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On the outbreak of war there were seven Black Watch battalions - for in addition to the Regular 1st and 2nd Battalions and 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion there were a further four Territorial ones which had become part of the Regiment in 1908. They were the 4th Dundee, 5th Angus, 6th Perthshire and the 7th Battalion from Fife. The 1st Battalion was in action at the very start of the war taking part in the Retreat from Mons before turning on the Germans at the River Marne and the subsequent advance to the Aisne. Trench warfare then set in and the 2nd Battalion arrived from India, both battalions taking part in the Battle of Givenchy. Meanwhile the Territorial battalions had been mobilised at the start of the war but only the 5th was in action in 1914.

1915 saw the participation of all the Territorial battalions and some of the newly formed “Service Battalions” of the Regiment in the battles along the Western Front. The 2nd, 4th and 5th Battalions were at Neuve Chapelle in March and a total of six battalions fought at Festubert in May where two Victoria Crosses were won by members of the Regiment. Then in September came the initially successful but horrifically costly attacks at Loos in which the 9th Battalion suffered over 700 casualties. Throughout the war the Highlanders garnered as fearsome a reputation with the Germans as they had with the French in previous centuries.

In 1916 the 2nd Battalion was withdrawn from France for operations against the Turks in Mesopotamia for the attempted relief of Kut-el-Amara. Such was the urgency to get forward that the advance was made without proper preparation and heavy casualties were incurred. The losses at Shaikh Sa'ad were so heavy that the Battalion had to be merged temporarily with another Highland battalion which had suffered similarly. This year also saw the 10th Battalion taking part in operations in the Balkans. On the Western Front, 1916 was dominated by the Battle of the Somme. Five battalions of the Regiment were involved with particularly fierce actions at Contalmaison, High Wood, Delville Wood and Longueval - the last named changing frequently as the Germans counter-attacked and further assaults were made to regain it. Eventually it was held but by then the 8th Battalion was reduced to just 171 men. The year ended with the extremely hard fought battle at Beaumont-Hamel with the 6th and 7th Battalions particularly distinguishing themselves.

April of 1917 saw the launch of the 1st Battle of Arras. With the support of some of the first tanks, with more sophisticated artillery fire and improved tactics the five Black Watch battalions involved made some progress. They then held on tenaciously to the gains made at such cost against fierce counter attacks. Subsequent attacks in the Second and Third Battles were less successful but equally costly in lives. July saw six battalions of the Regiment taking part in the Third Battle of Ypres and the endeavours to extend the Salient. In this the 4/5 Battalion was reduced to no more than company strength, indicative of the terrible losses and conditions at Passchendaele. However the 6th and 7th Battalions were taken back to train with tanks for the initially successful Battle of Cambrai. Advancing behind the tanks and passing through each other the battalions made significant gains but most of this ground was later to be lost to German counter attacks. Meanwhile in Mesopotamia the 2nd Battalion had taken part in the fight for Sannaiyat and in March had entered Bagdad before fighting across the desert to Mushaidie and thence to the ferocious action at Istabulat. There Private Melvin won the Victoria Cross for single handedly overcoming a group of nine Turks.

After the conclusion of operations in Mesopotamia the 2nd Battalion moved to Palestine and took part in Allenby’s eminently successful action at Megiddo in September. In France the spring brought in the final massive German offensive. In a confused withdrawal all the battalions suffered heavy losses, those of the 9th at Arras being so great that it had to amalgamate with the 4th/5th. Attack followed attack through March and April until the German offensive was exhausted. Then came the long fight to recover the lost ground. At Chambrecy the 6th Battalion, attacking alongside a French unit, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for its bravery - a distinction still worn by the Territorial soldiers of the Regiment. By September the 1st Battalion was involved in the successful attack on the last German fortified trench system, the Hindenberg Line. By the time of the Armistice in November 8000 members of the Regiment had lost their lives during the four years of this terrible conflict.

Two decades of peace followed, but when war broke out once again it was to be on just as vast and disastrous a scale. 

