Walter Ogden was just a teenager when he died on the Western Front. But now his moving story is being told after letters were found by relatives in Harrogate. Chris Bond reports.
FOR almost a century Walter Ogden’s letters and those sent to him by family and friends lay hidden away in an upstairs attic.
But while sorting through family documents during a recent refurbishment of their family jewellery business in Harrogate, Ben and Robert Ogden discovered a file containing letters that had remained unopened all this time.
The correspondence not only sheds light on the moving story of their great, great uncle, who commanded a tank called “Harrogate”, it also contains details about his final battle, including his hand-written orders, at Cambrai, in France, where he died in December 1917.
Walter Ogden was the youngest son of jeweller James Roberts Ogden and followed in the footsteps of his three brothers, William, Jack and James Roberts junior, enlisting in the army as a private at the tender age of 16.
As well as a cache of 37 letters, a photograph survives of the dashing young man in his greatcoat complete with upturned collar and matinee idol good looks. Of the four Ogden brothers who went to war he was the only one who didn’t return and for Robert and Ben, who now run the family business, the discovery has brought his story to life.
“We’d been told that Walter’s father amassed this correspondence and kept it safe, but we’d never seen it and we were beginning to think it had gone,” says Robert. “We were amazed to discover the file with all the letters, telegrams and documents.
”We had always been told of the family connection to the First World War and knew that our great, great grandfather and his three brothers had all fought in the war, but to find the original letters from this time and the actual order for battle, which effectively sent Walter to his death, was incredibly moving.
“There are countless stories from the First World War that are really moving, but what was perhaps unusual with this one was how meticulously everything has been collected.”
Walter’s letters offer a glimpse into what life was like on the front, their tone veering from outright enthusiasm to battle-hardened stoicism. “There’s a slightly rueful one where he says he’s got septic poisoning and goes on about censorship and you feel it could have been written yesterday.”
By the time Walter was killed at the Battle of Cambrai, at the age of just 19, he’d worked his way up to second lieutenant in the Royal Tank Corps. This was the first large-scale use of massed tanks in battle with Walter in the thick of the action.
His letter home dated November 27, 1917, is full of vivid descriptions. “The tanks had to fight for their lives as the Bosch were either drunk or drugged, of that I am sure, as they swarmed round the tanks in hundreds, and we mowed them down like rabbits.”
He describes it as “the greatest battle in history” before adding: “I lost two of my crew the first day, but the rest of us came through without a scratch.”
It proved to be his last letter home. On December 1 he suffered a wound to his abdomen and died the following day in hospital. Today, an injury like this would be treated with antibiotics but a century ago it was often a death sentence.
Among the letters and correspondence discovered in the jewellery shop in Harrogate were his final battle orders. “They were found in the tank by a friend who picked them up and later posted them back to his father. Can you imagine receiving something like this seven or eight years later?” says Robert.
There’s also a heart-wrenching letter written from his sister, Nell, dated November 26. In it she writes: “My dearest Wallie, Many thanks for your note telling us you were going into action – we are now waiting eagerly to know you have come through it all –these are horribly anxious times.”
She goes on to talk about her forthcoming wedding. “I shall be most horribly disappointed if you all are not there – do apply for leave in good time Wallie boy, don’t forget.” She finishes by saying: “Now I must close Wal – you will write to us as often as you can, I know. All my dearest love, Nell.”
It’s likely that Walter never read the letter which, in a cruel twist of fate, will have passed his final one travelling in the post the other way.
Another achingly sad letter was written to Walter’s fiancée, Hilda, by his best friend Phil. In it his friend provides more information about how Walter was injured and tries to offer comfort to his grief-stricken bride-to-be.
“In sympathy to you Hilda, I can say little, we have a mutual loss but yours is the greatest. Once we talked quietly together, and if my memory serves me right, I said how positive I was of a life stretching far beyond the limits of our space bound world, and if you love, as I know you were loved, you have not lost.
“There are thoughts too deep for tears, and too frail for words. In sympathy I would share them with you.”
For Ben and Robert, reading these letters was a moving experience and one they feel has brought them closer to the past. “It’s hugely moving because you do naturally feel a connection. We were born 60 years after he died but it was always talked about by our grandparents that Walter had died as a tank commander during the war, so to finally to lay our eyes on all the correspondence and everything else just really brings it home.”
Today, some of these letters and telegrams are on display in the showroom of the family shop, a visible reminder that behind every soldier cut down in their prime is a story to be told.