From Boatsheds to Battlefields 81 November 1918 in Poland

Published in The Star newspaper, Johannesburg 

Two and a half years behind barbed wire or working under armed sentries – nearly four thousand comrades in the lager cemetery – but the War is over today Thank God.

Forty-five thousand Russian Comrades soldiers of the Tsar are prisoners since the Steamroller met Hindenberg in East Prussia.

The Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 was going well until German Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorff took command.
The Russian invasion of East Prussia in August 1914 was going well until German Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorff took command.

Ten thousand Frenchmen – captives from Maubeuge and Lille.

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A thousand British – Mons, the Somme and the March Offensive 1918.

British troops preparing for the Somme Offensive in 1916British troops preparing for the Somme Offensive in 1916

We know the Armistice begins today but there is little joy amongst the troops.

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Over the vast lager lies a cloud of foreboding. The sentries truculent yet hangdog – looking slouch at their posts. The Kommandanteur German Officers stand in knots every one of them armed to the teeth.

In the underground cellars which serve as Barracks the prisoners of war discuss the situation with ill-concealed uneasiness.

Today is peace on the Western Front but today is war in German Poland.

Polish_Regents_1916
The Regency Council with officers of the Polish armed forces.

Last night came tidings of conscripted men of the German Navy and Polish sailors landing from a Zeppelin to organise a revolution in the town adjoining the lager. What part would be that of the prisoners, the prisoners’ wonder?

Image result for zeppelin ww1 germany

On the ramparts and surrounding the camp machine guns stand post. Half the soldiers are Polish and the Tsar’s troops have sworn to help them.

The French will break for the Austrian Frontier when the storm bursts – each man for himself and that devil help the hindmost or any German families in their way.

“We’ll keep together mates,” says Jack the President of the British Welfare Committee he is a naval rating captured at Antwerp.

“Aye! Wait and see as Asquith says,” rumbles Ben Finette, ex London cabby, Army Reservist, captured at Mons – “Colour Sergeant will take charge – we form platoons – and if anyone touches us we are together for a rush on the sentries – and fight our way to the town for arms.”

Down the Hindenburg Strasser gallop two soldiers white bands around their arms. “Revolutionaries” – fifty thousand prisoners are pouring from their barracks – the sentries deserting their posts are making for the group of officers tearing the badges of Imperial Germany off as they run.

Two foaming horses are pulled on their haunches, sharp commands barked, – an Officer draws his sword – down he goes on a saw-edged bayonet through his chest. Oberst Lieutenant Baron van Wacholz, Commandant of Sprottau breaks his sword across his knee – the Officers are disarmed, stripped of their badges, bustled and roughly handled.

Ten thousand madly dancing Frenchman are singing the ‘Marseilles’, forty thousand Russians ‘God the Terrible‘ and from a thousand British throats comes ‘The Home Fires‘.

Goodbye to Germany,

Farewell to Sprootau

It’s a long long way to Dear Old Blighty

But we’ll get Right There

Marching to the British Camp, the Council of Soldiers and Workers “Brother English we come to proclaim a New World” says the leader.

A Bantam shouts “Are we downhearted?” A thousand British throats answer “No”.

 

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 80 Food Parcels From Home 1916-1918

Written for publication by Bernard Meredith Leffler from Wendover Farm Pretoria:

How Great War Prisoners-of-War lived on

Parcels from Home

In two and a half years of captivity, I never saw an eatable meal issued by the German authorities. once a day a thin liquid called coffee was issued. This abomination was made from ground acorns barley meal and beet molasses and contained neither milk nor sugar.

Twice a day great evil-smelling tubs of hogwash were drawn, the contents a soup of horseflesh, yellow maize meal, prunes and dried apples. For a change sugar-beet ensilage with chopped carrots and turnips, or most a beastly mess of putrid fish-roe soup with mashed potatoes.

Kitchen Limburg

The kitchen at Limberg Camp

In Winter thirteen pounds, in Summer eighteen pounds of War bread was issued per man per month – a doughy mass of rye, potato and sawdust. Thrown against the wall it stuck there.

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Until our whereabouts was known to the British War Office we devoured huge quantities of these mixtures, all thin soup. When the tubs were carried to our quarters we rushed them, fought over them and sometimes fell into them to have one’s clothes instantly wrung out into basins and drunk. We bartered our clothes to the French for biscuits – braces 5, a kilt 50, a shirt 10 – all depending on condition and amount of vermin.

