Just some of the images that we have collected so far through Great War MK events…
The Great War produced a lasting legacy of momentous military and political decisions that have rightly entered into the history books, but it is from the local papers of the time that we can gain a truly intimate insight into the impact of World War One on ordinary lives. No community was spared the heartbreak of receiving word from the front of fallen soldiers, and local newspapers were a crucial source of this news and information.
Notable amongst those papers serving the Milton Keynes area was the weekly Wolverton Express and The Bucks Standard, and though these particular publications have not yet joined the hundreds already available to fully search online, it is still perfectly possible to see what was happening in Wolverton and surrounding towns and villages by visiting Central Milton Keynes library. Here you will find microfiche copies of these papers, which while a little challenging to search (library staff are of course on hand to help), can provide some amazing surprises, especially if you know or suspect that a family ancestor served in the war.
Scanning through these fascinating old pages, with local news of flower shows and weddings interspaced with bulletins from the war, you can be lost in the past for hours, but before you visit the library, there is a useful resource you can first visit online to help narrow your search. The MK Heritage website is home to an enormous archive of information on the history of Milton Keynes, and here you will find transcribed the letters sent home by servicemen to parents, wives and other relatives and friends, or in darker circumstances, received in the event of a wound received, a man missing or captured, or most feared of all, a fatality.
This immense body of work, culled from a number of newspapers including The Wolverton Express and Bucks Standard, (where letters were often published) is the diligent work of local historian John Taylor. Should you wish, as well as the online version, a bound hard-copy is also available in the reference library at Central Milton Keynes, but however you choose to read them, these missives from the front line offer an incredibly poignant insight into the vicissitudes of wartime life. Remember though that these letters are just a small fraction of the information locked up in these old newspapers, and finding an original article, especially if there is a personal connection, is well worth the effort.
Here then are two examples of letters published during the war years.
The Wolverton Express, July 2nd 1915
This posthumous letter, heavy with portents, was found in the pay book of Private Arthur Kitchener after he died of Pneumonia in France. Arthur was a resident of Wolverton, and like many soldiers who enlisted in the area, was an employee of Wolverton Railway Works.
“I am writing this short letter amidst a ’rain of shells.’ May it please God to deliver me safely from it. If this should not be His wish, then of course I go with the rest who have laid down their life for their King and Country. I have tried to do my duty, and I think, to the best of my ability, I have succeeded, little though it may be. My last thought will be for my dearest mother, but I feel sure that she will be properly cared for until the time we shall meet again. It is not goodbye but good night. ‘We all shall meet in the morning light’ in a world of peace. “I am putting this letter in my pay-book, and in case of my death I hope it will reach you safely. Do not mourn for me. We must patiently wait until we meet once more.”
The Wolverton Express, Aug 6th 1915
By contrast, here is an extraordinary account of a lucky escape by a Private Lancaster of Stony Stratford. The “Coal Box” that Private Lancaster refers was slang for a high explosive shell which produced a great deal of black smoke.
“The day after I received your letter and parcel I was blown off the top of a trench. A party of us were walking near some houses when we were spotted by a ‘plane’ and they started shelling us with ‘coal boxes.’ Ten of us were caught by a shell going over the road which blew us all over the shop. I only remember it bursting and a thump in my back, and a cloud of smoke and bricks. I found myself in a ditch also my rifle, but my shovel was blown to bits. I could only see one of my mates so I got towards him as best I could as the shells were dropping all around us. I felt very bad my back felt as if it was broken. My mates seemed to come from out of the earth, one by one. They took my coat off and found I was bruised all down the back but not cut at all. I cannot make it out when the Corporal got us all together there was only one man hit. He was hit in the head and arm. Some lost their rifles, some shovels and most all lost their hats which must have been blown to pieces as we could not find them. They were working in the same place the next day and the Corporal told me that the shell burst three yards from us. We must have been too near it to get the shell itself so that makes the third miss this week. I am having a few days rest now out of the trench, but not out of the shell zone, as I am in some dug out with some more chaps behind the trenches. I was tired out when they woke me up as they were shelling again. One dropped a few yards in front of our dug out. Then our guns started so there was no more sleep for me. My back is very stiff now but that is better than a broken one.”
However, while these transcripts are immensely interesting, they do not always provide, literally speaking, the full picture. This is because it was very common for newly enlisted soldiers to have a photograph taken prior to their departure on active service, often by a professional photographer in a studio, and sadly these haunting images would sometimes find their way into a local newspaper in the event of a soldier’s death. A Roll of Honour section is to be found frequently in wartime papers, and while it is not always the case that a photograph is used, it is certainly worth checking the original pages if you suspect a relative is featured.
Here are a few photographs and brief information on the soldier featured.
The Wolverton Express – Aug 25th 1916
Private C. J. Harris, of the 1st Bucks Territorials, 145th Machine Gun Co., was killed in action in France on August 14th. He was aged 20. He was the only son of Mr. and Mrs. George Harris, of Church Street, Wolverton.
The Bucks Standard – Jan 18th 1917
Photographs could also be published in happier circumstances. Sergeant William Wise of Newport Pagnell, formally a carriage builder at Wolverton Works, was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry, after he volunteered to deliver a vital message under very heavy fire. Later that year, he was seriously wounded, but survived and went on to marry a Lilian Cousins, also of Newport Pagnell.
