That Cursèd Wood

Some strolls have a destination. And so it was on the day we crossed the park by Harlem Meer at 110th Street, wandered by the chrysanthemums in glorious bloom in the Conservatory Garden and on to the Met Museum for its World War I and the Visual Arts” exhibit.

Harlem Meer looking south

Chrysanthemums in the Central Park Conservatory Garden

It’s a great exhibit. So much to see and so much to wonder about. But here – for November 11th – is a print and the poem that inspired the title: Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s That Cursèd Wood and Siegfried Sassoon’s At Carnoy.

That Cursèd Wood Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889–1946) 1917

So many cursèd woods in the history of the Western Front.

Here Nevinson shows a scrap of landscape pocked by shells with the stark outlines of broken trees standing up like mangled limbs or grave markers in a ruined land. High above airplanes fly like dragonflies.or distant birds. It’s a small, shrunken, understated representation of a bloody and blasted scene of hand-to hand combat, artillery bombardment, military miscalculation and mass slaughter.

Nevinson took his title from Siegfried’s Sassoon’s 1916 poem At Carnoy. The poem tells of the four companies of the brigade camped at twilight on the evening before an attack on Mametz Wood during the battle of the Somme. At 9.15 pm –  after a day dozing in the sun, – they began their march forward, heavily laden with barbed wire and ammunition. Sassoon turned his field notes into a poem. There’s a mouthorgan and muffled voices at a distance as he crouches in the thistle-tufts and watches the sunset flare and fade.

Man and nature are in harmony. He is content. But:

                                   To-morrow we must go  
To take some cursèd Wood … O world God made! 

At Carnoy
(July 3rd, 1916)

Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade  
Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow  
I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,  
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.  
Crouched among thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;  
And I’m content. To-morrow we must go  
To take some cursèd Wood … O world God made! 

 Siegfried Sassoon


From Sassoon’s notebook

During a five-day battle 4,000 men from the 38th (Welsh) Division were killed, missing or injured at Mametz Wood putting the division out of action for almost a year. Capturing the wood was a key allied objective along the 15 mile Somme front in northern France. You can read more here: Mametz Wood and the 38th: The Welsh at the Somme.

Rather than this spare patch of blasted trees, Mametz was the largest wood on the whole Somme battlefront. It was a hunting preserve about a mile square and thick with deciduous trees and dense undergrowth untended since 1914. It was heavily fortified with machine guns, established trenches and mortars and defended by well-trained and seasoned Prussian Guards. It is said that the German expressionist painter Otto Dix was among the defenders in the wood.

Aerial photographs taken of Mametz Wood in late June 1916 for planning purposes

A lone Welsh soldier in the trenches at Mametz in July 1916

Troops in part of the square-mile of Mametz Wood where at the end of five days, not a single tree was left standing

Sassoon writes at some length about the battle in his memoirs. On July 5th a night attack on Mametz Wood was launched in the early hours but ground to halt in confusion. The Royal Welch had seized Quadrangle Trench and Sassoon – who had not been part of the assault  – came up with supplies and ammunition. A German sniper was picking them off as they worked to dig in and Sassoon decided to act. He went forward without orders. 

Mametz Wood was a menacing wall of gloom, and now an outburst of rapid thudding explosions began from that direction. There was a sap [a narrow communication trench] from the quadrangle to the wood, and along this the Germans were bombing. In all this confusion I formed the obvious notion that we ought to be deepening the trench. Daylight would be on us at once, and we were along a slope exposed to enfilade fire from the wood. I told Fernby to make the men dig for all they were worth, and went to the right with Kendle. The Germans had left a lot of shovels, but we were making no use of them. Two tough-looking privates were disputing the ownership of a pair of field-glasses, so I pulled out my pistol and urged them, with ferocious objurations, to chuck all that fooling and dig.

I seemed to be getting pretty handy with my pistol, I thought, for the conditions in quadrangle trench were giving me a sort of angry impetus. In some places it was only a foot deep, and already men were lying wounded and killed by sniping. There were high-booted German bodies, too, and in the blear beginning of daylight they seemed as much the victims of a catastrophe as the men who had attacked them.

As I stepped over one of the Germans an impulse made me lift him up from the miserable ditch. Propped against the bank, his blond face was undisfigured, except by the mud which I wiped from his eyes and mouth with my coat sleeve. He’d evidently been killed while digging, for his tunic was knotted loosely about his shoulders. He didn’t look to be more than 18. Hoisting him a little higher, I thought what a gentle face he had, and remembered that this was the first time I’d ever touched one of our enemies with my hands. Perhaps I had some dim sense of the futility which had put an end to this good-looking youth. Anyway I hadn’t expected the battle of the Somme to be quite like this.

