When service personnel died during the Great War, their officers wrote to the bereaved families. Others also wrote, including those who had recovered the bodies or belongings of the dead. One who did this was Jack Sweeney when he found the body of Londoner Alfred Salway in Mametz Wood in 1916.
On 10 July 1916, the 38th (Welsh) Division attacked Mametz Wood in France, in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme. Eventually the wood was cleared but only at the cost of 5,000 casualties in the division.
Among the Welsh Division’s units was the 1st London Welsh, otherwise known as the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh (or Welch) Fusiliers. Among the dead of that battalion was Alfred John Salway, from Hoxton, a meat market porter. He had left his wife Emily and two children (at 1 Buttesland Street) early in the war to join the battalion, going out to France with it just before Christmas 1915.
In mid-July 1916, Jack Sweeney, a private in the Lincolnshire Regiment found Salway’s body in the nightmarish Mametz Wood that the Welsh Division had fought through a week earlier. He described the scene in a letter to his future wife Ivy (in Walthamstow) a few months later:
It was on the evening of the 18th or 20th of July (not sure of date) that I found the body of Pte Salway. I was sent with 30 men out of the firing line which was then in Mametz Wood. It was terrible fighting and the cries of the wounded were heart rending, we could not do anything for some of the poor lads but we managed to carry a few of them out with us. There were many dead of both sides but mostly German who I must say looked as thought they had put up a good fight.
The woods was being shelled everywhere – we lost 7 men getting out, 4 were blown to pieces, I cannot describe what it was like but we wanted bombs and someone had to get them.
After dropping off the bombs (grenades) they made their way back, slowly. They
stopped at the next line of trenches and Fritz was shelling a place on our right so we decided to get into the trench running from a road known as The Sunken Road. Just at the corner of the trench we saw 2 men lying, one on one side of the road the other on the other side.
The moon was very bright, the man on the right was in a terrible state, his blood was draining from him into the middle of the road, his head (what was left of it) was covered with a sandbag, we did not touch him at all. The other man was covered with a sandbag but he was not hit about the body like the man opposite. Well something seemed to tell me to look in his pockets, he is the first dead man I have ever touched but I did it and I found a few photos of himself and his wife and children, a pipe and baccy and 1 franc and ½.
Well we got a light and looked at his letters to see who he was, when I saw the address on the top of his letter (his home address) I could have dropped as I knew it very well and I believe I knew the man too. The letter was the last one from his wife and I kept it until after the battle and we got relieved. I left his Pay Book and also his identification disc so as the burning party would know who he was, then we went on our journey with our box of bombs…
After we were relieved we went by train to a place called Arras, I then sent that letter which I found on Pte Salway to his wife and she wrote back and thanked me and asked if I happened to find our where he was buried if I would let her known. Well when we left Arras to go to that ‘Hell’ again I had a look at a good many graves around the spot where I found Pte Salway but I did not find it.
I know where he must be buried now, it is one of the big grave grounds, I passed it on the march. There are about 800 buried there, the graves are well looked after but some of the poor chaps are buried where they fell and a bit of wood made into a Cross to show that some poor lad is buried there, some have no names, others bear on the ‘An Unknown English Soldier’.
After the war, the thousands of bodies around Mametz were consolidated into Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, where there are graves or memorials to 2,053 dead of the Great War – 518 of them unidentified. Salway’s body was identified (thanks to the items left on the body, which Sweeney mentioned) and he is buried there. He is also remembered on the memorial at his school, St Luke’s Parochial School.
What solace it gave Mrs Salway to hear from Sweeney, we will probably never know, but finding out that a loved one’s body had been identified and properly buried was often a real comfort to the bereaved of the First World War.
The Long, Long Trail
38th (Welsh) Division Memorial, Mametz Wood
Greater Love: Letters Home 1914-1918 – (ed) Michael Moyniyan. This includes the Sweeney letters, which are held in the Imperial War Museum archive