Speech by Peter Dickens on the Centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood
Thiepval Memorial, France 10th July 2016
Springbok Valour – Speech by Peter Dickens, Chairman of the Royal British Legion South African branch, in commemoration of 100 years of South Africans on the Somme and Battle of Delville Wood. Held at the Thiepval Memorial, France on 10th July 2016.
“On behalf of The Royal British Legion South African Branch I would also like to welcome all here today, it is our privilege to honour the South African sacrifice during the Somme offensive – especially at Delville Wood just a short distance from this memorial.
We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heard.
Frightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.
Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.
This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!
This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.
There is also one Irish born South African Victoria Cross recipient listed – Captain Alexander Young, awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, Young served with the South African Scottish Regiment and was killed in action in October 1916.
To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.
And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.
On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.
At first the attack progressed smoothly and by the end of the day the South Africans had secured the wood, now spread along the perimeter in groups forming machine gun nests.
But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, with only the south western base in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the wood was made extremely difficult by roots and tree trunks, preparation of proper trenches was impossible, the South made do with shallow burrows. With these unprepared trenches just over 3000 South Africans faced over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!
The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans. At its peak the rate of firing exceeded 400 shells per minute and to think this relentless volley of shelling for days on end, and it was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometer in size.
There is a reason there as so many “missing” South Africans listed on this memorial – this rate of artillery fire literally vaporized these men or blasted them beyond recognition. This is why Delville Wood itself is such a humbling experience – many of these men listed HERE are still THERE, unfound even to this day.
Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held the wood at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat at stages – the depth of bravery required to do this under this sort of fire power is simply too staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.
The South African Brigade suffered 80% loss, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has was described then as “… the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”
But something very important also happened during the Battle of Delville Wood – the South African nation as we know it today was born. It was out of this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic, language and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.
“Nancy” the Springbok, the South African Scottish mascot on the Somme, had been the symbol of home for all the men during the fighting, she proudly led four battalions of the South African Brigade to the first Delville Wood drum head service after the battle in 1918.
Prancing on her thin little legs, it’s almost as if she knew that she was the darling of every soldier on parade – and of those they were coming to honour – because from here on out these South African fighting men had walked into history as a force to be RESPECTED and the legend of the fighting Springbok was born.
The veterans bond
I would like, if I may, to talk about why is the Battle of the Somme, something that occurred 100 years ago, is so important to us as veterans?
Forgive me if I read an abridge version from these very poignant memoirs. One from a South African who had just survived Deville Wood in France in 1916, one from a survivor of the SS Mendi in 1917 and the other is from a South African who survived an air attack during Ops Modular in Angola in 1987.
Lance Corporal Frederick Charles Lee, the only surviving NCO in his company to come out of Delville wood.
“After five days of absolute awfulness poor Angus Brown, my pal, died of wounds after about three hours awful suffering. He had both feet blown off by a shell. I saw him a little while after he was hit. I gave him a drink of water, and the only complaint he made at that time was “My God, Fred, the pain is awful “. With that I ran down to the dressing station and got the doctor to give me some Morphine. When I got back Angus was just about finished’
The next from Matli, a survivor of the SS Mendi
“George Mathibe said to me when I found him, we are about to die, but one of us will live to tell at home how members of the tribe had died with the ship Mendi, and I hope it will be you” at that point Matli gave Mathibe his warm great overcoat, promised to return to him but was unable to do so.
70 years later, Cpl Dave Mannall, writes the following from Ops Modular after the Ratel 90 Infantry Fighting Vehicle next to his took a direct hit from a Mig fighter jet ‘s parachute retarded bomb:
“Frikkie De Jager died from multiple shrapnel injuries before the helicopters arrived, his death was extremely hard for us boys, watching that death slowly unfold over eight hours took a far greater toll on our morale, especially for all of us who had become brothers in arms with him during our year in 61 Mech”.
Although separated by 70 years, all these brave South Africans – Angus Brown, George Mathibe and Frik De Jager share a bond between themselves and that same bond is shared with us as their brothers in arms.
They all died in excruciating circumstances brought about by War but, most importantly, they all died in the arms of men would have gladly given their lives for them instead … and that is a very special bond indeed.
That bond of brotherhood stretches in countless names from Frikkie all the way to Angus, before and after. It is a bond that we all share, and it’s a bond that is never broken.
It really is not the job of Politicians to carry the flame of remembrance for our brothers, nor can they really understand the bond we have for them. There is no political currency to be made out the war dead, to do this is to absolutely dishonor them.
Because of this unique bond – It is our job – the job of the Veterans to carry this solemn flame of remembrance – this RED Poppy – it is our duty to carry that unique thread that links us here today with the men buried in the ground we are standing on and with those South Africans who where sacrificed nearby at Arques-la-Bataille or on the SS Mendi – even those who lie in graves far off in countries like Angola and Namibia from a forgotten war … and we prepare to stand by those who WILL fall in the years to come.
Today! – our bond remains with those South Africans who fell in Delville Wood and those who where never found during the Battle of the Somme and are immortalized on this very monument – and after 100 years OUR bond is as strong as ever.
Lest we forget”