Somme visit 4 – 5 Nov 2018

Introduction

For a long time I have been wanting to go the Somme and visit Delville Wood, where my grandfather Richard (Ray) Medlicott was taken prisoner on the 19th July 1916, and to find the location where his younger brother George was killed a few months later on the 15th October 1916 during the Battle of Transloy Ridges, near the Butte of Warlencourt.  Both men were members of B Company of the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment, which was commanded by Lt Col EF Thackeray. At the time of his capture Captain RFC Medlicott MC was commander of B Company. I am indebted to my sister’s friend Eric Turner who assembled much of the military information, particularly that related to the Battle of Transloy Ridges.

Map of the area showing position of the front at the beginning of September and October 1916

Just before 100 years had passed since the end of the First World War, Diana and I set off across the channel and first went to Ypres, arriving late afternoon of the previous Friday, 2nd November. The reason for going to Ypres was to see RC Sheriff’s play, “Journey’s End”, which was being performed in the old Gunpowder Store.  

After staying one night in Ypres we drove down to Bapaume, which provided a convenient nearby base from which to get to our Somme destinations and where we spent two nights.

While we were out on the Somme we enjoyed fine sunny weather, quite a contrast to the conditions in 1916 where in Delville Wood there was persistent rain and the 15th October had showers with bright intervals. 

Ypres

Ypres is a very attractive small town surrounded by ramparts. The town itself was virtually obliterated during the war so much of the old buildings that can be seen have been rebuilt.

Ypres centre

Below is a model showing how Yypres looked during the war. The item marked 9 is the location of the Menin Gate. 

Model showing Ypres devastation of town during the war
Menin Gate

We were unable to hear the last post being played at the Menin Gate because at the that time, 8pm in the evening, we were in the Gunpowder store watching Journey’s End. We were so glad to have seen it in such a memorable setting. The Gunpowder store provided a perfect representation of a WW1 Dugout where we were seated round the actors and could witness the scene like flies on the wall. Such a powerful performance, and one we will always remember. It was a privilege to be able to see it so close to where RC Sheriff saw active service during the 3rd Battle of Ypres.

Inside the “Dugout” before the play started proper, with the actor drying his socks using the candles

Delville Wood

The battle of Delville Wood is well documented and the source given below is of particular interest since it reproduces many of the despatches sent by Captain Medlicott in the heat of the battle.

Situation at the beginning of July showing German trenches and Delville Wood

The wood is intersected with several paths or “rides” that pass through the wood. These rides were given names such as Princes Street and Kings Street  for ease of identification. Captain Medlicott commandeered 3rd Battalion B Company and by the 15th July had reached the furthest easterly point of salient in the SE corner of the wood.

View from end of Princes Street to furthest point of salient at the end of Rotten Row
View from point of salient at end of Rotten Row towards Ginchy 
View of SE corner of wood from Ginchy

On the 18th July the Germans commenced a bombardment of the wood that endured for over 7 hours. On that day 20,000 shells fell resulting in holocaust conditions for the South Africans, who had little cover because of the difficulty of digging deep trenches in the thick undergrowth. The bombardment was then followed by a German counter attack from the north and north east. The Germans entered the wood and on reaching the south perimeter  attacked B company from behind and on the morning of the 19th July Captain Medlicott was captured.  Just Thackery with 2 officers and 120 survivors walked out of the wood on the 20th July. Over 3000 South African troops had entered the wood. Most were wounded with over 650 killed. The Wikipedia account says that only 6 officers and 183 men of the 3rd South African Battalion were captured.

The ferocity of the fighting and conditions facing the soldiers is described in individual accounts recorded after the battle and displayed in the museum.

Personnel accounts of the battle including one from Captain Medlicott
Delville Wood after the battle
Just  one small tree survived the battle

Today the floor of the wood between the rides is covered with undergrowth. The terrain is very uneven on account of all the shell holes. 

Captain Richard Frederick Cavendish Medlicott was 39 years of age at the time of his capture. Initially it was assumed that he had been killed at Delville Wood, however following his detention at prisoner war camp near Gutersloh, Westphalia, unofficial reports via the Red Cross to the UK on 10th August 1916 stated that he was still alive. While at Gutersloh, on 19th December 1916, Captain Medlicott was granted the Order of Danilo 5th Class by the King of Montenegro, although it is not know why he received the Order. This award subsequently appeared in the London Gazette on 9th March 1917, which says that the medals and decorations were conferred on October 31 1916. Interestingly, Field Marshall Haig and other senior ranks also received their awards on that day. 

