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:

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 58 Transporting Donkeys

End of 57th Entry: The Queensland had already loaded sixty transport waggons each of which would be pulled by twenty-two donkeys. Immediately the donkeys and men had been shipped hawsers were cast off, the tugs busily hauled her into the fairway and with the threshing screw, the tramp began her voyage.

Rounding the Breakwater the Queensland dipped her nose to a swell, rose streaming with water and once again began a plunge. Mick watched his fellow conductors – at the first pitch conversation stopped abruptly, expressions of alarm crossing several countenances.

“It looks really stormy. I’m surprised the Captain didn’t wait until it got calmer.” remarked the Head Conductor in Dutch an unmistakeable quaver in his voice.

Mick laughed, “If he’d waited for a North gale to blow itself out we wouldn’t have got away for a week. It’s only starting really and we’re running right into it. There’ll be some fun in a couple of hours.”

The others groaned and as the motion of the ship began to grow more violent the conductors one after the other sought the two cabins placed at their disposal by the ships’ officers.

Mick feeling full of health and happiness walked around to have a look at the horses, donkeys and Cape boys. The Coloured men had been given the upper forehold as sleeping quarters, the forecastle and well deck for open-air space. The effects of the heavy carouses in which cheap Cape wines had played a big part were rapidly becoming intensified by the pitching of the ship and as Mick stood looking at them a young quartermaster passing, stopped, joined the Conductor and with a merry laugh asked him what he thought of the Coloured men.

Queer (strange) aren’t they?” said the sailor, “All happy as monkeys an hour by, but you’d reckon the bulk was dying of some horrible disease now.”

“I guess my mates are as bad” answered Mick, “I think only one of them has ever seen the sea before.”

The sailor laughed “We’re running into dirty weather so they’ll see all they want to of life on the ocean wave, especially with a damned old wreck like this – the Atlantic’s beginning to dust her now, but when we change course the sea will be on our beam. She’ll roll her guts out then. You’ve had a spell or two at sea yourself, haven’t you?”

Greatly flattered Mick confessed that beyond a couple of coasting voyages his experience was confined to fishing craft; though he had spent many an hour knocking about sailing ships and war vessels.

The other who was in ‘The Watch Below’ and therefore free for four hours was evidently a companionable fellow so the two were soon chatting freely. The seaman telling Mick that he was Australian by birth began to spin yarns of his life.

Though but a youth hardly as old as Mick the sailor appeared to have visited nearly every seaport in the world. He had been following the sea since he was fourteen years old, starting on a windjammer. At twenty-two, a year since he had inherited £4000 which had gone in a three months spree in Paris.

An archetypal windjammer

Without appearing to boast, or to be trying to impress his listener, the sailor held Mick spellbound with yarn after yarn of Japan, China, Burma and the Siberian Coast. Most of the Quartermaster’s sea life had been passed in voyaging about the east though few portions of the world seemed to have been unvisited.

The first night and the following morning Mick, however, was the sole representative of the South African Service Corps to attend the table so good-naturedly he was invited to join the ship’s officers.

For two days the gale continued, keeping all but one of Mick’s companions in close confinement. The Coloured people too suffered grievously, resulting in endless difficulty and trouble in watering and feeding the animals.

As it was it needed more than moral persuasion to collect a fatigue party, and the Chinese ship’s crew chuckled with glee at the spectacle of a gang of very sick very unhappy brown men being driven to their work before the vicious angry crack of a heavy stockwhip.

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On the third morning, the ship ran out of the gale much to the relief of the transport men, and that night dropped anchor outside the bar of Port Nolloth the port for loading copper ore.

Next morning the complete draft of conductors and coloured men were early astir once more able to take an interest in life, though the majority presented a rather hospital convalescent appearance.

Mick found little about Port Nolloth to arouse his curiosity or sense of enjoyment. Near The Queensland, three sailing ships in ballast rolled to the groundswell until their yardarms dipped into the water. A steamer was discharging a couple of batteries of artillery into lighters whilst a mile or two landwards lay a low lying desert shore absolutely devoid of any appearance of attraction.

Shortly after breakfast, the Head Conductor went ashore returning in a couple of hours with a couple of bottles of vile brandy, a much-inflamed countenance, a more than nautical roll and the news that early next morning the cargo would be discharged into lighters.

Once landed the column would be got immediately into order, the waggons loaded and the lot would be dispatched to the Orange River a hundred and twenty miles away. The column was to be attached to a force of regular Mounted Infantry and Defence Force units acting under Colonel Lukin.

There was little else to tell. Rumours had it that the Germans were in strong force across the Orange. Lukin was advancing against them to a frontal attack whilst Colonel Maritz was closing in on their flank with a large number of Defence Force units.

Supplies of every description were urgently needed so once the artillery had been handed from their neighbour, every effort would be made to rush the transport men, materials and animals ashore.

Location of Sandfontein

That evening the brown folk gave a concert. The night was warm, star-filled and peaceful. From the distance came the dull faint crash of the surf breaking on the shallow bar. About the ship the air was filled with the many ghostly sounds of a night bound vessel lying at anchor – the creakings of rope and bloke, the sound of machinery purring, the sob of the sea as she lifted and rolled to it.

Sitting with his sailor chum on the side of a hatchway Mick gave his whole being to the sensuous enjoyment of the warm, ozone laden sea air, the dry currents wafted by the night air from the shore. The sounds of the ship, the marvellous glory of a violet sky hanging low with its heavy mass of glowing, sparkling jewels and the ship’s hold where a hundred and a half happy people lay or sat scattered amongst their bundles and boxes.

The hatches were fully open and from the hold rose the music of the violin, of mandolin, of banjo and accordion, accompanied by a seven score voices, all harshness softened by the clinging air of night.

Way Down Upon the Swanee River, Clementine, Home Sweet Home, Don’t Go Down the Mine Daddy were intermingled with Tipperary, For We’re Marching to Pretoria and old Dutch songs.

Ships’ officers and Chinese sailors gathered around smoking, listening and joining in the choruses. From the Artillery Transport, from the rolling sailing ships came echoing back the strains as soldiers and sailors took up the well-known songs.