Once we began to get our parcels the German rations were handed over to the Russians,  Serbians, Romanians and Montenegrins who died off wholesale, some from the food and some from want of it.

Eight funerals a day was the average in Sprottau but as we had never less than 40,000  Russians, 10,000 French and a few thousand other nationalities the Germans complained that prisoners-of-war were very tough and blamed the unsatisfactory death rate on the Order of St John of Jerusalem, the British Red Cross, Sir Edward Grey and Jannie Smuts.

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Immediately the War began, Funds were started to make captivity a little bearable – as the realisation came of the plight of the war prisoners in Germany immense efforts were made to relieve conditions.

Relatives, friends, Clubs, newspapers, Regiments, ships all began sending parcels of foodstuffs to Germany. Popular figures received as many as forty food parcels in a mail, mostly bread gone mouldy in transit, eggs broke, homemade jam oozed from broken cardboard boxes, great cakes ruined by the eggs and jam.

Women packing food parcels for prisoners-of-war at the Australian Red Cross premises at 16 Regent Street in the City of Westminster, London, January 1917.
Packing food parcels for prisoners of war at the Australian Red Cross premises in Regent Street, London, January 1917. The organisation sent 395,695 food parcels and 36,339 clothing parcels to Allied PoWs in Germany and Turkey during the First World War.

In December 1916, the Order of St John of Jerusalem in conjunction with the British Red Cross took over and from then on all parcels were packed in properly organised depots, guarantees were given to the German Government as to the nature of the contents and day after day sealed trucks crossed the German border bearing standard packets to Dülmen, Sprottau, Holtzminden and a hundred other prisoner-of-war camps.

Kaserne B at Holzminden, with prisoners and guards

At the camps, the truck seals were broken by British or French NCOs under the supervision of a German Sergeant Major, the packets taken to an office and then issued to those in camp whilst the rest were sent by parcel post to those working on farms, in factories or mines.

Image result for food parcels checked in german POW camps ww1German censors reading through both incoming and outgoing mail at the Döberitz POW camp.

After December 1916 every British prisoner-of-war received two hundred and eighty-one loaves of bread a month from whichever neutral country was nearest his camp.

From Britain he received either 6 – 101 lbs or 4 to 15 lbs cardboard boxes per month containing:

A.   1 tin bully beef, 1 cake of soap, 1 packet tea, 1 packet bacon, 1 tin jam, 1 bar Mexican chocolate and cigarettes.

B.   1 tin McConachie’s rations, 1 packet Quaker Oats, 1 tin cocoa, 1 tin butter, I tin marmalade, 1 packet sugar, tobacco.

C.   1 tin pork and beans, 1 tin coffee, 1 tin condensed milk, 1 tin herrings in tomato sauce, biscuits, jam

D.  1 tin tripe and onions, 1 tin butter, 1 tin cooking fat, 1 shaving soap, 1 tin cigarettes and 1 tin pudding.

Image result for red cross food parcels ww1

By forming small messes, buying stolen onions, potatoes and sugar from men coming in from farm and factory work and exchanging with the French who were wonderfully supplied with parcels; we always managed to live really well to the amazement of our German sentries and NCO’s who daily saw that another million tons of British shipping had been ‘versunkt‘.

Because there was so little of it, food played a very important part in a POW’s life. The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva provided food parcels to POWs from those countries which were signatories to the 1929 Geneva Convention.  Here men at Stalag 383 at Hohenfels in Germany prepare their lunch using food from parcels.

 

In two years I never lost a parcel and in addition to the food parcels we had monthly tobacco and cigarette parcels and every three months a complete clothing parcel –  uniform, boots, gym shoes, two shirts, two singlets, cardigan, towels, neckerchief and once a year a great coat. This issue was received directly from the British War Office.

All prisoners engaged in civilian employment were paid at current rates, farm hands a penny a day. On repatriation, we were paid out in full as regards army pay.

Working on farms, in factories, mines and other civilian employment prisoners-of-war received civilian rations; 2lbs sugar per month, bread as in the camps, a fairly liberal allowance of potatoes and as much sauerkraut as the stomach could hold. About 1lb of meat per man per week was boiled up in the sauerkraut and potatoes.

