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A Very Brief History of Delville Wood

Their ideal is our legacy, their sacrifice our inspiration…

At the end of the  Great War, there was a strong popular demand in countries of the Commonwealth for the commemoration of the fallen troops. So, during the twenty years following the War, the Commonwealth countries erected National Memorials on the sites where their troops distinguished themselves.

With this aim, Colonel Helbert, the South African military attaché in London, travelled to France and Belgium to select a site. Visiting the Somme devastated by the War, he was struck by the atmosphere of Delville Wood, the site of the first major engagement of the South African Infantry Brigade in July 1916. The wood, thick and dense in the past, was now a desolated wasteland covered with shell holes, broken trees and the remains of trenches. A hornbeam is the only surviving tree of the original wood. Today, it is the only living witness of the battle. A silent but touching testimony to the several thousand men who lie here for eternity.

With the motivation of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and the support of General Smuts,  the South African Government purchased Delville Wood in 1920. Covering an area of 63 hectares, Delville Wood has retained more or less its pre-war outlines. Its western and north-western edges border the village of Longueval and its southern edge is defined by the Longueval-Ginchy road.

Flanked by two double rows of oaks, a wide avenue leads solemnly to the Memorial. These venerable oaks have a colourful history. Approached in 1920, the South African Department of Forestry took on the immense replanting of Delville Wood. M. Hockvelden, stationed at La Motte in Franschoek, asked 9-year-old Koos Hugo, who lived on the farm La Cotte, to collect a bag full of acorns from the same tree that had germinated from one of the six acorns which French Huguenot Jean Gardiol had brought to South Africa in 1688. These symbolic acorns, when germinated, were sent across to France where they were used to replant Delville Wood.

Although this Memorial does not bear the names of the dead, those of the South African dead are recorded in the same cemeteries or memorials as those of the Corps and Regiments of the United Kingdom.

The Memorial Arch bears the following dedicatory inscription in both English and Afrikaans:

To the Immortal Dead from South Africa, who at the call of Duty made the Great Sacrifice on the battlefields of Africa, Asia and Europe and on the Sea, this memorial is dedicated in proud and graceful recognition by their countrymen.