Longueval – Delville Wood: The South African National Memorial & the Last Tree

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The South African (Delville Wood) National Memorial, unveiled in October 1926 by, among others, General James Herzog, Prime Minister of South Africa, and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, to remember the South Africans who served and died in all theatres of operations during the Great War.  It now also includes those who served in the Second World War and the Korean War.

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Entrance to both wood and memorial.  Delville Wood was bought by the South African Government in 1920, which is why you can stroll around it to your heart’s content today, unlike many of the other, privately owned, woods on the Somme.

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The memorial stands at the end of a wide central avenue flanked by double rows of oak trees, the acorns of which originally came from South Africa.

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229,000 officers and men from South Africa fought in the Great War, and more than 11,500 died.  Unlike other Commonwealth memorials, there are no names of the missing inscribed on the flint and stone memorial screen; all are to be found alongside their British allies on British memorials across the Western Front (the Thiepval Memorial, for example, is inscribed with only the names of missing men from Great Britain and South Africa who died before 20th March 1918), although a Roll of Honour, in the form of a book, is kept here.

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Atop the domed arch, Castor and Pollux clasp hands in eternal friendship across the back of a warhorse.

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This South African version of the Stone of Remembrance was unveiled in 1952 by the mother of Major Edwin Swales*, posthumous awarded the Victoria Cross in 1945, and remembers all South Africans who died in the Second World War.

*You’ll find his citation at the end of the post.

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Impressive though the memorial is,…

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…you must forgive me if, knowing that time, as ever on this tour, was short, and that the museum (yes, there’s a museum) was closed, I hurriedly scooted off into the trees past the memorial…

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…to take a look in the wood proper.  And in particular, at this little hornbeam.

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Just beyond the memorial museum (above),…

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…this little tree, enclosed now by a wooden fence, is the last to survive from the pre-war years.  Somehow it lived through the devastation, and here it still stands.  If only it could talk.

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Surrounded by old shell holes,…

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…there’s now a stone marker, inscribed in French,…

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…English,…

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…and Afrikaans,…

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…which has been here since 1988.  The grassy rides that now traverse the wood are far wider, perhaps as much as four times so, than the small bridle paths that were here before the war.  They still bear the names given to them by the first British troops to enter the wood and which found their way onto the trench maps of the time, as the example below, dated 15th August 1916, illustrates.

Delville Wood 15 August 1916

I have marked the central avenue that now leads to the South African Memorial in pink.

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Above & below: The hornbeam is situated near the intersection of Regent Street (left), and Princes Street (right).

Panorama (3)

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The fence has only been here since 2009.

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I know, I know, and I’m sorry, okay?  You can just about read it!

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Cuttings from the tree now grow in the Garden of Remembrance at Pietermaritzburg in South Africa.

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Which is nice.

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Beyond the tree…

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…one must never forget that this wood is a mass grave, certainly more than a thousand men, British, South African and German, and probably many more, still lying beneath the gently undulating terrain.  Time to investigate how some of them got there.

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After the successful opening to the British offensive against the Bazentin Ridge on 14th July 1916, the attack on Delville Wood was planned to begin the following morning.  Until the wood was free of Germans, any further British advance north would be impossible. As British artillery pounded the German defences, just over 3000 men of the South African 1st Infantry Brigade, part of 9th (Scottish) Division, moved into position to the south of the wood.

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As on the previous day (see two posts previously), the initial attack was a great success. Artillery pounded the defenders before the infantry moved in, and by evening, all of the wood, except for a small area in the north west corner nearest the village of Longueval, had been cleared of Germans.  The South Africans, however, were by now faced with a German force more than double their strength, the by-now shattered nature of the wood, with uprooted trees, exposed roots, and constant shellfire, making the digging of trenches to afford some protection far from easy.  As evening fell on 15th July, the South African hold on the wood was becoming, at the very least, tenuous.  Throughout the night German artillery plastered the wood with shells of all calibres – I have read that at times 400 rounds fell on the wood per minute – as the South Africans desperately continued to dig.

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Despite the hardships of the night, early the following morning the South Africans, entrenched in Princes Street (it should, of course, be Prince’s Street), along with the Royal Scots attacking from Longueval village, where fierce fighting was continuing, were ordered to take the remaining corner of the wood.

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The attack, without any preliminary artillery bombardment, was a failure, the South Africans and Scots being forced back to their starting points. Both sides now spent the rest of the day consolidating their positions beneath the incessant artillery fire and constant sniping; much of the fighting that took place that day in the shattered wood, dictated by the terrain, as much as anything, was nothing but vicious hand-to-hand brawling.  Evacuation of casualties became harder, and difficulties now arose in bringing up supplies, especially ammunition, food and water, particularly as Waterlot Farm (actually a sugar refinery), some way south of Delville Wood, remained in German hands.  Attacks on the farm, by South African and Scottish troops, would continue until it would eventually fall early on the morning of 17th July; from what I have read, no prisoners were taken.

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Just before dawn on 17th July, this time following an artillery bombardment, the South Africans were once again ordered to clear the Germans from the north west corner of the wood, and once again, despite ferocious hand-to-hand fighting, they could not succeed.  Two days and nights of constant fighting had exhausted them, and still there was no sign of reinforcements for the men still alive in the wood, who, under intense pressure from the now counter-attacking Germans, had now been ordered to hold the wood at all costs.

