1916 Jul 4.The diary of a SA infantryman in 2nd SA Infantry. Still lying low in Suzanne Valley. The artillery are quietly moving up. We shifted up behind our old firing line, where the advance started 2 or 3 days ago. The dead are lying about. Germans and our men as well, haven't had time to bury them. The trenches were nailed to the ground, and dead-mans-land looked like a ploughed field, heaps must be buried underneath...
1916 Jul 5 ... it rained last night and we only have overcoats and waterproof sheets, but I cuddled up to old Fatty Roe, and slept quite warmly. There are no dug-outs where we are at present, and the shells are exploding uncomfortably near. Had a man wounded last night for a kick off. The Huns are lying in heaps, one I noticed in particular had both legs blown off, and his head bashed in. Some have turned quite black from exposure. They are burying them as fast as possible. Brought an old fashioned power horn, Hun bullets, nose-caps of shells, etc., back with me, but I suppose they'll be thrown away.
1916 Jul 6. Told to hold ourselves in readiness, expecting an attack.
1916 Jul 7. Made to sleep in the trench on account of the Hun shells flying a bit too near, had a cold rough night, but things have quietened a bit this morning, so we are back in our little shack made out of waterproofs. Bloody Fritz, he had started shelling the road, about 400 yards away and directly in line of us. A Frenchie was standing on the parapet and was excitedly beckoning to us. He'd put up his hands and point to a communication trench ahead. Couln't make out what the beggar was driving at, so we ran up to him, and ahead were dozens of Hun prisoners filling out of the trench. It rained so hard our shack was just a mud-pool, busy drying our kit.
1916 Jul 8. 3rd S.A.'s were relieved by the Yorks who went over this morning 400 strong and returned 150 strong. Then our S.A. Scottish went over with a couple of the Regiments and took the wood, and I believe lost heavily, but are still holding the wood. Seaforth, Black Watch, Cameron, P.A., G.P.S. are going over in the morning, so there will be some bloodshed, if they get at close quarters with cold steel. Hun sent over some Tear Shells, which made our eyes smart, but were too far to cause much trouble. Two of our companies were up to the firing line, and T. Blake, of our platoon, acting as guide, had his jaw bone shattered, and another man had his head blown off. Three guns of the 9th R.F.A. were put out of action, they say the Huns have "smelt a rat", and brought 12" and 9.2 guns up, so I guess we shall have a lively time. I'd love to see the four "Jock" Regiments go over in the morning. The Huns hate them like poison, yet I do no think their hate exceeds their fear. For them, 100 and more prisoners have been brought in, past us. The Huns were sending shells over our heads, all day, one dropped in the valley, below, killing two and wounding five of the R.F.A.
1916 Jul 9. Shall never forget it, as long as I live. Coming up the trench we were shelled the whole time, and to see a string a wounded making their way to a dressing station, those who can walk or hobble along ; another chap had half of his head taken off, and was sitting in a huddled up position, on the side of the trench, blood streaming on to his boots, and Jock lay not 5 yards further with his stomach all burst open, in the middle of the trench. Those are only a few instances of the gruesome sights we see daily. A I am writing here, a big shell plonked into the soft earth, covering me with dust, one by one they are bursting around us. I am just wondering if the next will catch us (no it was just over). Oh ! I thought one wound get us, it plonked slick in our trench and killed old Fatty Roe, and wounded Keefe, Sammy who was next to me, and Sid Phillips, poor beggar, he is still lying next to me, the stretcher bearers are too busy to fetch him away. The Manchesters had to evacuate the wood below us, and we the one along here. I'm wondering if we will be able to hold this wood, in case of an attack, as our number is so diminished. I've seen so cruel sights today. I was all covered in my little dug out, when old Sammy was wounded, had a miraculous escape.
1916 Jul 10. Still hanging on, and the shells flying round, three more of our fellows wounded, out of our platoon. Took Fatty Roe's valuables off him and handed them over to Sergeant Restall... We have no dug-outs, just in an open trench. Of course we've dug in a bit, but its no protection against those big German shells... Harold Alger has been badly knocked about. I'm afraid he won't pull through, arm and leg shattered by shrapnel. I had a lucky escape while talking to Lieutenant Davis, a piece of shrapnel hit on my steel helmet, and glanced past his head. He ramarked "That saved you from a nasty wound", (referring to the helmet). The S.A. lads in our platoon have stuck it splendily, it has been a tough trial this. We heard cries from the wood further down, and Geoghan and Edkins went to investigate, finding three wounded men lying down in the open. They had been lying there three days among their own dead, and had been buried a couple of times by their own shells, and the one brought in had been wounded again. They asked for four volunteers to bring in the other two, so off we went. It was an awful half hour, but we were well repaid by the grateful looks on their haggard faces. Poor old Geoghan was hit, his head was split off by shrapnel. Four of us buried him this morning.
