The Welsh at Mametz Wood: A Forgotten Battle?

‘Me thought I heard a voice proclaim. ‘God crowns with sovereign good.

The Sacrifice and triumph of the Welsh at Mametz Wood.’[1]

Mametz Wood Memorial featuring the Welsh Dragon

Arthur George’s poem, quoted above, winning the Chair and Prize Poem at the Porthcawl Eisteddfod in 1918 highlights how Mametz Wood will always live in infamy within the Welsh public consciousness of the First World War. It was at Mametz Wood where the 38th (Welsh) Division was to first face the harshest fighting at the Western Front. The battle rests in public memory as a disaster costing many Welsh lives, submerging Welsh communities in grief and mourning and the army officials deemed it a disaster. Welsh newspapers commemorating the centenary of the battle mention numerous times the casualty rate and yet omit the fact that the battle was a victory and the Welsh succeeded in capturing the wood.[2] The media reports follow the same structure in which the British media reported, and still reports today, on commemorations of the Somme and the First World War in general. They focus on the lives lost and remembering the dead and omit the fact that the Allies won the war. This is mainly because the Somme campaign and indeed, the fighting on the Western Front in general was, and for many members of the British public, still seen as a futile slaughter of British troops.

Yet,  revisionist historians such as Gary Sheffield are trying to erase the myth that the Somme was a disaster.[3] The battle at Mametz Wood does not get this revisionist attention attempting to change public perception about the fighting of the 38th (Welsh) Division. Like the Somme in general, the battle at Mametz Wood was an eventual victory with the Welsh capturing the wood, but the public perception of the battle still deems it a disaster. This needs to be rectified as although the battle was costly, it cannot be deemed futile since the Welsh Division succeeded in capturing the wood. The Battle of Mametz Wood, in the end, was a victory for the Welsh Division, albeit a costly one. The fact that soldiers died and the Division did not take the Wood immediately does not qualify it to be remembered as futile. In this chapter I will discuss the events of July at Mametz Wood and attempt to highlight why it was deemed a failure rather than a victory; whether it has fallen into the public narrative of the Somme, or whether it should be classed as a victory and discuss whether prejudices against the Welsh were a factor in labelling Mametz Wood a calamity.

As part of the Somme campaign, the German Army was driven back in several sectors after the disaster of the first day and by 5th July the British Army was facing them across the valley near Mametz Wood.[4] The 38th (Welsh) Division was given orders to capture the woods and the battalions, such as the 14th Battalion marched to Mametz to receive their orders from commanding officers.[5] The attack on Mametz Wood was not to be an easy operation. Mametz Wood was the largest wood on the Somme which covers an area of over two hundred acres being close to a mile in length, overlooking a valley.[6] The Germans were well situated to the north midway between Fricourt and Montauban, with their second line of defence at Mametz Wood and had used their positions in the wood to their advantage.[7] The 14th battalion of the 38th (Welsh) Division relieved the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF), 91st Brigade on the front line in preparation for the capture of the wood.[8] A patrol by the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment on the night of 3-4th July reported back that the wood was very dense with thick undergrowth which would make movement very difficult for infantry.[9] They also reported trip wires in the undergrowth and well placed machine guns at Acid Drop Copse which fire directly into the valley.[10] The report by the Royal Irish Regiment highlights the unfavourable conditions of the wood in which any infantry would have trouble capturing, let alone an inexperienced division that was going to be first tested in battle.[11] According to Barlow, the capture of Mametz Wood was thought to have been so difficult, that General Headquarters (GHQ) left it out of the orders for 1st July.[12] Thus it brings into question why GHQ ordered the inexperienced Welsh division to capture such a difficult objective especially considering that the German army defending the wood was far more experienced in combat and warfare. The higher army authority has also been questioned by historians such as Hicks who claims that XV Corps Headquarters failed to capitalise on the intelligence gathered by the Irish Regiment,[13] and the ‘official’ history of the Great War states:

 ‘it would appear that if XV Corps had encouraged more vigorous action on the afternoon of the 3rd, a hold on Mametz Wood could have been secured and Wood Trench and Quadrangle Trench occupied. The last named objective was taken on the morning of the 5th, but the others were to cost many lives and much precious time’.[14]

The planning of the attack on Mametz Wood has come under question by historians as there were arguments between officials over tactics and the lack of appropriate plans led to General Phillips’s removal from command in the middle of the operation on 9th July.[15] This will be revisited later on in this chapter in detail as I will approach the battle at Mametz Wood chronologically to achieve more transparency over the events that occurred in order to achieve an analysis of whether it was an actual disaster.

