Guest Column

2500 South Africans died in Delville Wood – who cares?

2016-07-12 09:56

Susan Erasmus

They were buried where they fell – as all the soldiers and support staff from France, Britain and the colonies and dominions of the British Crown, of which South Africa was one.

And of bodies there was no shortage – it is estimated that almost 20 million people in total died in The Great War, as it was called before World War II broke out. Not even the British Empire could seriously contemplate transporting millions of bodies home.

Remembrance Day on 12 July 2016

And this month there are countless remembrance days at the various memorials where these soldiers (many unknown) lie buried in France, including one on Tuesday 12 July at the very beautiful South African Memorial near Delville Wood. So what is the point of these? But first, a bit of background.

South Africa in 1916

In just four days between 15 and 19 July, the SA Brigade, numbering only 3150 men, attached to the 9th Scottish Division lost 766 men with the dead outnumbering the wounded four to one. At the height of the Battle of Delville Wood, enemy artillery fire reached 400 shells a minute.

That’s what happens when you combine 19th century battle strategies with 20th century machine guns.  The vast number of casualties of this war has put a question mark over the military insights of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front.

South Africa had been a Union for little over four years when the Great War broke out. Wounds were still fresh from the Anglo-Boer War, and it was a country sharply divided between English and Afrikaans and even more sharply between black and white.

So sharply, that the names of the almost 1100 black and coloured SA troops from the SA Native Labour Corps, used as stretcher bearers and trench diggers, were only this week unveiled after being added to a remembrance wall at the SA Memorial near Delville Wood. Many of them died while rushing to the rescue of their white compatriots in this brutal battle, which lasted from 15 July – 3 September 1916.

The war was not a popular one on all fronts, and yet 229 000 South Africans volunteered (those that were not in the army already) to join the British and French forces fighting on the Western Front. Of those 10 000 in total would die on the battlefields of WW1 and countless thousands injured and maimed.

Why did these soldiers go and fight?

Why did they go in the first place? Times were hard, work was scarce, there was labour unrest, and for many people the army provided secure employment. Also this could be their one chance to travel beyond SA’s shores in days before travelling was so commonplace. Or it might have been a feeling of patriotic duty, a sense of adventure, or a combination of any of the above.

Hurled into the kind of ongoing hell we can scarcely imagine from the relative safety of our suburban homes, these men put on a brave battle. We should never think that all soldiers are great heroes, though. It wasn’t all camaraderie and the Last Post. In any fighting division you are likely to find not just your heroes, but also your drunkards, those sleeping on guard duty, a deserter or three, someone who will not risk himself to save a friend. Just people like everyone else. Who’s to tell what kind of soldier you and I would have been? Pray that we never find out.

The point is that many of these South Africans were hardly professional soldiers. They were people like you and me with a few weeks of hurried and probably insufficient training and little if any battlefield experience and they were thrown into one of the most vicious and deadly battles mankind has ever known – in four months in the Battle of the Somme, there were, on both sides, over a million casualties.

Why do we remember them?

Do we remember the SA soldiers because they were young men, distant relatives, or South Africans? Or because we hope that the senseless slaughter of these young men was not in vain and would deter us from engaging in fresh wars?

Barely a generation later, within 21 years, Europe was at war again. So if deterrence is not what remembrance days are about, then what’s the point?

Standing still for a moment, we honour those who fought and died, possibly not by choice, for a minute remembering the fear, the  blood, the trenches, the mud, the bravery, the desperation, the boredom, and the agony. Respecting that they knew if they survived no one who hadn’t been there would ever really understand what they had gone through – and how life just could not ever really be the same again.

There’s little romance to war – forget the movies. But what one does often seem to find in real life among the survivors is a sense of desperate, intense and lasting camaraderie – the kind that brings tears to the eyes of an 80-year-old war veteran saluting fellow soldiers and friends who did not survive. In the face of death, one is probably the most acutely alive that you will ever be.

Two-thirds of those 5493 soldiers buried at Delville Wood are unknown – a testimony to the incredible destruction that characterised this particular battle. Countless families remained bereft at having nothing more than the phrase ‘missing in action’ hanging over them.

Men of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment take a rest along a road. (Delville Wood Museum)

In a way by standing still and paying quiet tribute to these men who died in brutal chaos, even if just in our own minds, we, for a moment, restore their “dignity and their individuality” to quote poet Walt Whitman. He spoke of the “untold and unwritten history of war” and of the countless men who suffered and died anonymously. They are not just names on memorial plaques gathering dust – for someone out there that was a father, a husband, a lover, a son, an uncle, a friend, a brother. The tragedy of such loss can echo through a family for generations.

The stories of the heroes are often remembered, but what about everyone else who also lost everything?

We cannot change history, and we cannot stop it from being repeated, but we can acknowledge what we think these people went through.

In honouring these soldiers, we honour life, what we have now, and pay some tribute to the society in which we would like to live. And in which they never would.

We will remember them. And we should.

- Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer.

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