W G Youens

W G Youens

William George Youens (1891-1918)

My name is William George Youens. There have been many Youens living in Wycombe over the ages and you’ll see the name crop up throughout the town.

I was born on the 12th November 1891, here in High Wycombe, and spent my days before the war living at 5 Hill Side View in Hughenden Road. The house is still there near to the entrance to the park. My father was Robert William George Youens, an upholsterer who had his own business; I think it was in Widgington’s Passage just off St Mary Street, near to where the Swan theatre is now. My mother was Emma Elizabeth Youens. The rest of my family consisted of my three younger sisters and two younger brothers. The house was very busy! When I left school, aged 14, I followed in my father’s footsteps and became an apprentice before becoming a full time upholsterer with William Birch Limited in their new factory in Leigh Street. You can still see the large factory today although it looks quite a sad sight now.

In 1914 I married Annie Surman and we moved to 20 Ship Street, which is near the bus station. In April 1915 we had a daughter, who we called Viva Millicent. Viva, lived all her life in Wycombe and died, aged 81, in 1996.

Many of our relatives also fought in the war. My brother, Robert, signed up for the Navy in 1916, aged 15 and served on many ships including the HMS Sapphire, 15 was the youngest that anyone could be to serve. Robert stayed in the Navy until 1929. He died in 1989. Frederick Youens was my 2nd cousin and a war hero. He lived in Wycombe before the war and went to the other grammar school in Wycombe. He died on the 7th July 1917. A bomb fell in the trench near him, he picked it up and hurled it out of the trench. He repeated the action a minute later, but this one exploded wounding him and some of the men at his command (he was a lieutenant). He later succumbed to his injuries. For his heroics and bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

When the First World War broke out, I was already old enough to fight but I didn’t join immediately. I signed up about the same time as my brother, in 1916, and I joined the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars 2/1st, Winston Churchill’s old regiment. I trained in Colchester and was based in England for most of the war; we were a cyclist brigade helping defend the south and east coast of England.

In January 1918 we were transferred to Ireland as there were difficulties from Irish nationalists. For example in April 1918 conscription became law in Ireland and this was bitterly opposed by some. We were based in Dublin for the rest of the war.

It is often said that Spanish flu killed more people than the First World War. The deadly flu virus attacked more than one-third of the world's population, and within months had killed more than 50 million people – three times as many as the World War I – and did it more quickly than any other illness in recorded history. To maintain morale the wartime censors minimised early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. However in Spain, newspapers were free to report the epidemic's effects, creating a false impression of Spain as being especially hard hit - and leading to the outbreak given the nickname Spanish flu. The close quarters and massive troop movements of World War I hastened the pandemic and probably both increased transmission and helped the virus mutate quicker.

The Spanish flu epidemic raged in Ireland from July 1917 to March of 1919, when it suddenly and mysteriously vanished. Dublin was a notoriously dirty city, and was therefore the perfect place for Spanish Flu to thrive. Unusually for flu, this version predominantly killed previously healthy young adults, such as me. When you had Spanish Flu, your lungs became infected and pneumonia set in. At times, you turned purple, or even black, which is why the disease was widely nicknamed, ‘The Black Flu’. Roughly 23,000 were killed in Ireland by the flu and 800,000 were infected; it was difficult to avoid and I didn’t. I was quickly admitted to the King George V Hospital in Dublin but I soon developed pneumonia. I died on 27th October 1918. I was then brought back to High Wycombe and buried with military honours in this spot. At my graveside the Royal Field Artillery fired three volleys and a trumpeter sounded the last post.

Researched and performed by Max Woodroff

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