The attack was to begin on 7th July with 17th Division attacking Acid Drop Copse which was to the west of the main wood.[16] The 14th Battalion B and D companies came into Dantzig Alley coming up towards the German dug out in Pommiers Trench.[17] The 17th Division would attack the western edge of the wood to draw fire away from the 115th Brigade’s advance that was going into the Hammerhead and the first attack was scheduled to start at 2am.[18] Near the Hammerhead was the valley named Death Valley which was so named because the Germans would pound the area with shells as it was not visible and thus used for the transportation of troops and supplies. The Hammerhead was a very dangerous area of fighting but due to the limited visibility of Death Valley, the 115th Brigade did get some cover during their attack.

German Field Gun at Mametz Wood (Courtesy of National Museum Scotland)

The first attack was scheduled for 2am and an intense preliminary bombardment was ordered for 7.20am to 8am after which a series of barrages would be fired.[19] On the same morning at 8.30am the 16th Battalion Welsh Regiment and the 11th Battalion South Wales Borderers moved out of Caterpillar Wood and began an uphill advance westward towards Mametz Wood.[20] The battalions spread out attacking the wood from both sides, as Caterpillar Wood is to the east from the Hammerhead, they opted for a tactic of drawing fire away from the Hammerhead so the wood could be infiltrated by the 115th Brigade. The 113th Brigade had the job of providing heavy rifle and machine gun fire on the southern end of Mametz Wood from 8am until 8.30am from their positions in White Trench and Cliff Trench.[21] At 11am after another artillery bombardment, another attempt was made to enter the wood but the well placed enemy machine guns made progress into the wood impossible and by the end of the 7th July the Welsh Division was back in the same place as they had started only with a large number of casualties with 177 men and 3 officers who had lost their lives.[22]

The following morning all communication wires had been cut by heavy German fire and even though the artillery stuck to its schedule, no smoke barrage was formed due to the unfavourable wind conditions that day and thus the enemy would have unobstructed  views of the attacking battalions.[23] A report from Captain Hinton at 9.25am, which was received at 10.10am, stated that the Welsh attack was being held up about 200 yards from the northern side and about 400 yards from the southern side of the wood. Another report at around 9.50am stated that conditions were getting progressively worse as German guns were firing on what remained of the two attacking battalions which were in the open.[24] By around 4.40pm the 16th Battalion, the 10th and 11th South Wales Borderers were exhausted and disorganised due to the loss of the majority of the officers and were ordered to withdraw. The attack was failing tremendously at this point with the battalions taking heavy casualties. The main explanation for the failure of the first two days of the battle can be put down to unfavourable conditions. The unfavourable wind conditions on 8th July meant that the attacking battalions were out in the open giving the Germans clear and somewhat easy targets for heavy machine gun fire. Also, the artillery bombardment can be deemed as unsuccessful as visibility of the enemy positions was poor and the German Army had better defensive positions. One could argue that the reconnaissance from the Irish Regiment was not valued as much as it should have been, as wood fighting in itself is very hard due to poor visibility, thick undergrowth and uneven terrain making the advancement of infantry units very hard. One would think that more care would have been taken during strategic planning to factor in the enemy’s advantageous positions and uphill fighting. Hicks argues that ultimately, the fault of the disaster of the first two days at Mametz was due to the artillery fire not being properly coordinated as the men were exposed to uninterrupted German fire and because artillery was so poor on the Welsh side, many of the shells would fall short and cause casualties on their own side.[25] The central fault, however, was the failure of the smoke barrage which would have given the Welsh Division adequate cover to proceed into the wood, and yet one could question why the attack went forward as planned. There were also reports of poor weather conditions, rain eventually falling churning the ground into mud making movement far more difficult.

