A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE MAMETZ WOOD BATTLEFIELD

Sassoon takes on the enemy single handed

A present day view taken from the high ground above Mametz Wood showing the area of the British Army’s actions in the period 4th July 1916 to 12th July 1916. 

After the capture of Fricourt one of the Army’s next objectives was to take Mametz Wood. This task was to be given to the 38th (Welsh) Division, sometimes lightly referred to as "Lloyd George’s Welsh Army". The Division was recruited in rural North Wales and from the mining valleys and towns of South Wales. One battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers was recruited from Welshmen living in London and was known as the London Welch. The poet David Jones was one of the members of this battalion. In the event, despite the bravery of the men involved, the capture of Mametz Wood was dearly bought. It took the Division from the 7th to the 12th July 1916 to do so and cost them 4000 casualties, including 600 killed. Thereafter and quite unjustifiably, the Division was not held in high regard. Command thought that the time taken to capture the wood was quite excessive. The next wood to be attacked was High Wood. The attack there commenced on 14th July but it was not until the 15th September 1916 and after very heavy casualties that this wood was finally taken. Thus, by comparison, the success of the 38th (Welsh) Division was very creditable. The Division behaved splendidly in the Ypres salient in 1917 and "regained" its reputation. Mametz Wood fell to the Germans again in 1918 but by an accident of fate the Division was back in the Somme in August of that year and re-took the wood, this time with very little trouble.

But that was in the future. Preparations for the 38th (Welsh) Division’s attack included the need to take positions adjacent to Mametz Wood and this task fell, in part, to Sassoon’s 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers. Thus on 4th July, and starting from a wood called Bottom Wood on the Contalmaison road, the battalion managed to capture part of the German’s Quadrangle Trench. Later the trench position was extended towards Wood Trench which led into Mametz Wood itself. Sassoon’s company was occupied in carrying material for the Royal Engineers, but afterwards Sassoon went up to Quadrangle Trench on his own. There he met *2nd Lt. Newton who was holding a bombing post near the entrance to Wood Trench. As enemy fire from Mametz Wood was causing casualties amongst the fusiliers holding Quadrangle Trench, Sassoon decided to take a bag of hand grenades and bomb his way along Wood Trench. In doing so he surprised some 50/60 German soldiers who immediately ran for cover in the relative security of Mametz Wood. As Sassoon remarks in his Diary, Quadrangle Trench was then the most advanced position held by his Corps.

By 9.30 p.m. the battalion was back in Bottom Wood being relieved in the trenches there by a sister battalion – the **14th Royal Welch Fusiliers-recruited in Llandudno and its surrounding area in North Wales. For this exploit Sassoon would normally have been recommended for a further decoration, perhaps a Bar to his Military Cross. However, the failure to effect the prompt capture of Mametz Wood did not dispose the Authorities to look favourably on recommendations for awards and Sassoon’s award was disallowed.

* In Memoirs of An Infantry Officer Sassoon calls this officer "Fernby". He was in fact 2nd Lt. Vivian Frederic Newton age 19. He was educated at Cheltenham College and Sandhurst. He died of wounds received in the battalion’s attack on Ginchy on 3rd September 1916. He is buried in St. Sever CWGC cemetery in Rouen.

** In "Memoirs of An Infantry Officer" Sassoon condescendingly describes the soldiers of the 14th Royal Welch involved in the relief as being " like a lot of children." It is interesting to read the comment of one of the officers in the 14th Royal Welch who actually took part in that relief. He wrote of the 1st battalion "that he had never seen a quicker departure". As soon as the 14th arrived in Bottom Wood the 1st battalion was " up and went off". He goes on to say that in the light of experience he could see why they did so.

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