Harold Shaw was born in 1900 in Farnley, Leeds. He was one of ten children, six boys and four girls, and most of them followed their father into the weaving industry. Harold may have gone on to do the same, but at the time of the last census before the First World War he was only 10 and still at school. By the age of 13 he may well have been expected to earn his keep as his older brothers and sisters had done, taking up jobs as piecers, working around the spinning mules in the mill.
Though he was only 15 years old Harold joined up in the first wave of patriotism at the start of the war in 1914, before any of his older brothers. At that time no formal checks were made as to a volunteer’s age so if a young man looked as old he said he was he would be accepted. He was stationed in England after his initial training right up until January 1917 however, so one suspects his commanding officers were dubious about his real age. Perhaps by January 1917 he looked as though he was 19, which was the real age at which soldiers could legally be sent abroad to fight, and so he was sent to Southampton and disembarked at Le Havre on the 8th January.
Immediately on arriving he must have begun to regret it. A six mile route march to camp in wet and windy conditions up a steep hill the whole way was his introduction to life abroad. At 4.30 the next morning they marched into Le Havre itself and got a train to Frevent – described in the battalion’s War Diary as “a very bad journey”. The train was about eight hours late, the supply of hot water badly organised and the majority of the men had nothing hot to drink during the whole journey. On arrival another gruelling march took them to Bonnieres where they must have been very thankful indeed to finally arrive. However it was no picnic as they were billeted in farm buildings which though dry had “very little straw for the men to sleep on” and the Diary makes frequent references to the freezing conditions during their stay, where they undertook various duties including four days trench training. They marched out of Bonnieres on the 22nd; 27 officers and 902 men plus the battalion mascot, Prince – who sadly was run over and killed by a lorry during the march. The men marched well at this point, though by the afternoon of the next day they nearly all had sore feet and chilblains. One adjutant had to be left behind with bronchitis and two officers were sent to hospital.
The rest of the month was spent in the St Leger area and Mailly Wood, where it was very cold for the men, who were housed in Nissan huts and tents. It was reported that working parties engaged in cable-laying found the ground rock solid from a severe frost. There was also the background of war going on most of the time with guns in action all around. So Harold was having a tough time of it before he even got to the trenches – then to cap it all on the 28th the rations failed to arrive and the men had to rely on their “iron rations”.
Then on the 1st February they marched to Couin and their first experience of action on the front line began at Lyndhurst Camp on the 15th when they relieved the 2nd Battalion King’s Own Light Infantry in the line. Here their first comrade was killed, carrying rations up the line, and the next few days saw a heavy barrage and more casualties. On the 17th the icy cold turned to a thaw and the horrors of mud in the trenches became their reality. The War Diary reports “men lose gumboots and stick in trench”. By the next day the trenches were in “a terrible condition. Many boots lost. 3 killed, 7 wounded.” They were relieved from this hell on the 20th, but for the rest of the month and into the middle of April the battalion was involved in heavy fighting in the disastrous attempt to follow up the German retreat and break through the Hindenburg line. A brief time back in camp for training and the chance to enjoy some organised games lasted until the 1st May when the battalion was back in action and took part in fierce fighting again. At last, having survived months in the line, Harold and the rest of his battalion were sent off to the coast for two months, which included time spent training in the sand dunes. One can only imagine the effect of all this on a teenage boy and I think this story of his first few weeks in France and Belgium illustrates in graphic form the hardships and terrors he went through during the whole of his time there.
The following months saw more stints in the trenches and despite being moved up into the front line before Ypres in November they saw little action and on the 20th November they were relieved and moved to Divisional Reserve at Dickebusch. Harold probably knew what to expect in this area as his brothers Harry and Thomas had both spent time there in the preceding months – but both had left by the end of September. He was there for the whole of January and what a contrast it must have been to his January experiences the year before. The camp was well established and probably fairly comfortable, with days spent in either training or recreation, the battalion winning the Brigade football match on the 10th February. The months following were described as “quiet” and though their camp was shelled on the 10th April and there were some casualties, Harold wasn’t among them. The luck that had been with him for over a year still held out.
Then on the 11th April came orders to move into the line immediately, to join a defensive flank near Wytschaete. The Germans attacked after a heavy barrage on the 16th but again Harold survived and the next few days were uneventful as they rested and waited in what was known as Siege Farm. Then on the 25th suddenly at 2.30 am the enemy barrage opened up again and the Germans attacked at 6am. By 7.30 the battalion had to withdraw under this onslaught – but Harold wasn’t with them. Sometime during that hour and a half he was killed. His body was never found. He was still only 17 years old.
Harold Shaw is commemorated alongside his other fallen comrades who have no known grave on the Tyne Cot Memorial in Flanders, Belgium.