Due to the miscalculations and unorganised attack on 7th and 8th July, General Phillips was dismissed from his post.[26] Plans on the 9th were not much better due to confusion and miscommunication once again. The 14th Battalion were ordered to the front line but congestion in the trenches meant that they were unable to get to their starting positions in time for the ordered attack. They then received orders late to return to their bivouac as it was too late to attack.[27] Due to the confusion most of the battalions used the day to regroup and make their positions more secure so that there would be no more large casualty numbers. The day of 10th July was to be a larger operation with the 14th Battalion RWF, with the 16th Battalion taking the left side of the wood setting off to the attack at 4.12am.[28]  The soldiers were told to take the wood ‘at all costs’ showing that the commanders at Headquarters were desperate to take the wood after the failure to capture it on the first day.[29] One account from E.M. Edwards remembering the attack described how the Welsh identity was used to stir the troops before battle; ‘We attacked at 4am on July 10th 1916. We were led by Lieutenant Venmore whose last words before going over the top were ‘Don’t forget the regiment you belong to”.[30] In the 14th Battalion’s war diary it is noted that there was some confusion with the positioning of the 114th Brigade but it did not stop the advance.[31] The accounts written by Major General Marden give us a clear depiction of the start of the battle on 10th July:

‘At 3.50am the smoke barrage commenced at Strip Trench and drifted northeast effectively. At 4.05am the 13th and 14th Welsh advanced in waves of platoons at 100 yards’ interval in accordance with tactical instructions issued by the Fourth Army. It is very doubtful if this was a suitable formation considering the strength of the enemy’s machine guns, and it had already been abandoned by the French, who advanced as we did later in the war, by ‘packets’.[32]

The fact that the smoke barrage was favourable this time bode well for the second movement on the wood. The criticism of the ‘platoon formation’ going at intervals is justified as although it might work on paper, human error and changes of circumstance must be accounted for as troops would most definitely not meet every target at the precise time, especially when factoring in enemy fire. This criticism is also re-stated by Hicks who writes that because the undergrowth was so thick and visibility was poor, the soldiers had to rely on timed barrages and because ground conditions were not considered, the Welsh attack started to waver.[33] The fact that the French had abandoned the tactic of the platoon formation should have been an indication that the strategy was not the best when approaching heavy German fire, especially considering the more adverse conditions that the Welsh Division were faced with due to wood combat. The problem with timed platoon advancement is the fact that it opens up the possibility of soldiers being shot by their own side if they don’t reach their objective on time. This would have resulted in many avoidable casualties. The Division was given strict orders during this period to stay off roads and when advancing in the wood they should advance in ‘small columns’.[34]

During this second movement on the wood reports were conflicting and confusing as to companies’ locations and successes. All  battalions demanded reinforcements either to ensure success but very little resulted in several new officers being dispatched to the wood.[35] The brigades became intermingled due to the lack of officers and orders and also the front  line became congested causing confusion over where certain battalions were meant to be. The 13th Battalion had forced the Germans in Wood Support Trench to surrender after heavy bombing and this lifted the spirits of the men after having hardly any success in the wood. The advance by the 113th Brigade to within 200 yards of the northern edge of the wood also lifted spirits and it seemed as if there was a turning point within the battle after these successes.[36] After strengthening their position in the wood, the task for the 38th (Welsh) Division was to drive the enemy out of the wood completely. By 5.40pm the 11th South Wales Borderers reached the north east corner of the wood but the 16th Welsh and 17th RWF met sterner opposition and were held up and by 9.20pm the battalions had returned to their starting positions.[37] The Germans planned their retirement to their second line under the cover of night as another attack from the Welsh would have seen them defeated, thus by the morning of 12th July the 38th (Welsh) Division was relieved from Mametz Wood as the fighting was over and their objective of capturing the wood was achieved.[38]

