Sunday, 11 November 2012


Since Hennie loves history, we decided to visit Delville Wood. Both of us remembered reading books about it, but neither of us could recall much of the detail. Joretha and her mother was keen, thus on the Thursday we embarked on our road trip to Longueval, the little town closest to the wood.
At the end of the day we had to conclude it was one of the best days of the whole holiday, and highly recommended for fellow South African visitors to France!  And to publish this on the 95th anniversary of Armistace day seems, somehow, appropriate.

Bernafay Wood Cemetery
On our way there, the road led us through lush green surrounds dotted more and more with the bright red of the poppie flower.  We drove past various cemeteries, where we stopped and were increasingly becoming more subdued reading about the large waste of lives in WWI, specifically in relation to the very small advances that were gained during those battles.  What specifically struck us where how well these cemeteries were maintained.  Beautiful.
Finally we arrived at Delville Wood. They say that ghosts still haunt the wood where a massacre took place in 1916.

For most people the Somme is transfixed in the amber of July 1st, 1916, when in the bombardment along an eighteen mile front 60,000 men lost their lives. To South Africans it can be narrowed down further, to the six days of July 15th-20th when in the uninterrupted and intense fighting for Delville Wood, the 154 acres of trees and scrubland became a byword for valour. It was a six-day massacre of nearly 2,500 young men.

The battle of Delville Wood is the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front in World War 1. Though there are some discrepancies in the numbers for casualties across the internet sources I searched, the fact remains that the numbers are frightening. The numbers that seems to have the most credibility indicates that 123 officers and 3032 other ranks entered the wood on July 15th, 1916. Six days later only nineteen officers and 600 other ranks walked out unscathed. (Data from the SADF unit service cards and archived sources). Other sources indicate an even higher casualty rate.

Delville Wood was an important area in the war as it provided a position from where the Allied forces could launch attacks on the Germans. Even though the battle was considered a victory for the Allied forces, the tragedy is the very high casualty rate considering the marginal gains achieved.

In 1920, the government of SA purchased the site to serve as a memorial to those of that nation who fell, not only in France, but also in Flanders and Belgium. The memorial was erected in 1926. Above the entrance Arch the following words are inscribed: “their ideal is our legacy, their sacrifice our inspiration”. A large stone was later (1952) added in front of the memorial to commemorate those that died in WWII.
A: Car park/Information centre
B Main Entrance
C Memorial
D Museum and cross of consecration
E The last tree
F: Davies-Hill tree memorial
G: Site of the SA HQ
H: Point of entrance on 15 July 1916
South African memorial
A museum was later built on the site (1984-1986), behind the memorial, based on the design of the Castle in Cape Town. 

Bronze frieze inside museum
The museum has an engraved glass window depicting the wood after the battle, and striking sets of bronze panels featuring the work of four South African artists. The panels show SA’s involvement in World Wars I and II and the Korean War. 
The most heart rendering is however the panel showing a group of Soldiers leaving the Delville Wood after six days of hell. In addition, there are several displays within the museum, including battles relics found during the museum's construction.
It felt totally weird to read Afrikaans script in the middel of France.  The descriptions inside the museum is in both Afrikaans and English.
The last tree
When the battle was over, all that was left of the wood was burnt-out stumps and a single hornebeam tree. Today this is the only living witness of the battle.Cuttings were taken from this tree and planted in SA, inter alia at General Smuts’ home in Irene.

The forest was replanted, and this holds also an interesting story. Back in 1688 when the French Hugenots arrived in South Africa, one Jean Gardiol brought six acorns to South Africa which was planted. From the trees that germinated from those seeds, new seeds were collected. These were used to plant a double row of Oak trees to line the path to the Memorial and Museum.

One of the old bridle paths
Stone marker with the "name" of the street
The memorial and museum stand within the re-grown wood, and it is possible to walk along the same "rides" or tracks that used to exist before and during the war. As was customary, these tracks were given street names, such as Princess Street and Rotten Row.   Walking through the solemn wood the remnants of the trenches are still clearly visible. The whole time it felt as if we were walking on sacred ground and the conversation remained hushed.
Remnants of the trenches still clearly visible

The Delville Wood Cemetery is opposite the memorial. 
View from the museum towards the cemetary
Entrance to the Delville Wood Cemetery
The cemetery was created after the armistace and is thus not a war-time cemetary. It is madu up by the concentration of graves from a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, but mainly from burials of those recovered from the battlefields. It is the third largest British cemetary on the Somme, with 5523 graves. Nearly two-thirds (3593) of the burials are unknown, probably because of the time that has elapsed since the battle and when the bodies were recovered.

"Two South African soldiers of the Great War" 
Three bodies were found during the building of the museum at Delville Wood in the 1980s, and they were also buried in the cemetery. Despite the proximity to the Delville Wood, there are relatively few South African graves in the cemetery. There are 160 South Africans buried in the cemetery, 56 of which remained unidentified.   Apparently the wood was never cleared, thus the wood remains the final resting place for a majority of the men, most probably due to the state the bodies were in after the severe bombardments.