Thousands of men have already died in the first few months of the war but for Market Harborough’s soldiers the latter months of 1914 is all about preparation – and waiting.
There are 129 men from the area in what has been named E Company of the 5th Leicesters. To get news of what they are doing is quite a coup for the Market Harborough Advertiser and it comes in the shape of a report from Captain H J F Jeffries.
E Company, like many groups around the country, are not facing the bullets and shells of the German Army but training hard – in Luton.
Captain Jeffries explains how the day begins at 6am with physical training exercises, followed by breakfast, which is followed by a march of three to six miles. There are also lectures in subjects like sanitation and use of field dressings.
It seems mundane and the account continues in the same vein with a detailed description of activities in the previous week. This, however, can be viewed in a different light with the perspective of a century later.
“Last week was given up to entrenching, which is an important part of a soldier’s training, as next to his rifle, the spade is a soldier’s best friend.
“We had a march of six miles each day to the position which was being entrenched and then a spell of digging from about 10 o’ clock until 4 or half past, and the march home, which made a hard day’s work.”
E Company will certainly be prepared for the trench warfare to come as Captain Jeffries continues. “On Thursday last we started before 6am and began digging at 8, had a hasty breakfast about 9.30 and carried on digging till 5 o’ clock with an hour off for dinner.”
The report is portentous but is immediately illuminating because of its mundane detail – and there is more to come in Captain Jeffries’ report. His next paragraph highlights just how annoyed we become at little things when times are relatively good.
“Tea should have been at 6, but the bread cart had got lost, owing to mis-directions, and nothing could be done but sit down and wait. The bread eventually arrived at 10 o’ clock and tea and bread and jam were then much appreciated.”
This account will have been devoured by the readers of the Advertiser because it is the closest the newspaper gets to any action in this edition.
The front page, which is covered in lucrative adverts, has not a single mention of the war; page 2 does list all the enlisted young men from the villages surrounding Market Harborough but is mainly filled with more lucrative advertising – this time line ads mainly for houses to let; page 3 has the local news including Captain Jeffries’s report; and page 4 is a general round-up of local international news.
In fact the article from Captain Jeffries concludes with mounting excitement, even though it is only an exercise. “At 12 midnight we moved off and marched by road for three hours, we were then led across country until about 4.30am when we found ourselves about 800 yards from the enemy’s entrenched position, having marched some 16 or 18 miles.
“We then attacked in the grey hour preceding dawn and rushed up the slopes towards the trenches, eventually reaching them.”
For the readers of the Advertiser this vivid account will be much talked about and will fit in with the patriotic mood that is permeating the entire country: in essence our brave boys can suffer hardship but reach their goal.
However, we know with 21st century hindsight that many thousands of young men followed a similar battle plan to that outlined in Captain Jeffries’ report – and suffered a very different fate.
E Company had endured a mind-numbing 30 hours of digging, marching and delayed dinner but as Captain Jeffries reports “It says much for the fitness of the men that none fell out.”
However, the saddest sentence of the report comes directly after the one describing the ‘assault’ on the trenches before ‘eventually reaching them’.
Captain Jeffries writes just a single, poignant sentence which brings a smile to the 1914 reader but an imperceptible, knowing nod from the 2014 audience.
“We laid down where we were and slept without rocking.”
- 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.