April 18, 1916 – Laughter as men try to avoid WW1 conscription

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This wonderful cartoon depicting a man trying to avoid First World War conscription before a Tribunal of local worthies sums up the working man’s lot in 1916.

The image is used as part of a promotional poster for a dramatic recreation of the tribunals by the county’s Record Office being held tomorrow evening in Leicester (Tuesday April 19 – tickets £5, recordoffice@leics.gov.uk).

You can almost hear the Tribunal Chairman’s Captain Mainwaring voice asking: “And what work are you doing of National Importance?” It was a question put to all the many men standing before them according to contemporary coverage in local newspapers.

The browbeaten man’s cute quip of a reply: “Why, I’m rearin’ eight children an’ helping to make airyplanes!” is designed by the artist to raise a smile.

In reality, it wasn’t just a dramatic device – that type of reasoning was common in all the columns of editorial coverage, none less so than in the April 18, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

It is clear that a reporter was sent to cover these tribunals as the reporting is contemporaneous. For instance, in the case of a Smeeton Westerby grazier and carrier, aged 32 and single the report says: “Applicant stated he had 23 beasts on his 33 acres of grass land. In answer to the chairman, applicant said, amid laughter, that it was his misfortune that he was not married. He was given an exemption of just two months.”

Similar short exemptions were granted to many men – like Kibworth’s only fresh and fried fish dealer; the coal man from Fleckney; and a 26-year-old cowhand who was allowed to briefly stay at home because his boss was a ‘septuagenarian’.

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What the editor hasn’t done though is a send a reporter to the home of Private H Bury who has been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. An interview with his family would surely have provided some proud comments but the Advertiser relies purely on the information released by the Government’s Press Bureau and is colourless in its language.

“The deed which earned him the DCM was for conspicuous gallantry in reorganising his machine-gun team under heavy fire after two men had become casualties, and keeping the gun in action, thereby greatly assisting in the attack.”

There is a picture of Private Bury but it looks as if it has been cut out of another picture and stuck into a black bordered box.

There’s more news of the flamboyant Royal Flying Corps’ Captain Percy Cort from Sibbertoft, a former journalist at the Advertiser, who was featured prominently in last week’s edition for his promotion. This time there is a long feature about his marriage to Miss Edith Stapleford of Westcotes Drive, Leicester.

It’s not clear whether Percy had time to write the story himself – bylines or names of the authoring journalists were only introduced to the Advertiser’s successor the Harborough Mail in the 1970s – but there are some remarkable insights into life on the Home Front.

‘Owing to the war the wedding was of a very quiet nature’ with only the families present. There was no white dress for the bride – she wore a ‘biscuit-coloured costume with nigger-brown hat’, a remarkable description to our 21st century eyes.

The best man was the bride’s brother Harold, who had been wounded at Ypres and was now an invalid, although the nature of his injuries are not recorded.

Among the columns of other local news and adverts there are stories of a national nature including some unrest in Dublin. We now know this was a harbinger of the Republican’s Easter Rising which many perceive as the beginning of the armed fight to establish an independent Ireland.

  • 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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