Saturday, July 13, 2013

Remembering The Battle of Delville Wood

Delville Wood South African National Memorial
Front view of the Delville Wood South African National Memorial - located in Delville Wood, near the commune of Longueval, in the Somme département of France.

14 July marks a day when the South African 1st Infantry Brigade got engaged in the 1916 (WW1) Battle of the Somme, in France. The battle was one of the largest of World War I, in which more than a million men were wounded or killed, making it one of humanity's bloodiest battles.

One specific encounter during this battle, known as The Battle of Delville Wood (14 July – 3 September 1916) is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as "...the bloodiest battle hell of 1916." - [Source: Liddell-Hart, Basil, H. (1970). History of the First World War (1970 p.324).Trowbridge: Redwood Burn Ltd. ISBN 0-33023-770-5.]


The following account was compiled and written by Petros Kondos on 10 July 2013, who sent me an attachment via e-mail, with the following message included:
“I spent some time and put together a little write up on that battle so that we can keep the memory of what those brave chaps did for freedom all those years ago (I also love the fact that they were so brave and highly respected). Maybe you would consider publishing it... I kept it simple... We should not forget.”
Thank you for the submission Petros... If it wasn’t for your submission I would probably not have remembered this significant date. I am thus sharing it on the blog - with the greatest of pleasure:

The Battle of Delville Wood
Compiled and written by: Petros Kondos - 10 July 2013.

The Battle of Delville Wood was one of the first major engagements for South African forces in the First World War and on the Western front. The First World War was fought against the German Empire. At the time South Africa chose to fight on the side of the British Empire.

That decision was hotly debated in South Africa at the time where most of the Afrikaans speaking South Africans wanted to fight on the side of the German Empire. This debate was to continue for many decades there-after. That decision also had a defining influence in South African politics splitting English and Afrikaans speaking people for many years.  As South Africans we have had a long legacy of discontented political groups. But enough of that argument it’s these brave men and their battle that we are here to remember.

The Western Front was a long “line” across almost the whole of France that saw some of the worst of the fighting. Many brave and good men lost their lives on both sides often over just a few hundred meters of barren and destroyed ground.  The maps below indicates the broad areas of the Western Front and the location of this battle.

Map of the 1914-1918 Western Front Battlefields - Courtesy of
Click on map for a larger view
Location of Delville Wood in the French department of the Somme

One of the major areas of confrontation was the more commonly recognised battle of the Somme named after a river that runs through the area.  This military front was opened up to act as a diversion to assist the French who were fighting at Verdun and where they were taking major losses and under heavy strain. The Battle of Delville Wood was a part of the Somme offensive area.  This specific battle was considered to be one of the most bloody of the whole of the Somme.

In the North the British and Empire forces were battling the Germans when the 1st South African Infantry Brigade was brought into the fighting. Specifically they were to take a wooded hillarea close to the town of Longueval called Delville Wood. This position was strongly held by the Germans.

The attack was to have started on the evening of the 14 July but it was delayed until the morning of the 15 July at 06h00. Over a period of 6 days 2536 soldiers died in battle. Despite these massive losses their objective was achieved and their contribution made a vital difference to the eventual outcome of the war.

To place their achievement in perspective at the time any brigade that lost 30% of their strength (soldiers) would be considered as unable to continue to fight.  The South African brigade lost over 80% of their numbers and they carried on fighting, won and held their position.  The fighting at stages was reduced to hand to hand combat as the South African men lost numbers and were virtually surrounded on a number of occasions by the enemy.

Shelling at one point reached over 400 shells per minute exploding in the wood. After the battle only one tree remained standing in the wood, this tree is still standing today.  I am quite sure that it witnessed many brave and heroic acts.

This battle was also the first time that a South African soldier was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). The VC is the highest military honour that the British Empire awards to soldiers for bravery.  The recipient was Pte William Frederick Faulds.

His bravery involved rescuing wounded soldiers trapped between enemy lines and trenches. On two occasions, on the 18 July and the 19 July he risked his life when under heavy fire and in daylight he carried trapped wounded comrades to safety. He passed away on the 16 Feb 1950 and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Harare Zimbabwe.

