7 July 1916 - Mametz Wood: First Phase
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.”