Unasked questions

I came across an archive of correspondence sent to an historian called Colin Hughes in 1974. He posted an advert in the local papers of Wales asking for information from any survivors or any material on a book he planned to write on the 38th Welsh Divisional attack on Mametz Wood in July 1916.

Some of the documents were scanned and uploaded. The responses came from the men who had survived those hazardous days of the attack on Mametz Wood and in particular the former fiancé of a man who did not survive that attack.

But it was the simple phrase on one of the responses which caught my eye:

I was there July 10th 1917.

It was the simplicity of the statement. I was there. Sixty years afterwards, the memories had not clouded from the survivors’ minds. They remained in crisp, proud and sombre existence.

Now in 2017, I’m just pleased that Colin Hughes asked the question.

The book he wrote was published: Mametz: Lloyd George’s Welsh Army at the Battle of the Somme. It is a book I will go and search out.

 

 

From Llandudno to Mametz and back again…

As fingers were pointed and Germany was made to pay at war’s end, rebuilding and a renewal of living needed to take place. None more so than in the towns and villages obliterated by four years of shell fire, tanks, machine gun and simple destruction.

In 1920 the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France was formed to identify British towns and cities that could adopt a town or village of northern France that had been deeply scarred by the war. Often these pairings would be down to the local connections developed by the soldiers who failed to return after the close of the Great War; the little cemeteries a blight on the British sub-conscious. But still some merely adopted by British towns and cities for a less oblique association, these places seemed so familiar to the men and women of the conflict which now continued in the aftermath.

The Battle of Mametz Wood is echoed in the green trees that now grows in the remains of what was Mametz Wood. The events of the battle that began on the 7th July 1916 during the First World War, the Great War were to take place in the largest wood that stood on the Somme frontline – Mametz Wood – a mile wide and a mile deep of thick undergrowth and woodland. By the first phase of World War One, the wood was defended by the Lehr regiment of Prussian guard, trenches, mortars and machine guns.

The 38th Division of the British Army was made up of several Welsh regiments including the South Wales Borderers, Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Welsh Regiment. Like many of Kitchener’s soldiers, they were poorly-trained, ill-equipped individuals who had enlisted to help the country. But many had stood when Kitchener called for arms.

Ordered by their British generals to take the wood in hours, the battle lasted five days. It was afterwards described by the poet Robert Graves who fought there as being “full of dead Prussian guards, big men and dead Royal Welch Fusilliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.”

There were 400 casualties on the first day.  Despite accusutions of failures, by the end the division had pushed the German forces back to their second line of trenches. The cost was staggering. The Welsh Division had lost 46 officers, 556 other ranks but the true cost was in the missing – in total 3993 men were dead or missing. German losses were similar in number.

The place bears the invisible scars of that battle. It is the young men who lie in the silent wooded cemeteries from those Welsh valleys. The Welsh boys who volunteered from mining towns and farming families showed their bravery in those days, the PALS regiments from Swansea and Cardiff who fought the finest trained of the German army with little training or experience.

The Tregaskis brothers – Arthur and Leonard who had emigrated to Canada returned to fight. They are buried side by side at Mametz – one brother had been shot in the head, the other was killed trying to rescue him. Corporal Frederick Roberts was a miner from Senghenydd who had escaped death in a mining disaster which had killed 439 of his colleagues in 1913 but died on his wounds on July 10th.

Brothers Henry and Charles Morgan volunteered in 1914, workers from the Blaenavon Iron and Steelworks, they died on the same day at the Battle of Mametz Wood. Thomas and Henry Hardwidge, brothers from a colliery at Ferndale also died at Mametz. Tom was fatally wounded and when his brother went to rescue him, he was shot by a German sniper.

War is often seen as futile. The Germans took back Mametz Wood a few weeks later but Mametz Wood remains as a place of immense tranquillity and mournful sadness. Birdsong has replaced the machine gun fire, but even after a century, sometimes you might think you see the ghosts.

Mametz Wood can be seen to be just another battle of the war but it deserves to be considered. The Welsh boys deserve that. And from that back to Llandudno again, for the 38th Welch Division of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was formed there in November 1914.

The village of Mametz on the Somme was adopted by Llandudno to be their ‘God Parent’ and the people of Llandudno would generously support the French village of Mametz into the 1920s; many of those supporters had been survivors of the conflict that had devastated the village in the war. The Red Dragon that sits so splendidly at Mametz a symbol of sacrifice and survival. Those who had lived would not forget but would take their own part in the rebuilding of that which had been destroyed.