Lt Walter Pomfret’s Account of the Battle of Mametz Wood

The Battle of Mametz Wood was part of the Somme Offensive that took place from July to November 1916. The 38th (Welsh) Division, composed of various Welsh Regiments, was given orders to attack and capture Mametz Wood, an area of some 200 acres and the largest wood on the Somme battlefront. The capture of the Wood, which commenced on 7th July 1916, had been intended to last a matter of hours but instead dragged on for five days, as the dense woodland and heavy German fortifications proved challenging for the Welsh soldiers, many of whom were novices and badly-equipped. Although the Division eventually captured the Wood, almost 4,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded during the attack, making it one of the bloodiest incidents in Welsh history.

Lt Walter L J Pomfret was serving with the South Wales Borderers in France when the Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916. In his detailed diary, he wrote about his involvement in the Battle of Mametz Wood. Pomfret reached the Somme battlefront by the beginning of July, but his battalion did not immediately join in the fighting, and instead undertook drills and inspections in preparation for their removal to Mametz. On the first day of the Somme Offensive, Pomfret wrote that he passed ‘hundreds of slightly wounded men in Charabancs and also many stretcher cases’ and that the roads were ‘choked with Ambulances and Shell Wagons’. This day saw almost 60,000 British casualties and is remembered as the deadliest day in British military history.

The following day, Pomfret recorded going to see ‘about 400 German Prisoners’ who had been captured the previous day and were being kept ‘in a barbed wire enclosure guarded by Yeomanry’. On 5th July, Pomfret made his way towards the front line. On his way he passed returning troops and, despite the struggle of the fighting, wrote that ‘Everybody seems to be smiling and full of hope’. Pomfret’s battalion reached Mametz Wood on 6th July, ready for action to commence the following day. His diary records in detail the bloodiness of the battle and the awful conditions endured by the soldiers. His entry for 7th July reads,

"It is raining pitilessly the ground is a quagmire, wounded awaiting dressing lie everywhere and here and there are dead…Our chaps advance in waves up the rise but when they reach the level they are mown down like corn by machine guns in the wood. The 16th Welsh have lost about 250 already. Our Colonel goes up with our first wave and is the first one killed."

In the following days, the Welsh soldiers continued to face incessant machine gun fire and shelling from the Germans as well as poor weather conditions. Pomfret records wading ‘through slush almost a foot deep’ and witnessing ‘an artillery ammunition wagon stuck in the mud’ with its exhausted men ‘fast asleep standing against the wagon’. On 11th July, Pomfret recalled a near miss. Following vigorous shelling, he was forced to evacuate from the Signal Station he was manning with fellow signallers, and rejoin the remainder of the Battalion in the trenches. Whilst in the trench,

"Terrific bombardment continues all night…One bursts about a yard behind the trench where two or three of us are lying down. The trench caves in and almost buries us. I remove my position to a shell hole just by where about 8 of us huddle together. A bit of shell enters a fellow’s knee against which I am leaning."

The following day, as the enemy were almost cleared from the wood, Pomfret’s battalion was relieved by the West Yorkshire Regiment and his entry for the day records that ‘we never had such a welcome relief’.