Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division during the First Battle of the Somme, between 7 July and 12 July 1916. Dr Jonathan Hicks based his WW1 crime novel, ‘the dead of Mametz’ around this attack.
However many real life Barrians fought during this bloody battle, as Dr Hicks’s research has discovered.
One of the most famous events involving Welsh soldiers during the Great War was the attack on Mametz Wood during the second week of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. The attack claimed the lives of several Barry men of the 16th Battalion (Cardiff City) of the Welsh Regiment.
Corporal Edgar James Gilbert
Corporal Edgar James Gilbert of the 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment was killed in action on 7th July. He was 24 years of age and before joining the Army he was a cutter at W. J. Windsor’s ‘outfitting establishment’ in Holton Road.
His friend Lance Corporal G. Jenkins of the same battalion wrote a letter to his parents on 17th July: ‘It is with bitterest regret that I have to inform you of the death in action of your son Edgar.
As you are aware by the papers, active operations have taken place this month, and our battalion took its share in the brilliant and successful assault on July 7, resulting in the capture of a now notorious position. It was during this action that Edgar fell, whilst a determined rush was being made. I was not by his side at the time, but I have ascertained after many inquiries that death was instantaneous.
‘Believe me, I hardly know how to express my feelings of sorrow and sympathy, but I can at least say that mere words fall short of just expression.
We both were in school together and met again at Porthcawl in December 1914 when the Battalion was formed under the control of our late Lieut.-Colonel Frank Gaskell. Edgar and I shared alike during our period of training and actual warfare, and he showed qualities that greatly helped to minimise the many hardships of war.
His noble death I feel very acutely, and I cannot help feeling that his splendid sacrifice, crowned by death, for God, for King and Country, has been a national gain. The loss to you may be hard to understand and hard to bear, but let us comfort ourselves by the noble thought that no sacrifice could be higher.’
Private Charles N. Breckenridge
Private Charles N. Breckenridge, 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment, was killed in action on 7th July. He had been a postman in Barry who had lived with his wife Florence at 8, Woodlands Road, Barry. He was killed when the battalion was swept with machine gun fire from the Hammerhead and Flatiron and Sabot copses on their right. They suffered 283 casualties.
Corporal Sydney Charles Hambleton
Corporal Sydney Charles Hambleton of the16th Bn. Welsh Regiment was also killed in action on 7th July. Before enlisting he had been employed at the General Post Office, Barry Dock and was a local postman for sixteen years. The commanding officer of his D Company wrote to his wife that he had been in the front line of the attack on Mametz Wood and the platoon was practically wiped out.
The officer wrote: ‘But the men followed me gallantly and it was cruel to see them fall before a hail of bullets. He was a fine soldier and of great assistance.’
He is commemorated on the Barry Post Office Memorial.
He was the second son of Mr and Mrs Sydney Hambleton of 68, Morel Street, who had lost another son, Corporal Philip Hambleton who died at Malta on 7th December 1915. Another son, Corporal Frederick Hambleton was serving in France with the Welsh Guards. Sydney Hambleton left a wife and a daughter to mourn his loss.
Lance Sergeant Charles Hoare
Mrs Hoare of 4, Arthur Street received news on Sunday 17th July of her husband’s death. Lance Sergeant Charles Hoare was 29 years of age and had two brothers in the Army. He was also killed during the 16th Battalion’s attack on Mametz Wood.
Sergeant David Thomas, 16th Bn. Welsh Regiment was also killed on 7th July. He was 26 years of age and before enlisting had been employed at the offices of the Barry Railway Company. He lived in Miskin Street and was a well known rugby footballer, playing as a forward for Penarth, Aberavon and Liverpool. He left a widow and one child.
Private G. H. Wright of the16th Bn. died of his wounds on 10th July whilst Major J. R. Angus of the 16th Welsh personally directed every attempt to get forward ‘showing a fine example of leadership and disregard of danger by constantly exposing himself to fire.’ Angus was to die later in the war.
John Collins of 13, Treharne Road served with the 16th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment and wrote later of his experiences with the battalion: ‘After training we spent one year and six months in the French trenches. We were gassed with Lachrymal Gas (mustard gas) Our eyes would stream. We had celluloid goggles. We never had bread in the trenches only biscuits. We would put the biscuits in the dish with water. Soup, soup, soup day after day. There were no cooks. The kitchen was pulled by mules, ovens were dropped in the wagons until they were worn out. The officers were alright they had their own cook. We sometimes used to steal eggs when billeted in France because we were half starved.
’French women had to run their farms when the husband and sons were conscripted. A French soldier could get cheap red wine because they only earned 1 franc a day.
We earned 5 francs a day. Some went to my mum and some was kept for after the war. I used the tuck which I kept in my kit bag, corn beef, biscuits, tin with a bit of tea and showering kit.
The biscuits went blue with the paint from the tin. The water was undrinkable. We had a mascot, a goat. The goat would go for you. Being Corporal of the goats was not a bad job.
’The runner was found drunk by our Sergeant, he knew where the service rum was kept, (small spoonful each morning) he opened a tin and was unconscious when found. “Private Collins, want a job as a Captain’s runner”. “Aye I’d love it.”
‘We spent 4 days in the trenches and we were lucky if we spent 4 days out. We had to memorise the village layouts because we only came out of the trenches at night. There were only flares.
