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National Memorial Arboretum: How the last tree left standing after bitter battle inspired hope

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: July 24, 2014

  • MEMORIAL . . . Shot at Dawn is on the First World War trails at the Arboretum.

  • IMPORTANT ROLE . . . Sarah Montgomery, the managing director of the National Memorial Arboretum at the Western Front Association Memorial Wood.

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IT was one of the bloodiest battles in the First World War, part of the Somme offensive that saw the slaughter of one million men in less than five months.

The Battle of Delville Wood took place between July 14 and September 3, 1916, on the outskirts of the town of Longueval in northern France.

It was seen as a key strategic target but after two weeks of bitter fighting it became clear that a breakthrough by either side was highly unlikely.

Delville Wood was militarily important as it was a point from which artillery attacks could be launched on the enemy. Securing it would also help defend the Allies right flank.

It was eventually taken but at such a high cost that it could only ever be seen as Pyrrhic victory.

As well as the horrific loss of life, the devastation of the landscape was so great that the wood was almost completely erased – with only a single hornbeam tree left standing.

That symbol of life in the midst of so much death has since become the inspiration for a memorial wood at the National Arboretum.

Deputy curator James Shallcross, explained: "We grew the trees for the memorial wood from seed which came from the Delville tree. The wood was completely flattened and the only tree growing when the battle finished was this one hornbeam.

"Delville Wood was fought over long and hard. It could have been captured on the first day but because of poor communications, and arguably several other reasons, the advance was slowed.

"It took two months to capture it and many thousands of lives were lost."

Now the Western Front Association has dedicated the special wood at the National Arboretum and a stone memorial to those who lost their lives in France between 1914 and 1918.

James says: "The Western Front Association tries to keep the memory of what happened out there in the First World War alive and the wood is a lasting, living memorial."

The National Memorial Arboretum has been a major focus for commemorations of the tragic loss of life that took place in the First World War.

The Alrewas centre will be marking the official start of the conflict, on 4 August 1914, with a candlelit vigil on the Armed Forces Memorial.

This service will include prayers, readings and poetry, as well as musical performances from a choir.

The National Arboretum has also created trails around the centre which take in the memorials related to the First World War, including the iconic Shot at Dawn, which remembers those who were executed for supposed cowardice.

Sarah Montgomery, managing director of the National Memorial Arboretum, believes the centre has an important role to play.

She says: "The arboretum is a place of remembrance and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War are part of a long history of those who have committed their lives to their country.

"So it is part of a continuity but because of the scale and significance of the losses in the First World War, the centenary – which will continue for the next four years – has led to a very strong public response.

"That's made more poignant because there's a strong connection to the present day – with people still making the ultimate sacrifice. The number of names on our Armed Forces Memorial does reduce over the years but that doesn't minimise the sacrifices that have been made.

"People being selfless on behalf of their country is something we should remember as every one of them has family, friends relatives and their own story to tell.

"The memorials here offer a collective memory of the sacrifices made but also remind us that it was individuals with real lives who died."

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