Tales of German barbarity were commonplace during the early months of the war, and many were later debunked as no more than propaganda, but in May 1915 the Ashbourne Telegraph published a harrowing account which has a ring of truth, if only because of its source.
Private R Banyard, a native of the town, was serving with a Canadian regiment in France and he tells of a Canadian Highlander who was found crucified on a door pierced by six bayonets.
The horrific tale comes as he relates his experiences at Ypres in a letter to a friend in Derbyshire: “After three days of ordinary trench work, we observed the Germans were making preparations for a move of some sort, and we were presently shelled by all manner of shells. For the following three days it was a constant hail of lead and we stood up to our posts all the time. I shall never forget it, we had to stand in the trench with no sleep, so you can guess how we felt. Some of us fell asleep standing up, and to make matters worse we did not get our rations up and we had no water. On our fifth day we received orders to retire about noon as trenches on our left had been blown to pieces and with the poison fumes it was impossible to keep the enemy at bay.”
He then gives a detailed account of a further day’s fighting:
“We only had about 50 men left in the trench and the Huns were coming on our left in thousands. It looked like a moving forest they were so thick.”
They retreated to some old trenches where they met with more troops where they made a stand before retreating further to Ypres, having lost many men – “killed, wounded and prisoners”.
He says the Germans killed all the wounded left on the field, and a Corporal in his regiment had seen a ‘kiltie’ (a Canadian Highlander) pinned to a door with six bayonets through his hands, feet, throat and chest.
“People in England seem to think the Germans are about done for, but don’t you believe it! And as for them being short of ammunition it is all rot, it’s more like we are short and if the workers at home don’t buckle to and send us more, not a man of us will be left. Ypres is one mass of bricks, timber, glass, dead horses men, women and children and on every side there are the most pitiable sights one can imagine.”
Short paragraphs set out the mounting toll on Derbyshire’s menfolk. Lieutenant Eastwood of the Royal Engineers, from Matlock, had been wounded in the thigh, 20-year-old Private George Thompson, also from Matlock had been killed in France while serving with the Derbyshire Reserves, Lieutenant G L Jackson of Clay Cross Hall who had celebrated his 21st birthday in the trenches had been gassed and was being treated in hospital, while Colour-Sergeant John Hoult, also of Clay Cross had been killed while serving with the Sherwood Foresters. Elsewhere it was reported that Private S. Stone, of the Ashbourne Territorials had been wounded in action and was expected home soon.
In a letter home to his mother, in Wells’ Yard, St John Street, Ashbourne, Territorial Lance Corporal G Bailey told how C Company wanted to avenge the deaths of the three comrades who died in April when a shell exploded in their trench. He said his commanding officer would not let them charge the German line, but that they were determined to seek revenge.
“The time shall come when we shall make up for their deaths, and then you will see what those little tin soldiers as some called us before we came out are made of. I only wish some of those who called us that would come out here, then they would not call us that again.”
Four of the wounded soldiers who had been receiving treatment at the Red Cross Hospital in Ashbourne left this week for a short furlough before rejoining their regiments. Among them was Corporal Hill of the 6th Battalion Sherwood Foresters who had been in Ashbourne since the hospital opened. Four more patients arrived to fill the recently-vacated beds.
It was reported that Lord Derby, Prime Minister Asquith’s newly appointed Director-General of Recruitment, had said the believed National Service was ‘certain to come’ in order to fully mobilise Britain’s full fighting strength.
Elsewhere in the editorial columns it is reported that Lord Kitchener had called for a further 300,000 men to join the armed forces and the columnist supported the call: “What young Englishman worth his salt, can stand helplessly by and see his brother or friend struck down or cruelly murdered by gas? We think there are very few.”
But the number of men enlisting appeared to be having an impact on the labour force at home. It was reported that there was a shortage of farm labourers, with ‘more famers than servants’ at the Nottingham May Hirings.
“One able bodied young fellow refused £30 a year (less than £4,000 in 2015 prices) with the remark that he had already had a better offer.
In what might have been seen as a film choice of dubious taste, the Ashbourne Empire was promoting the comedy “Soldiers of Misfortune – A Keystone Scream”
- David Penman is a senior lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort University in Leicester. You can read more of his week-by-week analysis of the Ashbourne Telegraph at greatwarreports.wordpress.com
- 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 War blog