The Twentieth Century Society

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Click to see full size Photo © John East
Photo © John East

War memorials

France: South African National Memorial, Delville Wood, Longueval

Architect: Herbert Baker
Owners: Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Location: Somme, France

‘Devil’s Wood’ was the scene of desperate fighting during the Somme campaign in July 1916 when most of what was left of it was eventually taken by the South African Brigade of the 9th Division. Delville Wood was therefore the obvious place for the South African government to erect its war memorial and Herbert Baker the inevitable architect as he had lived and worked in South Africa. The memorial commemorates all the ten thousand South African dead of the Great War (not just the missing) and was unveiled in 1926. There is much literary and national symbolism in the memorial, typical of the architect, who later recalled that “I had already designed the cemetery which was just outside Delville Wood, and was thus fortunately able to lay out the plan for the South African Memorial in unity and harmony with it. The colonnade of the shelter at the far end of the cemetery faced towards the Wood, and a broad grass path containing the altar-stone and the cross ran between the graves up to the edge of the Wood. On the same axis prolonged we formed a wider avenue through a clearing in the Wood up to a high flint-and-stone semicircular wall; it was terminated at either end with shelter buildings modelled after the summer-house built by an early Dutch Governor on the Groote Schuur estate, which Cecil Rhodes had found in decay and restored; and it is now a familiar object to all South Africans on the slopes of Table Mountain… In the centre of the wall, and of the avenue and pathway of the cemetery, an archway was built crowned with a flat dome on which is set a bronze group of two men in the pride of youth holding hands in comradeship above a war-horse. The idea was suggested to me by Macaulay’s poem of the Battle of Lake Regillus; telling how the Great Twin Brethren appeared from the skies to fight in the ranks of Rome. Might it not seem miraculous, as the coming of the mythical Brethren did to the Romans, that the Dutch and English, such recent enemies, should have come overseas to fight for the British Commonwealth against a common foe?”

The bronze group was by Alfred Turner; other sculpture by Joseph Armitage. The Delville Wood Cemetery is large and contains 5,493 burials. The long axis is now terminated beyond the memorial by a fortress-like Museum which externally is a replica of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town and was built by the South African government in 1984-86.

Gavin Stamp

Commonwealth War Graves Commission


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