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Deville Wood


Will O'Brien
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Deville Wood is fairly infamous even to someone like me who knows very little about specific actions................however could anyone explain why the fighting around here had such a bad reputation...............I am researching a chap who was killed there in July 1916 & I would like to get the feel of what was going on there.

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I think all the 'wood' fighting on the Somme was pretty ghastly with heavily defended locations, disorientation of attacking troops, short range engagements, problems with communications and general chaos and confusion.

Delville Wood fairly quickly became known as 'Devil's Wood'. As an example 10th Royal Welsh Fusiliers were sent into the wood as part of a 3rd Division attack on the night of 20th July. Their guide from 53rd Brigade was drunk and got them completely lost. They bumped the Germans and in the fierce fighting which followed won two VCs(Corporal JJ Davies from Tipton and Private A. Hill from Hulme) In attempting to extricate themselves from the wood they wandered across the front of the 11th Battalion Essex Regiment who promptly shot them up in a 'blue on blue'. The battalion suffered 180 casulaties including 50 missing. My great-uncle survived this fiasco only to die in another abortive operation at Serre in November.

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I think there are several reasons why Delville Wood stands out. It was surrounded on three sides by the Germans. They could concentrate artillery fire from all three directions, as experienced by the South African Brigade. High Wood commanded the Longueval side of the wood for the Germans, giving them superiority of observation.

The lower portion of Longueval was heavily fortified with strongpoints and wire. This prevented the British from taking it, while allowing the Germans to reinforce the village and associated area of the wood from the sunken road that comes up from Flers. The close proximity of British troops to the Germans in Longueval made it difficult to use artillery, though when artillery was used it further improved the defensive properties of the ruins.

So Delville Wood was difficult to take in its entirety and, if it was taken, it was difficult to hold without heavy casualties, for both sides. For the British, it required the capture of Ginchy, Guillemont, and High Wood before Delville Wood could be considered taken. Each of those three features required horrendous effort before they were taken.

Robert

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One of the reasons why the woods fighting was so confusing during the 1916 Somme Battle was because the sector had been fairly quite until the battle began that summer and the woods were still pretty much intact. In addition the trees were in full leaf by the time the fighting started and each subsequent bombardment (remember both sides were shooting at them before and during the assaults) blasted off more limbs and felled more trees. Thus adding horrendous amounts of litter and tangled branches to the forest floor. This tangle was both very difficult to get through and nearly impossible to see through.

Just imagine moving into one of these wooded areas searching for a well dug in enemy, hidden by a vast tangle of interlocking tree branches that were full of leaves. The sun is hot and the mess is so thick that you quickly lose contact with your fellow soldiers on your left and right. The unit's cohesion was lost immediately upon entering the tangle. You press on for what seems like hours but it's really only been a few minutes. Sweat stings your eyes and sharp branches snag your gear and cut your hands. You don't know if your unit is still advances, halted or retreating. The battle rages around you, Germans or friendlies could pop up at any moment, from any where. Bullets cut leaves off the branches around you or throw bark in your faces as they zip by. Each one seems closer than the last and they are coming from all directions. You trip and fall for the umpteenth time and decide discretion is the better part of valor and you just lie there hiding behind a fallen tree trunk. Before very long you hear someone breaking through the tangle on the other side of the tree and a man steps on your back as he climbs over the fallen tree. You roll onto your back, fear surges through you, adrenaline rushes and your heart pounds as you expect a bayonet trust trough your gut and into your spine! In stead you get a swift kick to your ribs and your Color Sergeant bellows "GET A MOVE ON, Hawkins".

Of course that's all just my imagination but I think that scene sums up what it might have been like. Seems more reminiscent to jungle fighting instead of what we normally thing of as WW1 Western Front fighting.

A historical first person account I remember reading about took place in the mess that was Mametz Wood just after the British had captured it in mid July 16. A fellow was picking his way through the tangled mass, I think he was a runner delivering a message, and he described stepping on bodies and body parts hidden by the leaves and limbs. Just by luck he came across a fellow Brit who was wounded. The runner was faced with a serious dilemma, impede his mission by trying to carry out the wounded man and risking the lives of others or leave the man behind and continue own knowing he would never be able to find the man again in the remains of the blasted forest. Here's where my memory fails, I can't remember what he did!

"The Hell They Called High Wood" and Devil Wood are titles apply given!

Jon

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The picture here shows Delville Wood as it was about the time my uncle Oscar Maier died there. Not quite like jungle fighting.

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And here is what Delville Wood looks like today. This is a composite picture, taken from the New Zealand Memorial on the crest between Longueval in the foreground and High Wood, which is off to the right. You can see how vulnerable the wood was, given that the occupants could not see past this crest to any artillery on the German side.

Robert

post-4-1083609878.jpg

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Mark/Jon...........Many thanks for your info & thoughts on this.

Robert.............Thanks also for the posting of the view of how it looks today.

Clive..............Thanks for the link to the RWF Association Site. The photo there really does show what a nasty looking place it was as does the short write up. I have a new respect for anyone who had to endure there.

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Just minor details compared to the feedback in the other posts, but a fact about fighting in the woods (not unique to Delville) or near trees is that shells would explode above the combatants when they struck the tree branches or stumps spraying the area with sharpnel. Perhaps its obvious with some thought, but it wasn't until I read the intro to The Old Front Line that it became absolutely clear. Andy

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For a no doubt very vague idea of the horrible nature of treebursts watch the two Battle of the Bulge episodes of the TV series 'Band of Brothers': 'Bastogne' and 'The Breaking Point'.

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Just minor details compared to the feedback in the other posts, but a fact about fighting in the woods (not unique to Delville) or near trees is that shells would explode above the combatants when they struck the tree branches or stumps spraying the area with sharpnel. Perhaps its obvious with some thought, but it wasn't until I read the intro to The Old Front Line that it became absolutely clear. Andy

Andy...............that's an added dimension I'd not given thought to........Thank you for highlighting it.

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