John’s WWI blog: “One of our men – a mere boy – was crying like a baby”

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)

June 29, 1915: “Victims of the last German gas attack at Ypres have told me the horror of their experiences and painted a picture of the awful agonies they suffered.”

This is the opening paragraph of a story in the June 29, 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser that would have sent a chill through any reader who had a loved one serving on the Western Front.

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported the news

How the Market Harborough Advertiser reported the news

There have been no reports of Market Harborough soldiers caught up in the dreadful weaponry being deployed by the Germans but the mere threat of it would bring only nightmares for those fearing the worst for their husband, son or brother.

The story is sourced from a correspondent working for the Central News in Northern France and it is far more graphic in its language than any report likely to be seen in a 21st century newspaper or website.

The journalist, often writing in the first person, recounts his interview with ‘a giant of a man’ who is nearly well again.

“He told me there were times when he implored the doctors and nurses to put him out of his misery,” the journalist writes. “Even now his eyes have a serious bulgy look as a result of the feeling of suffocation which is a feature of gas-poisoning and which makes a man pass through untold tortures in his endeavour to breathe.

“His neck, too, is shrunken and drawn and his mouth is continually open, like that of a man suffering from the spasms of asthma.”

The report then directly quotes the unnamed soldier as he describes what it is like to be in the midst of such an attack.

“We saw the yellow-green death-cloud rolling across the open until it reached the trenches and the men in them. The first effect of breathing the gas is curiously seductive, and you feel that it will pass off.

“It has a peculiar cloying taste, but very soon your throat begins to burn, and every time you inhale you cough and choke.”

The story then becomes even more graphic and more distressing. “On all sides of me were big, strong men rolling in agony, rendered mad by their sufferings. I buried my face in the soft earth, but to no avail. I felt as if my chest would burst, and tore off my tunic and rent my shirt to shreds in a frantic endeavour to get relief.”

The soldiers were apparently given permission to withdraw but many were already seriously affected and for some there was only one way to find relief.

“One of our men – a mere boy – was crying like a baby. He had only just strength to hobble along and suddenly I saw him turn around, stretch out his arms and draw himself up to his full height. The next moment a German bullet got him and put him out of his agony.”

The story concludes with the soldier saying: “Here you see me now the shadow of my old self. I wish a bullet had found me for I sometimes feel I’ll never have the pluck to face the future. To my dying day I’ll curse the Kaiser and every German.”

This is a report that must have been allowed with the approving nod of the War Office censor, presumably as a way of painting the enemy as a monster who must be tamed by more volunteers answering the call to arms which can be seen in an advert on the front page of the Advertiser.

But would you want to face that kind of agony if you were a young man, safe in Market Harborough in the summer of 1915?