WW1 or The Great War
How privileged we all are being able to celebrate peace 100 years to the day after the Armistice was signed in the forest of Compiegne, in 1918.
People all round the World are today gathering to remember the near 20 million people who died in that awful war.
Firstly Let’s look at the background to this terrible conflict.
For centuries the nations of Europe had fought for supremacy and power.
Then for more than 50 years after the Battle of Waterloo & Napoleon’s defeat, peace reigned in Europe until Bismarck uniting the many principalities and states into a Federal Germany in 1867 put his stamp on Europe.
Countries formed alliances as each jostled for position whilst we might add chunks of Africa were grabbed by many of these same European nations.
This perfect competition for dominance and scramble for power was the fatal arena which let Europe slide inexorably into war.
The coalition of France Russia and Britain – the Triple Entente faced Germany Austria-Hungary and Italy – the Triple Alliance.
The Great War was triggered as we recall by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914.
Russia ordered pre – then full mobilisation, and by the end of July Germany demanded Russia demobilise.
Russia refused.
On 1 August Germany declared war on Russia and launched two battle fronts, whilst making an impossible demand for free passage thru Belgium to reach France.
The next day 2 August, France, eager to regain the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine and to support Russia ordered full mobilisation.
Britain declared war on Germany on August 4.
Germany was well prepared and swept into northern France, intent on finishing the war in a matter of weeks.
In fact both sides had war plans based on great mobility and speed of action.
But the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 changed everything – the combined British Expeditionary Force and French Army halted the advancing Germans at the river and pushed them back 65 km.
The Germans dug in and the war changed from one of mobility to one of attrition – based on the much hated trench warfare that continued for another four years.
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100 years ago Britain had an Empire – generally shown as vast swathes of pink across the World map. Many South Africans along with thousands from the colonies from Canada to New Zealand were proud of their nationality but also considered themselves part of the British Motherland.
Looking close to home leaders in the Government had committed to supporting Britain but the South African War had finished little over a decade before and some of the Afrikaners were vehemently anti British. So the first priority in South Africa was to ensure internal stability and prevent any Boer rebellion.
Germany had a large colony on SA’s border, with radio stations able to pass orders to its Navy patrolling off the southern African coast.
Logistically it would be impossible to invade German SWA, so a railway line was rapidly laid to Upington, across the Orange and thru to Karasburg creating the necessary military bridgehead to take SWA.
German East Africa was the next theatre for South Africa – a diabolical posting where more died from tropical diseases than enemy action.
Meanwhile in Europe this war of attrition was taking a frightening toll and The Allies were running out of men.
Australia and New Zealand raised a force, at Churchill’s request, to attack the Turks at Gallipoli. This invasion, with appalling intelligence, against a force of German trained Turk soldiers, led by Ataturk who was to be the founding president of the Turk Republic, was a disaster of such unimaginable magnitude that to this day 25 April ANZAC DAY is a public holiday of remembrance in both Australia & New Zealand.
South Africa at this same time was raising the South African Infantry Brigade – or 1SAI. Recruits were sent to Potchefstroom and we are extremely fortunate that The Pictorial published many photos of the recruits, officers and men leaving a visual record of the men from Natal.
The war had now dragged into its second year and the Germans tried yet again to break out by attacking Verdun. Against what seemed impossible odds the French Army hung on but with the high command demanding Britain pull its weight and share the burden.
By June Haig had agreed, against his better judgement, to open another front at the Somme.
Before talking about the incredibly valiant role played by South Africans midway thru the war, it seems right to remind everyone of two things.
The Battle of the Somme should have marked a turning point in military history. It was the last major engagement when cavalry were used and the very first time tanks deployed.
Aircraft now played a key role.
The Battle started with a massive bombardment during the week preceding 1 July 1916 and lasted until 19 November 1916.
More shells were fired by both sides than at any previous time in history.
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For endless hours shells rained down on the German lines and trenches in a vain attempt to destroy and soften the enemy and smash paths through the barbed wire that lay between the allies and the Germans; Germans in their deep concrete trenches and with machine guns sited to lay an impassable hail of bullets across any advance.
The British had bombarded for a week with 1500 guns – one for every 20 m of the line.
On the first day the Allies suffered 58000 casualties – 30000 in the first hour with 19 400 men dying that day. It is still the worst casualty rate suffered by the British in a single battle. By November more than a million men would become casualties of this dreadful war of attrition.
Both Allied and German commanders viewed this as a war where men were expendable.
It was a fight to the last man.
100 years ago many areas of France held what we would call common land – places where you could graze a horse or harvest timber from the local wood, for free.
One such place close to the line was Bois de la Ville – corrupted by the soldiery as Delville Wood – or as others said Devil’s Wood.
There is further irony in this tragic story. This area of France grows Sugar Beet so close by was a Sugar Factory – a place that was to be fought over by South African’s whose home was the cane fields of Natal.
