John’s WWI blog: Killed by a direct hit

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 30, 1916 – Intertwined fates of two soldiers told in poignant letters

A Market Harborough soldier has been killed by a direct hit from a shell – just days after a sending a kind letter about his town comrade being injured.

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported it

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported it

The story of how the fickle finger of fate treated Corporal Frank Burditt of Northampton Road is told in the May 30, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Just days before his death, Cpl Burditt, who was only 21, had written a letter to Mr and Mrs T Cole of Newcombe Street, Market Harborough, telling them about an injury to their Cecil.

According to the Advertiser report, it was only the second time Pte Coles had been in the trenches. “He was on sentry go at a listening post when he was struck either by a piece of bullet or barbed wire just above the right eye.”

Cpl Burditt was actually with Pte Coles and saw him bandaged up and treated by medics.

Ironically, the next letter the Coles received in Newcombe Street was from their son – telling them about his injury but also the death of Cpl Burditt.

The Advertiser report says: “Pte Cole supplied the sad information that Cpl Burditt, the writer of the previous letter, had been killed. Pte Coles was hit at 12.30 Monday night and at 7 o’ clock on Tuesday a shell dropped straight into a dugout and killed four, Burditt being one of the unlucky ones.”

Cpl Burditt’s family also received news of his death in a letter from the chaplain. They were told: “I hope it will be a comfort to you to know your poor boy suffered no pain whatsoever. A large shell fell directly on his dugout killing him and three of his comrades.”

Journalists in 1916 clearly had an eye for an angle as the Advertiser put these two stories one after the other in the same column. However, a 21st century journalist would have approached this in a different way, combining the two stories and interviewing both families for their reaction to the circumstances.

The families were clearly happy to talk to the Press as they had supplied the letters to the Advertiser’s editor – the strategy of bringing together these two related stories into one heart-rending account clearly comes much later in the 20th century.

Nevertheless it is surprising that the First World War newspaper men were adept at picking out the stories from the humdrum messages contained in so many of the letters.

Another story in this week’s Advertiser gives some indication of how sharp the journalists have to be in a story about the Post Master general’s visit a small London Post office to unveil a roll of honour to the postmen who had joined up and died on active duty.

Some staggering figures are revealed: during the war ‘over 450,000,000 letters and 40,000,000 parcels had been sent to the troops in France’.

It’s estimated that on average there were 12 million letters and parcels sent every week back and forth from the Home front to servicemen around the world.