October 6, 1914 – astonishingly intimate descriptions of trench life told for the first time by a Harborough soldier from Gladstone Street

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Trench warfare that is ‘simply like hell’ and escape from a German shell just ‘in the nick of time’ are among the graphic front line accounts retold by wounded local soldiers in this week’s Market Harborough Advertiser of 1914.

The stories are a little dated – one is from the Battle of Mons which was fought in the latter stages of August – but the readers of the Advertiser will read and re-read these stories as they picture their own loved ones facing similar ordeals.

Proud mum Mrs E J Arnold of Gladstone Street, Market Harborough (we are never told her first name, her husband’s name or any other personal details) has provided the Advertiser with a letter from her son Private E R Arnold (again no other personal details).

Private Arnold wrote from his hospital bed in Versailles and vividly describes the fighting near a small un-named village in Belgium and how he became injured.

“There had been occasional fighting during the night but between 3 and 4 it was simply like hell, it was pitch dark and we were in the trenches on the fringe of a wood.

“I was in a trench running across the main road where they were likely to rush us. We were blazing away like billy-ho when it was just as if a horse had kicked me in the top of thigh.

“I am glad it was a bullet and not shrapnel, it just grazed the bone and came clean out of the back of my leg. Well, I didn’t think I had so much blood in me, it simply saturated me through.”

Private Arnold had to wait an hour to be treated by medics but is now recovering. “People can’t do enough for us and we’re enjoying wine, fruits, cigarettes and milk.”

The other story comes from a face-to-face interview with Private Keightley of the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment at his home in Oxendon.

Surprisingly, there is no personal detail about the soldier – no first name, address or parents are mentioned. Even his surname is spelled differently throughout the story – sometimes Keightley and sometimes Keighley.

There are also very few direct quotes from the soldier, however the reporter does a fine job of building the drama and tension of Private Keightley’s story.

“They had taken the machine gun into the upstairs room of a cottage, which it was hoped would afford them good shelter. They had, however, not taken into account the German artillery until a shell demolished a house three doors away. It was then a case of evacuating the cottage quickly and only in the nick of time for as they were coming downstairs a shell took off the roof of the cottage and smothered the men in dust.”

One of the few full sentence direct quotes straight from Private Keightley’s mouth concerned the rearguard action the British Army fought as they retreated 55 miles day and night. The Advertiser then reproduces Private Keightley’s own words:

“Germans,” he said, “came on as though a hive of bees had been overturned.”

It is only towards the end of the story that the circumstances of Private Keightley’s injury are told and there is an ironic contradiction between the ordinary description of breakfast and the extraordinary description of the wounding. The Advertiser writes of how Private Keightley and his unit are sheltering behind a railway bank.

“In the early morning they were partaking of bully beef and biscuit ration when Keightley was shot through the chin, the bullet dropping on to his shoulder.”

This is when the Advertiser provides us with another direct quote from the soldier. “The bullet didn’t weigh much,” said the wounded soldier, “but when it hit me I thought it weighed a ton.”

There is another similar lengthy story of a Surrey soldier’s war told via a letter to his parents. However, like the stories in the national press, this is from someone the Advertiser’s readers will not know and therefore the story will not resonate in the same way as those from their local boys.

And life seems to be go on as normal for most people in Market Harborough – the Advertiser has many stories from the world of sport, politics, commerce, gossip and crime, and of course, plenty of advertisements.

However, there is also a simple list of all those young men who have signed up for the Army since the outbreak of war which takes up a sizeable chunk of page 4. And there are two short, one-paragraph items that will chill the bones of any of the families who have loved ones in that list:

“Much sympathy will be felt with the Rev F S Edmonds, Vicar of Foxton, whose only son has been killed in action against the Germans in German West Africa.”

And there is an equally sad paragraph just below. “Mr R Tallett of Queen Street, has received official intimation that one of his sons in the “Warwicks” is reported as missing.”

  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

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