Below from left to right:

Pte W.F. Faulds
Pte W.F. Faulds
A Victoria Cross medal
A Victoria Cross medal
Cap badge of 1st SA Infantry Brigade, 1914
Cap badge of 1st SA Infantry Brigade, 1914
Henry Lukin, who was a Brigadier-General commanding 1st South African Brigade.
Henry Lukin, who was a Brigadier-General commanding 1st South African Brigade.

Postscript: The VC medal that was awarded to Pte Faulds was displayed at the National History Museum in Johannesburg until 1994 when it was stolen (that was about the time that that the South African Government started working towards losing recognition, respect and remembrance for any South African soldiers in service pre 1994). But as they say the victors write the history books.

A beautiful memorial was built to commemorate the brave soldiers and their efforts.  The main memorial is built as a replica of the old fort in Cape Town. The memorial is built close to the town.

Below is a closer view of the memorial and the burial grounds as seen above (on the Google map) to the right of the town of Longueval.

Aerial View of the cemetery and memorial, courtesy of

Delville Wood Monument
This image of the monument courtesy of Irmgard Weisser

The words over the entrance arch are inscribed both in English and Afrikaans.
“Their ideal is our legacy.Their Sacrifice our Inspiration”
“Vir ons is hul ideaal 'n erfenis, hul offer 'n besieling”
Above these inscriptions, on the very top part of the archway, is carved the French phrase "AUX MORTS", signifying that this is a monument to the dead.

The memorial cemetery

Photograph courtesy of

Some photos of the battle grounds

Delville Wood after the battle.

An abandoned German trench in Delville Wood near Longueval, Somme, France.

and Wikipedia (naturally).

In closing I found this poem written by 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Clark Snr which typifies the South African soldier at the time:

The New Zealanders' Farewell to The South Africans.

Tis to bid farewell to you, Springbok boys,
That we gather here to-night,
For we leave you soon in the homes you
left to join the Empire's fight.
You did your share in German West when
the Kaiser cast the die,
And we are sorry now to leave you, but war
is all "goodbye"
And we envy those rows of ribbons that
some of your veterans wear,
and their faces brown from the lands they've
seen and their smile so devil-may-care.
We met you first twelve months ago when we
chased the Sennussi gang.
And you proved you were true Colonials then,
and your name thro the Empire rang.
Then with us again you came to France, and
were put to the shell-fire test,
and the word went round, "Springboks on our left"
And old Fritz got no rest,
for you worried the Huns the whole day long,
you strafed him day and night,
and the Crown Prince found to his Army's cost
that the Springbok boys could fight.
And you did the job at Delville Wood, and
you made it a living hell:
Twas the first tough job you were sent to do,
and you did it, and did it well,
with a Glorious rush that frightened Fritz,
you were one of the Germans ten
and when Fritz attacked you drove him off
with a handful of your men,
and you beat us once in the Rugby field
tho' we thought we knew the game,
but you showed us you could play it too,
and played it like gentleman.
But when sports meet sports in the playing field,
defeat is no disgrace,
and the Springbok now with the Fern Leaf
on the Black Flag take it's place,
then here's good luck to your fighting men,
for we know you will see it through,
when the bloody sword shall clash no more
We'll play rugby again with you.
But we hope this peace will do away
with all War and War's alarms
but if the Empire calls may our children meet
and like us the brother in arms.

Compiled and written by: Petros Kondos - 10 July 2013.


mawm said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

The Flag carried into the battle by SAI is in St John's College (Johannesburg) chapel along with on of the two crosses made from the splintered remains of the trees of Delville Wood. The other cross is in a church in Pietermaritzburg and allegedly weeps a red gum annually around the time of the anniversary of the battle.

GREAT MILITARY BATTLES said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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Remembering The Battle of Delville Wood - July 2013
14 July marks a day when the South African 1st Infantry Brigade got engaged in the 1916 (WW1) Battle of the Somme, in France. The battle was one of the largest of World War I, in which more than a million men were wounded or killed, making it one of humanity's bloodiest battles. One specific encounter during this battle, known as The Battle of Delville Wood, is of particular importance to South Africa. The posting includes a comprehensive article (with pictures) compiled and written by Petros Kondos.

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