Fromelles, Pozieres and Bullecourt are the killing fields that still resonate in Australian history, a century after World War I was fought.
South African veterans at the ceremony at the
West Australian War Memorial in Kings Park, Perth,
on July 20, to remember the fallen of Delville Wood.
At Fromelles, Australia’s “Diggers” were withdrawn on the morning of July 20, 1916, after a night of horror in which the young nation sustained 5,533 casualties.
Pozieres a few days later would add almost another 5,200 to Australian casualties, with fighting lasting from July 23 to 27, 1916.
Later, in 1917, the two Battles at Bullecourt would add another 3,300 casualties on April 11; and in the second encounter, fought over two weeks in May, almost 7,500 casualties from three Australian Imperial Force (AIF) divisions would swell those ghastly numbers further.
These huge casualties naturally devastated Australia, which at that time had a population of just under 5 million. Some 420,000 Aussies volunteered for service in that war, or 38.7 per cent of the male population aged 18–44.
A neighbour’s similar experience
Another fledgling nation, and Commonwealth country, also fought with distinction in that great conflict, South Africa.
When the Union of South African was formed in 1910 there were 1.3 million whites, in a total population of 5.9 million, and only from that group came the fighting troops. It was certainly a more fractured society than Australia, culturally and politically, as the latter had no such divisions with its overwhelming Caucasian population.
South Africa’s torment on the Western Front coincided with Australia’s bloodbath at Fromelles. For South Africans, Delville Wood was the place, a place referred to as Devil’s Wood or Nightmare Wood.
In scenes that could have come from Dante’s Inferno, that charnel house in France was where brave, young South African soldiers fought, suffered and, in most cases, perished.
Delville Wood was to the Springboks what Gallipoli was to the Aussie Diggers. It was South Africa’s baptism of fire.
On July 20 at the West Australian War Memorial in Kings Park, Perth, the South Africans were remembered in a ceremony of recognition long overdue to Australia’s comrades-in-arms. State Governor Kerry Sanderson led the laying of wreaths in remembrance of the fallen and a strong contingent of SA Border War veterans honoured their compatriots of an earlier era.
In six dreadful days of fighting, commencing on July 15, 1916, some 3,155 South Africans entered the gates of Hell, being ordered to take Delville Wood at all costs against a German force of over 7000.
When relieved at 6pm on July 20, only 143 left the wood, including three officers. The following day as the remnant of the brigade reassembled, the casualty figures made for grim reading: only 750 men and five officers were at the assembly, some 80 per cent having become casualties. Of the 123 officers, 104 were killed, wounded or missing.
Outnumbered and attacked on three sides the South Africans were, however, not outfought in what British historian Basil Liddell Hart described as the “bloodiest battle hell of 1916”.
The artillery shelling had destroyed the forest and the South Africans were under horrendous fire throughout, with the wood reduced to a splintered wasteland apart from one tree that still survives to this day. Seven shells per second rained in on the Springboks. For every one South African wounded four were killed.
The importance of Delville Wood for South Africa has changed over the years.
Initially, it was important because the two white tribes, Afrikaners and English, fought side by side: although the Dutch-Afrikaans speakers only represented 10-15 per cent of the Union army, they were the majority of the white race (60 per cent). The ethnic question in that era pertained to the two white tribes, not the blacks, and there were potent historical reasons for bitterness between the two.
The destruction of two independent Boer Republics, Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal) during the South African War of 1899–1902 had led to great bitterness. British concentration camps had resulted in the death of some 28,000 Boer women and children, in Lord Kitchener’s utter failure as British Commander-in-Chief to ensure proper duty of care.
Boer resentment was shown at the start of World War I when two former Boer generals, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the Union (1910–19), had to put down a rebellion by Afrikaner elements who wanted no part of that conflict.
As historian Bill Nasson noted, Delville Wood was, in a fashion, an emulation of the unrelenting resistance of the bittereinders, or “diehards”, who refused to capitulate in the Anglo-Boer War.
The great Boer general, Christiaan de Wet, had “found his empire bittereinder equivalent in the pugnacity of Private Andrew Hoatson”. The Natal private had remained at his Lewis gun post while the rest of his platoon perished.
For Botha and Smuts, Delville Wood commemorated the beginnings of a national fighting spirit rather than just factional tribal loyalties, although Nationalist pro-republicans still remained scathing of the British generals’ incompetence and callousness.
Smuts as Prime Minister (1919–24) favoured South African soil for a commemoration of Delville Wood, but eventually a remembrance place on the Somme, was chosen. Thus, like Gallipoli for Australians, the foreign soil where blood was spilled became the shrine of remembrance for the fledgling nation.
The South African National Memorial at
Delville Wood, northern France.
The first Nationalist Prime Minister was Barry Hertzog, who succeeded Smuts after defeating him in the 1924 election. Some of his supporters urged him to refuse to participate in the opening of the Delville Wood Monument, in France (1926). However, Hertzog was determined to attend, declaring that there was no room for division in honouring South Africa’s fallen, although he could hardly be called an appeaser of empire sentiment.
At the outbreak of World War II Smuts was Prime Minister for the second time due to divisions in the government about being involved in another global conflict. Smuts was eventually defeated, again, in 1948.
Co-opted to revisionism
As in the Great War there had been an element of Afrikanerdom that was strongly pro-German, and Bill Nasson notes that, following the return of the National Party (whose rule would last until 1994), Delville Wood “swiftly became converted to serve other visions of a national past”.
Linkage was made with the Voortrekkers of the 1830s and battles that established Christian civilisation in the hinterland. Thus, the first postWWII Prime Minister, Daniel Malan, stopped at Delville Wood in the early 1950s to pay tribute to the future of democracy. Three decades earlier, as a minor Interior Ministry official, he had been reprimanded for spurning a request for assistance from the Delville Wood Memorial Committee.
The Nationalist attempt to shift the monument from being a tribute to empire loyalists (the Anglo-Afrikaners) onto a larger stage ran into problems caused by apartheid policies at home.
State president P.W. Botha paid a low-key visit to Delville Wood in November 1986, as South Africa became increasingly denigrated and isolated by a West that was no longer interested in honouring any contribution made by South Africa.
However, under the National Party’s long tenure in office, South Africans had seen action in Korea and later in the Border War in Angola, the latter preventing 55,000 Cubans from marching to Windhoek SWA (now Namibia). But it was never enough for some. As Nasson wrote: “Instead of acknowledging the loyalty of a nation which identified fully with the West and had sacrificed in wars for its causes, in pushing South Africa out in the cold, Western conduct had become shameful and dishonourable.”
Western liberals increasingly and unfairly saw everything through the prism of their own anti-apartheid cause célèbre.
On July 12 this year, current Republic of South Africa President Jacob Zuma visited Delville Wood to honour, in particular, the 260 fallen of the non-combatant South African Native Labour Corps.
Some 25,000 black South Africans served in that role and they are now fully honoured at the Delville Wood museum, with no division between them and their white countrymen.
That, at least, was an irony of Delville Wood that attracted no criticism.