To the personal side of the late war we have, in a measure, been introduced by various war correspondents. But there has always been something actually lacking, and that something is the touch and the atmosphere which can only be introduced by those who have been through the baptism of blood and fire.
In the following pages the real touch is introduced. Every incident is told by a man who has actually seen and experienced what he describes. These incidents are in the actual words of the writers. Nothing is altered.
Here, then, is the story of the capture of Delville Wood by the 1st Sportsman's Battalion in 1916, told by Major N.A. Lewis, D.S.O., M.C.:
"For two days before the fight the Battalion occupied some trenches near Bernefay Wood, and sustained a number of casualties from shell-fire. Battalion headquarters was a shelter dug in a bank at the side of Bernefay Wood. This shelter was constructed by Albany, the sculler, and as he was killed in the fight it was his last job as dug-out constructor. Needless to say, he did this job excellently.
"For some hours before the Battalion moved off to take up its position, the Huns shelled the area with gas shells. Fortunately, however, just before 11 p.m., the time for starting, a breeze sprang up, and we were able to move without wearing gas masks.
"The move up was not pleasant. The area had been much fought over, it had been impossible to bury the dead for ten days, and it was a hot July!
"Our artillery was firing to cover our move up. Just after passing Longueval one of our shells dropped, unfortunately, near the platoon which, with the C.O., I was following. As luck would have it, though, only one man was badly wounded. The platoon, of course, went on, and the C.O. went over to the man who had been hit.
"'It's hard lines, sir,' said the man.
"'I know it is,' said the C.O., 'but you will soon be all right. The stretcher-bearers are coming.'
"'Oh, it's not that,' was the man's rejoinder. 'It's being hit now! Here have I been all this time in France without having a real go at the b——s, and now the chance has come, here I go and get knocked out.'
"The C.O. made only one remark to me as we passed on. It was: 'Well, if that's what the rest of the Battalion feels, I have no fears for to-morrow.'
"We took up our position in a trench at the edge of the wood. This was all that remained after the South Africans had been beaten back, and our attack was to start at dawn on the following morning. This attack was in two parts, two companies to take the first objective, a trench in the centre of the wood, and two companies to capture the far edge, and dig themselves in there. The 1/60th were on our right, each battalion having half the wood allotted to it.
"The waves formed up in position shortly before dawn, and it was our first experience of going over the top as a battalion. The men, however, were quite cool and cheerful; in fact, one, named Lewis Turner, asked me, 'How long to go?' I looked at my watch, and said, 'Five minutes.' His reply was, 'Oh, then I've time to finish my breakfast.' And he did.
"At zero our barrage started, and our first waves were off, the thing I noticed most being that most of the men were smoking as they went over. The whole wood was immediately full of machine-gun bullets. There must have been hundreds of machine guns—up in trees, hidden in the undergrowth, in fact all over the place. The Hun artillery came down on all the approaches to the wood, but not on the wood itself so long as any of their own men were in it.
"Owing to the position of the wood, however, at the apex of a captured triangle of ground, we received fire from both flanks, and also from our right rear, as well as from the front.
"The first objective was quickly taken, and then there was a pause before the advance to the second. A large number of prisoners came in, and were herded up near Battalion headquarters' trench. We then found that we were up against the Brandenburg Regiment, which had been specially sent up to hold the wood.
"A number of these prisoners next got into a shell-hole near Battalion headquarters, refusing to come farther, and one of the funniest sights was to see our R.S.M., Sergeant-Major Powney, who, as a rule, was most dignified, rush at them, and kick and cuff them out of it.
"I said to him: 'Sergeant-Major, that's not your job.' He replied: 'I know that, sir, but I couldn't help it.' Poor Powney was wounded later in the day, and died of his wounds.
"The advance to the second objective started promptly, but the Hun fought hard for a time, and held us up. Every bush seemed to contain a machine gun, and a redoubt on our left front caused us many casualties. This redoubt contained several machine guns, with overhead cover, and a first-aid post. As soon as the C.O. received news of this check he sent up two reserve Lewis guns. These worked round the redoubt, and, finding an opening, killed most of the garrison, and then
rushed it. The survivors fled, but Sergeant Royston found one of their own guns was still in action, and finished them off with it.
"Dealing with Counter-Attacks.—The final objective was quickly reached and consolidated, and for a while our men had a pleasant time dealing with counter-attacks from the front. The field of fire was good, and they quickly dealt with all the attempts made to push us back. Our casualties, though, were very heavy, particularly amongst officers. At one time 'A' Company was commanded by Lance-Corporal Goodman, and another company by a C.S.M.
"Then the Hun artillery got busy on the wood, which was, of course, an ideal mark. For the rest of the day they simply poured heavy shells in. It was pretty terrible. Trees were torn up by the dozens, and fell blazing. By the end of the day there was nothing but shattered stumps.
"The Medical Officer had a busy time, and owing to the barrage could not evacuate his wounded. The aid post was filled, and the overflow had to be put in shell-holes round about. The consequence was that many of them were killed as they lay there. Owing to the barrage, too, the sending of messages back to Brigade headquarters and the companies in front became almost impossible. Out of sixteen headquarter runners no fewer than fourteen became casualties before mid-day.
"One message was sent back by carrier pigeon, and a message received from the Brigadier read: 'Hold on. Reinforcements are being sent.' The reply of the C.O. was: 'Of course we shall hold on. We are being hammered, but our tails are still up.'
"As the day wore on many efforts were made to get round our flanks and turn us out. Bombing parties crept up, and had to be dealt with by our bombers. It was in one of these tussles that Jerry Delany (the famous boxer) was killed.
"At one time word came from our comrades on the right that the Hun had broken through. So we sent over a party to their assistance, and finally repelled the attackers. We spent the whole of the afternoon and evening in this way, but when our relief came up that night we handed over the wood intact.
"The scene at night was awful, the wood being ablaze in many places. I read messages and wrote out the relief orders by the light of a blazing tree, which had fallen across the shell-hole then being occupied by Battalion headquarters.
"During the night our Brigadier came up and held a conference in our shell-hole. One of our men, Corporal Walker, who was attached to the Brigade Machine-Gun Company, came to this conference, and when asked by the Brigadier what he wanted, replied: 'I have reason to believe, sir, I now command the Machine-Gun Company.' This was actually the case, and he brought the remnants out, being badly wounded in doing so.
"We were relieved by the 6th Brigade, and at dawn returned to our quarters at Bernefay—that is to say, those of us who were left. Our casualties were nearly 400, over 60 per cent, of those who went in. Out of eighteen officers who went into the wood, thirteen became casualties, every company commander being included in this number, while the 1/60th suffered equally heavily.
"As I was making out our casualty return in our headquarters' shell-hole by the light of the blazing trees, our Quartermaster appeared with the rations. He threw a newspaper down to me, with the remark: 'You'll find something interesting in that.' I opened the paper, and found a full column describing how the South Africans took Delville Wood!
"When we were moving back into support, I noticed a horrible smell, and found it was due to the fact that almost every man was smoking a Hun cigar, large quantities of which had been found in the trenches, together with large quantities of soda-water.
"One of the Hun officer prisoners remarked that our advance through the wood was the finest thing they ever saw, but that he objected to being captured by civilians."
The 23 (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 1920