May 4, 1917

The abiding image of the First World War for many of us is of the mud and the cold of the trenches of northern Europe, but other servicemen faced very different conditions on the African continent.

A letter had been received from Scout Alec Fisher of the Legion of Frontiersmen, a former apprentice at printers Joseph Osborne of St John Street, Ashbourne, from German East Africa.

The Telegraph reproduced the contents of the letter, which omitted place names and changed the Scouts’ names to prevent identification.

After an abortive two-week foray into the mountains, Fisher and his comrades faced an arduous trek over mountains to rejoin their column which was 50 miles ahead of them, taking a less steep route. They hired some porters and got a couple of mules and set out early one morning.

“The journey was full of excitement, as all the way a sharp lookout had to be kept for any lurking enemy or snipers, and snakes and wild animals were also too abundant to be comfortable.”

And the next night one of the men had a terrifying experience.

“McClerc gave a terrible yell, and after a lantern or two had been lit his comrades discovered he had found a deadly rock snake in the folds of his blanket. He lay motionless as death whilst McGregor carefully unfolded the blanket and the snake (which was five feet in length) was exposed and promptly killed with the but of a rifle.”

The report tells how the men harvested bananas, limes, oranges and pineapples and witnessed dramatic landscapes.

“They passed through some wonderful country, the track winding down the sides of a precipice and across chasms which in some places were four hundred feet deep.

“The heat owing to the absence of all breeze was terrific and the glare of the sun on the white rocks and stones was intense.”

The report continues in a graphic description of the journey, punctuated by biting insects, huge snakes hanging from branches of trees.

“The whole place resounded with the screams and cries of gorgeously coloured birds and the chatter of monkeys and baboons.”

At one stage a baboon stole a hat from the head of one of the men, and it could not be recovered until the animal had been shot.

The adventure continued with two of the scouts going down with fever and having to rest up in a house abandoned by a German mine manager, who had obviously left in a hurry because his meal was half eaten on the table.

When the pair were fit to move on both mules died from Tse Tse fly and the porters were forced to carry the party’s water slung between poles.

After 26 days, during which time they were also charged by rhinoceros and fired on by German snipers, they reached the comparative safety of their column.

“A few days later they were sent scouting through one of the vilest swamps in the continent where they were all so badly bitten my mosquitos and other insects, and food was so scanty and they were forced to drink water which was the colour and consistency of thick coffee, that they were all seized with a severe attack of dengue and malarial fever.”

At the time of posting the letter the men were in a military hospital in Cape Colony.

Second Lieutenant Francis St. Vincent Morris 3rd Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, attached to 3rd Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. Death: 29 April 1917 Western Front Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

News reached Ashbourne this week in 1917 that Francis St Vincent Morris, the vicar’s youngest son, who had been seriously injured in an aeroplane crash in France, had died.

Morris, who was just 21, and serving with the Royal Flying Corps had been caught in a blizzard which brought down the plane.

A bright scholar, he had been due to study at Oxford University, but at the outbreak of war he won a commission to the Sherwood Foresters before transferring to the RFC.

Canon Morris and his wife had been at their son’s bedside at a hospital in France when he died. They had three other sons on active service, while their daughter Ruth was nursing at a hospital in France.

In a letter to his parents in Union Street, Ashbourne, Private T Robinson revealed that he was in hospital, having been wounded in the right arm by shrapnel during the Great Advance.

“Private Robinson has a very praiseworthy record, having enlisted, in the early days of the war, in the Royal Warwicks, and was subsequently transferred to the Worcesters and has been on active service for no less than 26 months and was present at the great engagements, Hill 60, Ypres, the Ancre the Somme and several others of minor character.”

Ashbourne Urban Tribunal heard applications from a number of men seeking exemption from military service. A 26-year-old hairdresser, F Greenwood, told the hearing he was appealing because if compelled to go he would have to close his business.

“Applicant stated he did not want to avoid service at all, as he had joined the Australian Light Horse in 1914, but after a month’s training was medically rejected. He came to England and then joined the Royal Sussex Regiment, but he was again medically rejected.”