Kendle, who had been trying to do something for a badly wounded man, now rejoined me, and we continued, mostly on all fours, along the dwindling trench. We passed no one until we came to a bombing post – three serious-minded men who said that no one had been further than that yet. Being in an exploring frame of mind, I took a bag of bombs and crawled another 60 or 70 yards with Kendle close behind me. The trench became a shallow groove and ended where the ground overlooked a little valley along which there was a light railway line. We stared across at the wood. From the other side of the valley came an occasional rifle-shot, and a helmet bobbed up for a moment.

I felt adventurous and it seemed as if Kendle and I were having great fun together. “I’ll just have a shot at him,” he said, wriggling away from the crumbling bank which gave us cover. At this moment Fernby appeared with two men and a Lewis gun. Kendle was half kneeling against some broken ground; I remember seeing him push his tin hat back from his forehead and raise himself a few inches to take aim. After firing once he looked at us with a lively smile; a second later he fell sideways. A blotchy mark showed where the bullet had hit him just above the eyes.

The circumstances being what they were, I had no justification for feeling either shocked or astonished by the sudden extinction of Lance-Corporal Kendle. But after blank awareness that he was killed, all feelings tightened and contracted to a single intention — to “settle that sniper” on the other side of the valley. If I had stopped to think, I shouldn’t have gone at all. As it was, I discarded my tin hat and equipment, slung a bag of bombs across my shoulder, abruptly informed Fernby that I was going to find out who was there, and set off at a downhill double. While I was running I pulled the safety-pin out of a Mills bomb; my right hand being loaded, I did the same for my left. I mention this because I was obliged to extract the second safety-pin with my teeth, and the grating sensation reminded me that I was half way across and not so reckless as I had been when I started. I was even a little out of breath as I trotted up the opposite slope. Just before I arrived at the top I slowed up and threw my two bombs. Then I rushed at the bank, vaguely expecting some sort of scuffle with my imagined enemy. I had lost my temper with the man who had shot Kendle; quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it. Fortunately for me, they were already retreating. It had not occurred to them that they were being attacked by a single fool; and Fernby, with presence of mind which probably saved me, had covered my advance by traversing the top of the trench with his Lewis gun. I slung a few more bombs, but they fell short of the clumsy field-gray figures, some of whom half turned to fire their rifles over the left shoulder as they ran across the open toward the wood, while a crowd of jostling helmets vanished along the trench. Idiotically elated, I stood there with my finger in my right ear and emitted a series of “view-holloas” ( a gesture which ought to win the approval of people who still regard war as a form of outdoor sport). 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.

The trench was deep and roomy, with a fine view of our men in the Quadrangle, but I had no idea what to do now I had got possession of it. The word “consolidation” passed through my mind; but I couldn’t consolidate by myself. Naturally, I didn’t underestimate the magnitude of my achievement in capturing the trench on which the Royal Irish had made a frontal attack in the dark. Nevertheless, although still unable to see that my success was only a lucky accident, I felt a bit queer in my solitude, so I reinforced my courage by counting the sets of equipment which had been left behind. There were between forty and fifty packs, tidily arranged in a row — a fact which I often mentioned (quite casually) when describing my exploit afterwards. There was the doorway of a dug-out, but I only peered in at it, feeling safer above ground. Then, with apprehensive caution, I explored about half way to the Wood without finding any dead bodies. Apparently no one was any the worse for my little bombing demonstration. Perhaps I was disappointed by this, though the discovery of a dead or wounded enemy might have caused a revival of humane emotion. Returning to the sniping post at the end of the trench I meditated for a few minutes, somewhat like a boy who has caught a fish too big to carry home (if such an improbable event has ever happened). Finally I took a-deep breath and ran headlong back by the way I’d come.

from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, by Siegfried Sassoon (1930). 

A Cure for Lust of Blood

It was there in Mametz Wood that Robert Graves found a “certain cure for lust of blood:”

A Dead Boche 

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 found 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 artist poet David Jones with the 15th battalion – the London Welsh –  was wounded at Mametz on July 11th. The assault forms the culmination of his prose poem In Parenthesis. In the preface Jones dedicates his poem to  “the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure”.

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