I\'ve recently had the pleasure of travelling through France on holiday and en route I managed to fulfil a long-held desire of mine and visit the South African Memorial at Delville Wood. For those of you not familiar with the history of the South Africans on the Somme, the 1st SA Infantry Brigade (as part of 9th Scottish Division and consisting of 3,153 men) first entered Delville Wood on the 15 July 1916. The wood itself was a tactically important salient protruding into the German second line. Vastly outnumbered by the surrounding German forces the Allied troops were subjected to an unrelenting onslaught of such violence that the wood itself all but disappeared, shattered by the intensity of the artillery bombardments of friend and foe alike. Private Victor Casson (1st SAI) later wrote, \'The wood was subjected to a rain of shellfire, the whole wood appeared to be hit by an earthquake. The wood heaved and shook, blowing up trees and men. Mutilated bodies lay everywhere. The dying and the maimed were calling out for water and help - but there was none to be had. It rained hell-fire and steel.\'

Instructed to hold the wood \'at all costs\', when their ammunition was expended they resorted to hand-to-hand combat and the wood became littered with the bodies of dead and dying soldiers. After six days and five nights of some of the most savage combat on the Western Front, the battered remnants of the SAI Brigade were relieved. A mere 142 soldiers emerged from what had become collectively known as \'Devil\'s Wood\'. Eventually 780 men of the brigade assembled, 1,709 had been wounded and 664 killed. Nothing remained of the wood - it was a shattered and broken landscape. Today, the contrast couldn\'t be more extreme. The wood has been fully replanted, and it is a sight of haunting beauty. Remarkably visitors can freely walk throughout the wood following the former trench systems. This is one of the few places you can easily do this on the Somme and with the major trench and communication lines marked by stone plinths it is possible the trace the changing positions of the troops and the ebb and flow of the battle. If any of you are lucky enough to plan a visit to the Western Front battlefields then I would wholeheartedly recommend that you make a stop at Delville Wood, it is an unforgettable and truly thought-provoking experience.

The major connection lines between the trenches had been named by the Highlanders who had previously held the wood. Today the stone plinths in the wood mark Princes Street, Rotten Row and the other key points in the Allied defences.

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The only tree in the wood to survive the battle still stands and you can easily see the shrapnel holes in the bark of this hornbeam.

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A view of the memorial and commemorative museum seen through the trees.

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A view of the wood as it looked at the end of the battle.

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A view of the wood today with the trench lines clearly visible. You can purchase copies of original trench maps from the museum and it is easy to orient yourself.

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