Military history

Epilogue: Back to the Wood

Between 1916 and 1918 the war continued and the 38th Welsh Division was to distinguish itself during several engagements. One notable occasion was at the battle for Pilckem Ridge in 1917 when, alongside the Guards Division, it acquitted itself with distinction.

By early 1918 on most fronts the Germans had been edged backwards yard by yard in a war of attrition that seemed to have no obvious end at an appalling cost in human life and suffering. In March the Germans struck out in one last massive offensive in an attempt to break through the allied defences and achieve victory. Initially they broke through pushing back the allies over the ground which they had so painfully won and in many places they were overrun.

On the battlefield of the Somme the troops found themselves retreating back through all the familiar places and even beyond with the Germans taking ground not previously held. The garrison town of Albert was evacuated by the British and surrounding villages, previously billets and rest areas fell into German possession. In Albert the legendary Golden Virgin hanging over the town fell, shelled by the British artillery situated on the ridge overlooking the town on the Amiens road.

The German advance slowed, lacking ammunition and supplies and with mounting casualties. The allies were able to regroup and reorganise and the 38th Welsh Division found themselves facing Aveluy Wood north of Albert with the 18th Division on their right and their old friends the 17th Northern Division on their left.

On 15 August patrols of the 38th Divisional troops pushed through Aveluy Wood and crossed the River Ancre and made contact with the enemy. Preparations were then made to cross the river which were completed by the 22 August when an attempt to make the crossing was hampered by the Germans who had prepared to defend their positions and make a strong counter attack. While clearing Aveluy Wood the British troops had to take great care in locating booby traps left by the Germans who also left messages for their pursuers. One amusing example found by the 17th Northern Divisional troops was written with limited knowledge of English and some misunderstanding of the term ‘iron rations.’

My Dear Tommy,

Wenn are you coming. We are gone. Many pleasures in our cottages. Send not so many iron portions. Eat them your selfst. Make Peace (word illegible) next time! Have you not enough?

Once through the German defences on the River Ancre rapid progress was achieved and the 24 August disposition of the 38th Division were as follows: on the right in contact with the 18th Division in front of La Boiselle was 113 Brigade. Facing Ovillers in the centre was 115 Brigade while way over on the left on the high ground south-east of Thiepval was 114 Brigade.

Once again the troops were able to push on with good progress on all fronts except at Ovillers where there was some resistance at the Lochnagar Crater before that area too was captured.

Meanwhile on 23 August, after a bombardment by the 18th Division the 7th Royal West Kents and the 8th Royal Berks cleared the town of Albert, flushing out pockets of resistance, smashing down barricades and defusing booby-traps. They were then relieved on the 24 August by the 7th Buffs and the 8th East Surreys who were able to push forward and by 2.30pm the 18th Divisional Artillery was established around Becourt Chateau and was turning its attention to positions in Mametz Wood and Caterpillar Valley.

Owing to the success of the 38th Division on the left the 8th East Surreys were also able to push forward north of Albert commencing the advance at 4.00am on 25 August. By 10.00am they reached positions in the Quadrangle facing the eastern side of the southern part of Mametz Wood. They were in touch with the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers on the left and the 7th Buffs on the right who had established positions forward of Bottom Wood and were in Cliff Trench. A further advance was impeded by machine gun and artillery fire, the machine guns appearing to be situated on the high ground in the region of Montauban Alley, Pommiers Redoubt and Danzig Alley.

In the early evening the 8th East Surreys moved into the valley along which the railway ran and at 7.00pm one company advanced across the remains of Wood Trench and Wood Support Trench to the eastern edge of Mametz Wood where they were once again held up by machine gun fire. At 8.00pm they were bombarded with gas and high explosive shells.

Meanwhile during the morning of the 25 August on the right of the 18th Division the 38th Division attacked Contalmaison and units of the 113th Brigade were through the village by the afternoon and the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers were looking down once more on Mametz Wood, the scene of the 38th Divisions heroic exploits of over two years ago. Machine gun fire from the Montauban heights and from the right in Bazentin-le-Petit Wood held up progress.

Two companies of the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers advanced on the western edge of the wood at 5.00pm. One company pushed out patrols into the wood but found no opposition and occupied the eastern edge of the wood. The battalion followed and became very spread out in the wood but by 10.55pm the wood had been consolidated. The night was very dark and wet, many men lost direction and in the early hours of the 26 August much time was spent getting the battalion together and re-organising at Sabot Copse.

In the southern sector of the wood the 8th East Surreys were able to make good progress, again assisted by the swift advance of the men of the 38th Division. By 9.35am one company of the 8th East Surreys supported by four Vickers machine gun crews advanced through Mametz Wood meeting no opposition and continuing east of Mametz Wood in touch with the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers on their left. They got forward into Marlborough Copse with their machine guns and were able to bring exceptionally effective enfilade fire on to Caterpillar Wood and on to the German machine gunners holding out in there. Montauban village was also attacked in the same way and thus enabled the 7th Buffs to advance forward of White Trench creeping behind the British barrage in small mobile independent groups known as ‘fire and movement’ tactics which had replaced the old wave formation and by 4.30pm Montauban was captured.

At 4.00am on the 26 August an attack was launched on Bazentin-le-Grand. The 13th Royal Welsh Fusiliers led the attack with the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 14th Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the rear on the right and left respectively.

The battalions formed up in Death Valley near the site where the German machine gunners had caused such destruction to their colleagues in the 38th Division on 7 July 1916 and moved off. Once again the German machine gunners were active from their position in Caterpillar Wood by some irony the same positions which the Welsh gunners had occupied on that fateful day and the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and 14th Royal Welsh Fusiliers were held up for some time.

Later that day Bazentin-le-Grand fell and the German machine gunners were silenced for the last time in Caterpillar Wood and the war moved on from the environs of Mametz Wood for the last time.

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