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France, Somme valley, WW1
The Ghosts of
line of the poem in Delville Wood’s South African National
Memorial, in France, says it all:
Everywhere on the Somme there are visible reminders of the war we call The Great War, the war to end all wars. Outlines of trenches can be seen on the neatly ploughed fields, the chalk that curves across the landscape a reminder of how the men dug deep into the earth like burrowing animals, to escape the horror.
Buried on the battlefield is a legacy of war that resurfaces daily, sometimes to destroy, sometimes merely to frighten. Outside a thatched barn, a farmer had stacked shell-cases, the fruit of a few seasons' ploughing in the nearby field. I saw a live shell and a grenade lying by the roadside, awaiting collection by the weekly lorry from the French Ministry of Defence.
The Somme in most people's minds is transfixed in the amber of July 1st, 1916, when in the bombardment along an eighteen mile front 60,000 men lost their lives. To South Africans it can be narrowed down even further to the six days July 15th-20th when in the uninterrupted and intense fighting for Delville Wood, their forces won imperishable fame.
Until I toured the battlefields I thought I knew what war was, in truth I knew nothing. The rain filled in the outlines.
When it rains on the Somme within a couple of hours the place is a morass of mud and you slip and sink to your ankles in the clinging, obscene muck that wants to pull you down into an earth still greedy for men. Then the skyline glowers, and no-mans land is a desolate waste haunted by the ghosts of the corpses that once carpeted the fields.
It rained as I swept through Fricourt and it rained as I walked up the trail that led to Montauban. It rained as I came to Mametz Wood where 10,000 men died in battle and where limbs had hung from trees like strange fruit in that harvest of hate; and it rained at Delville Wood where the sombre trees guard the earth and the bodies of those who lie in it.
But when the sun shines the Somme is flat and tranquil and full of the sound of larks, and it didn't rain on my second visit to Delville Wood, scene of that six-day massacre of nearly 2,500 young men when the 154 acres of trees and scrubland became a byword for valour.
Site of the South Africans' most famous World War I battle, the wood was an important objective for both sides in the engagement that lasted from dawn on 15th July until July 20th, 1916. Whoever held Delville Wood controlled the area, because from here the two strategic spots of Ginchy and High Wood could be kept under surveillance.
In the early hours of Friday 14th July, the 1st South African Brigade that attacked Longueval and Delville Wood numbered 121 Officers and 3032 other ranks. Six days later Col. Edward Thackery marched out with two wounded officers and 140 other ranks. Hand to hand fighting amid the demented sounds of trees erupting from the earth as shells pulverised the ground made the place a hell on earth from that first dawn on the 15th. On the 16th, the first V.C. was awarded to a South African soldier - Pte. Faulds of the 1st Battalion.
The once beautiful Bois d'Elville was totally destroyed in those five days as were the bodies that lay dead and dying. Of those that died, only 142 were recovered and given a proper burial, and only 77 of these could be given a name. They are buried in the tiny cemetery on the opposite side of the road.
Nothing more remains of the former dense wood except a single hornbeam. A new wood was planted after the war, yet these new trees still seem to brood and hold menace. Old shell-holes now overgrown with brambles are still visible and the lines of the trenches can be traced along the streets that criss-cross the wood like a grid, just as they did in 1916.
Looking into the darkness of the wood from the shadowy paths it is not difficult to imagine the screams of the five-nines and the thud of exploding shells, and to see ghostly figures flitting from tree to tree. There is a stillness in the air, a feeling of pain and desolation, and despite the trees, few birds sing.
It is here, in this sad area where so many died that the South African National Memorial is sited, recalling the sacrifice of 25,000 volunteers of all races who fought in the wars.
Lining the path to the Memorial and Museum is a double row of oak trees grown from acorns brought from Stellenbosch. Based on the design of Cape Town's Castle of Good Hope, this beautiful building is remarkable chiefly for the engraved glass window depicting Delville Wood after the battle, and the striking set of bronze panels featuring the work of four prominent South African artists, Danie de Jager, Mike Edwards, Tienie Pritchard and Jo Roos. These depict South Africa's involvement in the two world wars and the Korean War, but the largest, and the panel before which you find people standing in silence, shows a group of soldiers leaving Delville Wood after six days of hell.
It is a monument not just to heroism but to a loss of innocence.
The numbers still shock. Over three thousand men walked into that wood. One hundred and forty two walked out.
Bois d'Elville is their laurel crown.
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