A South African soldier’s diary captures the horror of Delville Wood

The Diary of Walter Giddy

World War 1, Battle of Delville Wood, what better way to understand the carnage witnessed than by reading the writings of the young South Africans tasked to “hold the wood at all costs”.

11659454_467187503450987_8539553676263314124_nWalter Giddy was born at Barkly East, Cape Province, South Africa, in 1895. He was the third son of Henry Richard Giddy and Catherine Octavia Dicks/Giddy. Walter was schooled at Dale College in King Williamstown. He voluntereed, together with friends, for overseas military service in 1915. He served in the 2nd S.A. Infantry Regiment. Having survived the battle of Delville Wood, he was killed by shrapnel on the 12th April 1917 near Fampoux. Walter Giddy is commemorated by a Special Memorial in Point du Jour Military Cemetery, Athies.

His diary was copied by his younger sister Kate Muriel Giddy/Morris.

Extracts from Walter’s Diary

4th July 1916
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…

5th July 1916
… 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.

6th July 1916
Told to hold ourselves in readiness, expecting an attack. Received draft (£5) from Father.

7th July 1916
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.

8th July 1916
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.

9th July 1916
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.

10th July 1916
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.

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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.

11th July 1916
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.

12th July 1916
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.

13th July 1916
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.

14th July 1916
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…

15th/16th July 1916
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.

17th-20th July 1916
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…

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21st July 1916
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.

22nd July 1916
… 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.

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With the courtesy of the nephew of Walter Giddy, John Morris of Knysna, South Africa, and his daughters Kathy Morris/Ansermino of Vancouver, Canada, and Wendy Morris/Delbeke of Deerlijk, Belgium

Feature image: Illustrated London News Lithograph by the Spanish artist – José Simont Guillén (1875-1968)

Insert illustration: Frank Dadd from a description of the Battle of Delville Wood by a British Officer. The Graphic Aug 19, 1916

Insert Image:  Brass relief depicting a group of South Africans leaving Delville Wood after the battle, located at the Delville Wood Museum in France.  Brass by sculpter Danie de Jager.

Walter Giddy image and post content courtesy The Delville Wood memorial – website www.delvillewood.com 

Kimberley baker was a South African WW1 Flying Ace

In addition to the famous Capt. Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & bar, DFC, there was also another significant South African World War 1 flying ace, and this man came from Kimberley, Capt. Andrew Cameron Kiddie DFC, World War I flying ace and the local baker.

Andrew Cameron “Dixie” Kiddie was born in Kimberley on 7 November 1889, his father being Andrew Cameron Kiddie (Senior), a baker from Dundee, Scotland who came to South Africa in 1885. Kiddie Senior bought the bakery in Kimberley from a Mr Roy in 1895 after having worked there for some 9 years and changed the name to ‘Andrew Kiddie and Sons’.

Having served with the 18th South African Mounted Rifles in 1914/15, Andrew Kiddie went to England to join the Royal Flying Corps. as a 2nd Lieutenant, Kiddie received Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate 3719 on a Maurice Farman biplane at military school, Brooklands on 17 October 1916. Posted to 32 Squadron in 1917, he scored his first victory flying a DH5. Later that year, he served as an instructor with the Home Establishment. Among his students was future ace Ira Jones.

In the spring of 1918, Kiddie was back in France flying the SE5a with 74 Squadron, the famed “Tigers”. On the morning of 8 May 1918, just days after scoring his second victory, Kiddie’s flight of six SE5As was pounced on by ten Fokker Tri-Planes. With a badly damaged aircraft, Kiddie was the only pilot to make it back to the aerodrome.

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74 Squadron SE5A flown by Maj Edward Mannock VC, DSO & Two Bar, MC & Bar

He went on to become a flight commander in the summer of 1918 and scored thirteen more victories by the end of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation reading:

A gallant officer, who has proved himself resolute and courageous in aerial combats. He has to his credit six enemy machines and one balloon shot down in flames.

