Delville Wood just after the War. Photo: Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields
Delville Wood was sometimes known as Devil's Wood, and the fighting there during the battle of the Somme was particularly ferocious. The majority of the wood was eventually taken by South African soldiers on the 15th of July 1916, and they held on grimly during numerous German counterattacks for six days, until they were relieved. Haig in his diary recorded on the 15th of July 1916 "Enemy counterattacked wood in force from north and northeast at 2.45 p.m. and was replulsed".
After the War, South Africa purchased the site in 1920, and it serves as a memorial to those of that nation who fell, not just here but elsewhere.
Map of Delville Wood location
Delville Wood is located just off the D20 that runs between Loungeval and Guillemont just outside the former village, and is well signposted. There is a visitors car park, and also toilets, and a cafe with a small Great War related display and a shop. The shop sells a good range of the excellent G H Smith colour reproduction trench maps, as well as books, artefacts and other merchandise. Within the car park, there is a small memorial plaque located in the flowerbed which simply says "Fred Crow RWF 1916 from his brother". Private Fred Crow from Manchester served with the 1st Battalion Royal Welsh, died on the 19th July 1916, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial as he has no known grave.
From the cafe and car park, one can walk along the small road to the South African National Memorial on the left, and on the right a large CWGC Cemetery opposite the wood.
This is Delville Wood Cemetery, and this is not a war-time cemetery but one which was created after the Armistice. It was made by the concentration of graves from a number of smaller cemeteries from the area (including Bazentin-le-petit, Courcelette, Guillemont, Loungeval, Maricourt and Martinpuch) but mainly from burials of those recovered from the battlefields. This is the third largest British cemetery on the Somme, with 5,523 graves.
Almost all the burials are of casualties from the Somme during July, August and September 1916. Probably because of the time that had elapsed when the bodies were recovered from the battlefield, the identity of a very high proportion (nearly two-thirds) of the burials are unknown. The photograph below was taken from the rear of the Cemetery probably in the 1930s, and can be compared with the same view today. They are very similar, although enlarging the contemporary picture will show the newer museum building visible through the central arch of the original Great War memorial.
Looking from the rear of Delville Wood Cemetery towards the South African Memorial in the 1930s. Photo: Combier-Macon
Stone benches are set into the right and left walls of the cemetery, and on the right-hand side there are also special memorials to 27 men known or believed to be buried here. On the left side are special memorials to those soldiers whose graves in Courcelette Communal Cemetery German Extension were later lost. These special memorial stones are set at 90 degrees to the other headstones.
Three of the headstones are of much more recent appearance than most others, and these (in Plot 13) mark the burials of three soldiers whose remians were found during the building of the museum at Delville Wood in the 1980s (see below). They appear more marbled and much less weathered. However, despite the proximity to Delville Wood, these graves are unusual in that there are reltively few (152) South African graves here.
Leaving the cemetery, the entrance to the Delville Wood Memorial and the wood itself is directly across the road. There was very little left of the wood after the war, and contemporary photographs show only the stumps of shell-blasted trees (as at the top of this page). The original Great War memorial was opened in 1926, and a photo taken shortly afterwards shows a row of very young trees in front of it, although the view of the Memorial is hardly obstructed by these. Today, the wood has regrown, and there are four rows of mature imposing oak trees in front of the memorial entrance. Depending on when you visit, there can be many acorns underfoot.
Delville Wood Memorial in the 1930s Photo R. Grossel
As you enter towards the memorial, the ground between the trees to either side is still very uneven and cratered. In front of the main entranceway of the original memorial is a large stone added later (on the 5th of June 1952) which commemorates South Africa's fallen from the Second World War.
The original memorial, unveiled in 1926, commemorates 10,000 war dead from the Great War and is surmounted by a statue of a horse and two men, according to CWGC intended to represent the two races of the Union of South Africa. It has been described elsewhere as a statue of Castor and Pollux. The names of areas where South Africans fought, including France and Flanders are inscribed on the memorial, and above the entrance arch are the words "Their ideal is our legacy, their sacrifice our inspiration".
This is a memorial to those who died, rather than to those with no known grave; there are no panels listing the names of the missing as at Thiepval. In fact those South Africans with no known grave are commemorated along with those from the United Kingdom at Thiepval and other memorials to the missing. However, the names of those from South Africa who died are written in a book kept at the museum, just inside the entrance.
Behind the memorial is the museum itself. This is relatively new, with a stone laid on 7th June 1984 to commence building work and the building itself opened on the 11th November 1986, by Mr. P.W. Botha in both cases.
The museum is hexagonal in structure, and inside are four large bronze panels on the outer walls. The first (to the left from the entrance) contains 16 friezes depicting various aspects of the Great War, whilst the next is devoted to the particular actions at Delville Wood in the six days 14-20th July 1916.
The third bronze also deals with the Great War, whilst the fourth covers the Second World War. Several of the inner walls contain large windows, and etched on the glass are the battle honours of South African forces.
In addition, there are several displays within the museum, including battles relics found during the museum's construction.
In a seperate display, the three South African VC winners are listed, including William Frederick Faulds (who won his VC during the Delville Wood actions). Private Faulds, of the 1st Battalion South African Infantry, won the VC for rescuing wounded men under enemy fire on both the 18th and the 20th of July 1916.
The memorial and museum stand within the re-grown wood, and it is possible to walk along the same "rides" or tracks that used to exist before and during the war. In the spirit of the time, these were given street names by the soldiers who served here. For example there are a number of London street names, such as Rotten Row (as pictured below), but others such as Princes Street and Buchannan Street suggest a link with Edinburgh.
To the left rear of the museum is what is believed to be the last original tree to survive from before the war. This is marked by a plaque, and the remains of trenchlines can be seen clearly in the wood between the trees.
Just a little beyond this is a plaque commemorating two VC winners from the 10th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. This is a fairly recent addition, having been put in place in May 2001. Corporal Joseph Davies (who came from Tipton in Staffordshire) on 20th July 1916 was separated from the battalion along with eight other men, and during a German counter attack they were surrounded. He led a brave fightback and forced the German to retreat. On the same day, Private Albert Hill (from Manchester) also won the VC when he led an attack and later was surronded by Germans but bravely fought on and escaped. He also later brought in a wounded officer, and captured prisioners as well! Both actions were part of a large attack on the night of the 20th July 1916, also famous for a 'freindly-fire' incident.
Continuing past the Last Tree and RWF VC plaques, and turning left down another ride leads to a tall obelisk which marks the battle Headquarters of the South Africans during the Delville Wood action. The zig-zagging shallow trench can clearly be seen on either side of the ride between the trees.
Walking today in this quiet and peaceful wood, the terrible fighting and hardship here is hard to imagine. Yet the South Africans and other suffered extreme losses here, so much that only 113 of the 766 from the South African battalions who died here have known graves - a sobering thought. At the right time of year, the wood is carpeted with bluebells - the photograph below was taken in May.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Paul Reed: Walking the Somme
Gary Sheffield & John Bourne: Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918
Commonwealths Wargraves Commission website
The Great War Forum