Whether in an effort to maintain morale or a reflection of first-hand experience, the paper’s Notes and Comments column observed that it was ‘as good as a tonic’ to talk to servicemen home in Ashbourne from the front.
“There are evidently no ‘dismal Jimmies’ in the trenches they are all ‘Mark Tapleys’.”
(Mark Tapley is a strong, cheerful character in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. It is worth noting that all of Dickens’ novels were published in installments and this serialisation of novels continued in the Ashbourne Telegraph of 1915, which despite the time of war each week offered readers chapters from a novel in close-set type across a full broadsheet page.)
The returning soldiers, the paper reports, have all returned full of the ‘fire of enthusiasm’ and in high spirits. “All Ashbournians who have returned tell the same story of this unanimous unquenchable spirit whatever happens to the trench.”
Among their number was Private Walter Bassett of Thorpe, who had given a lengthy interview to the paper, which is retold under the headline A Thorpe Hero.
The report begins by saying that Bassett, of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards was home on leave. “He is a typical Englishman, well set up and of the type that can endure hardship without grumbling and without breaking down in health.”
The correspondent continues to describe Bassett as a man of quiet modesty and records that he was a regular in the South African War.
“Next May, if he lives to see it, will complete his 17 years in the army active and reserve.”
The lengthy report records that Bassett had been in France for 12 months, seeing action at Neuve Chappelle, where he ‘lost a good many of his chums’.
He then fought at Festubert where he described the German assault as the ‘fiercest and most determined’ in the war.
This was followed by engagements at Hill 70 and Loos on consecutive days in September.
“Walter Bassett told us how the Germans came on in their thousands and thousands, at all costs bent on breaking the British line. With their officers behind them, holding their revolvers in their hands they drove the Germans on to the British trenches.
“When within 25 yards of our lines they still came on, our men, who had shot them down until their rifles were hot, began to think they would at last be overpowered. They were in such numbers that our fellows would soon be overpowered if the Boches reached the trenches.”
He said that they came closer, but finally broke and those that could retreated to their own lines.
In a final nod to the idea that the German soldiers were being threatened and bullied by their commanding officers he reports that later, when the British took the German trench they found machine gunners ‘chained to their guns’.
It would appear that not all servicemen on the front line shared this cheery disposition. Private Alfred Bennett of the 10th Battalion Sherwood Foresters had written home to his brother.
“The trenches are in a very bad state. Imagine to yourself a stream with banks about 5 feet high, with a foot of sludge at the bottom and two or three feet of water and it will give you an idea what our trench is like.”
He also gives a clear indication of the levels of casualties sustained among the ranks: “Our Company was 250 strong when we came out here and we have had four strong drafts since, yet we are only about 50 strong at the present time.”
His letter rounds off with an heroic tale of bravery by Harry Healy of Mayfield who had single-handedly rescued four injured men while under heavy German shelling.
“His action was worthy of a VC, but as there was no officer present to recommend him he will get nothing.”
Whether by design or coincidence, Alf Bennett was featured on page three in the new regular column featuring six local servicemen. This week there was a new banner headline on the page: Our Weekly Portrait Gallery.
Alf, the 23rd man to be featured was said to have been a boy scout, a keen athlete and an employee of the Co-operative store in Mayfield before enlisting. He had a brother, Archie, also in the Army.
Others featured this week were: Private W Shephard of Mayfield Road, Ashbourne, serving with the Yorks and Lancasters, who had recovered from being buried when a shell hit his position; Private J Robinson, of the 1st/6th Sherwoods, son of Mr and Mrs H Robinson of Old Derby Road, and who had taken part in the attack on the Hohenzollen Redoubt, which was said to have immortalised the North Midland Division; Dispenser F Coates, formerly a chemist at James Osbourne’s dispensary in St John Street, serving in an officers’ hospital in Rouen; Private Norman Wright of Fenny Bentley, currently undergoing training having signed up in October; and Lance Corporal Wilfred Ward of the 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry, said to be recovering from severe wounds sustained in Gallipoli at a hospital in Nottingham.
Bill Fielding had written home to his parents at the post office in Osmaston from Salonica in Greece, where it was evidently bitterly cold.
“We had to move the horses into a gully yesterday, for they were nearly frozen to death, as we are.”
He says he regrets having thrown away his warm clothing while in Egypt and tells his parents that two soldiers had just been brought in with frostbite.
He is not specific about morale but states: “Bill Roe and myself think different than what we did when we left home.”