First World War centenary: Captain’s secret diaries reveal ‘mud, blood and nice lunches in Amiens’
15:45 04 August 2014
Captain Charlie May did not expect to die when he went over the top into No-Man’s Land on July 1, 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Just two hours earlier, the 27-year-old had written for the last time in an illegal diary which he kept hidden in his breast pocket to remark that the battle would surely make for “interesting reading”.
But as one of 20,000 British men killed in action that day, Capt May’s secret account of the First World War ends abruptly there, and for decades his meticulously handwritten reflections of life on the front line were left in a dusty suitcase, passed down from relation to relation.
They eventually ended up in the hands of Capt May’s great-nephew and former Camden Labour councillor Gerry Harrison, who has published the diaries in full for the first time.
“The diaries don’t feel the same as so many others,” says Mr Harrison, 71, who served on the council for 12 years until 2006. “It’s not all about mud and blood, it’s about the different aspects of life.
“He writes about football and about having nice lunches in Amiens, about horse riding. I didn’t realise until I read this that officers had horses. He would go for Sunday morning jaunts in the countryside. Above all, the diaries are one big love letter to his wife Maude and their baby.”
It is thanks to the loyalty and bravery of Pte Arthur Bunting that the diaries were not lost to history.
Pte Bunting stayed with Capt May’s body for three hours after he died before dragging his body back to the trenches under heavy gunfire.
He found the diaries while gathering up Capt May’s possessions and they were sent back safely to his wife in Essex.
Born in New Zealand, Capt May later moved to England where he met and married his wife Maude and worked as a journalist. His daughter Pauline was born two weeks before the start of the war.
She was the first to take possession of the diaries, and the seven small pocketbooks were handed down to Mr Harrison in 1999.
Several historians had studied the diaries, which were stored at the Imperial War Museum, but Mr Harrison did not look at them himself until he was told years later he was “sitting on a treasure!”.
“It was very emotional,” says Mr Harrison. “I felt quite proud of him.”
But the diary pages also revealed a darker side to Capt May’s character, which often made for quite uncomfortable reading.
“He was very much of the Edwardian time,” says Mr Harrison, who moved to Co Clare, Ireland, in 2006 after living in Kentish Town for 35 years. “He was incredibly anti-Semitic, which is something quite distasteful to me.
“He was not very kind towards the French villagers. I think that was how they all felt.
“One of the real mysteries is the fact that he denied his New Zealand background. I wondered why he didn’t join the New Zealand army like his father?
“He was a bit snobbish, and I’m saying this about my great-uncle, remember. I think he felt like he was another rung up the ladder if he went into the British army.”
As a magistrate presiding over courts-martial during the war, Capt May must have known only too well what the cost of keeping a diary could be as it was considered a court-martial offence.
But the pleasure that he so evidently took in describing what he did and saw was enough to spur him on to write entries almost every day. “We have been to Corbie,” Capt May wrote in his neat, tiny handwriting on May 14, 1916. “Tiny panoramas these of brown trees, blue, sparkling waters, white, brown, red, blue and purple houses clustering around their grey churches.
“It is all very lovely, if you look at it in the distance and forget about the jagged shell-holes by your feet, and it seems an awful pity that such a fair land should be torn and scarred, its people slain, its villages destroyed by war.”
He finished by saying: “But these abstract dreams I suppose carry one nowhere... one cannot help, however, feeling them – and what I feel I like to record.”
Yet while the diaries end with Capt May’s death under heavy shell fire 98 years ago, his story continues. Before he died, Capt May asked his friend Capt Frank Earles, whom he had known before the war, to visit his wife at home in Essex and take care of his baby daughter if he did not make it to the war’s end.
“Frank fulfilled his promise, and more,” Mr Harrison said. “When he went to visit her at the end of the war, they fell in love and got married, so he was my uncle Frank.”