Charlie May's War: Secret diary of a WWI officer who longed for home
Charlie May was killed in the Battle Of The Somme[HARPER COLLINS]
Captain Charlie May was killed on the morning of July 1, 1916, leading his men into action on the first day of the Battle Of The Somme.
He was 27 years old.
After his death the soldier who carried his body off the battlefield discovered that Captain May had taken a slender notebook into battle.
He discovered six further pocketbooks among the late officer’s possessions, all written in faint pencil in tiny, italic handwriting.
Before the war Charlie May – born in New Zealand to an English family – had been a poet and journalist.
When he landed in France in November 1915, he could not help documenting all he saw, even though writing diaries was strictly forbidden.
The seven pocketbooks were sent home to his wife Maude and baby daughter Pauline, together with news of his death.
Charlie’s great-nephew Gerry Harrison has now transcribed this extraordinary uncensored diary after it lay forgotten in an attic for 80 years. It is published this month.
Captain May’s words offer a rare and vivid insight into life in the trenches: of rats and death, and the men’s optimism as they prepared to go into battle.
They also read as a moving love letter to the wife he adored and the little girl he couldn’t wait to be reunited with
Captain Charlie May with wife Maude and baby daughter Pauline [HARPER COLLINS]
Somewhere in his fatherland there is a little child who called him Dada
Charlie May's diaries
November 28, 1915I see that last evening I boasted that it would take more than rats to disturb us. I was badly mistaken. They ran over my legs, body, chest and feet. But when they started on my face I must own that I slavishly surrendered, fell to cursing horribly and finally changed my lying place. I can tell you they are some rats, these.
November 29, 1915
It has teemed. The trenches are ankle deep – some places calf deep – in mud and the communications trenches are rushing streams of brown water.
The men are wet through but stick the job like Britons and I hope for their sake that the weather lifts with the morning.
The guns have been strafing today, though up till now we have dodged the show. It may be ours again tomorrow though. One never knows.
December 1, 1915
It is exciting work, sniping. In fact one must curb the tendency lest it should become a fascination.
The Secondin-Command of the E Lancs [East Lancashire Regiment] and myself put in a couple of hours this morning and had quite a bit of fun worrying the Boches in their trenches.
One fellow was walking across the open – 2,000 yards off – when I spotted him and let go. You never saw a chap move quicker in your life.
He ran for a tree and jumped behind it and I let him have four more there. Whether I got him or not I don’t know but he didn’t move for the next half-hour. I know because I waited so anxiously for him.
Last night, or rather at 1.30 this morning, I got outside the barbed wire, and [got] lost.
Three times I had to fling myself down in the wet grass, bury my nose in it and grovel while the [machine guns] went chattering over me. It is remarkable with what speed one learns to “adopt the prone position”.
January 13, 1916I long and long to see you, to clasp you in my arms… and I long with all my heart to see my Baby. How I love her. What hopes I have for her, what a sweet girl she will make.
February 25, 1916
Woke up this morning to find the snow pelting down and covering the ground fully five inches deep.
Also it was freezing hard. Cotton [a fellow officer] came in to breakfast with us.
He brought the little bible which [another soldier] had taken from the body of the dead German.
On the fly-leaf in a child’s handwriting the word Dada.
War is very sad.
Perhaps the man may have been something to loathe and detest. I do not know.
All I am conscious of is that somewhere in his fatherland there is a little child who called him Dada.
Wife Maude wrote numerous letters to her sweetheart Charlie [HARPER COLLINS]
April 6, 1916Fritz [German soldiers] strafed our new trenches with heavies and searched round the support with HE [high-explosive] shrapnel
and other such obnoxious stuff. One shell claimed three NCOs [non commissioned officers] and wounded three men. We all feel wild to get at the beast and hope we may string him up on the wire. I saw the killed go down the line. It was a pitiful sight. Poor boys, shell fire is a horrid thing. Gresty – a lad who was a sergeant of mine – was the worst, his body full of gaping holes. It was very, very sad. Do those at home realise how their boys go out for them? Never can they do enough for their soldiers, never can they repay the debt they owe. Not that the men ask any reward… but one day we’ll get at him with the bayonet. We’ll take our price then for Gresty and all the other hundred thousand Grestys slain as they were standing at their posts.
June 17, 1916I do not want to die… the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water. My conscience is clear that I have always tried to make life a joy for you. But it is the thought that our babe may grow up without my knowing her and without her knowing me. I pray God I may do my duty for I know whatever that may entail you would not have it otherwise.
June 23, 1916Everything is speeding up no end. Ammunition by the hundred wagonload is pouring up. It should certainly not be for lack of ammunition if we do not make a huge success of the venture. Yet one cannot help feeling a little anxious and worried. So much depends on this great throw.
June 28, 1916
The moment seems very auspicious for us to strike. Perhaps we will on Friday?
July 1, 1916
We marched up [to the assembly trench] last night. The most exciting march imaginable.
Guns all round us crashed and roared till sometimes it was quite impossible to hear oneself speak. It was, however, a fine sight and one realised from it what gun power really means.
Fritz, of course, strafed back in reply, causing us some uneasiness and a few casualties before even we reached the line. The night passed noisily and with a few more casualties. The Hun puts a barrage on us every now and then and generally claims one or two victims.
It is a glorious morning. We go over in two hours’ time. It seems a long time to wait and I think, whatever happens, we shall all feel relieved once the line is launched.
No Man’s Land is a tangled desert. Unless one could see it, one cannot imagine what a terrible state of disorder it is in.
But we do not yet seem to have stopped the machine guns. These are popping off all along our parapet as I write.
I trust they will not claim too many of our lads before the day is over.
Now I close this old diary down for the next few days since I may not take it into the line. I will keep a record of how things go and enter it up later.
Shortly after Charlie put away his pocketbook and pencil at 6.30am on July 1, the Allied artillery began its bombardment of enemy trenches.
An hour later the barrage ceased and the first wave of officers blew their whistles and led their men up ladders and over the top.
As Charlie climbed into enemy view – leading the men of B Company, 22nd Manchester Pals Battalion into action – his loyal batman, Private Arthur Bunting, was close behind. They struggled across No Man’s Land through sheets of rifle and machine-gun fire. Just as they reached the German lines Charlie was hit by shell fire. Private Bunting remained with his body for three hours, under heavy fire, before dragging him back to the trenches. In the letter Maude wrote to Bunting to thank him for sending back the diaries, she wrote: “I don’t know how I shall go through life without him – the loving care and devotion he showered upon baby and me was greater than I can ever put into words.”Four years later Maude married Captain Frank Earles, one of Charlie’s comrades from the trenches, whom Charlie had asked to care for Maude and baby Pauline in the event of his death. Frank fulfilled his promise and proved to be a loving husband and stepfather.
To order To Fight Alongside Friends: The First World War Diaries Of Charlie May, edited by Gerry Harrison (William Collins, £16.99), call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562 310; send a cheque/PO payable to The Express Bookshop to Charlie May Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ; or online at expressbookshop.com
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