South Africa’s Western Front Great War Memory and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission


During World Wars One and Two, hundreds of thousands of South Africans served in the South African armed forces abroad in support of the allied war efforts, Great Britain and its Commonwealth of Nations against the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and later the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.

During these wars, many South Africans died on the frontline and in support roles in the course of their duties and are still buried overseas.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is an inter-governmental organisation incorporated in 1917 that to this day is responsible for the maintaining of war records and graves of some 1,7 million fallen service personnel from Britain and the Commonwealth nations. The graves, remains, memorials and places of commemoration for these casualties are scattered around the world in approximately 2 500 war cemeteries and at 20 000 individual separate burial sites.

With the advent and application of new machines and military technologies during World War One the levels of destruction far surpassed previous conflicts. Just as with other combatants in this war many South Africans who fought on the Western Front and elsewhere are either buried with anonymous cemetery tombstones capped with a Springbok emblem which reads “A South African Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God” or have no known grave and are registered upon memorial walls scattered across the conflict zone on walls such as at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. This is testament to the ferocity of sustained machine gun fire and artillery bombardment.

At the Menin Gate also known as the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, an epitaph reads “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death” guarding over the names of 560 such South Africans. This memorial contains the names of more than 54 000 officers and men with no known grave. It is here where the famous second stanza from Laurence Binyon’s poem for the fallen “The Ode of Remembrance” is recited and the Last Post is played every evening at 20h00 under the memorial’s arches.

Delville Wood is the location of much South African military sacrifice and the Delville Wood Cemetery in Longueval on the Somme in northern France holds the remains of 1930 identified fallen British and Commonwealth troops, out of a total of 5 523 burials and commemorations of the First World War.

This wooded battlefield was ferociously contested by the First South African Infantry Brigade for six days in July 1916 in which the battalions showed great courage in combat though suffering high losses. Of the 3 153 men from the Brigade who entered the wood only 780 were present at the roll call after their relief. The remainder interred in the cemetery are unidentified casualties as well as special memorials to 27 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. There are 86 identified South African casualties interred there.

The South African Memorial complex in the wood, composed of a semi-circular flint stone screen unveiled by the widow of South African General and later Prime Minister Louis Botha on October 10, 1926, and later the Delville Wood Commemorative Museum built in the shape of the Castle at the Cape of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa, unveiled on 11 November 1986 honour not only the dead at Delville Wood but also all South Africans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The Arques-La-Batailles British Cemetery near Dieppe in northern France holds 380 casualties, with 377 identified war dead of which 270 are of members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) who perished while performing logistics and manual labour in France during the war. A memorial can be found in the centre of the cemetery composed of a Great War Stone with a concave bronze medallion. This ornament is adorned with the head of a springbok in high relief, with an inscription etched into the stone in English, Sesotho and IsiXhosa reading:
“To the memory of those Natives of the South African Labour Corps who crossed the seas in response to the call of their great Chief, King George V, and laid down their lives in France, for the British Empire, during the Great War 1914-1918, this Memorial is erected by their comrades.”

The CWGC launched an award winning multimedia CD-ROM in 2006 for school classroom instruction entitled “‘Let us Die Like Brothers” relating the exploits of the men of the SANLC, their service during World War One and the great loss of life and the recounting of the valour that was shown during the wrecking of the troopship SS Mendi when it was rammed by an allied vessel in the English Channel on the morning of 21 February 1917. In the sinking of the ship 607 of the 805 black troops perished alongside nine of their fellow white countrymen and all 33 members of the ship’s crew. This educational initiative sought to provide another perspective that while South African troops were segregated along race grounds and served in different fighting and service capacities, the mortal remains of all fallen South Africans were and are accorded the same honour and standards by the CWGC.

Tyne Cot Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium holds the mortal remains of 11 956 soldiers of which only 3 587 soldiers are identified. The Memorial at the same location details the names of 34 952 troops who have no known grave. Twenty-four South Africans are interred at Tyne Cot, while the names of the South Africans missing in Flanders are inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres and at the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France. This is the commemoration site for 72 000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector and have no known grave, 833 of which are South African.

Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Reserves, Major General Roy Andersen, spoke at Arques-La-Batailles on July 5, at Delville Wood on July 7 and at Tyne Cot on July 9 this year during ceremonies in memoriam of the sacrifices made by South African troops of all colours and creeds during the Great War. He highlighted the carnage of the conflict and the importance of remembrance of the participants in the years to come as the centenary of the start of World War One begins in 2014 and honouring of battles and sacrifices such as Delville Wood and the sinking of the SS Mendi looms.

At Tyne Cot Cemetery Andersen brought attention to the discovery of the remains of three South African war dead discovered near a brick factory in Zonnebeke, Belgium at the end of 2011, reinterred at Tyne Cot cemetery on July 9, 2013. They were identified as members of the Fourth South African Infantry Regiment (known as the South African Scottish, the ‘Kilted Springboks”) of the First South African Infantry Brigade, based on objects recovered such as unit insignia and their placement on the battlefield. This unit was composed of volunteers from regiments such as the Transvaal Scottish and Cape Town Highlanders, SANDF Reserve Force Regiments which endure proudly to this day. The reburial of these three anonymous soldiers brings the number of South Africans interred at Tyne Cot cemetery to 27.

It is poignant that the headstones of the South African fallen in the two World Wars are of a springbok bust are wreathed in the watchword of the First South African Brigade “Eendrag Maakt Mag – Unity is Strength”. This motto endures today as that of the Bloemfontein based armoured unit 1 Special Service Battalion, calling to mind the motto of the South African government’s motto “!ke: /xarra//ke” – Unity In Diversity”.

The numbers of casualties highlighted by the CWGS are staggering, inasmuch as the overwhelming imbalance between those dead who could be identified in the wake of combat, those that could not, and who simply are to this day unaccountable for point to the ferocity of the fighting.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission now makes the opportunity available for family members and interested parties to search for the location of their fallen descendants and countrymen.

As highlighted by Andersen during his recent visit to the battlefields and CWGC tended cemeteries of the Western Front, the run up to the one hundred year commemoration of the start of World War One and its five year course looms.

The years 2014 to 2018 will be ones of tribute, remembrance and self-examination, with Anderson saying at Arques-La-Batailles that “it is a reminder of the military lessons learnt from previous wars and should never be forgotten, and should be taken to heart” as the SANDF and the country at large reflects on its strong martial heritage and the many sacrifices made by its proud and diverse peoples.

The Pretoria Memorial Services Council will host an annual Delville Wood memorial service at Burgers Park, south of the Pretoria CBD on Sunday at 11am. General Solly Shoke, SA National Defence Force chief, is expected to be among those attending.