The fighting that took place within Delville Wood was fierce in the extreme. By the time the fighting finished not one tree in Delville Wood was left untouched and the immediate landscape was littered with just the stumps of what had been trees. It was not surprising that soldiers who fought there referred to it as ‘Devil’s Wood’ as opposed to Delville Wood.
The attack on Delville Wood was just one part of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 – Haig’s infamous ‘Great Push’ to end the war on the Western Front. With the exception of the French, the attacks by Allied soldiers across the Somme front were a failure both in the short term and long term.
Delville Wood had to be cleared of German forces dug in there as they would have represented a major danger to the rear of Allied forces once they had moved on from the area and towards the German’s ‘Switch Line’. However, this planning assumed that the attack across the Somme battlefront would be a success.
The attack on Delville Wood started on July 15th. Just over 3,000 men from the South African 1st Infantry Brigade were tasked with clearing the wood and was ordered to take the wood “at all costs”. As with many other attacks, the wood was heavily shelled by Allied artillery before infantry troops went in.
The southern sector of the wood was quickly cleared of Germans. The officer overseeing the attack, Tanner, reported back to his headquarters in the evening of the 15th that all of the wood had been taken except the northwest near the town of Longueval. In fact, the South Africans were in a very precarious position as they faced over 7,000 Germans. The artillery shelling had pushed over trees and exposed their roots. This made it very difficult to dig trenches. The South Africans were not only up against a larger force but had to survive in ‘trenches’ that had little depth and gave minimal protection especially against German artillery attacks.
The terrain all but dictated that most of the combat within the wood was hand-to-hand fighting and casualties were high. The terrain would have made it difficult to move the wounded back to a medical station. However, such was the ferocity of the fighting that for every one South African wounded, four were killed. The South Africans fought within the wood until July 19th when they were relieved. Their casualties were some of the worst seen on the Western Front.
A soldier who fought at Delville Wood and survived described it as follows:
“Every semblance of a trench seemed full of dead-sodden, squelchy, swollen bodies. Fortunately the blackening faces were invisible except when Verey lights lit up the indescribable scene. Not a tree stood whole in that wood.
Food and water were very short and we had not the faintest idea when any more would be obtainable.
We stood and lay on putrefying bodies and the wonder was that the disease (dysentery) did not finish off what the shells of the enemy had started.
There was hand-to-hand fighting with knives, bombs, and bayonets; cursing and brutality on both sides such as men can be responsible for when it is a question of "your life or mine"; mud and filthy stench; dysentery and unattended wounds; shortage of food and water and ammunition.”
Captain S. J. Worsley, MC
A German officer who fought at Delville Wood described it as:
“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.”
The Germans responded to the attack by shelling areas of the wood captured by the Allies. At its peak it is thought that 400 German shells landed in Delville Wood every minute. Combined with frequent raid rain, the wood was not only churned up with regards to trees but it also became a quagmire.
The fighting for the wood continued into August. Skilfully placed German machine gun posts and well-hidden snipers greatly hindered any Allied advance through the wood. Once the South Africans had been relieved, men from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the Royal Berkshires and the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps tried to take the wood. However, like the South Africans, they faced a heavily fortified enemy that was supported by very accurate artillery fire. They in turn were relieved and replaced by the 17th Northern Division who were relived by the 14th and 20th Light Division.
It is thought that German casualties matched Allied casualties but loss of records makes this hard to verify. The South Africans had 3,155 men at the start of the attack and suffered 2,536 casualties by the time they were relieved. This represented a loss of 80% - killed, wounded and missing. 104 officers out of a total of 123 were killed, wounded or missing – nearly 85%.
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded for outstanding bravery:
Delville Wood was only finally fully cleared of Germans on September 3rd.
The Germans recaptured Delville Wood in March 1918 as part of their Spring Offensive. During the Allies advance after the Spring Offensive had failed, the 38th Welsh Infantry Division fought for it and captured the wood in August 1918.