ARMISTICE day remains an opportunity for collective remembrance of those lost in battle but the solemn formalities betray the fevered excitement that greeted the Great War. 

A patriotic fervour had swept Britain in September 1914 as the country entered the conflict stirring in Europe. Proud Welshmen could serve king, country and empire by enlisting and the chancellor - a Caernarfonshire MP named David Lloyd George - had a grand, but never realised, vision of a Welsh Army Corps. 

There was plenty of opportunity for Welshmen to answer the call and in the north, the 38th (Welsh) Division was raised as part of Kitchener’s keen, enthusiastic, but amateur new army. 

Though the recruits may have believed the war would be over by Christmas, the experienced Lord Kitchener, a senior officer who’d overseen numerous military endeavours and newly appointed Secretary for War, had foreseen a long campaign and set about recruiting 500,000 volunteers. 

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The raw Welsh recruits had been put through their paces in the north of Wales and at Salisbury Plain, but their training was poor and their equipment worse. While broomsticks could be used instead of rifles, that were in short supply, during training it also meant many wouldn’t fire a rifle for their first time until they saw conflict in France. 

Across the English Channel the Welsh Division was bolstered by infantry brigades drawn from the Welsh Regiments. The Royal Welch Fusiliers were recruited from all over Wales as well as London and Birmingham, the South Wales Borderers that recruited in the south east and the Welch Regiment which drew its recruits from the south west. 

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The Division would be thrust into the combat for the first time in July 1916 at The Battle of the Somme. Now known as a byword the futility of war the Welsh Division was tasked with taking Mametz Wood - ground guarded by professional German troops armed with mortars and machine guns. 

The statistics are grim. 

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme nearly 20,000 British lives were lost. More than a million lives from all sides would be lost in around a week in one of the most infamous battles of what would become the First World War.

The National Wales: David Lloyd George, left, with friend and social campaigner Seebhom Rowntree Picture: Joseph Rowntree Foundation David Lloyd George, left, with friend and social campaigner Seebhom Rowntree Picture: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

As the battle wore on, the Welsh Division was expected to capture the woods and on July 7 the division made no ground but lost 180 men. 

The top brass deemed there must have been a lack of will and ordered the division to carry on with further attacks and by July 12, after the Welsh Division had gained a foothold in the woods, another division came in relief and secured what was considered an important tactical vantage point. 

But the cost had been enormous. 

From July 7 to 11, the Welsh Division lost 911 NCOs and other ranks and 37 officers. Hundreds more were posted missing and their bodies never recovered.  

The 16th (Cardiff City) Battalion, Welsh Regiment suffered the greatest loss with 153 men and five officers killed, including 132 killed on July 7. 

The 14th (Swansea) Battalion, Welsh Regiment had entered its first major engagement on July 10 with 676 men. By that night 76 had died and there were a further 376 casualties. More than half the Battalion was lost in one day. 

In all some 4,000 men from the Welsh Division were killed or wounded during the attack. 

Mametz Wood may be known as a scene of supreme Welsh sacrifice, heroism and bravery but it is also clouded in controversy with questions asked about leadership and discipline. 

The National Wales: The 1987 Welsh Memorial at Memetz WoodThe 1987 Welsh Memorial at Memetz Wood

The chaotic and horrific scenes though are also captured in the public imagination from an age were film was rare, and rarely seen, and hard to decipher. 

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But a visual insight into the battle was created by the artist Christopher Williams whose painting The Welsh at Mametz Wood captures the charge. 

Commissioned by Lloyd George, one of the armchair generals and recruiting sergeants who had done so much to encourage others to lay down their lives in sacrifice, the oil painting does show the Welsh in the ascendancy. 

But the scene is grim and frenzied while also showing the superior military hardware of the German army. Prominent in the centre of the painting, underneath a Welsh soldier making a dynamic downward thrust with his bayonet, lies his stricken comrade. 

Williams, who grew up in Maesteg, was a socialist and pacifist but had been commissioned by Lloyd George - who he had previously painted a portrait of - to commemorate the battle. 

By this point Lloyd George had succeeded Kitchener as Minister of War and considered Williams ‘one of the most gifted of all Welsh artists’. 

Though not an official war artist, Williams was given permission to visit the battlefields in November 1916, and he also produced charcoal sketches of the men and battle scarred scenery he witnessed. 

Those rough, almost bleak sketches are considered by critics perhaps a truer representation of what had confronted Williams than the grand piece of public art he had been commissioned to produce and for which soldiers had posed for him.

Reportedly Williams was briefly arrested, mistaken for a German spy, while sketching the battlefields. 

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Ironically, by the time Williams had arrived to sketch the scenes, and capture the gallant charge of the Welsh Division, the men were back where they had been before the battle. Mametz Wood had been recaptured by the Germans within weeks and they would hold through to that first Armistice Day when the guns silenced on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. 

Williams completed his painting that year and Lloyd George, who had become Prime Minister in December 2016 - the month after Williams had visited the battlefields - would, for a period, display the painting at 10 Downing Street. 

It is today part of the National Museum of Wales’ collection. 

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