I’m aware that this is a blog for English gardens but on a recent visit to the site of the Battle of Delville Wood as part of a trip to the WW1 battlefields in France, I was surprised to see this:
And so I kept looking:
I found out later that these markers represent the names which were given to the rides on the original 1916 battle map. Some were named after streets in London: Rotten Row, Regent Street, and Bond Street. And then there were the Glasgow streets: Buchanan and Campbell, while Edinburgh is represented by Princes Street and King Street; and Cape Town has Strand Street. It’s a reminder of the grim and still poignant humour that must have helped to keep the men going at times.
On the day we visited, the wood felt so peaceful. Admittedly it was wet and cold and so we were almost the only people there, but walking amongst the trees, I listened to birdsong and gave up counting just how many acorns were sprinkled underfoot. Perhaps this was why I found it so hard to imagine the wood as the setting for one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
It’s now a memorial for the South African soldiers who died on the Somme, significant because it was the first major engagement entered into on the Western Front by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade.
Although, of course, here as elsewhere, a mixture of nationalities fought alongside each other.
If you look closely you can see how the land carries the memory of the trenches:
But it’s still shocking to see this spelt out:
They lie not far from where the South African regiment first entered the wood:
Nowadays, there’s an impressive pair of oak vistas allowing you to walk up from the road to the South African war memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker. Research on the internet came up with the fact that the wood was given to the South African Government as a permanent memorial and planted with oaks taken from Stellenbosch and Franschoek. These two towns were settled by the French Huguenots in the 1600s, and it’s possible that the oaks at Delville were descendants of oak seedlings brought by these settlers in turn from France.
We were enormously privileged to have Jeremy Banning as our guide; he is not only an expert military historian but he knows how to tell a good story, including one about ‘Ralph’s oaks’. Apparently, a veteran called Ralph Langley stayed on in France after the war as an Imperial War Graves Commission gardener and was nursing some young oak saplings in the early 1920s. It’s good to think that these must have been the ones that now line the entrance way to Delville Wood.
And as for the original wood, well, there’s only one tree left:
– this hornbeam…
… which no doubt holds its own memories of the past as well as growing new ones.
And here’s the little poem I was writing in my head as I walked along Rotten Row:
Ambling down Rotten Row
coat buttoned against the October chill
acorns crackle underfoot like sudden gunfire
and straight rows of oaks reach down roots
to soothe their soldiers back to sleep.
I’ve written about another aspect of the recent writers’ trip to the Somme on my other website here.
More information about Delville Wood here.
Date visited: October 2013