He had since been examined again and passed ‘B1’ (able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics). Greenwood’s appeal was rejected as was that of another hairdresser Percy Fielding, 31, who also worked as an umbrella maker and repairer.

The village paragraphs of snippets from the outlying villages brought news of two men from Brassington. Petty Officer F Morrall, who had been serving in Egypt was back home on furlough for five weeks, while Private S Johnson had been wounded and was being treated at hospital in Northampton.

Ashbourne had welcomed Belgian refugees in October 1914 and a committee was established to marshal charitable donations. The Rev Frederick Brown of All Saints’ Presbytery announced in the newspaper’s columns that the last of the refugees had now found a temporary home elsewhere. He thanked all those who had given ‘shelter or comfort’ to the displaced Belgians but said there was no longer a need for the committee and that the balance of funds – £18 14s 6d was being transferred to the Chesterfield committee.

The Ministry of Food, which recently introduced the Pastry Order, to restrict the use of flour in what were considered unnecessary or frivolous baked products had clearly been clarifying its scope.

“Pork Pies do not come under the Pastry Order. They can be made any size, but if cut up and sold as portions of a meal, no portion for one person may contain more than 2½oz of meat and 1oz of flour, as prescribed by the Public Meals Order. The making of sausage rolls for sale is prohibited. Mince Pies, Eccles Cakes, Banbury cakes, Coventries, cheesecakes and custard tarts come under the classification of ‘fancy pastries’ – which may not be sold.”

These distinctions will chime with people who recall the controversy over George Osborne ‘Pasty Tax’ and the debate over whether a Jaffa Cake was a cake or a biscuit.

It is difficult to imagine that a tea-time treat might have been considered unpatriotic, but such was the national drive to save flour that the following item was printed: “There would be much saving of bread if the public would discontinue during war-time the habit of eating ‘poached eggs on toast’. This dish involves a considerable waster of bread, and frequently the toast is regarded primarily as an absorbent to collect the water from the eggs and much of the bread is thrown away.”

It has been commented on in these columns before how the boundaries of editorial and advertising have been blurred, particularly in the case of promoting the dubious claims of what might be today described as ‘quack-cures’.

On the back page of the Telegraph this week a headline, of similar size to that topping a report of a military tribunal deciding whether or not men should be exempt from national service, caught the eye: Once a cripple now a soldier.

“Trooper E Jones tells an interesting story. For eight long months he hobbled about on two sticks racked with pain from rheumatic gout. He was induced to try Baker’s Backache Pellets. The result was almost miraculous. In a few days the pain entirely ceased and his recovery was so rapid and complete that he has now passed the army doctor and is serving king and country at 45 years of age.”

Not content with such remarkable curative powers Baker’s Backache pellets were also credited with being: “A positive cure for Backache, Lumbago, Sciatica, Rheumatism, Gravel, Dizziness and Kidney Troubles.”

The labour force, stripped of its menfolk to bolster the ranks of the army and navy, was supplemented with women, with many taking on roles never previously open to them. They worked on the land and in munitions factories among other tasks.

The makers of Ven-Yusa ‘oxygen face cream’ advertised their product as a ‘real necessity for women war workers’.

“The grit and grime of the munitions factories, exacting hospital work and exposure to sudden weather changes are injurious to the skin.”

Ven-Yusa boasted that it would ‘revive the lustre of faded complexions and bring back the bloom of health and youth to pallid cheeks’.

In a claim, which would surely fall foul of modern advertising standards, the promotion claims: “The regular use of Ven-Yusa will save you hours of discomfort and banish for ever that tired irritable feeling after a hard day’s work.”

Society was changing in many other ways due to the consequences of the war. The Telegraph reproduced part of a column in the Daily Sketch, which observed that women widowed by the war were breaking with convention. You can almost hear the disapproval in the writer’s voice.

“War widows, no longer in their first youth seem to be finding second husbands very much their junior. In several cases lately the bride has been years older than the bridegroom, and in two recent engagements, which attracted a great deal of notice, there is a marked disparity in ages. In one case a youth of twenty has chosen a handsome widow of about thirty, with children, while in another the prospective bride is thirty-five, and her fiancé twenty-three. This future bride is very attractive; still, she has three children.”

  • My fellow researcher and former 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


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