Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 11, 2014

South Africa on the Somme: The Battle for Delville Wood

Our 500th Posting

Editor's Note:  I have invited friend, honorary "Old Contemptible", and regular contributor Jim Patton to provide our 500th article on ROADS TO THE GREAT WAR.

South Africa on the Somme: The Battle for Delville Wood
by Jim Patton

Depiction of South African Troops after the Battle Displayed at the Delville Wood Memorial 

In July 1916 the Battle for Delville Wood, part of the larger Battle of the Somme, lasted for six days and five nights.  It was particularly famous for the gallant service of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, although other British units also served there with distinction. It was a furious and largely pointless action, with attacks and counterattacks alike falling short. The wood, along with the ruined village of Longveul, was a German strongpoint, with many machine guns that had stopped a cavalry charge, so Haig decided that it must be cleared by the bayonet. With great determination the South Africans pushed in and gained most of the wood, except only the northwestern part. This left them holding a salient, and the Germans counterattacked. An estimated 24,000 German artillery shells struck the 154-acre wood during the fight; at one time the rate was over 400 per minute. The salient was defended at great cost; of 3,155 men in the brigade 2,536 were casualties, and of those actually serving in the wood, only 143 came out.  In this offensive the wood was not fully captured until 3 September. This was one of the bloodiest examples of hand-to-hand close quarter infantry fighting on the Western Front.

The 1st SA Brigade was formed in September 1915. Due to South African law, the existing army couldn't serve outside of South Africa, except in defense of its borders, as was the case in German Southwest Africa, where Germans even crossed into South African territory.

South African Cap Badge

To get around this prohibition a voluntary scheme was devised, following the example of the British ‘Imperial Service’ of the 2nd South African war (1899-1902). Members of military units were encouraged to join a new ‘South African Overseas Expeditionary Force’, which was technically a British formation. This force had several brigades, but only the 1st served on the Western Front, as a part of the 9th (Scottish) Division. . 

The 1st Brigade had four battalion-sized "regiments", each with four companies. Among these were:  ‘C’ Co. of the 1st Reg’t. , drawn from the 7th Infantry (Kimberley Regiment). Formed in 1876, this was one of the oldest units of the South African forces, having earned five battle honors prior to the war of 1899-1902. Not officially a Scottish regiment, the unit has a marked Scottish heritage (it even has a pipe band) and bears the St. Andrew’s Cross on the badge. The diamond on the badge honors an antecedent (the Diamond Fields Horse), and the laurels are for the Defense of Kimberley in 1899-1900. In total the regiment has 22 honors, not counting the 15 honors won by the 1st SA Infantry in WW1. Pvt. WF “Manne” Faulds of the 7th won the only South African VC for Delville Wood, which was also the first South African VC of the war. His medal was stolen from a museum in 1994 and remains missing. The 7th was the most heavily engaged SA unit in WW2 and was also the first SA army unit to voluntarily integrate. Today it is a reserve unit but has participated in two UN Peacekeeping forces.

Kimberly Regiment Badge

"A" Co. of the 4th Regt. was drawn from the 6th Infantry (Duke of Connaught and Strathearn's Own Cape Town Highlanders), which was formed in 1885. In its history this unit has earned 22 battle honors, not including the 15 honors won by A Co. 4th SA Infantry in WW1.  In WW2 the unit was at El Alamein and Monte Cassino, and continues today as a reserve component of the SA National Defence Forces.

"B" and "C" Co.s of the 4th were made up of men from the 8th Infantry (Transvaal Scottish), which was formed in 1902 by a future Duke of Atholl.  The unit has 17 honors plus the aforementioned 15 won in WWI. The badge bears the St. Andrew’s Cross, the Order of the Thistle (the Scottish Knights) and the inscription Alba nam Buadh or "Well done, Scottish”. Informally called "the Black Watch of South Africa", it is active as a reserve unit.

8th Infantry (Transvaal Scottish) Badge

Additional honors awarded to both regiments for actions in the border conflicts (1966-89) were repudiated in 1994.


  1. The patch behind the badge of the Kimberley Regiment is incorrect. The scarlet (top), buff and black strips should be horizontal behind the badge.

    1. The colors in the photo aren't true. The bars are actually orange, white and blue, which were the principal colors on the old South African flag. The placement of the backing is as it was when I purchased the badge.