The 38th (Welsh) Division was formed from many thousands of Welsh volunteers in late 1914 and 1915 as part of Kitchener’s New Armies – a force for the long war that he was the first to recognise. It was to be ready for battle in 1917. David Lloyd George strongly supported the expansion of the British Army and even hoped for a Welsh Army Corps, to be formed from the 38th, 53rd and 68th (Welsh) Divisions, along with the Welsh infantry and cavalry units drawn from regular divisions of the Army. This was a hope never realised, for reasons that will be explored.
The 38th Division carried out its training in Britain and shipped to France in November 1915. Its units took part in the little-known Second Christmas Truce. The division served numerous tours of duty in the line until the summer of 1916.
Mametz Wood village and the area around Fricourt saw one of the few successes by the British Army on 1 July 1916. Haig decided to reinforce that success and attack again around Fricourt in order to capture the German second defence line at its closest point between Longeval and Bazentin. General Rawlinson, whose Army was to undertake the task, had little option but to assault this position frontally. He decided to do so between the two large woods of Mametz on the left and Trones on the right.
1 R.W. Fus was ordered to mount a formal attack during the night of 4/5 July, in conjunction with the 17th Division. After a deal of confusion in the dark, the battalion gained its objectives, using new bombing tactics, for the loss of 8 killed and 55 wounded. It was here that Siegfried Sassoon won his Military Cross.
The bulk of Mametz Wood was, however, still in German hands. The task of clearing it was allocated to XIV Corps under Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Horne. Horne decided to attack the wood from two directions using two divisions: the 17th Division would attack from the West, out of 1 R.W. Fusiliers’ objective, Quadrangle Trench at 02.00 hrs on 7 July, to capture Quadrangle Support Trench and Pearl Alley. If this succeeded, a combined attack on the wood would be mounted by the 17th and 38th (Welsh) Divisions, with 38th (Welsh) Division attacking across open ground from the east out of Caterpillar and Marlborough Woods. 38th Division was to attack in echelon, that is, with the first assault brigade, 115, leading, followed by the second brigade, followed by the third. The line of assault would take the troops parallel with the German second line trenches and without suppressing artillery fire and a smoke barrage, the troops would be raked by flanking fire from German strong-points in Sabot and Flat Iron copses.
The first attack by 17th Division failed and so the second phase went in at 08.30 hrs. 16th Welch and 11th South Wales Borderers were stopped by heavy machine-gun fire and the attack failed to get within 300 yards of the wood, not least because the supporting artillery fire did not arrive. A second attempt was made at 11.00 hrs with a similar result. A third attempt was ordered for 16.30 hrs: it had been raining hard all day, the ground was sodden, the trenches half filled with mud and water, the approach to the wood, which was down a slope which in places was almost a cliff had become near-impossible, and all the telephone lines used to call in artillery fire support had been broken. Brigadier-General Evans of 115 Brigade was convinced that another attack under these conditions would end in disaster. He managed to have the attack cancelled, a move which saved many lives, but which ended his own career.
The next afternoon, 113 and 114 Brigades were ordered to attack the wood again on 9 July with 115 in reserve; this attack was postponed until dawn on 10 July because the conditions had not improved. At this moment, Major-General Ivor Phillips (on the left) was removed from command of the 38th Division – a serious decision by Haig and the Corps Commander.
114 and 113 Brigades were ordered to move slowly and methodically up the wood. There would be three lifts of the artillery barrage within the wood, supporting 113 Brigade on the left and 114 Brigade on the right. To everyone’s astonishment, the attack succeeded. Once in the wood, fighting became very confused affair not least because of the dense undergrowth and the destruction caused by the artillery. Many prisoners taken; and at one point there were eleven Welsh battalions in the wood.
In the evening, 115 Brigade was ordered to relieve the two assault brigades and take over the defence of the wood against German counter-attacks. On 11 July, 115 Brigade came under fire from British artillery falling short of the German trenches. This fire not only pinned down the brigade, but put a stop to any prospect of a further surprise attack for the Germans were now thoroughly roused. Progress was made, however, on the western side of the wood.
That night, the 38th Division was relieved in the line by the 21st Division and pulled back into rest. Robert Graves was with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the 33rd Division when they entered Mametz Wood shortly afterwards and he described the scene thus in Goodbye to All That:
Mametz Wood was full of the dead of the Prussian Guards reserve, big men, and the Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree unbroken . . . There had been bayonet fighting in the wood. There was a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment who had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously. A survivor of the fighting told me later that he had seen a young solder if the 14th Royal Welch bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically exclaiming as he had been taught: “in, out, on guard. . . “
The 38th Division, much reduced by casualties, was moved away into rest having lost somewhere between one-third and a half of its fighting strength, and here the story of their part in the battle ends.
As well as examining the story of the 38th Division from its formation until the end of the Battle for Mametz, this book also looks at things from the point of view of the Germans, using the published Regimental Histories and personal accounts from The Lehr Regiment; the Guard-Fusiliers; the 9th Grenadiers; the 122nd Württemberg Infantry; and the 77th, 163rd, 183rd, and 184th Infantry Regiments.
The book reveals new material on, among other matters, the forces involved, the Christmas Truce of 1915, the German fortifications of Mametz Wood and the casualties on both sides.
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