John Osmond reflects on a new novel that recalls the worst battle fought by the Welsh
The first Thomas Oscendale novel, by Jonathan Hicks, headteacher at St Cyrus secondary school in Penarth was published in May and has already caught a good deal of attention. It’s a well-written book by this former teacher of English, and also a clever piece of marketing by the publishers Y Lolfa.
Crime novels have a huge following, for a combination of reasons, among them the fascination with murder and other heinous acts which are normally beyond the range of most people’s experience. Another is that most successful crime novels have at their centre a strong, intriguing character, whether it be Sherlock Holmes, Maigret, or more recently and globally successful, Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Swedish Millennium trilogy, now approaching 30 million sales worldwide.
I doubt if Thomas Oscendale will reach these heights, but Jonathan Hicks has made a brave effort, not least because when announcing the appearance of the character he had yet to write the promised sequels. The second is about to come off the stocks while the third remains to be started. In fact, Hicks envisaged the three novels as a single project from the start, with the plot inter-linked and only fully comprehensible when taken as a whole.
So who is Thomas Oscendale? He comes from Barry where he was a policeman, but by the time he first appears in Hicks’ novel The Dead of Mametz, he is a member of the Military Foot Police and serving on the Western Front in 1916. Hicks says in a disclaimer than the characters in his book are “not intended to bear any resemblance to anyone living or dead”. However, Thomas Oscendale was a real person although we don’t know anything about him.
Hicks is a military historian, the author of four books including one about the Boer War and another on Gallipoli, and collects military memorabilia. The latter include military medals, containing the names and images of past soldiers. One is of Thomas Oscendale, a soldier in the First World War, about whom simply nothing is known since all his records have been (conveniently?) destroyed in a fire. Just the name survives, and a very good name it is as well.
Oscendale’s character is partly based on Jonathan Hicks’ great uncle Harry Osmond Fielding, a second lieutenant who saw a great deal of action in the Great War, including on the Western Front and four months in the trenches at Gallipoli, which inspired an earlier book Strange Hells. Needless to say, the character is also partly based on Hicks himself who was born and brought up in Barry.
Yet it seems to me that the real star of The Dead of Mametz is Mametz itself. In the novel Oscendale is investigating the murders of a number of servicemen in the 38th (Welsh) Division, known as ‘Lloyd George’s Welsh Army’, in the run up to the battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. In the novel the events Oscendale investigates become intertwined with the Welsh division’s assault on Mametz Wood on 7 July when it advanced suicidally uphill over open ground against sweeping machine gun and intense artillery fire. The attacks, ending on 12 July in the clearance of the wood, saw vicious hand-to-hand fighting and innumerable acts of courage – and over 4,000 Welsh deaths and casualties.
Jonathan Hicks describes a good deal of this in graphic terms, the intensity of the barrage bombardments, the oozing mud that could easily drown a man, the hand-to-hand fighting, the stench, fear and exhaustion, and the generally indescribable conditions. Nearly a mile wide and over a mile deep, Mametz was made up of thick trees and dense undergrowth. The wood was heavily fortified with machine guns, trenches and mortars and was defended by the well-trained and elite Lehr Regiment of Prussian Guards.
The 38th Division was comprised of soldiers from several Welsh regiments, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Welsh Regiment, young men who had been urged to enlist by the rhetoric of David Lloyd George and the thought of exciting adventures. They were amateur soldiers, full of enthusiasm and courage but, like many of Kitchener’s New Army who fought on the Somme, they were poorly trained, ill-equipped and to some extent badly hampered by the tactics of their commanders. Mametz Wood was intended – by the generals, at least – to be taken in a matter of hours. In the event the battle lasted for five days as the Germans fiercely resisted the assaults of the Welsh Division.
It seems to me that Mametz Wood and the awful battle that took place there – the worst in our history – overwhelms Jonathan Hicks’ novel and its central character. Certainly, it was the story of the battle that inspired the author to put pen to paper. And, certainly too, it has a lasting place in the Welsh imagination. Robert Graves visited the wood a few days after the battle and wrote, “Today I found in Mametz Wood a certain cure for lust of blood.” The writer and artist David Jones fought in the battle and wrote in his epic poem In Parenthesis, “But leave it [your rifle] under the oak. Leave it for a Cooks’ tourist to the Devastated Areas. Crawl as far as you can and wait for the bearers.”
The contemporary poet Owen Sheers visited Mametz Wood on the 85th anniversary of the battle to make a film about David Jones and described his experience which prompted his own poem in these terms:
“Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the Summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches.
“While I was in France visiting Mametz Wood I read a newspaper article about a shallow war grave that had been uncovered during the building of a car factory nearby. The newspaper carried a photograph of this grave which I will never forget. There were twenty skeletons lying in it in various states of completeness, some still wearing rotten boots, others without. Each skeleton lay in its own position of death, but all of them were linked, arm in arm. It was a strange, touching, disturbing photograph and as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to write a poem about Mametz; about how the resonance of that battle was still being remembered in the soil over which it was fought.”