When war broke out with Nazi Germany in September 1939 the 2nd Battalion was already on active service in Palestine and was to be deployed in a successful rearguard action against overwhelming Italian forces in Somaliland in July 1940. It was then sent to Crete to help defend the island from the anticipated German invasion. Meanwhile the 1st, 4th and 6th Battalions had been despatched to France where they faced the German blitzkrieg in May 1940. Against this massive armoured assault the ill-equipped British troops were forced to withdraw to Dunkirk . The 4th and 6th Battalions were successfully evacuated from France but the 1st Battalion, with most of the 51st Highland Division, was less fortunate. When it proved impossible to rescue the Division it was ordered to surrender at St Valery.

May 1941 saw the first ever airborne assault take place when German paratroopers descended on the 2nd Battalion at Heraklion in the north of Crete. The initial offensive was most effectively repulsed but later landings elsewhere forced the withdrawal of the garrison. Five months later the Battalion was moved to the besieged fortress of Tobruk and in November was to suffer very heavy losses in the attempted breakout to link up with the 8th Army. The tanks failed to provide the planned support and within one hour over 300 men had become casualties - but the objective was taken. In August 1942 the re-formed 1st Battalion along with the 5th and 7th Battalions arrived in North Africa as part of 51st Highland Division in time to take part in the momentous battle of El Alamein, the turning point in the War. This was to be followed by the pursuit across the North African desert with the many hard-fought victories notably Mareth and Wadi Akarit and the triumphant entry into Tripoli. During 1943 the 6th Battalion also became involved in the North African campaign, joining the 1st Army and taking particular part in the attack on Sidi Medienne.

n July 1943 the 51st Highland Division spearheaded the invasion of Sicily, the first Allied return to Europe. After a successful assault landing the Allies met increasingly stiff German opposition as they advanced over ground dominated by Mount Etna. After heavy fighting by the 1st Battalion at Gerbini and by all at Sferro, Sicily was conquered. The 51st Highland Division returned home to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. However the 6th Battalion was to remain in Italy, taking part in the hard-fought advance North against the several well prepared German defensive lines and most particularly at Monte Cassino. Its final actions were in the battles of the Gothic Line at Forli after which it was despatched to Greece in December 1944 to counter Communist partisans.

The 1st, 5th and 7th Battalions, still in the 51st Highland Division, were all landed in Normandy on or shortly after D Day, 6 June 1944. They were heavily involved in the actions leading to the breakout from Caen and the Falaise Gap, the 5th Battalion in particular experiencing severe fighting at Breville and Colombelles. There was then little action for the Regiment except for the capture of Le Havre until the autumn and winter fighting in the low lying country astride the River Maas in Holland. All three battalions were employed in the operations to stem the last German offensive into the Ardennes in the bitter weather of January 1945. It was then back to the battles of the Reichswald Forest on the Dutch-German border with the 1st Battalion being the first Allied troops on German territory. Then on the 23rd March 1945 the Regiment played a key role in the Crossing of the Rhine under a massive smoke screen and overcoming the final, albeit crumbling, German resistance.

After its enormously varied war fighting in Somaliland, in Crete and at Tobruk, the 2nd Battalion was sent to India, which was under threat from the rapid Japanese advance through Malaya and Burma. There it was specially trained for participation in the Second Chindit Expedition. Divided into two columns and often working in smaller groups, the Battalion spent 5 months operating behind the Japanese lines, disrupting their communications, their supplies and flow of reinforcements. Resupplied entirely by air drop the columns attacked and ambushed enemy columns in savage actions, generally in thick jungle and in appalling conditions of heat and disease, made worse once the monsoon broke. The Battalion ended the War training as a parachute unit for the planned invasion of Malaya. 

Two World Wars had tested the mettle of Scotland’s most famous regiment to breaking point, but throughout it all the Black Watch held firm. It may be imagined that with such slaughter the latter half of the 20th century would be a peaceful one. Sadly, it was not to be. 

