Within days of the outbreak of war the Government ushered in the Defence of the Realm Act, which introduced a variety of authoritarian controls including censorship of the news.
Correspondents from the national press were severely restricted in what they could report and official accounts were bland and largely focused on impersonal statements about successful advances and strategic troop movements.
A clearer, more engaging – and almost certainly more accurate – picture of the was apparent from local papers publishing first hand accounts from men writing home to their families.
A series of remarkable letters were published this week in the Ashbourne Telegraph which described the hellish nature of life as a Tommie, told in a language so undemonstrative that the message is all the more impactful.
A letter dated April 21 had been received from Ashbourne territorials at the front, thanking grocers Smedley Bros and Mellor for a large parcel of cigarettes sent out to the troops.
“They could not have reached us at a better time, as we were about to march into the trenches, and I can tell you they were very much appreciated. We have now done a fortnight’s hard work in the fighting line, and I can tell you it is very trying work, shot and shells falling the whole time, but the boys take it all in good part and do their duty well.
“The second day we were in the trenches we got shelled very heavy for two hours. We were in detached posts and I am sorry to say we lost three of our boys and one wounded, which was a great blow to us. We are all fighting hard to avenge it, and we all sympathise very much with their relatives, and it is the wish of the boys that you convey our sympathy to them.”
The letter was signed by Sergeant Dakin, Lance Corporal Ford, Corporal T Harrison, Lance Corporal Ward, Corporal P Gallimore and Private W Ward.
In another letter home to his mother Private Bert Mee of C Company (Ashbourne) 6th Sherwood Foresters refers to the loss of three Ashbourne men, previously reported in the paper. He wrote:
“You have to be very careful when in the trenches. If a poor chap forgets himself and shows his head above the trench it is sure death, for the Germans are crack shots. I expect you heard about those poor lads we lost last time we were in the trenches. I expect Mrs Blake is in a sorry way about poor Walter. It happened during the afternoon, I was in a dug out with Tom Harrison about 20 yards from where it exploded and bits of shell dropped in our trench. When I went to fetch our sandbags they were just putting them on the stretchers and they asked me to give them a hand to load them but when I saw poor Walter I could not. But, poor lad, he looked so nice.”
Mee continued to observe that here would be no need to go to see the fireworks at Ashbourne Sports in future because they see ‘starlights’ going on all night.
A further letter, this time from Private William Ollerenshaw of Biggin-by-Hartington to his aunt, Mrs Sims, reads:
“It is simply hell in the trenches and nothing else. No one could realise unless they were there and experienced it for themselves.”
He describes troops having to cross a mile and a half of open countryside, under fire, before reaching the trenches.
Private GF Taylor, serving with the Grenadier Guards wrote to his wife and children in Sturston Road describing his journey to the front line.
“We left Southampton and crossed the Channel in company with powerful escorts. There were about 1,200 of us and we were in total darkness because it was believed the enemy were in the proximity. Landed in France in the early hours and proceeded to Base No [redacted] then a march of eight miles over bad roads; then medical inspection, and 350, of whom I was one, picked out for going straight to the front line. We had rations shared out for three days – bully beef biscuits and jam. Then entrained, and afterwards a march of nine miles in rain, before reaching our billet. We stayed there till the morning and then right away into the firing line.
“It was my first experience of being under fire, and I must say a very unpleasant one. A mile from our billet we were under a continuous hail of lead and shrapnel. I lost several of my chums in this place – one was hit at my side, another immediately behind me killed almost instantly by a large piece of shrapnel, which I have kept up to now as a souvenir.
“We stay in the trenches four days and four nights: as long as I live I shall never forget the sights or the sensations. The Germans are only 150 yards away when we attacked, and what with the barbed wire and barricades it was a very difficult thing to get at them., but this we did although losing heavily. Shells fell about every ten yards; it was simply hell and nothing else. One shell I noticed in particular fell among a number of men, blowing them absolutely to pieces; you could see different parts of equipment up amongst the trees, hanging from branches.”
He says he had heard about the Ashbourne Territorials losses, adding that he hoped to come in contact with them. “Then I can have a talk which is dear to the hearts of everyone of us – a talk of home and loved ones.”
The indomitable spirit of the British soldier is now legend, and it is exemplified in another communication shared with the readers of the Telegraph.
In his letter, Private Stanley Stone, serving with the territorials ‘somewhere in France’, details a game of football. Stone, formerly of Ashbourne Town Reserves Football Club detailed how the Ashbourne Company played a company of the Royal Scots.
“The Ashbourne Team was as follows: Fearn, goal; Chell and Kettle, backs; Stone Pearce and Barker, half backs; Hollingshead, Bedford, Bailey, Mee and Johnson, forwards. The Ashbourne men scored five minutes from the start, and 20 minutes later the ‘Jocks’ equalised. Play was pretty even, and in the last minute the Ashbournians scored again and ran out winners 2-1, England thus beating Scotland in the international game under shell fire.”
He explained that the sound of guns could be heard plainly during the game.
But such recreation was far from the mind of Private J Woodyatt, writing to his mother in Compton Bridge. He relates his first four days in the trenches.
“The things most to fear,” he says “are the snipers; they won’t let you stray far behind the trenches without letting you have one or two bullets , which go singing by you. They make things very warm both day and night. We have been shelled several times but they appear to be rotten marksmen in this district, so we have escaped so far except to get covered with dirt occasionally. Rifle fire goes on day and night and we like to oblige them as often as possible.”
A Belgian refugee in Ripley, was reported to have received a letter from his son, a private in the Belgian army who had been taken prisoner by the Germans in Liege but had escaped the concentration camp where he was being held. He marched for three days to the Dutch border, but was recaptured near the frontier with Germany. He was returned to the camp, court martialled and sentenced to 15 days imprisonment.
“His object in escaping was to reach Belgium via Holland and England and to fight again for his country. He states that the food supplied in prison was of a better quality that in the concentration camp. He adds that bread is very scarce and almost uneatable.”
- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague John Dilley is conducting a similar real-time project with the Market Harborough Advertiser. Check out his Newspapers and the Great Warblog