Friday, 6 November 2020

Mametz and the Mid

Conflict and hardship were constant companions of the population of Mid-Rhondda during the early years of the 20th century.  The bitter Cambrian Combine dispute triggered by the Ely Pit lockout at the Naval Colliery Penygraig had seen the district placed under virtual martial law and brought Rhondda, and Tonypandy in particular, to the forefront of the nation’s attention.  But an even greater conflict loomed, one that would bear even more bitter fruit. On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist, assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. A series of alliances was then activated, and a blind unwitting world dragged into the abyss of war.

One well-known Mid-Rhondda sportsman, Frank Wrentmore volunteered at an early stage and was drafted into the Somerset Light Infantry. Frank was something of a local celebrity having played rugby for Penygraig and rugby league for Mid-Rhondda. He became the first person to score a try against the visiting Kangaroos in a match played on the Mid which featured legendary Australian superstar Herbert ‘Dally’ Messenger. Frank also narrowly escaped being involved in the Ely Pit Cage Disaster that claimed seven lives when another local rugby player took his place in the ill-fated cage. His letter, written from the front, to Councillor Mark Harcombe illuminates the brutal futility of the Great War that was briefly suspended on Christmas day 1914.

I expect you want to know how the boys are getting on here.  It is very cold and freezing hard. We have had a lot of rain, so it has been very rough in the trenches. We have been up to our knees in water. We had a good skirmish on December 19, when we were successful in taking the trenches of the Germans opposed to us. We, however, had to retire from them because they were full of water so I suppose they were glad to leave them. We lost a lot of men in the skirmish - roughly speaking about six officers and 127 men killed."

"The Germans acted very well on Christmas Day. They helped us to bring in our dead, and we did the same for them. Some of theirs had been there two months. But under the circumstances we did well. The Germans and ourselves climbed out of the trenches and we shook hands with each other. We stopped firing from five o'clock until midnight, and we visited each other's trenches."

It was later reported in the Rhondda Leader that Wrentmore had been injured and was in hospital in Liverpool. Frank survived the war and left Rhondda to make a new life for himself as a pub landlord in Carmarthen.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George was determined to create a Welsh Army Corps, but his vision was never fully realised. Instead the 38th Division was designated as a “Welsh” Division comprising three infantry brigades and supporting arms:

113th Brigade (battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers),

114th Brigade (battalions of the Welsh Regiment),

115th Brigade (battalions from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Welsh Regiment and South Wales Borderers).

The battalions of the Welsh Regiment 10th and 13th contained the 1st and 2nd Rhondda. Many, but not all the volunteers from Rhondda would have found themselves drafted into the 1st and 2nd. Had Frank Wrentmore not enlisted at the outbreak of hostilities he too may have found himself in the 38th Division.

On 1st July 1916, at 7.30 in the morning, British High Command launched an assault that was intended to break the impasse gripping the Western Front. It became known as the Battle of the Somme, and thus commenced one of the bloodiest battles in the history of mankind. On the first day alone, there were around 60,000 British casualties, 20,000 of whom were killed. A massive British artillery bombardment prior to the battle was intended to destroy German defensive positions especially the extensive barbed wire emplacements. It lasted eight days and failed to achieve its objective. British infantry advance into a hail of murderous gun fire. It was probably during this phase of the battle that dual Welsh rugby international Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones was shot and injured. Dai is still the only man to have beaten the All Blacks in both rugby codes. He survived but never fully recovered. After the war he became landlord of the Eagle pub in Aberdare and the Castle Hotel in Treherbert. Dai was one of the lucky ones. With casualties mounting by the hour the initial assault made little progress. 

Desperate to break through, High Command decided the 38th Welsh Division should attack and secure an area of woodland almost a mile wide and a mile deep near the villages of Fricourt and Mametz. It was a strategically important position, a fact recognised by the Germans as it was defended by elite troops from a Prussian regiment. 