He was also awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.  After the war and his father’s death in 1920, Andrew Cameron “Dixie” Kiddie took over the local bakery in Kimberley.

He died in Kimberley on 27 June 1964 and is buried in the West End cemetery.

Although his parents and everyone in Kimberley knew him as “Cam”, in the RFC and the RAF he was known as “Dixie”.

Pictured is AC “Dixie” Kiddie, the 74 Squadron RAF badge, and senior pilots of 74 Squadron March-June 1918. Seated are: Edward “Mick” Mannock, Keith Caldwell, Everard (adj.), and Wilfred Young, while standing are Ben Roxburgh-Smith and Andrew Kiddie.

Another South African flying ace was to follow Kiddie as a ‘Flying Tiger’ and lead the “Tiger” (74) Squadron during World War 2, that was the famous ‘Sailor Malan’, but that’s another story and ironically he also rests today under a Kimberley sky (Sailor Malan – Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!).

As South Africans we have also produced another famous Baker who went on to become a World War 1 aviation hero, he was the originator of Romany Creams, a very well known South African baked treat. His too is another fascinating story, for more on Capt. Pyott follow this link Connecting Zeppelins, Marlene Dietrich and South Africa’s favourite biscuit – Romany Creams!


Sources include Wikipedia, The Aerodrome, and the Diamond Fields Advertiser.  Kimberley Calls and Recalls.

One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross, DSO and MC

HansenWinning a Victoria Cross for gallantry and surviving the ordeal  has some luck associated to it, and this lucky charm of a VC winner is testament of this. Every Anzac Day we recall the Gallipoli campaign, and we remember the heroes of the campaign –  Australian, New Zealand, British and even in modern times the Turkish heroes too.

One such unassuming hero was the son of a South African merchant, and there is a little mystery as to where he was born, some sources say Durban, Natal Colony and other sources say Dresden, Germany (his parents had visited a Spa there).  In either event Percy Hansen was born into a wealthy and well connected Danish family that had settled in South Africa.  He was born on the 26 October 1890, the son of  Viggo Julius Hansen and Anna Elizabeth (nee Been), Viggo was a merchant running stores in the cities of Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg as well as stores in the Cape Colony generally.

When it came time for his formal education his family moved from South Africa to London around 1901/2.  and Percy initially attended Hazelwood Prep School in Surrey (then a school for 8 to 11 year old boys), then Oxted in Surrey and finally he then went on to Eton College from the 20 September 1904.

He saw a career for himself in the military so when he was about 20 years old his father was naturalised as a British subject (8 December 1910) which enabled  him to join the British Army.  His training took place at The Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

10394532_440161602820244_7669303039082567855_nBy the 4th March 1911 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.   He rose to the rank of Captain and by the summer of 1915 he was with his Regiment landing on the shores of Gallipoli.  Carrying a lucky charm into battle (see featured image), It would be here that he would earn his Victoria Cross.

The lucky charm is one of Hansen’s personal things on display at The Imperial War Museum.  It comprises two tiny metal figures linked together with small metal rings, the larger of the two figures is unclothed except for a nappy and resembles a curly-haired baby, the smaller of the two figures is clothed and wears a leather hat stitched with vegetable fibre.

World War 1

After landing at Suvla Bay on the night of 6 August 1915, the next day the Allies pressed forward across the dry Salt Lake beyond the shore and the 6th Lincoln’s captured Yilghin Burnu, christened “Chocolate Hill” by the Allies. On 9 August the British attempted unsuccessfully to break out of the Suvla Plain, by advancing into the high ground which surrounded it, aiming for Anafarta. Fighting raged round Scimitar Hill, parts of which changed hands several times, but by the end of the day the British had failed to secure it. Many men were left wounded on its slopes and when Turkish artillery set alight the scrub which covered it, Captain P H Hansen, now the adjutant of the 6th Lincoln’s, called for volunteers to help rescue them. Six of the wounded were saved and for this gallant act Captain Hansen was awarded the Victoria Cross. Lance-Corporal Breese, who assisted him, received the DCM.

