John's real-time WW1 blog: Harborough’s finest ‘set their teeth’ and repulse night-time assault ‘by the light of the moon’

John Dilley
John Dilley

March 26, 1918...

A remarkable account of an all-night battle involving the ‘Glorious Leicesters’ takes pride of place in the March 26, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

The 54-line article will be avidly read for several reasons – not least, of course, that the Leicesters included many men rather the Market Harborough area, although none are mentioned by name.

But it is not just the local connections that make this a contemporary must-read – it is because the source of the ‘thrilling’ narrative is none other than Hamilton Fyfe, ‘the well-known Daily Mail correspondent’ who later became editor of the Daily Herald.

Fyfe is a minority celebrity for his tales from the front and his Boy’s Own style makes his tales perfect for a readership in dire need of ‘good news’ after nearly four years of ever-more depressing gloom.

He begins his account at 7.30 in the evening ‘by the bright light of the moon’ around the village of Mory when a ‘fresh German assault was made on a divisional front’.

But never fear dear reader, implies Fyfe with his gung-ho, upbeat style. “A battalion of Leicesters, setting their teeth, resolved to make a night of it. At 9.30 all the German attacks were reported repulsed.”

This writing approach is typical of the national newspaper reports of the First World War where accounts talk of great heroics but – like a Hollywood blockbuster aimed at kids – no-one ever bleeds if they get shot.

In fact this account reads almost like a rugby match report. It goes on: “It was not very long before the Germans were making another effort. All night the combat went on, with success inclining now to this side, now to that.

“At 4 o clock in the morning the Leicesters seem to have been surrounded, but they never lost heart and between 7 and 8, while the sun was trying to break through the chilly mist, the Germans found themselves surrounded in their turn.”

This is a remarkable piece of writing, describing heroics of unimaginable proportions. Of course, what it doesn’t do is describe the broken bodies, the shattered minds, and the emotional carnage this type of fighting induces.

Not a drop of blood, it appears, has been spilled.

Fyfe is not done either. He goes on to describe more patriotic victories using a similar technique. “Into the village of Peiziere the enemy penetrated, thanks to the mist, which made his approach invisible, and with the aid of flame-throwers. But he did not stay long. Two companies of the Leicesters with a couple of tanks, rushed the village and drove them out.”

Again this is fascinating stuff for both the contemporary consumer and the 21 st century reader. It demonstrates the German skulduggery (penetrating thanks to the mist), the introduction into the fighting of two technological innovations (in the flame-thrower and the tank), and, of course, the extraordinary courage and competence of the Leicesters (rushed the village and drove them out).

Remember, Fyfe is a national newspaper reporter of some renown at a time when newspapers wielded unprecedented power and yet most of Fleet Street’s finest – by their own admission after the war – were mere puppets in the War Office propaganda machine.

In fact Fyfe’s most commonly used portrait shows him wearing an army uniform even though he’s supposed to be fearlessly independent. To use a First World War slang word, that’s poppycock.

This is demonstrated in the final paragraph direct quotes between combatants are introduced, which serves to bring the reader closer to the action – and by implication Fyfe himself.

“While a General of Division was telling the story by the roadside yesterday morning a young officer, very tired and very dirty, came up and saluted.”

It is almost as if Richard Curtis, scriptwriter of Blackadder Goes Forth, has penned this paragraph for today’s reader with General Melchitt booming out his questions and the always-suffering Captain Darling replying.

“Do you know anything about this?” the General asked him. “I do indeed, sir,” he replied. “It was the first show I ever saw. The Boches were simply mowed down. They are splendid my Leicesters, splendid, splendid.”

In stark contrast the Advertiser carries an In Memoriam notice for Private Thomas Gilbert. This is not a ‘tally- ho, let’s get over the top chaps’ story where medals are won and ground is gained with the loss of nothing more than a weary smile.

This is war at its most ironic, where the bodies of men are merely the playthings of fate. Tom, who was just 24, was fast asleep in his dugout when a bomb made a direct hit. There were no heroics, no Hamilton Fyfe-style quips of bravado: he was killed instantaneously.

Tom’s story was first told in the April 11, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser but his family’s grief fully two years later, is clearly still raw. The Gilberts, who live in Dingley Terrace, Market Harborough, have paid for this poem to appear in this week’s paper.

No hate was his

No thirst for fame,

When forth to death

By honour sent

Life beckoned sweet,

The great call came,

He knew his duty

And he went.

This is the reality of war, not the saccharine sweet translation of Hamilton Fyfe. But it’s easy to see why the War Office and the Fleet Street reporters were keen to promote their version of the fighting.

- 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.