The Often Forgotten Story of Mametz Wood
Eve Lewis - Guest Writer
In the early hours of July 10th, 1916, Wyn Griffith stood at a hurriedly erected battalion HQ in the middle of Mametz Wood. He had not eaten for twenty-four hours, and had not slept in even longer. As he attempted to make sense of the chaos around him and form a cohesive battle plan for the handful of men left able to fight, Griffith was told that his younger brother, Watcyn, had been killed whilst running a message. Watcyn was just nineteen when he died and became one of more than four thousand Welshmen ‘mown down like corn’ in the six day attack on Mametz Wood as part of the Somme Offensive. Yet Griffith had no time to grieve; the assault continued around him and he had little choice but to keep moving with it, leading those under his command until fresh troops could relieve them. Finally, on July 12th, the last of the German soldiers were pushed from the woods and Mametz was claimed by the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It was one of the few outright successes on the Somme.
Those who go to Mametz now will undoubtedly be confronted by the unique Welsh perspective through which this battle is remembered. Opposite the woods, a red dragon sits majestically atop a ten-foot plinth, his claws gripping barbed wire as he gazes at the open meadow which so many were unable to cross more than a hundred years ago. If this seems odd to those familiar with other memorials and cemeteries near the battlefields of France and Belgium, it’s because it is. This memorial does not have the same modest white uniformity as those in the British cemeteries at Etaples or Tyne Cot, nor does it suggest that those who fought at Mametz did so as peaceful souls under Rupert Brooke’s ‘English heaven’. Instead, this memorial stands as a proud testament to the brave and explicitly Welsh character of the soldiers who gave their lives for a paltry mile and a half.
But why is Mametz remembered in this nationalistic way? Why do these Welshmen have a unique position in comparison to the countless others who became part of the corrupted French clay during Britain’s five months on the Somme? The easy answer would be that it was an undertaking of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (and within that the 38th Welsh Division), a regiment that, more than just being Welsh in name, was largely made up of men from across Wales or who were born to Welsh parents in either London or Liverpool. Yet, it was not exclusively a Welsh regiment and still had plenty of English members. Not only that, but its English members were (and remain) arguably more prominent; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves became household names after the publication of The Memoirs of George Sherston and Counter Attack and Other Poems, and Good-Bye to All That, respectively.
Alternatively, I would like to suggest that it was not the number of Welshmen that marked the assault on Mametz as a Welsh event, but that it was the unique way in which Welsh combatants recounted their experiences. Unlike Sassoon and Graves, Wyn Griffith and David Jones portrays the taking of Mametz Wood as the climax of their wartime service. It is the moment that they view as their most notable contribution to the war effort. Wyn Griffith served for the duration of the war, but his memoir, Up To Mametz, ends on July 12th 1916. Equally, David Jones’s In Parenthesis concludes in Mametz despite Jones remaining at the Front as a private until February 1918. In contrast, Graves and Sassoon continue their memoirs to the Armistice or beyond.
So why is there this difference between the English and Welsh accounts of the same event? For anyone who chooses to read Jones or Griffith, it will soon become apparent that it is because the Welsh view the capture of Mametz as an enchanted door through which they were also able to recapture their heritage. The protagonists and authors of In Parenthesis and Up to Mametz begin their journey to the Somme as Anglicised Welshmen removed from their roots. David Jones had lived in London his whole life and could not speak Welsh. Likewise, Wyn Griffith was a civil servant who went into the war as a subaltern and consequently spent much of his time in the first years of the war with men from the English middle-class. In both their texts, this concern is reflected. Throughout the first half of Up to Mametz, there is no separation between the English and the Welsh in the eyes of the Welsh narrator. The war is ‘England’s struggle against Germany’. Wales is merely a part of England and deserves no special recognition. Additionally, very little attention is given to the Welsh members of the of the regiment. Griffith almost makes it easy for readers to forget that Welshmen exist given the detail paid to Cockney accents and ‘English swears’. In Parenthesis presents a similar theme. The character of Watcyn embodies the Welshman who ‘might have been an Englishman’ as far as anyone was concerned. He is ‘innocent of his descent from Aeneas’ and knows very little about Wales beyond the Neath fifteen.
However, as the assault draws near, the texts become littered with references to Wales and Welsh legend. Griffith finds himself reminded of a Welsh funerary hymn that reconnects him to his language. In this moment Welsh is once again recognised by him as the language of the soul – ‘You couldn’t talk English to a man who had lost his boy’. Similarly, through the death of Aneirin Lewis in In Parenthesis, Jones is able to see that the Welsh heritage is more than just a distant history, but a part of the soul. Although Aneirin does not die in a glorious manner (he is killed before the assault can even begin by a shell), he is still worthy of ‘sleep[ing] in Arthur’s lap’ and spending eternity with heroes. Jones notes that he is worthy of this honour because his soul is made up of thousands of years of Welsh history. It is made of Geoffrey Arthur and his cooked histories, of Twm Shon Catti, of sleeping kings, and of wild men who might yet wake from Mawddwy secrecies. Mametz has begun to stir in Jones and Griffith an understanding of what being Welsh means.
Once in the woods, these men stopped being observers of Welshness in others and begin to embrace their heritage themselves. Jones’s (semi-)biographical protagonist transforms into one of the secret princes that all the men who have entered the woods become. He is now consciously part of the continuing Welsh legend set out in the Mabinogi. In Up to Mametz, the Cockney accents of the earlier chapters are replaced with Griffith sitting with Anglesey folk and speaking in Welsh. There are no Englishmen here; in Mametz Wood there is only the ‘flower of young Wales’. With each death, Griffith thinks, a family in Cardigan Bay, or a South Wales Valley, or near a tarn in Snowdonia will receive a message that their loved one is gone. He makes no mention of the families in London, Manchester, Worcester, or York who will receive the same news because in his mind everything now to do with Mametz is to do with Wales.
Mametz stands out as a Welsh event because it awakened in the Welshmen who wrote about it a deep sense of identity, one which English authors like Sassoon and Graves didn’t experience and didn’t therefore write about. It connected the ‘lost Welsh’ to a rich heritage of warriors and princes. As they fought an impossible battle against seemingly insurmountable foes, they could imagine being Llewelyn or a Celtic hero in the woods of home. The Welsh soldiers felt as if their part in the assault allowed them to continue their national story, and this is relayed in the books that they wrote. The books that are as often overlooked as the event itself. As we commemorate the Battle of the Somme as a British event this month, it is important to remember the part of it which will always be uniquely Welsh.
Graves, Robert, Good-bye To All That (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 )
Griffith, Wyn, Up to Mametz (London: Severn House, 1981 )
Jones, David, In Parenthesis (London: Faber and Faber, 2010 )
Sassoon, Siegfried, Counter-Attack and Other Poems With an Introduction by Robert Nichols (New York: E.P Dutton and Company, 1918)
Sassoon, Siegfried, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 2nd edn. (London: Faber and Faber, 1972 )
Photo Credit - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MametzWood_Christopher_Williams.jpg
Williams, Christopher, The Welsh at Mametz Wood 1918. Oil on canvas. 274.3 x 173.0 cm. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.