A remarkable first-hand account from the trenches of a Great War battle – and life as a prisoner of war – was published in the Ashbourne Telegraph this week in 1918.
A letter from a soldier who had been part of the “contemptible little army” which in the early days of the war had fought to prevent the Germans reaching the French and Belgian coast had been received in Derbyshire.
Sergeant EW Radford of the Durham Light Infantry had written to his mother in Hognaston from Sheveningen in Holland, where he was being held prisoner of war, in conditions he described as ‘heaven’ compared to his time in Germany. The text of his letter was reproduced at length.
“You ask me to tell you of some of my experiences in Hun-land. It would take sheets to tell all that I went through. I was no luckier than the majority of NCOs. I was taken prisoner on the night of the 24thof October, 1914, at a place near Lille named Emnetiers [Armentières]. We had been having a rough time of it ever since we left the Aisne and had only taken this place from the enemy on the Sunday, 18thOctober.
We had lost a large number in doing this, and consequently when the counter attack came on the Tuesday we were in poor straits to find enough men to hold out; but we did. How we did it God knows, for it was hell.
The Sherwood Foresters were in the front line in our section with C Company of my regiment, the remainder of the companies being distributed along the line at various points where it was weak. We held out all day till about 8pm at night when the Germans broke through our left and right flanks.”
He said they received the order to retire, with his company to stay behind to hold the line while others took up new positions.
“All the Sherwoods, except the company detailed to stay with us, went back, but had not gone far before they found they were surrounded. They attempted to fight but it was of no use, they were hopelessly outnumbered. My company was next to go and we ran right into the same trap as the first party. We managed to get a message back to the remaining company of Sherwoods and they hung on in the trenches all night but had to give in next morning.”
Academic research has since disproven the commonly held belief that brave troops were sacrificed by incompetent officers – “lions led by donkeys” – here is a contemporary account which supports this analysis.
“All the officers of our company had been killed earlier in the day and the Sergeants were in command. There were about 100 of us taken and about 500 of the Sherwoods. We were marched to Lille that night and on the following afternoon we entrained in horse trucks for Germany.”
Sergeant Radford’s following account is almost cinematic in its description.
“The trucks we absolutely filthy, being full of horse dirty etc. and to make matters worse we were packed like sardines 68 and 70 in a truck, the wounded with us.
We were travelling three days like this without any means of easing ourselves and with only one piece of black bread the whole journey.
We were kicked and cuffed and spat at and degraded in every way at the different stations we passed through; the Red Cross even bringing food and drink to the doors, offering it to someone and then spitting in his face as he offered to take it.”
Conditions were little better when the prisoners arrived at their destination.
“We arrived in Hameln on the morning of October 24 (sic). What a miserable hole! We were put into little huts about four feet high made of canvas and bedded down like pigs, no blankets or anything. There were 62 in a hut about. 40ft long and about 7ft wide; it was horrible.”
It is unsurprising Radford described Holland as heavenly, when he details the hellish conditions in Hameln.
“We were kept like this for nearly three months with poor food and many of the boys died, in fact the surprising thing is everyone didn’t die.
Things were better when we were moved into huts and were able to get ourselves clean, and parcels from home, but times were hard even then.
We were not allowed to smoke and were kicked from pillar to post, even when in your room you didn’t know when a crowd of sentries were going to dash in and you dash out through windows or doors, helped by a bayonet, butt or boot.
Things got better after a time, but the food got worse. I don’t know how we should have got on if had not been for you good people at home. It was only what you did for us that kept us going and enabled us to laugh at this brutality. It might not seem believable, but nevertheless it is true, the boys used to laugh at this, and the Hun could not make it out.
We were all forced to work from May 15thto December 15thwhen an order was given saying ‘Sergts and Cpls need not work unless they volunteer for it.’ The majority of us promptly downed tools and we were then sent to Hustenmoor to do exercise. It was exercise too, as only Germans know how to make it. We were put in a small lager about 100 yards long and 30 wide. There was one hut in it, in which 250 of us were crowded, and we had to sleep on the floor wherever we could.
The commandant of the camp told us he would have us out at work in a fortnight, but he did not know the Englishman then.
We were not allowed to buy anything from the canteen, nor were we allowed to speak to anyone in the other compound. We were out on exercise 7.30am to 12 midday and from 1pm to 6pm. With only a few minutes halt each day. We had to march round and round a field, not allowed to talk or smoke; it was terrible.
If anyone did anything wrong we were kept standing to attention for an hour, perhaps two, in the cold, and once they actually took the coats away from us and kept us standing there; it was nice and warm I can tell you, being the middle of winter. This sort of thing went on for over 10 months, when we were able to get the American ambassador through and he stopped it.
