Last week we brought you an overview of soldier Walter Young’s experiences during the Great War.
He won the Military Medal for his work as a stretcher-bearer from 1917, running through barbed wire into no man’s land to rescue wounded soldiers from shell holes.
He served with the Post Office Rifles (47th Division, 8th London Regiment) from March 1915 until he was captured by the Germans exactly three years later.
He was taken prisoner after being shot through his helmet – the bullet missed his head, and sent to work in a Prussian coal mine.
After the war, he bought a plot of land in Scatterdells Lane, Chipperfield – not far from where he trained as a soldier in Abbots Langley. He died aged 68 in 1957.
Now, in the first of a series of extracts we will be bringing you from his memoirs Wal’s War, Walter himself describes the Battle of Festubert in May 1915...
‘The village of Festubert lay in ruins as we passed through it on our way to the line. The houses for the most part were just heaps of stone and debris. Broken pieces of wall was all that remained of the church, but the crucifix was still standing.
Festubert is a marshy district and difficult to dig trenches in. The front line we took over was mostly a barricade of sandbags. I did not like the look of the place somehow.
Our guns started the bombardment just before dawn. One gun was brought up right into the front line trench and blazed away furiously at almost point blank range.
The bombardment over, the troops for several miles on our left went over. Those near us went forward almost as though it was a practice. They just ambled along at a gentle trot, no shouting and little commotion, over the first trench and then beyond. They bombed long the trench opposite us, and later on when the light grew better we could see some at a cottage about three-quarters of a mile ahead.
It was our general opinion that if a good supply of reserves had been available there would have been a big breakthrough that day. We saw a number of German prisoners coming back. The first German I saw in the war was staggering along supported by a British soldier. He was covered in blood from many wounds and I believe died in our trench. This took place about 4am, Sunday morning, May 16th.
German guns started and for the first time we experienced the full fury of a modern bombardment. All day they pelted us mercilessly, never pausing for a minute. The shells were falling three and four at a time all round us. Of our little party of ten, three were wounded in about ten minutes. Our barricade began to go in places. We went higher up the trench, then back again, then further up again. All we could do was to crouch down against the barricade which in places was blown down. It was a great strain. The shells must have been what they call “coal boxes”, for each explosion was enveloped in thick black smoke. For 18 hours we endured this. That final swish of the shell had an angry sound about it. Our own guns seemed to be silent.
It seemed as though they wanted not merely to kill us, but to blow us to pieces. Evening found the storm of shells unabated. The supply seemed inexhaustible. A mockery of a Sunday evening. It was really a most formidable ordeal, for every minute of that long sunny day was a strain in the nerves. In the midst of it all I recall hearing snatched of the song of a lark singing high up over our trenches, and martins flew swiftly up and down our trench. Why they remained there is a mystery to me when they were free to fly where they could.
“We soon found ourselves in a perilous position for the Germans were not only in front of us, but actually in the same trench, a barricade of sandbags alone separating us. And we had to occupy the position next to them. Five and six platoons occupied the extreme right position against the Germans. I was in six platoon. Our bit of line was like a ditch about three feet deep guarding the flank. It was a very dark night and it was the Saturday evening before Whit Sunday. Some of us were on top filling sandbags to strengthen the position when suddenly bombs thrown by the Germans began to fall all around us. Wounded men cried out. One man was crying: “Help me somebody” piteously. I heard afterwards a bomb had exploded in his face, blinding him, and he died later. The awful suddenness by which a man, sound and strong one minute, could become a broken wreck the next. The hopes and ambitions of life built up through years, all blighted in a moment. Strange that men survivors of such scenes as these are yet content to pursue the empty frivolities of life and neglect the serious things.
We crouched in our ditch peering, between bomb explosions into the blackness... This was destined to be a strange night for us. I have already remarked what a pitch dark night it was. We looked out into inky blackness. And unnoticed by us the dark clouds overhead had been getting darker; and then at about the first hour of this Whit Sunday and during the height of the noise and confusion, occurred the most terrific thunderstorm I have known. It was as though this scene of violence and bloodshed had brought upon us the wrath of God.”