th DLI [19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry] have relieved you in Buchanan Street rejoin your brigade.

However; the promise soon appeared to be illusory, as no relief appeared, and at 18h30 Thackeray advised the Officer Commanding the 10th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, of his position in detail:

I was held up on my left in Princes St but other Rgts have left and I am in the air from there to the village and I do not know anything of the situations in Longueval or with any certainty elsewhere. Stray officers inform me that the S and E edge of Wood are occupied by our own troops and that the woods have been cleared . . . E and N but how far I cannot say. The woods both to my front east and rear north are hill of snipers with MG [machine guns] who have killed a great many officers and men and the trench must be kept to as they are [very] dangerous . . .5 officers have been killed near my HQ today. Batt. HQ are at Buchanan St. Trench narrow and shallow. Strong points at S end of Buchanan St and Junction of Buchanan and Princes St . . . Enemy have made 3 attacks with bomb, rifle and MG [machine guns] but do not charge . . unfortunately. Have approx 300 men and only 2 officers with me.

The Relief arrives: 20 July 1916

As the light crept over the shattered landscape with the dawn of 20 July, revealing a moon-like vista of smoking craters, and tree stumps jaggedly pointing skywards with the trunks and branches lying scattered over the desolate landscape, Col Thackeray must have wondered whether his force would ever be relieved. Shattered corpses, of both sides, lay sprawled among the debris of war and Thackeray must also have wondered as to whether he and the remnants of his troops would soon be joining them. At 08h00 he despatched a message to Lukin, urgently requesting supplies, water and ammunition. Yet, despite their parlous state, he and the haggard South African survivors continued to fight. Thackeray inspired his men by example - throwing hand grenades and fighting with rifle and bayonet.

During the course of the morning the wounded 2 Lt Garnet Green sent a message of hope:

The Royal Welch Fusiliers (Headquarters, Machine Gunners and signallers) have entrenched themselves over the road running parallel with the position we now hold. The remainder of the Regiment - RWF - is entrenched in the Wood behind your lines.

Unknown to Thackeray, the Fusiliers were desperately fighting to relieve his force. Two of their men, Cpl James Davies and Pte Albert Hill, were later to be awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery. Yet the Fusiliers were driven back.

At 13h00 Thackeray sent a desperate note to Lukin:

Urgent. My men are on their last legs. I cannot keep some of them awake. They drop with their rifles in hand asleep in spite of heavy shelling. We are expecting an attack. Even that cannot keep some of them from dropping down. Food and water has not reached us for two days - though we have managed on rations of those killed . . . but must have water.

I am alone with Phillips who is wounded and only a couple of Sgts. Please relieve these men today without fail as I fear they have come to the end of their endurance.

Brigade Major John Mitchell-Baker; acting for Lukin, undertook a tremendous amount of 'behind the scenes' work to effect the relief of Thackeray's beleaguered men, and these efforts bore fruit in the following message, sent at 16h15 by Brig Gen H.W. Higginson, commanding the 53rd Brigade, to the South Africans in Buchanan Street:

The Suffolk [Suffolk Regiment] and 6 R Berks [6th Battalion, Royal Berk- shire Regiment] have orders to relieve you and to get in touch with you . . . On relief you are to proceed to Carnoy.

This time there was no mistake. Thackeray and his remaining two officers, Lt Edward Phillips and 2 Lt Garnet Green, had all been wounded. He and Phillips led the 120 bone-weary survivors out of the Wood. Green brought up the rear and was the last South African to leave the wood.

Frank Marillier; of C Company 2nd Battalion, was one of the last four men to leave the wood. He vividly recorded his impressions of that final day in Delville Wood, including the efforts of the Fusiliers to relieve the South Africans:

Heavy hand to hand fighting still continues. SA boys, though only a handful left, still hold enemy back. Royal Welsh Fusiliers retire . . . Col Thackeray splendid. Orders them to return and hold the line or he would shoot [i.e. those who retired].

We have been without rations and water for two and a half days and no sleep for six days and nights . . after getting a good way back from the battle we number off and find only 52 of 2nd Regt have come out whole and all other SA Regts about the same. Col Thackeray thanks us and tells how very valuable our services have been in a few words. . .

Oh! Its been a terrible week and it is to be marvelled at that anyone at all came out safe and sound. Thanks to God for my safe return . .

Col Thackeray concluded his report to Brig Gen Lukin on a proud yet hopeful note:

I am glad to report that the troops under my command (. . . the 3rd SAI) carried out your instructions to hold Delville Wood at all costs and that not a single detachment of this regiment retired from their position, either on the perimeter of the Wood or from the support trenches.

