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. Kyle was aware of the publication of Max Egremont’s groundbreaking biography of Sassoon just the previous year.
It was not the sort of subject I would normally have chosen, but at the time of working on the painting in Picardy I read and was constantly aware of Sassoon’s, Robert Graves’ and David Jones’ close-up literary depictions of events at Mametz. I did not read Egremont’s much more distanced, wide-ranging, objective and contextualised biography of Sassoon till much later.
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 for my approach to be unaffected by its historical association and poignant significance. 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, an important 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 crowns a gentle chalk ridge. I bought a detailed map in Albert and I was able to pinpoint a suitable site in a slightly less gloomy and dense part of the wood.
I worked In the wood from 3rd May to 16th June, perhaps spending longer there than anyone since 1916, apart from the gamekeeper. I had to overcome that inhibiting sense of presumption in such a place, for how could I relate to the terrible experience expressed by war artists and poets who left such an indelible mark on our culture, and whose own lives were permanently changed? I was looking SSW; 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.
The initial heavy artillery bombardment, which was intended to disable or dislodge the enemy, failed to do so. The subsequent infantry advances first met with lethal machine-gun fire and then hand to hand engagement with the enemy. The Welsh outnumbered the Germans, and the action was ultimately successful, but with huge losses on both sides.
The wood itself was also shattered. The re-greening of Picardy woodlands after the 1918 Armistice was seen as a reassuring symbol, but despite the present peace of the countryside and the exuberance of wildlife – golden orioles and cuckoos in the treetops; deer in the wood 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. In their different ways, Sassoon’s and Jones’s accounts are aestheticised or fictionalised, and even in the case of Graves’ and Brennan’s autobiographical writings one suspects that facts are never allowed to spoil a good story. Equally, my painting has to have artistic truth. Others have given more factual accounts of Mametz Wood.
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; I hope my painting does neither. In his writings, Sassoon often candidly articulated the complexity of his attitudes to the War. For instance, he confesses that active service could ‘hoodwink’ one with ‘wonderful moments in the War’. At one point in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), the narrator reports how, back home on leave, he “…admitted that it was pretty bad out there, with an inward feeling such horrors as I had been obliged to witness were now something to be proud of. I even went so far as to assert that I wouldn’t have missed the war for anything. It brought things home to one somehow…”
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 awful difficulties. Sassoon 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, “while the inferno did its best to destroy them” had looked at each other and laughed (Sherston’s Progress 1936).
The wood was dispassionate in its natural beauty; in 1916 it had offered humans little prospect or refuge. What could I do but paint – as I found it, but without naivety?
I saw unexploded shells, and even a grenade, lying about at the wood’s fringes where farmers had placed them after turning them up in 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, moved by a comrade’s sudden demise, had attacked single-handed.
I began by painting the most distant objects, and worked slowly towards the foreground, rather as if in parallel with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers infantry advancing in the early summer of 1916. 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 of 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 if like me he or she has only experienced war at a distance, a painter must respond differently.
Christopher Williams was commissioned by David Lloyd George, the Secretary of State for War, to represent the scene in Mametz Wood. The artist had not been present at the event but visited the wood in November 1916, and later made studies with the help of an experienced veteran. The illustrative style is very much of its time and has authentic details of uniform and equipment. It also conveys the congestion and confusion which were hinted at even when not fully reported, as well as courage in near-impossible circumstances.
(See also https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-36686484)
My father’s eldest brother was a lieutenant in the Battle of the Somme, though we don’t know exactly where. 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, but spoke highly of his treatment in a German hospital. My father was a conscientious objector in World War Two but served in various capacities including as a stretcher-bearer.
No one can be exempt from the ethical, and psychological, implications of war, which Sassoon wrote about with candour, but in opposing its continuation, he felt at an advantage over Conscientious Objectors who refused military action: “any man who had really endured the War at its worst was everlastingly differentiated from everyone except his fellow soldiers”. He was at times dubious about the attitude of pacifists, but decidedly contemptuous of people who enthusiastically supported the war while comfortably distanced from its horrors and discomforts.
In 1917, while recovering in England from a wound and ill health, he was moved to write and publicise an antiwar statement. He rather warmed to the pacifist activists he met, particularly Bertrand Russel. Paradoxically, they valued the support of a uniformed officer with distinguished war service.
Max Egremont (ibid 2005) argues that Sassoon’s “statement”... that the War was being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it….etc.”, published in a liberal periodical and aired in the House of Commons, was, politically ‘startlingly naive’. Egremont suggests a medley of motivations, including vanity. Sassoon’s autobiographical trilogy does make clear that, as an awkward young man, acceptance by his peers, whether as a horseman, hunter or as an infantry officer, and proving his manhood was instinctively important to him. Loved and trusted by the men he commanded, but also nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’, he was inclined to solitary recklessness, often ‘patrolling’ no man’s land alone – on at least one occasion coming eye to eye with “the Fritzes” and “quelling them with a look”. Though he more than once confessed to wanting to do so, we never read of Sassoon actually killing man or fox. His antiwar stance expressed a deeply felt indignation at the slaughter of young men on both sides of the conflict. As he put it, “my soul had rebelled against the War”.
Whatever their later feelings, Sassoon, Graves, Jones and Wynn Griffith, at least initially, shared a naive enthusiasm, as well as supporting the conflict as a justified, necessary response to armed aggression. As the war continued they became disillusioned, conflicted and in some cases profoundly disturbed. Standing on this spot, I could not transcend their moral dilemmas.
Writing retrospectively about his own early decision to enlist (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man 1928) Sassoon states his moral position: “…to me the War was inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which, as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.”
Graves had been on leave during the main assault on 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 attack 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, halfway 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