- 28 June 1914
- 1 July 1916
- 7 July 1916
- 10 July 1916
- 13 July 1916
- 11 November 1918
The Assassination of the Austrian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary [now: Bosnia and Herzegovina] on the 28th June 1914 triggered a series of events that cumulated in the start of the First World War. Following the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, Britain entered the war on 4th August 1914 following the German invasion of Belgium. The European network of alliances ensured that most of Europe, and by extension their colonial subjects and other foreign allies were brought into World War One.
Rapid technological advancements made in the late 19th and Early 20th centuries had caused the industrialisation of warfare, allowing for global warfare that had never been seen before on such a scale. Radically new weapons and strategies were developed and introduced by different countries in order to facilitate this over the course of the war, such as trench warfare, machine guns, and gas weapons. These new styles of warfare brought with them unprecedented levels of casualties, and the mass mobilisation of society to support all-out war.
Mametz Wood is just one conflict which took place over a five-day period in July 1916, within the wider battle of the Somme. Mametz Wood is of special interest to the Royal Welsh Regimental Museum due to the fact that a number of divisions, such as the 38th Welsh Division, 10th and 11th South Wales Borderers, and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, were involved in the battle. This exhibition will focus on a variety of artefacts such as British and German weapons, war medals, military records, war diaries, and first-hand accounts of the conflict from soldiers. Through the examination of historical sources this exhibition aims to provide an insight into the experiences of the regiments involved in the fighting at Mametz Wood, and examine the legacy of the conflict on Welsh culture today.
The battle of the Somme started on the 1st July 1916, and proved to be of little success, at least in comparison with what the Military High Command anticipated. In many sections of the front no ground was won at all, at a cost of over 57,000 casualties, including over 19,000 dead, however one section of the front did see some significant gains. South of the Albert-Bapaume road, the villages of Mametz and Montauban were taken by British Forces on the 1st July, and the neighbouring village of Fricourt was abandoned by the Germans the following day. The gains at this section led Military High Command the believe that it was possible for the German second line situated along the Bazentin ridge to be pierced.
Field Marshall Douglas Haig believed that in order for this to be possible, British troops would need to capture the German held positions of Contalmaison, Trônes Wood and Mametz Wood, before an advance on the German second line would be possible. The task of capturing Mametz Wood fell to the 38th Welsh Division, which had been kept in reserve during the initial battles of the Somme offensive, and so had not experienced the heavy losses faced by other divisions.
By the time the 38th was deployed, the British lines had moved north as far as Quadrangle Trench to the west of the wood, the ridge running immediately south and south-east of the wood, and Caterpillar Wood directly to the east. With the 38th being responsible for all sections of the line south east of Mametz Wood in attack on the 7th July.
The first phase of the battle of Mametz Wood began on Friday the 7th July 1916. In the early hours of the morning, British artillery was firing on German positions around Mametz Wood, hoping to damage German positions in preparation for the attack scheduled to commence at 06:30. The planned attack was risky, it required the soldiers to cross an uphill stretch of open land to reach the forward German positions in Mametz Wood. In order to facilitate this, a smoke screen would be produced to provide the soldiers some cover from machine gun and sniper fire. However, even before the attack was launched things were already going astray. The returning artillery fire from the Germans slowed preparation for the attack, delaying the attack by two hours, and the all-important smoke screen was never produced.
J.H. Hughes (10th South Wales Borderers [SWB]) provides an account of the first phase of the attack:
“…it had been raining for about three days before, so you may imagine the state the ground was in. Well, to go on with the story of the attack. We went crawling up the ridge. The 16th Welsh were on our right and our 13 Comp [Company] were leading. Evidently the Germans had seen what our intentions were, for they came running from a village named Bazentin-le-Petit, up to the Wood, having machine gunners, snipers etc, already there. Well our boys reached the top of the ridge, having a downward slope of about two hundred yards before reaching the outskirts of the wood. From what I saw, the Germans intended to hold it at all costs, for they had it well fortified, and thick with machine guns. Our lads reached to get over the top of the ridge, but the fell as quickly as they appeared some, never to hear a voice again. About two platoons got over to the other side of the ridge, and from there dared not move.”
The open ground between the woods and the British position proved to be deadly for many soldiers involved in the attack. The German machine guns had the high ground and could target them as they ascended the ridge and made their way to the wood. As a result, the divisions were pinned down, sheltering in shell holes, where they were sniped, mortared, and shelled. Following further artillery fire, and another failed attack order at 10:15, Hughes’ company was given the order to retire. The 10th SWB made another attempt later at 15:15, which again was unsuccessful and resulted in the death of the battalions commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilkinson. Orders for a fourth attempt were given at 17:00, but were contested by Brigadier-General Evans which led to them receiving orders to withdraw instead.
