Today In Fact, 14 July

Bastille day. That moment of characteristic Gallic madness where about 1,000 of the citizens of Paris attacked the ancient fortress and jail which held just 7 prisoners and a garrison of retired soldiers.

The governor of the Bastille was Bernard René Jourdan, the marquis de Launay who’s father was also once the governor, had been born in the Bastille some 49 years earlier. Married twice with three daughters, this unreflective and dour commander was placed in an impossible position, expected to defend a position without adequate support from King Louis XIV’s generals. The Paris mob wanted the Bastille’s stores of gunpowder because earlier that day they had stormed the nearby Hotel des Invalides and purloined 30,000 muskets but they had no shot and no powder.

The storming of the Bastille and the subsequent killing of de Launay is graphically described in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”.

Not far from de Launay’s Normandy fief is a small town of Longueval. In 1916 on this day South African troops, all volunteers and made up of Afrikaners and English were sent to take and hold a small wood less than a kilometre south of the town in the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

Three lessons of war were learned in this terrible and bloody conflict. The first is that it troops should be gathered the night before for an early dawn attack upon a position. The second is that wooded areas need to be secured around the perimeter of the wood and not within the wood itself and the third is that troops should be relived after two days and not expected to hold a position indefinitely.

The political lesson of Delvillie Wood was that a military disaster can be used for political ends. Smuts and the political elite in South Africa used the disaster of Delville Wood in an attempt to promote a discourse that valorised English and Afrikaner unity.

The South African casualties from Delville wood were horrific. Of the 779 South Africans that took the Wood today in 1916, only 196 marched out 6 weeks later. A German officer described the Wood thus: “…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

In one sense the dead were lucky. One of the men who marched out of this horror was my wife’s maternal grandfather, Private Shires. He had lost an eye and, it seems his mind. They used to call it shell-shock and only in after the Second World War would it slowly become recognized as post-traumatic Stress disorder. In South Africa we often refer to the condition as “bossies”. In any event, Private Shires returned to Cape Town after the war, fathered my wife’s mother for which I am eternally grateful.

The battle of Delville Wood ensured that my mother-in-law had a difficult childhood. The wife and children of the Marquis de Launay left France and found refuge in Russia. The effects of violent revolution and war echo down the generations.

– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (