“…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

This is arguably one of the most highest decorated and bravest South African characters you’ll ever meet, a man with a true warrior’s heart.

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Lt. Col John Sherwood Kelly VC, CMG, DSO.

Lieutenant Colonel John “Jack” Sherwood Kelly VC CMG DSO joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in July 1915 when he was a Major.  The entry into the Regimental history reflects an extraordinary character and neatly sums him up:

“A new Major has joined us. The new Major was a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

The four-times-wounded Kelly was not a Regular officer but a formidable and experienced commander with a combat record going back to the 1896 Matabele Revolt. During his military career he achieved fame and notoriety for his mixture of heroic exploits and explosive temperament.

His Story, the early years.

The twin sons John Sherwood Kelly and Hubert Henry Kelly were born on 13 January 1880 in Lady Frere in the Cape Colony in South Africa as the son of James Kelly of Irish decent. James Kelly was at one time mayor of Lady Frere and believed in justice for all and was himself a hero. On 08 December 1876 James Kelly saved the lives of 25 people when the Italian ship, SS Nova Bella, ran into trouble at the St John’s river mouth.

John (also called “Jack”) attended the Queenstown Grammar School, Dale College in King William’s Town and St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. At school John was keener on the outdoor activities such as horse riding and boxing, in which he excelled, than school work. During this period John first lost his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, when he was only 12 and a year later in 1893 he lost his twin brother Hubert in a riding accident.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War and the Matabele Revolt

In 1896, age 16, John enlisted in the British South Africa Police (BSAP) and saw action in the Matabele revolt in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). With the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) he enlisted in the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers and saw action as a Trooper in the Relief of Mafeking as a Private in Colonel Plumer’s Column.

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Boer Forces with a 94 Pounder ‘Long Tom’ besieging Mafeking

On 08 January 1901 John was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Imperial Light Horse (ILH) and later joined Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts as a Lieutenant and saw action in Rhodesia, Orange Free State and Transvaal. He was twice mentioned in despatches during this time.

After the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) John returned to civilian life were he worked in his father’s store, but this was not what John had in mind, he was a warrior at heart  – and what he does next is an extraordinary journey which sees him take part in battles all over the world.

Somaliland 

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The ‘Mad’ Mullah

Having resigned his commission he volunteered to serve with the British forces again in Somaliland for the 3rd Expedition against Haji Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (known to the British as Mad Mullah) over the period November 1902 to July 1903.

South Africa sent a British Mounted Infantry Company (141 men) from the 4th Bn The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, commanded by Captain G.C. Shakerley, and a Boer Mounted Infantry Company, known as the Somaliland Burgher Corps (100 men) commanded by Captain W. Bonham DSO.   The men brought their own horses and 50% spares for remounts.  In a strange twist, John Sherwood-Kelly joined the Boer Corps. During the period he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

In 1904 he was reduced to a Trooper again and returned to South Africa where he worked at first as a trader and later as a recruiter of native labour in the Transkei. In 1905/6 he again saw action during the Zululand Bambatha Rebellion.

Over the period 1906 to 1912 John was involved in the family business in Butterworth which was involved in the recruiting labour for the mines.

The Irish ‘Home Rule’ Crisis 

Finding a lasting solution for the Irish crisis remained a challenge for the British and in 1910 another attempt failed. The situation deteriorated and by 1912/13 the call went out for “all unionists” to return to Ireland. Being from Irish descent John and another brother of his, Edward answered the call and travelled to Ireland where they both joined the Ulster Volunteer Force.

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Ulster Unionists gather during the Home Rule Crisis in 1910

With war clouds gathering over Europe late 1913 and early 1914 the Irish crisis dropped on the list of priorities and by July 1914 John and Edward travelled to London. John being a man that liked adventure saw the gathering of war clouds as an opportunity for him to become involved.

John soon joined the 2nd Battalion King Edward’s Horse as a Private. With a chest full of medals it was not long before John was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. During this time John met Nellie Green and soon John and Nellie were active in the London social life.

Gallipoli Campaign and his DSO

During the Gallipoli campaign a Jack Sherwood-Kelly, would command the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and would be decorated with a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions.

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Kings Own Scottish Borderers on the offensive during the Gallipoli Campaign

On 21 October 1915 John’s lungs got badly burned by gas from the Turks and he was evacuated to the hospital, but returned to the frontline on 28 October. After his return John led his men to in a frontal attack to capture a Turkish trench that was threatening his own forces. Only 6 men returned and John was wounded three times. For this John was awarded the Distinguish Service Order (DSO). The first South African to be awarded the DSO during World War One.

