Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
The Welsh at Mametz Wood
Charge of the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood, 11 July 1916
About 4,000 men from the Welsh Division were killed or wounded in this attack during the first Battle of the Somme. The wood still stands today, with a memorial to the 38th Division nearby.
Christopher Williams, 1918
© Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
What does the painting by Williams tell us about how and where the offensive at Mametz Wood was fought? Look closely at the range of weapons. Why were the Welsh Division unprepared?
Look closely at the study Williams made: what are the key differences between this and the finished painting?
What can we infer from this painting about Williams's attitude to the battle? Why do you think people were shocked by it? Are you shocked by it? Why?
What is a realistic portrayal of war and how is it achieved? Compare Williams's Mametz Wood and David Jones's frontispiece to 'In Parenthesis' as examples of war art. You could also look at how battles were generally portrayed in lllustrated magazines of the war period.
Can art convey a true picture of war?
The 38th (Welsh) Division drive back the German army, trampling over the livid corpses of soldiers in their frenzy. Christopher Williams's close up and nightmareish depiction of desperate and chaotic hand-to-hand combat recreates one of the most controversial offensives of the Battle of the Somme – the Capture of Mametz Wood.
Approaching the mile-long woodland across an open hillside, the Welsh battalions – mostly members of Kitchener's new volunteer Army - walked straight into the machine gun fire of the professional German soldiers entrenched on the perimeter.
During an intense five-day battle, 4,000 soldiers of the 38th Division were killed or wounded. The Division did not return to major action for over a year.
Williams, a pacifist, was not an official war artist, but was given the commission for this painting by the Secretary of State for War (later Prime Minister) David Lloyd George, who called him 'one of the most gifted of all Welsh artists.' The completed work hung for a while at no. 10 Downing Street.
Williams was given permission to visit the battle site, where he made preparatory sketches and got soldiers who had taken part in the action to pose for him. (He was also briefly arrested, having been mistaken for a German spy).
This huge and graphic painting, which leaves little to the imagination, greatly shocked the public who first saw it on display.
Among the soldiers who took part in, or were witness to the offensive at Mametz, were several artists and writers, including David Jones – a private in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
In 1937, Jones published a long autobiographical poem about the war (‘In Parenthesis’). Its frontispiece – a blank-eyed, broken soldier in a ravaged woodland – embodied Jones's own experiences of the conflict at Mametz Wood, where he himself was wounded.
FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:
Investigate Christopher Nevinson's realistic depiction of death in Paths of Glory. How and why was this painting censored?
Investigate two poems written about this battle. 'A Dead Boche' by Robert Graves (1917) and 'Mametz Wood' by Owen Sheers (2005).
Compare and contrast how the poets deal with the subject of war and death.
Which do you think is a more graphic representation of the battle at Mametz Wood – poetry or painting? Why?
Compare Williams's war painting with Frank Brangwyn's murals in the National Museum of Wales - A Heavy Tank in Action and Gun in Action. These were made to hang in the Houses of Parliament but they were rejected. Why? How does this alter our understanding of the subject matter?
Read this account of the battle written in 2012 by a Welsh historian: Wales Online: Mametz Wood
Which of the three accounts of battle you have studied – painting, poem or article – do you find most useful in understanding the events at Mametz Wood? Why?
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