Wandering in Mametz Wood can be somewhat dangerous – this unexploded artillery shell lying in the leaf litter on the track…
The geography of the Pas de Calais region and the adjacent Belgium area of what is known as the Ypres Salient, is quite stunning – at least to someone from the hill country of central Wales ! The flat open fields of ripening corn and the long straight roads linking towns whose tall church spires dominate the horizon, make the area serene and peaceful. The ancient roads mainly run on the ridge-lines and the small ‘bois‘ , the copses of mixed broadleaf woodland, are dotted here and there on slightly higher rounded hills. It is easy to see why the roads and woods were so important in the battles that raged to and fro for the four long years of the war. It is harder to picture today’s tranquil farm land, picturesque villages and poppy lined lanes, in the state they were back in 1916.
The rich open country of Flanders where corn, pasture, woods and vales mask the in-grained images of trench warfare.
What did bring that whole tragedy full square into one’s brain was the incessant bombardment that befell both eye and mind, the dozens and dozens of military graveyards. At each road junction a small green sign with dignified white lettering pointed to another Commonwealth War Grave or a French war grave and, less frequently, a German graveyard. Sometimes, on a long quiet lane seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we would suddenly be confronted with a small plot of ground with the familiar white headstones. The numbers in each plot varied considerably, here a hundred or more, there just six, next thirty to fifty then several hundred. More than anything else it is the small roadside cemeteries that leave the indelible mark on the visitor.
Sometimes large sometimes just a few dozen; everywhere the Graves.
The international nature of the war, indeed why it was a ‘World’ war is also clearly understood. The cemeteries of Commonwealth countries are plentiful, from Canada and the southern hemisphere countries, from India and from the small island of Newfoundland. The French colonies are honoured throughout their cemeteries particularly the north African countries. I wondered aloud how long it must have taken for the land and the landscape to recover its ancient dignity. The familiar pictures of a devastated countryside with the odd bare skeletal tree standing amongst mounds of mud and the endless barbed-wire, of Chaplin-like moving pictures in which dishevelled men, up to their knees in clag, scurry like the rats that lived with them. The deep, water filled trenches and huge craters where thousands lived and died are all too familiar. How did the local farmers ever get their land back to productivity ? How long did it take to rebuild villages, houses, farmsteads and the dozens of ancient churches ? In some places they didn’t bother; here and there it is possible to come across preserved trench systems and huge craters now filled with water or just grassed over. Only ‘young’ woodlands exist and it struck me how nature must also have been devastated. What happened to the rabbits, what happened to the thousands of birds ? Clearly, as John McCrae famously tells us, some just hung on in there …
“and in the sky the Larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below”.
In one preserved site I read that it was suggested in 1922 – four years after the end of the war – that the particular area of trenches and craters on a small ridge should be left as it was. That now forms the evocative memorial to the men of Newfoundland.
The wonderful statue of a Moose looks out across the ground of trenches and craters at the Newfoundland Memorial.
The haphazard system of wriggling trenches interspersed with deep shell craters is shocking, the proximity – a mere 50 metres – of what were German trenches is shocking, the signs warning that it is wise not to enter a particular area of fenced off ground as it is still infested with unexploded shells is shocking. The strategic importance of the site is clear as one gazes out in a 360 degree panorama over the flat fields where the horizon is barely visible.
The signs say it all – nearly a hundred years and still not safe ..
One thing that did impress me was the number of English school groups that were touring the sites, it was not so much the number – there’s a certain dread in arriving at a site of commemoration to find buses of school kids ! – it was the manner in which they walked around and the interest they seemed to be giving to either the guides, who talked them through the site, or the pictures and letters in the museums. It was a welcome respite from the badly behaved groups of teenagers I have met at the Normandy battlefield sites, especially the American cemetery at Omaha beach where French schoolchildren seem to have to be taken but are unable to curtail their obvious displeasure and disinterest.
As a Welshman there was one place of pilgrimage that had to be on the itinerary, a small block of woodland near Albert, the site now commemorated by a beautiful piece of sculpture made by a friend of mine, the famous Welsh artist blacksmith David Petersen (son of the even more famous Welsh boxing legend Jack Petersen).
The Welsh Dragon roars out towards Mametz Woods, a memorial worthy of the sacrifice and a credit to David Petersen and the Welsh Veterans who raised the funds.
