After only a year of married life, on 15th June 1917, the newlywed was posted to France. Wounded in the field on 11th October, he spent time in a hospital until declared fit to return to his Battalion on 10th January 1918. He acted as the ‘runner’ for Colonel Hugh Delabere Bousfield, Lt. Col. Officer Commanding 2nd Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment.
Harold was attached to the Leeds Rifles and bore the crossed rifle insignia on his sleeve. He was marched accross Belgium to the front line, alongside French divisions, at Mont Kemmel, also known as Hill 60.
On 16 April 1918 the German army had reached the foot of Mont Kemmel and at dawn on 17 April they launched a thunderous assault from Houthulst Forest against the Belgian Front Line at Merkem and Kippe. The Belgians, however, were fighting for the last few kilometres of their country and held the remainder of their front line and counter attacked with such vigour that they drove the Germans back and re-established their front line. That evening the French 28th Division took over responsibility for the front line at Kemmel and the hill itself.
From the 19th to the 24th April the Germans appeared to have called a halt to their attack, and new worries began in the Allied camp that a new strike was being planned elsewhere. In fact the Germans were merely preparing their assault on Mont Kemmel.
At 2.30am on 25 April 1918 over 250 batteries of German guns opened up on Allied artillery positions with a mixture of gas and high explosive. For the next two hours they concentrated solely on destroying gun emplacements. After a short pause, at 5am, the German barrage was switched to the French front line. French soldiers who had survived the horrors of Verdun described it as the worst they had ever encountered.
Harold wrote in his notebook:
‘It was not at all a very pleasant morning at 4am on the top of Kemmel Hill when the whole dug-out was awakened by the shout of ‘Gas!’. I had not got to sleep as the constant bombardment had been raging for three days and nights. I sat up, put on my gas helmet and awaited events, taking things very calmly, although shells, bullets and gas were getting very, very near. At times I felt as if I didn’t care if a shell blew me to hell or Leeds. I’d had such a lot of it lately, other times I thought of other things and felt quite safe. Anyway, very soon we got the order to put on our fighting order as the ‘Bosh’ was on the Hill top. Oh my, what excitement! I had hardly time to get on my things and a ‘few in the tin box’ or in other words my rifle loaded when ‘Jerry’ appeared at one of the dug-out doors. “It’s all up,” shouted one. “Give me my rifle,” said another. “Fire,” shouted the Officer. Bang … bang … spoke my gun, but it was no good, the numbers were too great for us. We had to down arms and get out of the dug-out, risking our lives with these indescribable creatures called the Germans. I got off very lightly, getting a good smack across the back with a rifle, although sorry to say, I saw many of my poor pals ‘stop the lead’.
He had the presence of mind to rip off his rifleman’s insignia, knowing that he’d be shot as a sniper immediately if discovered.
An hour of such a furious bombardment was considered sufficient by the Germans and at 6am they launched their infantry to the attack. By 7:10am Kemmel Hill was theirs and by 10:30am it was all over. Even the German airforce had joined in with 96 aircraft dropping 700 bombs and machine gunning the French positions as the Leib Regiment of the élite Alpine Corps stormed forward. The fact that the French Ossuary on the hill contains the remains of more than 5000 unidentifiable soldiers, mostly from fighting in this area in April, says more about the fury of the bombardment than mere words.
Harold had distinguished himself for his bravery during this battle in rescuing several wounded soldiers from no-man’s-land between the trenches while under heavy enemy gunfire. For this he was awarded the British Military Medal and the French Croix de Guerre.
‘We were then driven through our own barrage over many fields to a dressing station. There, our knives, letters or anything they fancied was snatched away from us, and from that day to this I have been knocked about generally by these loving persons. I can honestly say that after my experience with such a lot, I can believe all I used to read about poor little Belgium at the beginning of the war.
“By this time there was quite a number of us gathering together and we were told that we had about 20 kilometres to march before we got to a camp, of course we had nothing but the clothes we stood up in and no signs of anything to eat. Eventually we were lined up in fours and ready to start on our journey, but instead of going straight away we had to march up and down in front of the Officers’ Quarters for a time, on show. While doing this I saw one of the sights I shall never forget. Horses, dead, being stripped to the bone and carried away by the soldiers to eat, and they were very glad to get it too. It looked very black for us, I thought to myself, but still kept a good heart. There were things bothering me more than food, poor little Elsie, what would she think, when would she get to know? Anyway she had got over hardships before and so had I, and I trusted that we would both get over this.
‘By now we were well on our journey and I was getting very dry and foot-sore, and it was a case of ‘stick it out now’. It started to rain and we all got wet through and thank God I was able to get a drink out of a ditch by the roadside, my first experience of anything like this, but I was thankful for it. After tramping all day we arrived at Halloween Camp, where we got some black bread and what they called coffee. Oh what a life! I thought I was badly done to in the British Army but I could plainly see what I had come to now. I was called out at 3 o’clock in the morning to go to Marnic on a working party, unloading shells. I had to do this for three days very much against my will – anything but that – unloading shells to kill our own lads, but there it was. I was absolutely helpless, a P.O.W to my sorrow.