During his leave to recover his wounds, John married Nellie on 22 April 1916. Early May 1916 saw John recalled to the front once again in command of a battalion, this time the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as part of the 29th Division preparing for the upcoming Battle of the Somme.

The Somme Offensive

In France, leading his Battalion from the front during the fighting in the Beaumont Hamel sector John was shot through the lung and he was saved by Jack Johnson until he could be evacuated back to London.

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Officers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers take a tea break during the Somme Offensive

During July 1916 John and his wife Nellie embarked on a recruiting tour to South Africa where John was received as hero. On his return to England in September 1916 John immediately reported for duty. John remained in England and on 29 November 1916 received his Distinguish Service Order (DSO) from King George V.

During November 1916 John was posted to the 3rd Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers as a Major. Very soon after arrival requested to be transferred to the 10th Norfolk Reserve Battalion

On 01 January 1917 John Sherwood Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Order of St Micheal and St George, Third Class or Companion, post nominal CMG. It is awarded for service to the Empire, partly for his recruiting drive in South Africa.

Ypres and Passchendaele

In February 1917 John was again posted to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as Officer Commanding. Early part of 1917 saw a new British offensive in Vimmy and Arras which was followed by offensives in Ypres and Passchendaele. A smaller offensive was planned for November 1917 in the Cambrai sector, using the new weapon “the Mark 1 Tank”.

On 20 November 1917, the opening day of the first Battle of Cambrai, 87th Brigade advanced on Marcoing, three miles south-west of Cambrai. 1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, crossed the Canal de St Quentin by the lock east of Marcoing copse.

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Men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advancing in the Cambrai sector 20th November 1917

For his gallantry during the crossing of the canal and in leading the attack against the enemy defences on the far side, Acting Lieutenant Colonel John Sherwood-Kelly was awarded the highest accolade for bravery – the Victoria Cross. (VC)

Two companies of 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment, crossed the canal by the railway bridge at Marcoing and one at the lock by the railway station at the north-eastern outskirts of the town. During the action Sergeant C. E .Spackman was awarded the VC for attacking a machine-gun which threatened this advance.

In the same action John was also awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). His citation reads as follows:

“For most conspicuous bravery and fearless leading when a party of men of another unit detailed to cover the passage of the canal by his battalion were held up on the near side of the canal by heavy rifle fire directed on the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Sherwood-Kelly at once ordered covering fire, personally led the leading company of his battalion across the canal and, after crossing, reconnoitred under heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire the high ground held by the enemy.

The left flank of his battalion advancing to the assault of this objective was held up by a thick belt of wire, where upon he crossed to that flank, and with a Lewis gun team, forced his way under heavy fire through obstacles, got the gun into position on the far side, and covered the advance of his battalion through the wire, thereby enabling them to capture the position.

Later, he personally led a charge against some pits from which a heavy fire was being directed on his men, captured the pits, together with five machine guns and forty six prisoners, and killed a large number of the enemy.

The great gallantry displayed by this officer throughout the day inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and it was mainly due to his example and devotion to duty that his battalion was enabled to capture and hold their objective”.

The Germans launched a counter attack which was successfully repelled by the 29th Division during which time Acting Captain A. M. Lascelles, another South African hero, of the 14th Durham Light Infantry who was also awarded a Victoria Cross (VC). John returned to a hospital in London having been gassed again.

On 11 January 1918 the London Gazette reported that John had been awarded the Victoria Cross which he received from King George on 23 January 1918 at Buckingham Palace.

North Russia

After the end of World War 1, John Sherwood-Kelly took command of the second Battalion of the Hampsire Regiment in the North Russian Campaign in July 1919.  Here he came under criticism from the British Command in Russia, firstly for withdrawing his troops from an attack against the Bolsheviks at Trotsia, he cited improper terrain to attack (it was a mash), no communication and stiff resistance from the Bolsheviks.

But the criticism did not stop there, in 1919 the British developed a new and more effective gas, they chose to trial it on the Bolsheviks. John Sherwood-Kelly was now in command of a very mixed outfit on the railway front as part of the Vologda Force, and he was ordered to carry out the attack on the Bolsheviks under the cover of a large ground discharge of this new poisonous gas.  John objected, possibly because of his experience of gas and wounds he had sustained from it, but also because he felt the objects of the raid could be achieved by other means which did not put his men to overt risk.

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Troops of the Hampshire Regiment in Vladivostok 1919

The gas attack did not take place, and John was relieved of his command and returned to Britain.  On arrival, he promptly went to the press and publicly criticised the British campaign in North Russia in the Daily Express and Sunday Express.

Incensed that such a highly decorated officer should be so critical, Churchill wanted an example made, and against all advise not to , John Sherwood Kelly was court marshalled on the 6th October 1919 on the grounds of contravening The Kings Regulations (which restricted officers from dealing with the media on military matters).

