Mametz Wood “In Parenthesis:” David Jones’s Masterpiece and the Martyrdom of the Welsh

Mametz Wood from RWF history

Mametz Wood, in a contemporary map reproduced in the Regimental History of the Royal Welsh

Yesterday, a century back, the 38th Division was once again marshaled for an attack on Mametz Wood. This thick little forest, the largest wood on the Somme front, was now nearly a salient in the British line, and the higher-ups on the General Staff considered its capture to be essential to the next phase of the Somme battle, namely the assault on the second German defensive system (or “German 2nd Line,” as it is marked at right).

This time the 115th Brigade–with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith on brigade staff–was in reserve, while the 113th and 114th Brigades attacked.

The 113th Brigade, made up of four Kitchener’s Army battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, would have the left flank of the attack, coming north from the bottom center of the map at right.

David Jones’s 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers will be in support, while the 16th and 14th battalions lead the way. The plan is much the same as it was during the disastrous attack on the seventh, the primary difference being that more troops are concentrated on a narrower frontage. The Germans will be better prepared, too, and the Welsh will have to attack across several hundred yards of open ground–ground that still slants uphill into the guns of the wood is and now strewn with the bodies of their countrymen. There is some hope that the artillery coordination will be better.


Mametz, July 1916; the metal roller is at bottom left

Around noon, yesterday, the 15th RWF marched up through the ruined village of Mametz, where Jones was struck by the sight of a huge metal roller sitting amidst the rubble (see the photograph at right).

For some two hours they had waited in the recently-German-held Dantzig Trench, before learning that the attack had been called off. Griffith, back at headquarters with the reserve brigade, knew at once that this was a mere twelve-hours’ postponement, but this information does not seem to have gotten to Jones’s battalion. Shouldering their eighty pounds of kit, the fifteenth marched back again to the rear, through clogged communications trenches, a process that took the rest of the day and lasted into the night. Then, before they could sleep, they were ordered back up, and back up they marched. And so

it was not until dawn on the 10th July that the flower of young Wales stood up to the machine-guns, with a success that astonished all who knew the ground.[1]

The attack began at 4.15 a.m. Leading the brigade’s assault on the southern tip of the wood (the 114th Brigade was to the right) was Lieutenant-Colonel Carden of the 16th Royal Welch, a man whom even the straight-laced Regimental history describes as “a gifted leader with a touch of fanaticism.” Waving a handkerchief on the end of his walking stick so as to be visible to his men, he walked forward from their assembly trenches, down into the gully (or “nullah,” a British Indian Army term) and up the gentle slope toward the woods. He was shot, fell, got up, continued, and was shot again and killed on the edge of the wood. Yet some of the men of the 16th reached the wood, now being pounded by the carefully-prepared artillery program. The surviving German defenders of a trench at the front of the wood surrendered, but many machine guns continued to fire from both flanks.

Meanwhile, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers had moved up into their assembly positions.


I believe that I once intended to hash out In Parenthesis day by day, to make something of the most difficult, most unusual, and most rewarding poem of the war.

Youthful folly. In Parenthesis is a masterpiece–a minor great work, or a great minor work, or some such thing. It’s also a terrible thicket of concentrated strangeness, intense mental experience, and deep allusion, intertwined–to bring us to the point–with precise details pertaining to David Jones’s experiences as an infantryman. And by tomorrow the poem will be over. So now or never.

The difficulty of the poem is, in a sense, easiest to deal with today. The fragmented Modernist narrative (“stream of consciousness” is a familiar term, but not quite right here–these are freshets, sinkholes, torrents and and sudden splashes, rather than a continuous stream) doesn’t need to be placed in its literary context because its lived context fits the form so well: fragmentation is, here, now, the chaos of battle. Battle is always experienced as a series of actions rather than a continuous state, and memory makes of it a number of searing fragments, often with the order jumbled and gaps of uncertain size between. There is no “better” way for the mind, in mortal terror, and the body, desperately aroused, to record it.

