Recent enquiries concerning South Africa’s involvement at Delville Wood during the Battle for the Somme in July 1916 has brought to light that there is very little written about it. And although it’s the Western Front, the men I’m focusing on were African (South African to be specific).
Delville Wood is often regarded as the white English South African population’s equivalent of Gallipoli, Verdun or Britain’s first day of the Somme. For those wondering why I’ve specified white English South African, there are four special World War 1 commemorative events in South Africa reminiscent of the cultural diversity in the country then and now. In addition to Delville Wood which is generally commemorated every 11 November along with the rest of the world, there is Mendi Day on 21 February remembering all those who drowned when the SS Mendi went down. For me, it’s a fitting day to remember the over 19,400 black labourers who didn’t drown and who served on the Western Front and in Africa suffering the same privations and consequences of war others did. Then we have the white Afrikaans 1914 Rebellion more specifically the execution of Jopie Fourie who was found guilty of treason – he hadn’t resigned his commission before joining the rebels and finally, 20 September is Square Hill Day which is when the Cape (Coloured) Corps held their ground in Palestine. For readers aware of South Africa’s involvement in World War 1, these four remembrance events together demonstrate the richness of the country. However, missing from the ‘official’ events is that of East Africa and South West Africa. I don’t know of anything to commemorate South Africa’s invasion of South West in 1914/5, but the East Africa campaign is commemorated (knowingly or otherwise) by the Comrades Marathon which is run every year.
Back to Delville Wood. As far as I can tell, the best overarching account of South Africa’s involvement at the Somme remains Ian Uys’ work. I haven’t read any yet so cannot comment further. Peter Digby has written unit histories, a few others have compiled family history accounts, and then there is the website of Delville Wood itself. It is high time some brave historian (enthusiast or academic took on the challenge of writing a comprehensive account of South Africa’s involvement on the Western Front).
For those living in the Durham area, a novel approach to theatre-going featured the Battle of the Somme in a production 1916: No turning back (Thursday 21 July to Sunday 28 August 2016). The production takes an unusual approach to engaging the audience in experiencing the war and gives a flavour of what the South African troops might have experienced.
For those unable to get to Durham to see 1916: No tunrning back, Peter Dicken’s speech at Delville Wood 2016 gives some idea and an overview of what happened.
We started this memorial service, with short blasts from World War 1 replica whistles, this was the signal blown by individual officers to send their troops “over the top” during the Somme Offensive and aside from the gun and artillery fire this is the last mechanical sound thousands of soldiers heardFrightening isn’t it? The sound of these whistles had some men literally freeze in pure terror. What a harrowing and poignant start and to consider that it was a sound that was going to repeat itself again and again all along the Somme salient.
Why is the Thiepval memorial significant to South Africans? It’s a surprise to many in The Royal British Legion and in South African veteran and military circles, but the official designation of this memorial is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”.
This memorial is built right across the front lines as they stood on the 1st July 1916, the very same day the British Army suffered 20 000 men killed and a further 40 000 wounded – it’s literally on this very ground that we are standing on now that much of this massive bloodletting took place. Humbling – no doubt!
This memorial however, speaks not simply of that first day but of the whole Battle of the Somme. On stone panels around the memorial’s arches are recorded the names of the men of the United Kingdom, 71,336 and 858 South Africans.
To, think – these are only the ‘missing’ from the battle of the Somme – men who have no known grave, or on whose gravestone is inscribed the words “unknown soldier”. As to names on actual headstones, around us are thousands. The Somme Offensive is off the scale – it is the most bloodiest battle in the entire history of mankind, – the sad truth – it advanced only 10 km along the front with the grim total of 1 million men dead or wounded from both sides littered in its wake.And it all began with a Bang!, a very big one. Soldiers of the British Forces here and soldiers of the South African forces just over the way at Delville Wood witnessed the biggest explosion ever seen until then – The Lochnagar mine explosion was so big that debris from the explosion hit a British spotter plane 4000 ft up in the air, the detonation of this large mine and 8 others under German positions was said to be heard as far as England, and it was the start of carnage on a epic level.
On the South African side of the Somme Offensive things started off remarkably well, the 1st South African Brigade was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July and “hold it at all costs”.
I’ve recently spent time at the SANDF Document Centre (South African Military Archives) in Pretoria and have as usual been astounded at the amount of material held. Yet, most researchers only access the military service cards. With this in mind and the snippets I accessed, I wonder what what treasures are still to be uncovered about South African involvement at Delville Wood and on the Western Front generally for men (and women) of all South Africa’s ethnic groups.
It’s become clear to me that World War in Africa cannot exclude what happened at Delville Wood and Square Hill – these experiences helped mould the country into what it is and should be given the same historical treatment that the East Africa campaign currently receives. A hundred years later is not too late to remember!