[Photograph of Gas Mask]
The fighting on this day was the first real fighting seen by the 38th Welsh, it failed to make any gains, and the division suffered heavy losses. Further attacks were ordered on the night of the 8/9th July with the 14th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, however due to the waterlogged state of the trenches, the order was not received on time, and the attack never occurred. On the 9th July, High Command, dissatisfied with the progress, fired Brigadier-General Evans, and replaced him with Major-General Herbert Edward Watts marking the end of the first phase of the battle.
During this change over of command, the battle did not cease, the shelling continued and casualties were still inflicted on both sides. One of the casualties being J.H. Hughes (10th SWB) who wrote of his experience:
[Photos of J.H. Hughes Account]
Transcript of J.H. Hughes’ account
“… Well we were under an embankment, the shells were burst all around us, and high explosives were exploding above us. I was expecting death at any moment, its no wonder Horatio Bottomly termed his visit to us as being “Somewhere in Hell”; by Heavens! That seemed like it without a doubt. After most of our men were either killed or wounded, one nasty black shell burst right above our heads and in another second a piece of the shell entered my right shoulder, another struck my left leg., my arm went stiff almost at once, and the pain was awful. a piece of the same shell hit Goddard (hewfort) in the muscle of the right arm, he fainted off almost at once. I passed the word to the few unwounded to send the stretcher bearers to him. After stripping myself of all equipment, and tunic on one arm, I wondered how I was to get across the space of a hundred yards to the door of the dugout, which was used as a temporary dressing station. In half a minute, I made up my mind and risking all their shrapnel and gunfire I made the best run I could, to that dressing station, being very much weak I could hardly stand, much less run, with shrapnel falling all around me. I dropped rather than stood at the door of the dressing station. Just as I got inside a shell blew half the door away, and as luck happened I escaped further injury.”
The second phase began on 10th July, when Major-General Watts was given the authority to create his own plans for the capture of Mametz Wood, unlike his predecessor Brigadier-General Evans. This change of authority was due to the disastrous attack on 7th July which was caused by communication issues between the division Headquaters at Pommiers Redoubt and the Frontline. Major-General Watts was selected as the new authority due to being the commanding officer responsible for the capture of Mametz village the previous week. His plan involved attacking at first light on 10th July and advancing to the edge of the wood at 04:15 under a smoke screen. Once in the wood, they would advance following a rolling artillery barrage. If the plan was executed perfectly, the wood would be under British control, just four hours later, at 08:15. Fortunately for the Major-General, the plan was relatively successful. Unlike the attack on the 7th July, Welsh divisions managed to make it to the edge of the wood. However, once there, conditions in the wood were worse than anticipated with a thick and dense overgrowth as well as collapsed trees from shelling blocking pathways. John Daniels, a veteran of the 38th Division remembers his entry to the woods:
“We came against resistance owing to the barbed wire it had been cut in many places, but otherwise in some parts intact. The German trenches on the west side of the wood and they were reinforced by machine gun placement there were no barbed wire entanglement at the edge of the wood, but there were many Germans lying dead, or almost, at the same part where we mentioned the pillboxes stand with their machine guns. When I entered the wood with my observation officer, with my partner of course we were two going along with an observation officer at all time.
As far as I come to remember Mametz Wood was not there at all, because it was in semi darkness and only stumps of wood we could see in front of us, I can’t remember much undergrowth especially in some parts of the wood…”
[Images of the Wire Cutters, Revolver, and Pickaxe]
Throughout the day the division fought their way through the wood facing heavy artillery and sniper fire. The German snipers were renowned for their skill, and would identify and target officers from their uniforms, this caused confusion and disorganisation of the British troops as the battalions mixed. Despite this, by the evening at around 17:40 divisions in the wood had managed to fight their way to the North of the wood despite the poor conditions and hand-to-hand combat. At a round 20:00 divisions began to work their way to the western side of the wood, however they discovered the Germans had reinforced their position. This forced British troops to fall back to the line they had created in the middle of the wood, where they came under artillery and sniper fire through the night.
Lt. Col D.F. Harvey remembers the fighting on the 10th July, having written a short account in his diary describing his instructions, and the officers from his battalion killed:
[Image of Diary 10th July Page]
Transcript of Lt. Col. Harvey’s Diary
Battalion stood to at 3am & stood down directly after, had orders at 11am to proceed to Pommiers Redoubt & stayed there for about 1 hour, water & wine fatigues were found [?] to about 100 men. 100 men of A trench went to Caterpillar Wood & 2 machine guns at 1 pm received orders to go & attack south east edge of Mametz Wood, we attacked it by bombing & going around enemy’s flank & suffered a fair number of casualties 2/Lts Everton & 10th Taylor were killed. The Bn took position in the A trench for the night, snipers were very active.
