More background info:
See also under the Somme
(and cf. Ypres
) for the general WW1
The Union of South Africa
was at the time a British
dominion, and so here, too, recruitments of volunteer (and not quite so volunteering) soldiers were made, who were mostly assigned to British divisions.
Delville Wood, near the village of Longueval, became known as “Devil’s Wood” amongst the British. This kind of adaption of French names was actually quite common (cf. Auchonvillers
, which became “Ocean Villas”). Also common practice was to name not only trenches but also paths (or ‘rides’) inside the woods after well-known streets in London or Edinburgh, such as Bond Street or Princess Street.
At Delville Wood nearly 3200 South Africans were involved in an attack beginning on 14 July 1916. After some initial success and gain of territory, the German counter-attacks and shelling of the wooded area all but reduced the wood to a pulp with blasted stumps and of the South Africans only a minority came out alive, the exact number varies according to different sources but it may have been between only 145 to 750 out of those 3200 (cf. Beaumont-Hamel
for the similar, in fact even worse fate of the Newfoundlanders). It wasn’t until September 1916 that the Allies managed to take Longueval and Delville Wood.
Apart from that one 3200-men brigade sent to Europe, South Africans were primarily involved in WW1 closer to home, namely in what was then German South West Africa, and today is Namibia. It was there that primarily South African troops repelled the Germans who eventually had to retreat and give up their colony. German East Africa (what today is Rwanda
, Burundi, Tanzania and a part of Mozambique) was similarly lost for Germany
as a result of WW1
and was subsequently divided between Britain, Belgium
Interestingly, the racism that was institutionalized in southern Africa (see also Apartheid
) was reflected in the recruitments: only whites were to be regular soldiers, black Africans were only accepted as non-combatant support workers (drivers, porters, dock workers, and so on), while stretcher-bearer companies were formed from Indians from South Africa
South Africans were also involved in theatres of war in northern Africa and the Middle East (facing Ottomans – see Turkey
) such as in Egypt, Palestine and Libya
. On the Western Front, South Africans were later also involved in the Battles of Arras
in 1917 and in the final battles in 1918.
After WW1 the land of what was Delville Wood was purchased by South Africa, trees (from seeds brought in from South Africa) were replanted. The memorial first opened in 1926. Additions and alterations were made in the 1950s and the museum was added in the 1980s, the first cornerstone was laid in June 1984 and the museum opened on Armistice Day 11 November 1986. It was unveiled by the then controversial South African president Pieter Willem Botha (see under Apartheid
). Parts of the museum have since undergone changes and updates.
What there is to see:
The cemetery at Delville Wood is one of the largest of the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) graveyards. It has the same uniform design as other CWGC cemeteries (cf. Tyne Cot
), with a Cross of Sacrifice and a Stone of Remembrance. Of the many graves 160 are for South Africans, almost half of whom were unidentified.
The South African Memorial stands in a green field that stretches out into the wood on the other side of the road from the cemetery. In consists of a crescent wall with a high arched gate in the centre atop of which stands a sculpture of two men and a horse.
Behind the memorial is the museum
. This has the shape of a fort with five bastions echoing the larger Castle of Good Hope, the oldest building in Cape Town
(constructed in the 17th century by the early Dutch colonists). The museum building wraps around the Cross of Consecration, originally part of the memorial opened in 1926. Several floor-to-ceiling windows bearing various inscriptions allow a view of the inner courtyard with the cross.
inside is subdivided into four sections. All texts are in English and French. To the left of the entrance hall with a large bas-relief showing war scenes, the first section
is about WW1 on African soil, especially German South West and East Africa as well as northern Africa (see above
). In addition to another large bas-relief depicting African war scenes as well as plenty of text-and-photo panels there’s a glass display case with a few artefacts such as rifles, a uniform and helmet, a large water bottle and some medals.
The second section focuses on the Western Front and, in particular, the Battle of Delville Wood. A large bas-relief shows the dejected looking surviving soldiers emerging from the wood. There are plenty of photos here and text panels provide the historical background. Included is the endearing story of Jackie, a baboon who was the pet of a soldier and was adopted as a mascot by the South African regiment. Jackie wore a uniform and would salute soldiers or light their cigarettes. He was wounded in April 1918 and had to have his right leg amputated. You can see the one-legged baboon on one of the photos.