Image result for british prisoners of war ww1 working on farms in germanyA group of British PoWs in Germany, transporting hay for the troops’ straw beds

Except for bread and sugar, all foodstuffs were issued as soup. No fats of any description were given except on farms where we shared the family meals, usually contributing to them from our parcels.

Weeping by Vusi Mahlasela

Lyrics

Weeping

I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry,
It was drawing near
Behind his house a secret place
Was the shadow of the demon
He could never face
He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns to keep it tame
Then standing back he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain
It doesn’t matter now it’s over anyhow
He tells the world that it’s sleeping
But as the night came round I heard
It slowly sound
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping
And then one day the neighbours came
They were curious to know about the smoke and flame
They stood around outside the wall
But of course, there was nothing to be heard at all
“My friends,

Josh Groban and Vusi Mahlasela perform “Weeping”

at Mandela Day 2009 from Radio City Music Hall

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LnB2fZkLAI

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 79 The Final Chapter

30 pages missing………….

“Kommen sie vorwaarts” called the German in a low voice.

We advanced and a voice spoke to us in rapid Dutch asking what we intended giving him to slip us past – Mick whispered a few words and slipped him a roll of German notes – part of the proceeds of our sales, feeling them the Hollander told us to crawl past him and wait.

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“No tricks or running or I will shoot,” he said.

Thanking the German Corporal and handing him and the sentry some money we dropped on hands and knees crawling quietly in the direction indicated and lay waiting quivering in every nerve.

A few seconds later the Hollander appeared telling us we were safely in Holland but that he wanted a bigger reward for not arresting us. Mick thereupon produced more money asking where we had landed, how we could get to the nearest village, whether we could possibly miss our way and find ourselves in Germany.

“You are strangers from the Belgian border,” he said, “staying with Johannes Van Wijk.” “I knew by your accent you came from near Belguim.” said the guard evidently pleased with his acumen.

He gave us careful directions – the village was only two kilometres away – we couldn’t possibly miss it – No! Germany lay behind us – all we had to do was cut into the road two hundred meters to our left, turn right and walk straight on.

Rising shakily we grasped hands and set-off – how we contained ourselves God alone knows but both were scared of any chance of dirty work at the Cross Roads. Our deliverer was too pally with the German forces to take any risks.

Once in the main road Mick gave a squeal of joy – we clasped one another knelt and said a prayer of gratitude, then strode off filled with longing to shout, howl and dance.

Dawn was breaking when we entered a quaint Dutch frontier village.

Image result for first world war map holland and neighbours 1917

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 78 The Irish Regiment Arrives

End of 77th Entry: A few really happy weeks now passed for the dozen Englishmen in the lager were all, more or less, men who were of the right stamp and determined to make themselves comfortable.

Pages missing…….

…seeing him lying in a pool of blood for nearly an hour. Another guard who tried to bandage Mac was knocked down by his Corporal. As soon as the old man was well enough he was tried and sentenced to, I think, fifteen years penal servitude.

The American Ambassador visited the camp about this time and took up the case and, after the war I heard that for the next two years Mac was ‘cushy’ travelling around the country being court-marshalled, appealing against his sentence; being tried again, appealing etc. He gradually got his sentence reduced to five years but the Armistice came just before the final trial so Mac actually never did more than a few years imprisonment.

My teaching billet was quite a good thing. The Russian students were a jolly crowd all cadets of great families and though none spoke English all were excellent French, German, Polish and Latin scholars. It was my job at first establishing a medium of instruction. We started by my using broken German and scraps of Latin.

Very very slowly at first, we began to make progress and in a surprisingly short time they could read and understand fairly well and began to attempt conversations and compositions. For this work I received a light breakfast every morning and a free pass over the lager. I also began to learn the inner workings of the camp and to find that the Russian and French Committees by bribery simply controlled the camp.

