Today I met with Emma Routley of the National Museum of Wales and the Firing Line Museum. She had invited me to meet her at the National Museum to discuss an art project with the Positive Outlook Group. The group comprises of 14-15 year old students, as part of their studies they have been learning about WW1 and they wanted to bring together what they have learned to produce a creative outcome; possibly a collage.
My knowledge of the first world war is quite limited, so we discussed what the students had actually covered. Emma showed me around the current exhibition ‘War’s Hell! The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art’, and I also visited the Firing Line Museum which is based downstairs in Cardiff Castle.
I learned that the Battle of Mametz Wood has its 100 year anniversary this year and that it was part of the Battle of the Somme. It was a very significant and bloody battle fought by Welsh Soldiers during the First World War (1914-1918). The 38th (Welsh) Division fought to take control of the wood in Northern France. The area was heavily fortified by one of the most experienced German regiments, whereas the 38th Division was almost entirely volunteer recruits, who had only had basic training. The battle took 5 days from the 7th – 12th July, 1916 and it was at great human cost.
The wood is nearly a mile wide and a mile deep and thick with trees and undergrowth. The 38th Division had to advance over open ground, through a shallow valley and up a hill. This made the soldiers visible and vulnerable to enemy fire. The battle was the fiercest that took place in the Somme, leaving 4000 soldiers from the Welsh Division either killed, injured or declared missing in action. The losses were so great that the Division didn’t go back into action until a year later.
I think the painting, The Charge of the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood 1917, which is an oil on canvas, by Christopher Williams (1873-1934), captures the feeling of ‘hell’ very well. Lloyd George had commissioned the painting to commemorate the battle and it was hung in the drawing room in 10 Downing Street, but later donated to the National Museum of Wales.
Amongst the other exhibits on display, is a wounded soldiers pipe, which was typical of the pipes given to recuperating soldiers in hospital. You can see an example of this in the painting ‘Care of Wounded Soldiers in Cardiff Royal Infirmary 1916. Also an oil on canvas painting, that was commissioned by William James Thomas and painted by Margaret Lindsay Williams (1888-1960).
I was really moved by the poem ‘Reflections on Two Visits to Mametz Wood’ by Harry Fellows in 1916 and 1984. When Harry died in 1987 at the age of 91 his ashes were returned to Mametz Wood and buried there.