Again, there is also a glass display case with various artefacts, such as machine guns, helmets, shells, flags, hand grenades, bottles, uniforms, and so on, more than in the first section but still altogether just few, not the overload you get in some other WW1 museums. Another bas-relief depicts the battlefield after shelling destroyed almost every tree and only left stumps in the muddy land ploughed through and through by explosions.
The third section is about the sinking of the SS “Mendi”. She was a ship carrying over 800 men of the South African Native Labour Corps to the Western Front when in February 1917 she collided with a much larger vessel and went under while the men were asleep in the holds. Nearly 650 perished, only 267 survived. It was the worst maritime disaster in South African history. The wreck was discovered in the 1970s. Some salvaged wreck pieces are on display. Since 2006, though, the wreck site is classed as a protected heritage site and no further artefacts can be removed. On a screen underwater images can be viewed.
The fourth section
deals with South Africa
’s involvement in WWII
. Again there’s a large bas-relief showing war scenes at sea, in the air and on land. In this section’s exhibition room a field artillery piece stands in the centre. In one corner is another glass display case with a few artefacts (more guns, uniforms, flags, etc.), the rest is texts, photos and battle maps.
As the exhibition points out in quite some detail, South Africans played a crucial role in WWII
, especially in the fight against the Italians in Abyssinia (Ethiopia
) in 1940/41, in the defeat of the German Afrika Korps at El Alamein in 1942, and in the Allied invasion of Italy
from 1943. South Africa also made a contribution to the navy in hunting down Axis submarines and in minesweeping, including in the Mediterranean.
All in all, it’s a small, rather old-school, but quite interesting museum, insofar as it focuses on aspects of both world wars that rarely get much attention in the northern and western world’s narratives. I thus found it quite educational.
Behind and around the museum, the actual Delville Wood
stretches out. Grassy ‘rides’ (wide paths) run east-west and north-south in parallel through the wood, and these are marked by stones bearing the wartime names given to them (see above). In between the regrown (or rather: replanted) trees you can still make out shell craters, now covered with grass (cf. Beaumont-Hamel
Especially remarkable is the “Last Tree”, the only one of the original wood that survived the shelling and is still alive today. There are still shrapnel pieces embedded in the tree trunk. It is located in the centre of the wood just to the north-west of the museum.
just to the east of the village of Longueval in the Somme
region of northern France
, some 8 miles (12 km) north-east of Albert
and ca. 10 miles (15 km) from Auchonvillers
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to only by car; free
Longueval has a bus stop with infrequent connections from Péronne
, but these will hardly be of much use to tourists. So effectively you need to have your own means of transport.
Coming from Albert
, leave the town in a north-easterly direction driving on the D4929, which then joins the D929 and shortly after, just before entering the village of La Boisselle, take the D20 that branches off to the right just after you pass the “Le Poppy Bar”. From Auchonvillers
drive on the D73 eastwards until it merges with the D20 and proceed as follows. Stay on the D20, which takes you straight to Longueval. Just after leaving the village, still on the D20, turn left into Route de Ginchy. It’s signposted. Watch out for the car park entrance on the left. From there you have to walk.
The car park is open from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. in summer, but only to 4 p.m. in winter. The museum is in theory open longer (to 6 p.m.), but if you’re driving it’s the car park’s opening times that determine how long you can stay!
The museum’s opening times are: Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Mondays and on public holidays.
Admission is free.
Time required: depends on how much of the woods and the cemetery you want to explore. The memorial and museum alone take about half an hour to 45 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under the Somme
– and under France
The closest other WW1 sites are Thiepval
and the Lochnagar Crater
– to reach the latter drive back along the D20 and in La Boisselle take the left turn into Route de la Grande Mine just opposite the “Old Blighty” Tea Room. At the fork just behind the intersection take the left one, the dead-end street – it’s signposted “La Grande Mine” from here.
To get to Thiepval, turn right into the D73 at Bazentin, signposted Pozières. At the stop sign turn left and then right, following the signs.
In the other direction, the D20 going east takes you to the D1017 south of Rancourt, turn right here and carry on straight to Péronne
, a ca. 15-20-minute drive.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
You can argue that Delville Wood is pleasant and scenic enough to also count as a non-dark destination despite its WW1
associations. But otherwise this isn’t really much of a mainstream tourism area.
But see under France
- Delville 1 - South African war cemetery
- Delville 2 - South African memorial
- Delville 3 - arch
- Delville 4 - inner courtyard
- Delville 5 - relief
- Delville 6 - depiction of war-scorched earth
- Delville 7 - exhibition
- Delville 8 - shattered exhibit
- Delville 9 - WWII covered as well