March 2, 1915 – black humour of the fighting men who elude death by the narrowest of squeaks

It’s little wonder we have an idyllic image of the cheery Tommy facing the horrors of First World War trenches when there are reports like those in the March 2 edition of the 1915 Market Harborough Advertiser.

The newspaper reflects how society sees any given situation by acting as the go-between for the reader and the characters in the story.

So consider these news reports about men from the Harborough area who have all answered Kitchener’s call to arms and it’s little wonder we have an image of jaunty, stoic young men prepared to die for their country.

PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES The jaunty Tommy soldier is alive and well in Market Harborough

PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES The jaunty Tommy soldier is alive and well in Market Harborough

Seaman Essex, a nephew of Mr and Mrs Joseph Essex of Heygate Street, Harborough, was stranded in the North Sea for five and a half hours when his ship was sunk.

The Advertiser jokingly reports: “He looked none the worse for his immersion when home on leave this past weekend. He spoke lightly of his escape from death.”

Private Frank Wilson, who used to work at Eady and Dulley’s brewery in Harborough was wounded by shrapnel in the knee and is now recuperating in hospital in France. The paper gives more details of the incident in a very matter-of-fact way.

“Private Wilson was in the act of making some cocoa when a shell came into the trench and wounded him.” It’s quite extraordinary to include such ordinary detail but even more so with the final few words of the story. “Several of his comrades were also wounded and two killed outright.”

Sergt F W Biddle is described as ‘a fine example of a cheerful Tommy Atkins’ after leaving the town after six days on leave with his parents who live in Caxton Street. The paper reports: “He had a most hearty send off.”

Sergt Spencer tells a story of being attacked by a German plane as his troop worked on some fortification and one man died of shrapnel wounds in ‘just a few minutes’.

In stark contrast to that awful image his description light-heartedly goes on: “Farrier Simpson had two shots through his jersey sleeve which, however, did nothing but tear a bit of wool out.

“Another soldier had hung his tunic up a few feet from where he was working and it was fairly riddled. Lucky for him he was not inside the tunic!”

It seems such black humour is not confined to the trenches among battle-weary soldiers but it is also a way of keeping loved ones at home from worrying too much. Just like Private Prouse from Husbands Bosworth who has been fighting in France since the beginning of the war, but now invalided home.

The Advertiser reports: “He has had some very narrow escapes and amongst them may be numbered the experience of having his cap shot from his head without himself being hurt!”

The newspaper is happy to include the comical quote but there is no detail of how Private Prouse is injured.

There are some sombre stories that have no punchline other than the death of a young man. Those reported as killed in action are: Lieut D Ronald Cross of Brixworth Hall; Lieutentant Landon of Creaton House; Captain Thursby of Harlestone; and Frederick Morrison of Hallaton. There is also the tragic report of a 22-year-old Desborough soldier Pte G Glover who died of pneumonia just a week after enlisting.

It might appear as if the eight-page Advertiser is full of local war stories but in fact they make up a tiny minority. There are far column inches given over to classified adverts for house rentals or reports from village parish councils where there is much discussion about parochial issues.

And there are even more column inches given over to stories provided via the Government’s propagandist Press Bureau, much of which is as dull as ditch water (‘Welsh Nonconformists and the Welsh Church Act’ or ‘The manuring of corn in the spring’).

There is, however, one short story that will grab the attention of the Advertiser’s readers about four German prisoners, interned on a transport ship off Southend, who were allowed out for an afternoon – to get married.

They had lived and loved in pre-war London and got engaged to English girls like many immigrant men. Of course, after the outbreak of war they were interned along with hundreds of other Germans.

But it seems the British Army does have a heart, as the Advertiser reports. “After the ceremony in a Registry Office the couples, with guards as compulsory but good-humoured guests, sat down to a wedding breakfast at a local restaurant.”

Sadly there was no romantic ending. “At three o’ clock husbands and wives necessarily had to part, the former returning to their prison ship and the ladies to London.”

  • 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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