Image by Charlotte Medlicott

Poem introduction

I wrote this next poem, 'Mametz Wood', when I went to the Somme battlefield to make a short film about two Welsh writers who had fought at this place. The two writers were called David Jones and Wyn Griffith, and they wrote very very different accounts of this dreadful battle, but it was a strange battle because there seemed to be lots of poets present: it was also where Robert Graves was wounded; Siegfried Sassoon actually watched the battle, so it's a battlefield of the Somme that appears again and again in memoirs of poets and actually in their poetry, and I really wrote this because while I was there they uncovered a shallow grave of twenty Allied soldiers who had been buried very very quickly but whoever had buried them had taken the time to actually link their arms, arm-in-arm, and when I saw a photograph of this grave I just knew that it was one of those images that had burned itself onto my mind and I knew that I would want to write about it eventually. As it happens I did, but the poem took a long time to surface very much in the same way that those elements of the battle are still surfacing through the fields eighty-five years later.

Mametz Wood

For years afterwards the farmers found them -
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird's egg of a skull,

all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin,

This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre

in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.


from Skirrid Hill (Seren, 2005), copyright © Owen Sheers 2000, used by permission of the author

Books & cds by Owen Sheers