For someone to visit Mametz Wood in the present age, one has to have an interest in the fighting that took place in the first world war [1914-1918] so this poem is a creation of someone’s thoughts after seeing the place for themselves. As such, anyone who visits such a place as this is usually left with a sensation of desolation. I know when I went and paid my respects at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery in 2002, I was left in tears at the mass loss of life that took place in this stretch of land in northern France.
So it comes as no surprise to me to see such words as this from Owen Shears. He shares his thoughts from the perspective of the after effects of the battles that took place there. In verses of three lines each, using no real rhyme scheme, he shares how pieces of the men who fell have been found by farmers constantly digging up the landscape. He describes them as “the wasted young” which immediately shows the reader his attitude to the fighting and the war; one of disdain for such a massive loss of life just because someone in officialdom said we go to war.
Such an attitude is prevalent in many of the first word war poets and it is a feeling that has not gone away in this time of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers are sent into fields of conflict at the behest of politicians and Generals intent of waging war on others. The farmers would find a piece “of bone” or part of “a skull” when the blades cut the soil and on each occasion, a grave would be unearthed. In this field where young men “were told to walk, not run,” the blood and the bone still exist to show us the horror of warfare and Shears is showing just how horrific it was, and is, for those who continue to find the remnants of sons, brothers, fathers and even Grandfathers in the mud and the soil. In essence it is a sad edict on the idea of war but it is also a criticism of those who sent the men to their deaths.
Shears recounts how the men were sent forward, walking into imminent death against machine guns on the ridge before the wood, where the German troops were gathered with machine guns, ready to cut the English soldiers to bits. It is that ground which “stands sentinel” now, to remind us that this happened nearly one hundred years ago. It is also something that we as humans, should never forget.
And on the morning he visits there is unearthed a whole grave of bodies that are laid with their “socketed heads at an angle” to show the grim reality of war. It is this image that the writer is trying to imprint in the mind of the reader; see this and know the full horror of warfare in the twentieth century. Know that innocent men went to their deaths trusting those in authority that what they were doing is right. In this way, yet again we have another poem that is a polemic on the nature and attitude to war. It is a picture that is being painted here, a “broken mosaic” of an image that resides now in the mind and memory of the writer as he reflects on having to see what has been unearthed before him.
This poem, like others before it, shows the horror of warfare in the trenches in the first world war. It also shows just how much of a blood-letting took place and just how the memory of that time can never be truly forgotten when the land keeps churning up the relatives that we lost in Flanders fields.