A soldier who was there
In Lyn MacDonald’s book 1915, The Death of Innocence, p 508-9, Pte. W. I. Shaw, 9th Bn. Royal Welsh Fusiliers, provided a graphic account of the Battle of Festubert:
… We were almost on the extreme flank of the sector that was going over, on the left flank, north of Loos. …
We kicked off with a rugby football. That’s how we kicked off, chaps with half a dozen rugby balls belted over and in we went. … As soon as the word came to attack and the whistles blew, the Germans actually shouted to us, ‘Come on, Tommy, we know you’re coming over.’ ‘Come on, Tommy, we’re waiting for you.’ They were that close! The Germans were still shelling us when we went across and, believe me, they didn’t half send some stuff over!
… Well, we dived for cover, anywhere we could get, and machine-guns opened out on us and, believe me, those machine-guns! Whew! Terrific. You couldn’t imagine it! I was lying flat on my stomach, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible, and this shell came very, very close and a piece of shrapnel came down and hit me on the back of the hand. Now, that piece of shrapnel was perhaps just as big as my hand, and it came flat. It burnt me, but if it had come edge on, I’d have lost my hand. That was the first lucky escape I had.
We were held up. We couldn’t move. We couldn’t budge, and we got the orders to retire to the front line. Well, what we saw when we were trying to get back! It was real sickening seeing the lads, how they were mowed down. I still worry to this day how we stuck it out. Oh, yes, I think about it, I should say that from the time when we went over to when we got back was about an hour, and we were pinned down. We couldn’t go any further. It was impossible with all the machineguns and all the shelling! We were just pinned down and we got the order to retire. Well, there was nothing for us to do. There weren’t enough left to do anything.
The remainder of us went back to our own regiment and when we got back, the place was in an uproar. The company that I’d originally been ordered to report to, C Company, was completely wiped out. Those three signallers that took our place [he had been a signaller and his trio of signallers had been ordered to exchange with these three less than an hour before the battle], they were riddled! And there they were, stuck on the barbed wire. You see, our artillery had been trying to smash their barbed wire and never succeeded. They put a barrage down of shells for about three or four days, then, as the time came for us to go over, the artillery stopped firing but the Germans had time to get up from their dugouts — and their dugouts were 60, 70, 80 foot deep. You could get the whole Battalion in some of their dugouts.
It was our own signalling officer that told us that C Company had been wiped out and that we’d lost the three signallers. We tried hard to get him to let us go and look for them, we were that keyed up. And they were such fine chaps! …. But they wouldn’t let us go forward. Search parties went out. They wouldn’t let me go. I was eighteen — the youngest man in the Battalion.