John’s WWI Blog: Harrowing tales from the trenches

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August 3, 1915: When there was no fire from no man’s land, the Germans in the second trench sniped at the bodies on the wire. Within two hours they had blown Byrne’s head, bit by bit, off his body so that only a hole remained between his shoulders.

This description is just one of the many harrowing passages in the acclaimed WW1 novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, whose bittersweet story of the conflict has left millions of readers crying tears of helpless horror.

But for us there is the shield of time to provide protection. Imagine what it would have been like to have a son, father, husband or brother, on the front line and read similar contemporaneous descriptions.

In the August 3, 1915, issue of the Market Harborough Advertiser there are comparable accounts that must have given nightmares to the mothers and wives of the town.

“In the pool below the bridge are a number of ghastly relics, the exact nature of which is best left to the imagination. It is enough to say that dead men have been lying there for some months and no man dares to approach to bring them out for burial.”

This disturbing scene is described in this week’s Advertiser by a Press Association reporter, allowed to come up to the front line at the infamous Hill 60, where British and German soldiers were in entrenched just 100 yards apart.

“All of a sudden there was a rumble and the part of the trench I was in went up, burying about 40 of us. Our gun team were all buried, the machine gun on top of us.”

This quotation is much closer to home because they are the words of a Harborough man, one who the Advertiser’s readers would know, or know of, because he used to live in Highfield Street and worked at the Harborough Rubber Company.

Private Fred Simmonds was one of the lucky ones. He got out alive although he was writing his letter from a hospital bed.

Ten of the men were killed including Private Cecil Buswell, the 19-year-old son of Mr and Mrs Harry Buswell of Orchard Street.

The last letter the Buswells received from their son was particularly prophetic, reports the Advertiser.

Just five days before his death Private Buswell says: “I am writing this letter in the trenches about 50 yards from the Germans. We are having a very rough time of it just now.

“We were marching up the trenches the other night and about five Harborough boys fell out. We are in a very rough shop so don’t be surprised at further casualties.”

His final words were: “PS – will write again, if I get out all right.”

This edition of the Advertiser is datelined August 3, a day before the first anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war in 1914. There are a number of stories about the milestone but an editorial column sums up the mood of the community.

“Twelve months of war have passed and today we are serene and confident – serene in the justice of our cause and confident in the ultimate victory of the Allied arms.”

The column lists three good reasons to be optimistic:

If Britain hadn’t fought now – with Russia and France – then both of those countries would have been ‘defeated and crushed in turn’ and the Germans ‘would have turned on us, with only one object, the complete subjugation of the British race’.

The Italians and other countries are joining the Allied cause to complete ‘an Iron Ring cutting off Austria and Germany from the outer world’.

And although the Russians are retreating, the editorial predicts that the German Army will suffer a similar fate to Napoleon a hundred years before and be defeated by the Siberian winter. This is particularly prophetic, as Hitler suffered the same dire consequences nearly 30 years later in the Second World War.

The Advertiser has, of course, published photographs of the two young soldiers written about in the stories above.

There is one other picture in this edition – a promotional shot of Mlle Lyuba Lyskoff, star of Kiss Me Sergeant ‘a new musical sketch’ showing at the Leicester Palace this week.

Proof, if any was needed, that readers still enjoy the lighter side of life.

Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.

My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.