Much of the news selected for publication by editors today falls into the category of ‘human interest’; that is items not necessarily of great import, but which are likely to prompt an emotional response from the reader. So it was in the Ashbourne Telegraph 100 years ago.
One of the eight men killed by a mine, reported the previous week in the paper, was Private Charles Carter. It was noted then that he had been one of four sons of Mr and Mrs Carter of Mappleton serving ‘in the fighting line’.
The appeal of the following story, which appeared on page two of the paper in 1915 is clear.
“There is a fifth son, a boy of 13, and the martial spirit is so strong in this representative of the family also, that he walked to Derby a short time ago in order to enlist. He was not, of course accepted and he returned home a very disappointed youth. He pluckily asserts, however, that he is going again as soon as he is old enough!”
Modern-day editors must work under a code of conduct, which states there publications must not intrude into grief. In 1915 there appeared to be no such concerns, with letters to bereaved parents apparently readily offered to the paper for reproduction.
One, from Private Thomas Carter, brother of Charles Carter one of the men killed, to his mother is matter-of fact in its description of what the paper described as a ‘sad calamity’.
“We had been in the trenches two days when the Germans began shelling us. They then exploded a mine and killed and wounded one platoon including the Ashbourne Company.”
There is a much more human feel to his following sentences:
“I thought it was over with me, as they kept shelling us for two hours and the mine had levelled the trench. I shall never forget it and feel as though I have no heart now that poor Charlie is killed.”
John (Jack) Thompson’s mother at Holme Farm, Mayfield, received a letter from Corporal Chas Wood which was far more graphic in detail. It tells of the explosion that killed her son in a breathlessly long sentence: “I was in the trench myself, and was about 50 yards or so from Jack when it occurred and I shall never forget it as I have not got over the shock myself yet, and when we came to look round we found that seven of our brave lads out of our platoon had been buried by earth that the mine had blown up, and I can assure you that Jack and the brave fellows could not have suffered any pain as death must have been instantaneous.”
The following sentence would have brought the family little comfort: “We tried to find poor Jack and the brave fellows, and kept on looking until the early hours of next morning, but could find no sign of them at all.”
A further letter home from Ashbourne’s Private James Adderbury gives a survivor’s perspective: “I was blown about 20 yards or more and then buried for half an hour. I lost everything and only have what I stand up in. Charlie Tunnicliffe, Bert Mee and Dick Simmonds are down here with me. We are not seriously hurt, only suffering from shock.”
A letter from Bert Brown of the Royal Scots Guards was also reproduced in the village correspondents’ column on the back page of the Telegraph. He tells of a great charge ‘somewhere in France’.
“You don’t and can’t realise what a charge it was. We captured a lot of prisoners, but if we could have had our way we would have given them the bayonet. They fired on us with machine guns till they saw it was even with them; then when the bayonet was quite near them they put up their hands and cried for mercy. It does not seem right for me to say they ought to have been killed, but when you see your own pals cut down you go mad to get at them.”
He signs off: “ What a lot of men we lost, but we gained a lot of ground and gave the Germans a smashing. Best love to all, your loving son, Bert.”
Also on the inside page of the paper was a letter from Wilfred Thornley, formerly an employee of Ashbourne Post Office, now with the Royal Engineers in the telegraph department.
He had been with the territorials on the continent for since late spring and had in been in action for four months. His letter, unlike so many before, complied with many of the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act, not referring to precise locations or giving details of engagements which might have a negative effect on morale.
His letter says he was very pleased and surprised to meet up with other Ashbourne men who were coming up to the front line, but continues:
“I have just been reading that several of the poor chaps I shook hands with have been killed by a mine. Ashbourne is bearing a heavy toll already in this great national crisis.”
But the tone of his letter is generally upbeat. He describes the countryside as ‘very much like Derbyshire’ and says they had a football team which had “played four and won four so far”.
He goes on to describe an aerial battle which ended in a German plane being shot down. “The observer and pilot were not hurt and they turned their machine guns on some soldiers who were coming to capture them.” He continues matter-of-factly: “The result was they had to be riddled with bullets.”
Thornley observes: “It is encouraging to see things moving a little now, but without a sudden collapse somewhere, I think next August is a probable date to the word ‘finis’.”
The paper’s Lest We Forget roll of honour now carried 30 names 27 killed in action and three men killed while training.
The drive to recruit volunteers to the army continued and interfering in the process was a serious offence – punishable by up to six month’s in prison or a fine of £100.
A farm labourer found himself before the courts for ‘prejudicing recruitment of His Majesty’s forces’. Robert Robinson, of Alkmonton, had been at Ashbourne Shire Horse Show where a recruiting officer was in conversation with a likely recruit. Robinson, who admitted he had too much to drink, advised the man not to join up because the army was being starved. He was fined £3 6s 6d – or a month’s imprisonment.
- 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