His Victoria Cross Citation: 

Percy Howard HANSEN VC
Captain, 6th Battalion The Lincolnshire Regiment, 33rd Brigade, 11th Division
Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery on 9th August, 1915, at Yilghin Burnu, Gallipoli Peninsula.

After the second capture of the “Green Knoll” his Battalion was forced to retire, leaving some wounded behind, owing to the intense heat from the scrub which had been set on fire.

When the retirement was effected Captain Hansen, with three or four volunteers, on his own initiative, dashed forward several times some 300 to 400 yards over open ground into the scrub under a terrific fire, and succeeded in rescuing from inevitable death by burning no less than six wounded men.

Military Cross (MC)

However the bravery of this remarkable man did not stop there, he went on to win the Military Cross for bravery in another engagement just one short montb later.

He won the Military Cross for performing a daring solo reconnaissance mission at Sulva Bay, on the night of 9 September 1915, he carried out the mission along the coast, carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He successfully located an important Turkish firing position.

His citation for his Military Cross

4627651289_411x470“For conspicuous gallantry at Suvla Bay on 9th September, 1915. He made a reconnaissance of the coast, stripping himself and carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He swam and scrambled over rocks, which severely cut and bruised him, and obtained some valuable information and located a gun which was causing much damage. The undertaking was hazardous. On one occasion he met a patrol of 12 Turks who did not see him, and later a single Turk whom he lulled. He returned to our lines in a state of great exhaustion”.

By this time he had become the Commanding Officer of battalion when Colonel Phelps went down with dysentery, however Hansen also fell ill about two weeks later and he  evacuated to Egypt (it was here that he learned of his VC award).

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

And there was still more bravery to come. Due to his ill-health, Hansen was eventually transferred to France and appointed Brigade Major to the 170th (2/1st North Lancashire) Brigade.  He remained a staff officer for the rest of the war, during which he served with the II ANZAC Corps. He was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) performing yet another  another daring reconnaissance mission during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

His Distinguished Service Order Citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry at Suvla Bay on 9th September, 1915. He made a reconnaissance of the coast, stripping himself and carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He swam and scrambled over rocks, which severely cut and bruised him, and obtained some valuable information and located a gun which was causing much damage. The undertaking was hazardous. On one occasion he met a patrol of 12 Turks who did not see him, and later a single Turk whom he lulled. He returned to our lines in a state of great exhaustion”.

After World War 1, he attended Staff College in Camberly and he was married on 12 June 1928 at the Register Office, Chelsea Town Hall, London to Marie Rose, daughter of G. Emsell; and he had one daughter.

World War 2

Pery Hansen VC DSO MC was still in service at the outbreak of World War 2. On the outbreak of war in  September 1939 he was appointed to Acting Assistant Quartermaster General 55th Division and then 12th Corps.  In 1941 he received the rank of Brigadier and on the 24th February 1942-43 he became the Commander of Belfast, Northern Ireland area.

By the 15th May 1943 he was appointed as the Sub District Commander Ashford, Kent and by August 1943 he rose to Head of Civilian Affairs unit for Norway under SHAEF -.Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force – the headquarters of the Commander of Allied forces in north west Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At the end of the Second World War he finally retired from the Army – 19 January 1946, in 1950 he was a member of the Guard of Honour to mark visit of Winston Churchill to Copenhagen, Denmark.

He was awarded the Royal Order of St Olav by Norway. He was also awarded the Legion of Merit by the United States and the citation for his award reads: –

“Brigadier Percy H. Hansen, British Army, in cooperation with the forces of the Army of the United States, distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services, as Head of the Civil Affairs Unit, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Mission to Norway from August 1943 to July 1945. His keen understanding of the problems involved in administering Civil Affairs in a liberated country, and the efficient plans of organisation and operation which he established, enabled the Allies to successfully undertake its mission to Norway. His contribution to the military effort reflects high credit upon himself, and the military service of the United States and their Allies.”

