John’s WW1 blog: Corporal describes being shot by sniper

An excerpt from the Harborough Mail's forerunner, the Market Harborough  Advertiser, from March 9, 1915.
An excerpt from the Harborough Mail's forerunner, the Market Harborough Advertiser, from March 9, 1915.

MARCH 9, 1915: When anyone talks about the First World War they always mention their own connections.

And it’s not just the man on the street who recalls a grandfather or great uncle; the celebrity historians do the same.

Former Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the 1914 Market Harborough Advertiser. '(MAIL PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER)

Former Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the 1914 Market Harborough Advertiser. '(MAIL PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER)

Former newspaper editor Max Hastings, in the BBC programme The Necessary War, began his hour-long analysis of why Britain had to fight by making a visit to the grave of his uncle, a soldier with the Seaforth Highlanders and killed in 1915.

Presenter Niall Ferguson also fronted a similar BBC programme entitled The Pity of War, in which he posited an opposing view. He began his lecture by remembering his First World War links: his grandfather who joined up at the age of 16 and somehow survived despite fighting in the Ypres Salient.

Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman begins his book Great Britain’s Great War with an entire chapter about his great uncle Charlie, who was killed in action in Turkey.

Everyone wants to make those connections and that’s why local papers like the Market Harborough Advertiser were so revered by their readership.

In the March 9 edition of 1915 there are two stories that show the stark differences between the approaches of the national newspapers and the local newspapers.

Both stories appear in the Advertiser but one is sourced directly from the readership and the other comes from a national newspaper war correspondent, burdened with the stringent censorship rules of The War Office led by Press-hating Lord Kitchener.

One of the many stories about local lads fighting in the trenches or fundraising efforts by those on the Home Front, comes straight from the horse’s mouth, in the form of a letter to his parents living in Dingley Terrace.

Corporal W Gilbert describes how he became wounded and is convalescing in France. It’s a remarkable letter for its simplicity and for allowing the extraordinary to sit cheek-by-jowl with the ordinary.

He was shot by a sniper about 20 yards behind the trench. His matter-of-fact description gives all the readers an insight into how the soldiers – many of them sons and fathers of the readers – go about their daily lives.

“I was sawing some long poles off a willow tree. They were to be used for resting the rifles against so as to keep them free from dirt.”

The ordinary then switches to the extraordinary. “I had hardly started when something made a terrible crack.”

And Cpl Gilbert’s response? “Of course it made me shout, ‘oh’.” You can’t get more understated than that.

He goes on: “The bullet caught me on the side of the ribs and came out at the back. It made a nasty gash. It did not go point forward but broadside. In some cases they make a hole no larger than a small pea.”

He was incredibly lucky because he managed to walk away to get some help from his comrades.

Again his description is so matter of fact. “Whilst I was lying down I heard more than half a dozen shots strike the ground where I had been previously.”

Of course, this story is small and inconspicuous in the great scheme of things – soldier gets minor wound, tells parents he’s on the mend.

But the connections the readers have to the soldier, even that he is from their own area, and the insight he gives about the soldiers’ daily lives is the equivalent of us today – even great historians or broadcasting household names – who want to make a link to the war through their lineage.

On the other hand, the Advertiser also includes a very long report from a national newspaper correspondent working for the Daily News.

His article has none of the intimacy of the locally-sourced story even though it is ‘bigger’ and more important. The style of writing is also more literary and self-aggrandising.

The journalist is embedded with the Navy, and has been taken out on a minesweeper into the Channel to see what incredible work it is doing.

This is how it starts. “We went hammering into the head seas of a lively Channel on a bitterly cold Sunday morning at 4 o clock. Probably few of us on the staggering trawler at that hour reflected that the duty of sweeping that given area had been imposed upon us by a discovery demanded in the Far East, when Japan and Russia entered upon costly tests of modern naval fighting equipment to the benefit of keenly interested speculators.”

The contrast in styles is stark. And there are many more stories split along those lines in this week’s edition.

Where the local and national press do dovetail is in advertising. Clearly no war is going to get in the way of retailers and businessmen.

The national newspapers have bigger advertisers – for instance

The Times boasts page after page of contributions from the likes of Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Rolls-Royce.

The tradesmen in Market Harborough are also still drumming up business. Shindler & Douglas always come up with most-arresting advertisements: this week they are advertising Snow White, White Goods Shows which includes five windows of different white products like lace and linen.

And they weren’t frightened of being risqué either with one window devoted solely to ladies underwear – white of course!

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 war years while also looking at national newspaper coverage from The Daily Telegraph during the same week 100 years ago.

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