Everything was getting unprocurable in Germany now and huge prices were offered for everything we received in our parcels. Soap appeared to be the most needed, twenty Marks and more readily offered for one pound of ordinary Sunlight soap. By selling a little we were able to buy knives, plates, forks etc. and began to make ourselves quite comfortable.Image result for sunlight soap 1916

One afternoon to our surprise we saw a great body of new English prisoners marching in. There were regimental Sergeant Majors, Company Sergeant Majors, Staff Sergeants, Sergeants, Corporals and one or two lonely privates besides a tall turbaned Indian. From the look of the men without needing the confirmation of their clothing and baggage, we could see that they were all Mons men and experience of the Regular Army at Dulmen made most feel anything but glad to welcome them.post-12337-1276167345.jpg PoW Camp at Dulmen

The Old Hands knew too much and were too clanny. However, most of them turned out a first-class crowd though there were a few exceptions. Our new comrades were from Sagan lager some thirty miles away and all had been through cruel hard times.

Amongst them being survivors of Wittenberg and the less known but every bit as bad as Schniedemuhl Camp.

Contemporary map c1913 showing Schneidemuhl and larger area

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Edit: At this time Schneidemuhl was the base of 149 Infantry Regiment. The stats for Schneidemuhl POWs as of October 1918 were as follows: French: Officers 1 ORs 4890 Russian: Officers 5 ORs 33536 Belgian: Officers 0 ORs 61 British: Officers 0 ORs 2722 Serbian: Officers 0 ORs 17 Romanian: Officers 0 ORs 5 Italian: Officers 0 ORs 369 Portuguese: Officers 0 ORs 52 Civilians: 82 I can only assume that Canadian and Australian numbers were included with the British which are actually listed as ‘Englander’.

For the past few months, however, Fortune had smiled and they arrived loaded with food, clothing and a portable organ with various other musical instruments. Sentries, Prisoners and all had stopped at every ‘pub’ on the way and to those who knew Germany, this means a good many “Gaast Huizen” in a thirty-mile walk.

First of all the Sentries departed for the “lock up” and then our little sword loving Feldwebel tackled the prisoners – but he had to deal with fellow Sergeant Majors and men who knew the language and their rights and privileges.

In a few minutes, our little terrier was frantic with rage. He sorted them out at last and stuck a couple at attention for punishment. The others were alloted to different Barracks a whole block being cleared of Russians and turned into a purely English camp.

The majority of the men belonged to the Royal Irish Regiment and were as happy-go-lucky a lot as anyone could wish to meet. Amongst the arrivals were one of the 1st Life Guards and the Indian already mentioned.

No sooner where the Old Hands in the Barracks than they started a concert and it quite jarred seeing men actually enjoying life for we were then only beginning to realise that the War might last for years and had not forced ourselves to face the prospect of years of captivity and to take life as it came.

The bulk of the newcomers were Irish Catholics who after being captured had spent an easy time in Limburg Camp been visited by Sir Rodger Casement and learning the history of Ireland.

Irish Pow at mass Limburg

Fritz and spent endless time and money in attempting to seduce them from their allegiance to Britain’s King promising to form an Irish Brigade for service in Ireland only.

As with all Irishman serving in the King’s Army the men treated this sort of propaganda as a huge joke. Fritz was led on to believe that every man’s one wish was to join up against England but before definitely committing themselves all kinds of grievous doubts and fears had to be dispelled.

Fritz became weary of sending Celtic professors and historians to teach Irelands’ wrongs, besides finding the job an expensive one. The Irish Catholic’s on receiving it issued an ultimatum, manhandled Casement, who was in charge of the propaganda work, laughed at the Hun and cheerfully departed to the coal mines.

The day below as the workers assembled to come up one prisoner with a “Cheerio Mates!” smashed his lamp against the wall – fire damp was so thick the casualty list with high.

This ended the experiment and after a sojourn in Sagan, many of the men were transported to Sprottau.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 77 There’s a Long Long Trail Awaiting

End of 76th Entry: Those of us able to walk, about two hundred, began the long, long trail to the German prison camps.

Due to lost pages, the story continues mid-sentence:

…an hour off was allowed during which a good meal of cabbage – pure cabbage – cabbage all alone but plenty of it was issued. From one to four we worked in a great silo digging out all the refuse beet of the past year. The beet was buried for a year and when dug up, under the most filthy conditions, is dried and given to animals and prisoners-of-war. At 4 p.m. came coffee, bread and half an hour’s rest after which another truckload of beet was loaded.

