Weeping Cross of Delville Wood
103 years after the Battle of Delville Wood, the wooden cross made from the remains of a tree in Delville Wood started to weep during the week of the anniversary of the battle.
One of the three crosses made stands in Pietermaritzburg.
A total of 763 soldiers from the first South African Infantry Brigade lost their lives during the battle of Delville Wood from July 15 to July 20, 1916. This is the battle in which South African soldiers earned worldwide respect for their fighting abilities.
All sorts of myths and beliefs abound as to why this cross weeps. Some believe that the wood weeps for the fallen heroes who fought for their country during the Battle of Delville Wood in 1916.
There has also been a belief that when the last survivor of Delville Wood died that the Cross would stop weeping – well it hasn’t.
To date, no proper explanation has been given as to why the cross weeps, this despite the cross having been examined by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Forestry Department, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
There is no rational explanation as to why the pine cross oozes sap every year around this time – the end of June until the end of July. But the cross weeps annually on the anniversary of the battle of Delville Wood.
It is not normal for wood to continue producing resin all this time but scientists have speculated that it could be a result of the cold weather —which causes the wood to shrink, thus forcing resin out.
On 14 July 1916, the 9th Division of which the South African Brigade was part were ordered to attack the village of Longueval. On the eastern side of the village was Delville Wood.
During the afternoon General Lukin received orders that his brigade was to take and hold Delville Wood at all costs. In the early hours of 15th July, the Brigade moved out into the wood, which was about a mile square and like most French woods divided by grassy rides. The men named these rides after streets in the country’s they knew. By midday, the woods had been taken except for the northwest corner, where the Germans were strongly established.
However, by mid-afternoon, the first of the German counter attacks had begun. It was repulsed with accurate rifle fire by the South Africans, but their losses were heavy. The Germans massed for further assaults. Gen Lukin sent what reinforcement he had and ordered the men to “dig in”, in anticipation of the shelling which was sure to come – digging trenches in rocky soil matted with roots and covered with undergrowth was very difficult, especially for weary men.
Throughout the night shelling harassed the men as they worked on their entrenchments. The orders to block the northern entrance to Longueval village was not possible as the Germans were too strong in that area. The troops resumed possession of their trenches and endured concentrated fire all day from the German guns to the north and east.
At times 24 000 shells an hour were falling on the South African brigade in the wood. Some estimates of the shells landing in the wood were 7 shells per second.
Every piece of ground was churned and riddled, every hole was filled with poison gas – but they had had orders to “stand fast at all costs” And the costs were great.
For 5 days and 6 nights, the South African forces withstood the German attacks. Many were killed or wounded by shrapnel and falling trees. Many were buried alive by the enormous explosions.
On the afternoon it was reported to Gen Lukin that the men were worn out from want of sleep but he could only reply that the orders were to hold the woods at all costs.
The battle in the woods continued swaying backwards and forwards with one side in possession of the trench and then the other. On the morning of 18th, the German-made a determined attack to recapture the woods.
A terrific bombardment and then wave after wave of infantry poured into the wood. By this time there were only a handful of men left unwounded, desperately tired but they stood their ground.
Their rifles grew so hot it was difficult to use them but the assault was broken. Wounded men filled the trench and the dead lay thick of every side. It took another two days and nights for relief forces to move into the woods.
At 6 o’clock on 20th, 3 officers and 140 men handed over the position and marched out of Delville Wood.