Memoirs & Diaries - Delville Wood
Delville Wood is a name, even now, full of sadness and the suppressed agony of thousands who had to make its acquaintance. Probably nearly as many men remained in it as came out of it whole, and no one fortunate to escape from this hell can think of it without recalling hours of suffering and the names of many good comrades now no more.
Towards the end of September 1916 there seemed to be a lull in the Battle of the Somme. The glory of the first great achievements had somewhat faded with the realization of their cost and the doubtful value of their gains. One supposed that the High Command knew what they were doing, though even that is doubtful now.
Most of us hoped that the lull meant a discontinuance of the battle, which seemed a hopeless hammering at a resourceful enemy in one of his strongest sectors. It was, however, not for us to argue why the strong rather than the weak positions were always to be attacked.
Anyhow our battalion, which had previously been in the line in front of Guillemont, moved into Delville Wood to take over the line on the eastern edge of the wood. The journey, as usual, began soon enough to bring us into the danger zone about dusk and was a nightmare. We were led by guides who had hardly been able to leave the front line and were hopeless, while landmarks had long ago been blown out of existence.
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.
The weary tramp in single file went on for about three hours. Men carried heavy loads of equipment, bombs, rifle ammunition, Lewis guns, petrol tins of water, gas helmets, and so on. How they cursed as they one after the other collided with some obstacle or fell flat on a dead body. "Pass it along when you're all up," "Mind the wire," "Mind the hole on the left" - interspersed with humorous though trite remarks as to the first five years being the worst.
Eventually, after much searching, but without serious mishap, we found our sector: Two companies of the battalion were in front and two in support some distance back. Battalion Headquarters lay behind the wood. "C" Company, in which I had charge of a platoon, was on the right flank in a shallow, incomplete depression shown on the map as Edge Trench, its name indicating its position skirting the wood.
By this time it was just after midnight and all was fairly quiet. As far as we knew there was no particular cause for alarm. The officers and senior N.C.O.'s had got the hang of things and knew roughly the position of the other troops in the neighbourhood and of the enemy, who seemed quite a good distance away immediately in front, though away to the right he was considerably closer to the line.
I was at the time twenty-one years of age, my company commander twenty-two, but we had both had a good deal of experience - sufficient to realize that in case of anything like a bombardment a position on the edge of a very well known wood would be no fun. Hence we decided to push forward. Each platoon would send a strong section some fifty to one hundred yards ahead to dig itself in. If we were left in peace a night or two, our men, nearly all miners, would join up the posts and make a continuous and less clearly defined front line. So the detached posts went out.
The wished-for peace was not for us, unfortunately. At 2 a.m. the officers met the company commander in the one and only dug-out to discuss "work done and work proposed" for the daily return, and to look at some preliminary orders for a rather big advance three days ahead.
After that I was temporarily off duty, but I had no sooner settled myself in the dug-out for what I considered a well-earned "shut-eye" till stand-to before dawn, when pandemonium broke out.
It was soon apparent that something very unpleasant was about to happen, so we stood to arms, groused a good deal, and waited. The waiting was always the hardest part of it all. The hours till 6 a.m. seemed terribly long, but our casualties had not been more than fifteen all told. The worst of it was that the wounded and even the runners, stout fellows though they were, could not get away or reach Headquarters with our tale of woe.
Just about six o'clock the Germans came on. They never approached closer than 150 yards from our trench and they made an excellent target for Lewis guns and lost heavily. By 8.30 I heard that the company commander was out of action, though not seriously wounded. Then came the even more serious news that my fellow subaltern had been killed on the right, where the enemy had forced an entrance.
The battalion on the right had also been forced to abandon their line. This left me very much alone, with between but fifty and sixty men who could use a rifle. Some of these were wounded, but any escape from the trench was out of the question.
By 9 a.m. there was comparative peace, except in our minds when we grasped the seriousness of the situation. It seemed that the left had also broken and that our two depleted companies were in the blue. The left company had fared better than we. On our right the Germans and we shared a trench - only a narrow barrier separating us from them. Moreover, this barrier was on the wrong side of Company Headquarters, which, with our greatcoats, food, and orders, was lost to us.
The only thing to do was to strengthen the barrier as best we could and lie low. There would probably be dirty work at that barrier later on.
Conditions in the wood were now worse than ever. Most of us felt sick and ill even when unwounded. Food and water were very short and we had not the faintest idea when any more would be obtainable.
By the end of the next day several, including myself, had dysentery, and that in a ghastly battered trench with no prospect of medical attention. After all, we stood and lay on putrefying bodies and the wonder was that the disease did not finish off what the shells of the enemy had started.
The day was, in fact, uneventful; but as evening drew on we again prepared for the fray. It was not to be supposed that the success of the enemy would not be pushed home, and, as far as we could tell, only two weak companies stood between them and the possession of Delville Wood.