It really is only right and proper that these stories and photographs can still be retrieved, so if you have the opportunity, do take a look for yourself, and if you happen to find someone from your family, why not share your discovery in the comments section below. Alternatively, you can also contribute to the Great War Memories of Milton Keynes website.
On Sunday 5th July Westbury Arts Centre staged an outdoor performance of dance set against an installation of banners to commemorate WW1. This took place at the MK Rose in Campbell Park, a quiet circle of commemorative pillars surrounded by an enclosing hedge which was filled with brightly coloured banners and the movement of dancers performing amongst the stone pillars. The dance performance, set against a backdrop of the circle of multi-coloured banners, took place against stormy skies which heightened the drama created by the moving and dramatic choreography and the fluttering banners set all around the Rose – itself a place of commemoration. The performers embodied the emotion of the piece although many will never have known a veteran of the Great War themselves and gave a truly sensitive and moving performance.
There were two performances which were well attended despite squalls of rain and gusts of wind which heightened the impact of the music and the banners during the performance. Twelve different groups performed, ranging from primary school children from Longmeadow School who wove a moving picture using the poppy banners and some of the individual poppies made by the community to a gentle and very beautiful waltz by residents and friends from Shenley Retirement Home to the sound of Waltzing Matilda. The dancers moved across the black stone of the Rose, using the pillars and the banners in a complex set of themes, including soldiers on the battlefield, the nurses who cared for them, prisoners and the communications on the battlefield and between those left at home and those serving at the front. A complete list of the very accomplished groups of dancers is shown at the end.
The banners were arranged in thematic blocks, some showing images of war on the sackcloth that would have been used for sandbags, fluttering white crosses and feathers on gauze that was reminiscent of bandages, bright coloured banners showing the emblems of the Sikh and Hindu regiments, smaller banners with the poppy motif which were both made and used by the youngest performers and many individual banners telling personal stories passed down through families. The banners were created by 9 different groups and many individuals through a series of workshops run by Vinny Stapley over a 9 month period – a list of the contributing groups is shown on the attached leaflet.
Although the final performance was the summit and allowed us to share the project with the community as a whole, the workshops in which the participating groups and individuals worked on the dance and the banners were just as important and the feedback we received from these was full of enthusiasm about the sharing and the learning that was made possible by the artists leading the workshops:
‘Another fabulous workshop – Vinny is an absolute inspiration’; ‘Lovely to work with Effie – her lessons were really enjoyable’; ‘Fantastic morning, lovely hearing everyone’s family stories’; ‘ It was a great way to remind us of the war, whilst being creative’.’The creation process was fun – working closely with Helen has been a great experience and I have learned a lot.’ ‘The personal accounts on the banners were very moving and showed how the past lives on in our memories.’ ‘A beautiful and moving performance.’
The banners will be on display at Westbury Arts Centre from 11th July to 31st July – please contact WAC for details on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01908 501214 as otherwise we cannot guarantee access to the full display.
Westbury Arts Centre would like to thank Helen Parlor, Chris Bradley and Effie McGuire Ward for their inspired choreography and to thank the performers for their dedication and commitment to the project; Vinny Stapley, the brilliant textile artist who worked with the many makers both through workshops with specific groups and also through open workshops at Westbury Arts Centre and who conceptualised the themes of the different groups of banners in collaboration with the choreographers as well as making many of them herself.
We also thank the many helpers, especially Sophie Cullinan, a textile artist herself, who supported the project, Caroline Malone, Chair of Westbury Arts Centre, who took on the role of project manager and the many volunteers who made it possible for us to bring such an ambitious project to a triumphant conclusion, especially Helen DenDulk and Kate Edwards from Westbury and Lallie Davis, the overall GreatWarMK project manager for AHA-MK.
Finally we thank our sponsors: Heritage Lottery Foundation; Community Foundation, MK; Dobbies Garden Centre; Westbury Arts Centre for the Bikathon organised with the help of MK Letnet and the Peace and Justice Network, MK.
- Bedford University
- Bollywood Dance Group, Milton Keynes
- CentreStage Theatre School MK
- Graduate dancers (recent graduates from national institutions)
- Initiate Youth Dance Company
- Longmeadow Primary School
- Open University Dance Group
- Red Kite Dance
- Samuel Whitbread Academy
- Shenley Wood Village residents and friends
- Stantonbury Campus
- Art for Health
- BATS Textile Group
- Caroline Haslett Primary School
- Longmeadow Primary School
- Milton Keynes College
- University of Northampton
- Shenley Brook End Secondary School
- Stantonbury Campus
- Westbury Arts Centre artists and other individual artists from Milton Keynes
Images courtesy of Lallie Davis, Helen Parlor and David Whittington-Jones
A preview of banners that will be used in For the Fallen at Campbell Park this sunday. These beautiful hand-made banners, and many more, will be installed in the park to create a backdrop for a large-scale commemorative dance – join us 5th July, performances at 3pm and 5pm.
These banners will also be installed at Westbury Arts Centre from 11th – 31st July for members of the public to enjoy.