Battle-scars and Dragon’s Claws : The Legacy of Mametz Wood

The Mametz Dragon. Image Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford

In this guest Blog, Dr Gethin Matthews from the Department of History at the University of Swansea talks about the battle of Mametz Wood, which commenced on 7th July 1916.  Dr Matthews is principal investigator on ‘Welsh Memorials to the Great War’, a project funded by the AHRC Funded Living Legacies 1914-18 World War One Engagement Centre.   There are 5 WW1 Engagement Centres, whose focus is to provide UK-wide support for community engagement activities, commemorating WW1.

Those from outside Wales who are interested in the history of the First World War and its aftermath may be surprised to discover how one relatively minor battle on the Western Front has such resonance in certain Welsh circles. The Battle of Mametz Wood, fought from 7 to 12 July 1916, was part of the early Somme campaign. The losses, of around four thousand killed and wounded on the British side, though heart-rending are much smaller that the numbers lost on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

 

Berea Cricieth – Rhys ab Owen / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Tregarth Church – Courtesy of Meg Ryder / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Translation of text:

For the Honour and Glory of God and in sacred memory of
Lieut. H. K. Brock BA.          Neuf Berquin
Pte. J. I. B. Brock                   Ypres
Pte. W. H. Hughes                  Poperinghe
Pte. D. Jones                           Ypres
Pte. O. Jones                           Gaza
Pte. T. Jones                            Ypres
Lc. Cpl. E. Lloyd Morris        Givenchy
Pte. J. Owen                            Warnemunde
Pte. Elias Pritchard                 Bailleul
Pte. H. R. Williams                 Mametz Wood
Cpl. L. J. Williams                  Ypres
Boys of this church who fell in the War 1914-1918.
“For Freedom they lost their blood”

Its significance for Wales is that this was the first battle fought by the troops of the 38th (Welsh) Division, also known with some justification as ‘Lloyd George’s Army’. These were the men who volunteered in droves to be part of the ‘Welsh Army Corps’ that Lloyd George and his acolytes sought to raise from September 1914 onwards: men who were drawn by Lloyd George’s rhetoric about putting the first ‘Welsh army in the field’ since the days of Owain Glyndŵr. (See this blog – http://historyclassics.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/a-welsh-army-in-the-field-lloyd-george-and-the-queens-hall-speech-of-19-september-1914/ – for a consideration of Lloyd George’s famous speech in London’s Queen’s Hall on 19 September 1914). The ideal of the ‘Welsh Army Corps’ became the reality of the 38th (Welsh Division).

 

Hermon, Pembrey -Lisa Tiplady / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Capel y Cwm – Courtesy of Christian Williams / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Translation of text:
“Their graves are far from Wales”
In affectionate memory of the brave boys of this church who sacrificed their lives on the field of blood.
David Griffith Williams in “Mametz Woods” July 10th 1916.
William Ballard in “Contalmaeson”, July 20th 1916.
James Morgan in “Ypres”, August 5th 1917.
“May they not be forgotten”

Having been trained for the most part in Wales, these recruits were posted to the Western Front in late 1915 and gained experience of trench warfare in quiet sectors for some months. Six days after the opening of the Somme offensive, this division was given the task of clearing Mametz Wood, a dense wood that had been heavily fortified by the Germans who had held it for two years, and was now defended by the elite Lehr regiment of Prussian Guards.

The details of the fighting, and how the Welsh overcame the odds at a tremendous cost can be found in this article by Robin Barlow – http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/welsh-history-month-mametz-wood-2047333 .

However, after the mission was successfully completed, as Colin Hughes wrote in his 1982 book about the battle, ‘neither glory nor distinction was noticeably bestowed’ upon the Welsh soldiers, but they were ‘bundled unceremoniously away to a quiet sector of the front’. The official response of the upper echelons is summarized in General Haig’s comments on the action on 7 July: ‘The 38th Welsh Division … had not advanced with determination to the attack’.

 

Tregarth Church -Meg Ryder / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Hermon, Pembrey – Courtesy of Lisa Tiplady / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Translation of text:
In affectionate memory of the brothers who fell in the Great European War 1914-1918
Faithful members of this church
James Davies, Penstar
Wounded 22 June, he died 10 July 1916 in Rouen, France, aged 22
And Robert Jones, Myrddin Cottage, who died 10 July 1916 in Mametz Woods, France, aged 22.
Therefore be ye also ready

In contrast to the dismissive attitude of the Army’s High Command, the reaction in Wales was to laud the courage and tenacity of the Welsh troops. Newspapers printed letters carrying first-person accounts of the fighting within eight days of the action, describing in some detail the horrendous difficulties of fighting a well-armed and determined enemy in strongly defended positions. A ‘Soldier from Bargoed’ wrote to the Western Mail of how ‘The Welsh boys fought like very demons through a wood which was well-nigh impregnable’. In conclusion he declared ‘The whole of the Welsh boys, however, fought with great bravery and proved themselves to be splendid fighters’.

Even as other battles were being fought, the story of the Welsh at Mametz was being re-told and the narrative shaped into one of a remarkable success against the odds. Numerous examples of poetry (not necessarily, it has to be said, of a very high standard) can be found in both languages in various Welsh newspapers). See, for example, the verses in English by Driver W. H Davies from September 1916 – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/3580283/6/ART63/ – or by Sgt J. Jarman from August 1917 – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4094738/2/ART20/ ; a Welsh-language example can be found here –  http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4016702/5/ART44/  – in September 1918.