Sure enough, the attack began at dusk and again it lasted for three hours. This time it was no frontal attack across the open but a determined push down the shared trench and behind in the shelter of the stumps of trees.
It is difficult, and even a week later it was difficult, to recall those three hours.
It is only on Armistice Day that I can live them again; but I don't want tell anyone about it. 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.
The fighting ceased and a curiously fitful peace settled over the scene. In some ways fighting was preferable - one's mind was distracted. Inactivity in such surroundings was harder than risking one's life. For an hour or two that night I lay on a board in a bay of the trench and slept.
But an hour before dawn we were at it again, getting ready for the expected onslaught at daybreak. Why this did not come I have never been able to make out. There was no reason at all why the wood should not have been recaptured completely, especially as, on looking through our supplies, we could not muster more than 500 rounds of rifle ammunition and thirty bombs.
By this time I was getting beyond effective command, but my senior sergeant was still very much alive and as aggressive as ever. His suggestion was that we should take a big risk as no attack appeared to be developing and have a shot at regaining Company Headquarters. I am afraid that the object of the projected operation was food rather than secret orders. Four others volunteered to see what could be done, and before dawn was far advanced we peeped carefully over the barrier half-expecting something unpleasant.
One German was asleep on a fire-step five or six yards from us, and there was not a sign of activity. In these circumstances we agreed to risk it. I, being armed with a revolver, was to act as a sort of advanced guard while the others were to trail behind with bombs and bayonets to deal with any opposition.
The essential factor for success was quietness - no bomb throwing or shooting except as a last resource. Nothing but a bayonet was in fact necessary, much to our amazement. Some half-dozen weary and comatose Germans were quietly and expeditiously removed from the active list, and Company Headquarters was gained in safety.
Yet there were no reprisals. Apparently no German officer or N.C.O. came round, and to our joy we were able unmolested to move the best part of our barrier to a point 50 yards beyond the Headquarters dug-out. We found all the officers' kit, food, and orders intact, but neatly packed up as though for removal.
The mystery of this non-interference is unexplained and I can only surmise that a few tired troops had got left behind, although the main forces of the enemy had for some reason or other been withdrawn. All that day not a shot was fired, though our nerves had gone almost to pieces and we were sure we should be amply repaid for our early morning escapade.
But no word came from the outside world, which seemed very remote, until about four o'clock in the afternoon. At that hour a British aeroplane appeared flying low and calling for signals. With great joy we sent up our flares to indicate our position. I have always wanted to thank that airman. He must have taped us out with great accuracy, because when an hour later our own guns opened fire and put a box barrage round us, not a single shell fell in our lines.
This bombardment meant that an attack was being launched in order to get us out and at dusk the attack came. A whole brigade of infantry, well supported by artillery, had been put in to restore the line, and they did it splendidly despite the heavy shelling of the enemy, especially on the thick areas through which they had advanced.
Gradually we were able to slip away. I had now pronounced dysentery and was helped by two men. We were all so far gone and so tired that we never hesitated to rest when and where we felt inclined, shelling or no shelling. I called at Battalion Headquarters and reported as best I could what had happened. The "powers-that-be" were most complimentary on the work of the company and the adjutant's "Well done, 'C' Company!" made up for a good deal.
After a wretched night in a dug-out in Montauban I went down sick, glad to be out of things for a bit, but rather conscience-stricken at such an inglorious departure; a wound would have been much more satisfying.
Some weeks later I received a chatty letter from the adjutant, who told me a touching story. He asked if I remembered the posts we had sent out in front the night we occupied Edge Trench. It came as rather a shock to find that I had, indeed, in all that confusion and scrapping forgotten them. He went on to say that two days after we had been relieved the new people had discovered a section of my platoon still doing the job they had been sent out to do.
The Corporal and his men had been out there for four days with no food other than emergency rations, but they had remained interested spectators of a good deal of the fighting, though in their exposed position they dared not move much.
The relieving company commander told them about the relief, and said they had better clear out.
To this the corporal replied that he had no intention of moving without a personal or written order from one of his own officers. This order the adjutant had supplied.
Captain S. J. Worsley. Gazetted, aged nineteen, North Staffordshire Regt., August 1914. Served with 1st Battalion North Staffordshire Regt., 1915, and most of 1916, in France. Awarded Military Cross, 1916; Bar to Cross, 1916, for incident contained in narrative. Served 4th Battalion North Staffordshire Regt., 1917, and up to end of September 1918, in France. Awarded second Bar to M.C. after great retreat, March 1918. Awarded D.S.O., and mentioned in despatches in respect of advance round Hill 60 and the Bluff, September 1918, when was wounded by bullet through both lungs.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
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