In the 14th Battalion, casualties made a huge impact on the troop’s numbers with five officers killed and ten wounded, 67 other ranks killed and 233 wounded.[39] The 13th Battalion also suffered huge losses with one soldier recalling many years after the attack; ‘Our Battalion (13th Welsh) went in over 1000 strong, (Clerks, Cooks and everyone) and at roll call 2 days later I am told that 136 men answered the call’.[40] The Welsh Division suffered casualties totalling 190 officers and 3803 other ranks killed, wounded or missing during the assault on Mametz Wood.[41] However, despite the official history of the war stating that it was a disaster, like the Battle of the Somme in general, militarily it could be viewed as a success. Yet, many historians still class Mametz Wood as a disaster with the 38th (Welsh) Division only having succeed in restoring its honour at the battle of Pilckem Ridge which was captured during the assault on 31st July until 4th August 1917.[42] Although it was costly, the account of Mametz Wood should be adjusted in order to highlight the victory of the Welsh Division.

The aftermath of Mametz Wood was described as a scene of horror by many who witnessed the fighting or even passed through after the wood was captured. Captain A. Radcliffe Dugmore of the King’s Own Light Infantry labelled the scenes as ‘indescribable’ and that ‘the whole place was literally carpeted with bodies, the enemy having put up an especially vigorous resistance in the attempt to hold the wood’.[43] Yet the devastation among the ranks of the Welsh Division distorts the actual facts of the battle in general and steers public perception away from it being an actual victory, towards the narrative of the futility of war due to lives being lost. The battle of Mametz Wood is in danger of succumbing to the same fate that the Somme has in being branded as a disaster due to the number of casualties regardless of whether the wood was actually captured or not. The desolation of the 38th (Welsh) Division seemed, for many, to gain more resonance than the victory with many other battalions passing by witnessing the horror that was the aftermath of Mametz Wood. One Irish soldier depicted the views at Mametz Wood stating that;

 ‘the bodies of the Welsh soldiers that were killed fighting for the woods were so numerous, and the amount of remaining men to bury them so few, that it meant a large number were lying on the ground the entire time it was there…No longer can anyone claim that war is romantic who has been testament to the sight of rotting bodies that have been neglected without care and understanding that what remains is a person that was once loved’.[44]

The Welsh at Mametz Wood

With the gift of hindsight one can blame some of the failures of the first few days of battle on some strategic errors made by headquarters and officers which caused confusion among the ranks, which lead to the dismissal of General Phillips. However, the main fault over the first few days would lie with the failure of the artillery fire and the smoke barrage due to unfavourable weather. The attack should have been postponed as the soldiers did not have anything with which to conceal their advancement, and the communication failures leading to confusion and congestion within the trenches. Also one could blame the lack of effective command being the cause of the soldiers’ confusion, not the soldiers’ ineptitude in battle. Hicks argues that due to the high casualty rate of officers and NCOs, there was confusion amongst the men as to what the battle plan was and nowhere more than during wood fighting is leadership vital in order to prevent men from losing their way in the tough conditions.[45] Yet, Haig blamed the so-called disaster of Mametz Wood on the Welsh troops stating that ‘the 38th Welsh Division, which had been ordered to attack Mametz Wood had not advanced with determination to the attack’.[46] Blaming the Welsh soldiers for the amount of casualties by stating that they did not advance with “determination’ can be seen as a misguided view. The fault was clearly not with the soldiers as there are numerous accounts of the bravery of the Welsh soldiers advancing to face some of the harshest fighting on the Western Front such as the account given by an officer of a neighbouring division who states that the advance of the Welsh soldiers on 10th July was ‘one of the most magnificent sights of the war’ with waves of men seen ‘advancing without hesitation and without a break over a distance which in some places was nearly 500 yards’.[47]

In contrast, reports from soldiers or observers actually at Mametz Wood are far more likely to give an accurate description of the course of battle and the state of the soldiers as Haig would have only received reports in which someone would have had to take the blame for failures other than his command and the tactics of the officers in charge of the operation. One could certainly class Haig as misinformed on this issue as he would not have been anywhere near the battle to witness for himself what happened and would only have received updates through the communication networks, which have already been labelled as flawed during the Mametz Wood operation. Many Welsh historians have taken the chance to argue that Haig’s statement could be classed as discriminatory as the Welsh eventually achieved their set objective against the odds, even though for the majority of the division it would have been their first experience of battle. Hicks argues that Haig had been misinformed as to the casualty numbers suffered on the 7th July and of the effectiveness of the artillery bombardment and thus states that if he had known about the scale of casualties suffered by the Welsh Division his opinion might have changed.[48]This feeds into the point once again about the miscommunication between the front line and the Generals at the Headquarters.

