“Simply Magnificent”

Continuing to research the last week of March 1918, in war diaries relevant to some of the men commemorated on a Parish War Memorial in Surrey, I looked last night to see how the week was ‘covered’ in Kate Luard’s Unknown Warriors.  Recalling the morning of 24 March, a day in which “a steady stream of everything flowed past…all day the wrong way, like Mons” Luard describes an incident, which reminded me of the huge losses suffered by the South Africans in that week.

[The 24th] Division was practially napoo for the moment…The Germans came straight through one of the other Divisions, the 16th, and…the 66th. A Black Watch man on a stretcher was asked where the 9th Division were.  “They’re in Germany now,” he said.  They are all Scotch and South Africans.  I’ve met them all through the War.” {p. 167]

If only.  Confident though the Black Watch man was, they certainly weren’t in Germany.

I turned to John Buchan’s History of the South African Forces in France to see what was really going on with the South Africans and the Scotch.  Buchan describes the state of the South African Brigade thus:

Giddy with lack of sleep, grey with fatigue, poisoned by gas and tortured by the ceaseless bombardment, officers and men had faced the new perils which each new hour brought forth, with a fortitude beyond all human praise. [p. 181]

Closer attention to this week is long overdue as one of my great uncles was killed in that week, one amongst  the hundreds of soldiers in the South African Brigade who have no known grave and are commemorated on the Pozières Memorial.  Their numbers include the inspirational Captain Garnet Green and his entire company, and the irrepressible commander of the 1st Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Henry Heal D.S.O., who even though wounded twice, insisted on remaining with his troops.  Buchan quotes from a letter from one of the 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 through all that hell; but right up to when I last saw him, about five minutes before he was killed, he had a smile on his face and a cheery word for us all.

Chapter VIII recounts the action of that week, from the moment, at quarter to five in the morning of 21 March, when the “uncanny silence” was broken and Ludendorff “flung the dice for victory.”  Buchan sums up the South African contribution to holding a vital part of the line as follows:

In all that amazing retreat, when our gossamer front refused to be broken by the most fantastic odds, no British division did more nobly than the 9th.  It held a crucial position in the line, and only by its stubborn endurance was a breach between Gough and Byng prevented.  Among the brigades of the 9th, the chief brunt was borne by the South Africans.  A great achievement is best praised in the language of the commanders themselves.  General Tudor wrote:—
“I think everybody should know how magnificently the South African Brigade fought…. The division will not seem the same without them, and it was they who bore the brunt of the fighting of the 9th on the 21st and 22nd.” [p. 190]

Here are Dawson’s words:—
It is impossible for me  to do justice to the magnificent courage displayed by all ranks under my command during this action.  For the two years I have been in France, I have seen nothing better.  Until the end they appeared to me quite perfect. The men were cool and alert, taking advantage of every opportunity, and when required, moving forward over the open under the hottest machine-gun fire and within 100 yards of the enemy.  They seemed not to know fear, and in my opinion they put forth the greatest effort of which human nature is capable.  I myself witnessed several cases of great gallantry, but do not know the names of the men.  The majority of course will never be known. It must be borne in mind that the Brigade was in an exhausted state before the action, and in the fighting of the previous three days it was reduced in numbers from a trench strength of over 1,800 to 500.” [p. 190]

Buchan continues by recounting ‘the testimony of the enemy’.

During the German advance, Captain Peirson, the brigade major of the the 48th Brigade of the 16th Division, was taken prisoner.  When he was examined at German Headquarters, an officer asked him if he knew the 9th Division; for, said he, “We consider that the fight put up by that division was one of the best on the whole of your front, especially the last stand of the South African Brigade, which we can only call magnificent. In the course of his journey to Le Cateau, Captain Peirson was spoken to by many German officers, all of whom mentioned the wonderful resistance of the South Africans. [p. 190]

There is a more striking tribute still.  On the road to Le Cateau, a party of British officers was stopped by the Emperor, who asked if anyone present belonged to the 9th Division. “I want to see a man of that division,” he said, “for if all divisions had fought like the 9th, I would not have had any troops left to carry on the attack.” [p. 191]

As captured officers were taken eastwards, they saw that the stand of the South Africans, at such heavy cost  to the brigade, had not been in vain.

The whole road for miles east of Bouchavesnes was blocked by a continuous double line of transport and guns, which proved that the South Africans had for over seven hours held up not only a mass of German infantry, but all the artillery and transport odvanving on the Bouchavesnes-Combles highway.  Indeed it is not too much to say that on that fevered Sabbath, the stand of the Brigade saved the British front…But for the self-sacrifice of the Brigade at Marrières Wood and the delay in the German advance at its most critical point, it is doubtful whether Byng could ever have established that line on which, before the end of March, he held the enemy. [p. 191]

Buchan, J., History of the South African Forces in France, published London & Edinburgh, 1920, [Thomas Nelson & Sons].
Luard, K.E., Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard , London, 1930, [Chatto & Windus], republished 2014, (ed.) Stevens, J. and C., [The History Press]

Acquiring John Buchan’s book
Buchan’s history of the Brigade can be read online, or downloaded in various formats to your own digital device  I found it on The Open Library via an initial search on the inimitable Internet Archive, a source of open text, media and audio treats.  This post gives more information about the process involved.

If you’re downloading, bear in mind that the download is slow.  If spite of that, you are downloading it, then because of maps and images, you probably want the larger pdf, rather than the B & W one.  I have the book on Kindle but I prefer reading it online. It’s clear, on older Kindles, that the mobi file has been generated by a machine so it might take you a little while to overlook the irritating separation of photos and captions, with headers appearing at random points throughout the text.

About Margaret Frood

Margaret Frood is a Family and Local Historian with an insatiable curiosity about the partially told stories of a family's past. Her four war memorial blogs have been created in the hope that they will help to rescue from oblivion the stories of those listed on the war memorials of Petersham, Ham and Tur Langton, as well as Southern Africans commemorated in the UK and in Western Europe.
This entry was posted in 9th Scottish Division, German Spring Offensive, Kaiserschlacht, Scottish Regiments and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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