The South African National Defence Force (SANDF), international organisations, embassies and veterans organisations have remembered the biggest single loss in any action by a South African military unit, that at Delville Wood, part of the Somme Offensive, in World War I.
Memorials were held on July 12 in Durban and Port Elizabeth, while the main events took place in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria on July 19. The Pretoria event, held annually at the foot of the SA Scottish Statue in Burgers Park, was opened by Master of Ceremonies, Major Tim Lane of the Pretoria Highlanders. He recited the Canadian war poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea’s evocative work, “In Flanders Fields”, likely to send a shudder down many a spine, as a short quotation shows:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The Pretoria Highlanders also provided the sentries for the occasion.
The memorial, showing a Highlander in full battle dress, is based on the memorial in Killin in Scotland by Alexander Carrick, a famous Scottish sculptor and WWI veteran. In 1923, the South African Scottish Regimental Association commissioned him to create a similar statue. He made a copy in larger scale, changing only the cap badge and certain items of equipment including the bayonet which were specific to the South African soldiers.
The Delville Wood battle lasted from July 15-19, 1916, cost the 1st South African Brigade, made up largely of local “Scottish” units, the highest losses ever suffered by a South African unit. Of 3 153 men, 121 officers and 3 032 other ranks, 1080 were dead and 1735 were wounded with only 338 soldiers physically uninjured.
These losses have never been equalled in either of the two World Wars or other more recent conflicts. Only the Special Forces have come close to their losses.
The Department of Military Veterans, the four Arms of Service of the SANDF, military attaches from the UK, France, Britain and Holland as well as a large number of veterans organisations, including the MOTHS, SA Legion, SAAF Association and many others, as well as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) laid wreaths to the traditional pipers’ lament. The piper was supplied by the South African Military Health Service (SAMS).
Memorial services were also held in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
2016 is the Centenary year for the battle and some government participation is expected on the day as well as visits by veterans organisations at the Delville Wood Memorial and at Ypres in Belgium.