John’s WWI blog: ‘It was a terror in the trenches we were in’

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 18, 1915: Regional papers like the Market Harborough Advertiser continue to outflank the Government’s infamous Press Bureau with vivid stories about life at the Front.

In the May 18, 1915, edition of the newspaper there are once again many reports straight from the horse’s mouth through the letters from young men who readers will either know personally or will certainly be able to identify with.

A newspaper cutting from 1915

A newspaper cutting from 1915

These articles carry even greater resonance as they sit on the same pages as official releases from the Press Bureau which are either dry and dusty or so patriotic they’re hard to believe.

The most talked about story will be news of three more young men who have been wounded – but extraordinarily there are all from the same street.

Lance Cpl Ernest Richardson of 69 Logan Street writes to his father saying: “I have been slightly wounded in the right thigh, but can walk with a limp. I feel sure it will go on all right, so do not worry.

“Sam Monk and Bill Sturgess were wounded at the same time – funny all of us from Logan Street. It was a terror in the trenches we were in and it might have been a lot worse.”

Cpl Monk is also quoted directly with a letter to his wife who still lives at 122 Logan Street. “I have stopped a bullet or a piece of shrapnel – I don’t know exactly which, because there was a terrific din at the time. I have the bit in my right arm.”

And Private W Sturgess writing to his parents at 9 Logan Street says: “I am sorry to say I have been slightly wounded and am in hospital for the time being. I got hit in the face.”

There is also a story from Private A J Sullivan of Nithsdale Avenue whose letter gives all the Advertiser readers an insight into daily life. “I think for soldiers we live excellently – breakfast, beef steak or bacon with tea and bread; dinner, roast beef or mutton or stewed beef and potatoes; last meal, bread and butter or jam with tea.”

He is also very happy to have ‘a bit of English baccy’ again. Apparently they are issued six packets of cigarettes every ten days and also a tot of rum.

Advertiser readers will also see a huge advert asking readers to donate money to a fundraising campaign to send cigarettes to the soldiers. The advert is dominated by a line drawing of cheeky looking soldier saying “’arf a mo’, Kaiser’ while he lights up a cigarette.

The wording of the ad begins: “Our soldiers are giving their lives, you are asked to give them something to smoke.”

There are an increasing number of Press Bureau stories in the Advertiser but they continue to be fairly dry accounts of fighting gains of this hill or that objective or lurid over-the-top stories full of patriotic fervour aimed at denigrating the Germans and making the British appear whiter than white.

One Press Bureau despatch headlined ‘Shooting of British prisoners’ repeats a news report from a Dutch newspaper which quotes a German soldier who deserted.

The story claims the deserter personally shot five British soldiers in cold blood and he knew of many similar incidents, including one where 40 British soldiers were burned alive in a hangar.

These types of stories along with other claims of German atrocities were never substantiated and in fact after the War was over an independent inquiry found virtually all the allegations – most published only in newspapers – were in fact untrue.

What could not be disputed were the stories of rioting against shopkeepers of German descent – mainly in Liverpool and Newcastle – after last week’s sinking of the passenger liner the Lusitania.