The Pipes & Drums playing after the 8th Battalion (Black Watch) had captured Longueval on the Somme. This was during a lull in the fighting for the Germans counter attacked with vigor and positions changed hands several times over a period of five days during which twenty-five officers and 470 other ranks of the battalion became casualties.

Photo & Caption featured in ‘The Black Watch: The Black Watch Photographic Archive’

July 14, 1916 - The Somme: Battle of Bazentin Ridge

Pictured - Deccan horsemen await the order to advance.

With Mametz Wood conquered, the Entente armies on the Somme had completed their capture of the German first defensive line.  The first phase of the battle, which is known as the Battle of Albert and including the first day on the Somme, had left the French skeptical of their ally’s fighting ability.  “An army led by amateurs,” some scoffed. But on July 14 the battle for the second line began, and Haig promised the French a victory on their national day, and this time he kept his word.

The German second line rested on a elevated ridge called Bazentin, flanked by Mametz Wood to the left.  General Rawlinson of the Fourth Army proposed attacking from their to hit the Germans in the side.  In a tactical rarity, Haig approved an attack at dawn on July 14 (Haig preferred day attacks during the Battle of the Somme, believing that the novice New Army men could not manage a complex operation in the dark, with some credence).

The attack began with a concentrated artillery barrage on the German lines.  The fiercest yet of the war, it was several times more powerful than the final barrage before H-Hour on July 1.  Advance parties of the Royal Engineers crawled into No-Man’s Land to mark off the advance lanes with tape, while the roar of artillery covered the sound of the attack divisions assembling in the jump-off trenches.

The infantry surged forward as the bombardment lifted. In most places they took the German second line with ease.  However, progress beyond was slowed by several little villages and woods that blocked the advance.  Unfortunately for the British, the Germans had been under the process of relieving their tired troops when the battle began, meaning that fresh divisions stood in the way.  A battle for Longueval and Delville Wood continued on the right flank all day, which lead to problems when the British tried to advance across the plateau in other places.

At this point several British officers suggested that a key feature of the German defenses, the High Wood, was not defended at all (in fact untrue, but the Germans were too busy scraping trenches to shoot back).  The High Wood was the objective of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. However, the simple geography of the Western Front, covered in trenches and barbed wire, made slow-going for horses.  Worse, the cavalry belonged to one corps, and was attacking an objective in the sector of another.  This lead to a lack of urgency by either commander in getting it to the front.

Rawlinson ordered his XV Corps to take the High Wood, but its commander, Horne, prevaricated.  The failure to capture the objective has often unfairly been blamed on the cavalry instead of poor communications and confusion behind the lines.  When it arrived at the battle, the cavalry actually had a rare chance to show its worth on the Western Front.

The horsemen of the 2nd Indian Division was a mixed unit from all over the British Empire: English Dragoon Guards, Hyderabad lancers, and Canadian horsemen.  Horsemen were vulnerable en masse on open ground, as they knew very well themselves.  There were no gallant but doomed charges on July 14, as many authors falsely believed later.  Haig himself advised Rawlinson to advance his cavalry cautiously.

The horsemen arrived near the German second line after 7 p.m.  Starting off from the old British front line, they crossed the unoccupied western face of Delville Wood and charged into a number of isolated German outposts in the Delville and High woods.  Rather than being “soon dealt with by German machine-gunners”, the 7th Dragoons and the Deccan Horse lanced down a score of unfortunate Germans and captured many others.  It was an excellent demonstration of the shock value cavalry could still have in war: many German landsers clung to the necks of horses, crying and pleading for mercy.

The cavalry dismounted and dug-in, fighting, as they usually did, as mounted infantry, holding a line in the flank til infantry could be brought up to relieve them.  During their part in the battle they had taken only eight men killed and fewer than a hundred wounded, and acted as a rapid mobile exploitation force.  Unfortunately, the cavalry was given few other such chances to shine on the Western Front, rejected instead as an archaic relic of the battlefield.

