The Way We Were: Letters from the battlefield

Newport Pagnell High Street during World War One
Newport Pagnell High Street during World War One

Oh, er. Spooky goings on in Newport Pagnell – well, according to a recent book on its ghosts and haunted places.

But as far as I’m concerned there can be few better haunts than the Picture House café, where one can always obtain a remarkably good all day breakfast. But on the subject of departed Newportonians, and continuing this month’s theme of World War One, the most poignant sight in the town is of course the war memorial.

As regarding the First World War, many of the letters sent home by the soldiers from the town may now be viewed on the website of the Newport Pagnell local history society, and provide first hand accounts of the battlefield conditions, and of the hopes and fears of those who fought in the trenches. One of these would be Percy Odell, the eldest son of John Odell, an ironmonger of the town, who, having volunteered for active service within an hour of the declaration of war, was killed in action on the Somme on Thursday, October 19, 1916.

He was aged 37, and his parents would receive the following letter from the Reverend C. H. Hadfield, chaplain of the forces; “Dear Mr. Odell, – I deeply regret to have to tell you that your son, Corpl. Odell, has been reported killed in the recent fighting. Our men showed great bravery and attacked with complete success, but unfortunately not a few were called upon to make the supreme sacrifice for their country. We shall miss your son. May I offer you our sincere sympathy for you in your loss. May God give comfort to you and yours.”

He is commemorated by a wall memorial in the parish church. Yet just as the carnage of the war was coming to a close another world wide scourge would arise, in the form of Spanish Flu. In fact by the last week of October 1918 there are over 500 cases in Newport Pagnell where, with many of the staff ill, and the attendance less than 50 per cent, all the schools were closed.

There was then particular sorrow at 16, Greenfield Road, when from pneumonia following flu a 32 year old mother died. Four children were bereaved, the youngest aged four months, and the following day the wife of a talented musician, who had arranged many wartime concerts in the town, died from the same cause. She had fallen ill after nursing her husband, who had contracted the illness, and as equally tragic was the case of a 40 year old mother and her five year old son, who died of influenza within two hours of each other at 29a, Mill Street.

At the time her husband was marching with the victorious British troops into Germany, but of his family only two daughters, aged seven and two-and-a-half, were left to welcome him home. Among other cases, at Northampton Hospital a 34-year-old woman of London Road died from pneumonia following influenza, while from the same cause at No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station Private George Daniells, R.A.S.C., on military service in Flanders, died on the eve of his return to civilian life. Aged 21 he had previously been employed in the town by Dr. Bailey, and so in the space of eight months his mother lost not only her husband but also her younger son, who had been killed in action.

At Huntingdon, another victim would be Dennis Higgins, of 131, London Road, who, having learned his trade as a trimmer at Salmons, in Newport Pagnell, went to Huntingdon to work at the Portholme Aircraft works.

Following the outbreak of war he served with the Armoured Motor Car Squadron in France, but having survived military service he died aged 29 due to pneumonia after influenza. Among the wreaths at his funeral was one from his two year old daughter: ‘To dear Daddy, from Doris; Gone to Bye-byes.’