July 1, 1916 was the bloodiest day in British Army history, with more than 57,000 casualties on what is now know as the First Day on the Somme.
(Click here http://bit.ly/1S8VO8w
and scroll down to see a video from the Imperial War Museum.)
But there was no mention in the Ashbourne Telegraph published a week later of the offensive which was to last 141 days result in more than a million men being killed or wounded.
Although the Ashbourne Empire, ‘The most modern and up-to-date fire-proof electric theatre in Great Britain’ continued to show ‘official war news’ to audiences attracted to the cinema by shows such as Sons of Satan and The Broken Coin, it was to local papers like the Telegraph that citizens turned for news of townsmen serving in the Army in France, Belgium and elsewhere.
Some of that news was scant in detail.
On page 2, alongside the Empire’s Public Notice of its programme for the week were five lines, without a headline:
“Amongst the list of casualties recently recorded are the following names: wounded, 31992 Bdr. F. Simmonds, R.F.A. (Ashbourne); missing, 18261 Pte W. Hibbs, Leicesters (Ashbourne).”
According to forces’ records, William Hibbs was later recorded as having being killed on March 6, 1916 in Mesopotamia while serving with the 2nd battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.
The news in brief column here, on a page crowded with advertising was probably one of the last to be composed; a place to report late news if the commercial material did not fill the space. Further down the column, again with no headline, an editorial item tells of another casualty.
“The news has been received at Ashbourne with great regret of the wounding of Pte. T. Smedley of the Royal Scots, who was formerly in the Ashbourne branch of Parr’s Bank (Messrs Crompton and Evans), and was well known as an enthusiastic member of the Golf Club.”
Smedley had suffered wounds to both legs and one arm as a result of trench bomb. “We are pleased to hear that although very painful, the injuries are not dangerous and the patient is making satisfactory progress,” the paper commented.
Greater prominence was given to the death, on June 25, of Rifleman Frank Allen of the 2nd King’s Royal Rifles, reported on the back page. Allen had enlisted in September 1914 and had been in the front trenches for 18 months.
The son of Mr and Mrs C Allen of Osmaston, he was said to have been an ‘expert bomb thrower’, but had been injured three times, once being invalided home.
The paper reproduced a letter from Corporal Newman Abrahams of the 2nd Brigade Grenade Company, in which he paid tribute to his fallen comrade:
“As a soldier he was one of the best and never funked at doing his bit and will be greatly missed in his section.”
Abrahams told Allen’s parents:
“Your son Frank was killed whilst heroically carrying out his duty for you all at home. I have handed your son’s belongings in so you will receive them shortly. I burnt the letters as they were unreadable, and we could not get the ring off his fingers so he will be buried with it.”
A second letter from his friends told Allen’s parent that the contents of a parcel which had arrived on the day he died had been shared ‘amongst his chums’ as it was not possible to send it back.
These personal messages were followed by details of a memorial service held in Osmaston Church, led by the Rev HV Titmuss. He said Allen had been born, educated and raised in the village, and now they stood by his grave.
“But though their hearts were full of sorrow, it was not all sorrow. There was, mingling with their sad thoughts, a feeling of exaltation that from this remote village of Osmaston, a lad had been found brave enough to go forward in the cause of righteousness and truth to lay down his life on the field of battle that we might enjoy that peace which is to be the outcome of this strife.”
A burial, a memorial service and the return of personal belongings would have given Allen’s family what is now widely known as ‘closure’. For other families, whose sons were missing, things were not so clear.
Mrs Barnes of Church Street, Ashbourne, had been told that her son Joe was missing during the furious fighting in Gallipoli, and later that the army believed he had been killed in action. But she continued to hope that he was still alive.
Under the headline Mystery of Ashbourne Soldier’s Fate, the Telegraph reported that Trooper Barnes’ body had not been found and none of his belongings had been returned.
“Mrs Barnes is convinced that, in the absence of any material proof to the contrary, that her son is a prisoner in the hands of the Turks.”
She had written to Lieutenant AM Keith of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, for whom her son had served.
His reply read:
“I have received your letter asking me about your son Joe who I’m afraid was killed on August 21, last. I know how terribly upset you must have been, and I have often wished I could write and give you some definite news about him. It is not that I have forgotten about you but that I have been so utterly unable to get any real news of him or any of his belongings. Of course, his base kit and belongings should have been forwarded to you by the regiment, but I don’t believe his body was ever found, in spite of several having said they had seen it. I made all possible enquiries at the time, and am sorry to say I could get no tiding of him.”
The letter continues in personal tones:
“Joe was my first servant from September 14th till he died and have missed him every day since. He was extremely reliable and always cheerful and a most excellent fellow in every way. Everyone liked him.”
Lieutenant Keith said he would return from Salonica to England soon and would call on the Barnes in Ashbourne.
WS Bagshaw and Sons, Auctioneers were regular advertisers on the front page of the Ashbourne Telegraph, but this week in 1916 they had an unusual listing – a nearly new Ford motor van, being sold by grocer Rupert Marsden. Bagshaws had been instructed to sell the van, a cream cob mare and five horse-drawn delivery vehicles.
These were detailed as: “Capital four-wheeled Grocer’s Delivery VAN, fitted with Shelves and 4 pairs of shafts and brake, complete; Strong FLOAT in good order; Capital Spring CART, fitted with detachable top and brake complete; and excellent self-coloured low TRAP, nearly new fitted with detachable cape hood, Cushions, Lamps and Rubber Mat complete.”
Marsden had decided to sell-off all of his ‘outdoor effects’ due to shortage of staff. Other items included ‘a small quantity of hay, 1 Ton of oat straw, heap of manure’, presumably the feed, bedding and output of the cream cob mare.
Rupert Marsden, once a regular advertiser in the Telegraph had not been promoting his wares since May. There may be not direct connection, but a promotional ditty was printed to encourage local businesses to continue to advertise in the Telegraph:
“A merchant bent on economizing,
Decided to cut off his advertising.
‘It costs me pounds a year,’ he said
– ‘I’ll come out just that much ahead.’
His ‘Ad.’ appeared in the paper no more,
His customers went to an advertised store.
The business, unheard of, went steadily down.
Now there’s a merchant less in that town.
The moral from this you will easily see:
Is advertise if you would successful be.”
- David Penman is a senior lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort University in Leicester. You can read more of his week-by-week analysis of the Ashbourne Telegraph at greatwarreports.wordpress.com