To Fight Alongside Friends: The Great War Diaries of Charlie May

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To Fight Alongside Friends: The Great War Diaries of Charlie May

Published:

Fri, 18/07/2014 - 11:06

By:

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Gerry Harrison at the grave of Charlie May (right)  on the Somme battlefield
Gerry Harrison at the grave of Charlie May (right) on the Somme battlefield
Published: 
18 July, 2014
GERALD ISAAMAN

THE old battered suitcase of faux brown leather with a broken handle had spent most of its time in attics, passed down through the family without anyone opening it for serious inspection.

Gerry Harrison’s Aunt Pauline in Notting Hill handed it to another relative named Georgina, then on to Gerry in May, 1999. And when he finally did look inside, he soon realised the importance in particular of seven pocket notebooks.

They were the legacy – the highly secret First World War diaries – of Captain Charlie May, his great uncle, a journalist, poet and short story writer born in Dunedin, New Zealand.

He was killed aged 27 leading B Company, 22nd Manchester “Pals” Battalion, into action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He left behind a wife and child, one of 20,000 men who lost their lives in that onslaught alone.

A soldier who carried his body off the battlefield found the diaries, the latest one still in his pocket, and sent them home with the shocking news of his death.

They had been composed daily, totally in defiance of King’s Regulations and Army censorship, to give, in fascinating, intimate detail, an acute picture of life in and out of the muddy trenches, moments filled with friendship and frustration, boredom and the stalking terror of death.

Yet the Imperial War Museum dismissed the diaries as just another war memoir and told Gerry to take them to the Regimental Museum in Manchester. “And they were thrilled to bits to have them,” he says.

“Sooner or later – and I don’t know quite when – transcripts were made of the diaries and sent down to the Imperial War Museum. Then there was a period when they were looked at by historians writing about the First World War, who realised their true significance.”

Even so, it was not until November, 2012, that Gerry, whose hectic life has included episodes as an actor, TV director, author and Labour Camden councillor for 12 years, met up with historian Professor Anthony Fletcher.

“He said to me, ‘Gerry, do you not realise you are sitting on a treasure. And you call yourself a writer. You shouldn’t leave these diaries in the museum for people like me’.”

Gerry was engrossed then in writing a biography of Reggie Smith, the husband of novelist Olivia Manning, and finding it tough going. “So I thought I’d take time off from Reggie and get into Charlie,” Gerry, now 71, told me on a trip back to London from his bookshop business near Ennis, in County Clare. 

“And I put an embargo on anything to do with Charlie at the Imperial War Museum and in Manchester too. That was at the end of 2012.

“It had taken a long time for the penny to drop, for me to understand what I had. 

“And it quickly became a full-time job editing the diaries, much longer than I anticipated.”

And he feared too that with so many books pouring out from publishers to mark next month’s First World War centenary he had been left behind. Not so, according to publishers Harper Collins, who believe that the lull in new books is now the right time for Charlie’s secret saga to appear now.

“I consider myself immensely lucky,” confessed Gerry. “I am very proud to have been able to resurrect Charlie. And I’ve learnt so much, from trivial stuff like Charlie’s expression ‘Bow, wow’ to the fact that Army officers were able to bring their own horses to the front line.

“I went to the battlefield on the Somme in April and visited Charlie’s grave. I’m a bit of a pacifist myself, but I was very moved by that.

“You so rarely come across anyone today who is willing to die for king and country on the bloody battlefield, someone who has Charlie’s amazing patriotism. Patriotism was his motive. 

“He may have been born in New Zealand and never mentions that at all.  Charlie was a bit of a snob. He always preferred to be known as an Englishman. And indeed to die for his king country.

“You can’t say more than that.”

To Fight Alongside Friends: The Great War Diaries of Charlie May. Edited by Gerry Harrison. William Collins, £16.99

 

Lines from the front line
 

THE poetry and passion of Charlie May’s life – and his death on the Somme – are poignantly highlighted in an introduction to his diaries. It has been written by the historian David Crane, the Samuel Johnson £20,000 non-fiction prize-winner for Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of World War One War Graves.

“There is a visceral immediacy about a war diary – a question mark hanging over each entry, the outspoken possibility that it might be the last – and no retrospective account can quite match,” he writes.

“But the main fascination of these pages remains Charlie May himself. There is material here – of units, movements, coded map references – that would plainly never have got past an Army censor, but it is the absence of self-censorship that makes these diaries so compelling and disarming a portrait of the archetypal England ‘Everyman officer’ – ‘a truly ordinary sort of clout-head’ as he describes himself – shorn of all the reticences and defences behind which he traditionally hides.

“There is no cynicism or pretence in these pages, no attempt to make things sound better or worse than they are, or to dissemble the depth of his feelings for the men under his command or the wife and daughter to whom his diary is addressed.” 

And he quotes Charlie’s final entry to his wife extolling “the happiness that has been ours...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. If they are, know through all your life that I love you and baby with all my heart and soul, that you two sweet things were just all the world to me.

“Pray God I may do my duty, for I know, whatever that may entail, you would not have it otherwise.”

 

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