Mametz Wood

This July marks the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, one of WW1’s bloodiest engagements. The Battle’s first day (July 1st) was the costliest in Britain’s military history, with over 54,000 casualties sustained (over 19,000 killed). The Somme Offensive continued throughout the summer and autumn of 1916, with British and French troops managing to penetrate 6 miles into German-held territory across a 20 mile front. Total deaths of all nationalities during the offensive amounted to over a million men.
The attack on Mametz Wood is a particularly poignant reminder of the Welsh contribution to this ‘Big Push’, and of the great sacrifices made. As part of the Somme Offensive, the 38th (Welsh) Division (an amalgamation of South Wales Borderers, Royal Welch Fusiliers and Welch Regiment troops) was tasked with securing a well-defended area of woodland close to the village of Mametz. Most of these troops were in the Welsh ‘Pals’ Battalions which had been formed across Britain in a wave of patriotic response to Lord Horatio Kitchener’s recruiting drive. Many of them were inexperienced in combat, and were facing battle-hardened Prussian troops defending the wood.
The initial attack on the eastern edge of the wood began on the 7th of July 1916, with dug-in German machinegun positions causing heavy casualties. The attacking Welsh troops were pinned down in the open with little cover. Thus, this first attack broke down 300 yards away from the treeline. A second assault took place on the southern edge of the wood on the 10th. Two days of hard fighting followed, with artillery bombardments from both sides decimating the trees and creating hails of lethal shrapnel and splinters. The defenders had to be flushed out of their positions with Mills bombs (grenades), and there was close-quarter fighting. By the 12th of July the entire wood was in the hands of the Welsh; they had suffered some 4000 men killed or wounded. To commemorate the battle, this blog includes some further information on three soldiers who served at Mametz:

Lieutenant Walter L.J. Pomfret, 10th SWB
Some visitors to the site may have already read our earlier blog post about Lieutenant Walter Pomfret and his diary account of the Mametz battle. It was on the 10th of July that Pomfret joined the second offensive. His diary account reads as follows:

About 2pm we go over the top towards Mametz Wood, advancing in extended order. We are spotted by the Huns who ‘strafe’ us, causing a couple of casualties including one Signaller who was just on my left. Many dead and dying of the 114th Brigade (Welch Regiment) lie about us, we are too busy to take much notice of them…our fellows attack the cover of the wood nearest ‘Bazentin le Petit’ with Bomb and Bayonet.  A steady stream of wounded passes us towards the dressing station. During the afternoon we have over 100 casualties.

After the action on the 10th, Pomfret and his men took cover in trenches on the edge of the wood, enduring a terrific artillery bombardment throughout the night. At one point an exploding shell caused part of the trench wall to cave in and almost bury him alive. Pomfret’s unit remained stationed at Mametz through the 11th, being relieved by the West Yorks Regiment at daybreak on the 12th.

2nd Lieutenant Ralph Paton Taylor, 10th SWB
2nd Lieut Ralph Taylor was also fighting with the 10th Battalion of the SWB at Mametz. Born in Arbroath in 1896, he was raised and educated in Northampton. He tried to enlist early in the war, but was rejected on fitness grounds. Taylor’s second attempt to enlist was successful, and in 1915 he was commissioned as a junior officer in the Northamptonshire Regiment. In 1916 he was sent to France, and was attached to the 10th Battalion South Wales Borderers shortly after arriving at the front. He had been in France for just a few weeks when he was killed during the 10th July assault on Mametz; he was only 20 years old.

A letter to Taylor’s parents says that:

with great bravery your son led his platoon into action, and unfortunately he was hit. He was carried out of action and buried on the field of battle.

He was later reburied in Dantzig Alley British Cemetery at Mametz. Ralph’s parents built in his memory the YMCA Memorial Hall and Hostel in Castilian Street, Northampton.
Lieutenant Taylor’s sword is held in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, London.

Private David Thomas, 14 Welch (Swansea) Battalion

Private David Thomas, a native of the Gower Peninsula, was killed on the final day of the battle (12th). He was part of the Welch Regiment’s Swansea Battalion (‘Swansea Pals’) which had been formed under the initiative of the Mayor of Swansea in 1914. An entry in the Gower Church Magazine for the parishes of Cheriton and Llanmadoc says the following:

Quite a gloom was cast over the village when it became known from the War Office that Pte. David Thomas had fallen in action. A previous communication to his parents stated that he was missing and possibly a prisoner of war, and we were hoping that such might prove to be true and tidings would come that he was safe. Hope dies hard. It was not to be…he fell at the Sergeant’s side at Mametz Wood where the Swansea Battalion suffered severely…Private Thomas was an honourable lad, trusted by all the Lieutenants in the Swanseas. When at home he was a most faithful churchman and a communicant…A memorial service was held in Cheriton Church, when a large and reverent congregation met with manifest signs of sorrow to pay a tribute of respect to one who had endeared himself to a large number of friends, and died a noble death.

Pte Thomas was buried in a grave dug into a trench inside Mametz Wood; his name was later inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial to the fallen with no known/marked grave.