One of the reasons that the impact of the Great War was felt so keenly was because so many of the fighting men came from the same town, the same village, the same street, even the same family.
It was commonplace for families to have several sons serving in the Army, and the Browns of Osmaston had three: Clifford (Royal Field Artillery), Bertram (Royal Scots) and Lance (16th King’s, Liverpool).
Their mother received letters from the front from two of them and passed them to the Ashbourne Telegraph for publication.
Lance detailed leaving Liverpool, where they had been in training for several months, travelling to Aldershot, where they were issued with respirators and told to board a train quietly.
“None of us knew exactly where we were going until we got off the train at (redacted), and then of course we knew we were bound for France.”
They arrived in France at 3am and marched through the town to some tents where they got four hours rest before being roused for breakfast. He related how they ate biscuits, bacon and tinned meat before buying cake and cigarettes.
“I was on my way back to camp when I heard our sergeant shout: “Fall in 16”. I hurried back and found they were giving field postcards and emergency rations out.”
The men were told not to eat the rations as they might need them in the trenches if food supplies were cut off.
“They asked us if we had all got our ammunition, so we thought things were going to be a bit lively.”
The soldier’s letter is written with economy and precision.
“We all fell in and our Colonel read us a message from the King and he said himself he need not tell us to be brave, as we had always acted like men, and he was sure we would all do our duty like men, and fight to the last. We then gave three hearty cheers for the King and set off for (redacted) station headed by our bugle band.”
The men were loaded into cattle trucks and travelled for a day before arriving at another unnamed station where they were ordered to put on their packs and prepare to march.
“And it was a march I can tell you! Only about 10 miles, after travelling all day in the burning sun, and we had no water left, which made it worse for us, and the officers told us to manage without water until we got to our billet, as the water where we were had all been poisoned.”
The troops stayed at a farm for a week before being taken by bus to the front.
“This time we had no billet to go to, they just marched us into a wood and told us to make a bit of shelter for ourselves, for the time being, and now we are in the thick of it and fighting for our lives.”
He closes by saying he will write again when he has time, and asking to be remembered to everyone in Osmaston.
His brother had not yet reached the front and told his mother that after a 36 hour train ride in cattle trucks he was sitting writing under a cherry tree covered in fruit. He said he and a friend from Belper planned to have a ‘good feed’ from it.
“You can hear the guns very well, and they don’t half grumble, I can tell you.”
He said he hoped to go to the firing line the next day, and signed off: “Hoping you are all in the Pink, your loving son, Bert.
The Telegraph published an appeal from Grenadier Guard Walter Bassett who wanted to get in touch with a family by the name of Hulley, who ran a pub, which he though might be called the Greyhound about three miles outside Ashbourne. He said his comrade Private G Hulley of the Grenadier Guards had been killed and he had a photograph of a young woman which he thought might be the soldier’s sister, and he wished to return it to the family. He also wanted to tell them how his comrade had died and where he was buried.
“I am a Thorpe man myself, and have been out here seven months. I have not seen any of the Ashbourne boys in my travels. I should like to see some of the old faces. I have seen how they are going on in your paper which I have sent out to me every week.”
The editor printed a reply to say the paper had spoken to Mr J Hulley of the Fox and Hounds Inn at Bradley, and that Private Hulley had been a widower and left two young orphaned children. Was that picture of his wife?
The Notes and Comments column ran an extensive piece from an unnamed young recruit of the Ashbourne Territorials, training somewhere in England. It detailed the minutiae of life in training. He summed up his feelings towards the end of his letter: “I should like to have a smack at the Huns, but am too young to go over to France.”
Lieutenant Basil Nicholson, 25, son of Sir Arthur Nicholson of Highfield Hall, Leek, had been killed in action soon after returning to the firing line from a few days leave in Staffordshire. He had been serving with the 3rd Battery, 2nd Midland Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. Nicholson’s eldest brother Falkner, also attached to the same battery had been wounded the previous week and was in hospital.
Shorthand is a skill still learned and practised by journalists, but in 1915 was obviously considered worthy of teaching to broader swathe of the public. It was announced that students at the Ashbourne Boys’ Evening Continuation Classes had been awarded Pitman Shorthand certificates. George Freason had achieved 60 words a minute, Wilfred Thornton 50 words a minute and others had passed theory tests.
- 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