John’s WWI blog: Letter writer drips with sarcasm

A scene from the First World War battlefields
A scene from the First World War battlefields

December 14, 1915 – Commerce and conflict butt heads once again

Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit and the highest form of vulgarity is one of the many quotes of Oscar Wilde.

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)

The opprobrium of one of the 19th century’s greatest wordsmiths does not stop any stooping by one correspondent in the December 14, 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser. The author’s pen drips with sarcasm and contempt as he gives a no-holds-barred roasting to young men avoiding the Army call-up claiming they are ‘indispensable’ to their employer.

And his criticism is also aimed at the employers who help throw a cloak of safety over the potential recruits claiming that the bosses are putting profit before patriotism.

The angry Letter to the Editor is sparked by a new national tribunal scheme headed by Lord Derby which arbitrates in cases where a company wants to make certain employees’ work designated as vital to the continuation of the business.

The message behind the correspondence is fascinating but so also is the language used: it’s interesting to note that sarcasm in written form is no modern day phenomenon.

“If Lord Derby’s Scheme has done nothing else, it has revealed a state of things between employer and employee such as never existed before, and certainly never will again,” says the letter.

“Single eligible young men in this town, some of them employed in large business establishments, tell you in all seriousness that the reason they have not enlisted is that ‘The Boss’ or the ‘The Guvnor’ says we are ‘indispensable’. What a new position for the employee to be in – to be told he is ‘indispensable’ to the business or concern.”

The author then turns away from irony and takes a more direct route, saying: “The whole thing is too ludicrous.”

But it’s only a minor detour before sarcasm returns. “If the young man were to die suddenly – Heaven forbid such a national calamity – I can assure him the business would go on just as usual without him.

“If he were – and Heaven preserve him again from such a thing – to commit a misdemeanour his employer would sack him without notice, thus showing he is not indispensable.

“And if he saw a better job and took it, would his employer commit suicide at thus losing an indispensable?”

The correspondent concludes: “It is an absolute farce for any employer to tell one of their employees, especially in a big undertaking, that he is indispensable. At present, many of us have the impression that the single eligible is ‘indispensable’ only so far as profits may be concerned and nothing else.”

The letter is all the more remarkable because this edition of the Advertiser – like all of those papers throughout the run-up to Christmas – is dominated not by war news but by exhortations of shopkeepers telling the readers to come and ‘spend, spend, spend’.

It’s a strange contrast between commerce and conflict as the community seems to be just getting on with life.

Perhaps it’s also because the fighting seems to have calmed down as there is no news to report from the Front. We know with historical hindsight this is just the lull before the storm so perhaps this ‘normality’ of life in Market Harborough is just a coping mechanism to deal with reality of sons, husbands and brothers being in such close proximity to danger.