An incredible 12 million letters were written by Britain’s First World War soldiers. Every week.
And although the majority were dull and mundane, some were laced with the kind of articulacy often unseen in today’s electronic forms of communication.
It was that eloquence the editors of small-town newspapers like the Market Harborough Advertiser exploited to the hilt.
In the July 20, 1915, edition of the paper readers were given two contrasting views of life at the Front by well-known Harborough men.
Sergt G Payne, a former employee at Messrs Eady and Dulley’s Brewery and whose father is a signalman living in Clarence Street, describes the horror of trench warfare, while Harborough clergyman, Captain the Rev Bernard Uffen, talks with joviality about a gift sent out to France by Urban Council chairman Mr C J Handcock – some cricket kit!
Sergt Payne writes: “As I sit in my dug-out now writing this there is an unceasing roar and rattle of big guns and rifle fire. What a pandemonium, or in simpler words, it is just hell let loose.”
He describes how his partly-built advance trench was earlier hit by German artillery.
“The shells seemed to burst all round us at once, they were ploughing up the ground in front of us, behind us, well all around us, burying us with earth and I’m sure there was not one in the trench but what thought his last hour had come.”
This remarkable story would ordinarily never have got through the Army censor who redacted anything sensitive to the war effort.
Incredibly virtually all those millions of letters were subjected to scrutiny by the Army censor – but not all of them. Troops were allowed to send home one uncensored letter a week, using a Special Green Envelope (Army Form W.3078).
A note on the front of the envelope made it clear how the envelope was to be used:
“Correspondence in this envelope need not be censored Regimentally. The Contents are liable to examination at the Base. The following Certificate must be signed by the writer:
I certify on my honour that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but private and family matters.”
That clearly didn’t stop Sergt Payne from describing things that were not ‘private and family matters’.
In fact, he also paints a harrowing picture of the war zone: every village and town ‘is in ruins, a veritable pestilence prevails here’ and the ‘stench is at times unbearable, no doubt caused by the dead bodies of soldiers and innocent natives’.
He adds, in a style powerful in its poetic imagery: “What a scene of desolation this is, all the rank stagnation and growth of these months of war, everything is deserted.”
He concludes: “It is a real tragic, bloody drama, and I am one of the many actors taking part in it, and when the curtain is rung down, I hope I shall be able to meet you again and hear you say ‘well done, old chap, you have done your part well’.”
Nothing of such brutal honesty appears in the national newspapers and it is surprising that local newspaper editors are never called to heel by the Army’s censorship machine.
However, those very same editors are happy to include a look at the lighter side of life and in the neighbouring column to Sergt Payne’s graphic horrors is the story of the cricket kit being used by ‘one platoon of Harborough boys against another platoon’.
Among the other news of official war reports and stories about local sports, business and community issues is another ‘human interest’ story, proving that even a hundred years ago journalists knew their readers loved articles about wildlife.
There is a rare example of photograph – this one showing a Harborough soldier (Sergt W Booth) with an armful of young owls! There’s no explanation as to why he has the birds but it would certainly have caught the reader’s eye and demonstrates that despite the war people are still getting on with their lives.
- 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.