May 31, 1918

Regular readers of the Ashbourne Telegraph, anxious for news of friends, would have turned each week to page five, column three, which was the established position for ‘Local Military Items’.

In recent weeks there had been many deaths reported – the town’s sons who had fallen during the fierce battles that followed the launch of the German Spring offensive on Allied lines on March 21, 1918.

The edition of May 31, 1918 was no different. Private Frederick Blood, of the Sherwood Foresters had died of gas poisoning in a military hospital on May 20. The 38-year-old joined the forces in April, 2017, and had been in France since June. He had been admitted to hospital on May 14 in a ‘very critical condition’, although it had been hoped he would recover.

The nursing sister at the hospital wrote to his family on May 20 to tell them he had died.

“We did our best for him and he was so brave and good and patient to the end. It will comfort you to know that he did not suffer but fell asleep and died quite quietly.”

John William Locker, who was a Private with the Durham Light Infantry, was just 18 when he was killed by a shell while carrying rations to men in another section. News came to his parents in Buxton Road in a letter from an officer in the West Yorkshire Regiment.

“My battalion was fighting over the same ground and one of my signallers came across your boy lying on the roadside and said he had been hit by a shell. He has given his life nobly and lies with other comrades in a heroes’ grave.”

Locker joined up in August 1917 and had previously been apprenticed to James Osborne, chemist. A former Ashbourne Grammar School pupil he had left in 1914 with honours in geography and French.

British Tommies’ letters home were often full of passion and graphic in their description of conditions on the front line. Others were preternaturally formal and stilted.

Lance Sergeant  FC Hodge of the Sherwood Foresters wrote to tell his wife he was being held a prisoner of war at Cassel in Germany.

“My Dear Wife – I am now sending you a card, and hope it finds you well. You see I am a prisoner, and am wounded, but I am going on alright so you need not trouble. Just let Ma and all the rest know about it. I will be sending you a letter soon, so cheer up. With love from F.

Gunner JS Derbyshire of the Royal Field Artillery had been awarded the Military Medal. The former apprentice surveyor, whose parents lived in Buxton Road, joined up as soon as he turned 18 in November 1916.

“Describing the incident in which he gained the distinction he says they had been firing and loading for eight hours, and then were compelled to retire. On reaching the support trenches the officer called for a detachment to man one gun, and four of them with a sergeant at once volunteered. For some time they kept up a rapid fire, but the Germans were practically surrounding these five men. The sergeant then got a bullet in his thigh and two of the men were hit in the arms. They placed the sergeant on a piece of tin and after what seemed an interminable time they managed to get away and carry the sergeant to a dressing station three miles away.”

News had reached Mayfield of another son being held prisoner in a German camp. Private James Richardson, who had been missing since March 21, had been confirmed as a PoW. Richardson who joined Kitchener’s army soon after the start of the war had seen action in ‘some of the fiercest battles’ and had been ‘once wounded’, said the paper.

There were fewer restriction on advertising claims a hundred years ago, if this example from the classifieds section of the Ashbourne Telegraph is anything to go by:

“Be attractive, grow luxurious hair, have perfect skin, complexion and teeth. Marvelous recipes; 1s each; the four for 2/6d., Satisfactory results guaranteed. Send at once – Wilson, 49, Victoria Street, Belfast.”

There was other dubious advice in the editorial columns too, this time from William Lawton, founder of the British League of Housewives. He claims that when tobacco was in short supply it was possible to smoke rhubarb leaves instead, ‘with every satisfaction’.

“I discovered my smokers’ leaves,” he says, “through becoming acquainted with the habits of the people of Thibet, who always smoke rhubarb leaves. Moreover, they were formerly used in this country for adulterating tobacco.”

  • 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
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