On 5th July 1917 he was relocated to Scharmstedt POW Camp, Hanover. On 17 January 1918 was relocated again to Gefangenenlager, Holzminden POW Camp, which is known for its particularly harsh conditions. Due to health problems as a consequence of his battle wounds, Captain Medlicott was transferred to an internment camp in neutral Holland on 13 June 1918. I have a water colour of a windmill which he painted at Edam in August 1918. He was subsequently repatriated to London and admitted to the Prince of Wales Hospital, Marylebone on 24th October 1918.

He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Major in November 1919 and on 12th December the London Gazette announced his OBE award.

Transloy Ridges

The Battle of Le Transloy was the last big attack by the Fourth Army of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the 1916 Battle of the Somme in France, during the First World War. The Fourth Army’s III Corps had as one of its Divisions the 9th Scottish Division, of which the third Brigade was the South African Brigade, which included the four South African Regiments, one to four. 

On the 12th October and in the III Corps area, the 9th Division on the right had to capture Snag Trench, then the Butte de Warlencourt and Warlencourt line. Included in these objectives was a trench named “The Tail”, which ran back from Snag Trench to the Butte, and a mound known as the Pimple at the west end of Snag Trench. This was to be carried out with the help of enfilade fire from the 15th Division to the left. On the left flank the 1st South African Brigade attacked with the 2nd Regiment followed by the 4th Regiment, which were held up by long-range machine-gun fire and lost direction in the smoke drifting from the butte. Parties dug in half-way to Snag Trench and some stayed in no man’s land until the following morning.

After the poor results of the attack on 12 October, Lt General Rawlinson concluded that the weather delays had enabled the defenders to recover and that a deliberate attack after methodical bombardment was necessary, before another attack on 18 October. On 13 October, he issued an operation order in which he stressed the necessity of improving routes to the front line and the preparation of good assembly trenches parallel to the German defences. A steady bombardment was to begin immediately and XV Corps was to capture the Gird lines south-east of the Eaucourt–Le Barque road and Snag Trench was to be captured by III Corps, all by night attacks supported by tanks, where practical. 

Sketch referred to by Commanding Officer showing location of the Pimple 

In the III Corps area, the 3rd South African Regiment attacked after dark on 14 October and captured the Pimple and 80 yd (73 m) of Snag Trench. A report written by the 3rd Regiment’s Commanding Officer (Thackeray) stated that at 05.00 on the 15th October he had received notification that the Pimple was now held by Lt Medlicott of B Company with 25 NCOs and men plus one Lewis machine gun. Once in occupation B Company felt confident that they could hold the mound and the captured Snag Trench, which they did in spite of very heavy artillery bombardment, machine gun and rifle fire, grenade and mortar attacks. This they did until they were relieved by A Company, 3rd Regiment on the night of 15 – 16 October.

As part of the report, Thackeray stated: “I regret to report the death of Lt Medlicott who was shot through the head whilst holding the mound. The Battalion’s War Diary reports at 7.40pm: “2nd Lt Harris reported back from the Pimple …… 2nd Lt Medlicott killed during the day.

George Herbert Medlicott (taken in 1904)

For his actions on 15 October, 2nd Lieutenant G Medlicott was mentioned in dispatches for which we was awarded an oak leaf spray which would be attached to any medals his next of kin would receive. The award was subsequently reported in the London Gazette on 1 June 1917. George Medlicott was 31 years old at the time of his death.

Today, there is no clear evidence of the mound known as the Pimple. However its position can be estimated by comparing the military maps with the satellite image as shown below, where it is estimated to be within the brown circle. To the north east and across the other side of the track is the outline of what may be a remnant of Snag Trench.

Satellite image showing likely location of the Pimple. Indicated with arrow is outline of what may be part of Snag Trench
The location of the Pimple is estimated to be about 200 m away in a line towards the end of the trees on the left. The Butte can be seen in the distance.
View from the opposite direction looking back up the slope towards the electric pylons. The Pimple is estimated to be about 200 m up the slope close to where there is a change in curvature of the line of trees on the right.

Memorials

Delville Wood is also the site of the main war  memorial and museum for South African soldiers that fought in all major conflicts in the world including Africa, Europe and Korea.

After passing through the first arch, the wall along the side of the path lists all the names of South African servicemen who have been killed with no known grave.

Included in this list is that of George Medlicott.

His name is also listed among the 72,000 other soldiers of the Imperial British Empire who were killed in the Battle of the Somme with no known grave, at Thiepval.

It’s possible that George Medlicott may be buried at Warlencourt Cemetery, not far from the Butte of Warlencourt where there are several South African solders buried.

The memorial that first drew my attention to George is that situated in Kildare Cathedral.


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