John's real-time WW1 blog: Tragic reports of young lives lost

Ex-Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser
Ex-Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser

July 31, 1917 – How would you cope with the death of your 19-year- old son?

Reg Fitzjohn was 19 years old, a former pupil of Market Harborough County Grammar School, and the eldest son of parents who live on Northampton Road.

Bombardier Reginald Fitzjohn RGA

Bombardier Reginald Fitzjohn RGA

Just a local lad, on the threshold of manhood, pictured here with the young face of a schoolboy. But now he’s dead. Killed in action. Instantly.

Despite all our 21st century problems – big or small, global or local – they pale into insignificance when you ponder the emotions that must have been felt by Mr and Mrs F Fitzjohn when they heard the news about their son.

And despite their despair, they still turned to their local newspaper, the Market Harborough Advertiser, to let the readers and the rest of the community know and share their news.

Reg’s story is told in the July 31, 1917, edition and describes how he ‘heard the call’ when he was just 17 while working in the Draughtsman’s Office of the Leicestershire County Education Committee where he ‘had every promise of a very successful career’.

Bombardier Fitzjohn first joined the Leicester Howitzer Brigade and then transferred to the Royal Field Artillery and ‘for the past 17 months he had been in France where he had accomplished some fine work as evidenced by the fact that he was offered a commission but declined it’.

There are quotes from two letters used as source material for the report. One is written by a comrade, Bombardier Chapman, who describes his final moments. “I was with Reg at the guns at the time and he died instantaneously. I and a Gunner attended lovingly to him and conveyed him to his grave, the location of which you shall have later.”

And there are comforting words from a senior officer: “Your son was a fearless soldier and every inch of him a gentleman, both in ways and talk. He was much liked by everyone that came into contact with him and he will be missed terribly by the whole Section he belonged to – both NCOs and men.”

One other local man is reported as a casualty in this week’s paper – Driver E Ingram of Wilbarston is being treated in hospital suffering from a gas attack although ‘he is getting on nicely and it is hoped that he may have a speedy and complete recovery’.

The story adds: “His parents have good reason to be proud of their family record as they have three other younger sons in the Army – Gunner N Ingram enlisted soon after the war broke out and has been in France over two years; Private F Ingram of the Northants regiment, has been in Egypt about 12 months and a short time ago was in hospital suffering from sunstroke and shell shock but he is now better and is attached to the Imperial Camel Corps; a younger brother Private C Ingram, joined up recently and is now at one of the training camps in England.”

There is also news of the 15-year-old grandson of Mr J C Eady of Market Harborough, who has drowned in ‘a gallant attempt to save the life of another’ after a boating accident at Bigbury-on-Sea, near Plymouth where he was in camp with the Taunton School Cadet Corps.

The accident happened at the entrance of the River Avon at Bantham where ‘bad surf’ is caused for about two hours when the tide meets the fresh water.

Apparently, five cadets and two scouts went out onto the water unaware of how dangerous it was. “A big wave struck the boat and the whole of them were turned out,” says the report.

They all managed to cling to the boat but Eady ‘being a strong swimmer decided to swim to the shore, which was not far distant, to endeavour to get some assistance’.

“In all probability, he reached the shore but then noticing one of the scouts had let go of the boat and was in difficulties, he immediately swam to his assistance.

“He reached him but the scout evidently clutched him in such a manner that he could not free himself and thus both were drowned.”

The report concludes: “The bodies were found close together some hours later, the marks on young Eady’s neck and the torn condition of the front part of his shirt clearly showing that he had had a fierce struggle with the lad he was trying to save.”

The report includes part of a letter received by Tony’s parent, who live in Cairo, from a friend Keith Buswell, son of Mr Arthur of Buswell, formerly of Market Harborough. It says: “A young life so full of promise but so tragically ended has not been lived in vain for Tony Eady has set the highest example of devotion and self-sacrifice even unto death.”

Sadly there is an unfortunate juxtaposition with the story sitting on the opposite page as an advert for the Market Harborough Boathouse Pleasure Grounds on Leicester Road which urges readers ‘to spend your holiday on the water’.