It is not just Haig that blames the actual soldiers for the failures of 7th and 8th July: most official military history concerning this battle indicates that the Welsh soldiers were the cause of the problems of the first two days of battle. Major Drake Brockman alludes to a stigma that stuck to the Welsh Division after Mametz as it was ‘common talk in the BEF that the 38th Division had ‘bolted” and the fact remained that the 38th Division was never employed again on the Somme.[49] For many analysing the aftermath of Mametz Wood, this ‘official narrative’ put forward can be seen as an insult to the soldiers that died trying to take the wood. One could call the official history misinformation as many accounts of officers who first criticised the Welsh soldiers often changed their perception after the war was over due to hindsight. Certain officers such as Price-Davies actually stated after the war that ‘possibly I may not have given my Brigade full credit for what they did’ which highlights that many officers, arguably Haig amongst them, did not fully appreciate at the time, the sacrifice of the Welsh soldiers fighting  for one of the hardest objectives of the Somme.[50] Price-Davies’s original comments lashing out at his soldiers and junior officers did a lot more damage than he would realise. The damage had been done as the Welsh would become besmirched by his comments which fed into the official military narrative of the war. The official perception of Mametz Wood is still trapped within the myth that it, as well as the entire battle of the Somme, was a futile disaster.

In contrast, the soldiers at Mametz Wood were labelled as heroes in the Welsh press. Some would argue that the reporting in the press of the heroic actions of the 38th Welsh Division can be seen as making up for the disparaging narrative offered by the British Army, with many local papers offering first-hand accounts of soldiers and reporting of the brave acts of local boys. One newspaper cutting in the files of Major W.P. Wheldon praises the men of the 38th Welsh Division in what seems like a speech with certain remarks such as: ‘The men belonging to the division you have the honour to belong to are a credit to their race’ and ‘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’.[51] The newspaper cutting does not give an indication as to which newspaper it belonged to or what date it was printed.  However, the language used heavily suggests that this was printed after the battle as it praises the Welsh soldiers sweeping through the wood to drive out the enemy. Such reports were commonplace in the Welsh media at the time, not only to honour the local boys that had fallen in battle, but to also praise Welsh soldiers in general due to some of the preconceived views of the Welsh not supporting the war effort. Articles titled ‘Mametz Wood Hero’ appeared in newspapers across Wales about many different soldiers. Newspaper reports describing soldiers gaining military awards such as the article written about Sergeant W.J Beavan being presented with the Military Medal for bravery appeared in the Cambrian Daily Leader,[52] whilst others report of the heroic soldiers who had fallen during battle such as the South Wales Weekly Post’s report on the military funeral of Private Stanley Smale in Swansea after dying from wounds sustained at Mametz Wood.[53] In nearly every article the word ‘hero’ is mentioned and is a recurring theme. This highlights how the Welsh public perceived the soldiers at Mametz, in which every soldier that participated was a hero to their community and the pride that the Welsh people had for the soldiers despite the official reports that they lacked determination and discipline. This alludes to the earlier points of the survival of pre-war modes of thought within the Welsh community, the community pride towards the soldiers and still supporting their war effort despite the horrific scenes on the first few days of the Mametz Wood offensive. The reports of the local newspapers are more useful for understanding the aftermath of, and reactions to, Mametz Wood, rather than taking the official army narrative as dogma. Through the local newspapers one can get a better insight into the soldier’s experiences as they are reporting on members of their own community that have served and far more personal accounts can help shed light on Mametz rather than the reports from the headquarters and Haig’s diaries that would carry misinformation due to poor communication.

