This Day In History: the battle of Mametz Wood

The Welsh Dragon memorial at Mametz Wood
The Welsh Dragon memorial at Mametz Wood

At 8.30am on July 7, 1916, the 38th (Welsh) Division began its attack on Mametz Wood.

The capture of the wood was key to a successful attack on the German second line in this area of the Somme battlefield.

The first advance floundered in chaos 200-300 yards short of the wood, and a further attack at 11am met with the same fate.

The Germans were well dug in and to approach the wood the attacker had to cross an open field.

After 15 hours of continuous fighting the Welsh were forced to regroup.

During the afternoon of July 11, the decision was taken to withdraw the Welsh Division from the battle area.

The 38th Division was relieved by the 21st Division, which cleared the remainder of Mametz Wood by midday on July 12, encountering little resistance.

The Welsh Division did not have the satisfaction of seeing the job through and witnessing the total capture of Mametz Wood.

As this detailed article by Dr Robin Barlow, of Aberystwyth University, notes: “The human toll at the battle of Mametz was a high one.

“Between 7-12 July, 911 NCOs and other ranks from the Welsh Division lost their lives, plus 37 officers. In addition, many hundreds more men would have been posted missing, their bodies never recovered. The 16th (CardiffCity) Battalion, Welsh Regiment suffered the greatest loss with 153 men and five officers killed, 129 of whom (and three officers) died on July 7.

“The 14th (Swansea) Battalion, Welsh Regiment had entered its first major engagement of the First World War on July 10 with 676 men; by nightfall, 75 men and one officer had died, with a further 376 casualties. More than half the Battalion was lost in one day.

“The attacking strength of the 17th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers was recorded as ‘950 bayonets’; on July 12 Emlyn Davies transmitted a message to 115th Brigade headquarters, ‘strength 5 Officers, 142 Other Ranks’.”

the mametz dragon 2The battle has gained an iconic status in Wales.

Dr Barlow writes: “Although the name of Mametz Wood has come to symbolise the sacrifice and commitment of Welsh troops in the First World War, their actual contribution – and even their bravery – is wreathed in controversy and debate. Was it a glorious success or a chaotic failure?

“In the words of the officers of a neighbouring division, the advance of the Welsh Division on July 10 was ‘one of the most magnificent sights of the war’, as wave after wave of men were seen ‘advancing without hesitation’.”

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