John’s WWI blog: Dark humour in the trenches

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)

September 21, 1915 – Did you hear the one about....

Dark humour in the hell of frontline fighting seems to know no racial boundaries according to a number of stories in the September 21, 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Private Jack West

Private Jack West

Even the Germans, who are supposed to have no ‘funny bone’ at all according to British stereotypes, have been having ‘fun’ with British Tommies in their trenches says Lance Corporal C R Dilks who used to work at Harborough Rubber.

“Some places along the line the Germans are not above 40 yards from us; you can hear them and they throw notes about from trench to trench,” he says.

“They asked if we had had a good breakfast one morning; we said we had not had enough to eat and they said ‘Take this and share it among you’.”

The ‘gift’ turns out to be a bomb which ‘as luck happened did not hurt anybody’. “Then they will shout ‘How did you like your breakfast?’ and you can guess what we say back!”

Private M Teesdale

Private M Teesdale

In another story from the 7th Northants Regiment – Mobbs’ Men – there’s a story of how soldiers get by with the appalling French. “Nothing is more amusing than to see a man in khaki in difficulties when shopping or in a cafe.

“He may have asked for something in a phrase he had learned off ‘pat’ but should he think he has received the wrong change and is unable to make himself understood, he lapses into some very expressive ‘English’ about the coinage system and other things. Needless to add, all the onlookers are convulsed!”

There’s even a story that would not look out of place in a Carry On film. “The other day I had noticed several of the lads bathing in the sunshine. They had improvised a bath by digging a hole and tying their waterproof sheets together.”

In this edition there are also more tragic stories of more Harborough casualties. Private David Brotherton of Dingley Terrace has been killed in action.

In a letter to his mother, his commanding officer says: “He passed away quite peacefully, death being mercifully instantaneous. It appears that he was struck by a bullet whilst out with a digging party in the rear of the trenches.”

And the Brigade’s chaplain writes: “It seems somehow in this war that the youngest and the best are taken. Your boy died doing his duty and he has died for a very noble and just cause.”

There is no photograph of Private Brotherton but there are pictures of two Harborough soldiers who have been injured by shrapnel. Private M Teesdale of Clarence Street was hit in the hip and Private Jack West of Heygate Street was hit in the head.

There is a very little additional information about Private Teesdale but Harborough’s chaplain on the frontline, the Ref Bernard Uffen, writes in a letter to the parents of Private West: “I have been speaking to the doctor who says that although the wound is severe he has every chance of getting out all right.”

This is another good example of how the editor tries to tell his readers what life in Flanders is really like – but to show that renowned stiff upper English lip and be positive in the face of anxiety.