To Fight Alongside Friends - The First World War Diaries of Charlie May
Gerry Harrison (Ed.)
The First World War Diaries of Manchester Pals Captain Charlie May – written and kept in secret and published now for the first time. A born storyteller, Charlie May’s vivid eye for detail and warm good humour brings his experience in the trenches (and the experience of millions of ordinary men like him) to life for a 21st-century readership.
Captain Charlie May was killed, aged 27, in the early morning of 1st July 1916, leading the men of ‘B Company’, 22nd Manchester Service Battalion (the Manchester Pals) into action on the first day of the Somme.
This tolerant and immensely likeable man had been born in New Zealand and – against King’s regulations – he kept a diary in seven small, wallet-sized pocket books. A journalist before the war and a born storyteller, May’s diaries give a vivid picture of battalion life in and behind the trenches during the build-up to the greatest battle fought by a British army and are filled with the friendships and tensions, the home-sickness, frustrations, delays and endless postponements, the fog of ignorance, the combination of boredom and terror to which every man that has ever fought could testify.
His diaries reflect on the progress of the war, tell jokes – good and bad, give details of horse-rides along the Somme valley, afternoons with a fishing rod, lunch in Amiens, a gastronomic celebration of Christmas 1915 and concerts in “Whiz Bang Hall”. He describes battles not just with the enemy, but with rats, crows and on the makeshift football pitch – all recorded with a freshness that brings these stories home as if for the first time.
Charlie May’s diaries are eloquently written, and informative, sad, funny and loving. Before enlisting, Charlie worked in his father’s fire alarm business in Manchester, but he was also a writer – poems, short stories and newspaper articles. He started writing his diaries on 7 November 1915 and they open with the words:
I am going to commence this book this evening because now I have seen you for the last time before going abroad and I will therefore be unable to make [a] personal confession to you again for some time to come.
These words are written to his wife, Maude, and although the diary is where he documents the day-to-day events (the amusing, the mundane, the grumbles, the small pockets of contentment, the comings and goings of officers, the weather, the casualties) at all times he is addressing his beloved Maude and daughter, Pauline. Although he starts writing the diary as a way of connecting with Maude, by 22 December he admits:
[H]ere did I set out, gaily and with no foreboding, upon this diary, never thinking it could become a tyrant that would ’ere long rule me, and here I am reduced to impotence when evening comes round, unable to refuse the call of these pages to be scribbled in. And that irrespective of whether I have aught to say or whether I have naught as is my plight tonight.
It is just the necessary but colourless routine here, and will be till after Xmas … Such days furnish nothing and one is forced to rack one’s brain to fill the required entry space. But fill it I must, this habit has me so in its grip.
Despite Charlie’s misgivings that he is writing about “colourless routine”, to the reader today they tell us the human side of that dreadful war. He describes living arrangements, his emotions, the men and the officers he works alongside, and the conditions of the trenches, which I have read about many times but never before truly got a feel for just how shockingly awful they were.
Charlie May is a decent man and a respected officer. He truly cares about his men and understands their grievances and amusements. He is proud to be fighting for his country and honestly believes he is doing the right thing, even though he may die doing it. He says:
Do those at home yet 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 – an inviolate England is enough for them, so be it that we can get our price from the Hun.
He frequently mentions the cheeriness of the men, the small jokes they play on each other and their need to lighten their burden. When Charlie has to stay at Head Quarters for a time, he confides to his diary:
That is rather sad, for I had much sooner be an irresponsible, detached company commander than muck around at HQ with two doleful majors for company. Major Allfrey does occasionally smile but Merriman is unable even to raise a flicker. It is very sad. The more so because of the risk of affecting the men similarly. A laugh here is of such value.
The diary – all seven pocketbooks, from 7 November 2015 to 1 July 2016 with scarcely a day missed except when he was at home on leave – are talking to Maude. There is a lightness about them, intermingled with sadness at the loss of comrades, up until shortly before going into battle, when there is a noticeable shift in Charlie’s demeanour.
I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralising. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water. I cannot think of it with even the semblance of equanimity. […] My darling, au revoir. It may well be that you will only have to read these lines as ones of passing interest. On the other hand, they may well be my last message to you.
His last words in the diary, on 1 July 1916, are:
Now I close this old diary down for the next few days, since I may not take it into the line. I will, however, keep a record of how things go and enter it up later. The diary of the Battle of Mametz should be interesting reading …
Although nearly a hundred years old, the diaries are eminently readable. There is some slang of the time, which just makes them all the more interesting. Editor Gerry Harrison – Charlie May's great-nephew – has included numerous footnotes and has clearly done an enormous amount of research into the background of the events in the diary. The footnotes are in no way intrusive and they are not critical reading if you don’t like such things. But they do help give a full picture of what Charlie May is writing. They provide, for example, the full names of people who Charlie might refer to by a nickname, or explain what happened on a particular date, or give information that Charlie couldn’t have had at the time in order to explain any inconsistencies with history as we know it. But the notes that are most fascinating are the extracts from his comrades’ letters: they corroborate what Charlie says, provide more details and give a different point of view.
There is an epilogue, with letters from Maude to Bunting, Charlie’s batman and the man who held him while he died, and from Charlie’s father to family members. There are two sections of photo plates, an index and an index of names, which where possible gives information on what happened to the men that Charlie fought alongside. The foreword is written by historian David Crane. And there are a couple of maps to give an overview of Mametz and the Somme.
The whole is utterly fascinating, touching and poignant. I highly recommend it – it is a love story, it is history, it is the voice of one man among millions, and I became totally immersed in it.
Editorial Input & Design
This book is entirely professionally produced. I can’t fault it. There are a couple of teeny, tiny typos, that’s all. The book is so well put together – it looks lovely, it feels lovely, it reads beautifully. There are maps, an index, an index of names, a foreword, an epilogue and two sets of photo plates.
Cover: It is evocative and I love it.
Internal design: It is incredibly well typeset. The end papers are lovely – the front ones are a facsimile of a spread from Charlie May’s handwritten diaries, and the back ones are a facsimile of Maude’s last letter to Charlie, which he didn’t live to read (it’s set out in full in the epilogue).
I read the hardback version; the paperback will be available in November 2015.
Book Clubs & Reviews
There is much to discuss after reading this book. I would say it would be a very good choice.
What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 4.7 stars (11 reviewers); Amazon US readers give it 4 stars (1 reviewer); Goodreads readers give it 3.67 stars (6 ratings).
Buy & Author
Published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
HarperCollins (hardback £16.99)
Hive.co.uk (hardback £12.75; ePub £5.99; paperback £8.49)
O'Mahony's, Ireland (hardback €24.10)
Amazon (Hardback £13.59; Kindle £5.99/$14.11)
Follow the author:
Website gerryharrison.co.uk (with details of Gerry’s books and articles)
Links of interest
Disclosure: I am friends with Gerry Harrison and was given this book as a gift. That has not influenced my review of the book.