The thing that most strikes you at the Mametz Wood site is the apparent insignificance of it, what was deemed so important about this small woodland in a quiet valley off the main river Somme ? What was so strategically important that it warranted the FOUR thousand casualties it took to capture the wood in four days of dreadful fighting in July 1916 ?! The first assault on the 7th July was a failure with men being cut down by heavy German machine gun fire emanating from the deep cover of the wood as they crossed the open ground seen in the photo above. It cost the Divisional commander his job and the 38th Welsh Division were ordered to carry out a mass attack on the 10th July following a heavy artillery bombardment of the wood. Again casualties were enormous as they crossed the open ground but eventually the edge of the wood was gained and there much hand to hand fighting took place. The 14th Battalion (Swansea) lost 400 men out of the 675 who started the attack. It was in the assault of the 10th July that the War poet Seigfried Sassoon carried out a single handed attack on the German lines. The awful bloodiness of the attack was captured by Welsh artist Christopher Williams in his 1918 painting.
Christopher William’s painting of the assault on Mametz Wood.
We wandered along a muddy track into the wood, now re-grown with ash, oak and field maple. Some woodland management had been recently carried out and the track-ways were clear of undergrowth but in places deeply rutted and muddy or water filled. At the edge of the wood, a position identified in records as one of fierce fighting, we stooped to pick up spent cartridge cases and my travelling companion, much to her shock, pulled from the mud the lace holes of a boot (which she later saw clearly in pictures of soldiers at a nearby museum). Nothing so defines what actually went on in a place as picking up an item of personal wear or bullet cases from the position where, 98 years ago, they were ejected from a rifle, or, more poignantly in the case of the boot remains, where a man died for you do not lose a boot in any other circumstances …
In July 1916, probably the 10th, a man lost his boot and probably his life. On 21st July 2014 a young American lady picked a piece of mud cased leather with lace holes punched into it from the side of a woodland track in Mametz Wood …
The quiet woodland glade belied the awful truth of its history. Deep craters, now filled with bramble or moss covered, lay undisturbed on either side as we walked. Here a large unexploded artillery shell, only recently driven over by a woodsman’s tractor, there an unexploded mortar, too big to remove but deadly in its grave of 98 years. Throughout the now peaceful and leafy glades the trees were festooned with the flag of Wales, hung in long buntings or individually fixed to a tree. We hardly spoke and I certainly felt very choked and my vision blurred for a long while.
The woods were hung with the Welsh Dragon, clearly I was not the only Welsh pilgrim to pass by that way in recent times !
The wood is off the beaten track, away from many of the main sites and not near any large town, the small village of Mametz lies a few miles from the site. The signs are understated and if you did not know the significance it would be easily missed. We both thought it was fitting that to get to the wood from the village required driving a few miles along a very ‘Welshy’ country lane which twisted and meandered, apparently needlessly, along a wooded hillside, past high hedged pastures and sleepy farmsteads. You are not going to accidentally come upon Mametz Wood, it is indeed a place towards which Welsh Pilgrims head.
A .303 cartridge case found a few yards into Mametz Wood. The mark in the mud was its resting place having been ejected from a Welshman’s rifle 98 years ago on the 10th July 1916.
Throughout the visit, at every memorial really, the sheer futility and indeed stupidity of it all is the dominant mindset. I’m not one who looks back at the leaders of our country with disdain, they did what they thought was best at the time. It is certain that more recent military campaigns, even by so called ‘elite’ forces, have had their share of wrong decisions and bloody-minded mistakes. It is going to be interesting, over the coming period of commemoration, to see just how the modern historian, military and political, portray the First World War leaders. Even the great Churchill gets his share of incompetency claims when judged by modern standards. One thing is clear however and that is that the Generals, on all sides not just the British, were ill-prepared for what unfolded. They continued to think in terms of earlier warfare where modern munitions and mechanisation were not an issue. The insanity of trench warfare is clear to us today but it is not as simple as condemning those that orchestrated it.
Careful where you step ! Another large unexploded shell on a track in Mametz Wood – a track the woodsmen have been driving their tractors over just recently …
Of all the memorials to the Great War it is, perhaps, the Menin Gate in the old city of Ypres (Ieper) on the Belgium side of the Franco-Belge border that is most well known. The massive structure, inaugurated in 1927 and built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, bears the inscription of those whose bodies were never recovered or identified. It is quite a jolt to the senses to see the lines and lines of inscriptions. Is it an understandable statistic if I tell you that the total number of names inscribed is FIFTY FOUR THOUSAND, EIGHT HUNDRED AND NINETY SIX ? Is it just as numbing if I tell you that those are the names of Commonwealth soldiers missing just in the Ypres area BEFORE 15th August 1917 ?! In other words before ever the great Somme battles began. Oh yes, and just in case you think that’s not that many, there are tens of thousands more – because there was not enough room at the Gate – on tablets at the main British cemetery of Tyne Cot a few miles east of the city. Shall I repeat that ? That’s just the number of those with no known grave … Believe me, there are quite a few with marked graves.
