Owen Sheers was born in Fiji and brought up in South Wales. He has won prizes for his poetry since 1999 and is considered one of Britain’s most talented young poets. In 2014 he presented a poetry series on the BBC. This poem belongs to the collection, Skirrid Hill
Sheers, a Welshman, wrote this response to his feelings about the First World War battle at Mametz Wood in Northern France. The fact that farmers in the area are still finding the remains of the fallen reawakens the horror, grief and anger at the events of a hundred years ago. The poem seems to be saying that the young soldiers who died still have their story to tell.
The Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916. The opening day of the offensive saw almost 20,000 British dead, the worst casualty figures ever endured by the British Army in a single day.
As part of the battle the 38th or Welsh Division – Lloyd George’s Division as it was sometimes known – was detailed to attack and capture Mametz Wood, the largest wood on the whole Somme battlefront.
Nearly a mile wide and over a mile deep, Mametz was made up of thick trees and dense undergrowth. The wood was heavily fortified with machine guns, trenches and mortars and was defended by the well-trained and elite Lehr Regiment of Prussian Guards.
The 38th Division comprised soldiers of several Welsh regiments, young men who had been urged to enlist by the rhetoric of David Lloyd George and seduced by the promise of adventure and ‘glory’. They were amateur soldiers, full of enthusiasm but poorly trained, ill-equipped and badly hampered by the tactics of their commanders.
The Battle of Mametz Wood began on 7 July 1916. The wood was intended to be taken in a matter of hours. In the event the battle lasted for five days as the Germans fiercely resisted the assaults of the Welsh Division.
On the first day alone over 400 casualties were sustained. Over the five days that the battle raged, Mametz Wood was devastated as artillery shells fell continuously on the area. Fighting was furious, with hand to hand combat in many instances, as men battled for every inch and yard of ground. The poet Robert Graves fought in the battle and, having gone back into the wood once the battle was finally over, wrote:
It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.
When the wounded and those listed as “missing” – men blown to pieces or buried alive by shell blasts – were counted the total number of casualties was 3,993. And that is not counting the numbers of German dead which must have been somewhat similar.
Yet despite achieving their objectives and driving the Germans back to their second line of defences, the Welsh Division was never given real recognition for its achievement. There was even an accusation that the division had failed to advance with enough spirit – in other words the men were accused of cowardice.
It was an accusation that was later withdrawn but it left deep resentment in the men who had seen comrades killed and mutilated in one of the most bloody battles of the whole war. The memorial to the fallen at Mametz Wood has served to redress that terrible accusation.
World War One was a time of such horror and ferociousness that it has never quite left the consciousness of historians and writers.
Ideas, Themes and Issues about Owen Sheers' poem, Mametz Wood
Death- The men have been dead for a long time. They are now only skeletons, outlasted by the boots. In death they are unidentifiable, and yet their spirit lives.
Returning to the past – There is a sense of striving to recapture what happened, while the fallen soldiers reach out to the present to tell their stories.
The Waste of War- Owen Sheers' poem does not mention why the men fought or how they felt about the war. Its point is to give them a posthumous voice, even if by implication; to stress that these were young vital men, so much more than a few bones dug up by farmers.
Nature -The contrast between the natural life-affirming processes of nature, and the destructiveness and death of war.
The poem comprises seven unrhymed tercets, that is three line stanzas. He uses assonant rhyme at key points. It is rhythmic and hypnotic.
By Owen Sheers
An Education Umbrella lesson plan
For years afterwards the farmers found them -
The wasted young
Although largely remembered as a colossal failure, there were some small victories for Britain in the First Battle of the Somme, among them the taking of Mametz Wood by the 38th Welsh Division. Even here, though, the price in casualties was enormous. Employing a range of poetic devices, Welsh poet Owen Sheers resurrects the earthen elements and the natural forces that still speak of this immense loss of life.
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