Deeply moving events to commemorate one of the most infamous milestones of the First World War were held on Friday, exactly a century after the first British and French soldiers climbed out of the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
We now know that July 1, 1916, was one of the bloodiest days in British military history. By nightfall, some 57,000 Commonwealth and 2,000 French soldiers had become casualties – more than 19,000 of whom had been killed.
The Battle of the Somme continued for another 140 days and when the offensive was halted in November, more than 1,000,000 Commonwealth, French and German soldiers had been wounded, captured, or killed.
Inevitably, the July 4, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser did not report those terrible losses. However, despite the slowness of the technology a century ago, the editor manages to include the news sourced from an official Press Bureau statement which is reproduced in capital letters – a publishing ploy to help the readers understand the importance of the news.
“Attack launched north of River Somme this morning at 7.30am in conjunction with the French. British troops have broken into German forward system of defences on front of 16 miles. Fighting is continuing.
“French attack on our immediate right proceeding equally satisfactorily. On the remainder of the British front raiding parties again succeeded in penetrating enemy’s defences at many points, inflicting loss of enemy and taking some prisoners.”
The Advertiser’s story continues with further news about the ‘intensity of the fighting’ but the ‘general situation may be regarded as favourable’ and the enemy losses are heavier than previously announced’.
The offensive had been telegraphed to the world – and certainly the German Army – as there had been an intense, week-long artillery bombardment of enemy positions. While there was real cause for optimism where the French had made some gains to the south, in the north the attacking British troops struggled to overcome formidable defences, many of which had survived that artillery barrage.
The Advertiser was not alone in greeting ‘the long expected British Advance…with the greatest enthusiasm’, the national newspapers were doing the same. That was because the Fleet Street journalists were embedded with the Army well behind the lines and were given their information by dispatch riders who came from the front at regular intervals with progress reports.
As Philip Knightley says in his book The First Casualty, the reporters ‘quickly realised the messages were untrue and the great part of the intelligence supplied to them what been utterly wrong and misleading’.
Knightley quotes one reporter, Beach Thomas, as saying after the war: “I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written for the good reason that it was untrue…the vulgarity of enormous headlines and the enormity of one’s own name did not lessen the shame.”
In the Advertiser there is other news of local lads who have become causalities of the fighting elsewhere.
Trooper Harry Gale of Caxton Street, who used to work in the grocery department of the Market Harborough Co-operative Society, has died in a hospital in India after fighting a serious illness for two months.
And there is news of three young men who have been wounded in action. Private A Featon, who has seen ‘a vast amount of fighting and took part in the Mons Retreat’ and Private J Wood who is fighting with the Worcestershire Regiment.
Private Ernest March, who also worked at the Co-operative Society but in the butchery department, has been hit in the knee from a machine gun. The story says: “He has been under an operation and is saving the bullet as a souvenir.”