100 years on: the legacy of Mametz Wood

7 July 2016

Image of Mametz Wood today
Image of Mametz wood today, and the memorial to the fallen

Leading historian gives a fresh perspective on the notorious World War One battle involving Welsh volunteers.

Two years into the Great War, British generals were planning to conduct an attack on the second line of German defences. To advance, the army needed to take Mametz Wood.

As the Battle of the Somme began, the fierce battle fought by Welsh volunteer troops over a six-day period became embroiled in controversy, with claims of panicking and bolting.

A century on, Professor of History at Cardiff University Chris Williams gives a nuanced perspective of the legacy of the infamous battle fought by the 38th (Welsh) Division, 7 – 12 July 1916.

“Wood fighting was brutal, much of it involving hand-to-hand combat, and German resistance was fierce” he explains. “The plan of attack had envisaged the wood being taken by 08:15 on 10 July - in fact it took until 12 July for the enemy to withdraw completely.

Professor Williams, whose great-grandfather volunteered for the 2nd Gwent Division [11th Battalion of the South Wales Borderers, known at the 2nd Gwent, heavily involved in the battle], adds: “The Welsh troops had not been trained for this kind of warfare. Once in the wood, visibility was restricted and it was difficult to keep one's bearing. There was no lack of courage in the troops; they had been set an impossible task."

Ultimately successful in their mission to take Mametz, the Welsh volunteers paid a heavy price. One fifth were killed, missing or wounded by the end of the battle. It was a sign of much worse to come. One of the bloodiest battles in history, the Battle of the Somme was to claim one million lives over four desperate months.

The horror of the battle inspired highly-charged poetry and art testifying to the uncompromising nature of modern warfare. Head of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Professor Williams is currently leading Cartooning the First World War in Wales, a research project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

His full account of the Battle of Mametz and its legacy is available on BBC News online.