I’m currently reading the World War 1 diaries of Captain Charlie May, To Fight Alongside Friends. Recently I’ve read quite a few books set in or around this period, all interesting in their own right, but none of them has grabbed me quite like this chap.
It’s a warm, funny diary. Charlie joined up as part of a PALS battalion from Manchester and left behind a wife and daughter. He talks about his general training then the monotony of the long hard slogs across France and Belgium towards the front line, at first seeing surprisingly little action, but covering an awful amount of ground.
A review I’d read about the book gave it high praise, but warned that it was very much of its time – and I admit some of the language is archaic, little Englander. There’s a fair smattering of ‘Bow Wows!’ in the text. There are also drunken subordinates falling in duck ponds and emerging with septic feet, men ending 16 mile marches with only one boot still intact, frank comments on the joys of having lice, how lucky the men are to get clean underwear every two weeks (!), his cheerful dismissal of his men not being paid because he forgot to lodge the correct form with HQ (he saved them from gambling and drink, he reasons) and his opinions on French middens and drainage are not polite. Coming through everything however is an overwhelming outpouring of love towards his family.
9th November, 1915: I wonder what you are doing tonight and of what you are thinking. My darling soul, when shall we meet again. When will the time come that we can once more set up our home and recommence our life of utter happiness? Oh, how little I realised where happiness lay until it was denied me. How limited is man’s mind. It does not allow him to enjoy life in the present but only to realise what moments have meant to him by looking back on them when they have passed.
I know how the diary will end. Charlie died at the Somme on the very first day of battle aged just 27, leading his men into previously unknown carnage. At first this didn’t bother me, the diaries were all very upper crust Englishman viewing his men as rough and ready fellows without any real appreciation of their individual characters. This changes as you read, possibly because Charlie himself comes to take on an almost paternal viewpoint of these young men under his command. He writes in a fluid, warm and witty voice, directly to his wife and child. He is great company for an hour before bed. I’m about halfway through now, and Charlie is becoming a friend. He himself knows why he is in the army, he knows why he is fighting and what the outcome could be. He doesn’t let it get to him but dreams of the many new years to come with his beautiful family. And I’m beginning to find it heartbreaking because I know he never got to fulfil his simple, homely dreams. He never again did see his wife walking out on a summer’s day in her spotted black muslin dress that he admires her so much in.
He is one of thousands of young men who never grew old. Who threw themselves uncomplainingly into war for their country and an ideal that England and her neighbour should be free. Who acknowledges freely that England can be a stuffy old place, hung up on bureaucracy and rules, but deduces ruefully that French sanitation would benefit wholeheartedly from intervention from the health and safety brigade. He had so much to live for, but didn’t hesitate to give himself body and soul to protect an ideal of freedom.
I suspect that by the end of this book I will be somewhat of a snotty mess. I’m very glad I picked it up. I am even more glad there were men like Charlie who fought to provide me and this stodgy country I live in with the freedom to read, remember and reflect on the sacrifices made 100 years ago. Thank you Charlie. Thank you, to the thousand more whose names are carved into memorial stone across the world. We should never forget.