Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The South African Brigade at Delville Wood July 1916
Rough Map of Area

Delville Wood

15th July 1916

The South African Brigade had been assigned to 9th (Scottish) Division to replace a badly depleted 28th Brigade and was involved as part of the reserve in some of the fighting on 14th July. 1st South African Regiment was involved in the fighting for the village of Longueval and half of the 4th South African Regiment was tied up in the attempt to secure Waterlot Farm.

Delville Wood

It is hard to believe that so much death and despair was encountered here

On 15th July South Africans were ordered to capture Delville Wood: at all costs. With 2nd South African Regiment leading the attack at 0615 hours the remainder of the South African Brigade took almost the entire wood within a couple of hours.

Map showing Delville Wood and SA Brigade

The South African Brigade in Delville Wood on the 15th July 1916 (Company/Regiment)

The attack had gone well with little in the way of opposition by the German infantry. The wood was as much an obstacle as anything man made, and the South Africans soon found themselves being hit harder and harder by German artillery and machine guns the further they advanced.

The sticking point was a German position in the north western corner. The Germans had the advantage — they were supported by their own men, whereas the South Africans had created a bulge in the German lines and were now surrounded on three sides.


Delville Wood

The point where the SA Brigade entered Delville Wood

The South Africans were now almost cut off by a German bombardment which continued to rain shells on them.

As there were now few Germans in the wood the German artillery pounded it with incessant gunfire causing enormous casualties to the South Africans, and making it almost impossible for them to either get out or be relieved. At times the Germans were firing over 400 rounds a minute.

Later in the battle the roles would be reversed — it was only when troops from both sides were in the wood that the artillery fire from both sides let up at all.

The South Africans began to dig in beating off counter attacks as they did so. The roots and remnants of tree trunks made the preparation of proper trenches impossible and the South Africans had to make do with shallow ones.

It was proving a hard fought battle. The village of Longueval and Delville Wood were mutually supporting. If the South Africans could take the wood it would help make the German position in Longueval untenable.

From the German point of view, they intended to hold onto to the village at all costs and that would make the eventual expulsion of the South Africans from the wood a formality.

The British launched two attacks on the village over the next two days but both were mishandled with an inadequate artillery bombardment. Throughout all of this the South Africans were being forced to sit it out in the wood and to hang on without any relief. In reality there wasn’t anybody to relieve them. 9th Division was being hard pressed as it recoiled under a massive bombardment of gas shells hitting the support areas and artillery positions.

 

The German Counter Attack

On the 17th July the Division was allocated the relatively fresh 76th Brigade from 3rd Division. The following day at 0345 hours this Brigade attacked and managed to get through to the South Africans for a short period, but as if on queue, and to make life more miserable for the beleaguered South Africans — it began to pour with rain.

At 0800 hours the Germans launched their counter attack. The bombardment lasted eleven hours with their infantry attacking Longueval at 1400 hours followed by an assault on the wood an hour later. The wood which had only a few days before been described as thickly populated by trees and thickets was now reduced to blasted stumps. Although fighting tenaciously for possession of every metre, the South Africans were slowly pushed back towards their command post on Princes Street.

Whilst this was happening in the wood the Germans had succeeded in recapturing most of Longueval. However just as the British had suffered severe casualties in their attacks so too had the Germans, in particular fighting the South Africans in the wood.

South African Memorial Delville Wood

The South African Memorial in Delville Wood

British attacks over the next two days made some progress and the final attack by 76th Brigade at 0335 hours on 20th July relieved those remaining South Africans clinging to the southern edge of Delville Wood.

It would only be on 3rd September 1916 that the Allies could finally say that Delville Wood was theirs.

Of 3,153 men from the Brigade who had entered the wood on
14th July 1916 only 755 came out again on the sixth day.