John’s WWI blog: Randomness of death scattered all over edition

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)

September 28, 1915 – Buried alive for two hours

Shocking news of a well known soldier buried alive for two hours under the debris of a collapsed house is brought to the readers this week of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Private Fred Turner

Private Fred Turner

And the graphic detail and honest language of those directly quoted in the story demonstrates how transparent and empathetic were the local paper editors of a century ago.

The soldier is Private Bert Allen a jeweller, of High Street, Market Harborough, and he was ‘lucky to come out alive’.

Capt Chaplain Bernard Uffen, the well known Harborough clergyman on the frontline, wrote to Bert’s brother Fred describing what happened.

“One shell struck a building close by where which your brother and others were standing and it collapsed and buried them. They were under the debris some two hours.”

Private Billy Brotherton

Private Billy Brotherton

A number of the soldiers were killed but Bert was dug out alive. “Bert is very much bruised and his ankle is injured. He will need to rest to get over the shock.”

One of Bert’s friends, Private Walter Downes from Foxton, said they had only been talking together just an hour before the shell dropped. “He was on police duty at a crossroads in a town and he was telling me what a nice easy job he had got and that he was going home on leave in a week or two,” says Private Downes in a letter to his mother.

The randomness of death is scattered all over this week’s edition. Another article tells of the death of Lance-Corporal C F Cherry from Holyoake, near Liverpool but also the grandson of Mr C Cherry of Logan Street and a nephew of Mr J Cherry of Fairfield Road.

Using the Birkenhead News as its source, the story describes how the soldier was merely standing in the entrance of his tent when he was hit in the back by a shrapnel bullet.

Another story tells of how Private Billy Brotherton of Market Harborough died. In a letter to Billy’s mother, Sgt William Bale of Harborough, says: “We were out last night from about eight o clock until the early hours of this morning working just in the rear of the firing trench. Everything went all right until about 11.30 when Will was hit.

“He died without a word, also I think without suffering for it happened so quickly.”

One of Billy’s other mates Private P W Ireland of Hearth Street, who enlisted at the same time as Billy, writes to his mother saying: “Only yesterday morning I was talking to him...and I was going to see him this afternoon. When I heard I could hardly believe it.”

Details of how another soldier died – Private Fred Turner from Desborough – are not revealed but the editor has managed to find out a lot about him, including his sporting prowess for the town’s cricket and football teams.

The story concludes: “He was married only a few months since and the deepest sympathy is felt for the widow and friends.

“Private Turner is the second man who has given his live for the country from Desborough.”

Despite this horrific attrition rate, the soldiers who are still on the front keep up a cheery façade in the face of what appears to be appalling conditions. Private T A Farr tells his sister about his life in the Dardanelles. “We have some awful hardships to put up with. It is very hot here in the day time and cold as ice at night.

“We have to be careful of snipers. There are scores of them and they are ‘potting away’ all the time and if they hit you it’s about all over for you.”

But he is determined to show his spirits have not been dampened. “I play the mouth organ to the boys and it quite cheers them up.”

The intimate and realistic language, woven around detailed and often ordinary actions, that was used in these stories – all of which flout the Government’s censorship laws – are in sharp contrast to lofty prose used in the national newspapers.

For instance, there is very little depth and warmth in the Daily Telegraph’s description of how people of Hull lined the streets to welcome home the bodies of British submariners ‘murdered’ by Germans after they became stranded on a Danish beach.

“It was with the altogether uncommon sentiments that the people of Hull and of the district around it looked on today’s obsequies. No ordinary death had these men met.

“No victims were they of the notoriously fickle fortunes of war, honourably if sternly conducted. On the contrary, helplessly stranded on a neutral shore, they had been un-chivalrously, meanly, sent to their doom by a flagrantly unscrupulous enemy.

“It was really the utter meanness of the proceeding, contrasting their heroic, unflinching behaviour of its victims, that so powerfully moved the populace of Hull today.”

The language is of the church pulpit or the politician’s rostrum, a pronouncement of great import, and surely the approach expected of its readers. And that makes the ‘neighbourly’ principles of the local papers all the more illuminating for its readers.