Delville Wood, following the battle which raged there as part of the wider Battle of the Somme in July 1916, is a hallowed, honoured place for South Africa.
The continually unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably changed the face of South Africa’s commemoration of the service and sacrifice made by its citizens during the First World War. It can however not obscure the shared history and heritage which July 1916, February 1917 and September 1918 hold for the country when commemorating the Battle of Delville Wood, the tragic loss of the men of the troopship SS Mendi and the Battle of Square Hill in Palestine. The South Africans’ tenacity and valour in the face of the enemy from 14/15 – 20/21 July 1916 at Longueval and Delville Wood is an example for soldiers and civilians alike, especially in these troubling times.
Unperturbed by the pandemic, the fallen South African soldiers interred on the battlefield at Delville Wood and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery next to it, are faithfully tended by the staff of the Delville Wood Commemorative Museum and Memorial and personnel from the CWGC. Delville Wood’s Memorial, Wall of Remembrance and Commemorative Museum (and the Trust that supports it), serve as focal points for the honouring of South Africa’s soldiers who paid the ultimate price in the African, Middle Eastern and European theatres of operation during the First World War.
On 15 July 1916, the 1st South African Infantry Brigade under Major General H.T. Lukin was ordered to clear the wood (in French, the town’s wood – ‘Bois d’Elville’ known then and now in English as Delville Wood) north-east of the village of Longueval, France, of enemy soldiers. The South Africans occupied the wood on that day and held it in the face of intense rifle, machine gun and artillery fire until being relieved on 20 July after six days and five nights of ferocious fighting. Only twenty-nine officers and 750 other ranks remained of the Brigade’s 3 433 soldiers, with the rest having either been killed or wounded.
The Official History of the Great War 1914-1918 records the courage of the South Africans holding the wood:
“The South Africans had covered themselves with glory at Delville Wood, which is now laid out as a memorial to their dead. In spite of terrible losses, they had steadfastly endured the ordeal of the German bombardment, which seldom slackened and never ceased, and had faced with great courage and resolution repeated counter-attacks delivered by fresh [German] troops. Since their first advance into the wood on the morning of 15th July, they had defied all attempts to drive them completely from it.”
From 15 to 21 July every year, we remember all South Africans who served, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We also acknowledge the friendship of the people of Longueval and Dieppe, who host the two memorials, at Delville Wood in the Somme and Arques-la-Bataille in Normandy’s Seine-Maritime, where annual national commemorations are held.
Even though COVID-19 risk-mitigation measures have imposed challenges on commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of Delville Wood both in France and in South Africa in the period 2020 to date, strength is forged in such adverse times… and though the distance between South Africa and France is great, the diverse peoples of the Rainbow Nation unite to remember the feat of martial arms and courage by its citizens who fought and toiled to ensure the victory that ended the First World War.
Just as we mark the struggle, survival and passing of those in the COVID-19 pandemic, for those who lived, and those who died at Delville Wood and the war in which it raged… we will remember them.
Article by Captain J. De Vries
SO3 Research: Directorate SA Army Reserves