WWI: Fifty two months, fifty two posts – 25 – Devil’s Wood

Delville Wood was the second objective for the attack of the 9thDivision (part of the XIII Corps) during the Somme Offensive. The attack began at dawn on 14 July 1916 but was not secured until 3 September 1916 (during what is know at the Battle of Guillemote).

The wood consisted of a thick tangle of trees, chiefly oak and birch, with dense hazel thickets intersected by grassy rides; covering about 156 acres, if filled the angle formed by the Flers and Ginchy roads, and, as its northern part lay on a reverse slope, the Germans had the advantage of a covered approach from the north-east into the far end of Longeuval, which lay in a shallow depression.”
– OH 1916, Vol II, p 91.

Many of the men involved in this attack came to know it as Devil’s Wood due to the sheer number of men who were lost and the horrors of the fighting. After all, this is what the wood looked like after the assault:

Delville Wood shattered

The South African Brigade (in which my Gran’s step-father, Sgt Frederick Neville Woodger, served) were heavily involved and between 15thand 21stJuly they suffered a massive loss of men as they struggled to obey their orders to capture the wood “at all costs”. The worst day for the brigade was 18thJuly and Private JA Lawson, 3rdSouth African Regiment (the same regiment as Sgt Woodger) described the events as follows:

Our little party had to wait in their cramped position of tortured suspense till nearly 3 pm for the only relief we now looked for – the relief afforded b the excitement of desperate fighting against great odds. The enemy now launched an attack in overwhelming numbers, amid the continued roar of artillery. Once more they found us ready – a small party of utterly worn-out men, shaking off their sleep to stand up in the shallow trench. As the Huns came on they were mowed down – every shot must have told. Our rifles smoked and became unbearably hot; but though the end seemed near, it was not yet. When the Huns wavered and broke, they were reinforced and came on again. We again prevailed and drove them back. Only one Hun crossed out trench, to be shot in the heart a few yards behind it. The lip of our trench told more plainly than I can how near they were to not failing. Beyond, in No Man’s Land, we could do mouthing to estimate the cost of their failure. Exhaustion now did what shell fire and counter-attacks had failed to do, and we collapsed in our trench, spent in body and at last worn out in spirit. The task we had been sent to do was too great for us. What happened during the next two hours or so I do not know. Numbed in all my senses, I gazed vacantly into space, feeling as if the whole thing had been a ghastly nightmare, out of which I was now only waiting complete deliverance. From this state of coma I was awakened by a shell which exploded just over me, and instantaneously I passed into unconsciousness. When I regained consciousness a few minutes after, my first sensation was that of having been thoroughly refreshed by sleep. But on moving I found that the fight for me was over … I tried to rouse my friend, who had fallen face downward beside me. Getting no response, I lifted his head, calling upon him by name, but I could not arouse him. I then began, with pain and difficulty, to walk down the line. I found that the last two hours of shelling had done their work – only six remained alive in the trench. I aroused one sleeper and tole him I had been badly hit, and was going to try and walk out. He face me for a second, and asked me what to do. I said there was nothing to do but carry on, as the orders of Saturday morning had not been countermanded His brave ‘Right-O!’ were the last words I heard there – surely fitting words as the curtain fell for me.”
– quote found in “Delville Wood” by Nigel Cave (p 67–68).

Of the 1,500 men of the South African Infantry who were in the wood on the morning of 18th, only 143 limped out. This is a bronze cast representation on the wall of the South African Forces Museum which is just behind the South African Memorial in Delville Wood:

DW Memorial inside SA WWI museum

Overall, the South African brigade went into Delville Wood with 121 officers and 3,032 other ranks. When the roll was called on 21st July only 29 officers and 751 other ranks answered.

By the time I visited in 2013 the wood had been re-growing for 95 years and looked remarkably unscathed. The Delville Wood Cemetery was opened in 1920, the South African Memorial was unveiled in 1926 (and is now a memorial dedicated to all South Africans who served in all theatres of war), and the South African Forces Museum was opened in 1984.

DW now

DW Cemetary

DW SA memorial

All photos taken by me, 1 October 2013

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