So we’ll leave aside the question of whether In Parenthesis doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and only coincidentally shares with its climactic Part 7 the senseless confusion of not just any battle but a crowded battle in a dense wood, or whether Jones has shaped his artistic choices to the nature of this most intense of his wartime experiences. It doesn’t matter. I’ll try to do what I generally do here: present the writing–be it straightforward memoir or Modernist Epic–link it to other histories of the day’s events, and comment where it might be useful.

Part 7 begins–and here is Jones in a nutshell–with a subtitle that references both the Passion and Lewis Carroll, an epigram from a medieval Welsh elegy, and three biblical allusions, two of them in Latin.

The Welsh poem, Y Gododdin, is referenced throughout In Parenthesis, and serves (this will be the first of dozens of oversimplifications today, for which I will apologize just this once) both to make the Welsh soldiers of the poem more Welsh–many of the 15th, and Jones himself, were London born and bred, of Welsh descent, but not steeped in the Welsh language or its folklore–and to open up their experience to other times. This project is in chronological lockstep with the past–one hundred years to the day–but Jones was determined both to include the specificities of his experience–numbers, map references, minutes, minute parts of complex machines and organizations–and to write this experience as if it were fully consubstantial with the experiences of the distant past, especially that of other soldiers. Jones’s project is both catholic and Catholic, and more than any other writing of the war it demands both that the instant of experience be recognized and that, in the eye of God, at least, it cannot exist: this experience is eternally and completely shared.

(Some of this garbled paean will, I hope, be borne out by the quotations below.)

And that subtitle? If Jones sounds over-serious then I have done a bad job explaining him. There is nothing more serious than war and death and religion–which is why no frame of reference is denied to the poem. “The Five Unmistakeable Marks” of Part 7 identify both Lewis Carroll’s Snark and the stigmata of Christ. Metaphorically, at least, this will be a sacrifice of the innocent.

And the quotations?

Picture 156

The Manuscript of the beginning of Part VII, from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Invenimus eam in campus silvae–“We have come up on it in the fields of the woods.” Simple scene-setting, and gentle irony, for in the Psalms (131.6), what they have found is the tabernacle of the lord, not bloody battle.

The next line takes care of that: “and under every green tree.” This, again, means nothing without vast reading or studious legwork (or, yes, the internet–although there are many good secondary sources, several of which I will cite below). It references II Kings 12:10, where the Israelites sacrifice their children to foreign gods. Five little words, slid in at the beginning here, which align Jones’s work with the poetry of protest that has, a century back, hardly begun to be written. This is no jaunty “someone had blundered,” but a swift blow with all the driving power of both Testaments behind it: you are killing your children in vain.

The third quotation is from Lamentations (2.12, also part of the Good Friday service) and is even more devastating: although Jones draws it from the arid Latin, the ruthlessly keening old Hebrew poem describes children dying “like soldiers” in their mothers’ arms.

And so we have come five lines into a thirty-five page section of the poem. I will have to pick up the pace just a bit.

There is another prefatory section, an acknowledgement of the role of memory in artistic creation–“spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out… demoniac-pouring.” This is fair warning and fertile ground, but not something that we, tied to the day, a century back, can deal with here.

Picture 053

David Jones’s handwritten map, with annotations

Finally, then, the subjects: “In the Little Hours they sing the Song of Degrees.” So “they”–the eternal/mythic/epic soldiers who are also the men of Number 6 Platoon, B Company, 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–begin both the liturgical day and July 10th, 1916. They are in Queen’s Nullah, across from the southwestern edge of the Wood. Jones, an artist before he was a poet, drew the map at right, using the trench maps (the reference numbers can be seen at the top), with the Nullah at the bottom.

The horror begins immediately: this assembly-place is obvious, and has been used before. German shells are dropping all around, and a man is hit:

He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things.

The first “he” would seem to be Private John Ball, our protagonist, our David-Jones-in-the-Poem. The “him” is Aneirin Leiws “spilled there… who sleeps in Arthur’s lap” and will soon draw a brief spurt of allusive elegy.

Other men come upon the shattered corpse and weep “for the pity of it all.”