1916 Jul 11. We were relieved by our own Scottish, and are back at our former camping ground, but I do feel so lonely, out of our mess of 5, only 2 of us left and my half section gone as well. We were right through the Egyptian Campaign tog, as half sections. A Yorkshire man brought a prisoner over this morning, while we were still in the trenches, and he halted to have a chat. Our Corporal could speak German, so he gave the prisoner a cig. and he told us all we wanted to know. He was a Saxon and was heartily sick of the war, and our artillery was playing up havoc with their infantry, since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. I didn't say anything, but their artillery had given our men as much as they could bear.
1916 Jul 12 . About 2 miles back and still the Huns had the neck tu put a shell into us, killing one man and wounding another. The Rev. Cook was killed while helping to carry in wounded. I have just been watching the Huns shelling the wood we came out of yesterday. It looks as though the wood is on fire, the smoke rising from the bursting shells. The Scottish (ours) relieved us too, and we lost 16 out of our platoon in it. It was a cruel three days, espacially when Manchester were driven out of the woods, 700 yards, in front of us, we were expecting the Huns over any minute, but the Huns would have got a warm reception. Then the Bedfords retook the wood, the full morning, which strengthened our position.
1916 Jul 13 . Allyman found us again bending. I thought we were so safe for a bit. A shell planked out into the next dug-out to mine, killing Smithy and wounding Edkins, Lonsdale, Redwood and Bob Thompson, 3 of them belonging to our section. Only 3 of us left in Sammy's old section. It's a cruel war this. Just going up to dig graves to bury our dead. We buried Private Redwood, Smith and Colonel Jones, of The Scottish. General Lukin was at the funeral, he did look so worried and old.
1916 Jul 14. News very good this morning. our troops driving the Huns back, and the cavalry have just passed, they look so fine. The Bengal Lancers were among them, so I was told. We're under orders to shift at a moment notice. It rained heavily this morning. I hope it does not hamper the movements of the cavalry. If this move ends as successfully as it has begun, it will mean such a lot to the bringing of the war to an end. Our chaps are getting so tired of the mud and damp. There's such a change in the sunburnt faces of Egypt, and this inactivity makes one as weak as a rat. The cavalry have done excellent work, now it remains to us infantry to consolidate the positions. We're just ready to move forward...
1916 Jul 15/16. At 05. 00 am, the first South African soldiers penetrated the wood under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tanner. The progress was slow because of the tangles of trees destroyed by the first shellings. At noon, the whole wood, except its northwestern part, too strongly defended, was controled. The entrenchment began, but this was difficult by the nature of the ground strewn with roots and by a constant bombardment including gas shells, all under a stifling heat. Moreover, Germans launched three counter attacks all repulsed. The brilliant marksmanship of the South Africans was given its opportunity. The rate of German shelling often reached 400 shells per minute, with all calibres. The casualties were heavy and the only reserve of the Brigade consisted of three companie
.All through the furious night of the 15th, South Africans were digging trenches to save their lives. At 2.35am, Lukin received orders from the Division that the portion held by ennemy must be taken. Without artillery preparation, the attack, by the Royal Scots from the village and the 1st SAI from Prince Street, was a failure and the attacking troops fell back. The Division ordered that the wood must be held at all cost. Moreover, another attack against the north-west corner was ordered for the next morning.
We (South African Brigade) went into Delville Wood and drove the Huns out of it, and entrenched ourselves on the edge, losing many men, but we drove them off, as they wound come back and counter attack. Then snipers were knocking our fellows over wholesale, while we were digging trenches, but our chaps kept them off. I got behind a tree, just with my right eye and shoulder showing, and blazed away. We held the trench, and on the night of the 16th July they made a hot attack on out left, 16 of them breaking through, and a bombing party was called to go and bomb them out (I was one of the men picked). We got four and the rest of them cleared out. It rained all night, and we were ankle deep in mud, rifles covered with mud, try as we would, to keep them clean.
1916 Jul 17/20 In spite of an artillery preparation, this attack, made shortly before dawn by the 1st and 2nd SAI, did not succeed. Germans were stubborn defenders. In the morning, General Lukin visited the wood and was worried about the fatigue of his men. He had now no troops which had not been in action for at least forty-eight hours. A fight in a wood was the most wearing kind of battle and the most of the South Africans had to wait under a continuous machine-gun and artillery fire. On his return at his headquarters, Lukin discussed the situation on the telephone with General Furse, C.O. of the 9th (Scottish) Division, but could get no hope of relief or reinforcements. Moreover, the instructions from the XIII Corps stood that the wood must be beld at any cost. Delville wood became a death-trap. Lieutenant-Colonel Tanner was wounded in the evening and Lieutenant-Colonel Thackeray succeeded him in charge of the troops in the wood.
