On our trip to the Somme battlefields in July, the place with the most atmosphere by far was Mametz Wood. The site where the 38th (Welsh) Division was cut to ribbons between the 7th and 12th of July 1916 is marked by a statue of a belligerent red dragon, gripping barbed wire in its claw. The Welshmen advanced past this point towards the wood. In the hours before the assault they had been in their starting positions behind the ridge here, singing hymns they would have known from chapel and sunday school. Even by the standards of the Somme, taking Mametz was a hideous task – The 14th Welsh (Swansea) Battalion alone suffered almost 400 killed or wounded from some 680 men. Any who survived the open ground in front of the wood, swept by machine gun and tangled in the wire, faced a stubborn enemy dug into a natural fortress of fallen trees and thick undergrowth. Fighting in the wood was primitive and desperate – bayonet, grenade and rifle butt. A few days after the Germans had been forced out, the poet Robert Graves entered the wood to find a greatcoat for the unseasonably cold nights. He found the wood full of the dead of the South Wales Borderers and Royal Welch Fusiliers, looking pitifully small alongside the corpses of the big Prussian Guards.
Comparing maps from 1916 with the site today, Mametz has more or less the same ‘footprint’, though all the trees are post 1918. The wood is a brooding presence, glowering at you across the valley. I’m not the first visitor to feel like I was being watched by many unseen eyes. It was almost as if the wood gave out some sort or radiation – like being at the other end the room from a large fire. We considered walking up to the fringe of the trees, but both admitted later that we were relieved when the sudden sound of a hunter’s shotgun from within the green dark made us return to the car.