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Remembered Today:

Lt Col. F. H. Heal, DSO


Hugh Pattenden

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Hi,

I've already done a fair bit of research into this man, but I wonder if anyone else knows anything. He seems to have been a brave man, but seems to be missed out of accounts of the March 1918 battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Henry Heal, DSO, Commanding 1st South African Infantry Regiment, Missing, Presumed Killed in Action, 24th March 1918, aged 37.

General Dawson wrote that ‘Colonel Heal was magnificent, exposing himself regardless of danger, and sticking to it after he was twice wounded.’

Thanks,

Hugh.

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Hugh

I have some sources on the South Africans. What have you looked at so far in your search?

Robert

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Robert,

I've been working from school records and local newspapers. So far, I have a (not great quality) photo, and have written the following obituary:

At the start of the Boer War, at the age of but seventeen, Frank Heal volunteered for the Yeomanry and received a commission. He was soon promoted to lieutenant and made adjutant. He remained in South Africa and at the start of the First World War had just been offered the Assistant Managership of the Maritzburg branch of the Standard Bank.

When war was declared he volunteered again and was posted to the Cape Peninsular Rifles. The South African Contingent left for Egypt in September 1915. In May 1916 the contingent was transferred to another front and at the end of the year Heal was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of a battalion of South African Infantry. The Battalion saw vicious fighting at Delville Wood in the Summer of 1916, distinguishing itself in the process.

Nine months later he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for ‘[c]onspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When all his company commanders were casualties, and the advance appeared not to be progressing satisfactorily, he went up to his battalion on the first objective, and accompanied it in the advance to the second objective, which was gained, two counter attacks being repulsed.’

If the school magazine of the time is to be believed, he died as he had lived: in a most courageous manner. During the German offensive of 1918,whilst commanding the 1st Battalion, South African Infantry, he was wounded twice, but continued to encourage his men. Soon afterwards he went missing and was never seen again, alive or dead. Eventually it was conceded that he had been killed. The South African Brigade held up the German advance for a crucial few hours, but was annihilated in the process, with the majority of men dead, wounded or captured, including the Brigade Commander, General Dawson. Only 300 men were able to retreat during the evening of 24th March.

After this the praises came in thick and fast. One general officer described him as ‘…a man who possessed in so marked degree the characteristics which go to make a leader of men. Brave, capable, energetic and warm-hearted, he had gained the respect and affection of all ranks.’ General Dawson wrote that ‘Colonel Heal was magnificent, exposing himself regardless of danger, and sticking to it after he was twice wounded.’

Colonel Heal was assumed to have been killed during the battle on 24th March 1918, aged thirty-seven.

I should be grateful for any information you have.

Yours,

Hugh.

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From 'Roll Call: The Delville Wood Story':

"[Geoffrey Lawrence] was called up for an interview by my colonel and the brigadier general [of the South African Brigade]. Having passed this hurdle, I was eventually sent for by Col Heal and offered a commission in the regiment."

"On 24 March [1918] General Dawson made a stand near Marriere's Wood, a few miles from Delville Wood. His orders were to hold it 'at all costs!' As the British army withdrew, the remaining five hundred men of the SAI Brigade held their positions.

They fought the whole day until after 4.15 pm when only one hundred men remained with virtually no ammunition. Three enemy battalions then overran them. Lieut-Col Heal (CO 1st Battalion) and Major Cochrane were killed."

From 'South African Forces in France':

"Lt-Col Tanner was wounded on 17th July [1916] and his second-in-command, Major Gee, took over the 2nd Regiment. Major Gee was killed almost at once, and as there were no senior officers of the 2nd left Major Heal took over command. This he held till the arrival from England at the end of August of Lt-Col Christian, who took command of the 2nd Regiment."

"[in November 1916] all South Africans felt their Brigadiers advancement to be a personal tribute to the Brigade which he had so gallantly led. He was succeeded in its command by Lt-Col Dawson of the 1st Regiment, who was succeeded in turn by Major F H Heal."