This fourth day was the crisis of the battle for the defenders. In the night, a strong ennemy attack was launched and Germans advanced as far as Buchanan Street and Princes Street. A costly counter-attack expelled them. At 3.45am, The 3rd Division succeeded to take the orchard in the North of Longueval and the 1st SAI joined hands with the 1st Gordon Highlanders. But this sudden success was due to the fact that German infantry had evacuated the orchard for a barrage of its artillery. At 8.00am, a bombardement of a unprecedented severity was open on the wood and Longueval. Every part of the area was searched and smothered by shells until 3.30pm. The 3rd Division was expelled from the northern part of Longueval and fresh German troops began to enter the wood from all sides. To the great surprise of the attackers, the handful of South African survivors gave a stubborn resistance and took place a fierce fighting with high losses on both sides. In many parts of the wood, were "duels" between attackers parties and resistance pockets, sometimes at reversed front. It is not easy to reproduce the circumstances of events of this painful day, because many of the protagonists were killed. The South African soldiers, driven back to the southwestern part of the wood delimited by Princes Street and Buchanan Street, installed there a pocket of resistance, assisted by Highlanders of the division. A new German division was commited to expel them : it never succeeded.
All through the 19th the gallant handful suffered incessant shelling and sniping and replsed the attackers with heavy loss. On the eastern edge of the wood, the remains of the 3rd SAI, which had successfully resisted the thrust of the German infantry on their front, were now effectively cut off. 190 men were captured. The first relief by the 26th Brigade begun in difficult conditions.
Germans launched several attacks against Thackeray's band but could not overrun them. The colonel himself fought with rifle and grenade on the parados of the trench. Finally, in the evening the promised relief arrived with the men of the 3rd Division. Thackeray marched out with two officers, both of whom were wounded, and 140 other ranks, made up of details from all the units of the Brigade. He spent the night at Talus Boisé, and the next day joined the rest of the Brigade at Happy Valley.
Out of the 121 officers and 3 032 other ranks who formed the Brigade on 14th July in morning, only 29 officers and 751 other ranks were present at roll call when the unit was gathered some days after the battle. The heroic resistance of the South African Brigade, against the flower of the German Army, had saved the southern part of the British line.
The wood remained the scene of bitter fighting for more than one month and units of seven British divisions was commited there. Finally, Delville Wood was entirely in the hands of Allies at the end of August when the 14th (Light) Division captured it for good. It remained in the first line till 15th September 1916 when the great attack with tanks « took away » the front eastwards and northwards.
. .The Huns started shelling us, and it was just murder from then until 2 o'clock of the afternoon of the 18th, when we got the order to get out as best you can. I came out with Corporal Farrow, but how we managed it, goodness knows, men lying all over shattered to pieces, by shell fire, and the wood was raked by machine guns and rifle fire. Major McLeod of the Scottish was splendid. I have never seen a pluckier man, he tried his level best to get as many out as possible. We fall back to the valley below, and formed up again. I came on to camp and was ordered by the Doctor to remain here, having a slight attack of shell shock. I believe the 9th took the wood again, and were immediately relieved, but the lads are turning up again in camp, the few lucky ones. If it was not for a hole in my steel helmet, and a bruise on the tip, I would think it was an awful nightmare...The lads stuck it well, but the wood was absolutely flattened, no human being could live in it. Major McLeod was wounded, and I gave him a hand to get out, but he would have I was to push on, as I would be killed. Many a silent prayer did I sent up, for strength to bring me through safely. I found a Sergeant of the 1st all of a shake, suffering from shell shock, so I took his arm and managed to get him to the dressing station. Just shaken hands with my old pal John Forbes. He is wounded in the arm and is off to Blighty. I quite envy him. A sad day of S.A... They say we made a name for ourselves but at what a cost. All the 9th are resting on a hillside. Small parties of 25 to 40 men form the companies, which were 200 strong a short two weeks ago. We have taken back several miles...
1916 Jul 21. Had a bathe in the Somme, and a change of underwear, now lying on the green hillside listening to our Division band, a happy day for the lads that were lucky enough to come through.
1916 Jun 21 2nd Bn. South African Infantry. No. 3782 Co, Serjt.-Maj. W. L. King. Mentioned in Dispatches Gazette. The action for which he was mentioned was therefore before he was commissioned on May 12.
1916 Jul 22. ... General Lukin had us gathered round him, and thanked us for the splendid way in which we fought in Delville and Bernafay Woods. He said we got orders to take and hold the woods, at all costs, and we did for four days and four nights, and when told to fall back on the trench, we did it in a soldier like way. He knew his boys would, and he was prouder of us now, than even before, if he possibly could be, as he always was proud of South Africans. All he regretted was the great loss of gallant comrades, and thanked us from the bottom of his heart for what we had done.
William Lorraine King