The Welsh troops by comparison were relative novices. On the 7th July the Welsh Division advanced towards Mametz Wood. Two attacks were made on its eastern edge by the 16th (Cardiff City) Battalion of the Welsh Regiment and the 10th and 11th Battalions of the South Wales Borderers. Albert Evans from Briton Ferry was 19 when he fought at Mametz Wood. “Hell on earth, was how he described it and recalled how men “withered away” before his eyes. "The machine guns of the Germans were just spraying fire over the open site," he said, "You couldn't get near the wood." One of the fallen was Richard ‘Dick’ Thomas a Welsh rugby international forward who had played for Ferndale, Penygraig, Cardiff, Mountain Ash, Llwynypia and Bridgend as well as Glamorgan Police. Fellow soldier William Davies recalls:

 “I remember one man, he was an old Welsh rugby international forward. CSM Dick Thomas from Mountain Ash. He was CSM in the Cardiff City Battalion. He was a big, huge man. Lying down in front of me, not far in front of me and he got up on his knees and two hands you know, knees on the ground. Went down head to the ground.  Killed like that. Just in front of me. And I hid behind him all day.”

Three attacks were made but the wood was never reached. As the Welsh Division advanced across open fields in broad daylight through ground sticky with mud, they were mown down by German machine gun fire. It was akin to a turkey shoot. The smokescreen cover they had expected never materialised and soon the fields, nicknamed ‘Death Valley’, were littered with corpses. Five to six hundred men lost their lives that day. General Haigh attributed their failure to a, “lack of determination and resolve.A slur that hung about the Welsh Division like a bad smell. The men had been set an impossible task. In his poem ‘The General’, Siegfried Sassoon encapsulates the incompetence of the generals and the consequences that inevitably followed for ordinary soldiers like ‘Dick’ Thomas.

 “Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,

And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He's a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”

Three days later, on July 10th, a further attempt was planned that included the 14th Swansea and the 10th and 13th Rhondda. As the men waited in the trenches for dawn to break the strains of ‘Jesu Lover of My Soul’ drifted over the fields that many knew they might never cross. Against seemingly impossible odds many did. An artillery barrage attempted to clear the way ahead as the men moved forward over hundreds of yards of open ground in the teeth of merciless enemy fire. Communication lines were cut and, to co-ordinate the shelling, runners were sent back to the gun emplacements. Many died. Consequently, shells often fell short or struck the trees incurring casualties on their own side. 

Despite suffering tremendous losses, the Welsh forced their way into the wood and now outnumbered the Germans by three to one. German resistance was fierce, aided by something the British High Command had no intelligence of. Recent archeological digs have revealed a labyrinth of trenches, a major command system the like of which existed nowhere else on the Somme Front. If this was not enough of an obstacle the Welsh had to negotiate a natural feature not shown on the map. A large, concealed quarry lay between them and the German lines. Emlyn Davies – who joined the 17th Royal Welsh Fusiliers in July 1915 recalls:

The margins of both woods were packed with a massive barrier of machine guns supported by heavy artillery fire, equaling in intensity our own massed batteries. . . Preliminary bombardment seemed to set the wood on fire, smoke pouring forth in quantity and density almost obscuring all vision.”

The Welsh had not been trained for this kind of warfare and had to adapt quickly to the gruesome realities of hand to hand combat. Davies continues and spares no gory detail:

“Mangled corpses in khaki and field grey, dismembered bodies, severed heads and limbs, lumps of torn flesh half-way up tree trunks, a Welsh Fusilier reclining on a mound, a red trickle oozing from his bayonetted throat.”

He saw a South Wales Borderer and German locked in deadly embrace. They had simultaneously bayonetted each other. A German gunner with jaws blown off lay against his machine gun, hand still on its trigger.”  

The hand to hand conflict was savage in the extreme. No prisoners were taken. Troops who months before had been employed as miners, teachers, doctors and shop assistants had succeeded in wresting from seasoned and entrenched German soldiers the northern section of Mametz Wood. July 11th marked another day of fierce fighting and it was not until dawn on July 12th that Mametz Wood fell completely into British hands. Only then after committing wave after wave of men was the 38th (Welsh) Division relieved.

The battle for Mametz Wood inflicted a terrible toll on the 38th Division. Nearly 4,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. In the House of Lords, Lord Gresford declared the losses sustained by the 38th as a huge tragedy for Wales.” Of the 1,000 men in the Rhondda Regiment who had waited at dawn for the order to advance only 135 answered the roll call the following day. The rest,” continued Lord Gresford, “were either missing, or wounded or most likely dead.” Such was the impact of the losses that the 38th Division was unable to function as a fighting force for almost a year. Yet out of the carnage emerged stories of great courage and heroism. Some were officially recognised for their bravery. 

