The Battle of Delville Wood was the first major engagement entered into by the South Africans on the Western Front during the First World War. For six days and five nights a soldier was killed every minute, with one South African soldier dying every three minutes.
From the 14th to the 20th July 1916 the South African Infantry Brigade was engaged in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought.
The Call to Remembrance originated in Cape Town and 106 years later, Cape Town and South Africa is still holding a commemorative service to pay tribute to those men and women in uniform who died in the line of duty.
So it was on Sunday 31 July that the Delvile Wood Memorial Service and wreath laying ceremony was held at the Company’s Garden, Cape Town. Held under the auspices of the Department of Military Veterans, the Memorable Order of Tin Hats, the Gunners Association and the SA National Defence Force, the ceremony is not only to remember those South Africans who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War, but in all conflicts across all continents, on land, in the air and at sea.
This year, the dignitary of the Memorial Service was the Cape Town Deputy Executive Mayor, Alderman E Andrews, with members on Parade provided by the SA Army (Chief Langalibalele Rifles, General Jan Smuts Regiment and the Cape Town Highlanders). Music was provided by the SA Army Band (Western Cape) and the SA Navy Band.
After the address by Andrews and the Religious Observance by MOTH Padre Anthony Bethke, the sounding of the Last Post was followed by two minutes silence. Reveille was then sounded, with those guests in attendance as well as the multitude of local and international visitors to the Gardens all acknowledging the solemn event.
Wreaths were then laid by the various dignitaries, units, organisations and other bodies present.
On 15 July 1916, the SA Infantry Brigade under Major-General HT Lukin was ordered to clear the wood at d’Elville, north-east of the village of Longueal, France, of enemy soldiers, thereby covering the flanks of the British Brigade.
Whilst capturing the wood took a day, it was considerably more difficult to hold it. But Brigadier General Lukin had received his orders: “Take and hold the wood at all costs.”
Despite fierce counterattacks and artillery bombardments from German divisions, the SA Brigade refused to surrender. The Brigade was relieved on 20 July after six days and five nights of ferocious fighting. Only 750 soldiers remained of the Brigade’s 3 433 soldiers; the rest had either been killed or wounded. The South African Native Labour Contingent, composed of Black unarmed combatants and non-military personnel, were also involved.
The Battle of Delville Wood went down in the history of WW I as an example of supreme sacrifice and heroism and remained the most costly action the South African Brigade fought on the Western Front.
The Delville Wood South African National Memorial was unveiled at Delville Wood, Somme department of France in 1926 in remembrance of those who died in the Battle.