South Africans on the Somme

 

100 years ago, the Battle of Delville Wood was being fought. It was one of the many engagements that made up the Battle of the Somme, and part of the wider Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

The battle saw the debut of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. They took Delville Wood on the 15th of July 1916, and they held on grimly during numerous German counterattacks, until they were relieved.

The South Africans held the wood until 19 July, at a cost in casualties similar to those of many British brigades on 1 July. They lost 2,536 men in the attacks, counter-attacks, and defence in this small stretch of the front.

Delville Wood is now the site of the South African National Memorial, which was opened in 1926. There’s some great original footage here of the unveiling of the memorial – and you can really see the destruction of the wood as there are virtually no trees standing.

The memorial building itself is near the centre of the wood, with this rather moving inscription in English and Afrikaans:

Their ideal is our legacy.
Their Sacrifice our Inspiration.

The memorial commemorates not only the actions of the South Africans at Delville Wood, but also all those who fought and died in the battles of the First World War, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But it was only recently that the names of 1100 black and coloured troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who served as stretcher bearers and trench diggers were added to a remembrance wall.

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There is also a small museum designed to look like the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Disappointingly, on my last two visits (even on 2 July 2016) the museum has been closed. I hope it is now open to tell the story of the South Africans at war.

Of the wood itself, while it looks full only one tree is an “original” hornbeam that survived the fighting. It is marked by a small plaque and shows battle damage. The rest of the hornbeam and beech trees were destroyed, and those there now are oak and birch trees planted by the South African government.

The wood is enormously peaceful, but it’s easy to see the scars of the war here. The trenches are still visible in the trees, and little memorials are still dotted around, such as pointing out where the South African HQ was.

Across the road is the Delville Wood Cemetery. It is the third largest British cemetery on the Somme, with 5,523 graves, and was created after the Armistice by concentrating a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, as well as those recovered from the battlefields. As a testament to the level of fighting here and in the immediate surrounds, two thirds of these are unidentified.

Delville Wood does not hold the same resonance for South Africans as Vimy Ridge for the Canadians, or Villers-Bretonneux or Gallipoli do for Australians. I think that is due to the contested and divided nature of South African 20th century history. Commemoration of these times remains difficult as it remains a painful issue about what is remembered – though it was good to see President Jacob Zuma lay a wreath at the memorial.

Delville Wood is an important site that helps people remember those who went before and fought for their country, and to my mind one of the most remarkable sites on the Western Front. I certainly recommend you visit it.

 

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4 Comments

Filed under Battlefield Tours, Military Memory

4 responses to “South Africans on the Somme

  1. Good to record the South African contribution at the Western Front but need also to remember Jan Smuts role in the East African Campaign and the South African troops there

  2. Iain Ramsay

    I was slightly surprised to read that you feel that the battle for Delville Wood does not hold the same resonance for South Afiricans as Vimy Ridge for Canadians. I do understand your comment however regarding a “contested history”. I grew up in SA in the 1970s as an immigrant and was very much aware of the SA involvement at Delville Wood although perhaps this was highlighted more for contemporary domestic political reasons at the time than for any purely historical reason. It may also be a generational issue that perhaps now there is no resonance. As a matter of interest I lived in a town called Germiston near Joburg that had a suburb called Delville with French Street names obviously as a commemoration. Thank you for an interesting article.

    • That’s really interesting to hear, thanks for commenting! Perhaps given the political changes in South Africa since 1994, Delville Wood has dropped off the radar (deliberately or not) – but really interesting to learn that it wasn’t always the case

      • Iain Ramsay

        Actually thinking about this more I think the Afrikaaner population in the 1970s or certainly a significant part of it would not have been terribly supportive of a historical event that was considered a British issue. As a counter to this I have always been surprised at the amount of Boer commanders Smuts, Botha who held senior positions in the Imperial South African Army fighting in Europe, East and south west Africa in support of the British only some 15 years after the Boer War and issues such as concentration camps.

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