February 2, 1915 – eloquence of the humble Tommy rivals the war poet Wilfred Owen

The eloquence of the World War 1 poets epitomised by Wilfred Owen are remembered today for their striking imagery.

In Dulce et Decorum Est, his most famous work not actually published until 1920, he describes the horror of trench warfare and, in particular, the savagery of a gas attack.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

But shocking descriptions of conditions at the Front are recounted in much earlier contemporary publications, and with as much fluency, albeit in a different format.

Take the February 2, 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

The front page, dominated of course by advertising from local tradesmen, is accompanied by an entire column of news stories sourced from letters sent home by British soldiers.

In one story, sourced by a Seaforth Highlander, the language to describe life on the Front, is as powerful as Owen’s.

“One night I witnessed what I can only describe as an awful battle. Imagine the worst thunderstorm you ever hear. It was as if some trapdoor in hell had opened and let loose ten thousand demons who traversed the air in roaring chariots of destruction.

“Canon belched flame, shells moaned like lost souls, and rifles spluttered death and destruction wholesale, while the sky was filled with a cold, flickering light which gave the whole an atmosphere as if the pit that is bottomless.

“You would have thought that nobody could have emerged alive from the inferno. It was too hot, however, to last and after an hour or two the disturbance subsided to the normal crack of musketry, which goes on night day.”

The story goes on to describe the use of ‘those terrible hand grenades’ which are thrown from trench to trench at a range of sometimes just ten yards and the awful habit of German soldiers who customise their bullets for maximum destruction.

They apparently extracted the bullet from the cartridge and replaced it flat end outwards so that when fired it turned ‘somersaults’.

“If it hits you sideways it tears a hole in you instead of causing you as little damage as possible in passing, as a decent bullet does.”

Presumably this kind of story is designed to stir the spirits of patriotic young Englishmen and encourage them to volunteer against a terrible foe.

But it does not take a huge leap of imagination for the many Market Harborough mothers and fathers, wives and sisters to picture their own men folk who would be facing this kind of nightmare.

Even the more overtly jingoistic story from an officer in charge of German prisoners of war is not that comforting.

“A [German] lieutenant of Engineers captured displayed astonishment, not to say, stupefaction at the accuracy and violence of the [British] fire. The trench bombarded was entirely knocked to pieces. We saw men and rifles flying through the air; they were either blown to pieces or buried alive.”

Would you turn your back on this kind of warfare? Or would you be more patriotic, as another celebrated poet Rupert Brookes writing later in 1915, and think like The Soldier?

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

  • 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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