Somme100: South Africans Enter Delville Wood

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A century ago on this day in 1916 the men of the South African Brigade entered Delville Wood, on the Somme. The South African Brigade had been formed from South African units which had fought in South-West Africa and had come to France in 1916 where they joined the 9th (Scottish) Division. Commanded by Brigadier-General Lukin, on 14th July 1916 they formed up close to the wood

South African Infantry 1916

South African Infantry 1916

while the fighting for Longeuval village was still on-going and then entered the wood with orders to hold it against German attacks. After six days of fighting from tree to tree, shell hole to shell hole, with on occasions more than 500 shells a minute dropping on the wood, the wood was still in South African hands as they were relieved by British units. On 14th July 1916 some 121 officers and 3,032 men had marched into battle; now only 29 officers and 751 other ranks remained. It was the greatest place of South African sacrifice on the Great War battlefields so the wood was purchased as a permanent memorial after the war. Today it is one of the most impressive sites on the Somme battlefields.

All that remained of Delville Wood 1916

All that remained of Delville Wood 1916

 

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Somme100: The Hell They Called High Wood

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Today marks the centenary of the first attacks on High Wood, or Bois des Fourcaux to the French. The wood sits on a high point which commands a large area of ground where the Battle of the Somme was fought between July and September 1916. On this day in 1916 the wood was attacked by cavalry, a mixed force of British Dragoons and Indian Lancers. This attack, over open ground largely untouched by bombardments, took the Germans by surprise. One Indian Cavalry account recalled:

” As each squadron cleared the defile it formed line and advanced at a gallop in the direction taken by the advanced guard, which lay through a broad belt of standing corn, in which small parties of the enemy lay concealed. Individual Germans now commenced popping up on all sides, throwing up their arms and shouting ” Kamerad,” and not a few, evidently under the impression that no quarter would be given, flung their arms around the horses’ necks and begged for mercy — all of which impeded the advance. It was about this time that one of our aeroplanes came over, flying very low and firing tracer bullets to show the positions of hostile machine-guns and also that of a German trench which ran from High Wood to Delville Wood and which, owing to the corn, was invisible. When the advanced guard reached its objective, a German trench to the north of Delville Wood, occupied by infantry, could be seen clearly and German artillery (located by the flash of the guns) opened fire… During the whole period of the advance the regiment had been exposed to flanking machine-gun fire from Delville Wood.”

But the advance could not and was not exploited, and two months of fighting for the wood raged thereafter: costly infantry assaults, bombardments from everything from shrapnel to incendiary, gas attacks, flame throwers, mining, attacks from the air. In the end it fell to troops of the 47th (London) Division with the assistance of tanks on 15th September 1916.

High Wood 1916, aerial image (IWM Q 55727)

High Wood 1916, aerial image (IWM Q 55727)

By the end of the Battle of the Somme it was estimated that at least 8,000 British soldiers had perished in the fighting for High Wood; and it’s dominance on the ground even today, a century later, makes it both an impressive and foreboding place to visit.

 

Somme100: Mametz Wood – A Royal Welsh Fusilier Remembers

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Back in the 1980s I was fortunate to interview more than 300 Great War veterans, among them several who fought with the 38th (Welsh) Division at Mametz Wood. One of these was Albert Chesters from Wrexham. Albert was a miner who had lost a father and brother in a mining accident before the war, and when war broke out in 1914 he took it as a chance to escape the world underground and spend some time in the sunshine, and get paid for it. Albert had never fired a rifle before he enlisted but proved he was a natural crack shot and was employed as a sniper when they went to France in late 1915, serving on the Laventie front.

In the summer of 1916 they marched south to the Somme, and Albert has his sniper’s rifle taken from him and he became a bayonet man for the attack on Mametz Wood. Not employed in the first attack, he recalled what happened on 7th July 1916:

On the 7th of July in the morning we were ordered to move up to the front line to attack Mametz Wood. I can only speak for our Brigade… we were about 500 yards off the wood. The 15th Welsh and 11th SWB were extended in the front. Our battalion and 10th SWB were in reserve. They had the order to advance across to the wood and the battle started. We didn’t move, we watched the attack. It was terrible to see those lads being mowed down by German machine-gunners on platforms in the trees. They never got near the wood. They were wiped out.

On 10th July 1916 he was in the attack on the wood, and while advancing through the smashed up undergrowth was shot through the kneecap, ending his war. He returned to the pit in Wrexham after discharge and worked there until retirement in the early 1960s. Like all the veterans I interviewed, he was typical of those ordinary men, in extraordinary circumstances.

Somme100: South Wales Borderers at Mametz Wood

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This image shows men of the South Wales Borderers who served in one of the battalions of this regiment which fought with the 38th (Welsh) Division at Mametz Wood in July 1916.

On this day, 7th July, one hundred years ago in 1916, the men in this photograph took part in the assault on part of Mametz Wood called ‘The Hammerhead’. It was a costly disaster, with few ever reaching the wood itself. Today we remember that sacrifice a century on and wonder how this day affected those we see in this image, which includes some very young soldiers.

Somme100: Picturing the Battle of the Somme in 1916

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A century ago the first news stories relating to the Battle of the Somme began to appear in the British press. There was little awareness at this stage of the huge scale of losses on 1st July 1916, nor that the attack had been a failure except in some limited areas.

Illustrating the kicking of Billie Neville's footballs on 1st July 1916.

Illustrating the kicking of Billie Neville’s footballs on 1st July 1916.

But the press were already busy giving the story of the battle a positive spin. The Illustrated London News was a broadsheet size illustrated magazine with in-house artists who depicted the battle in contemporary drawings when at this stage largely no photographs were available.

Indian Cavalry at High Wood

Indian Cavalry at High Wood

These illustrations depict the bravery of the British soldier on the battlefield, and while they are propaganda they are well observed with details of uniforms and equipment all correct: in some respect that was a vital factor in them being believable.One hundred years later these images are part of the history themselves but they give a fascinating insight into how the Somme was depicted at the time.