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.