Ball/Jones eventually gets “his stuff reasonably assembled” and joined “the rest of the platoon belly-hugged the high embankment going up steep into thin mist at past four o’clock of a fine summer morning.”

So, then, fifteen minutes to go.

While “Private 25201 Ball pressed his body into the earth and the white chalk womb to mother him,” The colonel, J.C. Bell in life, Colonel Dell in the book (how like Sassoon this rhymed fictionalization of Royal Welch officers is), chats coolly with another officer.

But they already look at their watches and it is zero minus seven minutes.

Alright. I think I’ve demonstrated what can be done with interspersing commentary, matching the minutiae of battle-chronicle to the intimate twistings of Jones’s poem. But chronology will bend and shatter when they go forward (it is reasserted much later on), and I don’t think there are any arguments that can be made for the greatness–or even the necessity-to-any-certain-subject–of certain poems that can’t be nullified, defeated, or improved upon by lengthy quotation. So, here is an infantryman’s terror before the assault:[2]

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers—you
simply can’t take any more in.
And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with ‘A’,
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance.

Two minutes, one minute–and then the advance. For a few pages we float amidst the disordered thoughts of John Ball and his comrades, and in and out of history and legend and myth.

But in amongst it all are Jones’s memories: As the 14th Battalion advanced, directly ahead of him, they sang “Jesu Lover of My Soul.”

And if the more literal/less literary-minded reader might begin to object to the poetical smearing of fact into impression, here is how the Regimental History describes the advance:

The approach to the wood was a ghastly affair… there was a general state of pandemonium… the most terrible “mix-up” I have ever seen.

Soon, the 15th are ordered to advance. Here, in the poem, Malory’s knightly host and Kitchener’s army advance together:

Tunicled functionaries signify and clear-voiced heralds cry
and leg it to a safe distance:
leave fairway for the Paladins, and Roland throws a kiss–
they’ve nabbed his batty for the moppers-up
                     and Mr. Jenkins takes them over
and don’t bunch on the left
for Christ’s sake.

“Batty” is one of the many Cockney slang expressions for a friend (or, in American military parlance, “buddy”). Roland is the hero of the Chanson de Roland, the Medieval French epic. Mr. Jenkins is the kind, decent platoon commander. And the “tunicled” higher-ups, it seems, will not be coming forward–at least not yet.

Mr. Jenkins leads them out of the trench in the hollow and down into the unbelievably long (at least 400 yards) open-field advance to the woods:

Every one of these, stood, separate, upright, above ground,
blinkt to the broad light
risen dry mouthed from the chalk…
moved in open order and keeping admirable formation
and at the high-port position
walking in the morning on the flat roof of the world

There remains hope, in each man’s mind, that somehow they will be spared. After all, death is always around, but rarely strikes–has never yet struck the mind that thinks the thought. Jones wrenches the ancient personification of death as a battle goddess through the language of St. Francis and into something new and harrowing:

But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.
By one and one the line gaps, where her fancy will–howsoever they may howl for their virginity
she holds them–who impinge less on space
sink limply to a heap
nourish a lesser category of being
like those other who fructify the land
like Tristram…

or all of them in shaft-shade
at straight Thermopylae…

    Jonathan my lovely one…


So the Royal Welch are joined by the battle heroes of the mythic Middle Ages, and the Bible, and Greek History.

But how intolerably bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.

And, after several more pages of intensely envisioned movement, they have crossed the open ground and almost reached the now-taken German trench at the edge of the wood.

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them – he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of
Private Ball.

He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
swings like a pendulum
and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clampt unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
and masked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap—
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
–where it rises to his wire—and Sergeant T. Quilter takes

And so Mr Jenkins–Oliver, the beloved companion of Roland, but also Lieutenant R.G. Rees, son of Cordelia Rees, of 21, Woodland Way, Mitcham, Surrey, and the late Rev. William Rees, aged 25[3]–is killed.


A composite map from one of the stalwarts in the Great War Forum, with the modern memorial site indicated in the lower right.

Now they enter the trench at the edge of the wood.

