The most dramatic story of the week was hidden away on the back page of the Ashbourne Telegraph of January 21, 1916
A letter from Corporal RH Pell, of Snelston, written as he awaited Christmas Dinner, reflected on the past year and detailed his experiences on the front line. He started by outlining the terrible toll of death in the autumn of 1915.
“We went through the Battle of Loos and Hill 70 in September last. It was a terrible affair and is past description. It was absolutely hellish.
“We went into action on the Monday afternoon and after a terrible struggle got through to the village of Loos, and just as it got dusk we found ourselves under a hail of bullets and shell fire, and remained there until Wednesday night when we were relieved.
“It was a perfect nightmare. Our battalion alone lost over half its men and all its officers. I shall never understand how any of us got back alive. I was knocked down twice by shells exploding directly over my head, and once during the night standing up talking to an officer when a bullet grazed my cheek and knocked the officer out. The next morning I raised my head a few inches and a bullet clipped some hair off the top.”
He reveals, in direct contravention of the Defence of the Realm Act that they had been close to the front of the Hohernzollen Redoubt but were now in a different part of the line, about three miles from the Belgian Frontier. It was so wet, he said, the trenches were built of sandbags above ground.
He explains to his friend that each battalion had a small number of Battalion Bombers; experts in the construction and use of bombs and ‘all good throwers’.
“After it got quite dark our bombers filled all of their pockets with bombs and crawled over the top towards the enemy line. Favoured by darkness and the poor look out that Fritz was keeping, our men got right through the enemy barbed wire and lay on the parapet, looking into the enemy trench. Men were in the dug outs singing songs and having a lively time, and only one sentry could be seen, beside a party of men pumping water out of the trench. One bomb disposed of the sentry and three or four settled the pumping party. Then our men dropped into the trench and started throwing bombs into the dug-outs. Everything worked splendidly, and after about five minutes’ good work the bombers climbed out of the trench and started to crawl back to our lines.”
All but one returned Said Corporal Pell, adding that the British artillery then bombarded the enemy line.
“Of course after being ‘had’ like that, Fritz got very ratty and started shelling us with whiz-bangs. A whiz-bang – that is our nickname for them – is a shell with a powerful charge behind it and a very powerful bursting charge inside it. It travels about twenty times faster than greased lightning and burst with a terrible report.”
An earthquake rocked Ashbourne at 7.30pm on January 14, 1916, and was reported in the following Friday’s Ashbourne Telegraph.
“One gentleman stated that a piece of furniture in the room distinctly rocked, whilst crockery and light ornaments were shaken,” the paper reported.
Mr GFH Kemp, the church organist said that he was playing at the time and felt the ground tremble, shaking his stool. ‘Several books’ fell off the choir stalls.
The impact at Mappleton was said to be ‘even greater’. Here a number of rabbits and ‘other burrowing animals ran out onto the high road as though to safety’.
The report continued: “Animals and game in the woods were evidently disturbed and screamed and screeched as though terrified.”
The paper reported there had been a similar earthquake in March 1903 which, according to a report in the Geological Society in May of that year, affected 2,500 square miles in an oval drawn around Ashbourne, Hognaston and Wirksworth, and had been greater than any in the district since November 1795.
The newspaper’s Rocester correspondent said the earthquake had been responsible for some wild rumours, including a Zeppelin attack and a ‘neighbouring works’ blowing up. The only damage done, it revealed, was ‘the breaking of a few gas mantles’.
A letter from J Hawksworth, secretary of the Ashbourne Shrovetide Football Committee was published to confirm that it had been decided the annual game would be played in 1916, despite the war.
“There may be an idea that on account of the war the game should not be played this time, but the committee felt the reasons in its favour far outweigh any objections that might be raised to it, if indeed there are any at all.”
The committee noted that over the previous 20 years £200 had been raised for charities.
“There is reason for believing that the Ashbourne lads who are now serving at the front would be keenly disappointed if the ancient game were not played and they were deprived of seeing reports of the old sport which is so dear to them, and in which they took part in other years.”
In a final flourish the Mr Hawksworth announces that a ‘typical ball’ would be decorated in national colours and a patriotic inscription, and sent to C Company of the 6th Sherwoods, currently serving ‘somewhere in France’.
Strict licensing laws had been introduced as part of the Defence of the Realm Act and Thomas Ellis of The Greyhound Inn at Kniveton was convicted of selling alcohol to three Ashbourne men.
The court was told that Louis Allsop, John Coxon and Henry Fogg, who were carting milk, called at the pub at 10.30am on Sunday, January 9 and were served three pints of beer and two bottles of stout. Evidence was given by Constable Hartshorn, who had cycled to the pub from Sudbury in plain clothes and witnessed Ellis serve the men.
Ellis, said to be of good character was fined £2, and Coxon and Fogg 10s each. Although no reason was given the charge against Allsop was dismissed.
It was the turn of officers to dominate the For King and Country feature on page 3 this week in 1916.
The most senior-ranked individual to feature was Brigadier General Rudolph George Jelf, who was the commanding officer of the British Expeditionary Force’s 73rd infantry brigade. Wounded on September 14, 1914 he had returned to the front on January 2, 1915.
His army career was detailed from joining the King’s Royal Rifles in India in 1893, including his service during the Boer War.
Major Wilfred Wykeham Jelf was also featured on the page. He had been in charge of the Royal Horse Artillery Woolwich Riding Establishment at the outbreak of war. He, too, had previously served in the Boer War and was in charge of the RHA D Battery in France.
The Rev Canon Morris, Vicar of Ashbourne had four sons serving with the Army. His eldest, Captain Lyndon Henry, formerly as solicitor in the High Court, had been serving in Singapore and Burma, while his second son Lieutenant Noel Meeson Morris, who had been attached to the Bombay Light Horse, but transferred to the Indian Army reserve at the outbreak of war. He sailed to France attached to the 9th Bengal Lancers (Hodson Horse). He had been wounded at Hooge but made a good recovery and was serving with the regiment in France.
Lieutenant Ernest Bolton Morris had entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich as a cadet in 1912, and progressed to Lieutenant with the Royal Garrison Artillery in August 1914. He was said to be serving with his battery in France.
The vicar’s fourth son, F St Vincent Morris had been a Sergeant in the Officers’ Training Corps at Brighton College before going up to Wadham College, Oxford. He volunteered and was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant with the Notts and Derby Regiment. He was ‘awaiting orders for foreign service’.
The other two men featured were brothers, sons of Dr and Mrs Boswell of Church Street, Ashbourne. Captain WR Boswell had been home on leave from the Indian Army when war was declared and was attached to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, subsequently promoted to Captain. His younger brother The Rev PE Boswell was chaplain aboard HMS Tiger.
An intriguing feature was promised in the January edition of Pearson’s Magazine: “Growing Young at Fifty – This striking ‘real-life’ story tells the secret of regaining youth.”
- 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