The 1st of July 2016 marks the centenary of the start of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, one which has come to symbolise the conflict: The Somme offensive of 1916.
The numbers alone are truly staggering. Over the course of a series of battles lasting from July to November, preceded by a seven day bombardment of over 1.5 million shells, and at the cost of over 50,000 British troops killed or wounded on the first day alone, the British and French managed to advance just 6 miles over a 20 mile stretch – and were still short of some of their objectives.
Important though it is to remember the scale of the sacrifice – on both sides – in doing so we can easily forget that behind every number was an individual: with their own life, family, hopes, dreams, and potential.
Just occasionally we are gifted with a source which opens a window on to the personal experiences of the men involved, invaluable for recovering the human experience of conflict at the Somme. One of these sources is the diaries of Captain Charles May, of the 22nd Battalion Manchester Regiment, held by the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre, and published by his great grand-nephew Gerry Harrison in the book To Fight alongside Friends.
Born in New Zealand to an English family in 1888, Charles and his family came to Britain in 1902. In 1912, he met his wife, Maude, and moved with her to Manchester to take up a job as a journalist with the Manchester Evening News.
Charles May joined the army in 1915, and became a member of ‘B’ company in the 22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Promoted to Captain in February 1915, upon arriving in France he secretly documented what he saw in his diary, (risking court-martial in the process).
His entries for June 1916 give us an insight into his thoughts on the preparations and build up to the Somme offensive, and offer an extremely human view of events at the time.
In the entry for June 10th, for instance, Charles tells us:
“Troops are moving up again in numbers. The district is fast filling to its utmost capacity. It makes one think the push is near. I trust it is and, also, that the army is not weakening the Ypres salient in our favour. That, it seems to me, is one of the chief dangers in this type of warfare.”
Then on June 13th he details a meeting he had with his commanding officers to organise work-parties, with further references made to “the push”:
“The colonel [Col. Bonham-Carter] told me that all work was most urgent. That everything was to be pushed to the utmost, the C-in-C [Commander in Chief] being anxious to have all ready for the push at the earliest date possible.”
By June 16th preparations for the assault were well underway, with Captain May recording the extent of the build-up, as well as a view from the German perspective:
“The face of the earth is changed up there [at the front line]…it is now honeycombed with gun emplacements. Guns are everywhere. Guns of all calibres…all sorts and conditions there all bristling out of the ground ready to belch forth a regular tornado of fire.
As Worthy said when he saw it, “Fritz, you’re for it!” It is a sentiment I quite agree with. Ammunition is pouring up, that for the heavies…that for the lighter fry… It is marvellous, this marshalling of power. The concentrated effort of our great nation put forward to the end of destroying our foe. The greatest battle in the world is on the eve of breaking. Please God it may terminate successfully for us.
Fritz I think knows all about it. At any rate a day or two ago he put the following notice on his wire opposite 4th division. ‘When your bombardment starts we are going to b____r back five miles. Kitchener is b______d. Asquith is b______d. You’re b______ds. We’re b______ds. Let’s all b______r off home.’
It is vulgar, as his humour invariably is, but the sentiments are so imminently those of Tommy Atkins [the British soldier] that it must certainly have been a man with good knowledge of England and the English who wrote this message”.
June 17th saw a poignant note in Captain May’s diary, addressed to his wife and baby daughter Pauline, (born in 1914).
“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.
…My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. Also my conscience is clear that I have always tried to make life a joy for you. I know that if I go you will not want [May had an estate worth £852 by this time]. That is something.
But it is the thought that we may be cut off from each other which is so terrible and that our babe may grow up without my knowing her and without her knowing me. It is difficult to face. And I know your life without me would be a dull blank.
Yet you must never let it become wholly so, for you will be left with the greatest challenge in all the world; the upbringing of our baby. God bless that child, she is the hope of life to me.
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 loved you and baby with all my heart and soul, that you two sweet things were just all the world to me. I pray God I may do my duty, for I know, whatever that may entail, you would not have it otherwise.”
Over the next few days Charles records the increasing crescendo of British gunfire onto the German lines, saying on June 25th that:
“The shooting was magnificent. Time and time again the explosions occurred right in the Hun trenches.
…It must be awfully rotten for the Huns holding the line, yet one feels no sympathy for them. Too long have they been able to strafe our devoted infantry like this, and without hindrance or answer from us.”
By June 28th British troops were taking up their final positions in preparation for the attack, with Captain May recording his anxiety in those final days before the battle:
“[We]…were all ready and anxious to get away, to get up and moving and down with the waiting. Waiting is rotten. I think it tries the nerves more than the actual movement of assault. Then one has action, movement, a hundred things to strive for and occupy one’s attention. But, in waiting, there is nothing but anxiety and fruitless speculation on every phase conceivable.”
July 1st, the first day of the Somme, saw one final diary entry from Captain Charles May:
“It was a glorious morning and is now broad daylight. 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. Our gunnery has wrecked that and his front line trenches all right. But we do not yet seem to have stopped his machine guns. These are pooping off all along our parapet as I write. I trust they will not claim too many of our lads before the day is over.”
Just two hours after writing those words Captain May went over the top with his men, wearing an Alexandra Rose given to him by his wife Maude only days before. Within ten minutes he and his men had reached the first enemy trench, when Charles was hit by a German shell.
His batman and friend, Pvt. Arthur Bunting, records that May had given him orders to pass along the line, and that he had run only three yards before the shell fell and he heard his Captain call out to him. Bunting stayed with Captain May for three hours trying to bandage his wounds, before eventually managing to drag him back to the British lines for treatment.
Charles May, however, was sadly was unable to recover from his wounds and died. He was just one of the 379 men of the Manchester Regiment killed or wounded on July 1st, who were themselves only a small fraction of the 50,000 or so British troops who were similarly killed or wounded on the first day of the Somme.
Captain May’s story, however, does not end here. His belongings were found and gathered up by Pvt. Bunting, and arranged to be shipped to his wife another of Charles’ Friends: fellow Captain Frank Earles. May had asked Earlies to look after his wife Maude in the event of his death, and Earles, following the war, stayed in close contact with Maude before eventually marrying her and becoming a stepfather to Pauline in 1919.
Though of course Captain May is just one example of the many thousands of soldiers who gave their lives that day, his story is a poignant reminder of the human element at the heart of one the most costly and bloody conflicts of World War One.
Lest we forget.
This blog post was researched and written by Isaac Boothroyd, a volunteer at Archives+.
References & Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the staff of the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre for their help with accessing the resources used in this post, as well as draw attention to the following sources used within it:
- /MR/17/296 – War diaries of Captain Charles May
- Harrison, G. (ed.) To fight alongside friends: The First World War diaries of Charlie May, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014)