The gulf between the pictures created by officialdom and the local soldier is brought into sharp focus in the August 1, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Formal, superficial and predictable is the way to characterise the stories on page 3 where the sources for the news comes from commanding officers. The exact opposite can be found on the same page in stories which originate from local lads who wear their hearts on their sleeves when writing to loved ones at home.
And there is plenty of material to compare as the fighting at the Somme brings news this week of another three Harborians killed in action and many more injured.
Gunner J C Wadsworth of Rectory Terrace, Little Bowden, has a picture published at the top of the column, died on munitions fatigue when ‘one shell burst prematurely and bullets flew around’.
His parents received a letter from his company captain who uses sincere – but ultimately clichéd – words in consolation. “His death is a great blow to us all in the battery, as we lose in him a first rate gunner and staunch friend. No words, I fear can diminish for you the great sorrow if such a sudden bereavement but I can assure you, on behalf of all ranks in the battery, that you have our most sincere and heartfelt sympathy in this sad time.”
The Advertiser does serve its readers well by creating the human face of Gunner Wadsworth – not just with his photograph, but also his age (20) and where he used to work (Messrs Hopkins and Sons Timber Works). This is information that all the readers could relate to.
There is similar approach in the report about the death of Pte Frank Wilson of Dingley Terrace, Market Harborough, who was killed along with the rest of his team ‘when a German shell burst right amongst them, killing them all instantaneously’.
There are sincere words of condolence from his officer. “The deep sympathy of all the officers, NCOs and men of this Company is extended to you in your sad loss.” And there is a reminder of the pre-war Frank – he was 23, he worked at Messrs R and WH Symington and Co’s factory, and in his younger days was an altar boy at the Harborough Catholic Church.
And the same rhythm applies to the story about Pte Ernest Page of Gilbert’s Row, Harborough. He was 24 and worked at Symington’s factory too. His parents learned in a letter from a company officer that Ernest was taking part in a battalion charge against German trenches when he died. “Let the loss of your son, great as it is, be made lighter by the knowledge, that he died a soldier’s death, facing his enemy for his country and conscience.”
Formal as these condolences are, they at least put a face to the vast numbers of young men of a similar age being slaughtered during this huge Somme offensive.
The richness of the pictures from Flanders comes in the letters written and published from the soldiers themselves, those who have ‘only’ been injured and can hint through their prose of what life is like in this hell.
Twenty-one-year-old Lance-Corporal A Carter of East Street, Market Harborough, provides a gripping narrative from his hospital bed.
“I have stopped one of Fritz’s bullets with my face. It went against my left ear and came out just under my right eye, a very narrow escape so the doctor told me.”
This horrific injury is compounded by the circumstances of the battle, reports the Advertiser.
“During the terrible fighting he got hit and rolled in a shell hole and lay there for five hours, conscious all the time. When their lads had cleared the Germans out a bit he got out of the hole and walked to a clearing station where they dressed him and sent him to Boulogne.”
The power of his story lies in the understatement of his description – can you imagine yourself sheltering in a shell hole for five hours with such a face injury?
Private W H Reedman of Rectory Terrace, Harborough, delivers a similarly powerful account of his fighting in a letter to his parents.
“Just a few lines to let you know I am well but lucky to be alive. We have been amongst the fighting of late and had a rough time. Thank God I was spared. It was a terrible sight and I don’t want to see anything like it again. We lost heavily, nearly all our officers being killed.”
The grim reality of these accounts is also set against the stories on page 5 which include official statements from the Press Bureau.
In several thousand words of reports there is not a single mention of a British death.
- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
- 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.
- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.