MAMETZ WOOD, 1916 – 2006 -2016
OIL ON CANVAS 30″X 30″
“EVIL BETIDE ME IF I DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR TO KNOW IF THAT IS TRUE WHICH IS SAID CONCERNING IT. SO HE OPENED THE DOOR… AND WHEN THEY HAD LOOKED, THEY WERE CONSCIOUS OF ALL THE EVILS THEY HAD EVER SUSTAINED, AND OF ALL THE FRIENDS AND COMPANIONS THEY HAD LOST AND OF ALL THE MISERY THAT HAD BEFALLEN THEM, AS IF ALL HAD HAPPENED IN THAT VERY SPOT… AND BECAUSE OF THEIR PERTURBATION THEY COULD NOT REST.”
(From the Mabinogion, trans. Lady Charlotte Guest, Quoted by David Jones in ‘In Parenthesis’ 1937)
MAMETZ WOOD oil on canvas 30″x30″ was painted entirely on location in the early summer of 2006.
This painting of a First World War battleground was intended for the Francis Kyle Gallery exhibition “Everyone Sang” on a theme of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. It is not a subject I would otherwise have chosen.
I usually paint from direct observation – with a mind open to nature’s ambivalence, and even a sense that every paradise has its serpent – but in Mametz Wood it was particularly difficult to be unaffected by its poignant historical association. Whatever one may feel about the success of the resulting canvas, the actual performance of painting, entirely on site 90 years after the battle, was to me a significant aspect of the artwork.
The undulating Picardy landscape has features in common with English chalk countryside. About one mile long and three quarters wide, Mametz Wood sits squat and tangled above open slopes. I bought a detailed map in the town of Albert, and was able to pinpoint a suitable site in a part ofthe wood which was slightly less gloomy and dense, though with little of the cathedral-like feel of, for example, a Chiltern beech wood.
I painted there from 3rd May to 16th June, probably spending longer there than anyone since 1916, apart from the gamekeeper.
I had to overcome a sense of inhibition in such a place, for how could my experiences be relevant to those of the war artists and poets who had left such an indelible mark on our culture, and whose own lives were permanently changed? I was looking SSW, and a few metres to my right was the site of ’Strip Trench’, mentioned in the literature, notably in David Jones’s ‘In Parenthesis’. Jones was a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers attacking German positions in the wood on 10th July 1916. He was both an artist and one of four writers besides Sassoon deeply affected by the battle.
Typical of the Battle of the Somme, an initial heavy artillery bombardment, which was supposed to disable or dislodge the enemy, failed to do so. The subsequent waves of infantry attacks were exposed to lethal machine gun fire on the open approaches to the wood, and culminated in hand to hand fighting. The action was ultimately successful, but with numberless casualties. The wood too was shattered. The re-greening of Picardy woodlands after the 1918 Armistice was seen as a reassuring symbol, but despite the peace of the countryside and the exuberance of wildlife – golden orioles and cuckoos in the treetops; deer in the wood and and hares in the adjacent fields – being there in 2006 was disturbing, informative and sobering.
The Writers in Context
Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Gerald Brenan, Llewelyn Wyn Griffith and David Jones all wrote first-hand accounts of the battle at Mametz Wood – though in their own different ways Sassoon’s and Jones’s accounts are ‘fictionalised’. Even in the case of Graves’ and Brennan’s autobiographical writings, one suspects that facts are never allowed to spoil a good story, and equally, I would want my painting to have artistic truth. The facts don’t always speak for themselves.
In ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2003), which is about artistic responses as well as photo-journalism and reportage, Susan Sontag has argued that it is morally and psychologically immature to be disillusioned or naively incredulous at the hell humans inflict on each other. There is also a danger, even when avoiding banal appeals of heroism and patriotism, of either becoming lugubriously pessimistic or inadvertently beautifying the unacceptable. Sassoon himself confessed that active service could ‘hoodwink’ one with ‘Wonderful moments in the War’ so that veterans could tell people at home they ‘wouldn’t have missed it for worlds’.
This is not to say there is anything fake about the upbeat impression from footage and first-hand reminiscences of the front-line trenches. The Tommies – often little more than boy soldiers – could seem like Boy Scouts smiling and whistling under all difficulties. Sassoon, too, wrote of the “patience and simple decency” he found in the ordinary soldier, but also of “the unspeakable tragedy of shellshock” – the long-delayed after-effects in the minds of survivors, many of whom had looked at each other and laughed “while the inferno did its best to destroy them”. (Sherston’s Progress 1936)
The wood in its natural beauty was dispassionate; in 1916 it had offered humans little prospect or refuge. What could I do but paint the scene – as I found it, but without naivety?