Capel y Cwm - Christian Williams / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Capel y Cwm – Christian Williams / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Partially, this movement to commemorate the valour of the Welsh troops at Mametz Wood was driven by the soldiers themselves. The pride in their achievements is clear in the doggerel of Sgt. Jarman (‘For the hardest task we went through that morn / That’s been done by British sons’) and Driver Davies (‘My God! What a charge we made / The observers who were behind us / Said ’twas better than being on parade’). There is an interesting report – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4015748/6/ART75/ – of Welsh soldiers serving in France chanting that it was the Welsh who cleared the Germans from Mametz Wood.

Further impetus to commemorate this as a Welsh battle came from the top. When Lloyd George visited Welsh recruits in August 1916 training in the enormous camp in Kinmel Park, near Rhyl, he inspired them with a speech which focused on the achievements of their brothers-in-arms.

Mametz Wood 1916. Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford
Mametz Wood 1916. Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford

 

 

 

 

 

 

The local newspaper [ http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4243526/2/ART24/ ] reports that he declared: ‘The attack on Mametz Wood was one of the most difficult enterprises which ever fell to any division. It was left to the Welsh Division, and they swept the enemy out of it (cheers)’.

Indeed, there was a debate in some Welsh newspapers in the spring of 1918 – before the outcome of the War was decided – as to which encounter should be commemorated as ‘the’ Welsh battle of the War: the choice being Mametz Wood or Pilckem Ridge (31 July 1917). In the euphoria that greeted the ‘victory’ in 1918, there were numerous poems written about Welsh valour in the battlefield, many of which took Mametz Wood as their theme.

Mametz Dragon Silhouette. Courtesy ofAlun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford
Mametz Dragon Silhouette. Courtesy ofAlun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford

A short story about a Welsh miner at Mametz won a prize at the National Eisteddfod in 1923; one of the best memoirs by a Welsh soldier about the war is Up to Mametz, published by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith in 1931. The most famous Welsh painting of the War is The Welsh Division at the Battle of Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams. https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/8949/Wars-Hell-The-Battle-of-Mametz-Wood-in-Art/

One of the most astonishing artistic works to come out of the First World War is David Jones’ In Parenthesis – this was largely inspired by his experiences with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Mametz (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/25/in-parenthesis-no-longer-who-was-the-author-of-the-greatest-poem-of-the-first-world-war ).

Thus it is not surprising that as interest in the First World War grew in the 1980s as the number of veterans of the conflict grew fewer, the focus on the experiences of the Welsh in this one battle became more intense. Following a campaign by the Western Front Association, a challenging and beautiful memorial was raised to the 38th Welsh Division at Mametz. Designed by sculptor/ blacksmith David Petersen, the memorial was unveiled in 1987: three documentaries were broadcast on Welsh television to accompany the event.

At a local level, the name of Mametz resonated long in various communities throughout Wales.

A ward at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary was designated the ‘Mametz Ward’. The 15th Welsh Regiment (Carmarthenshire Battalion) designated their reunion the ‘Mametz Wood dinner’. A wounded soldier in Llanrug renamed his home ‘Mametz Cottage’.

A project I am currently managing, Welsh Memorials to the Great War – http://war-memorials.swan.ac.uk/ – funded by Living Legacies 1914-18 – http://www.livinglegacies1914-18.ac.uk/  – has uncovered further examples of how the name of Mametz remained engrained within some Welsh communities. The project has collected information on well over two hundred WW1 memorials in Wales (with hundreds more to be gathered) and one interesting aspect that comes over in many of them is the geographical range that is incorporated in the local commemorations. The men who are remembered served all over the globe: a large number of Welsh soldiers who served with Canadian or Australian units are commemorated in their home villages.

Many of the memorials to those who died state where the men met their fate, although most of the time the details are non-specific, stating simply ‘France’, ‘Gallipoli’ or ‘Mesopotamia’. However, a few are more precise. There are twelve names in the memorial at Tregarth church, Caernarfonshire. The last line carved on this memorial – ‘Tros ryddid collasant eu gwaed’ [‘For Freedom they lost their blood’] comes from the Welsh National Anthem. Four died at Ypres and one at Gaza – both names that appear with tragic regularity on several more Welsh memorials. One, Pte. H R Williams, died at Mametz Wood.

 

Capt. Hywel Williams - Cymru1914.org
Capt. Hywel Williams – Cymru1914.org

 

Other memorials in Welsh chapels have an explicit reference to Mametz Wood. Three soldiers are commemorated in the memorial at Capel y Cwm, Pentrechwyth, Swansea: one of them was David Griffith Williams, who was killed in the battle.

The memorial in Hermon chapel, Pembrey, has two names, including Robert Jones, another who was killed at Mametz Wood.

One more chapel memorial deserves particular attention – although the only photograph I have obtained of it is rather poor. The chapel, Berea, Cricieth (Caernarfonshire) closed a few years ago after its membership fell to single figures. The significance of this place of worship is that it was Lloyd George’s family’s chapel: for many years his highly respected uncle, Richard Lloyd had been its leading light. Two brothers, Hugh and Hywel Williams, who were family friends of Lloyd George’s family, died within six weeks of one another in 1916. Both had been active in the recruiting campaign, trying to persuade young Welshmen to answer the call put out by their politician friend. Captain Hywel Williams was killed at Mametz Wood.

Dr Gethin Matthews, Dept. of History, Swansea University

Mametz dragon & wood. Image Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford
Mametz dragon & wood. Image Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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