I woke early on the second day to the sound of a cockerel crowing somewhere nearby in the village. This was to be a day of the woods – Mametz, Mansel copse, Delville (known as Devil’s wood to the soldiers), and High Wood.
I have an affection for woodland which goes back to a childhood of messing about in a nearby Beech copse; dredging and damming streams and having my first encounters with the scent of bluebells. On the drive out I was surprised to notice a sign in Welsh directing us to the Mametz memorial – a feisty Welsh dragon. I hadn’t expected to encounter Welsh in the middle of France.
We didn’t go into Mametz wood itself – it’s privately owned but stood on the slope opposite as Jeremy told us where the trenches would have been and about the attack which started on the morning of 7th July 1916. The Welsh had the objective of taking the wood but the trees were full of Germans with machine guns. One of the things which made the weekend different was Jeremy’s detailed intimate knowledge of the terrain. So we were standing on the side of the hill having walked up to the ridge in the pouring rain and we’re looking down into Mametz itself as Jeremy is explaining that as the Welsh come over the ridge with the dawn light behind them they are clearly outlined against the horizon – sky-lined – and most of them did not even get as far as the wood itself. I’d always thought of dawn and the coming of daylight as something to be welcomed but not for these men.
It was a sobering moment.