Delville Wood, Butte de Warlencourt. Death inhabits the corner of the wood and the blood of thousands of soldiers fills the furrows of the fields of the Somme and the Artois. A catastrophe for the 1st South African Infantry Brigade.
Having taken part in military operations in Egypt and Libya, South African troops came ashore in Marseille on 20 April 1916 and headed north to the trenches. Acclimatisation was harsh in Flanders. On 2 July, the brigade entered the Battle of the Somme head on. 537 men lost their lives in the first week of fighting alone. And this was just the beginning as the fighting frenzy continued.
On 15 July, the South Africans (121 officers and 3,032 men) were assigned the mission of taking Delville Wood and to hold it whatever the cost. The Germans outnumbered them and the result was a slaughter. A week later, the brigade was left with only 780 able-bodied men; 763 had been killed and 1,709 wounded.
War fails to learn from its lessons. On 12 October 1916, the South African brigade was once again annihilated at the Butte de Warlencourt, a hill just 50ft in height. Losses were high. No rest was in store and from 1917 the South Africans saw action at Arras, Ypres and elsewhere. “Reduced to the size of a battalion” in March 1918 during the German offensive, the valiant brigade distinguished itself in Meteren in July.
It is estimated that 5,000 South Africans (almost all of them white) were killed, which brings us to the subject of the black workers of the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps), from which 25,000 volunteers left Cape Town between October 1916 and January 1918. Alongside Egyptians, Chinese, Fijians etc, they unloaded millions of tonnes of munitions and supplies in the ports of Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne-sur-Mer etc. In Europe, the SANLC lost 1,120 men, and those who returned to South Africa did not even have the right to receive the Inter Allied Victory Medal, such were the odious effects of apartheid.