Delville Wood

Delville Wood

On the morning after the village was taken, the South African Brigade had been ordered to attack Delville Wood. This fine brigade, under a South African veteran, was composed of four battalions, the first representing the Cape Colony, the second Natal and the Orange River, the third the Transvaal, and the fourth the South African Scotsmen. The South Africans advanced at dawn, and their broad line of skirmishers pushed its way rapidly through the wood, sweeping all opposition before it. By noon they occupied the whole tract with the exception of the north-west corner. This was the corner which abutted upon the houses north of Longueval, and the murderous machine-guns in these buildings held the Africans off. By night, the whole perimeter of the wood had been occupied, and the brigade was stretched round the edges of the trees and undergrowth. Already they were suffering heavily, not only from the Longueval guns upon their left, but from the heavy German artillery which had their range to a nicety and against which there was no defence. With patient valour they held their line, and endured the long horror of the shell-fall during the night. All the German energy and guns were concentrated upon the reconquest of Longueval and Delville Wood. Through the whole of the 16th the shelling was terribly severe, the missiles pitching from three separate directions into the projecting salient. Furious assaults and heavy shell-falls alternated for several days, while clouds of bombers faced each other in a deadly and never-ending pelting match. It was observed as typical of the methods of each nation that while the Germans all threw together with mechanical and effective precision, the British opened out and fought as each man judged best. This fighting in the wood was very desperate and swayed back and forwards. "It was desperate hand-to-hand work. The enemy had no thought of giving in. Each man took advantage of the protection offered by the trees, and fought until he was knocked out. The wood seemed swarming with demons, who fought us tooth and nail." The British and Africans were driven deeper into the wood. Then again they would win their way forwards until they could see the open country through the broken trunks of the lacerated trees. Then the fulness of their tide would be reached, no fresh wave would come to carry them forwards, and slowly the ebb drew them back once more into the village and the forest. In this mixed fighting the Transvaal battalion took 3 officers and 130 men prisoners, but their losses, and those of the other African units, were very heavy. A joint attack on the evening of July 16 by the Cape men, the South African Scots, and the 11th Royal Scots upon the north-west of the wood and the north of the village was held up by wire and machine-guns, but the German counter-attacks had no better fate. During the whole of the 17th the situation remained unchanged, but the strain upon the men was very severe, and they were faced by fresh divisions coming up from Bapaume. The Brigadier himself made his way into the wood, and reported to the Divisional Commander the extremely critical state of affairs. The losses of the South Africans in Delville Wood had been terrible, and they had fought with the energy of desperate men for every yard of ground. Stands were made in the successive rides of the wood by the colonel and his men. During the whole of the 19th these fine soldiers held on against heavy pressure. The situation now was that the south of the wood was held by the British, but the north, including the greater part of the village, was still held by the Germans. On July 20 matters had come to a temporary equilibrium in Delville Wood, where amid the litter of corpses which were strewn from end to end of that dreadful grove, lines of British and German infantry held each other in check, neither able to advance, because to do so was to come under the murderous fire of the other. The Second Division had now been brought down to the Somme battle-front, and upon July 26 they took over from the Third Division in the area of Delville Wood. So complicated was the position at the point occupied, that one officer has described his company as being under fire from the north, south, east, and west, the latter being presumably due to the fact that the distant fire of the British heavies fell occasionally among the front line infantry. At seven in the morning of July 27 the 99th Brigade, now attached to the Second Division, was ordered to improve our position in the wood, and made a determined advance with the 1st Rifles upon the right, and the 23rd Fusiliers upon the left, the 1st Berkshires and 22nd Royal Fusiliers being in support. Moving forward behind a strong barrage, the two battalions were able with moderate loss to force their way up to the line of Princes Street, and to make good this advanced position. A trench full of dead or wounded Germans with two splintered machine-guns showed that the artillery had found its mark, and many more were shot down as they retired to their further trenches. The 1st Berkshires held a defensive flank upon the right, but German bombers swarmed in between them and the Rifles, developing a dangerous counter-attack, which was finally beaten off after a sharp fight, in which Captain Howell of the latter battalion was mortally wounded after organising a splendid defence, in which he was greatly helped by a sergeant. At 11 o'clock the left flank of the advance was also very heavily attacked at short range, and the two companies of the Rifles on that side were in sore straits until reinforced by bombers from the 23rd Fusiliers, and also by the whole of the 22nd Fusiliers. The German barrage fell thickly behind the British advance, and it was a difficult and costly matter to send forward the necessary supports, but before evening part of the 17th Fusiliers and of the 17th Middlesex from the 5th Brigade had pushed forward and relieved the exhausted front line. It was a most notable advance and a heroic subsequent defence, with some of the stiffest fighting that even Delville Wood had ever witnessed. The East Anglian Field Company Royal Engineers consolidated the line taken. The 1st Rifles, upon whom the greater part of the pressure had fallen, lost 14 officers, including their excellent adjutant, Captain Brocklehurst, and more than 300 men. The immediate conduct of the local operations depended upon the colonel of this battalion. The great result of the fight was that Delville Wood was now in British hands, from which it never again reverted. It is a name which will ever remain as a symbol of tragic glory in the records of the Ninth, the Third, the Eighteenth, and finally of the Second Divisions. Nowhere in all this desperate war did the British bulldog and the German wolf-hound meet in a more prolonged and fearful grapple. It should not be forgotten in our military annals that though the 99th Brigade actually captured the wood, their work would have been impossible had it not been for the fine advance of the 95th Brigade of the Fifth Division already recorded upon their Longueval flank. 

©Arthur Conan Doyle.

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