The battle of Mametz Wood is perhaps one of the lesser-known tragedies of the First World War. During an era where young soldiers, swollen with their own patriotic fervor, would join the army at the urging of their parents or at the urging of their offices, there is no shortage of thankless deaths, however, the allied soldiers that gave their lives in Mametz Wood were among the most enthusiastic and courageous to perish in the line of their duty.
It was the objective of the 38th Division to attack a heavily fortified German position in Mametz Wood, during the First Battle of the Somme (the Battle of the Somme was split into two or three parts, each of which was bloodier and darker than the last). However, the Welsh regiment’s attack prompted a return by the Germans in machine-gun fire, leading them to hurry back to safety and to abandon the attempt to reach the wood. This so displeased Sir Douglas Haig that he paid a very formal visit to the Welsh division and stripped their officer of his duty, handing it to Major General Watts, a man who was famously described by Field-Marshal Haig himself as ‘a distinctly stupid man [who] lacks imagination.”
At this point, it is important to note that the 38th Welsh Division was made up of young men who, while enthusiastic and courageous, were considered to be a rather poorly-trained division; much like Herbert Watts, while their heart was in the right place, their strategic planning skills were sorely missing.
On the morning of 10th July 1916, the Division attacked Mametz Wood, and managed to fight through to the fringe edges of the forest, which Germans had taken as a defensive position, and populated with machine guns.
The battle raged for two days, at the end of which nearly 4000 men were killed or wounded. The Welsh division would not be used again in another attack until 1917.
To the left, rising out of the smoke and mist, the dark mass of Mametz Wood, beyond it Contalmaison. To the right—dawn. I shall never forget that either. Silhouetted against Mithras’ morning legions, all fiery red, and fierce gold, the dark sinister line of Longueval, houses, spires now all gone, showing among the trees of Delville Wood. And in an open space, the incongruously complete buildings, and factory chimneys of Waterlot farm. Nearer the remains of Montaubon and Trones Wood. The third if from the same place some hours later, when we looked down into hell on our left. A frontal attack on Contalmaison and Mametz Wood (quit different and separate from Mametz village) which we saw from our ridge to a flank. Every kind of shell bursting in the wood and village. Shrapnel, crump, incendiary, lachrymatory, and over the torn-up waste of what had once been trenches, and over which our people had to advance, hun ‘Woolly bears’ (5.9″ Sharpnel), crumps, and a steady barriage of field-gun shrapnel from Baz. …. The great valley was already nearly ploughed from end to end and here and there whizz-bangs were bursting. We got to our position, in a sort of little hollow, and the ordered confusion of getting into action was at its height when with a shriek and a crash a shell burst some 20 yards behind us. Then a bang—and the yell of the shell case as it went through us. I remember looking down the battery. The driver standing beside me was lying killed. A Gunner who was behind me got the bullet I should otherwise have had, in the stomach. A little further on someone was bending over Wager and I saw Bowman crawling into the trench with his leg broken.
— from the letters of Lieutenant Christian Cresswell Carver, who died of his wounds at Flanders, 23 July 1917, at the age of 20 years old.
The poem takes a reflective journey into Mametz Wood, the final resting place of nearly 4000 Welsh soldiers who gave their lives in service to the country, and who, in return, were accused of cowardice (though this accusation was later withdrawn, it soured relations between the commanding officers for quite some time). ‘Mametz Wood‘ is a deeply slow poem, inspired by Owen Sheers’ trip to Wales, during which a tomb of twenty Allied soldiers was discovered. Sheers was so enamored with the image, that he was to later return and compose ‘Mametz Wood‘.
Analysis of Mametz Wood
For years afterwards the farmers found them –
as they tended the land back into itself.
The poem, which you can read in full here, opens with the most delicate placing of words – ‘for years afterwards the farmers found them’, Owen begins, and the use of the word ‘found them’ implies genuine care on behalf of the farmers, an image that is further strengthened by the end phrase of the stanza – ‘as they tended the land back into itself’. The reference to the soldiers as ‘the wasted young’ shows again the futility and the violence of the war; Owen Sheers is writing in a generation where war is seen as wasteful rather than honorable, and the epitaph ‘the wasted young’ also brings to light how very childish the soldiers must have seemed for their bones to appear as though belonging to smaller men.
The stanza does not make much of the discovery of the farmers; the farmers, who are tending the land ‘back into itself’, thus helping it heal (the reference to the land here is not one of death, but of reconciliation with one’s own history and heritage) after the bloody battle of Mametz Wood, the effects of which, it is implied, are felt even today. Time has made these soldiers just as irreplaceably natural – the land, as well as the soldiers, were brutalized by the war, and the fact that their remains have lain there for years without being uncovered shows the selfishness of war.
However, the fact that this same area is now a place of healing implies that time is capable of healing the wounds of the past.
Stanzas Two and Three
A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.