Waterlot Farm and the Sugar Factory had to be captured to protect the one side of Delville Wood.
Now let’s give our story some truly local content.
In June 1916 Durban High School was exactly 50 years old. This meant the school had many Old Boys, with some veterans of battle from the Boer War but others still in their teens.
12 DHS Old Boys gave their lives at Delville Wood; many sacrificing or losing their own lives to save colleagues. Possibly the most famous person who survived was Capt Barlow, the founder of Thos Barlow, saved by DHS Old boy Jacobs, who died in the process.
The DHS Herald of September 1916 published letters from Old Boys at the Somme and Delville Wood.
Old Boy Dudley Meredith wrote:
From horizon to horizon in front of us lay a broad belt of red earth, a veritable desert of death, where all vegetation had been destroyed and the earth churned up by the fury of the shell fire. Tracks through this waste there were and wounded men and working parties passed up and down, but the first impression remained – a dreadful red belt of death and destruction.
Two weeks into the battle the South Africans’ fought one of the toughest battles of the First World War and ensured the name of Delville Wood would be synonymous with unparalleled bravery and forever part of our nation’s history.
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The Timeline
At 0500 on 15 July – 2nd and 3rd SAI go into attack
By 1830 on the first day it was reported that one coy was virtually wiped out – this was probably B Coy which had only two officers left standing.
Amazingly someone donated a photograph of B Coy to Glenwood High School Museum – which is currently displayed at KwaMuhle.
Bloody Sunday 16 July 1916
Capt John Jackson reported back to command
‘very heavy shelling during the night … would suggest having about 50 reinforcements somewhere behind A Coy, in the event of being attacked. We will hold out in any case.’
Lt Col Dawson impressed upon Brig Lukin
‘the men are exhausted,’ yet Lukin replied that there could be no relief for several days
During the night of 16/17 July the northwest corner of Delville Wood was subjected to an Allied military barrage to enable a combined attack. Once again the attack met with fierce enemy resistance and failed.
Day Four 18 July – Known simply as The Holocaust
During the night of 17/18 July the Germans withdrew so their artillery could bombard the entire Wood and Village.
Firing from three sides the bombardment lasted for three hours. At times the explosions were seven per second. On that day in an area of one square mile, 20000 shells fell.
Day Five – 19 July – a battalion consists of several hundred men and we learn that the Third Battalion was Overrun –
Day Six – 20 July –THE RELIEF ARRIVES but only in the evening
The Times, London, in 1917
Devil’s-Wood “No battlefield on all the Western Front was more bitterly contested than was “Devil’s Wood”, where fighting, practically uninterrupted and intense, went on for six consecutive weeks from midJuly till August 26 of 1916. It was in the first week of the struggle that the South African forces won their imperishable fame – grimly hanging on against overwhelming odds and repulsing counterattacks by troops five and six times their number.”
(Omitted above because of time and only used next para)
The bloodiest battle hell of 1916
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” … In the depths of Delville Wood, during the ensuing days, the South Africans made their supreme sacrifice of the war – where today a white stone colonnade of peaceful beauty commemorates, and contrasts with, the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”
(Sir Basil Liddel Hart in History of the First World War)
A few months later on the night of 17 February 1917 South Africa suffered another appalling tragedy when the ss Mendi creeping thru dense fog in a bitterly cold English Channel was rammed by a ship almost three times its size; a ship which was travelling against all regulations – at speed.
Over 600 members of the South African Native Labour Corps died – African volunteers going to help in the fight for King and Country. Now we honour these men every year for 17 February is South Africa’s Armed Forces Day.
But 1917 also saw the entry of the American’s into the war – for month’s they seemed to have little effect but by mid-1918 their men and materials were grinding down the German Forces to the extent the German’s made a final desperate but unsuccessful push leading within a short time to the armistice we remember today.
In closing Durban via its Durban Local History Museums has made an excellent contribution to the memory of Durban’s sons who died in the Great War.
The Old Courthouse Museum has an exhibition entitled Durban in WW1
KwaMuhle Museum has an exhibition covering DHS 150th and Delville Wood 100th.
Full credit and grateful thanks to both Glenwood High School and DHS for without their archives both these exhibitions would have lacked real content.
On 17 February 2017 the State President unveiled Durban’s Memorial to the Men of the Mendi – a memorial you can see looking out over the Bay from Festival Island.
We have replicated the exhibitions here at St Cyprians and everyone should have a brochure from both exhibitions – Please visit them soon for they will be deconstructed in the next few weeks.
Thank you everyone but let me end by paraphrasing something you will hear many times today –
Let Us Remember the sons and daughters of Durban along with the millions of others both military and civilians who died praying and fighting for Peace.

Footnote – in the original exhibition booklet Ian Uys was thanked for giving permission to use material from his many publications about Delville Wood and the Society again thanks Ian for his assistance. But as always any errors are those of the writer. Hardy Wilson

Address by Chairman Hardy Wilson on WWI – Centenary Commemorations