The wood holds tragic memories for South Africans who played a notable part in the battle of Longueval Ridge. A site on the north of the road was chosen for the South African National Memorial.
Delville Wood was a tract of woodland, nearly 1 kilometre square, the western edge of which touched the village of Longueval in the Somme. On 14 July 1916, the greater part of Longueval village was taken by the 9th (Scottish) Division and on the 15th, the South African Brigade of that Division captured most of Delville Wood. The wood now formed a salient in the line, with Waterlot Farm and Mons Wood on the south flank still in German hands, and, owing to the height of the trees, no close artillery support was possible for defence.
The three South African battalions fought continuously for six days and suffered heavy casualties. On 18 July, they were forced back and on the evening of 20 July the survivors, a mere handful of men, were relieved. On 27 July, the 2nd Division retook the wood and held it until 4 August when the 17th Division took it over. On 18 and 25 August it was finally cleared of all German resistance by the 14th (Light) Division. The wood was then held until the end of April 1918 when it was lost during the German advance, but was retaken by the 38th (Welsh) Division on the following 28 August.
Delville Wood Cemetery was made after the Armistice, when graves were brought in from a few small cemeteries and isolated sites, and from the battlefields. Almost all of the burials date from July, August and September 1916.
Commonwealth graves from the following were concentrated into Delville Wood Cemetery:
- Angle Wood Cemetery, Ginchy, was in an "excavated shell-hole" in Angle Wood, to the North-West of Maurepas, and buried there were 27 British soldiers (mainly of the London Regiment);
- Battery Copse Cemetery, Curlu, was between Curlu and Maurepas. It contained, in addition to French graves, those of 17 British soldiers;
- Bazentin-Le-Petit German Cemetery was at the South-East end of the village; in addition to the German graves, it contained five British soldiers (who fell in March and April 1918);
- Courcelette Communal Cemetery German Extension contained the graves of three British soldiers, one from Canada, and 1,040 German;
- Ferme-Rouge French Military Cemetery, Curlu, was close to Battery Copse Cemetery. In addition to the French graves, it contained one British soldier who fell in March 1917;
- Guillemont German Cemetery No.1, at the West end of the village, contained 221 German graves and those of seven British soldiers who fell in May and July 1918;
- Lone Ridge Cemetery, Longueval, between Delville Wood and the centre of the village, contained the graves of 52 soldiers who fell at the end of August 1918;
- Maricourt (De La Cote) German Cemetery, on the South West side of the village, contained the graves of five British soldiers and airmen;
- Martinpuich German Cemetery No.1, at the North-East end of the village, contained the graves of six British soldiers and one sailor who fell in March 1918;
- Martinpuich German Cemetery No.2, to the West of No.1, contained the grave of one British soldier.
There are now more than 5,500 burials and commemorations of the First World War in this cemetery. More than 3,590 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 27 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. Other special memorials record the names of three soldiers buried in Courcelette Communal Cemetery German Extension, whose graves were destroyed by shell fire.
Opposite the cemetery stands the South African National Memorial. Originally intended as a memorial to the South African servicemen who served and died in all theatres during the First World War, this was later extended to include the Second World War and the Korean War.
It was unveiled on 10 October 1926 by the widow of General Louis Botha. General James Herzog, Prime Minister of South Africa and General Douglas Haig also attended the ceremony.
On 5 June 1952, the memorial was rededicated and a new altar stone of Peuron marble was unveiled in memory of those South Africans who gave their lives in the Second World War. The ceremony was performed by the mother of Major E Swales who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1945.
Behind the memorial is the South African Forces Museum which contains remnants of the battles found during the museum's construction.
During the war, trees had been shattered and blasted and there was little left of the wood after the war, but to the rear of the museum visitors can see the Last Tree. It’s the only hornbeam tree that survived the shelling and has continued to grow. It is now enclosed by a wooden fence and marked by a plaque.