by Owen Sheers
I wrote ‘Mametz Wood’ after visiting the site of a WWI battlefield on the Somme in Northern France.
I’d gone to Mametz on the 85th anniversary of the battle that had happened there in 1916 to make a short film about two Welsh writers who’d written about their experiences of fighting at Mametz.
The writers were David Jones and Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, and although they both survived the battle of Mametz Wood, around 4,000 men of the 38th Welsh Division did not. The attacking Welsh soldiers had to advance uphill, over open ground, into sweeping ‘hip and thigh’ machine gun fire. On more than one occasion they advanced into their own creeping artillery barrage. The fighting was brutal and, once in the wood, often at close quarters.
Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the Summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches.
While I was in France visiting Mametz Wood I read a newspaper article about a shallow war grave that had been uncovered during the building of a car factory nearby. The newspaper carried a photograph of this grave which I will never forget. There were twenty skeletons lying in it in various states of completeness, some still wearing rotten boots, others without. Each skeleton lay in its own position of death, but all of them were linked, arm in arm. It was a strange, touching, disturbing photograph and as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to write a poem about Mametz; about how the resonance of that battle was still being remembered in the soil over which it was fought.
The poem I’d eventually write, much like the remnants of the fighting at Mametz, took a long time to surface into the form it now takes in the book 'Skirrid Hill'.
I’m not sure how much more I will say about the poem itself as I believe a poem’s meaning should be found in the reading of it, not in an explanation of how it was written. What I will say is that my choices of image, vocabulary, focus were all guided by those few moments of standing in that Summer wood, experiencing the strange juxtaposition of its natural present against its all too unnatural past. And, of course, by the photograph of that grave and the desire it left me with to give voice to those silent, unknown skeletons, most of whom would have been younger than I was then, 26 years old, when they were killed.