There were unexploded shells and grenades lying about at the wood’s fringe where farmers had placed them after turning them up in the adjoining fields. Doubtless, there were many still buried in the wood, possibly along with human remains.
Some friendly locals had introduced me to the game-keeper, who was entirely happy for me to paint there: “Faites comme vous voulez!” As I worked, I sometimes encountered battlefield tourists equipped with large-scale trench maps, and thus discovered I was only a few feet from ‘Strip Trench’, and coincidentally a mere 50 metres from ‘Wood Trench’, which Sassoon once single-handedly captured.
I began by painting the most distant objects, and worked slowly towards the foreground, rather as if in parallel with the advancing 1916 Royal Welsh Fusiliers infantry. The painting was completed at Mametz Wood in 2006 on a 40”x 30″canvas and exhibited in that form at the Francis Kyle Gallery exhibition “Everyone Sang” in autumn the same year.
Despite the celebration of the exhibition’s title, the glimmer of light through the trees in my picture seemed unconvincing, or at best ironic. I later cut the canvas down by a third, to ground it in the reality of the foreground and the present.
THE LITERARY BACKGROUND
An incident described in Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ (1930) occurred in real-life on 4th July 1916: Without even wearing his helmet, the poet and former ‘Fox-Hunting Man’ charged ‘Wood Trench’ from the newly captured ‘Quadrangle Trench’, scaring off the defenders with Mills bombs and cries of ‘View Halloa!’: “..they ran across the open toward the wood, while a crowd of jostling helmets vanished along the trench. Having thus failed to commit suicide, I proceeded to occupy the trench – that is to say, I sat down on the fire step, very much out of breath, and hoped to God the Germans wouldn’t come back again.” Robert Graves also recounts this event in ‘Goodbye to all That’ (1929), adding that Sassoon then remained in the trench to catch up on his reading, eventually returning to base where he received a reprimand, his ‘undisciplined gesture’ having delayed an artillery bombardment for three hours.
Soon after this incident, the arrival of more troops of the 38th Welsh Division awoke Sassoon to ‘a sense of their victimisation’: ‘The sun had gone down on my own reckless brandishing, and I understood the doomed condition of these half-trained civilians who had been sent up to attack the wood…Our own occupation of Quadrangle Trench was only the prelude to that pandemonium which converted the green thickets of Mametz Wood to a desolation of skeleton trees and blackening bodies.’(Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Siegfried Sassoon 1930).
The aftermath was recorded by Graves, a fellow officer in the R. W. F., who, returning from leave on July 15th, noted that not a single tree remained unbroken, and described some ‘unforgettable corpses’, including the one described in his poem ‘A Dead Boche’ (with ‘face and clothes a sodden green’), and ‘A man from the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment [who] had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously’. (Goodbye to All That 1929)
The writer Gerald Brenan appears to have discovered the same scene as Graves in a reconnaissance tour after the battle. He writes:
‘This was a place where something almost unheard of in this war had taken place – fierce hand to hand fighting in the open with bombs and bayonets. What seemed extraordinary was that all the dead bodies there lay just as they had fallen in their original places as though they were being kept as exhibits for a war museum, Germans in their field grey uniforms, British in their khaki lying side by side, their faces and their hands a pale waxy green, the colour of rare marble. Heads covered with flat mushroom helmets next to heads in domed steel helmets that came down behind the ears. Some of the figures still sat with their backs against a tree and two of them – this had to be seen to be believed – stood locked together by their bayonets which had pierced one another’s bodies and sustained in that position by the tree trunk against which they had fallen. I felt I was visiting a room in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, for I could not imagine any of those bodies having ever been alive. Yet the effect in its morbid way was beautiful’ (‘A Life of One’s Own’ 1962)
Llewelyn Wynn Griffith’s book ‘Up to Mametz’, first published in 1931, is another classic first-hand account of the attack by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on Mametz Wood in 1916. Griffith, a staff officer, describes how his younger brother died, after he himself had sent him as a messenger to try and halt an artillery barrage that was causing casualties among the infantry it was supposed to protect. Griffith’s descriptions of dismemberment, blood and shattered greenery are reminiscent of cubism, and even of works by the Chapman brothers.
