It would be easy, when reading the July 18, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser, to measure the progress of the war in numbers.
EIGHT miles of enemy front trench overrun; captured TWENTY SIX field guns and more than SEVEN THOUSAND German prisoners. And all this just TWO weeks short of the SECOND anniversary of the outbreak of war.
They are figures supplied from official Press Bureau communiqués designed to keep the home fires burning, the pride in the chest and a hint of optimism that this could all be over very soon.
But the Advertiser also has its own set of numbers that, of course, make the community of Market Harborough proud, but they are also numbers that scream loudly that this war takes a terrible toll, and that toll touches every single reader.
Listed on page 3 are the names of all those Market Harborough men who have ‘been killed in action, died of wounds, died in hospital or who are missing’. There are FIFTY THREE lives.
And on page 4 is another list, this time the names of men from the villages surrounding Market Harborough, who have ‘been killed in action, died of wounds, died in hospital or who are missing’. The number is SIXTY SIX.
The Advertiser tells the stories behind those numbers in two different ways: the official accounts from the Press Bureau, and the local accounts sourced via letters straight from the Front.
The Press Bureau stories are packed with detail but devoid of emotion. One short report is typical of the type. “South-east of Loos a party of the Royal Fusiliers penetrated the enemy’s trenches at a point where they were strongly held and remained there for 20 minutes during which time heavy fighting took place in the trench and many Germans were killed. Our causalities were slight.”
Compare this to stories about local men. There is plenty of detail but of a different type, detail that conjures up quite emotive pictures about people the reader knows.
For instance one story reads: “Mr and Mrs F Barber of Hearth Street, have received a letter from their son Pte E Barber, who is now in hospital in London. In it he says it is a miracle he is alive as he is in hospital suffering from shell shock, after being BURIED THREE times.”
That small detail is imparted in such a matter of fact manner but the pictures it conjures is too much to bear.
Just take a moment to consider how you would feel if you were buried under a mass of mud in those sorts of circumstances.
Now do it three times. And now do it feeling helpless and knowing your loved one – husband, son, brother – was suffering that fear.
There is a similar story that must make mothers and wives quail with anguish. This account is sourced from a letter written in his hospital bed by Pte B G Elliott of Northampton Road.
He was in the first section of his company to move off for the German lines but, as he says with stunning understatement, ‘we had an awful task’.
He continues: “First one and then another got knocked out and I had some near shaves before my turn came. A big shell dropped right near me and buried my left leg, wounding me in the knee and left eye. A piece of shell penetrated the breast pocket of my tunic and rested in my letter wallet. The explosion was heavy and caused my nose and ears to bleed.”
Despite such horrific injuries Pte Elliott says he was ‘not long in getting clear away’.
He adds: “I could limp fairly well and got rides on various vehicles. The fellows who were with me got knocked about badly – mortally I believe.”
- 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.