Much has been made of the cavalry action on July 14.  Many writers were keen to portray it as a slaughter of horses and men by machine-guns, to the point that veterans recounted that years later.  No such thing occurred, however, in fact quite the opposite: if the cavalry had been allowed a larger, sooner role, they may have succeeded in taking the whole of the High Wood and saving the BEF from a bloody weeks-long fight.

aviatorlad  asked:

Hi there. I am a huge fan of history, I have a passion for learning and just exploring it, and being South African I was wondering if you had any photographs on the battle of delvellie wood? Amazing blog, keep up the awesome stuff

The Battle of Delville Wood (15 July – 3 September 1916) was a series of engagements in the 1916 Battle of the Somme in the First World War, between the armies of the German Empire and the British Empire. Delville Wood (Bois d'Elville), was a thick tangle of trees, chiefly beech and hornbeam (the wood has been replanted with oak and birch by the South African government), with dense hazel thickets, intersected by grassy rides, to the east of Longueval. As part of a general offensive starting on 14 July, which became known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14–17 July), General Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, intended to capture the German second position between Delville Wood and Bazentin le Petit.

The 1st South African Infantry brigade was affected to the 9th (Scottish) Division in May 1916, replacing the disbanded 28th Brigade.


General Officer commanding : Brigadier General Henry Timson LUKIN

1st South African Infantry Regiment (Cape of Good Hope)

Lieutenant-Colonel F.S. DAWSON

2nd  South African Infantry Regiment (Natal and Orange Free State)

Lieutenant-Colonel W.E.C. TANNER

3rd South African Infantry Regiment (Transvaal and Rhodesia)

Lieutenant-Colonel E.F. THACKERAY

4th  South African Infantry Regiment (South African Scottish)

Lieutenant-Colonel F.A. JONES

Before the battle : men of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment take a rest along a road (Delville Wood Museum)

14th JULY

The ridge was attacked at 03. 35 am by the 26th and 27th Brigades of the 9th (Scottish) Division. The South African Infantry Brigade was in reserve and was initially planned to take part to the “cleaning” of the village and the wood. The Scots seized the southern part of the village and patrols of the 8th Black Watch got into the wood. But Germans held in the northern part of the village, strongly fortified, and strengthened in the wood. The fierce fighting in the village and around Waterlot Farm had caused heavy losses among the assailants. The 1st SAI was sent in the village to assist in clearing the South of Longueval and the three others South African regiments were to be ordered to penetrate the wood, but the advance was postponed for the following morning.

The Short  Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mark III was the standard rifle of the British Army during the First World War. It appeared in 1907 and was producted in India from 1909 and in Australia from 1913. It remained in British service until 1957. Many variants were producted during this long career. Accurate and reliable, the SMLE established itself as one of the best rifles of the war in spite of its relative complexity. An experienced soldier was able to fire as many as 15 rounds a minute in target.

15th JULY

At 05. 00 am, the first South African soldiers penetrated the wood under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Tanner. The progress was slow because of the tangles of trees destroyed by the first shellings. At noon, the whole wood, except its northwestern part, too strongly defended, was under control. The entrenchment began, but this was difficult by the nature of the ground strewn with roots and by a  constant bombardment including gas shells, all under a stifling heat. Moreover, Germans launched three counter attacks, all repulsed. The brilliant marksmanship of the South Africans was given its opportunity. The rate of German shelling often reached 400 shells per minute, with all calibres. The casualties were heavy and the only reserve of the Brigade consisted of three companies, despite the fact that the 1st SAI had returned to Lukin’s command.

Before the attack, two companies of the 4th SAI were detached to the 5th Cameron Highlanders.  They took part to the attack of Waterlot Farm, which was not taken till the following day. They joined the South African Brigade in Delville Wood.