If I painted such a scene it could hardly be more vivid. The descriptions bring to mind Goya’s etchings, ‘The Disasters of War’, with their added comments ‘I saw this’, ‘This is worse’ or ‘This is the truth’, but a painter must respond differently if, like me, he or she has only experienced war at a distance. My father’s eldest brother became a lieutenant and fought somewhere in the Battle of the Somme. His family was very proud, but when he went missing behind enemy lines, lying wounded all night in mud and rain, they had no further news of him until the exchange of prisoners after the war. He returned to Blighty minus a leg, having in fact been rather well treated in a German hospital. My father was a conscientious objector in World War Two but nevertheless served as a stretcher-bearer.
No one can be exempt from the ethical implications of war, but Sassoon wrote that any man who had really endured the War at its worst was everlastingly differentiated from everyone except his fellow soldiers. He distanced himself from pacifists and appeasers, yet if you supported the war but weren’t actually bearing the brunt of its horrors and discomforts, you were, in Sassoon’s eyes, equally contemptible.
But, whatever their later criticisms of the conduct of the war, Sassoon, Graves, Jones and Wynn Griffith may well, at least initially, have shared a naive enthusiasm, as well as supporting the conflict as a justified, necessary response to armed aggression. As the war continued, they questioned and criticised its conduct and motivation, primarily as soldiers, but also as human beings profoundly affected and conflicted by their experiences. Standing on this spot there was no way I could transcend their moral dilemmas.
Graves had been on leave during the capture of Mametz Wood, but, returning to duty soon after, he was severely wounded while waiting in reserve in the cemetery of Bazentin le Petit for an assault on another woodland stronghold named as ‘High Wood’. He was stretchered off to a dressing station in a former German dugout at Mametz Wood, where he was mistakenly pronounced dead, The Times and his parents being duly informed. On 6th August, after reading his own obituary, Graves wrote,
‘..But I was dead an hour or more.
I woke when I’d already passed the door
That Cerberus guards, half way along the road
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed.’
According to Jon Stallworthy (Anthem For Doomed Youth 2002) ‘He saw himself descending to the underworld of Orpheus (pagan saint of poets), Homer, Virgil and Dante, and returning privileged with vision’. The date of Graves’s supposed death was 24th July 1916, his 21st birthday.
David Jones – IN PARENTHESIS
The artist David Jones, serving as a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, took part in the main attack on Mametz Wood on July 10th 1916, advancing on foot across open approaches and into the no less hazardous interior, where shells detonated in the treetops, showering red hot steel and falling timber, or exploded in the earth burying their victims. Jones himself was wounded in the legs:
“He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us”
His weightily annotated, modernist poetic-prose work ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937) enmeshes the language and mundane details of trench life with references to heroic epics, such as those in the Mabinogion and Thomas Malory’s Arthurian cycle. In reality, compared with the enemy they were facing, the Welsh soldiers were very inexperienced (“half-trained civilians” according to Sassoon) and, as many of their COs were casualties, there was an understandable disorientation, congestion, and even panic in the wood, as reflected in the climactic pages of Jones’ book:
“But which is front, which way’s the way out and where’s the corporal and what’s this crush and all this shoving you along and someone shouting rhetorically about remembering your nationality – and Jesus Christ – they’re coming through the floor endthwart and overlong: Jerry’s through on the flank…..and:
Beat it! – that’s what that one said as he ran past:
Boches back in Strip Trench – it’s a monumental bollocks every time…”
In his book’s closing images the wounded ‘Private Ball’ has finally abandoned his weapon under an oak, and hallucinates a ‘Queen of the Wood‘ who ‘has cut bright boughs of various flowering‘ to decorate his dead comrades, making no distinction between friend and enemy, officer and private soldier, German and Welshman:
“She plaits torques of equal splendour for Mr. Jenkins and Billy Crower,
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace…”
Mametz Wood, though shattered, had become a sacred grove. Rather than a horrific museum or gallery installation, in its quiet emptiness it still retains an uneasy sanctity.
© John N. Pearce 8th July 2016
Appendix: Three poems
At Carnoy (July 3rd 1916)
Down in the hollow there’s the whole brigade
Camped in four groups; through twilight falling slow
I hear the sound of mouth-organs, ill played,
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused and low.
Crouched among the thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
And I’m content. Tomorrow we must go
To take some cursed wood – O world God made!
A Dead Boche (1916)
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
‘War’s Hell!’ and if you doubt the same,
Today I saw in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
The pronunciation of Mametz was anglicised by the British to rhyme with ‘parapets’, as is clear from Sassoon’s 1919 poem ‘Aftermath’:
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget