Welshmen in Mametz Wood
The 38th (Welsh) Division’s involvement in the Battle of the Somme
By 1916, the First World War had submerged into a bloody conflict of attrition. The western front had become a vast network of trenches, stretching hundreds of miles from the north coast of France, through Belgium and down to the French border with Switzerland.
To puncture a hole in the German lines, the allies launched an all-out attack across the front, which was to be known as the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July, British and French soldiers went over the top.
Whist French casualties mounted to around 7,000, Almost 60,000 British soldiers were wounded and nearly 20,000 killed on the first day of the battle. It is infamously known as the bloodiest day of fighting in the history of the British army.
Although no ground was taken in the north of the battlefield, in the south there were some breakthroughs. The villages of Mametz, Montauban and (on 2 July) Fricourt were taken. The second line of German defences were in reach, but in order to make an attack, the British needed to take Mametz Wood.
Over 20,000 from Wales volunteered to fight, and these were brought together as the 38th Welsh division, entering the trenches in 1915. Many would fight and fall in the struggle to take the wood.
Mametz Wood was dense and heavily defended by German soldiers accustomed to the gruelling fighting of trench warfare. The first attack on the wood took place in day light on 7 July. Welsh soldiers made their way across open fields towards the trees but were mown down by German machine gun and rifle fire, approximately 400 had become casualties before reaching the wood.
A further attack on the wood the next day also proved futile, which led Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and Lt-General Henry Rawlinson to visit the Welsh Division HQ. They showed their displeasure at the lack of progress by replacing the Divisional commander Major general Ivor Phillips with Major General Herbert Watts.
The Welsh soldiers were sent over the top once again on 10 July in the biggest attack on the wood. The fringes of the wood were littered with casualties, but progress was made. Brutal hand to hand combat took place and gradually, the 38th were able to force the Germans out of Mametz Wood.
The engagement is notorious for being one of the costliest in the war. The welsh division fought hard and had achieved its objective in a near impossible situation. However, it came at a price. Around 4,000 casualties, either killed or wounded, by the time the wood was cleared.
The 38th division would next be involved in a large scale attack during the Third Battle of Ypres in late 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
The poet and visual artist David Jones, who took part in the battle, wrote a vivid description of the fighting in Mametz Wood in his 1937 long poem ‘In Parenthesis’, saying:
‘And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon of the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find.’
On a plinth outside of the wood now stands a welsh dragon monument to those of the 38th division which fought and died for Mametz Wood. Erected in 1987 by Welsh sculptor David Petersen, it marks a point on the western front where many men from Wales fell during the conflict.