On the Somme there was a farmhouse nearby where an old lady sold champagne for 5fr a bottle, we bought it. The best bath I ever had was in a village in France. The river running over us we all undressed, it made the women laugh. R.A.M.C. Royal Army Medical Corps were known as ‘Rob All My Comrades’.
‘In France, at Mametz Wood I was wounded in my elbow.
We had taken a trench. My Captain sent me with a message over to the Woods. I delivered the message, never got back. I went into a big shell hole. It was dark when I got out. They bandaged my arm and I had to find my own way back.
A horse stepped on my toe. “Good thing an Army boot”. Soon found my way down to Boulogne and off to England.’
James Bolt of the 14th Bn. Welsh Regiment was one of hundreds of soldiers who again attacked the Germans in Mametz Wood on the morning of 10th July.
At 4.05 a.m. they left their trenches and walked forward. A survivor described what happened next: ‘Machine gun and rifle fire was trained on us. Words fail me to adequately describe this stage of the attack. Many of the shells hit the trees above us, detonated and caused more casualties.’ James Bolt was one of the 388 casualties sustained by the battalion that day.
Private W.J. Fox
Private W.J. Fox, 13th Bn. Welsh Regiment, was killed in action on 10th July. His platoon commander wrote: ‘He had been in my platoon since the commencement of his military career, therefore I can speak of him as a soldier and a friend. He was a true soldier and a brave lad. Never before had he shown such coolness and bravery as in his last action.’ He had lived with his parents at 9, Digby Street, Barry before enlisting.
Private George Rees Protheroe
Private George Rees Protheroe of the 2nd Rhondda, 13th Battalion Welsh Regiment died of wounds while being conveyed to the dressing station from the battlefield. He had joined the Army eighteen months previously and arrived in France in December 1915. Corporal W. J. Evans of the Royal Army Medical Corps wrote home to Protheroe’s wife stating that Private Protheroe, who was suffering from wounds to his face and side, had died in his arms as he approached the dressing station. Private Protheroe had written home the night before he went bomb throwing saying: ‘If I get wounded, tell them I died doing my duty for King and country.’
Private Frank Sherlock
Mr and Mrs Sherlock of 18, Amherst Crescent, Barry Island, received word that their eldest son, 20-year-old Private Frank Sherlock of the 10th Welsh Regiment had been killed in action on 11th July. A comrade, Corporal S. A. White, had written home to express his sympathy. However, a week later the parents received a postcard from their son, dated 18th July, informing them that he was in fact a prisoner of war at Dulmen in Westphalia in Germany. He wrote asking for a parcel of food. Needless to say, according to Mr Sherlock, his wife made the journey from the Island to the Town Post Office ‘in about three steps’ to despatch the parcel to her son.
Private F. A. Morse
Mr and Mrs Morse of 116, Barry Road, Cadoxton received news from the War Office that their son, Private F. A. Morse of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, had been seriously wounded in action. His left leg had been amputated just below the knee. He was also suffering from fourteen gunshot wounds in his right leg and both arms.
Lieutenant J. B. Martin
Lieutenant J. B. Martin of the 14th Bn. Royal Welsh Fusiliers, formerly of 95, Main Street, Cadoxton, was admitted to the 8th General Hospital in Rouen on 12th July with gunshot wounds in both thighs. His brother, Private F. H. Martin of the 1st Monmouths, had been killed at Ypres in April 1915.
George Couchman of Barry also served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and survived the War.
Second Lieutenant C. B. Thomas
Second Lieutenant C. B. Thomas of the Welsh Regiment, son of Mr and Mrs B. W. Thomas of 49, Tynewydd Road, had a miraculous escape after a piece of shrapnel struck his helmet causing a head wound; another piece of shrapnel lodged in a pocket book he was carrying.
A Barry soldier wrote home in the third week of July: ‘To have participated in the great British Drive against the enemy lines in France during the past two or three weeks has been an experience, lifelong in its amplitude, terrible in the extreme!
‘It was a terrible and terrifying experience, which will last the brave Barry boys who took part therein as long as they live. We left our quarters with a rush one day early in the month and the following day we were in the ‘Devil’s Own Land! Well, people in Great Britain rejoice at the big advance – and well they may.
We, too, also rejoice, but no one can ever realise what a house of shambles, what an area of slaughter, it has been. We knew it only too well, and I am glad to say our boys have done their share.
‘I cannot explain to you what a raving mad land we were in. Our big guns roared unceasingly day and night, and anyone who was there cannot wonder why the Germans were glad to surrender, for as we passed through the enemy trenches, there were sights before us which were appalling in the extreme. The trenches were blown to smithereens and everything was wreck, devastation and ruin. All I can say is that anyone who has done his bit up here and has had the luck to get through, thoroughly deserves a long rest far away from it all!’
Sergeant Idris David
Sergeant Idris David won the Meritorious Service medal for his work with the Royal Army Medical Corps at a Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme in 1916. He went without sleep for three days and nights, tending the wounded of that great battle.
After the War, he set up in business as a pharmacist in High Street, Barry.
Many thanks to Dr Hicks for allowing us to present his research here.
You can see more about Dr Hicks’s WW1 crime novel, ‘The dead of mamatz’ at this post on the Barry at War website.