John’s WWI blog: Trooper Powell’s excellent use of language

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 1, 1915: Trooper F Powell didn’t have Facebook in the First World War trenches but you can bet he would have been an avid user judging by the June 1, 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Today, social media means we can learn about the many very different things our friends or associates are doing, sometimes from many miles away. Trooper Powell has done exactly what we do – share his experiences with as many immediate friends as possible by the best means possible.

Instead of using the internet, Trooper Powell uses the early 20th century equivalent: the local paper. In the letter he sent to his parents he specifically asked them to take it to the Advertiser so it can be published.

Is he bragging about how brave he is? Doing his patriotic duty to drum up new volunteers for Kitchener’s Army? Or just enjoys writing and fancies himself as a journalist?

Reading his story it appears as if it is none of the above. It is just the 1915 equivalent of social media: a young man doing something different and wanting to share it with his ‘friends’. In this instance the friends are those who know him, know of him and his family, and the wider community of the Harborough area.

Where his ‘post’ also differs from today’s Facebook updates is his use of language.

His letter writing is excellent. He basically provides a diary of his past seven days but the things he writes about and way he writes them help to build a series of graphic images in the minds of the readers.

He starts off with an incredible insight into the life of a front-line soldier with tiny nuggets of simplistic detail that help build those pictures.

They were called out a midnight; then they marched three miles; then they were picked up by open top motor buses which are painted grey. Trooper Powell also has a laugh with his mates though as ‘some of them still have advertisements on inviting us to Scarborough and Blackpool’.

He continues: “It was a bitterly cold night and we were packed like bully beef in tins. Unfortunately a lot of us had to go on top and we got very wet.”

Then they take cover for the day in huts, still a fair way from the actual front itself. By 6pm they are off again, this time on foot for four hours. That’s when it gets dangerous.

“We arrived at 10pm and were very soon under fire. About 50 yards before we got in the trenches the Germans opened a terrific rifle fire and were very soon laid flat on the road. When the star shell went down we made a dash for the trench. Luckily we got in safely and then we started blazing away at them.”

Trooper Powell’s account reads like the imagined adventures of a summer holiday schoolboy and his friends. He continues in this vein as he and some others back about a mile to fetch rations and they have to dodge the ‘whistling bullets’.

The excitable style of language is then tempered with a more thoughtful approach as he describes the reality of his surroundings.

“The town we defended is completely ruined and what was once a beautiful cathedral is now a mass of ruins. Not a house is there which has not been hit by a shell and as we marched through we could see the furniture and things just as the poor Belgians left them.”

Then comes a note of sensitivity, that perhaps we wouldn’t anticipate coming from a young soldier but is a common theme of many of these published letters from young, front-line participants.

“Perhaps one would hardly believe this but there was a beautiful nightingale in a wood just behind our trench and it used to sing every night. It was grand to hear and at the same time German shells were screaming through the wood and cutting trees off wholesale.”

The moment of introspection is soon passed over and it’s back to cheeky, cheerful Trooper Powell who jokingly moans about the rain. “The mud was awful. I don’t want to see any more mud for the rest of my life.”

He also jokingly refers to the continuous shelling as ‘pretty hot’ and how he and his comrades just lay in the bottom of their trench and ‘trusted to luck’.

Although he lists the casualties – one killed and eight wounded – Trooper Powell is clearly very much alive and happy to collect a few souvenirs. “I have several pieces of shell that dropped near me and when I picked them up they were quite hot.”

The reader can tell Trooper Powell has a huge, proud grin on his face as he writes the final flourish of his letter about them returning from the trenches to rest camp.

“I had a topping beard after nine days, I should have loved you to have seen me covered as I was in mud. I looked like Burglar Bill!”