April 28, 1916

Since the early days of the war many letters from soldiers serving overseas had been published in the Ashbourne Telegraph, often giving detailed accounts of life – and death– on the front line.

Many of those letters must have escaped the censor’s eye for they often bent or broke the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act which forbade soldiers giving details of their location, or engagements which they had witnessed.

And it was the work of the censor which was the subject of an article this week.

“The main object of most Tommies seems to be to let their relatives know where they are, and all sorts of schemes have been discovered. A common one at the outbreak of war was to place dots under certain letter, which when read together, gave information as to the writer’s whereabouts, but parents soon began to receive letters with a confused jumbling of dots placed under other letters by the censor, who is very wide awake as a rule.”

Apparently one soldier with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force managed to outsmart the censors in a postscript to his letter.

“It read ‘I met Sally on the car.’ Whether you see it or not depends on how you pronounce Salonica.”

The veracity of letters from the front line published in the regional press was evidenced by the fact that they were from named individuals, known personally to many of the readers. These were real tales from real people, untarnished by the potential for propaganda of the Press Bureau.

Such personalised testimony was a powerful tool. An editorial item headlined ‘A case at Stanton – Ashbourne Affected’ read:

“The statement given below is true in every particular, and closely concerns us here. It is accepted not only because made by a Stanton woman, but because it bears out similar statements made by scores of people in Ashbourne.”

The piece went on to quote Mrs E Allen, who reportedly lived near the Primitive Chapel in Stanton:

Although I am nearly seventy years of age I enjoy good health, but now and again I have had trying backache pains.”

What follows is a ringing endorsement of Doan’s backache kidney pills, said to be a ‘most effective remedy’. This early form of ‘native advertising’ was clearly attractive to commercial concerns.

After a week’s absence the Portrait Gallery returned with a further six servicemen featured. This week they were:

Sergeant Harry Mills, son of Mr and Mrs T Mills, former residents of Ashbourne. He was serving with the 3rd Scottish Rifles in France and was one of three sons at the front. One of those brothers, Victor, of the 23rd Manchester City Regiment was reported to have been in France since January and currently in the trenches.

Another of three sons serving King and country was Trooper Leonard Webster of Parwich. He had been drafted out with the Derbyshire Yeomanry to Egypt and then Gallipoli.

Private Lawrence Hill, of the 9th Lincolnshire Fusiliers, whose parents lived in Derby Old Road, Ashbourne, had lost a brother, George, in operations in the Dardanelles.

Private Albert Plant was also a resident of Derby Old Road, and his parents lived in Buxton Road. A carter by trade, working for JO Jones and Sons, he was serving in France with the Mule Section of the Sherwood Foresters, having enlisted in December 1914.

The final name was that of Private C Boden, a former Ashbourne Telegraph apprentice and member of the town’s VAD Red Cross. It was reported that he had recently written to a friend, in the ‘best of health and spirits’.

“Life at the front is rather rough particularly in bad weather, but the unbreakable spirit of the British Tommy ignores little hardships, and everyone is confident of ultimate victory.”

For the second week running the Ashbourne Telegraph was reduce to six rather than eight pages. Not since 1914 had the paper dropped its pagination. At that time it received criticism of ‘profiteering’ – an allegation which was stoutly defended.

The increasingly draconian measures introduced under the Defence of the Realm Act have been mentioned in this column before. This week it was announced that an Order in Council – a parliamentary device which enables ministers to add legislation without need for further debate – stated that any person arrested under the Act should be photographed and fingerprinted, although these records should be destroyed if the arrest did not lead to a conviction.

Two Ashbourne traders were in front of the court charged with failing to obscure lights. Sampson F Thorne, a Butcher’s manager was fined £10s for light seen emitting from his shop doorway at 10pm on April 8. Rupert Marsden, grocer, was fined the same sum for a ‘strong light’ seen coming from an uncovered window at the back of his shop at 8.45pm on the same evening.

  • 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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