Tag Archives: Military Cemetries

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 15 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.


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.




Filed under Battlefield Tours, Military Memory

The Sir John Monash Centre, Villers-Bretonneux

In December 2015, the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs announced that construction would begin on the new Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux, France.

This brand new interpretive centre will tell the story of Australian involvement in France and Belgium in the First World War. The Centre is named after General Sir John Monash, who led the Australian Corps with outstanding success on the Western Front in 1918, including the famous 4 July 1918 victory at Le Hamel, which transformed First World War tactics. Situated at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux, it will be linked inexorably to the site of Australian sacrifice in foreign fields.

Centenaries and anniversaries are popular times for new and refurbished museums. The new memorial museum at Verdun, for example, opened this year, and the Sir John Monash Centre will open for Anzac Day 2018.

The Centre looks like a fantastic layout already, with large investment in multi-media to give an immersive experience. You can see a preview of it here:

I’m excited to see how the project develops, and will no doubt go once it’s opened in 2018. I’m sure it will become a favourite stop on the battlefield tourist trail for European visitors, and a site of pilgrimage for Australians.


Filed under Battlefield Tours, Developments, Museums

St Symphorien: Influencing Popular Attitudes to The First World War?

In the small Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery of St Symphorien, which is just outside of Mons in Belgium, three headstones represent much of how we have come to view the Great War in the modern era.

Wandering amongst the lines of well-kept, and well maintained graves I came across Britain’s first military casualty, Private John Parr.


Parr served with the Middlesex Regiment and was killed on 21 August 1914. He is believed to be the first British casualty of the war.

The grave nearly directly opposite his in St Symphorien belongs to of Private George Edwin Ellison, of the 5th Lancers. However, what is truly remarkable is that Ellison was killed on 11/11/1918, the day of the Armistice, and he was one of, if not the, final British casualty of the war.


Private George Price, from the 28th North West Battalion, 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division, is also buried here, believed to be the last Commonwealth soldier killed in action after he died at 10.58am on 11/11/1918.


That they all lie so close to each other, representing the beginning and the end, despite the millions killed and wounded in between, represents for many the futility and waste of the First World War. Having lost Mons in August 1914, the British had only advanced so far, and driven the Germans so far back from their gains made, that at the war’s conclusion they were effectively back where they had started.

However, the cemetery was originally a German one. The Germans had buried  buried those who had been killed in the 1914 battle for Mons, including Parr, in churchyards and local cemeteries, but in 1916 decided to concentrate them at St Symphorien. This is partly why it contains the grave of Maurice Dease, the first VC winner, and Oskar Niemeyer, the first winner of the Iron Cross. The cemetery was inaugurated in 1917.

By 1918, the war had again returned to Mons. on 11 November, Ellison was killed on the outskirts of Mons, and so was buried in the pre-existing military cemetery. Price, however, had originally been buried in Havre Old Communal Cemetery, to the northeast of Mons, but was re-interred at St Symphorien after the war.

The close proximity with which they all lie no doubt influences the perceptions of the First World War.


Filed under Battlefield Tours