Among those plunged into the hellish conflict was Dai Collier who hailed from Mid-Rhondda. His father Isaac had worked as a winding-engine man at the power-house in Llwynypia. During the strike of 1910 Isaac remained at his post incurring the wrath of starving miners and their families. Isaac was no black-leg. His union was not on strike, probably a failure on the part of Mabon and miner’s agent Watts-Morgan to negotiate with other union leaders, and Isaac put the welfare of his family first. A bottle thrown through the window of his home struck his son David in the face leaving him with a permanent scar. The battle for Mametz Wood would leave David with more. He received shrapnel wounds to his legs and was awarded the Military Medal for an act of heroism during the battle for possession of the woods.

 A year before the outbreak of war Collier, who played football for St Cynons, was given a trial for the Mid-Rhondda Athletic or ‘Mush’ on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Grounds. He scored a hat-trick, and impressed onlookers to such an extent he was awarded a further trial. 1914 saw his footballing ambitions put on hold. He survived the war and recovered sufficiently from his wounds to resume his playing career with the ‘Mush’ with such success he soon found himself playing striker for Grimsby Town in the Football League. While at Grimsby he was awarded his only international cap against Scotland at Pittodrie in February 1921 scoring the equaliser for Wales in a 2-1 victory. I wonder as he savoured the sweet taste of victory did his thoughts turn back to Mametz Wood and the spectre of what might have been. 

For many Rhondda families there was no spectre, just the grim reality of a lost son. Lance-Corporal James James from Penygraig served in the 10th Platoon of the 15th Welsh who fought their way to Mametz Wood on July 10th. Following the battle his mother received a letter from the lieutenant in charge of the James’ Platoon, and from E. Bowen of the same regiment. They write:

 “I am writing to you to express my deepest sympathy on the loss of so gallant a son. He was an excellent soldier, so brave, and one of the best non-commissioned officers in the Company. He was extremely popular with everyone, and his death came as a personal loss to all of us. I know how useless any words of mine are on an occasion like this but I thought it would comfort you to know that your son was esteemed by everyone in the Company, and a hero to the end. His watch and notebook have been sent to you, and I shall be glad if you will let me know whether you have received them. (Lieutenant in charge of 10th Platoon) 

“On behalf of the boys of No 10 Platoon I wish to convey our deepest sympathy on the loss of your son Jim. He was killed on the 10th July about 10.00 a.m. I can assure you he is missed by all of us. He was so brave and had a kind word for all. Enclosed you will find a photo of the platoon that Jim was in, and it deepens our sorrow to think that his face is not amongst them. It may be a little consoling for you to know that Jim died a hero’s death. He was always to the front the whole of the time, he being the first to enter the Wood. Kindly accept our deepest sympathy, from all of the boys.” (Private Emrys Bowen)

Before joining up Lance-Corporal James James had worked at the Nantgwyn Pit, Penygraig and lived with his cousin at Erwyd House. He was a faithful member of Pisgah Chapel.

 We will remember them.

Here’s a poem my wife Eira wrote inspired by the Trealaw Mountain cross.

The Cross

The white cross on the mountainside

looks splendid in crimson red.

It is a stark reminder 

of the blood our soldiers’ shed.

It sparkles in the sunlight

when touched with Autumn’s frosts’,

Then melts in watery sunshine

like lives so sadly lost.

We should never forget the sacrifice

these brave young people made,

but remember with pride and thankfulness

that they gave their lives to save.

So as Remembrance Sunday

comes round again this year

be grateful for those who fought,

and say a prayer for those you hold so dear.


Phil Howe’s grandfather was a company Sergeant Major at Mametz.

"He was from Bedminster in Bristol where the Howe family came from also some from Clifton. Bristol was famous for glass blowing and he came here because of the mining industry. He met my grandmother and they lived in Oxford St Maerdy and then Aberdare road Blaenllechau and Princess St. He then joined up in 1914 until the end in 1918. He was mentioned in dispatches having rescued a high ranking officer and given the Military Medal and an Italian Medal which I have in the house."

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