News of causalities dominates the July 25, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser, as the fighting around the Battle of the Somme intensifies.
The paper’s editor clearly has a nose for news as he sniffs out the most talked about stories to report – and pride of place goes to an article about three Great Bowden brothers who have all been injured in separate parts of the Front.
Even though there is no Sun-style treatment with giant headlines on the front page, the account does get its own headline – Three Great Bowden brothers wounded. All the other casualty stories come under the single headline Harborians wounded in action.
The remarkable Pritchard family of Leicester Lane, Great, Bowden, have five brothers serving in khaki but three all succumbed in the same week of heavy fighting.
Pte J E Pritchard is ‘suffering from a bayonet wound – he had been wounded no less than four times previously and seems to bear a charmed life’.
Pte Geo Pritchard is now in hospital with ‘his right arm having been shot in no less than five places, the result of machine gun fire’ and Pte Albert Pritchard is suffering from a shrapnel wound in one of his arms.
The Advertiser editor also uses journalistic innovation to report on other local causalities. Each short story is begun with the soldier’s name, rank and regiment in capital letters.
There is some horrific detail in the short reports which belies the horror and pain that must be felt by the soldiers who fell victim to the fierce hostilities in the Somme.
Pte H Smith of Bowden Lane is in a London Military Hospital ‘seriously ill, suffering from gunshot wounds to the face’ and Sergt W Bale of Auriga Street is being treated in an English hospital having been injured just beneath his right eye.
Seventeen-year-old Pte Charlie Tilley of Aldwinckle’s Yard is part of this story of casualties but reading between the lines there is not much hope for him – ‘he was wounded on July 1st and since then nothing has been heard of him’.
And the longest account is about Pte Frank Pool of Coventry Road – this is because the editor has managed to read a letter from the soldier sent to his mother. The quote from Pte Pool sums up the elegance of writing, the typical British sense of understatement and the full horror of the soldiers’ lives in this terrible battle of attrition as each side gains small victories – often just a few yards of territory – at a terrible cost.
“I am writing from an old Boche trench some distance behind the present firing line. For two days I have been living in an advanced trench in front of our firing line, i.e., the furthest point of our advance and I can assure you life has not been a bed of roses.”
Pte Pool is now in a Birmingham hospital convalescing after being treated for machine gun bullet wounds to the right wrist and both thighs.
There is also news of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. “It is unofficially reported that [Great Bowden man] Private F George of the Cyclist Co attached to the Northumberland Fusiliers, has been killed in action’ and there is simply a short caption accompanying a picture of Lance-Corporal Marlow of Hallaton, which says ‘killed in action’. There is some bafflement for the reader though as the caption also adds ‘see report on page 6’. But there is no report of his death included.
Mixed in with the bad news is a light-hearted account of how a set of cricket gear sent to the ‘Harborough Boys’ at the Front is being well used ‘although the pitch was hardly in a good condition as the cricket field’.
And there is also the proud story of Sergt Walter Marsh of Station Road, Desborough, who has been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous bravery in France.
The Advertiser says: “In the middle of the night Sergt Marsh, with 23 men, stormed a line of dugouts. After slowly creeping to the enemy lines they could heard the Germans having a good time singing and playing mouth organs.
“Throwing two bombs into the entrance of a dugout containing 20 Germans, he wounded and killed several and the others were persuaded to surrender. Some of the other men with him were doing similar work in the centre and on the right flank. “
Most readers would see Sergt Marsh’s action as a job well done – clearly his superiors did – but would any readers empathise with those young German men singing and laughing just moments before they were blown to smithereens with no warning shout? Would they be thinking that it could be their English son or husband who could be on the end of a similar attack in the near future?
The local newspaper’s columns have no space for the luxury of questioning the brutality and randomness of war but all the facts are there for those who want to contemplate those very big issues.
- 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.