The first evening somehow I just broke down. To think of perhaps spending years in pure undiluted slavery with no word of Mollie or anyone I loved and no news of the outer world seemed unbearable.

From the manners of the Germans, it seemed that our people had been held up. Rumania we knew was being smashed, and the Russian Offensive had been halted. All seemed black and hopeless.

The factory lay next to the line to the Eastern and Rumanian fronts. Day after day we could see train after train filled with guns going through to the East. The German troops appeared magnificent material in the highest spirits, their troop trains embowered in green stuff and a sickening host of doubts and fears began to fill my mind.

Image result for german troop trains going east ww1

After a few days, I began to feel better. The hard work, nourishing food and the keen fresh winds from the Carpathians pulled me up a lot and our treatment was fairly decent until one morning a hundred more British prisoners marched in.

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That same afternoon trouble started. For some reason, the afternoon bread ration was withheld and we refused to go to work without it. Our leader, a great hefty South African we called ‘Dusty’ argued with the Unter Officier in charge.

The latter drew his bayonet, the guards threatened us with their rifles and I thought that in another minute the world would see a shambles. ‘Dusty’ struck it grandly though and as the  German roared at him Dusty bellowed back. It was a contest of willpower and noise but Dusty whose life had been spent with his back against the wall won and we got our bread. 

With the new arrivals work started in earnest. Some of the guards were brutes, one half-witted – the old happy week seemed to be far away in the past. We got cabbage soup three times a day, the sentries got freer with their rifle butts and the weather became worse and worse.

A few packets and letters began to arrive amongst them the first I’d had from Mollie since my capture. We managed to exist but it was wicked work waiting for news. Still with the arrival of letters and parcels contact had been regained with the outside world. Some thoughtful people slipped newspapers into packets in all sorts of ways so we, therefore, had a little news through and knew that all was well in “Blighty“.

Conditions got worse and worse in the factory and I got an attack of my old Rhodesian friend, Malaria. Having to remain at work I soon fell to pieces and all but bade adieu to my miseries. When I collapsed I was returned to the lager as useless. On my return, I found only seven Lance Corporals there besides a couple of sick men. The remainder of three hundred men were working in factories or stone quarries.

The feldwebel/sergeant who had been so fond of sword exercise was still in charge but a changed man and the few Englishmen in camp he treated like brothers. Parcels were arriving plentifully and all were in the best of health and spirits.

Red_Cross_Parcel

The day after my return from the Sugar Factory I saw the camp doctor and was recommended by him for ‘light duty’. A few really happy weeks now passed for the dozen Englishmen in the lager were all, more or less, men who were of the right stamp and determined to make themselves comfortable.

 

Page missing……

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 76 Poor Delville – it was a nice wood

The manuscript from which I have created these blogs ended with two brothers and three friends finding themselves in the King’s Army and going to Europe. There are pages missing where Delville Wood should be.

Bernard Meredith Leffler wrote of his experience at Delville Wood in an article for the Star Newspaper, Johannesburg, no date is given, possibly for the opening of the South African Memorial in Delville Wood 1926. Here it is.

Delville Wood

Delville Wood

16th Platoon 3rd South African Infantry

We weren’t sorry to move away from the near neighbourhood of Montauban or to say goodbye to Gerry’s old trenches. Seven days of heavy strafing had cost D Company some good men and the 16th Platoon had suffered badly.

One working party trying to connect up with the S.A. Scottish and the K.O.S.B. had got knocked to pieces by a field battery whilst working in the open in broad daylight. Then the Platoon after watching a heavy battery bracketing it’s trench for what seemed hours got the results of the Boche observer’s notes – they were excellent ones for his gunner buried the whole Platoon and caused us the loss of a Sergeant and several others.

Luckily Lieutenant Somerset had “Fragments from France” and most of us fellas possessing a sense of humour found Bruce Bairnfather’s pictures cheered things up a bit.

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Father Hill, of course, bobbed up in the thick of it and started pressing chocolate on us – “Kept away shell shock” he said – we got half buried together and my language brought strongly worded advice that cursing the hell out of the Germans was wasting time which could be better employed.

Out of the shelling zone, one good night, there was mail and hot food a pleasant change.

food ww1 trenches

Next morning a full cavalry brigade came into the valley in which we were lying. A wonderful sight – Panthers, Hussars, Dragoons all mounted on superb horses – a regiment of the Indian Cavalry rode in with the British – all picked men and in the highest spirits, and batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery galloping past cheered us greatly. It looked as though the War was about over – with that crowd going into action.

