By: A. Veldman – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History














Official photograph of the Somme offensive, July to November 1916.


The Battle of the Somme, a battle of the First World War (1914-1918) started on Saturday, the 1st of July 1916. More than three million men fought of which one million were either wounded or killed. General Sir Douglas Haig, intended to capture the German 1st position on the Gommecourt-Ovilliers-Fricourt-Mametz-Montauban (France) frontline and ultimately their 2nd positions from Pozieres to Bazentin-Le Petit and ultimately Delville Wood. This attack was to be carried out under the command of General Henry Rawlinson by the British Fourth Army, inclusive of South African forces. Initially it seemed that the British forces had the upper hand, but the superior number of German forces in reserve foreshadowed a slow and costly push forward (Gilbert 2006; Nasson 2007).

The South African Brigade (SAI) consisted of four battalions: the 1st Cape, 2nd Natal and Orange Free State, 3rd Transvaal and Rhodesia and the 4th Scottish which was attached to the 9th Scottish Division that formed part of the XIII corps.  On the 30th of June 1916, the four infantry regiments moved to Grove Town, on the outskirts of Bray-sur-Somme. The 9th Division remained in general reserve to the XIII corps, whose main objectives were to capture the ridge running from Waterlot Farm to Bazentin-Le-Grand, to take Montauban, and to reach Bernafay and Trônes Wood (Buchan 1921; Miles et al. 1938). On 1 July the XIII corps took Montauban and came to the edge of Bernafay Wood. During the next few weeks, soldiers would endeavour to clear Trônes and Bernafay Woods. Bernafay Wood was soon British possession, but to capture Trônes was more challenging.  German forces held northern and southward positions, which meant that they could bombard the SAI brigades with shellfire from the front and towards their left flank. However, by 14 July British forces held a frontline from Bazentin-le-Petit, and parts of Longueval and Trônes Wood. The British then further attacked Longueval, which was also heavily defended by German troops (Buchan 1921; Miles et al. 1938).


Battle of Bazentin Ridge, 14-17 July 1916. Soldiers digging a communication trench through Delville Wood. An officer observing from the ruins of Longueval Church. Lt. J.W. Brooke (Photographer)© IWM Q 4417.


Upon the British advance, Germans reassembled at their second line, northeast of Longueval. After several days of intense fighting, the British were able to capture the village., However, to advance their line, they also had to secure Delville Wood. Since 1914 German forces occupied the wooded upslope area of 0.65 km²; it was therefore heavily fortified, and soldiers were well dug into their trenches. On the 15th of July, apart from men still battling in Longueval, and companies engaged elsewhere on the Somme, companies from the 2nd and 3rd SAI took up their trench positions on the southwestern edge of the wood. SAI brigades were able to capture the forest, but they were almost surrounded by 7000 Germans, more than double the number of South African men. The Germans launched a fierce counterattack. Apart from snipers, 400 shells per minute rained down on the SAI stuck in cubby holes (soldier lingo for shallow trench). Unable to dig fast enough through the knotty undergrowth, soldiers desperately jumped into abandoned German trenches, thereby becoming an even more easy target for German gunners and snipers (Buchan 1921; Miles et al. 1938; Nasson 2007).

Besieged by shrapnel and gas shells (also referred to as windy corners by soldiers), increasingly starved of supplies and medical relief, the 1st SAI joined by the Royal Scotts as reinforcements attacked the northwest corner on 16 July, but continued German bombarding and snipers had the men fall back towards their trenches. South African perimeter fences and trenches were obliterated, communications collapsed as wires were severed and runners cut down by the ferocious bombing (Buchan 1921; Miles et al. 1938; Gilbert 2006). The natural environment was not lenient either. July was summertime with heavy thunderstorms and cyclonic rains causing the limon soil and underlaying chalk to become a sticky clay and masses of liquid mud.  Unable to get the wounded to dressing stations due to the constant artillery barrage and snipers, some wounded men ended up in shell craters, while others remained where they were waiting for stretcher-bearers. On average a grenade explosion could create a crater 1 – 2 m deep; the German 42 cm calibre howitzer could easily create a shell hole as deep as 12 m when detonated with a delayed fuse.  Many wounded soldiers drowned in both shallow and deep waterlogged holes, others got stuck in the mud powerless to trudge forward, while continued bombardments buried some men and simultaneously uncovering corpses of British and German soldiers alike (Ward 1916; Clout 1994; Jäger 2001).

By the 17th of July the 2nd SAI and British troops joined in a renewed advance again on the northwestern part of the wood, this time overrunning German positions. The now dislodged German infantry dug into a string of isolated posts, creating an impassable line from which they counter attacked with fierce bombardment on the 18th of July. German soldiers stormed through the woods in waves, tearing through the South African western flank and recaptured the northern end of Longueval. Having more men and artillery than the SAI, German divisions charged from the east and north, pushing the remnants of the allied forces into the southeast corner of the wood. Following further bombardment and hand-to-hand combat, only two depleted companies of the SAI were left holding their positions. Simultaneously, the SAI dug in along Buchanan Street was also taking heavy casualties as they were attacked from three directions. Small reinforcement companies of the 1st and 4th SAI were advancing up Strand Street and the northern outskirts of the wood. They joined up with the men at Buchanan and Princess Streets. By 19 July, Union forces were fending off encircling Germans for four days, and on the 20th of July, British reinforcement relieved the SAI brigades. The SAI Brigade had suffered over 80% casualties, being stuck in cubby holes along with windy corners. Only a few hundred soldiers remained. The forest itself was destroyed, with nothing but stumps, craters, buried and unburied dead remaining (Buchan 1921; Miles et al. 1938; Gilbert 2006).


Official photograph, Delville Wood Cemetery.



Buchan J.1921. The History of the South African Forces in France. Cape Town: Maskew Miller.

Clout, H. 1994. Reconstructing the Countryside of the Eastern Somme after the Great War. Erdkunde 48:136-149.

Gilbert, M. 2006. The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. New York: Owl Books.

Jäger, H. 2001. German Artillery of World War One. Wiltshire: The Crowood Press.

Miles, W., Edmonds, J.E., & Becke, A.F. 1938. Official History of the Great War: Military Operations, France and Belgium 1916. London: Macmillan Ltd.

Nasson, B. 2007. Springboks on the Somme: South Africa in the First World War. London: Penguin Books.

Ward, R. DeC.1916. The Weather Factor in the Great War: V Spring and Summer, 1916. Journal of Geography 15: 79-86.

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