16th JULY

All through the furious night of the 15th, South Africans were digging trenches to save their lives. At 2.35am, Lukin received orders from the Division  that the portion held by enemy must be taken. Without artillery preparation, the attack, by the Royal Scots from the village and the 1st SAI from Prince Street, was a failure and the attacking troops fell back.  It was then that Private W.F. FAULDS won his Victoria Cross. It was during this hot and dusty day that appeared the first difficulties to bring up food and water. Also, the evacuation of the wounded became perilous. Lieutenant Colonel Dawson, C.O. of the 1st Regiment, asked for a relief. But fresh troops could not yet be spared for the work. The Division ordered that the wood must be held at all cost. Moreover, another attack against the north-west corner was ordered for the next morning.

17th JULY

In spite of an artillery preparation, this attack, made shortly before dawn by the 1st and 2nd SAI, did not succeed. Germans were stubborn defenders. In the morning, General Lukin visited the wood and was worried about the fatigue of his men. He had now no troops which had not been in action for at least forty-eight hours. A fight in a wood was the most wearing king of battle and the most of the South Africans had to wait under a continuous machine-gun and artillery fire. On his return at his headquarters, Lukin discussed the situation on the telephone with General Furse, C.O. of the 9th (Scottish) Division, but could get no hope of relief or reinforcements. Moreover, the instructions from the XIII Corps stood that the wood must be held at any cost. Delville wood became a death-trap.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tanner was wounded in the evening and Lieutenant-Colonel Thackeray succeeded him in charge of the troops in the wood.

18th JULY

This fourth day was the crisis of the battle for the defenders. In the night, a strong enemy attack was launched and Germans advanced as far as Buchanan Street and Princes Street. A costly counter-attack expelled them. At 3.45am, The 3rd Division succeeded to take the orchard in the North of Longueval and the 1st SAI joined hands with the 1st Gordon Highlanders. But this sudden success was due to the fact that German infantry had evacuated the orchard for a barrage of its artillery. At 8.00am, a bombardment of an unprecedented severity was open on the wood and Longueval. Every part of the area was searched and smothered by shells until 3.30pm. The 3rd Division was expelled from the northern part of Longueval and fresh German troops began to enter the wood from all sides. To the great surprise of the attackers, the handful of South African survivors gave a stubborn resistance and took place a fierce fighting with high losses on both sides. In many parts of the wood, were “duels” between attackers parties and resistance pockets, sometimes at reversed front. It is not easy to reproduce the circumstances of events of this painful day, because many of the protagonists were killed. The South African soldiers, driven back to the southwestern part of the wood delimited by Princes Street and Buchanan Street, installed there a pocket of resistance, assisted by Highlanders of the division. A new German division was committed to expel them : it never succeeded.

19th JULY

          All through the 19th the gallant handful suffered incessant shelling and sniping and repulsed the attackers with heavy loss. On the eastern edge of the wood, the remains of the 3rd SAI, which had successfully resisted the thrust of the German infantry on their front, were now effectively cut off. 190 men were captured. The first relief  by the 26th Brigade begun in difficult conditions.

Bronze plaque depicting trench scene at the Battle of Delville Wood, Cenotaph, Heerengracht Street, Cape Town, South Africa. “The trench scene represents the burnt-out Delville Wood in July 1916 when held by SA forces.”

20th JULY

           Germans launched several attacks against Thackeray’s band but could not overrun them. The colonel himself fought with rifle and grenade on the parados of the trench. Finally, in the evening the promised relief arrived with the men of the 3rd Division. Thackeray marched out with two officers, both of whom were wounded, and 140 other ranks, made up of details from all the units of the Brigade. He spent the night at Talus Boisé, and the next day joined the rest of the Brigade at Happy Valley.

Out of the 121 officers and 3 032 other ranks who formed the Brigade on 14th July in morning, only 29 officers and 751 other ranks were present at roll call when the unit was gathered some days after the battle. The heroic resistance of the South African Brigade, against the flower of the German Army, had saved the southern part of the British line.

The wood remained the scene of bitter fighting for more than one month and units of seven British divisions was committed there. Finally, Delville Wood was entirely in the hands of Allies at the end of August when the 14th (Light) Division captured it for good. It remained in the first line till 15th September 1916 when the great attack with tanks « took away » the front eastwards and northwards.







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