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Centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood

On Tuesday 12 July 2016, commemorations were held at the South African National Memorial in Longueval for the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Delville Wood. The President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, led the service in remembrance of all South Africans who served during the Great War.


New : an updated museum to include South Africa's complete military history

The museum, built around the Cross of Consecration, was officially opened on 11 November 1986. Its design was inspired by the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, the first European fortification to be built in South Africa. Magnificent bronze bas-reliefs tell the story of the battles in which the South African soldiers fought. One of them, entitled 'the Sixth Day', illustrates the return of the soldiers after six days of fighting in the wood. The bas-reliefs also illustrate the involvement of the South African forces in the Second World War and the Korean War (1950-1953).

30 years after its official opening, the museum has been refurbished and updated and its collections of bas-reliefs, artefacts and archive documents now highlight the role of all South Africans, black and white, on the various theatres of battles.

Behind the museum stands a scar-covered hornbeam, the sole survivor of the battle.

Le directeur du site de Longueval, Thapedi Masanabo.

Three questions to Thapedi Masanabo, director of the South African Memorial and Museum.

Thapedi Masanabo has worked relentlessly since 2007 to bring to light the role of the black South Africans during the First World War. The centenary commemorations at Longueval have helped highlight their bravery and essential role, often forgotten in history books.

What will you remember of this day?

We have paid tribute to our heroes. On the Wall of Remembrance that was unveiled today, nearly 14,000 black and white South Africans are remembered in alphabetical order with no other distinction. After apartheid, this is an important symbol of a reconciled nation. In schools, children are only just learning about what happened here in France. The presence of our president is very symbolic to me. It shows how my country is attached to these men who died during the war.

Which part of the wood most moves you?

I appreciate the whole site. With each step that I take, I feel something indescribable. Especially when I imagine the bloody battle and the terrible slaughter that took place here. 100 years on, this place is so peaceful. I sometimes see deer quietly walking here.

Who visits this site of remembrance?

Tourists mainly, coming to the Somme from Great Britain because the country is so close to these battlefields. What we have shared today will certainly encourage a greater amount of South Africans to visit. It is important that they understand that this terrible history truely occured.

Interview by Isabelle de Wazières



A terrible battle

The battle of the Somme corresponds to the first major involvement of South African troops on the Western Front. On 15th July 1916, the 1st South African Infantry Brigade was composed of 121 officers and 3032 men. They received orders to take and hold Delville Wood at all costs. The South African troops had to fight against various units of the 4th German Army Corps for five nights and five days.

Outnumbered and attacked on three sides, the almost decimated South Africans managed to hold on to part of the wood.

When relieved on 20 July 1916, only 142 initially made their way out of the wood. When the brigade reassembled, only 780 remained unscathed. This fighting was so violent that the British and Commonwealth troops renamed the wood Devil's Wood.

The Memorial

Delville Wood has since been seen as a national symbol of courage and sacrifice. Ravaged by fighting in 1916, the wood was replanted and landscaped for the South African National Memorial in the 1920s. This memorial which remembers all South Africans who died during the Great War on all theatres of operations, was financed by public subscription. It was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and unveiled on 10 October 1926.

The memorial carries inscriptions in English and Afrikaans and is crowned by a bronze statue by Alfred Turner of Castor and Pollux leading a horse into battle, clasping hands in sign of friendship. This artwork symbolises the union of the people of South Africa.

The transformation of the Memorial and the Museum

Black South Africans were not allowed to take up arms during the war and so did not fight alongside the white South Africans in Delville Wood. More than 21,000 black South Africans did, however, serve as labourers in France during the war.

While apartheid was still in vigour, the important role of the black troops was overlooked by the South African Government of the time. And thus, the new South African Government decided to transform the site into a place of remembrance that illustrates and respects all aspects of the nation's military history.

The transformation in dates

- 30 June 2014 : reburial of the first South African Native Labourer to have died during the Great War. Previously buried in a civilian cemetery in Bléville near Le Havre, his remains have now been reburied in the courtyard of the Delville Wood Museum, providing a strong message of the nation's reconciliation and restoring dignity to the black South African servicemen.

- 12 July 2016 : For the commemorations of the centenary of the Battle of Delville Wood, a garden of remembrance was unveiled in remembrance of 600 soldiers who have no known grave. A wall of remembrance was also unveiled in commemoration of the South African servicemen of both the 1st South African Infantry Brigade and the South African Native Labour Corps who died during the Great War. The museum was also updated at the time.

- Step 3: The museum's artefacts and exhibitions concerning the sinking of the SS Mendi were updated. This phase 3 was launched in February 2017, 100 years after the tragedy.


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