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:

4 thoughts on “From Boatsheds to Battlefields 76 Poor Delville – it was a nice wood

  1. No words for the horrific yet brave ordeal of the South Africans – so far from home – at Delville Wood. Trish, you have captured the grim, sad story so well with the added pictures and songs. I have read the previous 75 chapters with interest and anticipation for the narrative about Delville Wood. It did not disappoint. Much respect for the labour of love you have dedicated to the original writings of our Grandfather and for making his legacy current. There have been movies, books and pictures of Delville Wood and many individual stories. This narrative makes it personal for us as a Family and makes us remember the sacrifice of so many of our ancestors who participated in different wars in different countries. Respect to all those for their allegience and loyalty from all nations and all communities .

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  2. In the words of the Author, Bernard Meredith Leffler as presented by Trish Armstrong

    My Story

    It may be that there are ears to hear and hearts to feel the story of the world beyond Civilisations frontiers. There may be those content to read an ill told true tale of a life they themselves have never lived. They may yearn for some of what is granted the soldier of Fortune, feel somewhat of the spell of the Wild, thank Almighty God that fate has guided their way into places, and gained something of the knowledge of life in the rough.

    I was born beneath the immense grey walls of that flat-topped Table of the Gods which is set beside the blue waters that cap the old town first begun by Van Riebeeck and his sturdy Hollanders.

    From boyhood I grew up amongst the tales and traditions of gallant East Indian men, Portuguese, Dutch and English, of flight and cattle, of Hottentot and wild coast – of ships and frigates of France, England and Holland which had cast anchor or run out a gun in our great Bay. I had listened to the tales of Huguenot, of Malay and of slaves.

    I heard the call of forefather and it stirred my heart. I listened to the wooing of the sea and of the mountain and vowed my life to them and theirs.

    So I begin my tale of hard living, of love and war, of storm and sunshine, of ships and cattle and sheep and horses and of men who row and sail and fight, that Britain holds her hard-won Imperial Throne.

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