Tragic news, which today would make banner headlines on the front page of any regional newspaper, was relayed to readers of the Ashbourne Telegraph not on page one, which was filled with advertisements, but on page 5.
“It is with deep regret we have to record the death of three Ashbourne territorials who were on active service at the front, and who were all killed by one shell while in the trenches.”
The dead men were named as Lance Corporal Albert Harrison, son of Mr and Mrs HG Harrison of Mayfield Road, Private Fred Bull, son of Mr and Mrs H Bull of Compton and Private Walter Blake, son of Mrs Blake of Union Street.
“All three belong to well-known and highly respected families in the town and the terrible news caused quite a sensation in the town, the deepest sympathies being extended to the bereaved families.”
The report said the men were all active members of social circles in the town and their loss would be felt by those who knew them.
“By their gallant self-sacrifice they have won undying fame and honour and their memory will be cherished by all in years to come.”
The news of the soldiers’ deaths came in an emotional letter home to his wife in Ashbourne from Quartermaster Sergeant J Tetlow in which you can almost hear the raw grief, written as if choking back emotion.
“Just a line. I don’t know how to write. God help us. You must be prepared to hear some very bad news.
When our company was in the trenches the Germans began to shell us, and a shell dropped right in the trench amongst the Ashbourne lads.
I am sorry to say it killed four of them. Walter (Blake) was amongst the four, the other three were Fred Bull, Albert Harrison, and a lad named Nadin (I think from Buxton). William Birch from Mayfield was slightly wounded. They have answered the call and laid down their lives for their country. ‘Greater love hath no man than this’.
I went up to the trenches last night and helped to bring them out; we were under fire all the time. We buried them in a cemetery this morning. [the letter was dated April 10]. I shall never forget the scene. It seems like a nightmare.”
A shocking prelude to the devastating news that the three Ashbourne ‘terriers’ had been killed was carried on Page 2 of the Ashbourne Telegraph. Here is strong evidence that the paper was put together chronologically, and that page 2 was composed earlier than page 5, for the news carried here was to be tragically superseded by later events.
A letter sent back by Ashbourne Territorial Lance Corporal S Smith of North Leys, Ashbourne describing his journey to France with Walter Blake who was to be killed a few days later.
“In the early hours of [redacted] we left our English camp and proceeded to Southampton. Our trains ran right into the docks, where we waited for a little while, but were not allowed outside. In the afternoon we embarked on the [redacted] and crossed the channel. Powerful cruisers accompanied us and search lights played all around.”
It is interesting to note how the official censor had removed specifics such as the name of the ship and locations.
On reaching France they disembarked into a large receiving shed.
“We were served out with fur coats and three days’ rations, the latter consisting of bully beef, biscuits and jam. Early next morning we entrained in cattle trucks, which had straw laid on the floor – 40 men per truck – and had a 26 hour ride up country, to a small village called Cassell. On arriving we had a six mile march over some very bad roads – mud up to the ankles. Then we arrived in [redacted] and were billeted in barns where we remained for some days.”
The account is detailed, explaining that they had undergone a further march to a town half a mile from the front where the men could see shells exploding in the air.
They were billeted in a chateau previously occupied by Germans who had left their names scrawled on the walls.
“Privates W Blake, F Bull, H Hand and Lance-Corpl. S Smith along with another non-com went to a place called Maxim Farm, round by Dead Horse Corner. We then took up our duties and we had not been settled long before our little hamlet became the centre of a very heavy maxim fire, bullets whizzing about our heads and striking the walls of the houses close to us.”
The account describes their situation as ‘very risky’ and says German flares were lighting up the sky. At daybreak aircraft circled above and there was a ‘continual roar of thunder and lightning’ from big guns and ‘whistling willies’.
While out working to erect ‘breast works’ the men came under fire and lost a lance corporal.
“It began to rain bullets and shells, so our work had to be abandoned. We afterwards went to the burial service of our dead comrade in the wood, and whilst this was proceeding, shells were bursting all around us.”
The horrors of life in the trenches is told even more graphically, if that were possible, in a letter from Private AS Goodall, serving with the Grenadier Guards who wrote home to family in Clubley, in the typical matter-of-fact style of soldiers seeing active service in France.
“We have been having a hot time this last few days; we have captured about two thousand Germans and three or four hundred killed. Most of my mates have been either killed or wounded, they keep falling right and left; my platoon officer got shot just as I was running past him and about all the officers got killed or wounded. I had just dropped down when a shell fell about ten yards away. There were two officers and a man just getting down beside me and it caught all three of them and missed me, and about a quarter of an hour after the medical officer came along to attend to their wounds and he was shot down by a bullet through his shoulder. I saw a shell kill six men and I don’t know how many it wounded; another dropped on a section of Gordons and blew them to pieces. You could see legs and arms fly in the air as soon as it struck them.”
It is difficult to imagine that this gruesome account would have met with approval by the War Office as such brutality would do little to help recruitment.
But Pte Goodall sought comfort from a higher power: “But I have never been downhearted yet because I know there is only One who can keep me safe. I got through a three-days battle without being hit, one trench was full of dead Germans and a few of our own men too; it was an awful sight – I don’t want to see anything like that again, the smell from them was enough to make anyone ill.
We have just landed into billet for a rest and we can do with it too, for we never got any sleep for three nights – always on the look out for any German spies that may be creeping about …. We are having grand weather out here now, the ground is drying up nicely. I don’t know how much longer the war is going to last, for it doesn’t seem to get much better yet ….”
A lodger who stole clothes from her host and pawned them was sentenced to a month’s hard labour by magistrates. Helen Whitehead, a domestic servant had been staying at the home of Miss Hilda Warren in Coates Yard, but when she left took the outfit and pawned it and burned the pawn ticket at Ashbourne Railway Station when she left for Bury, Lancs.
The Urban Council had received a summons claiming an injunction to stop discharging from their gas works into the River Henmore, tar napthaline gas liquor or any other pollutant which might affect the Henmore or the Dove. The writ also sought damages and costs. The council voted to defend the action and instruct a barrister and pathology expert.