Commemorations are taking place throughout South Africa and the world for the Centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood, the bloodiest military engagement ever involving South African forces.
President Jacob Zuma led the memorial service at the scene of the battle near the village of Longueval, in north-western France, on July 12. The SA National Ceremonial Guard, the National Ceremonial Band and South African military veterans from as far away as the Republic as well as parts of Europe were also present. Many schoolchildren also attended.
President Zuma spoke about the famous “last tree”, reportedly the only tree left after the fighting of July 15-20, 1916. He said: “As a strong symbol among the remains of trenches that still scar the landscape here at Delville Wood, the "last tree" is growing. This magnificent tree was the only one left standing following the horror of that week of combat, fearlessness and bravery, one hundred years ago. The tranquillity and beauty of the wood around us, breathtaking as it is, must not make us lose sight of the numerous conflicts still afflicting the world and the new shape of war.
“The bravery of Delville Wood laid the foundation upon which the integrated South African National Defence Force (SANDF), as an instrument for peace and stability, remains prepared to protect the country's territorial integrity and national sovereignty. We will remember our fallen heroes in every one of our towns, cities and villages, for that is whence they came.
“Let all South Africans stand proud of what the men of Delville Wood of all races sacrificed for their country. Let their ideal be our legacy and their sacrifice our inspiration.”
The Battle of Delville Wood, which lasted from June 14 to June 20, 1916, cost the SA First Infantry Brigade 2,536 casualties out of 3,155 men, a loss of 80 per cent. Fortunately no other South African unit has suffered such high casualties since. The only unit to suffer “very high” casualties were the Special Forces Regiments.
Delville Wood was part of the British Somme Offensive, which suffered the highest losses of the Western Front in WW I, with over a million casualties.
Before the memorial service at Delville Wood itself, South African veterans from the Republic as well as Britain and elsewhere in Europe as well as numerous SA schools took part in a service under the auspices of the Royal British Legion at the nearby Thiepval Memorial on Sunday, 10 July.
The remembrance was close to home for many of the schools. Michaelhouse in KZN lost 43 of its Old Boys in WWI.
National President of the South Africa Legion of Military Veterans, Godfrey Giles, reminded his audience that the British Empire Services League, which later became, inter alia, the Royal British Legion and the SA Legion, was founded in Cape Town in 1921.
He called on the veterans to play their part in telling others of the evils of war. He said: “You have borne witness to the destruction of family life caused by war. I charge you, to assist those veterans, in preventing wars in the future by speaking out to others of what you’ve seen on these battlefields. To all the veterans here present, representing many organisations in South Africa, thank you for also carrying the torch of remembrance. You have lived through battles and war. You know the effect on you and your comrades. You have suffered losses. I also charge you to speak up about preventing wars in the future.
“To the many schools that are represented here today, firstly, I’d like to thank the teachers who remembered where so many young volunteers came from. Thank you for ensuring that the torch of remembrance is handed down to another generation. To the pupils present. I hope that this tour has allowed you to really understand and comprehend the size of this war along with the destruction of property and lives lost. Speak to veterans around you and next-of-kin for personal accounts.
“Together let us influence our politicians and the radicals. We do not accept war. Dialogue is what we call for. Words are stronger than weapons. Let us use them to prevent cemeteries like this being built in the future. The Legion motto is: ‘Not for ourselves but for others.’ Thank you all for remembering and recognising the service of our men and women who gained us our today. We will remember them.
Memorial Services will be held at the weekend throughout South Africa for this special anniversary of the Battle.
Photo by Theo Fernandes.