Medals and Honours

His medal rack is quite something:
VCPercyHowardHansenMedals

  • Victoria Cross (VC)
  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
  • Military Cross (MC)
  • 1914-15 Star
  • British War Medal (1914-20)
  • Victory Medal (1914-19) + Mid Oakleaf
  • General Service Medal (1918-62)
    • 1 clasp: “Palestine”
  • France & Germany Star
  • Defence Medal (1939-45)
  • War Medal (1939-45)
  • King George VI Coronation Medal (1937)
  • Croix de Guerre (France)
  • Officer, Legion of Merit (USA)
  • Commander, Royal Order of St Olaf (Norway)

He had 5 Mentions in Dispatches in total in his very distinguished military career. Now that is one very Lucky Charm indeed.

Death

Like his birth there is also a little controversy over the place of his death, some sources say Brigadier Percy Howard Hansen VC DSO MC died on the 12th February 1951 in Kensington, London, other sources say he died of pneumonia in Copenhagen. There is reference to his funeral been held in London, however in either event his ashes were eventually interred in family vault, Garnisons Kirkegard, Copenhagen. Section R. Row K. Grave 3.

Extract published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. Wikipedia and the Image copyright of his lucky charm belongs to the Imperial War Museum.

Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Did you know that “The Comrades Marathon” has a shared spirit and a shared history with The South African Legion of Military Veterans?

As the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa, the South African Legion was formed at the 1921 Empire Conference (28 February to March 4) in Cape Town as the British Empire Services League (BESL, South Africa) by joining two organisations together – the “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association” and the “Comrades of the Great War”, which co-incidentally is the organisation after which the term “Comrades” in Comrades Marathon is given.  In the course of history the “BESL South Africa” came to be called “The South African Legion of Military Veterans”.

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In the same year – 1921 – Vic Clapham, a World War 1 veteran himself approached the “Comrades of the Great War” with a vision that would result in the worlds greatest ultra marathon nearly one hundred years later.

His idea was that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban without great difficulty. Clapham, like the Legion, also wanted to remember those who had fallen in the war, and he felt the best way to honour this was by the ultimate testing of body and mind, and triumphing.

The Natal athletics body was not interested in the idea of a ultra marathon, and thought Clapham was quite mad, so undaunted by the set-back Clapham approached the British Empire Services League of South Africa (now known as the South African Legion), and asked permission to stage the race under their auspices. They ultimately agreed and financially underwrote the first race.

The first 1921 Comrades Marathon was run by Vic Clapham and included a field of 34  runners, of them Sixteen runners completed the 87, 9km (55 mile) downhill race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The race was won by Bill Rowan who finished in a time of 8:59:00 and his name is now given to the sub 9 hour medal in today’s race.

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Left to Right “Modern” Comrades medals

A gold medal for the top 10 finishers
A Wally Hayward for a sub-6 hour time
A Silver for a sub-7:30 time
A Bill Rowan for sub-9
A Bronze for sub-11 and finally
A Vic Clapham for sub-12

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextAlthough The Comrades Marathon is an independent commercial concern now, The South African Legion has continued its association to the Comrades Marathon over the  years and encourages all participants to wear a Remembrance Poppy in recognition of this history and the sacrifice of the fallen.  In this respect the Comrades Marathon is still in fact a “living memorial” to the Great War (World War 1).

Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, this chartered troopship – the SS Mendi – containing a full battalion of South African Native Labour Corps men and officers on its way to the western front was rammed in fog conditions in the English Channel. The SS Mendi sank in 25 minutes with the loss of 616 South Africans and 30 British.

mendi-image-courtesy-of-john-gribble-collection

The greatest tragedy was yet to come as due to racial prejudice this event was somewhat down-played through the years and not enough recognition given to these men, something the South African Legion and the South African National Defence Force is now working very hard at redressing.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Darro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

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SS Daro

Darro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha who called them together to die like warriors and brothers – what he said is now legendary.

He said “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

They took off their boots, picked up imaginary spears and shields and performed an African war dance, a dance of death.

