Mametz Wood; A Legacy

By Lydia Edwards

Over eight million men were killed in the conflict of the First World War and 37 million wounded, nowhere was the slaughter more extreme than on Somme in 1916. One of the battles that has left a legacy within conflict was Mametz Wood.

The battle of Somme itself was between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front and over one million men died[1]. Mametz wood was, indeed, the largest wood on the Somme Battlefront[2]. It was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division during the First Battle of Somme.

The aim was to seize the forest leading to a takeover of the German front within a few hours. But that’s not what happened. Although the Welsh succeeded the intended hours turned into 5 days of battle, between the 7th of July 1916 and 12th of July, which led to many dead or injured. Certainly, it was a sight where 46 officers and 556 other ranks were killed along with a total number of 3993 casualties[3]. These casualties came from the 20,000 volunteers who came together to fight for the Division. It is regarded as a momentous and gory battle fought by Welsh soldiers during the First World War.

Robert Graves, who fought in the battle, and is since a poet, wrote:

“It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.”[4]

The Legacy of Mametz is something quite striking and significant. The Battle still resonates today with many families and veterans, and people who were not alive at the time of the battle are now drawn to it. The legacy of Mametz Wood on Wales is as important as the battle itself. In the words of Robin Barlow (2014) “The Name of Mametz Wood, perhaps like those of Aberfan or Senghenydd, is embedded deep in the Welsh psyche, immediately conjuring up images of the needless loss of life, bravery, chaos and self-sacrifice[5]

Lloyd George was enthusiastic to mark what he saw as the primary achievement of the Welsh battalion he had placed together. He commissioned the Welsh artist Christopher Williams to paint a huge work. The Charge of the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood, to commemorate the battle. It hung in 10 Downing Street and later was donated to the National Museum of Wales.

In Owen Sheers’ poem ‘Mametz Wood’ this is also emphasised in the first lines of the poem in the words “For years afterword”[6]. Another who has used creativity to emphasise the horror of Mametz Wood is David Jones, a soldier who fought at Mametz Wood, who wrote the epic poem “In Parenthesis” in 1937. The poem has recently been turned into an opera by Iain Bell which has recently been performed by The Welsh National Opera and performances have happened across Britain. In Parenthesis beautifully emphasises the morning after the first day of battle, in which over 400 Welshmen died. David Jones writes “But how intolerable bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.[7]

In 1987 the battle of Mametz was once again in focus when the 38th Welsh Division Memorial at Mametz Wood was erected. The Welsh Government contributed a significant amount of funds to establish the Monument of the battle in France.

Indeed, when one utters the words of “Mametz Wood” one imagines scenes of bloodshed, fortitude and the deceased. The National Museum of Wales is currently holding an exhibition on the battle named “’War’ Hell!’ The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art” as 2016 marks the centenary of the Battle. It is on display until the 4th of September 2016 and admission is free.

[1] Hirst, A. (2016) Battle of the Somme was probably worst ever military disaster. Available at: http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/battle-somme-probably-worst-ever-11551583 (Accessed: 5 August 2016).

[2] Carradice, Phil (2010) “The Battle of Mametz Wood”. Wales. Web. 19 July 2016.

[3] [3] Carradice, Phil (2010) “The Battle of Mametz Wood”. Wales. Web. 19 July 2016.

[4] Poet Robert Graves on Mametz wood (2014) Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/inside-first-world-war/part-eight/10741960/robert-graves-dead-boche.html (Accessed: 29 July 2016).

[5]Administrator, w. (2012). Welsh History Month: Mametz Wood. [online] wales online. Available at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/welsh-history-month-mametz-wood-2047333 [Accessed 21 Jul. 2016].

[6] Sheers, O. (2005). Skirrid Hill. Bridgend: Seren.

[7] Jones, D. (1937) In Parenthesis.

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