Dragoons

Dragoons

Just as dinner was about to be served orders came for the South Africans to “Fall In” and we heard that the Highland brigade was breaking through the Germans and we would go over them, carry the final enemy’s position with the bayonet and see the cavalry and Horse Artillery charge into the German Army.

Gordon Highlanders march to/from the front

We moved up immediately to Montauban halting for a while next to a bundle of flesh and rags which had lain there for some time. Carrying on through what looked like the results of a perfectly good earthquake – it had been Montauban – we were ordered into a trench running at right angles to the road we were on.

From here we got a splendid view of the Royal Horse Artillery galloping into action.

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The batteries unlimbered below us and opened on an objective behind a ridge over which we could see the 4th Dragoon Guards galloping. Then the Indians cantered past. Unfortunately, Gerry began to bombard us with teargas shells and further interest in the Cavalry disappeared.

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Chemical warfare – A flier’s view of a German gas attack on the Eastern front.

Slightly before dawn we moved out onto the road and began our march to Longueval – a dead Highlander sprawled in the centre of the road was the first sign that we were getting close to our objective.

After passing Jock the dead began to get numerous, one side of the road being full of them many still kneeling, held up by the bank – a big crowd must have got gassed we thought. They weren’t Kilties

Then came Germans and British mixed – hundreds – a faint cry brought us to a halt and a search party found a British soldier badly wounded and all in, he’d been lying amongst the dead for two days and was mad with thirst.

Shells began to burst around us and we saw Longueval ahead. A mass of smoke and fire through which we could see buildings being blown to pieces – heaps of barbed wire and Highland dead lying in scores tangled up with it.

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Orders came to fix bayonets and charge magazines and a few moments later we were inside Longueval, half of which the Highlanders had captured. They were still heavily engaged – all house to house fighting – shells bursting, machine guns clattering – dead in heaps, singly – lying over window sills, in doorways, the streets – whole bodies, half bodies, heaps of raw meat and everywhere tartan mixed with German grey.

Turning out of the village the 3rd South African Infantry lined a roadway, Thackeray spoke a few kind words.

First photo

Colonel Edward Francis Thackery CMG, DSO

Everybody gripped his rifle hard – the whistles shrilled and away we went “Over the top and Best of Luck.”

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Gerry’s barrage fell on top of us – God knows what happened – nobody stopped except those the barrage got. Most of us beat all records getting a move on and in a few moments we were through the wood digging in along its edge.

Snipers were busy and the 16th Platoon lost a second Sergeant and a few men. Then came Corporal Shafqat with a yarn that a trench in front of the wood only contained seven men and a machine gun – he’d counted them from a tree he’d climbed.

A party of officers and NCOs crept across and began bombing Fritz – but he had more than six pals. 16th Platoon and some of B company charged with bayonet and brought back three officers, a hundred and thirty-five other ranks and a machine gun – what we killed Heaven only knows. Captain Tomlinson got the D.I.O. and Shafqat the D.C.M.

When we got back we found Lance Corporal Biggs and poor old 16th Platoon’s third Sergeant missing. Then we saw Sergeant MacDonald badly wounded trying to crawl back with bullets shooting dust all around him.

Lieutenant Guard, Company Sergeant Major Bryant and someone else went out and carried him in under heavy fire – if anyone deserves the VC each of them did.

Then came the big German counter-attack – wave after wave they came – a mile of open country, one living grey mass. Some idea of how we were firing may be gathered from my own experience – my rifle was perfectly clean and almost brand new.

When the German Infantry waves came in sight I collected and cleaned three rifles taking the bayonets off two. We opened Rapid Fire at six hundred and when the front wave was fifty yards away all three rifles were so hot that, even when using them alternately they kept jamming. Again and again, the attacking waves wavered and halted but always more came over them.

Once they seemed on top of us and I grabbed my bayonetted rifle – then with a yell the  South African Scottish came up at the Double and in a whirl of waving tartans flung themselves amongst us and opened up. Almost instantly the German attack turned and our front was clear, the diverted assault flinging itself against the Natal Regiment.