The southern part of Mametz Wood–as far as the first “ride,” or cleared path (see the map at right, where the dashed lines of the rides are clear)–was now held by elements of several jumbled battalions.

Mametz Wood was a real wood. A hunting preserve before the war, it had not been cleared of underbrush for more than two years, nor–lying until recently between the German first and second lines–had it been shelled into oblivion. Instead, shelling had brought down a large number of trees, which became entangled with the thick underbrush and proliferating brambles.

Again, the Regimental Records vouch for the chaos, here:

All went into the wood, and naturally enough, once the troops reached the thick tangle, control became extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Wyn Griffith will describe the wood, too, giving us a middle ground between reportage and poetry:

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.[4]


Jones’s Frontispiece for In Parenthesis

Back in the poem–and in the German trench–we see some these worse sights:

the sun-lit chalk is everywhere absorbing fresh stains.
Dark gobbets stiffen skewered to revetment-hurdles and dyed garments strung-up for a sign; but the sun shines also
on the living
and on Private Watcyn, who wears a strange look under his iron brim, like a small child caught at some bravado in a garden…


Mametz Wood itself beckons. Sergeant Quilter gathers the jumbled survivors of the platoon and leads them forward:

So these nineteen deploy
between the rowan and the hazel,
go forward to the deeper shades.

Again, historical precision anchors us to this time and place even as the boundaries of time and place grow hazy:

It was largely his machine guns in Acid Copse that did it, and our own heavies firing by map reference, with all lines phut and no reliable liaison.[5]

Much happens as the day draws on. The Regimental History records that the 15th Battalion was withdrawn, then sent in again, as more senior officers arrived on the scene and tried to makes sense of the battle in the wood. Nothing quite so clear happens in the poem. There are glimpses of German prisoners coming back; Sgt. Quilter is mortally wounded in the belly; another man–possibly Dai Greatcoat, who earlier in the poem makes a prodigious epic boast–is hit lower down (the bullet would seem to destroy his groin, or castrate him); the number of men still holding some semblance of the line, firing at invisible Germans, dwindles. Pages and pages.

Mametz Wood from RWF history, croppedThe careening literary references are interspersed with map references: a captain arrives and has the survivors dig in on the line of V, Y, O, and K (see the map at right, again): the 15th RWF now hold the second ride and the left flank of the wood, and have bombed the Germans out of the trenches on the left, but the northern extremities are still in enemy hands.

Throughout this last phase of the poem there is a widening of the mythic scope. Where else would men ancient and medieval enter, in their mortal terror, but a perilous wood?

But we will end with details that overlap precisely with Jones’s experience. Night begins to fall. The Royal Welch are ordered to dig in, to hold the line. Then, after dark, the orders come once more to advance:

At 21.35 hrs units concerned will move forward and clear his area of his personnel. There will be adequate artillery support.

And now no view of him whether he makes a sally, no possibility of informed action nor certain knowing whether he gives or turns to stand…grope in extended line of platoon through nether glooms … warily circumambulate malignant miraged obstacles, walk confidently into hard junk. Solid things dissolve, and vapours ape substantiality.

A flare goes up, and more horrors:

And the severed head of ’72 Morgan
its visage grins like the Cheshire cat
and full grimly.

And midnight passes…


We will pick up the end of the poem tomorrow, but we touch wood now with the history:

But night fell on the most bewildering state of affairs. No one could either see or move… There was… a great deal of wild firing through the night, and the relief of troops by the 115th Brigade was not possible until the morning.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Up to Mametz, 207.
  2. Apologies for ineptitude, but I don't know how to get the poem formatted correctly. I've preserved line breaks, but have not figured out how to preserve the indents that help shape of this closer to conventional verse-form...
  3. CWGC
  4. Up to Mametz, 209-210.
  5. We will have more on this "friendly fire" problem tomorrow.
  6. Ward, Regimental Records, 204-9. In addition to In Parenthesis, easily available thanks to an NYRB Classics reissue, I have drawn on Thomas Dilworth's work, particularly Reading David Jones, 80ff, and David Jones in the Great War. See also Remembering the Battle of Mametz Wood and this.