"[During the battle of Vimy, April 9 1917] the 1st [south African] Regiment was under Lt-Col Heal."

"[On September 14, 1917] the 9th Division formed the right of Fifth Army. The South Africans [on the left] were disposed as follows: the 3rd Regiment, under Lt-Col Thackeray, on the right, and the 1st, under Lt-Col Heal, in support."

"[During the Sept 14 attack] Lt-Col Heal of the 1st Regiment saw some men of the 1st and 3rd Regiments, headed by Sergeant Frohlus, advance through our own barrage against a large pill-box immediately on their front. It was a place which would give trouble to the next advance, so he joined the party and took command. On calling to the inmates of the pill-box to surrender, some thirty or forty came out but the remainder declined to move. All the loop-holes and openings of the structure were closed, but a certain 'Mike' Fennessy of the 3rd Regiment, a Johannesburger whose past career have been largely outside the law, managed to get a bomb either through a ventilator in the roof or through a window which had been blown in by a grenade. This set fire to the wood lining, and the garrison broke out and were shot down. Four machine guns were captured in the place.

At 7.50 Colonel Heal was able to report that his section of the main German line had been taken.

The regimental commanders led their men not only with skill, but with the utmost dash and fearlessness. Heal was struck by shrapnel, and once buried by a shell; Thackeray was twice buried; Cochran was knocked down, but rose unhurt, though all thought him killed. 'The regimental officers' wrote Dawson on the 22nd, 'were an awful sight this morning, haggard and drawn, unwashed and unshaven for four days, covered with mud and utterly tired, but very happy, and exceedingly proud of their men.'"

"The gravest danger [on the 22nd March, 1918] was in the south, for any further enemy advance there would turn the Green Line. Owing to the Germans moving northward behind our front it was impossible to keep to the original route of retirement, and all three units had to withdraw in a northern direction before striking west. The task of the 1st Regiment on the left was the least difficult. Under Lt-Col Heal, it fell back upon [the village of] Fins.

[On 23rd March] General Tudor told Dawson that instructions had come for the division to withdraw after dark to a position on the line from Government Farm by the east of St Pierre Vaast Wood to the road just west of Bouchavesnes which led to Clery. He informed him that Sir Walter Congreve had ordered that this line must be held 'at all costs.' and added that he presumed, if it was broken, it would be retaken by a counter-attack. These words of Tudor's are of importance, for they were Dawson's charter for the fighting the next day. He was also bidden keep in close touch with the troops on his right - a counsel of perfection hard to follow, for Gough's decision on the night of the 22nd involved an indefinite retreat westward, and in such circumstances a unit which had orders to stand at all costs must inevitably be left in the void. Dawson saw his commanding officers, Heal and Christian, and explained to them the gravity of the situation. Whoever retired, the Brigade must stand.

By dawn on Sunday, the 24th, the two regiments of South Africans were holding a patch of front, which, along with Delville Wood, is the most famous spot in their annals. It lay roughly behind the northern point of Marrieres Wood, running northeast in the direction of Rancourt, a little over two miles northwest of Bouchavesnes village. There was one good trench and several bad ones, and the whole area was dotted with shell holes. Dawson took up his headquarters in a support trench some 300 yards in the rear of the front line. The strength of the Brigade was about 500 in all, composed of 478 men from the infantry, one section of the 9th Machine Gun Battery, and a few men from Battery Headquarters. Dawson's only means of communication with divisional headquarters was by runners, and he had long lost touch with the divisional artillery.

It was a weary and broken little company which waited on that hilltop in the fog of dawn. During three days the 500 had fought a score of battles. Giddy with lack of sleep, grey with fatigue, poisoned by gas and tortured by the ceaseless bombardment, officers and men faced the new perils which each hour brought forth with a fortitude beyond all praise.