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The night of 17th was a night of crisis; the Germans unleashed a barrage of thousands of gas shells on the British rear areas and artillery positions, accompanied by attacks on the South African defensive perimeter, that saw them advance as far as Buchanan & Princes Streets, before a desperate counter-attack pushed them back again.  In Longueval village the orchard to the north had finally been taken by the Gordon Highlanders who joined up with the South Africans in the wood, but only, as it turned out, because the Germans had evacuated the orchard prior to the start of the biggest bombardment that they had yet unleashed upon the wood.  From eight in the morning until late in the afternoon of 18th July, the shells fell upon the defenders of the wood and the village.  The Highlanders retreated from the northern part of Longueval, and German troops began to enter the wood from the east, north and west.  Fighting once again became a series of barbaric individual or group brawls amid the chaos of uprooted trees, shattered trenches and now mud, as thunderstorms soaked the exhausted men on both sides.  Despite stubborn resistance, the South Africans were driven back to the south western corner of the wood nearest the village, beyond Buchanan Street and Princes Street, and there they clung on throughout the night and into the following day.

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All through the next day the South Africans held on, despite incessant German shelling and sniping, although a number of their colleagues, cut off in the eastern part of the wood that they had defended so stoutly for the past few days, were effectively wiped out, 190 men being forced to surrender. At long last, in these terrible conditions, the first reinforcements began to arrive to the south of the wood.  Throughout the night of 19th July, and despite several further German attempts to dislodge them, the South Africans held their positions, and despite an aborted attempt to counter-attack the Germans just before dawn, in the morning the men of 9th Division at last arrived to relieve them.

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The museum, as I said, was closed,…

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…and there appears to be loads of work going on around it,…

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…although, again, not today.

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Out of 121 officers and 3032 other ranks who entered Delville Wood on 15th July, only 142 men could initially be counted when the South Africans first left the wood.  A few days later 29 officers and 751 other ranks answered the roll call; 2373 men had become casualties, 763 killed, died of wounds, or missing, presumed dead.

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Rotten Row, another of the pre-war bridle paths.  I have no desire to belittle all the other regiments who fought in this awful place in the summer of 1916, but nor do I pretend to be a history book, and, believe me, you could write a book about the fighting in Delville Wood.  Nigel Cave has.  The tour I was on came here to see the South African Memorial, we were here for only a short period of time, hence, unfortunately, no views north of Princes Street, and I have concentrated the text primarily on the South African involvement for these reasons, but don’t for a moment think that things were any easier once the South Africans had been relieved.

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The men of  the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Middlesex, Royal Fusiliers, the Manchesters and others who came after to attempt to take the wood faced the same heavily fortified enemy, supported by accurate and intense artillery fire, that had so decimated the South Africans.  The fight would continue throughout the month of August before, finally, on 3rd  September, the Germans would abandon the wood.  Well, until late April 1918, but that is an entirely different story.  However, in a moment of supreme, tragic, irony, in February 1918, two months before the German Spring Offensive during which it was to be almost totally destroyed, the South African Infantry Brigade took part in a Drumhead service here in front of a wooden cross dedicated to the men of the Brigade who had fallen in Delville Wood in 1916.

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Delville Wood – the Devil’s Wood – was once a place of horror.  Take a look at this photo of Princes Street today as it stretches west towards Longeuval village beyond the trees…

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…or this view of a peaceful Regent Street leading, as it does, to the northernmost edge of the wood.  And then consider these words, the first from a Brigadier General, the second from one of the wood’s defenders:

“Conditions in Delville Wood were appalling.  It was full of gas and corpses, no regular line could be discerned, and the men fought in small groups, mostly in shell holes hastily improvised into fire trenches.”

“I never remember having seen so many dead in so small a stretch of ground; in one of the rides they lay five and six deep.”

Never forget.

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Major Swales’ citation reads:

“Captain Swales was ‘Master Bomber’ of a force of aircraft which attacked Pforzheim on the night of February 23, 1945. As Master Bomber he had the task of locating the target area with precision and of giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers in his wake. Soon after he reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy aircraft and one of his engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed. His crippled aircraft was an easy prey for further attacks. Unperturbed, he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he issued aiming instructions to the main force. Meanwhile the enemy fighter closed the range and fired again. A second engine of Captain Swales’ aircraft was put out of action. Almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing his aiming instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose.

It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war. Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands, he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers, but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, by now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; it was losing height steadily. Realising that the situation was desperate Captain Swales ordered his crew to bail out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls. Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live.”

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4 Responses to Longueval – Delville Wood: The South African National Memorial & the Last Tree

  1. Steven Hearnden says:

    Another excellent write up. Missed the tree when I visited, amazing how that survived.

  2. Baldrick says:

    Wonderful post. The inscription on the stone marker isn’t in German but in South-African (“Afrikaans”), by the way.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thankee kindly Balders. And yes, I’m a buffoon – funniest German I’ve ever read – have amended. Sithee Friday.

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