John’s WWI blog: First-hand account of hellish Ypres

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)

July 6, 1915: “Ypres has been absolutely destroyed. What the German artillery left our engineers had to burn to prevent disease, owing to the number of bodies buried in the debris.”

This is the hellish description given to readers of the Market Harborough Advertiser in July 13, 1915. And they know it’s true because it has not come through a wall of Chinese whispers, this comes from a soldier who was there.

The devastation of Ypres

The devastation of Ypres

He adds: “I went out one night with a wiring party, repairing the barbed wire entanglements in front of the trench. It sounds very dangerous but personally I don’t think it is worse than the trenches.”

This report is sourced from a letter sent from the nephew of Mr W T Symington of Northampton Road so readers will be able to vouch for the veracity of the information – unlike the ‘thrilling narrative’ from General Ian Hamilton, describing the invasion of Gallipoli.

His account reads more like the daredevil antics from a Boy’s Own comic.

“The Munster Fusiliers, who with ‘the great majority of their senior officers killed or wounded’, gallantly followed two staff officers to success; the ‘complete lack of the sense of danger and fear’ displayed by the Lancashire Fusiliers , who ‘literally hurled themselves ashore’; the heroic wire cutters ‘who could be seen quietly snipping away under a hellish fire as if they were pruning a vineyard’; the Australians who ‘like lightning, leapt ashore, and each man as he did so went straight as his bayonet at the enemy’.”

This literary style leaves two impressions in the minds of the readers: firstly, it is so like the serialised novels published weekly on page 2 of the Advertiser that it reads like fiction, and secondly, it makes the down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is observations of the ordinary soldier even more believable.

Two other letters from front-line soldiers, this time to well-known Harborian Mr Geo S C Roe, give a more intimate account of what living in hell must be like.

“The trenches are very narrow and deep and are level with the ground to give as much protection as possible. They shelled us heavily yesterday morning and in the trench next to mine a high explosive shell dropped completely burying a section, but on dragging them out only one was found to be killed.”

In another account the fear of Germany’s new terror weapon is described. “It was a hot time for about three hours as what with the gas, then the shells and machine gun and rifle fire, it was a wonder we did not all get hit. We were all glad when we were able to take out helmets off and breathe freely. The gas had taken away our bronzed colour and we all looked a pale green, and our eyes had swelled and were blood-shot and marked as if acid was on them.”

There is also sad news of another fatality: Private John Smalley of the 2nd Leicesters has been killed in action. The Advertiser gives just the bare facts that before the war he was a skilled mechanic.

Readers would want to know more as Private Smalley left behind a wife in Rover Street, Kibworth, and his mother, who lived in the same village in Paget Street, was losing a second son to the fighting. Perhaps the editor wanted to respect their privacy.

Other parents were keener to get in the paper. Mr H Payne, whose parents had a blacksmith’s shop in King’s Road, was commended by no other than the King for having six sons and a son-in-law serving in the Army.

Although Mr Payne now lived on the south coast, it was big news for an ‘Old Harborian’ to receive a letter from Buckingham Palace.

No doubt the news, brought to the attention of the Advertiser by Mr Payne’s sister, Miss M A Payne, ‘who still resides in Harborough’, provided a sense of pride for the readers as well as the family.

But perhaps the most poignant observation comes in a story focused on Captain, the Rev Bernard Uffen, a Harborough clergyman at the Front.

He says: “It is hardly possible to make clear to you in England what the war means out here. Possibly one day, when it is all over, and I pray that a righteous peace may soon come, a great many people will visit the battle-front, and so try to imagine some of the conditions under which our men are living and fighting today.”