Delville Wood cuttings still survive in Pretoria Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 25 August 2015 08:36
Untitled Document

Eric Bolsmann

Two cuttings taken from the only tree that survived the First World War battle of Delville Wood were planted in Pretoria as memorials to this historic occasion. Although riddled with shrapnel, shell splinters and bullets, this one tree survived.

The Official Delegation of Veterans that visited France to attend the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Delville Wood in 1966 planted one cutting at Fort Klapperkop. The other was a shoot taken from the same tree presented and planted by MOTH Jack Oates at the entrance to the Jan Smuts Museum in Irene on 30 August 1970.

The First World War battle of Delville Wood took place in France between 16 and 20 July 1916. The first South African Brigade was ordered to defend and hold its position at all costs. The 3 433 men of the brigade fought bravely against the German soldiers and on the last day of the battle only five officers and 750 men lined up to answer their names at roll call.

Hornbeam at Smuts House Museum in Irene
Photo: Eric Bolsmann

Hornbeam at Fort Klapperkop
Photo: Eric Bolsmann

The last surviving tree, a hornbeam, in the summer of 2006

To remember this enormous sacrifice made by the South Africans, the South African National War Memorial was built in Delville Wood in 1926 and two identical memorials were erected in South Africa, one at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the other in the Botanical Gardens in Cape Town.

The trees, which came from the cuttings at Delville Wood, are still in Pretoria. The one at Smuts House Museum seem to struggle to survive the Pretoria climate, but the tree at Fort Klapperkop appear to do well.

They are erroneously referred to as oak trees. What few people are aware of is that they are of the hornbeam variety, or European ash, Fraxinus angustifolia. The hornbeam tree of the Carpinus betulus genus is at home in the south of England and north-western France and also in Asia, and a variety exists in the US. It has different leaves to the oak tree.

The mistake has given rise to a romantic legend that associates the hornbeam tree in Pretoria with the oak tree at the Cape.

A South African nurse places a wreath on her brother’s grave at Delville Wood, on the Somme battlefield, 17 February 1918
Photo: Imperial War Museum Prints

According to a legend Jean Gardiol (1674–1738) arrived as a 15-year old at the Cape with his mother, the widow of Antoine Gardiol and his sister Margerite. He is said to have brought six acorns with him from France.

Mother Susanne married Abraham de Villiers at the Cape. De Villiers was given land in what became known as Franschhoek after 1689. Susanne’s son Jean was allocated land in the Stellenbosch district at the age of 20 in 1694. It was officially granted to him in 1713 and he called it La Coste, after his place of origin in Provence.

One of the acorns Jean planted on La Coste led the house to be known as De Eike, (The Oak). The main gable of this house, dated 1839, was saved from a fire, which destroyed the rest of the building.

The Somme in 1916, showing Delville Wood after five days of pounding with 400 shells
landing each minute
Photo: Springbok Press

When Sir Percy FitzPatrick of Jock of the Bushveld fame became the chairman of the Delville Wood Memorial Committee, he started a project to replant the trees at Delville Wood. The acorns of oak trees were collected at the Cape and sent to France to germinate. The saplings were planted on each side of the paths leading to the memorial.

The legend that the hornbeam tree in Pretoria is from the same tree that was germinated from one of the six acorns, which the French Huguenot Jean Gardiol supposedly brought to South Africa when he fled from France in 1688, is unfounded.

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