Memorials and remembrance services have been held throughout South Africa to commemorate the sacrifice of soldiers who died 100 years ago in a faraway battle, in a wood at a crossroads in northern France.
Over the last week, serving members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and military veterans remembered those who had gone before. Schools with long histories, including St Andrew’s College, Michaelhouse, Christian Brothers’ College (CBC) and others remembered their Old Boys who would not carry on to university or a career, having become casualties of the war. Civil society groups also remembered, such as the Wanderers Club, which lost numerous cricketers and rugby players of national repute.
At the Scottish Memorial in Burgers Park, Pretoria, under the auspices of the Pretoria Memorial Services Council and with the participation of the Pretoria Regiment, who posted the sentries, along with the South African Military Medical Health Service (SAMHS) Band, a moving remembrance service evoked that battle exactly a century ago this week.
Master of Ceremonies Major Tim Lane described the battle, speaking of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, drawn from all parts of the country and even from what was then Rhodesia. Describing the unit’s movements, he described how they had captured the French village of Longueval, and then: “The brigade was moved into Delville Wood, later described by survivors as ‘Devil’s Wood’, meeting fierce resistance and heavy bombardment. There were no reinforcements, much suffering, numerous acts of bravery and an excessively heavy toll in human lives. On the evening of the 15th of July, 1916, the brigade numbered 3,153 men (121 officers, 3,032 other ranks). On the morning of the 19th of July, 1916, 1,080 men were dead, 1,735 were wounded. Only 338 came out of the battle physically unscathed. The wood itself was reduced to a few stumps and a few broken branches, half-buried in mud. It has had to be re-planted twice in attempts to get it back to its original condition.
“There are only 51 South African graves at Delville Wood, there was not sufficient remains of the other 1 029 dead soldiers to bury.
Quoting a historian, Lane said: “The brigade had hung in the wood without reinforcements or relief for an incredibly long time, six days and five nights, standing firm against impossible odds. This had also been the first occasion of any significance that South Africans of whatever descent had fought and died together.”
He was referring to the reconciliation that was taking place between English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans only 14 years after the end of the Second Anglo-Boer War. At the time, Black South Africans were not allowed to bear arms, yet many volunteered and many died, but none in July 1916.
Major Lane’s reference to “other ranks” is an indication of the strong class differences there were at that time, when “working class” men could be privates or Non Commissioned Officers (lance corporals, corporals, sergeants etc.) and possibly reach the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major (a senior Warrant Officer) but only educated middle and upper class men would be trained as officers.
The grandson of a Delville Wood survivor, Frank Netterberg, spoke of his grandfather’s experience in the battle. He was Private George G. Tanner, of the 2nd Regiment, D Company of the SA Brigade and hailed from Port Elizabeth.
Private Tanner had fought in the German South West Africa Campaign in 1914. The campaign had been led by General Henry Lukin. Later General Lukin would lead the 1st SA Brigade at Delville Wood.
Netterberg described his grandfather’s part in the battle: “He was a dispatch runner, between the company Head Quarters (HQ) and Regimental HQ and he was blown up on the way and he arrived shell shocked and even though he was in a bad state he insisted on going back with a reply, basically that there were no reinforcements. Then on the way back he was blown up again and buried alive, with just one leg sticking out. He said he waved his leg and fortunately they dug him out in time and he got back with the message. I think it was for that that he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).”
Following the playing of the Last Post, the two minutes’ silence and Reveille, during the wreath-laying ceremony, representatives of the Tshwane Metro, serving officers representing Chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and SA Military Health Service, laid wreaths, as did military attaches of the UK, France, the US and Germany.
Military veterans’ organisations followed, including the Council for Military Veterans’ Organisations of South Africa (CMVO), SA Legion, the MOTHs, the Sapper’s Association, Infantry Association, the Pretoria Regiment Association and many others.