AUGUST 24, 1915: Mystery deaths of First World War soldiers

A headline which featured in the Harborough Mail's forerunner, The Market Harborough Advertiser, from August 24, 1915.
A headline which featured in the Harborough Mail's forerunner, The Market Harborough Advertiser, from August 24, 1915.

Hundreds of deaths are reported in the Harborough Mail’s forerunner, the Market Harborough Advertiser, in an edition from 100 years ago today – but none more peculiar than the ones under the headline: “Medical mysteries of high explosives”.

Like many of the news stories in the Advertiser, the editor has picked-up the account from a different publication, credited in the first sentence, and has repeated the most bizarre of the claims.

It’s a story that any modern-day news editor would immediately select.

The Sun loves them, so does Buzzfeed and Vice, and even high-brow papers like the Daily Telegraph and The Times.

And the Advertiser editor knows his news even though this story has been spotted in the august, but dull and pedestrian, publication, the British Medical Journal.

The story gets straight to the point and highlights the ‘mysterious occurrences of which no satisfactory explanation is as yet forthcoming’ for the injuries or deaths caused directly or indirectly by high explosives.

The story goes on: “Instances have been recorded, on apparently good authority, in which without any outward and visible sign of injury, death has occurred so suddenly that the victims retain the attitude and even the gesture of the fatal moment.”

There are even more bizarre claims to come. “It is said that the French have sometimes met with instances in which such deaths have occurred in groups, the men still lifelike in the act of eating, drinking or smoking, so much so that the assailants hesitate to approach until the unnatural immobilisation shows what has happened.

“One spectator compared such a group to figures at a waxwork exhibition.”

However, the story does go on to give some explanation of what might have happened to these men.

It appears that although enemy shells might have exploded some distance away, it is concussion that has killed them.

The Advertiser’s story goes some way to explaining this phenomenon. “In cases of delayed death after concussion not associated with obvious injury, post-mortem examination reveals extensive damage to the internal organs.

“A plausible hypothesis to account for such cases is that the sudden and tremendous disturbance of atmospheric pressure produced by the explosion of the bigger shells acts in one of two ways – either the enormous momentary pressure forces air into the cavities of the body or the temporary vacuum that follows violently disturbs atmospheric conditions within the body.”

Former Harborough Mail editor (1992-1996) John Dilley is compiling a real-time blog looking at the Mail’s forerunner, The Market Harborough Advertiser, during the 1914/15 war years while also looking at national newspaper coverage from The Daily Telegraph during the same week from 100 years ago.

Follow his fascinating blog every Monday by visiting http://newspapersandthegreatwar.wordpress.com.