Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division during the First Battle of the Somme. The attack occurred in a northerly direction over a ridge, focussing on the German positions in the wood, between 7 July and 12 July 1916. On the 7 July, the men were halted by machine gun fire before they reached the wood. Further attacks by the 17th Division on 8 July failed to improve the position.
Infuriated by what he saw as a distinct lack of "push" Sir Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson visited the HQ of the Welsh Division to make their displeasure known. Major General Ivor Philipps, officer commanding the Welsh Division, was subsequently relieved of his command.
Haig passed control of the Division to Major General Herbert Watts, commander of the 7th Division and told him to use it "as he saw fit". Watts planned a full-scale attack for the 9 July but organising the attacking formations took some time and the attack was subsequently postponed until 10 July 1916. The operational order was blunt, stating that the Division would attack the wood with the aim of "capturing the whole of it".
The 10 July attack was on a larger scale than had been attempted earlier. Despite heavy casualties the fringe of the wood was soon reached and some bayonet fighting took place before the wood was entered and a number of German machine guns silenced. Fighting in the wood was fierce with the Germans giving ground stubbornly. The 14th (Swansea) (Service) Battalion, the Welsh Regiment, went into the attack with 676 men and after a day of hard fighting had lost almost 400 men killed or wounded before being relieved. Other battalions suffered similar losses. However, by 12 July the wood was effectively cleared of the enemy. The Welsh Division had lost about 4,000 men killed or wounded in this searing engagement. It would not be used in a massed attack again until 31 July 1917.
It was at Mametz that the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, made a single handed attack on the enemy trenches on 4 July 1916, as recorded in his memoirs. The Welsh poet Owen Sheers wrote a poem after the event in his Skirrid Hill collection:
"This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre"
A vivid description of the fighting in Mametz Wood may be found in "In Parenthesis", a modernist long poem written by British poet and visual artist David Jones, who took part in the battle. The wood still stands today, surrounded by farmland. Overgrown shell craters and trenches can still be made out. There is a memorial to the 38th Division nearby on a rough single lane road at approximately Lat: 50:00:36N (50.0099) Lon: 2:45:02E (2.7504). This can be reached from the village of Mametz on the D64 road. The memorial takes the form of a red Welsh Dragon, facing the Wood and tearing at barbed wire, on top of a three-metre plinth. The memorial was constructed by the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association following a public funding-raising appeal. The dragon which tops the memorial was made by Welsh sculptor/blacksmith David Petersen.
On 12 July 2013, the Welsh Government announced that it was helping to fund renewal work on the memorial in time for the 100th anniversary of the Battle.
- An account of the battle at the Museum website of the Royal Welch Fusiliers[dead link]
- Mike, Buckingham (17 July 2009). "'Pilgrims' visit site of Gwent soldiers' Great War victory". Newport, Wales: Newsquest. http://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/gwent_at_war/4498857._Pilgrims__visit_site_of_Gwent_soldiers__Great_War_victory/. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
- "Welsh Government | First World War memorial in France to be refurbished with Welsh Government help". Wales.gov.uk. 2013-07-11. http://www.wales.gov.uk/newsroom/cultureandsport/2013/7655120/?lang=en. Retrieved 2013-09-06.
- Renshaw, Michael (1999). Mametz Wood: The Definitive Story. Pen and Sword Books.
- The Welsh at Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams Painted at the request of the Secretary of State for War, David Lloyd George. Christopher Williams visited the scene in November 1916 and later made studies from a soldier supplied for the purpose. In the collection of the National Museum of Wales, to whom it was presented by Sir Archibald Mitchelson, Bart. 1920.
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