August 4, 1917 – Editor’s swift work to report on the horrors of Passchendaele

Readers of a certain age will remember well the delights of Bird’s Blanc-Mange described in this advert displayed prominently in the August 4, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

It’s remarkable that this promotion takes up the same amount of space as news of a huge offensive being waged in Flanders – with hindsight we now know it is the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres or more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele.

birds

In the past week the centenary of this particularly horrific milestone has been commemorated by many of the great and good as well as the ancestors of those who fought and died around the fields and towns of Flanders and France

In 1917, the Market Harborough Advertiser’s editor moves fast to include the reports as the newspaper has come out early on Friday, August 4, instead of Monday, August 7, because this is a Bank Holiday weekend.

The reports are issued by the official Press Bureau quoting none other than the Army’s leader Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who says in a statement issued just the day before publication: “Heavy and incessant rain has fallen throughout the past 48 hours in the neighbourhood of the Ypres-Roulers railway, where the enemy yesterday afternoon had succeeded at great cost in gaining a foothold in our advanced positions.”

The weather news might seem irrelevant to a 1917 reader but we now know that the worst rains to fall on Flanders in 30 years were to have a dire effect on the fighting as soldiers had to deal with not only the enemy but also the mud.

Haig’s statement continues: “Our counterattack was launched late in the evening which drove back the German infantry at all points and completely re-established our former line.”

This is a telling sentence because it sums up in just 23 words the deadly stalemate of trench warfare.

Haig concludes: “In the course of the morning and again this afternoon the enemy made a series of violent but unsuccessful attempts to recover the ground lost by him north-east of Ypres regardless of the severity of his losses…in every case his advancing lines were broken up and dispersed by our artillery barrage or repelled by the steady fire of our infantry.”

This scenario was to play out over the next hundred days with an estimated loss of a staggering half-a-million causalities on both sides of conflict.

It is too soon for any men from Market Harborough to be reported injured or killed at Passchendaele but editions of the Advertiser over the coming weeks will chronicle who has succumbed to the dreadful war of attrition.

In the meantime, there is news of others who have paid the ultimate price in different sectors of the war – and the stories paint a horrifyingly intimate picture of how arbitrary the line is between life and death.

Corporal Timson of Gold Street, Desborough, who leaves a wife and two children, was killed in action on July 21. His platoon officer, in a letter to Mrs Timson, says: “Whilst my platoon was engaged in a special piece of work in the front line they were subjected to a bombardment by trench mortars.

“Unfortunately one in particular blew in a trench at the point where your husband was working. Willing hands were soon at work and his body was recovered but I am sorry to say life was extinct.”

Another Desborough man Private Uriah Hawes of King Street is reported as missing. An officer, writing to Hawes’ father, says that a party of five men were conducting some frontline work. “Four of his comrades were killed at the same time but your son’s body could not be found. There was no trace of him.”

  • 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.

 

 

 

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