Inside the great Menin Gate the names of the missing are inscribed … 54,896 of them.
It stands as one of the great statements of gratitude that each evening at 8pm local dignitaries and four buglers from the town perform a solemn ceremony which includes the long minute of silence, after the sounding of the Last Post (was ever a more evocative refrain composed ?) and then the Reveille, the call to awaken. Since 1928 the ceremony has taken place (I presume it was curtailed during the 2nd WW though I am not certain) and a large crowd stands in and around the huge portal. The laying of wreaths by schoolchildren is followed by the reading of the ‘Ode of Remembrance’. The famous poem which begins with the well known line “They shall grow not old” is in fact the second stanza of a poem written by Laurence Binyons. First published in The Times in September 1914, it appeared at the time the nation was reeling from the losses in the Battle of the Marne. The full poem, ‘Ode for the Fallen’ follows:
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted.
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home:
They have no lot in our labours of the day-time,
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
At 8 pm each evening a large crowd falls silent and the bugles sound.
The old city of Ieper (Ypres) has been beautifully restored and the medieval buildings and city walls/ramparts are a real delight. The large square is full of restaurants and cafes and the ambience of the place is uplifting despite the awful history that gives it its modern day celebrity status. We stayed at a lovely municipal camp-site ten minutes outside the wall and it was refreshing to see that not all who holidayed there had come for the 1st World War memorials. Indeed it is clearly a mecca for the Netherlanders and their bicycles ! The final visit before heading south out of the Ypres area was to the large Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cot just east of the city.
The huge expanse of the Tyne Cot cemetery is staggering and yet beautiful.
The area was given its name by the Northumberland Fusiliers who fought to gain the five or six German pill-boxes that were scattered around the little barn that they called Tyne Cottage (many of the battlefield sites have English names appended by troops who fought or stayed there). The area was finally captured by the 3rd Australian Division on 4th October 1917 in the push towards Passchendaele – another name synonymous with huge losses.
The current cemetery contains Commonwealth soldiers from many nations (and some German graves). The burials number 11,956 (and are being added to still as remains are discovered in the course of ploughing or road building) but of those 8,369 are ‘Known unto God’, in other words unidentified ! Staggering indeed. As if that were not enough the memorial garden bears the names of a further THIRTY FIVE THOUSAND who have no known resting place … These were all lost in the battles of the Ypres Salient AFTER August 1917.
The Cross of Sacrifice at Tyne Cot, placed at the suggestion of King George V, who visited the site in 1922, on the largest of the German pill-boxes.
It is a heavy holiday indeed, not one to be undertaken lightly nor as the only R & R of the year ! Such is the magnitude of the events, of the losses and the memorials that it is best, in my view at least, to take it as one solemn pilgrimage. It is far too harrowing to actually ‘enjoy’ per-say. The next four years will see many a commemoration as specific events and battles are remembered. It may be that it all gets a little too much, it might be we become bored and disenchanted with it all. The same could be said of the 2nd World War commemorations, such as the 70th Anniversary of D Day just passed. Maybe the time has come to quietly forget, I’m not sure. One thing for certain is that the gratitude and affection of the French, the Belgians and the people of the Netherlands is not going to fade. It is a difficult emotion this ‘remembering’ business. And what about the Foe ? What do we do/feel about them? They too had huge losses. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that.
That question weighed heavily on my thoughts as we headed south, this time to another place of horrid loss and sacrifice but a generation later and once again at the hands of the same foe. As for my time on the Western Front, it was a mixture of non-plussed head shaking and shame that I had not visited before. On the other hand it has struck me how beautiful that part of France is and how pleasant a land is Belgium – in fact we both voted Belgium as our favourite country ! So, a return petet to enjoy the food and culture, the landscape and historic towns sans Le Guerre Mondial especially if they can guarantee the glorious weather …
But on this day, this 4th of August 2014, a hundred years to the day that the First World War began, I leave you with the haunting words of John McCrae and I can tell you that Poppies do indeed ‘blow’ in Flanders Fields …
“Between the Crosses row on row …”
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.