Then our artillery began to shell the deserted plain – if only they had started ten minutes earlier – still they put up a lot of Boche who seemed to have dropped out of their ranks and lain hidden – we spent an interesting time sniping the runners.

Then the German bombardment started – John Buchan in the South African Forces in France estimates the rate of fire at four hundred shells per minute – poor Delville – it was a really nice wood when we entered it, but Gerry didn’t leave much after we’d been there a couple of days

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For two days and three nights we couldn’t move a yard – the bombardment never seemed to slacken – shells burst in us, over us, around us – men from other platoons, companies, battalions drifted into little corner – many of them bringing batches of prisoners with them – food gave out, water gave out and our nerves got jumpy.

Fortunately, we had a good little crowd and Lieutenant Somerset was as good as a battalion in cheering us. Gordon, the Private Secretary to Malan, Minister of Railways, got a box of Abdulla cigarettes from the body of Somerset’s Batman and we all kept cheery.

WW1. British troops and their smokes on the Western Front. blog.maryevans.com

Then rows began over the disposal of prisoners – there wasn’t room for us all and so the poor Bosch had to go – most fellas would have nothing to do with it, but about four hundred starving men couldn’t keep the same number of prisoners amongst them.

On the third-day news came that a big rum ration had arrived and was with a group of NCOs and men who were further down the wood.

I volunteered to go and crept past 15th Platoon – all were dead bar one and he wouldn’t leave his pals – I had a cigarette with him and pushed on.

Then on a heap of German shell cases, I saw a machine gun team – the cases had caught fire and the Gunners were roasted – beastly sight.

Getting to the party who had the rum there were only four of them, I was advised to have a drink and get out quick with what I could carry as they were being killed fast. I didn’t linger but picked up two rum jars and bolted – a shell dropped killing the four as I got off – creeping back I saw that they were all dead so started off home. Passing the 15th Platoon chap I found him dead. The rum was welcome but didn’t go far – I was asked to fetch more but declined.

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Rum Ration

A German field battery now galloped up into the plain and started on us over open sights. A spent bullet and a heavy bit of shell bouncing off a tree hurt me badly.  Fleetcroft of the machine guns was killed, his brother’s head was blown into a tree fork.

What upset me, even more, was strangely enough after losing my helmet – I picked up a dead man’s and clapped it on my head to find a bullet had gone through shattering the wearer’s skull and now his brains and blood ran down my cheeks. Rain started and we heard we were cut off.

German parties now began to attack us from all sides. No grand assaults such as we’d repulsed on the first day, but companies creeping through the wood and over the plain by day and all through the night. British artillery and mortars began a systematic shelling of us – evidently, our own people had given us up – Lieutenant Somerset went to see whether any opening existed for getting in touch with the British but on leaving the trench was shot through the head.

That night, our last one, was pure undiluted hell.  Four hundred details of the brigade and a couple of hundred German prisoners were huddled together in a crude half blown in trench exposed to a merciless bombardment from all sides – few of us anywhere near possession of all our wits absolutely broken body and mind.

All half mad with hunger, thirst and weariness – a chap with an injured spine died in ghastly agony next to me – we were shot at, bombed and ever shells in thousands came from German and British guns. Our artillery was especially good.

Dawn came at last and with it the final charge – hardly a round or bomb was left, barely a man had the strength to lift a bayonet, few were unwounded, none had tasted food or water for a day and night, and scarcely had we had a full meal for a week.

The Germans attacked in force from all sides – ammunition went – scattered in parties the South Africans fought on determined to go down to the last man. But the remaining Superior Officer shouted, “We Surrender!”

The man next to me blew his brains out with a Lieutenant Somerset’s revolver, some carried on fighting hand to hand and were killed.

Several men got hold of Lieutenant Guard who badly wounded was desperately struggling to carry on.

Those of us able to walk, about two hundred, began the long, long trail to the German prison camps. Pity the Officer surrendered – three hundred men many of them wounded were captured, two thousand and twenty killed and wounded – eight hundred and thirty-three survivors after six days of fighting. South Africa didn’t do badly and I myself only saw one man go to pieces.

They were a good crowd the old South African Infantry.

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The “Last Tree” which is the only surviving hornbeam tree in Delville Wood

Further links from Donald Bernard Leffler: