Saturday, 14 July 2012

Delville Wood

The Battle of Delville Wood is probably one of the most important, and most wasteful in terms of the South African military. It is also the first major engagement of  the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front and in terms of casualties the brigade also lost 80% of its strength. I am not able to describe that battle, which is described as "..the bloodiest battle of Hell of 1916" , in fact I don't think anybody could really describe the carnage and devastation that was inflicted on that small portion of France.

My own interest in Delville Wood comes about as a result of my late grandfather being one of the few survivors of the battle. He was wounded on the 18th of July 1916, and was probably evacuated to a casualty clearing station and onwards for treatment.  He was luckier than most. 



Today the wood is home to the South African (Delville Wood) National Memorial Longueval, and while it has been replanted, the wood still holds the remains of many who never came home, or who have no known grave. It is a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the Western Front battlefields, and on my list of ever I do get to France one day. 

Image by Brian Roberts

My work with the WW1 record cards will often bring forward the card of a casualty of the battle and I do keep a special eye open for them. 


Unfortunately, surviving Delville Wood was no guarantee of a safe passage back to the Union; in fact many survivors of the battle would loose their lives later in the war, or die of Spanish Flu when they  returned home. Our family was one of the lucky ones.

In South Africa there are a number of interesting Delville Wood memorials and artifacts, the most obvious being the Delville Wood Memorial at the Union Buildings, and in Cape Town. I know of two Hornbeam trees that were planted from cuttings from the last surviving tree at Delville Wood, and The National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold has a number of artefacts on display, the most poignant being a lantern that was recovered from the battlefield. It still has the stub of the original candle inside it. 

     
That tiny light must have been a small comfort in the mass of death and destruction all around it. If only it could tell us what it witnessed in those fateful days. 

A lot has been written about the battle, and a lot of photographs of the battlefield and memorials have appeared in recent years. My personal favourite is the Official Website of Delville Wood, and I have found it to be an extremely helpful source because it gave me the final clue to finding my grandfather's military records.

My grandfather never spoke about what happened to him, and while he was alive I never knew what questions to ask either. Only now do I have a new appreciation of what he may have gone through, but that probably pales into insignificance when viewed with hindsight 96 years later. 


The Chapel at St Johns College in Houghton has many links to the battle, the walls of the church still bear the insignia of the 4 South African Infantry Regiments from World War 1. Fr Eustace Hill served as chaplain to SA forces in Luderitzbucht, German West Africa, before ministering to the SA Brigade in Delville Wood, The crucifix he had made arrived at the college in 1917. 

The Transvaal Scottish Museum has an extensive collection of photographs and memorabilia from World War 1, and they also have an original Delville Wood Cross, one of at least 3 in South Africa. There is also a Delville Wood Cross in Durban, and the famous "Weeping Cross" in Pietermaritzburg.

Delville Wood Cross in Durban. Image by Eleanor Sue Garvie
Many MOTH Shellholes also have Delville Wood memorabilia, much of it donated by members who served during the Great War, and who were survivors too. But, I think that lantern still says so much about the lives that were extinguished so young, and the silent rows of graves are a reminder that the folly of war should always be avoided at all costs.

Image by Brian Roberts