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SAMVOE - Centenary of The Battle of Delville Wood in France

SAMVOINT represented at the Delville Wood Centenary in June 2016 by Veteran Anthony Bateman ( Closest Sunday to 14th July)


I was delighted to be asked by Tony Macquet to lay a wreath on behalf of SAMVO International at the SA National War Memorial in Delville Wood during the centenary commemoration service.

The invitation was opportune, as I had missed last year’s centenary commemoration visit by the London Irish Rifles to the Loos Memorial. My father had survived the disastrous battle of Loos as an 18 year old lieutenant in the LIR. A fellow ex-Capetonian and I decided to combine the cross-Channel trip to France with visits to Loos and Ypres in Belgium where his grandfather had served in the ranks of the Civil Service Rifles in the same 42nd (2nd London) Division as my father. After Loos, both of our forebears had seen plenty of action on the Somme and elsewhere.

We booked into the Hotel de la Paix in Bapaume, a small town close to Longueval where Delville Wood is situated. The rehearsal the day before the actual ceremony involved scores of SANDF personnel including a large guard of honour, the Army band, several generals and an array of very smart French veterans bearing their standards. I spotted only one other South African veteran at the rehearsal but was impressed at the scale of the ceremony, the skill of the band and the smartness of the guard. I was proud to see them performing well with their WW II vintage Lee- Enfield .303s, complete with short bayonets – I’d lived with one of these rifles for most of my year in the Navy Gym in 1960. All the generals were black and the guard included 4 or 5 white privates, including a young woman. It was interesting to see that the two key figures who coordinated the entire complicated proceedings were senior Coloured servicemen – a SAAF colonel and an Army sergeant major.

After the rehearsal we gained entry to the museum within the monument buildings. The displays have been totally re-designed and now give proper recognition also to the heroism displayed by the SA Native Labour Corps on the Western Front and during the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi as well as to the outstanding gallantry of the SA Cape Corps at Square Hill in Palestine. I was pleased to have seen the new monument to the SS Mendi victims when I visited Jubilee Square in Simon’s Town earlier this year. However I was disappointed to discover that I had lived and worked in Ramallah recently close to the scene of the epic battle of Square Hill without knowing of its proximity.

I discovered that although SAMVOINT was listed as laying a wreath I was not registered as an attendee, so would have no security pass to enter the memorial grounds for the actual ceremony. However, on the day the combination of my beret, blazer badge and medals and my friend's fluent French, supplemented by poppies in our lapels, got us through the several checkpoints. Security was tight, comprising the local police, the national gendarmerie, plain clothes officers, and snipers atop the memorial.

President Hollande didn't attend but President Zuma laid a wreath at the war memorial in Longueval before arriving at Delville Wood precisely at the appointed time. The lengthy ceremony went like clockwork, watched by a large number of French dignitaries and other local guests. The wreath layers were veterans with impressive groups of South African medals. Some wore on the right breast also the WWI and WWII medals of their close relatives, as did I.

The French veterans' standards were not matched by a similar array of South African standards or banners though. I was told that this was because of the appearance at an earlier ceremony of some standards that were more political than military. This lack of SA banners and standards was compensated for, to a degree, by a large contingent of senior pupils from several South African schools representing the post-1994 generation. The 42 boys from Pietermaritzburg College honoured the 11 College boys killed at Dellville Wood and paid tribute to their 100 old boys and masters who had died in all theatres of the Great War.

The speakers included South African generals and a minister from each of the South African and French governments. Several of the speeches highlighted the importance of the rectification of the long standing omission of proper tributes to the African and Coloured servicemen who had suffered and died alongside their white comrades.

It was particularly poignant to be reminded that the Union government had declined to award any campaign medals to the SANLC. It was explained that the body of the first SANLC member to die on the Western Front had now been reinterred in a new tomb within the Dellville Wood monument. After the main ceremony President Zuma unveiled the Wall of Remembrance and then proceeded to open the transformed museum. The parade concluded and guests withdrew to enjoy a tasty buffet lunch enhanced with Cape wines.

Having served full time for 20 years in three navies (Royal Navy, SAN, and the Sultan of Oman’s Navy) I could have felt an outsider at such an army focused ceremony. However, I discovered that the very helpful CMVO representative was an ex-submariner, and an SAN WO and several senior ratings were much in evidence.

Following the ceremony I explored my father’s connections with the Somme and Flanders battles. After six years as a British soldier and airman during and after the Great War he went on to serve in WWII as a special constable in the Rangoon River Police and a signaler in the South African Army (both part time roles) before being commissioned in the newly formed SA Naval Forces.

He was shot in the shoulder by a sniper after surviving ten months in the trenches, including the battles of Festubert and Loos. He volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and returned to the Western Front as a kite balloon observer. This involved being suspended in a small wicker basket from a huge hydrogen filled sausage balloon flying up to 5,000 high whilst tethered to a winch on the ground. He located targets and spotted the fall of shot of the divisional and corps artillery. At one stage he conducted firing for his uncle’s heavy guns in defence of the Ypres salient. He flew above the Somme battlefields also, and observed the massive detonations of the great mines underneath Messines Ridge. Kite balloon observers were the only aviators to be equipped with parachutes, so he survived being shot down in flames four times. I discovered that his final jump was when his balloon was downed by one of Manfred von Richthofen’s Flying Circus pilots. Lt Erich Reiher died just four days later in his red Albatros.

I visited his grave in the Belgian village of Vlamertinge, very close to the chateau where my father’s uncle, Brigadier General Bernard Bateman CMG (late RGA), had his HQ. Reiher’s grave was the only German burial in the small Commonwealth cemetery. I recalled that General Bateman’s only child, Lieutenant Bernard Bateman MC RFA, had died of wounds in England and was buried in London. I visited instead the fascinating private museum and well preserved trenches at Sanctuary Wood, where he had won the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry” despite being dangerously wounded. He was one of three of my father’s first cousins who didn't survive the war. I've found Great War service records of ten of his first cousins, all but three of whom were army officers, the others being two ANZAC privates and a lieutenant commander RN.

The final grave visit was to that of Lieutenant John Kipling, Irish Guards - Rudyard Kipling’s son ‘Jack’. Much has been written in recent years about the identification of this re-interred body. My interest was personal, in that the soldier now buried as Kipling was thought by some experts to be Lieutenant Arthur ‘Jack’ Jacob, London Irish Rifles. He was one of my father’s two best friends in the 1st Battalion LIR and was killed when leading his platoon over the top at Loos. The third member of this trio of subalterns, Lieutenant Laurence ‘Laurie’ Dircks, survived Loos despite his wounds and married my father’s sister. Kipling had died shortly after being shot in the face during the same battle but neither his nor Jacob’s bodies was found. In recent years the unidentified body of an officer in a Commonwealth cemetery near Loos was concluded to be either Jacobs or Kipling on account of the similarity of the harp design of the LIR and Irish Guards buttons. The CWGC has finally determined, after much public debate, that it is John Kipling.

My friend and I drove back to the Calais ferry port feeling much closer ties to our forebears who had endured and survived so much in defence of freedom, and of Belgium and France in particular, more than 100 years ago.

By Veteran Anthony Bateman, Commander SAN (Retd)

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