John’s WW1 blog: “Men were falling all around, overcome by the power of the choking fumes”

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)

May 4, 1915: “He saw the bombs bursting and as they exploded there was given off a yellow-greenish vapour. Men were falling all around, overcome by the power of the choking fumes.”

This is the first report in the Market Harborough Advertiser of a terrible new weapon being deployed against Allied soldiers in the First World War: poison gas.

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported the news

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported the news

This week’s 2015 headlines are dominated by the 70th anniversary of the end of the European theatre of World War Two, but a hundred years ago the readers of the May 4 edition of the Advertiser must have felt a new dread for their men folk in uniform.

The news report is typically patriotic and intertwines the effects of the dreadful attack with the heroism of a young Canadian Highlander who was injured in the Germans’ first gas attack.

“In the great fight in which the Canadian contingent distinguished themselves he was struck in the knee and the head with fragments of shrapnel.

“Recovering somewhat, he managed to crawl back to a field ambulance station, dragging with him, despite his own agony, a comrade who had had part of his face shot away by shrapnel. Unhappily this splendid act of heroism availed little. For the terribly wounded man died within a few hours.”

The news article concludes: “The effect of the poison fumes on a French regiment, which formed the connecting-link between the Canadians and the French was described as terrible.

“So overwhelmed were they by the creeping death-fumes that the line was temporarily enfeebled, and in the struggle with the Germans which followed, heavy losses were sustained.”

There is also another long story quoting War Secretary Earl Kitchener speaking in the House of Lords about the maltreatment of British soldiers which concludes with a condemnation of gas as a military weapon.

He says: “Germany has stooped to acts which will surely stain indelibly her military history and which would vie with the barbarous savagery of the Dervishes of the Soudan [sic].

“I do not think there can be a soldier of any nationality, even amongst the Germans themselves, who is not heartily ashamed of the slur which has been thus brought upon the profession of arms.”

There is also official news of the other big war development: the attack in Gallipoli whose centenary anniversary dominated last week’s modern-day headlines.

The news for the Advertiser readers is given a sense of its huge significance by the paper’s new typographical approach: the story is given a dateline – Tuesday – and the font used for it is heavier and different to anything used elsewhere in the paper, thus drawing the reader’s eye with its sense of import and urgency.

This device is repeated lower down the column with another story about advances in Belgium under a Wednesday dateline. And the innovative editorial approach is capped off with a simple huge headline in a point size that is never used in the Advertiser’s editorial columns which simply says: The War.

Typographical advances there may be for Advertiser readers to absorb, but there is still a guarantee there will be plenty of local news about local people.

That means short stories about the deaths in action of two young men from nearby villages – Private Leonard J Stokes of Middleton and Lt Cpl W Tansley of Cottingham – and the results of two court cases where two young men were fined for riding sheep and pulling the thatch of a haystack in Little Bowden (fine 5 shillings each) and two boys for playing football in the road in Fleckney (pay costs of 2s 6d).

Former Harborough Mail editor (1992-1996) John Dilley (pictured) is compiling a real-time blog looking at the Mail’s forerunner, The Market Harborough Advertiser, during the 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