Captain Harris and Mametz Wood

A little over 94 years ago, men of the 38th (Welsh) Division were locked in a desperate struggle amidst the ruined trees of Mametz Wood. Six days after the battle of the Somme had launched thousands of British troops into the meatgrinder, the Welsh Division had been brought out of reserve to push into Mametz Wood and clear the Germans still holding the area. Their first assault, on 7 July 1916, had failed with heavy casualties.

This was the division’s first test in battle. Most of its constituent formations had arrived in France earlier in 1916 and had spent the long spring training for the next “big push.” One of the units that made up the 38th Division was the 16th (Cardiff City) Battalion of the Welsh Regiment. It had been raised in late 1914 following Lloyd George’s call to form a “Welsh Army Corps”. A young Captain from Llanishen, Frank Gaskell, recently of 2nd Battalion the Welsh Regiment, was placed in command, and the year 1915 was spent training and recruiting men for this new battalion. In late November the 16th Welsh paraded through Cardiff on their way to the troop ships to France. It was the last time many of the men would see the city.

The battalion had, with most of the 38th Division, spent the early part of 1916 training, mainly around the village of Merville in France. It was during this time that the now-Lieutenant Colonel Gaskell was killed by a sniper while patrolling the battalion’s lines. Among the men who attended his funeral at the church in Merville on the 18th May was the adjutant, Captain Lyn Arthur Philip Harris, another Llanishen man, who lived on the same road in the village as Gaskell.

Merville Churchyard today, now a CWGC cemetery.

Captain Harris was with the battalion during the attacks on Mametz Wood on 7th July. On the 10th, the 38th Division was ordered to try again. At 4:00pm, following a covering barrage, the division advanced well into the wood before being held up by well-positioned German trenches. The attack halted for the night, during which time the division’s 115th Brigade, which included the 16th Welsh, was brought forward from reserve to relieve the battered front-line battalions.

The 115th Brigade took fire while advancing to it’s starting positions, and then had to wait until 3:00 for the fresh attack. 15 minutes prior to the start of the attack, British artillery provided a preliminary barrage. Unfortunately, several shells fell short on the assault troops, and the Germans quickly responded with heavy counter-battery fire on the Brigade’s position in the wood. It was during this exchange of artillery fire that Captain Harris was mortally wounded. Carried back from the front-line to an aid station, he handed his wedding ring to the 16th Welsh’s commanding officer to give to his wife. They had been married for just six months – he had probably spent very little time with her. Captain Harris died of his wounds later that day. He was just 23. He is buried in Dantzig Alley Cemetery on the Somme, along with many men who fell in that brutal battle.

-JK

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