It would have been impossible for anyone in rural Derbyshire to have truly imagined the horrors of serving on the Western Front, but the first-hand accounts published in the Ashbourne Telegraph were almost cinematic in their descriptions.
War poets such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen are recognised today for having captured the conflict in prose, yet in 1915 ordinary young men in the field wrote with astonishing detail and colour.
This was published in the Ashbourne Telegraph on June 4 and is staggering in its clarity.
“We were coming out from the Ypres Salient. The regiment had left behind more than we care to contemplate. We had been in reserve trenches for 7 days playing rabbits in the hedgerows while the Germans squirted shrapnel and high explosives at us. We were relieved and were marching out to rest billets. It was not a long march, about 14 miles in all, but it was very hot and the cobble stones were hard to the feet.”
The men were tired and thirsty, marching in the darkness.
“Suddenly, just past midnight, out of the darkness came a burst of music! It was a good old brass band playing with all its stops out.
The correspondent said the effect of the music on the troops was instantaneous.
“The men who had been stumbling and crawling along in the dark bucked up at once., Behind us were the guns, above us the stars, below us the unending cobble stones, but all around us was music. For about 20 minutes it played – played us from a state of suspended animation into buoyant activity. Then it ceased as suddenly as it began – so suddenly that it was hard to believe it had ever been.”
The writer of this moving piece, a Captain with the Canadian Infantry, said the music’s effects were evident: “Sore feet and heavy packs were forgotten and the battalion sang down the cobble stones into (redacted), yes and kept on singing till housed for the night. The Canadians will remember how the band of the Sherwood Foresters played them through the darkness at midnight out of ‘Bloody Ypres’.”
The account, by George Gibson, was reproduced in the Ashbourne Telegraph from the Musical News.
A letter from Private Frank Coates, son of Mr and Mrs C Coates of The Square, Ashbourne, details his work as a dispenser in the Number 1 British Red Cross Hospital in France.
The former college student told his family he had been in ‘Le Tonquet’ (sic) for four weeks and he was adjusting to army life. He had been posted to the former casino in the town, and he was dispensing medication from what had once been a bar.
“At first I found the hours rather a startling change from college life – reveille goes at 6-30 a.m., we cease work at 8-30 p.m., and roll call before bed at 9-30 p.m. When I first arrived, things were rather quiet, but owing to the very heavy fighting we have been rushed this past few weeks.”
He explained that the Le Touquet hospital was a clearing hospital and patients did not stay for long, being sent on to London or Rouen to make way for more casualties arriving by train.
“We get the men coming in direct from the field and most of them look very sad cases, covered with grime and blood – you can scarcely associate them with the clean smart Tommies of England.”
Once bathed and dressed in hospital blue uniforms they look as cheerful as ever, he says, as long as they have plenty of cigarettes.
He also relates in detail the scene at the station when the Red Cross trains brought in the latest casualties.
“With a company of a hundred men and thirty ambulances working it takes usually about two or three hours to clear the train. We handle them all as tenderly as we can but many of them suffer agonies, and they bear it all very bravely and it is very seldom we hear a cry.”
Pte Coates tells of transporting the men to the hospital, about three miles away where they are bathed and dressed before the operations begin; the theatre operating day and night on occasions.
“Most of the brave boys bring various souvenirs back with them – German helmets etc, and they hold on to them like grim death.”
Writing from the Endell Street Red Cross Hospital in London the injured Gunner Paul Kernahan details his experiences in the trenches of Belgium and Northern France.
He left the UK on September 10, 1914 and had since seen action at Zeebrugge, Blankenberghe, Yser River, Ypres, Neuve Chappelle and St Julien. On May 15 or 16 he was blown out of a dug-out by a ‘Jack Johnson’ shell while defending his position between Armentieres and Arras.
“You will be very glad to know I am not badly hurt; I can get about alright, and shall soon be coming up to Ashbourne to se you all, which I am very anxious to do.”
He details that his battery of four guns and 25 men were told to attack the German line along about 20 miles of front on May 9.
“There was the usual bombardment of the German trenches, in which we played a big part with our guns, but (unlike Neuve Chappelle) they were ready for us and I am sorry to say gave us as good as we gave them.
“I can only say it failed, and what I saw I must not put on paper. Two attacks with two bombardments were made that Sunday, and I was jolly glad when our officer told us we could go to the third line trench and get a sleep.
“This happened, I should have said, at Richbourgh L’Avone near Festubert. We were lucky that Sunday, as we only lost three men of our battery – my chum (Bowermnan) and two Welshmen.”
The following week, he writes, passed in a steady German bombardment of their lines. The following Saturday night, May 15, the Allies attacked again, this time without a preliminary bombardment.
“All of us had a bit of white canvas tied to our backs to distinguish friends from the Germans. It was a surprise, too, and I am glad to say we got a bit of our own back.”
The Inniskilling Fusiliers led the assault against the Prussian Guard and he describes the Irish as ‘absolutely the best fighters’.
“I thought Ypres was bad enough, and then I said Neuve Chappelle beat Ypres, but this fighting that is going on now beats the lot. I should have to be a Conan Doyle to tell you everything that passed during that week’s fighting. On the Sunday there were 7 of us left out of our battery of 25 men, including our officer and the Germans were dropping some big shells just where we had our guns. Two of our guns were blown to splinters.”
He feared the shells would hit their ammunition, which was in a nearby dug out together with four wounded infantrymen. He persuaded three of them to leave. Five minutes later he heard a heavy shell coming his way.
“Sure enough it fell smack in the dug out and exploded and after that I ‘went to sleep’. They told me afterwards that all the bombs had exploded and, of course the chap inside was blown to bits.
“I had a miraculous escape; the sandbags and walls of the dug out had caught me in the back and blown me across the trench. At any rate I feel as if I had been holding half of France up on my back and you know I wasn’t exactly made for an Atlas II was I?”
Only seven days had elapsed since the Ashbourne Telegraph’s Roll of Honour was first published, but the paper records another name was to join the list of ‘unreturning brave’. Private Alec Ford, 23, of the Ashbourne Territorials had been killed in action on May 25. Before signing up Ford had worked at Thomas Wardle’s St John’s Street Pharmacy.
The paper’s columnist observed: “The ruthless hand of war does not discriminate between persons, and high and low, rich and poor, throughout the land have suffered, and are suffering bereavement.”
The column notes that Sir Peter Walker had lost a nephew, Captain Court of the 9th Lancers, the second relative the family had lost to the war. Lieutenant PAC Walker having been killed in training a few months previously. Sir Peter and his wife Lady Walker were well known in the Ashbourne area, having set up a convalescent home at Osmaston Manor and paid for rifles and uniform for the local Home Guard.
Despite all the tragic news and local reports, the paper still found space, at it did every week for the latest installment of The Telephone Girl, occupying the best part of a full broadsheet page. This week’s installment was chapter 23.
- 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