The Deputy Minister of Basic Education Mr Enver Surty has visited the site where thousands of South Africans died during the First World War while doing battle alongside French troops. The Delville Woods memorial - which includes a museum - is located in one of the battlefields of WW I in Longueval, in northern France.
Deputy Minister Surty took the 2-hour drive out of Paris during a break from his working visit to France where he is attending the 39th General Conference of UNESCO. He had a wreath laying ceremony at the site before being led on a tour of the memorial site.
The Museum Director Mr Thapedi Masanabo, who is based at the site, told the SA delegation that Delville Wood was well-known in South African military history and it represented the national symbol for bravery and sacrifice as the 1st South African Infantry Brigade accomplished one of the finest feats of arms of the First World War.
On 15 July 1916 the brigade comprising 121 officers and 3 032 men received orders to take the woods “at all costs”. For 5 nights and 6 days the South Africans fought against various units of the 4th German Army Corps. Outnumbered and being fought against from three sides, they were almost decimated but managed to hold on and fight back until most of the woods had been captured. When they were finally relieved on 20 July, only 142 men came out of the woods unscathed, eventually 780 men from the SA brigade assembled. Ravaged by the fighting in 1916 the woods were replanted in the 1920s and restructured to house the South African national memorial. It was decided that the woods would forever stay the burial ground for those soldiers who still lay there.
Upon visiting the site Deputy Minister Surty said the experience strengthened the case for history to be taught comprehensively in the Basic Education Curriculum. He said it was clear that the representation of some of the elements of the history was biased against black people. He said their role and contribution was diminished and misrepresented this needed to be corrected appropriately in the history books.
Deputy Minister Surty said all learners in schools needed to know that some of their ancestors remained buried on foreign soil where they perished while fighting in the various wars.
“The saddest part is that some, if not many of them, were never identified and therefore could not be given proper headstones to honour their sacrifice. Some remain nameless with words that say “South African Private of the Great War, Known unto God” written on their headstones,” he said.
The Deputy Minister said the Department of Basic Education would ensure that the history is recorded and taught properly in schools because the site was part of the heritage of the country. He said the land on which the memorial site was located belonged to South Africa and that was important for every citizen to know. The museum commemorates the 25,000 South African volunteers, men and women of all races and religions, who fell during the two great wars and during the Korean War. The concept of the museum was inspired by the Castle of Good Hope, the first European fortification erected in South Africa.
The SA Delegation was supported in the tour by Deputy Ambassador Ms Nthabiseng Malefane.