The battle of Mametz Wood is often shrouded in controversy due to the conflicting accounts from the soldiers and the official narrative of the British Army. As revisionist historians have been working to re-shape and demythologise public perceptions of the Somme, so that one focuses on the battle as a whole being a victory instead of looking at the tragedy of the first day, parallels can be drawn in respect to Welsh historiography. Historians studying Mametz Wood are attempting to change the official narrative that the Welsh soldiers failed and fought without determination and reform the history of the battle to honour the soldiers that died. They state that there was nothing wrong with the fighting spirit of the men,[54] and argue that even though the first two days incurred a large number of casualties, the objective of capturing the wood was reached and completed by the Welsh soldiers of the 38th Division. To deny them the victory due to headquarters looking for someone to blame besides themselves can be seen as an insult to the memory of those who gave their life for the battle to take the wood.

[1] Arthur George, The Welsh at Mametz Wood (H.W. Southey & Sons, Merthyr, 1918), p. 4.

[2], accessed 11.04.2017., accessed 11.04.2017.

[3] Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (Headline Book Publishing, 2002).

[4] Hicks, The Welsh at Mametz Wood: The Somme 1916, p. 27.

[5]  Bangor University Archives, BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers [hereafter RWF], p. 149.

[6] Hicks, p. 29.

[7] Barlow, p. 64.

[8] Bangor University Archives, BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion RWF, p. 149.

[9] Bangor University Archives, BMSS/39617, ‘Notes on Mametz Wood obtained by Patrol, 2nd Battalion. Royal Irish Regiment, on night shift 3/4th July’, 1916.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Barlow, p. 59.

[12] Ibid, p. 65.

[13] Hicks, p. 29.

[14] Brig. Gen. Sir J.E. Edmonds (ed.), History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Military Operations. France and Belgium: Vol. II 1916 (1995), p. 9.

[15] Hicks, p. 37.

[16] Ibid, p. 30.

[17] BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion RWF, p. 149.

[18] Hicks, p. 30

[19] Ibid, pp. 30-31.

[20] Barlow, p. 68.

[21] Hicks, p. 31.

[22] Barlow, p. 70.

[23] Hicks, pp. 32-33.

[24] Ibid, p. 34.

[25] Ibid, p. 36.

[26] Ibid, p. 73.

[27] BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion RWF, p. 149.

[28] Ibid, p. 150.

[29] Cardiff University Archives, 461/1/1/1.

[30] Cardiff University Archives, 461/1/11/1.

[31] Ibid, p. 150.

[32] Major General Sir T.O. Marden, The History of the Welch Regiment 1914-1918 (The Naval and Military Press, undated), p. 386.

[33] Hicks, p. 83.

[34] National Archives, Kew, 113th Infantry Brigade War Diary July 1916- February 1917, WO 95/2552.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Hicks, p. 87.

[37] Ibid, p. 152-153.

[38] Ibid, p. 153.

[39] Bangor University Archives, BMSS/39649, Diaries of Major Wynn Wheldon 14th Battalion War Diaries, p. 5.

[40] Cardiff University Archives, 461/1/1/1.

[41] T.O. Marden, The History of the Welch Regiment 1914-1918, p. 390.

[42] BMSS/39649, Diaries of Major Wynn Wheldon p. 7.

[43] Captain A.R. Dugmore, Blood in the Trenches: A Memoir of the Battle of the Somme (Pen and Sword Military Press, 2014), p. 147.

[44] G. Jenkins, Cymru’r Rhyfel Byd Cyntaf (Talybont, 2014), p. 147.

[45] Hicks, p. 194.

[46] Quoted in Colin Hughes, Mametz: Lloyd George’s Welsh Army at the Battle of the Somme (Gerrards Cross, Orion Press, 1982), p. 94.

[47] J.E. Munby, A History of the 38th (Welsh) Division (Hugh Rees, London, 1920), p 18.

[48] Hicks, p. 357.

[49] National Archives Kew, CAB45/189.

[50] WO 95/2552.

[51] BMSS/39634.

[52] Cambrian Daily Leader, 28th October 1916.

[53] South Wales Weekly Post, 30th September 1916.

[54] Hicks, p 194.