Mametz Wood: Conflict Poem by Owen Sheers (1974-) and Conflict Art by Christopher Williams

Long ago I worked in Cardiff Royal Infirmary as a hospital porter. There was a ward called Mametz and I was often curious about the origin of its name. I recently came across this poem about Mametz Wood, a part of the terrible slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Welch Regiment was involved. Hence the hospital ward named after it.

Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers

For years afterwards the farmers found them –

the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades

as they tended the land back into itself.


A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,

the relic of a finger, the blown

and broken bird’s egg of a skull,


all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white

across this field where they were told to walk, not run,

towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.


And even now the earth stands sentinel,

reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened

like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.


This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,

a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,

their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre


in boots that outlasted them,

their socketed heads tilted back at an angle

and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.


As if the notes they had sung

have only now, with this unearthing,

slipped from their absent tongues.

The poet commented on the origin of his poem:

Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the Summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches

It was also at Mametz that the war poet Siegfried Sassoon made a single handed attack on the enemy trenches on 4 July 1916, as recorded in his memoirs. There is also a vivid description of the fighting in Mametz Wood may be found in In Parenthesis, a modernist long poem written by British poet and visual artist David Jones, who also took part in the battle. And it inspired this painting:

File:MametzWood Christopher Williams.jpg

Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams 1918

See also:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Art, Conflict History, Conflict Poetry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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