Slapstick comedy makes a visit to the editorial pages of the November 14, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
As the country approaches its third Christmas at war a news account, headlined ‘A surprise for Fritz – British soldiers’ brilliant ruse’, raises spirits on the threadbare streets of Market Harborough.
It has all the makings of a good tale: stupid Germans, clever Tommies, and a simple plan that makes everyone laugh – except the butt of the joke.
The story, sourced from an unnamed ‘wounded machine gunner now in hospital somewhere in England’, goes like this: “Our men learned that it was the intention of the Huns to place more barbed wire in front of their lines that night, so about 15 men left the British trench and formed links of a human chain, which were only a hundred yards away.”
In complete darkness the Germans began to throw out of their trench on to the ground in front the various tools and materials they would require.
The story continues: “First of all a number of iron stakes were pitched out. The first man in the British chain grabbed them, passed them back to the man behind him, who in turn handed them on, until they were landed in British trenches. Everything put out by the unsuspecting Huns was disposed of in the same way.”
It’s a scene worthy of one of the silent movies showing at Market Harborough’s County Electric Cinema – and perhaps just as believable – with the British soldiers tiptoeing back to their trench just before the German working party make their way into the open and get caught in the light of a ‘starlight rocket’ sent up by the British artillery to illuminate their foes.
It’s easy for the reader to picture the Germans, stock-still and slack-jawed as they are caught by surprise.
There is no Hollywood ending to this story though as ‘the entire party was practically wiped out by a stream of lead from a machine gun’.
The shocking casualness to death might sit uneasily next to this slapstick comedy but perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge as in the 21st century we consume this flippant approach almost daily in films, TV programmes and computer games.
And of course the story has a punch line. “At dawn a notice board appeared above the British trench, bearing in German, the words ‘if you want your wire some and fetch it’. The crestfallen Germans did not accept the invitation.”
The account has all the hallmarks of a propaganda piece written by the government’s Press Bureau. It does, however, provide a balance to the stark reality of the Advertiser’s local war news.
This week a mother has ended an 18 month wait to hear definitive news of her son, who has been missing since May 1915. Mrs Chas Arnold of Gladstone Street has been officially told her son, Private E Arnold, has been killed in action. There is no explanation for the delay, which would clearly have caused untold heartache.
There is a photographic tribute to Private Charlie Evans but with just a nine-word caption saying when he was killed in action.
And there are just single lines to mark the deaths of three other young men:
- Mayfield, 25774, E. (Great Bowden)
- Aldwinckle, 7274, W. J. (Market Harborough)
- Cheney, 16387, B. (Lubenham)
There are no funny punch lines to end these stories.
- 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 lecturer 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.