Thus, together, as brothers they chanted and danced on the tilting deck, facing death with unparalleled bravery until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

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British officers going aboard the Mendi in Calabar, November 1916.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived. The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

The sinking was described first hand by Captain Lewes Hertslet of the Royal Army Medical Corps who survived the sinking when he was pulled out of the water by black South African troops and gave his account of the incident in 1940.

“I remember the jump into the bitter cold sea, the sinking below the surface, and the coming up again, the swimming to the boat that had been let down from our ship, and then cut adrift,  I felt my hands gripping the side as the rowers drew alongside us.” Hertslet remembers himself saying “Goodbye, my strength has gone” and then feeling the strong hands of a black trooper gripping his wrists and holding him up. “Then several others caught me around the chest and shoulders and dragged me, nearly dead, into the boat and so I am saved. Nearly 200 others were also saved, and all of us who are still alive remember the Bantu and Europeans who went bravely to their deaths on that black day of the last war.”

Although the then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the South African Parliament to attention in remembrance of the tragedy and the impact to the community, convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable.

Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

After World War 1, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did (i.e. commissioned and non commissioned South African Labour Corps officers – whites only).

The War Medal was issued by the British to all who participated in World War 1 fighting for Britain and her Empire. The decision not to award it to Black South African servicemen was a South African government decision and South African government alone. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals, as the government in these territories approved the issue.

Initial approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck (this initiative and continuous drive must come from the South African government, time will tell whether they will achieve this), a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


The British War Medal with King George V bust, the medal in question and King George V who is seen here inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

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Rev. Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha (1852-1917) – see insert picture, our hero who called all to the death dance on the SS Mendi was a rather remarkable man – he was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and ultimately the legendary hero in the Mendi disaster.

As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu and an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

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This is a recent picture of a diver on the wreck of he SS Mendi and an artefact recovered from the wreck.

The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

For South Africans this is especially important as there are very few physical reminders of this tragedy, such as this photograph BASNC plate courtesy of David Wendes.

Some small things can be seen on the wreck, such as some of the plates that the men would have eaten off. It was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company on some of these plates that allowed divers to identify the wreck as the Mendi.

For many years in South Africa the only memorial to these men was a life ring with the words “SS Mendi” on it on a railing in Simonstown, South Africa and the Hollybrook Cemetery Memorial which listed all the names of the SS Mendi missing in Southampton, England.

Happily this suppression of Black South African contribution to WW1 is no-longer the case, after 1994 memorial statues to the SS Mendi memorials now exist in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Memorial services are held countrywide and form part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day).  Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the Mendi have been issued, and the South African Navy has named two ships – the SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft).  Memorial services are also regularly held overseas in Southampton England and Noordwijk Netherlands.  A dedicated exhibit now also takes up place at Delville Wood in France.

The image to the left of the Atteridgeville memorial is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela unveiling the memorial to the SS Mendi in Soweto, South Africa.

The immediate recognition of this event by the British government in 1995 was one of the first acts by the Queen on her return to South Africa – she had last been in South Africa in 1947 and was prevented from visiting again as South Africa had “resigned” from the Commonwealth in the intervening years of Apartheid.

Once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, such was the importance and urgent need to recognise this tragic event as a fundamental building block to nation building it took centre stage of Royal visit not seen in South Africa for 47 years.

The Centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi passed in February 2017, and after all was said and done by way of ceremonies aboard the SAS Amatola and at Hollybrook in England and all the speeches and praises by visiting politicians to the United Kingdom completed, it was the military veterans (who were largely left out of the fanfare), who continue to carry this flame of remembrance for their ‘brothers’.

This point was most poignantly expressed by The South African Legion of Military Veterans in deed, after the SANDF and fanfare returned home, the SA Legion performed a most subtle but very striking dedication when the wreck was dived in an official dedication ceremony held in August 2017 by the SA Legion; England Branch Chairman – Claudio Chistè (a ex SA Navy Diver) doing the honours.  They then placed a plaque on the wreck itself in dedication and in permanent memory of their ‘brothers’.

