November 5, 1915

One item on the front page of the Ashbourne Telegraph stands out from the auction sale notices, and the regular advertisements for insurance, milk and medications – a promotion for the November edition of Pearson’s Magazine.

The German Murder Instinct, reads the headline. “This remarkable article shows that the murder of Nurse Cavell was the logical outcome of German educational methods. It is written by Frederick William Wile the well-known Berlin correspondent, who gives amazing instances of Prussian brutality.”

Edith Cavell’s execution by a German firing squad for her part helping scores of allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium proved to be a major propaganda coup for the English. Her death was widely reported in the press and brought public condemnation.

Although not a cause célèbre like Edith Cavell, Private Walter Bassett, whose letter to his wife in Thorpe was published in the Ashbourne Telegraph, would have reinforced public opinion in rural Derbyshire. The letter, dated October 28, gives details of an assault on the German line a month earlier.

“We got them fairly on the run. I shall never forget it. They turned machine guns on us and shrapnel galore was flying about. Still on we went, nothing could stop the boys as their blood was fairly up. Men fell on the left and right of me, but it is a queer thing I never thought of getting hit. I suppose you get so excited you don’t think about it.”

He picks up the theme of German brutality: “The dirty hounds, they cannot play it straight.”

He tells of how he was carrying a message back from their new position when he came across about 40 wounded men, crying out for water. He gave them what he had in his bottle, but the Germans began to shell them.

“They killed three men as they lay on the stretchers. They had seen us from their observation posts (so they knew very well they were wounded men lying there. But what does that matter to a German? They delight in it!”

Almost light heartedly he tells his wife that about ten days later the Germans launched a counter offensive.

“You talk about having some sport, we had plenty that day. After they had shelled us heavily they came on the attack. There seemed no end to them – it was a case of firing as fast as the bolt on your rifle would work; mine got very near red-hot.”

The ‘Bosches’, he said, had to retire, leaving hundreds of dead and wounded.

A ‘memorable and exceptionally solemn service’ was held at the Parish Church in memory of the town’s most recent war fatalities: Sergeant A Wibberley, Lance Corporal George Bailey, Lance Corporal A Harding, Private J Wardle, Private A Hollingshead, Private W Johnson and Sergeant Leslie Hunter.

Despite poor weather the church was crowded with mourners and sympathisers. After the blessing the Dead March was played by organist GFH Kemp, followed by the Last Post by Bugler G Collier.

The Ashbourne Telegraph, perhaps prompted by the terrible toll on the town’s young men, was prompted to examine the statistics behind Death’s Harvest as the headline read.

“The awful mortality of the present war may be brought nearer realisation by comparing the number killed in this with the figure obtainable from former years. The death-roll, for instance, of the first year of the war, from August 1, 1914 to August 1, 1915 is far heavier than that of all the 22 years of the Napoleonic campaign, and more than half the total of the great wars of the last 30 years. The analysis was acknowledged to be from the Sunday Times.

The first year casualties were listed as:

England          116,000
France             400,000
Russia             733,000
Serbia              64,000
Belgium          47,000
Germany        490,000
Austria            341,000
Turkey            45,000
Japan              300

Total                2,236,000

But the continued fighting across Europe gave reason for some Ashbourne tradesmen to promote their wares. Thomas Plant, who had a pharmacy in Church Street was advertising ‘Caravan Thirst Quenchers’ at 6d a tin, said to be ‘Invaluable in the Dardanelles’.

“There are many little things in our stock which, costing but a few coppers, are worth their weight in gold to those on active service.” Mr Plant suggested the inclusion of some of the following items in readers’ weekly parcels to the front: “Boracic Powder, Foot Powder, Vaseline, Respirators, Peppermints, Cough Lozenges, Throat Pastilles, Oxo Tubes, Shaving Soaps, Safety Razors, Tooth Paste &c.”

  • 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


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