‘After three days, I was sent away with a party of 98 to work on an aerodrome, where I spent two months of a miserable existence, having very little to eat and plenty of real hard work. I even boiled up nettles and ate leaves I was so hungry. This two months was practically unbearable one way and another. Not having a bit of soap, razor or towel and unable to get them, we asked to be allowed to write home and they said we could, but couldn’t receive any letters as it wasn’t a registered camp. I wrote altogether nine letters to my wife but was very much afraid they didn’t go, which afterwards I found was true. Life was a hard task, yet I managed to pull through it all.
‘We then left this camp for another a little better, but not much. The same starving process and hard work. The French were better off than us, as the people in the village brought them food each night. Here we stayed a week or so and as usual I got into trouble with one or two of them as I do love Germans so much. After this we made our way up into Ghent, to a camp there. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse as we were not even allowed out of a big cell, only to get our ‘soup’ which was cabbage water only, twice a day and a bit of dry bread, which was going green. We couldn’t even go to the lavatory, we used a tin and threw it out of the window that was broken, but thank goodness this didn’t last above a week.
A fellow POW, also confined at Dülman camp wrote:
'When we all stood at the detraining station, we got our prisoner number and were again counted. Then we ran to the prisoner-of-war camp that kilometer was distant for about five from the station. Since 14 days had we only very few to eat get, so that we had become ever weaker. Therefore did not hold on some from us the march to the camp, they followed later.
This prisoner-of-war camp, Dülmen in Westphalia was a nearly new camp. When we came into the camp, we were led first to a large barrack, our names and prisoner numbers registered. Then we were scanned for smaller articles, which we had still with us, like pocket knives, razors and photos. They took everything. We had only our old, dirty khaki uniforms, in which they had taken us prisoner.
In this barrack we remained for 48 hours under quarantine, then after these two days we were taken to the bath barrack and showered. It was first wash we had had after three weeks of our capture. But we had to wash ourselves with sand. There was no soap. We had to use towels consisting of turned paper. After the bath barrack - showers and hair-cuts - we were taken to a barbed wire fenced stock area.
Each morning had we a roll call at six o'clock. At seven o'clock we received ‘coffee’, consisting of roasted chestnuts which had been pressed in flour. At noon we got a half litre of soup, basically water with kohl, some peas and grains. We were happy if we found a small piece of potato. This had to last us until six o'clock when there was still another ‘coffee’. Nothing else. That was all we got to eat, the same menu each day, as long as we were in this camp. We went and looked for potato peel from the garbage pails.
While we were in this camp, they inoculated us against smallpox, Cholera and yellow fever, five or six times in the first fourteen days. First in the arms and then in the chest. They called us from our barracks and made to line up. A German physician came along the row with a syringe and stuck the needle in.'
William Harold was moved on and continued:
‘My next trip was with a party of 496 into Germany where we landed at Dülman Camp on the 28th of June. From that date I was just a little happier being able to write home and also receiving emergency parcels from the Red Cross. I was at Dülman nearly three months, being two weeks or more in the Lazeret with my throat bad and generally run down. On the 2nd of September they sent me on to Kommando 66, where I now write these few lines. I have had some real jobs since being in the army, but this put the lid on it. They very soon fitted me up as a miner and down the shaft I went to the bottom of a coal mine for the first time in my life. I can tell you it was not at all to my liking. They were mostly the scum of the country working down there to escape the army. I was constantly having rows and being threatened with death etc. but am still living. It is not at all a nice place to have a fight, there being no light except for the small lamp. It doesn’t matter how hard you work for the bastards, it’s always “Fester, fester, Englishman”. Everything down there seemed to go against us, we were treated like dogs, but I always looked at it in this light: each day was nearer the end, and each day as I got out of my working clothes to have a good bath, I put all thoughts of the mine away till the next day. Going back to our billet to find a letter from home from my dear wife and also, through the last few weeks, a Red Cross packet once a week put a bit of life into me once again, although anybody who knew me when I was 12 stone will see a bit of difference in this photo (right).
‘Never mind, tomorrow is our last day down the old mine they say, and we are to go home once again. I can’t realise it at all yet, but suppose it will come.
‘Hurray! Bags of food, baskets and preparing for England. Home. Just think, home, what does it mean. Happiness once again and forever, I hope. I for one can’t realise such pleasure after all this knocking about and being knocked up and down this indescribable country. I am on the train for Holland as I write this. I shall never forget this last two days at Dülman, having to give not one, but dozens of tins of food of every description away, and not being able to carry it, after starving all these months. But don’t worry, not a pinch of salt did a German get of it. Oh no, not from this chap. I found plenty of hungry Belgians wanting food and was only too pleased to help them, knowing what hunger was. If I had not found them I would have spilt every tin before leaving this country, that is how I feel after my treatment. Nov 25th – shall I ever forget this date? What joy at Dülman, once outside the wire, never again, and then we landed in Holland, Oh what joy, everybody there so pleased to see us.”
On repatriation, he was posted to India for further military service, but Col. Bousefield intervened, applying for his demobilisation on compassionate grounds.