October 19, 1915 – Russian roulette of a life in action

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The hope and despair of Market Harborough’s mothers can be seen scattered across the columns of the October 19, 1915, edition of the town’s paper, the Advertiser.

Page 3 lists in alphabetical order the local young men who are fighting on land and sea, in Flanders or the Dardanelles. It seems to be almost like a dart board of life and death – throw an arrow and wherever it lands is the next young man’s body to be shattered and mutilated. Or vaporised.

The despair oozes from a short report about the five missing Harborough men who have not been ‘seen’ since a raging battle several weeks ago.

“The absence of news after a period of three weeks has elapsed makes the outlook very black indeed and the worst is feared for all of them,” says the report.

That short sentence is low on detail but weighted heavily for the families – and the readers – who will know that it means the men were hit by shell that has left not even blood or bone.

And the poignancy of the story is stretched even further by the simple listing of their names – Pte W E Jennings, Pte E Bridgeman, Pte J W Matthews, Pte Donald Keech and his brother Pte Brampton Keech.

It would appear Mrs Keech will never really know what happened to her two boys unlike the mother of Isaac and Alfred Wilkinson who were killed in the same battle. According to this week’s columns she at least has the benefit of knowing they died a heroes’ death.

2nd Lieut A W Heaton of the 7th Northants Regiment says he made ‘most diligent inquiries’ to find out what happened.

“My own duties during the day took me to another part of our line but someone who saw them told me that your sons (as I knew they would) did some excellent work, and that one of them was shot while working the gun, when the other immediately took his place.

“Which was which I have been unable to discover, but, from what I know of them, they were both capable of this devotion to duty.”

Such is the nature of this war that the 2nd Lieutenant actually asks Mr and Mrs Wilkinson to pass on any news to him if they hear any more details of their sons’ deaths from other soldiers writing home to loved ones.

There is also despair for the Hallaton mother of Lance Cpl Dick Neale of the 5th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry who is reported killed in action and the mother of the first Lubenham soldier to die in action, Pte Arthur Freer.

His death is reported with the quite bizarre detail that he was ‘so determined to serve his King and country that he underwent an operation for varicose veins at Leicester Infirmary’.

The mothers of Market Harborough now wait to see where the pin is stuck in the page of more than 1000 names and whether next week it will be their turn to mourn or prepare to nurse their son’s battered body.

  • 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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