As fighting continued on the 11th July, British troops were increasingly exhausted, and confusion around British and German positions made it increasingly difficult for the British artillery to support the attack. When the Shells fell short or were on a low trajectory, they could strike British positions or strike the treetops. However, despite the friendly fire, and the low supply faced by the welsh divisions in Mametz Wood, they were successful in pushing to the Northern edge of the Wood, and secured their position by nightfall. Throughout the course of the night on the 11/12th July the Welsh Divisions were relieved of their positions by the 21st Division. The 21st Division found little resistance to them on the 12th July, as over the course of the night, the German divisions had evacuated from their positions in the wood.
Ultimately, the Welsh divisions were successful in capturing the Woods, however they suffered from a high number of casualties. Due to their depleted numbers the 38th Welsh Division would not see conflict again for some time. Additionally, despite capturing the wood, at the time the attack was seen as a failure by Military High Command, as their inability to capture the woods initially on the 7th July gave the Germans the time to reinforce their line in other locations, preventing further offences.
In the aftermath of the taking of Mametz Wood, it became clear that the 38th and the other divisions involved in the battle suffered a great number of casualties. For those who were not killed instantly, there was no guarantee of death from bleeding, further injury, or disease. Many soldiers were sent from dressing station to dressing station in the trenches, before reaching a field hospital, and then if necessary, being sent to a hospital for further treatment. Due to the poor conditions in the trenches, it was important for the dressings of injured soldiers to be changed regularly to prevent infection.
For some, long term treatment could mean returning home for treatment in a British hospital, and possible discharge from the army. For many returning to England there was a sense of joy and relief, as seen by the writing of J.H. Hughes.
[Photo of J.H.Hughes Account]
J.H. Hughes’ Account
“…the Dr. said “Do you think you can stand a journey”? The journey I had in view was one to England. “Of course” I said I was sure I could stand it. He considered a minute and consulted the remaining three doctors, and then came to me and said, “alright lad, they can take it out on the other side”. The joy of going to Blighty made me forget my pain half my time. They returned me to my bed. That night I slept in thinking of the meeting I should have home. Next morning the Doctor marked me for England. We were taken in cars to the quay at Rouen and there were thousands of French people watching our departure. They cheered us and gave us a hearty send off. It was 7:30 when we started on the St George, down the river. The sight of our Journey’s courting French girls did not take up our interests; we thought of home.”
However, others were not so lucky, the journey could be dangerous for those severely injured and some would not survive the journey. Those suffering with shell shock further struggled, the illness was unlike anything doctors had seen at the time, and treatments were often violent and painful, including electroshock therapy. Additionally, many of those discharged from service had to wear the Silver War Badge. This badge marked the wearer as a current or former member of the military, this was to prevent the wearer from being “White Feathered”. During the First World War, women would give men of fighting age who were out of uniform white feathers, to shame them for cowardice.
There is no formal medal awarded for the battle at Mametz Wood, however those who fought in Mametz would have likely been eligible for a selection of the following medals:
[Medals of Gilbert Hale]
Awarded to those who saw service in any theatre of war between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915, other than those who had already qualified for the 1914 Star. No fewer than 2,350,000 were awarded, making it the commonest British campaign medal up to that time.
British War Medal
This medal was instituted to record the successful conclusion of the First World War, but was later extended to cover the period 1919-20 and service in mine-clearing at sea as well as participation in operations in North and South Russia, the eastern Baltic, Siberia, the Black Sea, and Caspian. Some 6,500,000 medals were awarded in silver, but about 110,000 in bronze were issued mainly to Chinese, Indian and Maltese personnel in labour battalions.
Issued to all who recieved the 1914 or 1914-15 Stars and most of those who had the British War Medal, some six million are believed to have been produced. It is also known as the Allied War Medal because the same basic design and double rainbow ribbon were adopted by thirteen other Allied nations.
Silver War Badge
Awarded to service personnel who sustained a wound or contracted sickness or disability in the course of the war as a result of which they were invalided out. It was worn on the lapel in civilian clothes. Each badge was numbered on the reverse. The purpose of the badge was to prevent men of military age but not in uniform from being harassed by women pursuing them with white feathers.
Memorial Plaque and Scroll
Given, with a parchment scroll, to the next of kin of those who lost their lives on active service during the War. Each was personalised with the recipient’s name.
Distinguished Conduct Medal
Distinguished Conduct Medals were issued following the Crimean War in 1854, and were given to reflect gallant and good conduct in the field. It was the second highest military honour after the Victorial Cross.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal of John Henry Williams was awarded following his actions at Mametz Wood, “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He handled his men in the attack with great courage and skill…”
[Medals of John Henry Williams]