Notice the delicacy of the images used to talk about the soldiers’ remains; whereas one would expect bones to be compared to something like iron, or metal, wood, stone, the poet has chosen a different analogy for their remains: ‘a chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade’, he says, thus showing both the fragmented nature of the remains, as well as their fragility. China plates are generally considered to be priceless, as well as delicate, and the bones have been elevated from natural resources to this such image as well. Following on from that, he talks about the ‘broken bird’s egg’ of a skull, once more making a point to remind the reader of the fragility of the bones that the farmers have unearthed. It is not clear whether the soldiers’ fragility is due to the fact that they were young when they died – thus giving their skeletons a partially-formed look, and thus making the poem itself all the more poignant – or if years of being forgotten for their sacrifice has leached the strength from their bones, and left them porous and delicate, about to fall apart at the slightest provocation.
At this point, the bones are spoken of collectively; the soldiers died together, and it is as though their bond has transcended beyond death, allowing them to remain a community and a unit even after they have lain undiscovered in the mud for years. This sort of closeness is the very same one that Wilfred Owen spoke so highly of in his poems. Here, it is given a different appearance. Rather than concerning living soldiers, it speaks about the dead as though they are still alive and still connected together. Note the term ‘relic’, which is used to speak about fingers. ‘Relic’ itself is a word that has heavy religious connotations; their sacrifice has transcended mere sacrifice and become near-mythical.
This, combined with the delicacy of the bones, shows the transcience of life in a most moving way; yes, the soldiers died in a brutal battle, however, they all died together, and their unity seems to be comforting rather than saddening, at least in this stanza. There is a sense of peace and hopefulness despite the sad imagery of the shallow grave of allied soldiers.
‘Walk, not run’ was the entire battle plan of Field-Marshal Haig; he demanded that his soldiers walk towards the German army, most of which were defending advantageous positions with much better weaponry. Haig could not seem to understand that to walk towards the approaching guns made the soldiers sitting ducks and easy targets. Here, the reference to it shows both the willingness and the obedience of Welsh soldiers – who walked towards their deaths even as the Germans fired their machine guns upon them – as well as the stupidity and the cruelty of the men who led them.
Also note the word ‘nesting’, used in reference to machine guns; it implies natural seamlessness with the woods, showing how well the Germans were hidden. They had become a part of the wood, whereas the Welsh soldiers who marched on them were outsiders, easily recognizable, and far more easily killed. It also implies pollution of the wood itself; the invasion of the German army acts much like a virus, turning the land where most of the Welsh soldiers knew as the home into a trap and the final resting place for their own bodies.
And even now the earth stands sentinel,
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.
However, the war is now over, and the land watches over the dead soldiers. The fact that these bones have been discovered after laying there for so many years shows that the earth itself is trying to make sure that they are remembered, that their sacrifice is not in vain, and that their memories will live on in the lives of the living. Rather than the living plucking them wilfully from the grave, the earth itself gives them up to scrutiny, and in this way, it seems as though a rebirth of their identities. ‘Like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin’ – this implies the transience of hidden sins. Eventually, the soldiers were uncovered; so too would graver things be uncovered. It is perhaps the first foreboding image of the poem itself. That which is repressed, in other words, will return – and here, the repression is the willful forgetting of the sacrifice that the Welsh soldiers of Mametz Wood made.
This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre
‘This morning’ shows the immediacy of the discovery, and here the dead are given a number: twenty soldiers were uncovered, all heaped together and thrown into one grave. However, the fact that they were linked ‘arm in arm’ as a ‘broken mosaic’ shows that whoever buried them cared enough about their fate to make sure that they were linked in death. By putting their arms together, and burying them all in one grave, the cohesion of the unit is maintained; the soldiers died together, not alone, doing something great, and this, perhaps, is the most memorable image of the entire poem – twenty dead soldiers linked arm in arm, their bones nearly fused together.
in boots that outlasted them,
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.
The ‘boots that outlasted them’ is nearly oxymoronic as it was largely considered that boots were the most short-lived article of clothing in World War One. Considering that most of the battlefields were accessed after long marches shows how very little the soldiers had fought in the war: their boots had not yet been worn to tatters. The ‘dropped open’ jaws imply that the soldiers might be trying to call out, though whether it is to each other or to the living is left ambiguous.
As if the notes they had sung
slipped from their absent tongues.
By the end of the poem, however, the reader knows the truth: the dead soldiers have been trying to communicate with the living, to make sure that they and their sacrifice are not forgotten. Their tongues are absent, showing that they have been silenced, however, the excavation of their remains brings them once more to the awareness of the living, and they become a memory of the slaughter of Mametz Woods.
“I really wrote this because while I was there they uncovered a shallow grave of twenty Allied soldiers who had been buried very very quickly but whoever had buried them had taken the time to actually link their arms, arm-in-arm, and when I saw a photograph of this grave I just knew that it was one of those images that had burned itself onto my mind and I knew that I would want to write about it eventually. As it happens I did, but the poem took a long time to surface very much in the same way that those elements of the battle are still surfacing through the fields eighty-five years later.” – Owen Sheers.