The South African Brigade
Delville Wood is well known in South African military history; it represents the national symbol for bravery and sacrifice as it was here that the 1st South African Infantry Brigade accomplished one of the finest feats of arms of the First World War in July 1916.
On the 15 July 1916, the brigade, comprising 121 officers and 3032 men, received orders to take the wood “at all costs”. For five nights and six days, the South Africans fought against various units of the 4th German Army Corps. Outnumbered, and being fought against from three sides, they were almost decimated but managed to hold on and fight back, sometimes resulting to hand to hand fighting, until most of the woods had been captured. When they were relieved on the 20 July, only 142 men came out of the woods unscathed, eventually 780 men from the South African Brigade reassembled.
South African National Memorial
Ravaged by the fighting of 1916, the woods were replanted in the 1920s and restructured to house the South African National Memorial, dedicated to all South Africans who fell during the wars of the 20th Century in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Public subscriptions were raised to finance this memorial, which was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, one of the principal architects of the Imperial War Graves Commission. The unveiling ceremony took place on 10 October 1926 in the presence of the widow of General Louis Botha, Prime Minister General J M B Hertzog, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
A wide avenue bordered by a double row of oak trees leads up to the memorial, which bears inscriptions in both English and Afrikaans. Its crowning statue, by Alfred Turner, depicts Castor and Pollux clasping hands above a horse, symbolising the union of all people of South Africa in their determination to defend their common ideals.
A service of remembrance is held in Delville Wood during the month of July. Please click here for more information about this year's service held on 9th July 2017.
De gauche à droite : Laurent Somon, Président du Conseil départemental de la Somme, Thapedi Masanabo, directeur du site de Longueval, Son Excellence Jacob Zuma, Président de la République d'Afrique du Sud, Jean-Marc Todeschini, secrétaire d'Etat à la mémoire et aux anciens combattants, et Philippe de Mester, préfet de la Somme.
La tombe de Beleza Myengwa, premier soldat du corps sud-africain indigène de travailleurs à périr lors de la Grande Guerre. En 2014, son corps a été exhumé d'un cimetière de Seine-Maritime puis réinhumé au musée du bois Delville pour rendre hommage aux soldats noirs sud-africains, engagés comme travailleurs lors de la Grande Guerre.
South African National Museum
Inaugurated on the 11 November 1986 by the President of the South African Republic, the museum was built around the Cross of Sacrifice. The museum commemorates the 25,000 South African volunteers, men and women of all races and religions who fell during the two great wars and during the Korean War. Magnificent bronze bas-reliefs tell the story of the battles in which the South African soldiers fought. One of them, entitled 'the Sixth Day', illustrates the return of the soldiers after six days of fighting in the wood. The bas-reliefs also illustrate the involvement of the South African forces in the Second World War and the Korean War (1950-1953).
30 years after its official opening, the museum has been refurbished and updated and its collections of bas-reliefs, artefacts and archive documents now highlight the role of all South Africans, black and white, on the various theatres of battles.
Behind the museum stands a scar-covered hornbeam, the sole survivor of the battle. The design of the museum was inspired by the Castle of Good Hope, the first European fortification erected in South Africa.
Bid for UNESCO World Heritage Status
The South African Memorial and Delville Wood Cemetery are among 11 sites in the Somme that have applied for UNESCO World Heritage status.
The architectural ensemble is unique. It is the only South African National Memorial on the Western Front and it is set upon the preserved former battlefield. The South African Government holds a ceremony here each year at the beginning of July.
The transformation of the Memorial and the Museum
Black South Africans were not allowed to take up arms during the war and so did not fight alongside the white South Africans in Delville Wood. More than 21,000 black South Africans did, however, serve as labourers in France during the war.
While apartheid was still in vigour, the important role of the black troops was overlooked by the South African Government of the time. And thus, the new South African Government decided to transform the site into a place of remembrance that illustrates and respects all aspects of the nation's military history.
The transformation in dates:
- 30 June 2014 : reburial of the first South African Native Labourer to have died during the Great War. Previously buried in a civilian cemetery in Bléville near Le Havre, his remains have now been reburied in the courtyard of the Delville Wood Museum, providing a strong message of the nation's reconciliation and restoring dignity to the black South African servicemen.
- 12 July 2016 : For the commemorations of the centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood, a garden of remembrance was unveiled in remembrance of 600 soldiers who have no known grave. A wall of remembrance was also unveiled in commemoration of the South African servicemen of both the 1st South African Infantry Brigade and the South African Native Labour Corps who died during the Great War. The museum was also updated at the time.
- Step 3: The museum's artefacts and exhibitions concerning the sinking of the SS Mendi were updated. This phase was begun in February 2017, 100 years after the tragedy.
What will you remember of this day?
We have paid tribute to our heroes. On the Wall of Remembrance that was unveiled today, nearly 14,000 black and white South Africans are remembered in alphabetical order with no other distinction. After apartheid, this is an important symbol of a reconciled nation. In schools, children are only just learning about what happened here in France. The presence of our president is very symbolic to me. It shows how my country is attached to these men who died during the war.
I appreciate the whole site. With each step that I take, I feel something indescribable. Especially when I imagine the bloody battle and the terrible slaughter that took place here. 100 years on, this place is so peaceful. I sometimes see deer quietly walking here.
Who visits this site of remembrance?
Tourists mainly, coming to the Somme from Great Britain because the country is so close to these battlefields. What we have shared today will certainly encourage a greater amount of South Africans to visit. It is important that they understand that this terrible history truely occured.
- Museum and Visitor Centre open every day (except Monday) from 4th February to 5th December 10am to 6pm (10am to 5.30pm from 1/04 to the 14/10)
- Free access to the memorial all year round
- Free admission
- Car park
- 5, rue de l'Afrique du Sud
- 80360 Longueval
- Tel + 33 (0) 3 22 85 02 17
- firstname.lastname@example.org | www.delvillewood.com
Longitude 2.812825 | Latitude 50.027452