New Zealander Geoff's pilgrimage to Cannock Chase grave of 1918 pandemic victim

A New Zealander stranded by the coronavirus lockdown while in Britain has finally fulfilled his ambition of laying a wreath on the Cannock Chase grave of his uncle who died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Geoff at his uncle's grave.
Geoff at his uncle's grave.

Charlie McMillan, who was serving in the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, died on November 7 of that year – just four days before the Armistice ending the Great War was signed – as the pandemic swept through the soldiers so far from home.

His is one of 73 New Zealand graves at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cannock Chase, where the battalion had been based.

The battalion's war diary lists his name as one of 42 New Zealanders who died in November 1918 of "pneumonia" at nearby Rugeley military hospital.

Charlie McMillan died in the Spanish Flu pandemic.

His nephew, Geoff McMillan, from Waikanae Beach in New Zealand, had planned his third visit to the area last April to coincide with the annual Anzac Day ceremony at the cemetery. However, the event was cancelled just days before it was due to be held, because of coronavirus.

After a wait of several months during which he was in lockdown with his friend Mary Vidal near Glastonbury, he has now finally been able to make his pilgrimage to lay a wreath on the grave.

Richard Pursehouse of The Chase Project military research group said: "Over the weekend Geoff and Mary were also able to meet up for a socially-distanced lunch with the Reverend John Davis from St Mary’s Church in Stafford, who has officiated at the Anzac ceremony for the past few years.

The battalion's war diary for November 1918 lists dozens of New Zealand soldiers who died of the pandemic at Rugeley military hospital.

"On a damp and miserable Monday morning Geoff arranged to meet me at the cemetery, and I handed him a copy of the Express & Star from April which featured Geoff’s story about being unable to make the journey for the ceremony and how I placed a wreath at Charlie’s grave on his behalf.

"I also handed over a copy of my book Prisoners on Cannock Chase which came out in March 2020."

Geoff said: “It seems strange to be here again finally, despite your weather – which is not dissimilar to what we get in New Zealand at times.

"When Mary and I met up for a socially-distanced lunch with John we discussed the April 2021 Anzac ceremony being an extra-special event.

"John asked me if I would still be in England and I am wondering if that might be the most pragmatic thing to do, given I would have to go into quarantine en route as well as when I arrive in New Zealand.”

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