November 13, 1917 – Ironic twist of fate as hero dies on the day he was supposed to collect his medal

A gallant hero has been killed in action just hours before he was due to be recognised in a battlefield ceremony with the Military Medal.

Private Thomas Downes, 28, of Foxton and a former gardener at Hill Crest in Market Harborough, was also due to be promoted to the rank of corporal. His mother has now been sent ‘a piece of the ribbon’ for the award.

The poignant story is one of many in the November 13, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser, which contains news of seven courageous deaths of local men killed in the final bloody days of the Third Battle of Ypres.

The account of Downes’ death is particularly detailed, which is unusual for this period of the war when stories were mainly brief and sanitised with broad-ranging patriotic words of sympathy.

Early in the war the Advertiser had flouted the Government’s censorship rules and published harrowing accounts of drudgery, bravery and death supplied in the surprisingly literate letters of men in France and Flanders.

The story of Downes is reminiscent of those early accounts. Is this an angry backlash at the length and tragedy of the conflict? Remember this particular battle is renowned for being fought in a mud bath as France had suffered one of its rainiest summers on record. And, of course, the soldiers were led by General Haig who was increasingly known – at least by anyone whose very short life belonged in the trenches – as ‘the Butcher’.

The unvarnished story is recounted by Downes’ company captain in a letter to the family. “We were in the most exposed part, as well as being the farthest forward. One shell had burst right in the trench and wounded several men, another killed one man, wounded three”

In a classic case of understatement the captain says: “We were generally shook up.”

The shell burst midway between the captain and Downes but neither was hit. The captain continues: “Downes was standing sentry over the Lewis gun, which as you know is a small machine gun. When I had picked myself up I went across to the Lewis gun and found Private Downes still there, quite cool.

“I asked if the gun was all right and he answered, quite naturally and coolly, that it was and that he had already tested it. In other words, in ten or fifteen seconds he had recovered himself, cleared the gun and fired it: a very fine example of coolness and courage.”

There are no specifics about the next few moments but it appears that another shell landed closer and found its mark. Another friend of Downes – Second Lieutenant R Hall and formerly of Market Harborough – says in a letter that ‘a shell burst only a few yards’ away and ‘death was instantaneous’.

A detailed account is provided about another tragedy, the death of Lieutenant Corporal Arthur Dolley, 34, of Patrick Street, Little Bowden.

The news comes from Sergeant J Rhodes, a former schoolmaster in Lubenham, who says Dolley ‘was in the same trench as his platoon’.

“A shell dropped on the edge and killed three and seriously wounded one. They were attended to at once by his friends but death was instantaneous.”

At least Dolley’s body was recovered – many men in the First World War were literally blown to pieces – and his friends ‘buried him the same night and put a board over the grave’.

It appears that Dolley, who had previously seen a lot of severe fighting and had been slightly wounded, had been home on leave just a couple of weeks before he died. Is it a coincidence or had he let down his guard when he returned to the horrors of the front?

The words ‘shell’ and ‘died instantaneously’ are also to be found in stories about Private A J Patchett of Mill Hill, Market Harborough, and Gunner C Litchfield of Great Bowden. Both were killed in separate actions by shells.

Patchett, who was just 19, had left his job at R and W H Symington’s and joined up at the beginning of the war. Litchfield, who was married, had worked at Caxton Type Foundry before moving to the Isle of Wight where he was a warder at Camp Hill Prison.

There is also a brief story about the death of Private John Boothaway of Foxton, who has been killed in action.

And there are photographs and brief captions of Private Ernest Buckmaster of Caxton Street, Market Harborough, and Corporal Horace Mathews of Husbands Bosworth. They were both killed in action in early October.

It seems strange timing to print the photographs – the death of Buckmaster appears to have never been mentioned in the Advertiser before while Mathews’ death had been reported in an edition three weeks earlier.

  • This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
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