Review of Ian Uys’ “Hold at all costs!”

Hold at all costs: the epic battle of Delville Wood 1916
by Ian Uys
Published by Helion & Company, 2015
ISBN 978-1-910294-37-6
Hardback, 173 pages plus appendices, bibliography, index. Illustrated.

This appears to be a reprint of “Delville Wood”, which the author first published in Johannesberg in 1983. It appears that he also published under the title “Roll call: the Delville Wood story” in 1991 but I have never seen a copy of that and cannot confirm whether it is the same in terms of content.

On 19 July 1916 the 5th Australian Division, along with the British 61st (2nd South Midland) Division, made at attack at Fromelles. It proved terribly costly in terms of casualties and has come to public prominence in recent years due to the painstaking research that found large numbers of Australian dead that had originally been buried by the Germans. A new military cemetery, Pheasant Wood, was constructed and opened in the presence of royalty.

At the very time that the Australians were being mowed down in front of Fromelles, another Dominion contingent was in action. Their “epic battle” has received much less coverage in recent years, although the site at Delville Wood on the Somme now houses the wonderful South African national memorial and museum.

“Hold at all costs: the epic battle of Delville Wood 1916” describes the six terrible days of fighting in which the South African Brigade (under command of the 9th (Scottish) Division) was engaged, and in which its numbers were reduced to a pitiful few. The book is based on many quotations from men who were there, from letters, memoirs and other similar sources. As such, it takes us right down into the detail of the fight, trench by trench. The endurance, bravery and pain that these men experienced is almost indescribable, but they words manage to convey the situation extremely well. I believe that the book could perhaps have benefited from some additional context, for battles were raging to the left and right at High Wood and Guillemont too, but I cannot deny that it is sharply focused on the South African’s actions.

The book is of interest in that it is a very early example of an attempt to tell a rounded story: Ian Uys includes extracts from the regimental histories of German units that were engaged in the fight. There are good maps and many illustrations (some photographic, some imaginative from, for example, “Deeds that thrilled the Empire”.

A good read, very nicely produced, and a memorable account of an important part of the Battle of the Somme.