John pleaded guilty, but also entered a plea in mitigation, which read:

“I plead with you to believe that the action I took was to protect my men’s lives against needless sacrifice and to save the country from squandering wealth it could ill afford.”

He was found guilty and severely reprimanded. A man of very strong principle he resigned from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel just two weeks later and entered politics.

Politics

John Kelly-Sherwood stood for the Conservative Party and took part in two General Elections for the constituency of Clay Cross in Derbyshire. His controversial and outspoken style even struck a chord among hardened socialist supporters in this largely mining seat. He was defeated in the 1923 elections and again in 1924. However, true to his character, during the election rallies, Kelly again hit the national headlines having thrashed some hecklers at Langwith.

In later years, Kelly worked for Bolivia Concessions Limited building roads and railways across Bolivia and went big game hunting in Africa where he contracted malaria and died on the 18th August 1931.  He was granted a full military funeral and is buried at Brookwood Military cemetery in Surrey, England.

An incredibly brave man who stood head and shoulders above his peers, his military career and military exploits are nothing short of impressive, a proper leader of men and a pure South African warrior of the highest order. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg for anyone who wants to learn more about South Africa’s finest.


Researched by Peter Dickens with extract from The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen, The VC and GC Association in 2013, Wikipedia and Charles Ross’ article for The South African Legion with grateful thanks. Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum.

 

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 

Springbok Valour

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.

14495490_644871705682565_2175144210739678305_n“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

14502685_644871315682604_1764889988260960146_nI 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”

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The ‘2 minutes silence’ is a South African gift to the Act of Remembrance

Many people do not know that the two minutes silence and its association to Armistice Day (11/11/11) or Remembrance Sunday has a South African origin.  It is one of our greatest gifts to humankind, yet most South Africans are completely oblivious of it.

The featured image taken in 1918 is a rare and unique one, it shows South African civilians stopping what they are doing in the middle of Cape Town and standing to attention for two minutes silence, signalled when the noon day gun was fired.  Not common today in Cape Town but a daily occurrence during war years.  So how did this unique practice become a worldwide standard for remembrance?

Read on and learn a little why South Africans should stand proud of what they have given the world; when on Remembrance Sunday and on Armistice day in November, the western world stands silent in remembrance for two minutes … and take heart that this entire ceremony has South African roots.

The end of Word War 1 – Armistice Day 11/11/11

BgtOUCICMAAvwfLAt 05.30 in the morning of 11 November 1918 the Germans signed the Armistice Agreement in a remote railway siding in the heart of the forest of Compiègne. Soon wires were humming with the message : ‘Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour…’.Thus, at 11.00 on 11 November 1918 the guns on the Western Front in France and Flanders fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare, warfare that had witnessed the most horrific casualties.World War One (then known as the Great War) had ended.

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South African troops in a support trench on the Western Front, Fresenberg Ridge, 22 September 1917

The time and date attained an important significance in the post war years and the moment that hostilities ceased became universally associated with the remembrance of those that died in that and subsequent wars and conflicts. The Two Minutes silence to remember all who paid the supreme sacrifice was a result of this expression… and it all began in Cape Town, South Africa.

Cape Town’s unique remembrance during WW1 

When the first casualty lists recording the horrific loss of life in the Battles of the Somme were announced in Cape Town, Mr JA Eagar, a Cape Town businessman, suggested that the congregation of the church he attended observe a special silent pause to remember those in the South African casualty list. It was the church also attended by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick the famous South African author of “Jock of the Bushveld”.

In May 1918, the Mayor of Cape Town, Councillor H. Hands (later Sir Harry Hands) at the suggestion made by Mr. RR Brydon, a Cape Town City Councillor, in a letter to the Cape Times initiated a period of silence to remember the events unfolding on the battlefields of Europe and the sacrifices being made there. Mr Brydon’s son, Maj Walter Brydon, three times wounded and once gassed, was killed on 12 April 1918.

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Cape Town’s noon day gun

The pause would follow the firing of the Noon Gun (a tradition instituted in 1902 and fired everyday at 12:00 from Signal Hill), simply put the gun was the most audible signal with which to co-ordinate the event across the city of Cape Town.

The boom of the gun signalling the midday pause of three minutes was heard for the first time on 14 May 1918.  It became the signal for all activity in the Mother City to come to a halt. Everything came to a dead stop while everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer for those in the trenches in Flanders.

As soon as the city fell silent, a trumpeter on the balcony of the Fletcher and Cartwright’s Building on the corner of Adderley and Darling Streets sounded the Last Post, the melancholy strains of which reverberated through the city. Reveille was played at the end of the midday pause.

