'Pilgrims' visit site of Gwent soldiers' Great War victory
From left, Stuart Allen, Angus Evans, Pat Evans, Harold Evans and Steve Cocks at the Mametz Wood war memorial
In the bitter battle for Mametz Wood Gwent soldiers took on the cream of the German Army and triumphed.
Mike Buckingham spoke to a returning band of World War One pilgrims.
WHERE once there was gunfire there was in this day only the breeze ruffling the leaves of Mametz Wood and wafting over the ripening corn where, 93 years ago, Gwent soldiers helped secure one of the pivotal victories of the Great War.
On the July day that saw the Welsh triumph over the towering Prussian Guards a wreath was laid, a silence observed and time-honoured words read by a veteran of a much later war.
"We were standing by the memorial to the 38th Welsh Division with our backs to the ridge over which the Welshmen poured as they made they way to the objective which was the wood." The words are spoken by Stephen Cocks of Oakfield Road, Newport, an historian with a personal as well as a professional interest in the 1914-1918 war.
"My grandfather Walter Tyrrell, was with the Royal Field Artillery of the Seventh Division which was supporting the Welsh advance into Mametz Wood.
"It's strange but as I stood there I could almost hear the guns and see the Welshmen as they advanced towards the German positions across land which has hardly changed at all since 1916."
Stephen and Susan Cocks run specialised guided tours to the battlefield to which thousands of Britons return every year and to which all recruits to the British Army are taken as part of their induction.
"The first day of the attack with the Welsh Division attacking from the East and the Seventh Division from the West was a total disaster" Mr Cocks said.
"They didn't even get to within 100 yards of the wood as German machine guns fired on their flanks from two positions named Flat Iron copse and Sabot copse.
"There was a couple of days lull before the Welsh changed their tactics.
"Previously, the British had developed the technique of the creeping barrage under which troops advanced immediately behind the shell falls of their own artillery.
"The Germans would often wait until the fire on their own front line had subsided and then pop up to face the oncoming British.
"This time the gunners set up a creeping barrage which they then reversed, catching the Germans unawares.
"Mametz Wood was important because beyond it lay Bazentin Ridge which it was absolutely vital the British win and hold."
The battlefield visit marked to the day 22 years since the unveiling of the memorial to the men of the 38th Division the iconic sculptural centrepiece of which was designed by Welsh sculptor David Petersen.
Mrs Pat Evans who together with Mrs Susan Cocks, her husband Mr Harold Evans and Falklands veteran Stuart Allen was part of the pilgrimage said two companies of the attacking force were comprised largely of Gwent men.
"We had wanted to go back and see the sculpture in the form of a dragon commissioned by the a memorial sub-committee of South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association of which my husband Harold was chairman at the time " she said.
"At that time there were men present who had fought in the battle for Mametz Wood.
"Sadly, none of those are with us today."
Mr Cocks said a German woman in the small party had wept as she viewed the battlefield.
"Another gentleman's father and his uncle had been present in 1916 as part of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
"After his brother had been killed this man’s father bought a blanket in which to wrap him before he was buried. "We were able to take him to the village near where his uncle had been killed.
"It probably wouldn't be the case in Britain but in 2009 large parts of the battlefield were very much as they would have been in 1916.
"Mametz Wood itself is the same shape as it was all those years ago and the trees are much the same as they would have been.
“During the actual fighting the wood was not reduced to matchwood as they had been in some other parts of the front.
"The bitter fighting happened amongst dense woods.
"Robert Graves the poet and author visited the wood just after the battle and remarked how small some of the Welsh dead looked alongside their German opponents.
"To stand on the spot where these momentous events happened and to be able to identify exactly where the attacking troops were and where the German guns were is an emotional experience.
"You feel an almost mystical connection with the men who fought on the Somme front and whose relatives are scattered all over Gwent.
"For me as for so many visiting Mametz Wood is a pilgrimage."
Mr Harold Evans, 75, himself a former member of the Royal Artillery stressed that the memorial was to all those who had worn the divisional patch, irregardless of regiment.
"The red dragon is clutching a strand of barbed wire which is symbolic of Welsh tenacity" he said.