John’s WWI blog: For whom the bell tolls

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)

March 28, 1916 – Bells toll for mankind but peal for Fred Kilborn

Bell ringing on the battle field takes centre stage in the March 28, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported the news

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported the news

This is, of course, bell ringing at the Front, and, once again proves how so often the ordinary and the extraordinary sit cheek by jowl as soldiers and those back in Blighty just get on with their lives amid the horror of the First World War.

The story bizarrely comes from a newspaper called Ringing World and features Private Fred Kilborn of Desborough, who before the war worked in Market Harborough at Messrs Fisher, Bolam and Co. He was a well known member of the Central Northants Bell Ringing Association.

Private Kilborn is one of those many young men who have experienced the hell of German artillery. “I had a narrow escape from at least a serious wound. I had my water bottle smashed by a piece of shrapnel. The following day I got my touch of gas – not badly – bit I felt it more as the time passed on.”

He was then in and out of hospital for a couple of weeks ‘doubled up in pain’ as the gas continued to play havoc on his body. “Now that I feel better, however, I don’t mind in the least going up again [to the Front],” he says with usual bravado of the indomitable Tommy.

The brush with mortality does not, however, stop Private Kilborn waxing lyrical about French campanology. “Certainly we hear bells occasionally in France but I’ve not yet heard a ‘peal’ of more than two. It would interest me very much to visit one of these belfries when ringing is in progress. They sort of get the bells half-ay up and keep ‘em there. First you her 1-2 – then, of course, 2-1, but the ‘variety of clipping’ between the ‘change’ is about the limit.”

He even goes on to say: “To hear a peal of bells after a lapse of over six months and after the life we have lived would be almost sufficient to make one weep for joy.”

And there is further proof of how we all cling to our communities, whether they be geographical, political, sporting or by interest, when he expresses his condolences about ‘young Jesson of East Langton’ who was killed in action.

Private Kilborn notes that he had only just been awarded the DCM but was more interested in his campanology links. “I believe he was making splendid headway with his ringing at the time war broke out. He went to Rugby and if I remember rightly, scored his first peal with the ringers there.”

This little anecdote precedes more observations of life at the front, as if he has been daydreaming of peaceful days in church but is brought back to a horrible and turbulent present.

“We none of us know who is the next to fall. Our regiment, I’m afraid like many more, caught it pretty stiff up at _______________ last September. Many were killed, wounded or captured and many missing, some of whom (Corporal Faulkner of the Easton Neston band for one), not a word has been heard of to the present day.”

The vivid imagery of Advertiser stories in previous months has been conspicuously absent recently but there are glimpses of a return to those horrific home truths.

There is a simply delivered story about Private T J Smith who was employed at Messrs Webb Bros before the war. “He was killed by a sniper and died instantaneously.”

And there is graphic news of an injured Private Stevens of Kettering Road, Little Bowden. His parents would have little difficulty picturing their son’s plight following the description from Lt –Corpl J Ward. “He was trying to get clear of a bomb but two bits went into his right arm. He had to stop in the trenches last night – it is an awful job getting the wounded out as the trenches are up to the knees in water.

“He stopped with me Monday night and Tuesday. I saw that he had some hot tea and some food. We have been in the trenches six days. I think we get relieved tonight and I shan’t be sorry to get out.”

The ‘quiet news days’ of the past month or so are about to change as the fallout from the Germans’ Verdun offensive starts to affect the British Army, which as we now know, is building up to infamous summer Battle of the Somme.