Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Week to Remember

The Chairman opened the meeting by stating that the topic of this month's lecture, the Battle of the Somme, was very appropriate since it fell in the same week as the annual commemoration of the Armistice at the end of the First World War. He welcomed the speaker Mr Nev Anthony of Garnant, an amateur historian who has spent a great deal of time researching the contribution of the 38th Welsh Division to the "Great War".

Mr Phylip Jones, Mr Nev Anthony and Mr Gwyn Thomas.

Mr Anthony began his lecture by explaining why the 38th Welsh division had been established in the first place. David Lloyd George, the only Welsh speaking prime minister, had called for the establishment of a Welsh Corps for the conflict, however despite the fact that over 50,000 Welshmen either volunteered or were conscripted, a corps was too large a target and thus the 38th was formed. The division was made up of "pals" regiments where friends were allowed to serve together from various towns and cities in Wales. Howver the "pals" concept had the obvious downside that the friends also died together. Some 85% of the soldiers were aged between 15 and 25 years and 90% were Welsh speaking ( a third of whom were monoglot and caused great problems for the drill sergeants!!).

The Division trained at Winchester in 1915. Mr Anthony told the audience that some of the more comic episodes of this period involved a detachment of policemen. Rhondda miners who had been involved in the infamous Cambrian dispute of 1910 ( which is also being celebrated this week) were jeered by the police. Recognising them,the soldiers, remembering the riots at Tonypandy, laid siege to their barracks for over twenty four hours to enact revenge in a way reminiscent of a "western brawl". Another incident involved some 50 women who arrived at the camp to find the men who had promised to marry them, they received short shrift from the men who gave false signatures to their enquiries.

On December 1st 1915, the 38th embarked for the western front. Despite being very well trained and drilled, the command of the Division was rather lacking since Lloyd George had installed a highly inexperienced band of his cronies to lead the campaign, a factor which was to cost very dear. Within a fortnight they were in the trenches and later were ordered to the Somme. The inexperienced officers were quite quickly replaced since they were so obviously ineffective, and when arriving at the Somme on July 1st 1916 the 38th came under the command of General Henry Sinclair Horne. Mr Anthony described Horne as a very ruthless and callous man who had little regard for his soldiers and indeed held contempt for the 38th Welsh Division.

On the 8th July, the 38th were ordered to attack Mametz wood " a 220 acre stretch of oaks and birches which the Germans had made into a masterpiece of defensive strength with underground refuges, gun emplacements and barbed wire". Initial reconnaissance had indicated that the wood was empty but when the 38th attacked they met very stiff resistance and received four hundred casualties within the first hour before reaching the wood itself. Horne ordered the attack to be resumed in the afternoon, however while waiting the troops sang the hymn tune "Aberystwyth" prior to the attack, an incident dramatically captured in the diary of a German soldier who listened to the "eerie, beautiful sound". The carnage which followed was described by Mr Anthony as a scene from Dante's inferno: total war. Everything which could be used to fight from picks to bayonets was thrown into the fray. Eventually the Welsh drove out the crack Prussian troops from Mametz wood, but 4,000 of the division lay dead in its branches.

Horne's official report, to put it mildly, did not credit the 38th with their achievement. Casualties were described as "light" and the Welshmen accused of running away.After all, this was a general who measured success in the comparative thousands of troops killed on both sides by his "creeping barrage" strategy. ( This travesty has been put to rest by later historians who described the 38th as being only slightly below an elite, and interestingly Baron Horne's wife burned much of his personal letters following his death in 1929 at the age of 68. Ed.) Mametz wood today is the location of a striking memorial with a dragon holding barbed wire found from the battle in its claw.

The Division was taken from the Somme and sent to rest at Ypres. The area was comparatively quiet compared to the Somme since casualties were only 109 per day!! The most memorable engagement in 1917 was that of Pilcken Ridge in the Third Battle of Ypres when the 38th defeated a crack German regiment who had never been beaten in the past. The Australian commander accompanying the offensive described the 38th as " tough little buggers with whom it was an honour to serve". In 1918, the 38th were sent to Armetieres where they took part in the final offensive on the Somme.

Following the Armistice on November the 11th 1918. The Welsh troops fomed a rugby team which beat both the Franch national side and one composed of New Zealand troops. The 38th was finally disabanded in 1924.

Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Anthony for a most memorable evening, made more poignant by the week in which it had taken place.