John’s WWI Blog: The official line was upbeat and patriotic

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 25, 1915: Every mother, father, wife and sweetheart bought the Market Harborough Advertiser of May 25, 1915.

Its columns carried official confirmation of the news they already knew, that the Leicestershire Yeomanry had been involved in fierce fighting in Belgium and there were hundreds of casualties.

How the Harborough Advertiser reported the news

How the Harborough Advertiser reported the news

There are a number of stories.

The official line from the War Office is typically upbeat and patriotic. “The Yeomanry helped to save the British lines on the Menin-Ypres road, by holding up hordes of the enemy and massed artillery until such time as reinforcements could arrive on the scene. In the process they lost six officers killed and four wounded and over 200 of the rank and file killed and wounded.”

But the Advertiser does its job as a local paper and provides the stories behind the official dispatch. There are just two deaths among the Harborough contingent but the Advertiser explains who these men are and how they fitted into a community which less than a year ago was not touched by the horrors of trench warfare.

The two men with Harborough connections who died are Sgt Harry Aspden and Private Bert Ray.

Private Bert Ray

Private Bert Ray

Sgt Aspden, who had married Kibworth girl Alice Dunkley in September, had worked in Market Harborough for Messrs Wartnaby, Jeffries and Sons for four years and was a keen sportsman playing for Harborough Hockey Club and Harborough Cricket Second Eleven.

Private Ray, worked for Messrs Goward and Son Grocers on the High Street, and ‘had only recently been sent out to the front, this being his first engagement’.

The Advertiser even has photographs of the two men, both of exceptional quality in comparison to previous reproductions of photographs that had been used on a very few occasions.

And there are other stories which give the readers even more of an insight into what happened during the dreadful engagement.

Sgt Harry Aspen

Sgt Harry Aspen

In a letter to his family, Sgt Jack Garner writes just three days after the battle. “Just a line or two to let you know I am alright at present but since last writing we have been badly cut up at Ypres. We do not at present know the correct list of causalities but expect it will be at least 200 out of the regiment.

“We were holding the trenches at Ypres and the Germans shelled our reserve and looked like capturing the town but our fellows made such a gallant stand and finally charged the Germans out of their trenches but it cost an awful lot of lives.”

And in typical understated language he adds: “We shall remember May 13th for a bit.”

Incredibly, despite describing the carnage of war in such graphic terms, he concludes his letter with the banal. “The weather here now is very nice but it rained fairly heavy on Thursday and Friday.”

How the Harborough Advertiser reported the news

How the Harborough Advertiser reported the news

On the same page, even more graphic an insight is give to the kind of conditions the men are enduring. This comes in a letter that is merely attributed to a Territorial Lieutenant ‘well known to Harborians’. It is not clear why his name is not given, but his descriptions will be well read.

He describes an overnight foray to the front which began ‘as a very pleasant ride on motor omnibuses’ until it became unsafe for them to go any further.

“Everywhere was in ruins and we started off for about a four-mile tramp across country and a very trying journey it was. The ground was full of shell holes and owing to the rain of the last few days it made it difficult going.

“We then came to a ruined village round which a lot of fighting has been going on to the last few days and eventually at 12.15am we came to a place we were going to dig about 500 yards from the firing line.

“Bullets came fairy hot round us and we were not sorry when the order came to ‘down tools’ and get away before light came on, having only been able to do three quarters of an hour’s work owing to the difficulty in reaching the spot. It seemed a farce having to go to so much trouble for so short a time.”

Despite all this news of the fighting and causalities, one of the biggest advertisements in this week’s paper is a plea for more volunteers to join up.

“Owing to the heavy casualties in The Leicestershire Yeomanry, the Reserve Regiment is sending out a large draft so that there are vacancies for young men anxious to serve their country. Good riders and men of good physique will have preference.”