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.
Peter Barnes writes…
100 years ago, on 13 March 1915, Private Frederick Nicholls of the 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment (Service number 10250) died at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, ten miles to the south-west of Lille. He was 21 years old, one of the nine children of Frederick and Mary Nicholls, who lived at 182 Simpson Road.
Frederick Nicholls was commemorated this morning at the war memorial at Simpson which bears his name. A brief Biography (FN) was placed on the memorial for those who pass by to read. It also appears on the ‘Lest we forget’ page on the Simpson & Ashland Parish website.
Lena Bates, from the Simpson Britain in Bloom group, placed a beautiful posy of flowers on the memorial, following the practice instituted in November 2014.
I am very grateful to the members of the group who prepare these posies and also liaise with Milton Keynes Council over the planting and maintenance of the memorial. Their work on behalf of the community in honouring those who served and died in both World Wars and, more widely, ensuring that Simpson is an attractive and cared-for environment is widely appreciated. It will feature in the Heritage section of Simpson’s submission to the Britain in Bloom awards this summer.
How about seeing a bit of theatre in a full-size replica 1st World War tank? Or watching a commemorative dance with hand-made banners? Or perhaps participating as an Old Time Music Hall audience – letting the performers know what you think of their acts! New music from young musicians, new film shows of the Great War era, extraordinary installations and exhibitions – all these are part of the Great War MK project about to explode on the Milton Keynes community.
Great War MK is a collaborative project led by the Arts & Heritage Alliance Milton Keynes (AHA-MK). It explores the impact of the First World War on the communities of Milton Keynes – an area now covering six towns, 41 villages and 1/4 million people – through research, commemorative events, participatory learning activity and community workshops. During 2015 Great War MK will be presenting events and opportunities for people to explore and commemorate the lives and the stories of the Great War.
With funding from Heritage Lottery Fund and seed-funding from MK Council, this project brings together various arts and heritage organisations, which are all exploring WW1 themes and using different methods to tell stories. The partner organisations are: Cowper and Newton Museum, Deanshanger Village Heritage Society, Festive Road, Independent Cinema Milton Keynes, Living Archive, MK Gallery, Pepper’s Ghost Theatre Company, Westbury Arts Centre through support from MK Heritage Association: Bucks Constabulary Museum, North Crawley Historical Society and Simpson History Group.
Great War MK aims to work with people of all ages and abilities, providing opportunities to take part in workshops, and activities are now developing. To find out more see our events page and Facebook or follow @AHA_MK #GreatWarMK on Twitter. You can also hear more about the projects on our Vimeo page.
Alongside these events, Great War MK is also putting a call out to any community groups or individuals that want to be part of this large-scale project: we want you to create and donate your very own hand-made poppy to be added to a WW1 banner. Using the sewing template found here (or by knitting or crocheting), we are asking for as many people as possible to create a poppy that will be included in banners used as part of an act of commemoration in July at Campbell Park. To find out more please see the blog.
Marion Hill, author and Chair of the Great War MK Steering Group says: ‘Even after a hundred years, the Great War continues to move and inspire – and with the wealth of talented people that we have here in Milton Keynes, we look forward to so much more to reflect upon – because Milton Keynes does it differently!’
The stories of Milton Keynes in WW1, of those that went off to fight, those that stayed behind and of those that did not return will be commemorated through this project and we invite all residents of Milton Keynes to remember them with us by attending a workshop or event, making a poppy or by volunteering with us.
Great War MK is a collaborative project led by the Arts & Heritage Alliance Milton Keynes (AHA-MK). It explores the impact of the First World War on the communities of Milton Keynes – an area now covering six towns, 41 villages and 1/4 million people – through research, commemorative events, participatory learning activity and community workshops.
This Heritage Lottery funded project enables partners from the AHA-MK membership collectively to commemorate not only the stories from 100 years ago but also their legacy for modern Milton Keynes. Our aim is to inspire active participation amongst both native and new communities in Milton Keynes – in interviews, workshops and creative activities to produce informative and engaging new works. Great War MK will generate film screenings, music, dance, performances, archive material, exhibitions and installations, all of which will give fresh insights into the turmoil – and creativity – of those times.
Festive Road – Milton Keynes-based carnival company Festive Road are building full
size WW1 tank that will form the backdrop to their new performance informed by the tensions and challenges of frontline fighting. This outdoor artwork will be presented at night in various locations around Milton Keynes.
The Banner Project – Working with a talented textiles artist, Vinny Stapley, Westbury Arts Centre aims to create over 500 banners informed by the stories and memories of WW1. These beautiful commemorative banners will then be used to create a large-scale dance performance. Working with renowned choreographers Helen Parlor, Effie McGuire-Ward and Chris Bradley, a team of over 100 dancers will take part in this act of remembrance.
Cowper & Newton Museum – Working with Olney RFC the Cowper & Newton Museum will stage a commemorative Rugby match in January 2015 – in memory of local hero Edgar Mobbs. The Museum is also developing a Songs and Poetry Evening and an energetic Old Time Music Hall, breathing life into 100 year old music and verse, as well as presenting a new animation inspired by life in the trenches.
Frontline – MK Gallery is working with four local schools to explore the concept of conflict and how artists have represented war and wartime in their work. Groups of students will be visiting the Imperial War Museum and working with artists to develop their own artworks – culminating in an exhibition at MK Gallery project space in June 2015.
Living Archive – Working with a group of talented young people, professional musician Steven McDaniels will be supporting the development of new songs and music inspired by the WW1 stories held by Living Archive. These new songs will be performed at an event in May 2015. In addition, Living Archive will be developing digital stories bringing new life to re-mastered Living Archive Band recordings.
Independent Cinema MK – Local independent cinema company ICMK is exploring the ideas of propaganda and truth in their work creating stop-time animations with school children. These animations will form part of several ‘WW1 style’ screening events to take place around Milton Keynes, alongside other WW1 relevant film and footage.
Serving King and Country – Deanshanger Village Heritage Society have undertaken a research project to uncover information about the village in the WW1 period. Research will uncover life on the home front, those that served, those in reserved occupations – working on the land and at the famous E & H Roberts Iron Foundry. This project will result in exhibitions, creative workshops with school children, walks and archive material.
MK Heritage Association – Through support from MKHA, these local history projects also form part of Great War MK. These include:
- Simpson History Group’s research project to better understand the lives of the men represented on their war memorial, work to restore the local memorials and production of a booklet to commemorate their sacrifice.
- Bucks Constabulary Museum’s WW1 exhibition
- North Crawley Historical Society’s research project to track and commemorate all those who fought and died from their village, producing an exhibition and booklet.