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Rare photo of the midday pause in Cape Town – 1918

Articles in the newspapers described how trams, taxis and private vehicles stopped, pedestrians came to a halt and most men bared their heads. People stopped what they were doing at their places of work and sat or stood silently. The result of the Mayor’s appeal exceeded all expectations.

One journalist witnessing the midday pause described a young woman dressed in black, who came to a halt on the pavement and furtively dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “One could not but wonder what personal interest she had in the act of remembrance”, he wrote.

A few days later Sir Harry, whose son, Capt Richard Hands, a member of ‘Brydon’s Battery’, had been mortally wounded in the same battle in which Maj Brydon had been killed, decided to shorten the duration of the pause to two minutes, “in order to better retain its hold on the people”.

In terms of the meaning of “two minutes” it was also argued that the first minute is for thanksgiving for those that survived war and the second minute is to remember the fallen.

There is even an eye-witness account of the midday pause in 1918 which eloquently outlines the event – see the Observation Post story on it by following this link: The 2 minutes silence; an eye witness account of South Africa’s unique gift to Remembrance

The midday pause continued daily in Cape Town and was last observed on 17 January 1919, but was revived in Cape Town during the Second World War.  This is another rare photo of soldiers and civilians paused and standing at attention for two minutes of silence on Cape Town’s streets in 1942.

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Rare photo of the midday pause of Remembrance in Cape Town during World War 2 – 1942

Today, the tradition of the midday gun has continued, as any Capetonian can attest – regular as clockwork it goes off at 12:00, and although the pause is no longer part of the ritual in Cape Town, the idea of the ‘pause’ for two minutes remembrance has survived.

That this ritual survived is by no means in a small way either, but in such a way that it now concludes how we as modern human beings in the western world remember the war dead and sacrifice.  It started when it became the official two minute ‘pause’ throughout Britain and the British Commonwealth from 11 November 1919, and here is how that came about, and once again – surprise – we have a South African from Cape Town right at the centre of it.

Step in Sir Percy Fitzpatrick 

Now, back to Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.  He had been impressed by the period of silence kept in his local church after the horrific loss of life at Delville Wood became known and the casualty lists had been read out. He had a personal interest in the daily remembrance as his son, Maj Nugent Fitzpatrick, battery commander of 71st Siege Battery, was killed on 14 December 1917 by a chance shell fired at long range.

Sir Percy was understandably deeply affected by the loss of his favourite son and was also so moved by the dignity and effectiveness of the two minute pause in Cape Town that the date and time of the Armistice inspired him to an annual commemoration on an Imperial basis.

The King Decrees 

Sir Percy then wrote to Lord Milner and described the silence that fell on the city during this daily ritual. Taking into consideration that the guns of war finally fell silent at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month (November), Sir Percy felt that the idea of observing the two-minute silence at that time and on that date, would give the Act of Homage great impact, and proposed that this became an official part of the annual service on Armistice Day.

The meaning behind Sir Percy’s proposal was stated as:

It is due to the women, who have lost and suffered and borne so much, with whom the thought is ever present.
It is due to the children that they know to whom they owe their dear fought freedom.
It is due to the men, and from them, as men.
But far and away, above all else, it is due to those who gave their all, sought no recompense, and with whom we can never re-pay – our Glorious and Immortal Dead.

Sir Percy’s letter was received by Lord Milner on November 4, 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on November 5, and was immediately approved by King George V.

George V, then King of the United Kingdom, shortly afterwards on the 7th November 1919, proclaimed by decree.

“Tuesday next, November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years and the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the meaning of the Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.

To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of their feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice comes into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activitiy that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.

Sir Percy when he heard the news that his suggestion had reached the King stated: “I was so stunned by the news that I could not leave the hotel. An hour or two afterwards I received a cable from Lord Long of Wexhall: ‘Thank you. Walter Long.’ Only then did I know that my proposal had reached the King and had been accepted and that the Cabinet knew the source.”

Later, Sir Percy was thanked for his suggestion of the two minute silence by Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary who wrote:

Dear Sir Percy,
The King, who learns that you are shortly to leave for South Africa, desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the Two Minute Pause on Armistice Day was due to your initiation, a suggestion readily adopted and carried out with heartfelt sympathy throughout the Empire.
Signed – Stamfordham

And so the tradition of 2 minutes of silence during remembrance occasions was born, a unique South African gift to world, a simple peaceful gesture that in deep solitude remembers the end of all war – not the beginning.

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Story and images researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyrights include The Imperial War Museum and “The Celebration of Peace” Booklet, issued in 1919 by the Cape Town Peace Celebrations committee for distribution throughout the Schools of the Cape Peninsula.