Then they tried a new scheme of getting work out of us, by telling us we had to do camp work. We did not mind doing this but when it got to loading trucks of potatoes and that, to go to the big towns and the front we immediately refused to do it.
Two of the seniors were given one year’s imprisonment for refusing, but still we held out and eventually got the better of them.
They then started sending us away in small parties to various camps, they told us, but various quarries, coal and salt mines it turned out, to make us work, but nothing doing; the boys would not have it at any price. But didn’t they go through the mill! They were lined up in front of machine guns and threatened to be shot, but still they hung out and eventually drifted into various camps and left to themselves.
I was rather fortunate and was kept back at Hustenmoor, so did not get any salt mines or such things, but I have seen some of the wrecks who came back to the camp, and it was more than enough for me.
This is just a rough outline of my life in Deutschland. I will tell you more some other time. But it will suffice to show you how our “dear, devoted” so-called cousins treated us. They are always saying the English are their cousins and they seem proud of it, although they hate us.”
Sergeant Radford’s account, published without banner headlines, is in remarkable contrast to the positive propaganda in the paper’s War Supplement which carried of a photograph of soldiers preparing dinner at a machine gun post under the heading Waiting For The Enemy – Very Like A Picnic; a message from Queen Mary to the army navy and air force; and a description of British bravery from the government’s official ‘war correspondent’ Philip Gibbs.
Radford’s testimony would have a far greater impact than any government sponsored stories, as this was the account not of an anonymous Tommy, but a man who would have been known to many people in the Ashbourne District.
Alongside Sergeant Radford’s testimony was the, now weekly, list of latest casualties.
Mr and Mrs R Ward of Sturston Road had been informed that their 18-year-old son Robert had been killed by a German shell less than a month after arriving in France. His death came at 6.30am on April 27thwhile fighting with the Durham Light Infantry. The family had three other sons, Fred, Harry and William still serving.
News, too, of the death in action of a former Mayfield resident, Private William Henshaw of the West Yorkshire Regiment. The paper noted that Henshaw had had three brothers-in-law killed in the war: Private Jack Henshaw, Private Fred Moon and Private Samuel Bill.
Ashbourne Town FC half-back ‘Snowy’ Beresford died in the early part of the German Offensive of March 21. Bombardier Beresford of the Royal Field Artillery had been wounded in 1916, but returned to action in September 1917.
Other soldiers lost included Private R Barker of the 17thLabour Company, killed on April 27 and Ernest W Oakley of the Royal Fusiliers.
News of Barker’s death was conveyed to his widow in Snelston by a chaplain who told her that he had buried her husband with five of his comrades in a grave marked with a cross.
Oakley was the only son of Mr and Mrs J Oakley of the Nag’s Head, Hulland Ward. He had signed up in 1915 as a drummer boy and had been home on leave to mark his 21stbirthday in January, 1918. His death in a military hospital in Etaples on April 15 came as a surprise to his family because they had no idea that the injuries he had suffered on March 28 would prove to be fatal.
Newspapers in the early 20thcentury were organs of record, informing their readers of the work of the courts, local councils, and health boards. They also carried lengthy obituaries to mark the deaths prominent residents. One such gentleman was Mr Christopher Gibson – “one of the oldest and most respected agriculturalists in the neighbourhood”.
The 80-year-old farmer had died at his daughter’s home in Westwood on May 8.
“He was a most skillful and successful farmer and has gained many prizes for his cattle and for farm management generally.”
Having moved into the area from Westmoreland 30 years previously he had served as Mayfield’s guardian and rural councillor for 19 years. On retirement he was then co-opted by both bodies. He was also a church warden and school manager.
“As an incident of his consistent good nature it may be mentioned that practically from the opening of the local Red Cross Hospital he had sent 20 eggs each week, winter and summer, a contribution which was highly appreciated by patients and officers.”
The news angle of his death was buried at the foot of the report.
“It will be recalled that some weeks ago Mr Gibson, with his customary kindness, was assisting a neighbour to drive some sheep to the market, when he was accidently knocked down by a runaway horse, receiving such injuries that he never recovered from. An inquest will therefore be necessary.”
The paper also carried notices letting readers know about changes to the law which might affect them.
Telegraph readers were informed that the Venereal Diseases Order, published in the London Gazette on May 3 would come into force in Derbyshire on July 1.
The Order enacted the Venereal Diseases Act of 1917 which made it an offence for anyone other than a qualified medical practitioner to treat anyone for venereal disease. Conviction could result in imprisonment with hard labour for up to two years.
Raising funds for the Red Cross Hospital continued with a sale at Clubley Hall on May 23. Sports were to be held in the grounds, including bowling for a pig. Other entertainment included the Ashbourne Old Volunteer Band with dancing in the school until 2am.
- 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 War blog