“During the past week the village of Clipston has had the great tragedy of the war brought home to it with grim reality, for no more than four of its sons have been killed in action and one wounded.”
This is how the March 23, 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser broke the news of the biggest loss of life the district had seen in a single week of the war.
Last week’s paper had recorded the death of Lieut Charles Wartnaby who was killed around Neuve Chapelle.
This week’s paper reports the deaths of Sgt F Croft, son of Mr Reuben Croft; Pte H Thacker, son of Mr Dennis Thacker; and Pte George Vials, son of Mr Mark Vials. The paper also reports that Trooper C Buswell is wounded.
This kind of devastating news would dominate any 21st century local newspaper but in 1915 this article takes up less than a single column towards the bottom of page 5.
If a reader only looks at the first four pages of the paper they would be hard pushed to realise that hundreds of local young men are facing the daily prospect of the ultimate sacrifice for King and country.
The front page of display advertising reflects a bustling market town getting on with life, pages 2, 3 and 4 do the same through reports on entertainment, fictional drama, sports, politics and yet more commerce.
However, there is enormous dignity in the lengthy report of a memorial service for Lieut Wartnaby, and the other three young Clipston men.
The article recounts the eloquence of the Preacher’s sermon and even down the span of a century of years it is possible to empathise with the patriotism mingled with grief of the family, friends and, of course, the readers of the Advertiser, who had themselves someone they loved in a uniform.
The paper reports: “When their noble friend [Lieut Wartnaby] perished his men who loved him tenderly picked him up and buried him, and then sang the hymn they had just sung, Rock of Ages cleft for me.
“Surely they could see in the deaths of these brave men who had sacrificed their lives the light of Godlikeness.
“As one said of death it was not ‘goodbye’ but ‘goodnight beloved’.
“The service, impressive in its simplicity and solemnity, concluded with the hymn Nearer my God to Thee and after the Blessing a verse of the National Anthem was sung.”
This type of report is where local papers are so much more intimate than national newspapers. Fleet Street’s finest are reporting the war from the Generals’ perspective – sweeping movements of divisions and regiments, objectives identified and won or lost, strategies involving munitions or manpower.
It’s important for readers to know about the new offensive in the Dardanelles against the Turks (page 8) but what’s more powerful are the letters on page 5 that put the reader in the firing line next to their loved ones.
Consider the powerful simplicity of this letter from one of those serving in the Market Harborough Territorials.
“We have been under fire most of the time and on Saturday night we set out for the trenches, we got there about 7 o’ clock. It was very exciting, as we had to go across open country, knee deep in mud and water and with the enemy sniping at us.
“We are fairly safe when we reach the trenches except for the grenades. We were within 45 yards of the Germans but of course everybody keeps under cover so we do not see them.”
In just a few sentences the reader is given a graphic idea of what it must be like to be in those trenches. “It is hardly possible to imagine what the conditions have been like before they had pumps in the trenches and other things to make them comfortable, even now you wade about up to shoe tops in mud and water.”
And the soldier describes the contradictions of being soldier: a short time under fire and a long time doing very little.
“The Germans are very busy now shelling whilst I write this, every now and then the house is shaken and windows rattle with the bursting of the shells.”
Now compare this with his description a day or two later far behind the line. “This has been an easy Sunday compared to the last two, it has been a lovely day and this morning we were out doing physical drill and bayonet exercise with our coats and hats off, the sun shining beautifully.”
It won’t last long though. “All the fighting that you have been reading about in the English papers has been within a few miles of us…we are being kept in reserve I believe.”
Probably not for long.
- 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.