I regret they were not strong enough to drive back the enemy on the perimeter, where they were all wiped out, but trust that by holding the support trenches in Princes and Buchanan Streets with the aid of the few men left of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Regiments and TMC [Trench Mortar Company], our losses were not in vain. (11)

It is virtually the unanimous opinion of military authorities that the losses incurred by the South African Infantry Brigade at Delville Wood were indeed in vain. The most costly defence of the Wood served no strategic purpose whatsoever (Neither; indeed, did the overall Somme offensive, of which Delville Wood formed but a part). Ultimately, the most fitting epitaph to the struggle for Delville Wood is contained in the words of John Buchan, who stated that

It was an epoch of terror and glory scarcely equalled in the campaign.

The South African Memorial at the Wood


  1. Subsequently captured at Delville Wood, he proved to be a reluctant prisoner-of-war and endeavoured to escape, but was unsuccessful. In December 1941 he served with the Imperial Light Hone (as the regiment was then known) at Bardia, with the rank of Major. Although shot in the leg he continued in his command until nightfall. For his services in this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He commanded the Imperial Light Horse between 1948 and 1953 and, in 1966, revisited Delville Wood with the South African Con tingent. He now lives with a daughter in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
  2. Hugh Mallet was promoted to Sergeant in March 1918 and awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) on 3 October 1918. He was killed in action five days later, during the advance on Le Cateau.
  3. Pte Carey had his shattered jaw rebuilt by plastic surgeons, then returned to Cape Town. In June 1984 he attending the laying of the Delville Wood Museum foundation stone, at Delville Wood.
  4. For his subsequent leadership at Delville Wood Lt Col Tanner was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG). He was promoted temporary Brigadier General and appointed Officer Commanding 8th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Division, within the British Army, on 18 October 1917, retaining this position until 4 February 1918. Between 3 April 1918 and 23 July 1919 he commanded the reformed 1st South African Infantry Brigade. He led the brigade with distinction during the fierce fighting in April 1918, in the vicinity of Messines, West Flanders, to his brigade went the honour of being in the forefront of the final advance to victory. He was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) in 1918 and 1919 respectively. His honours also include: Officer of the Order of Leopold (Belgium), awarded in 1917; Croix de Guerre (Belgium), awarded in 1918; and Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (France), awarded in 1918. In addition he was mentioned in Despatches six times. Between 1919 and 1933 he held many important posts in the Union Defence Forces, among which were: Adjutant-General, Commandant of the South African Military College, Officer Commanding Roberts' Heights (subsequently Voortrekkerhoogte) and Officer Commanding the Union Garrison Troops, Cape Peninsula. During this period he also acted as Chief of the General Staff on four occasions. On 15 January 1940 he was recalled to service as Officer Commanding the troops at Pietermaritzburg and Ladysmith. In August 1940 he became Officer Commanding, Witwatersrand Command, and in October of that year Officer Commanding, Cape Command. On 30 April 1943 he retired, having reached the age limit, and was then promoted to Major General and placed on the retired list. He died on 29 September 1943.
  5. Capt Richard Frederick Cavendish Medlicott was 39 years of age at the time of his capture. Initially, it was assumed that he had been killed at Delville Wood. He was repatriated to Holland in June 1918, due to failing health. He was eventusllly demobilized in July 1918, and made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), as well as being awarded the Order of Danils (5th Class) by the King of Montenegro. (He had previously been awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his services in the South West African Campaign of 1914-1915, whilst serving with the 10th Infantry Regiment (Witwatersrand Rifles).
  6. Capt MacDonald was mortally wounded at the 3rd Battle of Ypres on 20 September 1917. Prior to this he had sent to Lt Col Thackeray a packet of messages relating to Delville Wood, which he had retained in his possession. Many of these communications have been reproduced in the above article.
  7. 2Lt Garnet George Green received the Military Cross (MC) for his services at Delville Wood. He subsequently received a Bar to his MC in 1917, for his service at the Battle of Arras, and was killed during the German offensive in March 1918.
  8. Frank Marillier was commissioned in October 1916. He was shot through the chest in the course of the battle of Fampoux but survived to serve in World War II. He farmed near Qucenstown and died in May 1976, aged 81 years.
  9. Acting CSM James Thomson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his services at Delville Wood and soon afterwards was commissioned. He was mortally wounded at the Butte de Warlencourt and died on 17 October 1917. He is buried in Grave 4887 at St Sever Cemetery, Rouen, France.
  10. Lt Style never entirely recovered from his wound, and died at Kingwilliamstown ten years later, aged only 34 years.
  11. Lt Col Thackeray was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George; as well as being awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palms. However; after his 3rd Battalion was disbanded in February 1918 he was not given another command. On 15 September 1919 he was appointed General Staff Officer and retired, with the rank of Colonel, on 1 April 1926. He died in Johannesburg in 1956, aged 86, and his medals are displayed at the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.

Sources and Thanks: This article is a slightly abridged version of one that appeared in the South African Military History Society Military History Journal - December 1986; Vol 7 No 2. By permission of the author and the Society. Our appreciation to Joan Marsh for her help.

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