Soon after daylight had struggled through the fog the enemy was seem massing his troops on the ridge to the east, and about 9 o'clock he deployed for the attack, opening with machine-gun fire, and afterwards with artillery. At ten o'clock some British guns opened an accurate fire, not upon the enemy, but upon the South African line. [Eventually, they] ceased because the guns had retired. The men were ordered not to use their rifles till the enemy was within 400 yards. The enemy attempted to bring a field gun into action at a range of 1000 yards but a Lewis gunner of the 1st Regiment knocked out the team before the gun could be fired. A little later another attempt was made, and a field gun was brought forward at the gallop. Once again the fire of the same Lewis gunner proved its undoing.

Dawson in the early afternoon attempted to adjust his remnant. The enemy was now about 200 yards from his front and far in on his flank and rear. For the moment the most dangerous quarter seemed to be the north, and Lt Cooper of the 2nd Regiment, with twenty men, was sent out to make a flank-guard in shell-holes 100 yards from Brigade HQ. The little detachment did excellent work, but their casualties were heavy, and frequent reinforcements had to be sent out to them.

As it drew towards three o'clock there came a last flicker of hope. The enemy in the north seemed to be retiring. The cry got up, 'We can see the Germans surrendering,' and at the same time the enemy artillery lengthened and put down a heavy barrage 700 yards to the west of the Brigade. It looked as if 35th Division had arrived but the hope was short-lived. About this time Lt-Col Heal was killed. He had already been twice wounded in action, but insisted on remaining with his men. I quote from a letter of one of his officers. 'By this time it was evident to all that we were bound to go under, but even then Colonel Heal refused to be depressed. God knows how he kept so cheery all through that hell.'"

Robert

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Soon afterwards he went missing and was never seen again, alive or dead.

Hugh

The officer quoted above also wrote 'right up to when I last saw him, about five minutes before he was killed, he had a smile on his face and a pleasant word for us all.'

Robert

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And a map of the area in which he was killed

Robert

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You might be interested (indeed, you may well already know) that as an ex-pupil of the Perse in Cambridge (presumably the school magazine you are writing for), Colonel Heal's name is on the War Memorial in Chesterton. I spotted it there a few years ago - if memory serves, the footpath from Elizabeth Way takes you past it.

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Thanks Robert, Steven.

Robert, do you have a page reference and publisher details for 'Roll Call: The Delville Wood Story' and 'South African Forces in France'?

Many thanks again,

Hugh.

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'Roll Call: The Delville Wood Story' by Ian Uys, Uys Publishers. ISBN 0 9583173 1 3. pp 124 & 126

'South African Forces in France' by John Buchan, Battery Press. ISBN 0 89839 178 4. pp 84, 103, 117, 136, 139, 140, 141, 143, 174, 179, 186, 188. (Actually I copied information from a few more pages than this to give you a better feel for the heroic action in which Heal was killed)

Robert

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Hugh

Statistically speaking, it is the most likely way he was killed. It might also explain why his body was not recovered. But this is just speculation.

Robert

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  • 14 years later...

From the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town. Taken whilst there unfortunately was a public holiday so there was no one who could tell me more about it.

P1000494.JPG

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  • 5 months later...

Hugh

Frank Heal is a distant relative. Do you have any further details of his family background in Cambridge, before he went to war? Was his father William Henry Heal? Or another relation? 

Thanks

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Hi,

 

His father was Captain W H Heal, so I would assume that that stood for William Henry Heal.

 

He went out to South Africa as a volunteer during the Boer War, and liked it so much that after the war he emigrated out there, so had left Cambridge by the time war began in 1914. His family moved back to the UK when he was fighting in France, and stayed here when he was killed.

 

I hope that helps.

 

Best wishes,

 

Hugh.

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A contemporary of mine in the Army was a Willie Heal, whose father was a Lt Col in the Royal Norfolk Regiment and, I believe, ran the regiment's museum in Norwich. I wonder whether there is a connection.

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