The fearfully slow progress of the Battle of the Somme is displayed in all its horror with one simple headline in the August 15, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser: 400 yards gained.
The headline brings to mind the classic scene in Blackadder Goes Forth where General Melchett (Stephen Fry) proudly shows off ‘a model’ of the land recaptured in yesterday’s battles.
Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny) is asked what the scale of the ‘model’ is and he hesitantly says: “One to one”. He then gets out a tape measure and declares that the British Army has won 17 square feet.
And General Melchett’s response? “Well, young Blackadder didn’t die horribly in vain after all.”
We laugh at Blackadder’s black comedy but it, of course, has a serious point. The British public were being buoyed up by the Government war office with as many positive stories as possible, that’s why there is no tongue in cheek about the Advertiser story, sourced from the Press Bureau. The simple short story reads: “South-west of Guillemont we have advanced our line about 400 yards. Fighting still continues near Guillemont Station.”
Other reports are in a similar vein. One says we ‘have advanced our line slightly in certain places’ north-west of Pozieres and another states ‘a short length of trenches has been taken’ north of Bazentin-le-Petit.
The relentlessly positive ‘news’ from official sources is in sharp contrast to the reports in the Advertiser of local men who have died.
The Page family of Gilbert’s Row, Market Harborough, lost both their sons within two days of each other – first Ernest and then Fred.
The Advertiser adds its own editorial commentary, saying: “The greatest sympathy will be extended to Mr and Mrs Page and other members of the family in this, their heavy trial in the loss of two brave sons within two days of each other.”
There is also news of other local men killed in action:
- Bugler Albert Tyler of Hallaton – a former member of the village band
- Pte Charlie Tilley of Aldwinckle’s Yard, who used to work in the greengrocer of Mr Frost on Church Street
- Pte C Deane Douglass from Canada, whose uncle is Mr J T Douglass of Highfield House in Market Harborough
- Pte Edwin Turner who was born in Market Harborough and had previously worked as a linotype operator at Messrs Geo Green’s Printing Works – publishers of the Advertiser – before he moved to Australia in 1912.
There is also a detailed report of the death of Pte E Driver of Hallaton, sourced in a letter from the sister-in-charge of the hospital he had been taken to after suffering wounds in action.
Clearly his parents shared the full details of the letter with the Advertiser and the report is both sensitive and heart-rending.
The story quote the nurse as saying: “Pte Driver was admitted last night suffering from wounds of the chest and left hip. I was talking to him soon after his admission and asked whether he would like me to send a line to his home just to let you know about his being wounded, for I quite expected him to do well at the time.
“He thanked me and said ‘Send my love’.
He seemed fairly comfortable and went off to sleep but later in the night he became very much collapsed and though we did all we could to restore him we could not prevail and he passed away very peacefully at 6.45am today.”
Can you picture the scene of proud grief as Mr and Mrs Driver stand in the offices of the Advertiser with the letter they will never throw away, asking for their son’s memory to be forever remembered in print, as well as the hearts of his family and friends.
And the Drivers have two other sons in the Army…
- 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.