The most iconic military engagement by South Africans in World War I was at the Battle of Delville Wood from July 14 to 19 in 1916.
Only five officers and 750 men survived the action which saw 121 officers and just over 3 000 men enter the wood.
It was part of the massive Battle of the Somme which lasted for 142 days and resulted in more than 1.2 million dead and wounded from all sides.
The South Africans had been ordered to hold the wood “at all costs”. In a diamond-shaped area only 1 400 by 100 yards, it was criss-crossed by trenches and barbed wire entanglements and raked by German machine guns and rifles from only 70 yards away. They poured 400 shells a minute into the area for six to eight hours a day. The shattered wood made it almost impossible to extract the wounded.
Cape Town paid a particularly heavy price as young men from the city’s older schools – Bishops, SACS, Rondebosch and Wynberg Boys’ and St George’s Grammar – as well faith communities, professions such as bankers and municipal employees, and university students were killed.
The Delville Wood Memorial is a replica of the massive monument designed by Herbert Baker and unveiled in France in 1926. The bronze group of the mythological Castor and Pollux and a horse represents brotherhood and sacrifice in war and made much of the unity between the former white foes of the Boer War. It is flanked by a 25 pound six inch howitzer, a Great War veteran in its own right, and the memorial to Major General Sir Henry Timson Lukin, Officer Commanding the South African Brigade at the Battle.
Two of the most poignant memorials to Delville Wood abut the Grand Parade. At the Castle there are two timber crosses that were erected originally on the battlefield but came to South Africa after the site was tidied up to accommodate the cemetery in France. The City Hall contains a carillon of 37 bells. Almost all are associated with the First World War. One commemorates the valour of the South African Brigade at Delville Wood – “the praise of the City is the praise of these men for they made her great”.
Another bell subscribed by the members of staff of the municipality of Cape Town lists 31 of their colleagues who were killed in the war, seven at Delville Wood alone.
Cape Town will mark the centenary of Delville Wood at 11am on Sunday July 17, at the monument in the Company’s Garden with a parade by the Dukes (Cape Town Rifles) and the MOTHS. Those who attend are asked to be seated by 10.30am and will be entertained with a medley of First World War popular music by the Dukes Band before the service and wreath laying.
The City will be represented by the Deputy Mayor, Ian Neilson.