2014 marks one hundred years since the start of World War One. As part of the commemoration, my library has put together a new collection of books on the subject, and being a fan of journals, I picked up a copy of To Fight Alongside Friends: the First World War Diaries of Charlie May. Oh, it’s beautifully written, warm and sometimes funny in places, but hard, too.
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.
May was a journalist before the war, and served as a captain in the B Company of the 22nd Manchester Service Battalion — a so-called “pals battalion” of men who enlisted as a group with friends, work colleagues and neighbours.
29th January, 1916: One is supposed have, as a soldier going into action, no other desire than some high-souled ambition to do or die for one’s country. Reality I am afraid falls far short. We go because it is right and proper that we should. But I do not think there is one high-souled one amongst us. On the contrary we are all rather bored with the job, the thought of the bally mud and water is quite sufficient to extinguish keenness, and we are all so painfully ordinary that we think of leave a great deal more than we do of the nobleness of our present calling.
Reading this book was a pleasure, but also so heart-rending. By all accounts, May was a good man, an excellent storyteller, a well-respected leader, and proud and willing to do what he felt was his duty, for the good of those back home in England. He mentioned many times that he took strength from the thought of his efforts meaning home could be untouched by the horrors of the war and the grubbiness of the trenches.
May was proud of his company, his army, and his country, without slipping too far into jingoism. It was painful at times to read his eagerness to get to the frontlines, knowing what the outcome was going to be.
17th June, 1916: We stay, I believe, about four days and then go back and into the line ready for the assault. 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.
Captain Charlie May died leading his men in battle on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was 27.
- To Fight Alongside Friends: the First World War Diaries of Charlie May, Charlie May, Gerry Harrison [ed]; ISBN 978 0 00755853 7
- Header image: Charlie May outside his tent during training on Salisbury Plain, autumn 1915.
- “Never such innocence again” is a line from MCMXIV by Philip Larkin.