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:
Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams 1918