JOHN DILLEY’S WWI BLOG: May 15, 1917 – Wounded soldier brews tea surrounded by dead and dying while trapped under heavy fire in a shell hole

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.

An extraordinary tale of survival is told in vivid detail by a town soldier in the May 15, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Machine Gunner Bernard Elliott, who was shot in the arm, describes his ordeal in a letter to his mother which is published by the paper.

Elliott, who had seen fierce fighting not only in the Battle of the Somme but also the three battles of Arras, says in his letter home: “I daresay you are not surprised to hear I am wounded again, seeing what terrific doings are going on now.

“I was hit about dawn and had to take refuge amongst dead and others wounded like myself in a large shell hole, only a few yards from the German front line.

“So I had to remain there, occasionally being bombed etc; our own and Fritz’s shells bursting all round. One of the chaps had some Bryant and May’s cookers, tea and sugar and Nestlé’s milk and we actually made two mess tins of tea and it went down lovely. That was cooking under rare circumstances, wasn’t it? I’m jolly sure I don’t want another day like that.”

Elliott endured a whole day in the shell hole and eventually managed to escape under darkness. “When it got dusk, or rather moonlight, I risked it and crept out. Rifle and machine gun bullets were cracking round my ears and knocking up dust all over the shop. Those 17½ hours in the shell hole were like so many months.”

Now convalescing in a field hospital, he says with jaunty humour: “It’s lovely now to get where things are quiet, food good, good bed, and to be able to take it easy in the sunshine and sea breeze.

“I wish I were coming over to Blighty – I’d risk U boats by the dozen but don’t suppose that is possible.”

There is not such good news for another Harborough family. Mr and Mrs Barber of Hearth Street have learned that their son Edwin has been killed in action and his brother Cpl Frank Barber has been wounded. A third son Eustace had died in January.

Edwin, who had worked at the Harborough Brick and Tile Co before the war, was only 21 and had been wounded three times in ‘some severe fighting’ before he was killed.

There are other Harborough soldiers reported killed in this edition. They are:

Private John Lloyd of Leicester Lane, Great Bowden, who used to work at R and W Symington, has died in fighting in Mesopotamia;

Private Leslie Chambers has died after being hit by a shell ‘while collecting the wounded’;

Harboro’ Town footballer Private Arthur Fox of Logan Street – a speedy and clever outside left – has died of his wounds in the Persian Gulf;

Private J A Kenney of Sibbertoft, who was previously employed at Sulby Hall, has died in action;

Private A Harris of Lubenham, who was ‘a capable violinist’ has been killed in action;

Father-of- four Sergt David Warner of Great Glen has been killed in action.

There are also reports of a large number of Harborough soldiers who have been wounded. They are:

2 nd Lieutenant Stanley Wood of Northampton Road who is suffering from a gunshot wound in the neck;

Signaller and Bombardier Geo Sturgess of Logan Street who has only recently been awarded the DCM for gallantry;

Private F Hodson of Northampton Road who is dangerously ill in a Salonika hospital suffering from multiple gunshot wounds;

Private A Warner of Nelson Street is injured but there are details available as yet;

Private G Cort of St Mary’s Road who has been wounded in the leg by shrapnel;

Lance-Cpl L Fortnum of the Harborough Territorials has been wounded for the second time and is in hospital in France;

Great Bowden brothers Charles and Frank Carter of Dingley Road, Great Bowden, have both been wounded fighting in France;

Private Fred Marvell of Foxton is suffering from wounds in the right eye and knee;

Private Leonard Cooper of Church House, Kibworth Beauchamp, is badly wounded in the arm;

And 2 nd Lieutenant W Harris of St Mary’s Road, who was one of the original group of lads to join ‘Mobbs’ Corps’, is listed as ‘missing’.

And there is a remarkable story of Private Fred Chambers of Fairfield Road, Harborough, who has been a prisoner of war in Germany since October 1914.

Chambers has a sent a photograph of himself to his parents and tells them he is ‘well’. The report says: “He is seated in the chair and evidently with a fellow prisoner and musician beguiling the time with music, the selection possibly chosen ‘Home Sweet Home’.”