to the Western Front
Part 8: Mametz Wood
Brian Pohanka - October 28, 1999
brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion
group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
north from Lt. Thomas' gravesite and the Maple Redoubt,
we passed through Fricourt, a town that saw heavy fighting
and like most of those little villages was destroyed,
and rebuilt in the 1920s. Here was the largest German
Cemetery on the Somme -- 5,056 marked burials and another
11,970 in mass graves. This was the resting place of Baron
von Richthofen after his initial internment in the village
cemetery of Bertangles. When Hitler came to power, the
Red Baron was again exhumed and given a hero's funeral
in Berlin, at the Invalidenfriedhof. Only a few years
ago he was moved yet again, to what will presumably be
his last resting place, in Wiesbaden.
Northeast of Fricourt we came to Mametz Wood. In France,
virtually every wood -- be it a large forest or a copse
-- has a name. In earlier times these woods were "harvested,"
so to speak, for firewood -- much as the woods at [the
Civil War battlefield of] Antietam were. During the First
World War the woodlots of the Somme were totally obliterated.
Just dirt and stumps and splinters amidst the annihilated
terrain. But now, 80 and more years later, they have grown
back, and much like the villages and fields, resemble
their pre-1914 appearance.
I wanted very much to find the Welsh Memorial, having
seen photos of it in the various guidebooks. A relatively
recent addition, it was erected in 1987. A column topped
by a fantastic red dragon -- the symbol of Wales -- the
dragon clutching a strand of barbed-wire with his claw
and staring defiantly at Mametz Wood. Appropriately enough,
for on July 7-11, 1916 the newly-formed 38th Welsh Division
made repeated and costly efforts to wrest Mametz Wood
from elite troops of the Prussian Guard. Watching the
little Welshmen (most were "Bantams" or small
men) go into the torn and burning woods, Siegfried Sassoon
recalled "I had a sense of their vistimisation."
At a cost of 4,000 men, the Welsh Division finally captured
Mametz Wood, but the supporting artillery did not realize
this and subjected the exhausted victors to a terrible
bombardment that cost still more lives before the error
We found the Welsh Memorial after driving down a farm
road that became a muddy track that our rented Citroen
managed, though with difficulty. We were the only people
there in a very peaceful setting -- though yet another
large unexploded shell nearby was a stark reminder of
the fighting that had transpired there. The wood is now
a rather pretty place, nestled in a valley here at its
southern edge where the Welshmen attacked. In 1916 it
sinister place indeed. Robert Graves found it "full
of dead Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and dead Royal
Welch and South Wales Borderers of the New Army battalions,
little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken."
Graves' Goodbye to All That has a particularly
disturbing description of a dead German soldier he found
in Mametz Wood -- reminiscent of Stephen Crane's account
of the dead soldier Henry Fleming sees at Chancellorsville
in The Red Badge of Courage. As noted in an earlier
installment of this saga, Graves' memoir is a must-read
for anyone interested in the British ordeal on the Somme.
Page | Next Page