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South African “Springboks” and Australian “Diggers” in WW1 – the origin of nicknames.

Few (if any) World War One images are available which show the unique bond shared by South African and Australian/New Zealand troops, celebrating our common camaraderie during the World War but this in one – Paris, France. September 1918. A group of Anzac “Diggers” and South African “Springboks” enjoying eating fresh fruit.

The South African soldiers where known universally as “Springboks” because of their cap badges which featured a Springbok and the motto “Union is Strength” and in Dutch “Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

The motto was that of the newly formed Union of South Africa and referred to the strength that can be obtained by combining the Boer Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) with the two British Colonies (Cape and Natal) – it also signified the Union of Afrikaans and English speaking South Africans in a common South African identity. The nickname “Springboks” stayed with South African servicemen and women throughout the First and Second World Wars.

This tradition was however gradually discouraged when the SADF was formed in the 1950’s and the affectionate name for South African soldiers was changed to “Troopies” (Afrikaans for Trooper) instead – the prevailing Afrikaner Nationalist politics of the day wanted to downplay South African service to the British crown in WW1 and WW2 due to prevailing anger felt by nationalists over harsh British tactics used during the Boer War.

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Funnily, the Australian soldiers  (called “Diggers”), using typical army humour, dubbed the South African cap badge – “Goat in a Porthole”.  The Australian nickname – “Diggers” also comes from the First World War and stems from their reputation of digging trenches – General William Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC Corps adding in postscript: “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe” – and the nickname stuck.

“Digger” remains the nickname of an Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldier to this day and Australians have adopted it as part of their national value system to mean “mateship” and “pride”.

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However due to more political changes in South Africa, the erosion of the nickname in the SADF was one thing – the use of the “Springbok” in sport and other institutions was quite another and many South Africans came to associate it to Apartheid.

For this reason it’s very unlikely that modern South African soldiers will carry the nickname ever again – which is quite sad when you really think about it – as it was never intended to turn out that way and we’ve lost a nugget of heritage forged in camaraderie and war.

400 shells/min – upwards to 600/min fell on the Springbok positions, imagine “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

Leading up to the 100 year commemorations of the Somme offensive and the Battle of Delville Wood this year we remind ourselves of the hell endured by the South Africans fighting in the wood, known at the time as “Springboks” – and nothing says it more than seeing the mountainous piles of artillery shells fired at them.

This World War 1 feature photo from the Herr Woerner Eugen Collection, shows the German side defending the South African offensive at Delville Wood, this German soldier is overseeing the shell case dump opposite the wood.

As part of the initial Somme offensive, the British under Major-General Furse of the 9th Division, had to secure the advance on Longueval, but to do this, Delville Wood (a small wood directly next to Longuval) had to be taken first.  Maj Gen Furse had no option but to commit his last reserve—the 1st South African Brigade to do it.

The 1st South African Brigade under Brigadier General Henry Lukin was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July 1916 and “hold it at all costs”.

The first attack progressed smoothly and by 07:00 the South Africans had secured the southern half of the wood,  by 14:40 the whole wood had been secured, with the exception of a strong German position in the north west adjoining Longueval.  The South African troops where now spread along the entire perimeter in groups forming strong–points supported by machine–guns.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, occupying a salient with only the south western base being in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the perimeter of the wood was made difficult by roots and remnants of tree trunks from the previous day’s artillery fire, making the preparation of proper trenches impossible, with the South Africans having to make do with shallow shell scrapes. With unprepared trenches, a narrow base to their salient and facing 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 in the wood. It has been estimated that at its peak the rate of firing exceeded 400 shells per minute – even at one stage some references say 600 shells per minute were been fired at the South African positions. To think this relentless volley of shelling was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometre in size.

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.

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood  – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

“…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

The battle is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, comparable to those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme. On the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “…the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

It was this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic 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.

 

Image copyright: Herr Woerner Eugen Collection – Imperial War Museum, Images of the wood copyright to the Imperial War Museum.