Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Charles Campbell May

Charles Campbell May : Photograph of Charles in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre.  Reference: MR4/17/295

Photograph of Charles in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MR4/17/295

Charles Campbell May : (L to R) 1914-15 Star; British War Medal

(L to R) 1914-15 Star; British War Medal

Charles was born in 1889 in Dunedin on South Island, New Zealand. He was named after his father Charles Edward and his mother was called Susan Laura. He had 2 siblings, but we don't know their names. One had died by 1911.

Both Charles' parents had been born in the UK. We don't know when the family moved to the UK, but it was between 1901 and 1911.

When the 1911 Census was taken Charles and his parents lived at 7 Forest Glade in Leytonstone, Essex. Both father and son worked for a fire alarm engineering company. Charles Edward was a general manager, and Charles Campbell was a secretary.

As well as his civilian job, Charles had begun a military career. By 1911 he was a member of King Edward's Horse. This was a Cavalry unit manned by citizens of Britain's colonies who were living in London. It was formed as part of the Imperial Yeomanry, and became a unit of the Territorial Force in 1908. Charles was a member of the New Zealand Squadron. In May 1911 he helped to organise a training exercise for the unit, where they hunted for 'an imaginary enemy which was supposed to have landed on the banks of the Blackwater' in Essex. He spent a total of 6 years in this unit.

On the 17th February 1912 Charles married Bessie Maude Holl at St Andrews Church in Leytonstone. At some point over the next 18 months they left Essex and moved to the Manchester area. By July 1914 they lived at 'Puerakinui' on Lyndhurst Road in Withington. Their only daughter Maude Pauline was born here on the 20th July.

As well as his business interests, Charles was a keen writer. He was a freelance journalist for the Manchester Evening News. He also wrote a number of short stories, and saw several published. One of the earliest is 'Firemen's Jealousy: A Real Life Romance', which was published in the Glasgow Weekly Herald on the 7th December 1912. Most other stories that we know of were published in The Weekly Telegraph.

'The Repayment' and 'On the Skipper's Road' were published in mid 1913. 'Captain Latimer', 'At Buddacombe' and 'Paradise' were published in 1914 before the First World War broke out on the 4th August. These were romantic tales, mainly set in Charles' native New Zealand.

Even after war broke out Charles continued to write and publish stories. They developed a more military tone, such as 'Jimmy: The Tale of a Young Lieutenant who did his Duty on an Outpost of the Empire' and 'A Tale of War: How a Belgian Peasant got even with a German Officer'. This was published on the 19th December 1914, and was Charles' last work for almost 18 months.

At the outbreak of war many thousands of men rushed to join the Army, but others had business commitments that they could not easily escape. Charles seems to have been in this position, because he was soon commander of the Legion of Volunteers (Manchester District). This organisation existed to provide military training to 'those who cannot on account of business reasons join the regular forces'. It was formed on the 31st August. At the time Charles, 'to whom application for enrolment should be made', worked at 35 Brown Street in central Manchester.

Charles joined the Army in January 1915 and was commissioned as an officer in the 7th City Battalion. This was a 'Pals' unit being raised by the men of Manchester so that they could serve together. His previous experience must have served him well, because he was promoted to Temporary Captain on the 6th February. The 7th City Battalion would later become the 22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and Charles soon became the Officer Commanding A Company.

The 22nd Battalion trained at Heaton Park in Manchester then moved to Morecambe in Lancashire. During April 1915 they moved to Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire. The battalion moved to Larkhill in Wiltshire that September. They were based here until the 9th November, when they sailed to France.

The weather on their arrival was terrible. During the night of the 11th-12th November the wind sent dustbins flying across the ground 'to fetch up with a bang against the sides of various tents, the occupants of which thereupon effectively contrived to make the night yet more hideous by heartfelt and lurid cursing'.

The 22nd Battalion's first weeks on the Western Front were unpleasant, but relatively safe. The weather did not improve, and long marches through the rain and mud stretched the soldiers under Charles' command. Many of them were so tired 'they were willing to lie down anywhere and die, but May pushed them up and on, and up and on they went, staggering through the mud'.

Early 1916 was spent around Mametz near Fricourt. The battalion took its turn in the front line and took part in raids on the German trenches. At some point Charles left A Company and took command of B Company.

On the 15th April Charles' first stories since December 1914 were published. 'The Poem: A Story of the Trenches' and 'In the Line: The Story of an Everyday Affair in the Trenches' were clearly influenced by his surroundings and the soldiers under his command.

During June the battalion began training to take part in the Somme Offensive, which was scheduled to begin on the 1st July. At some point during this period Charles asked his fellow officer, Francis Earles, to look after Bessie and Maude if anything should happen to him.

Just before he left for France Charles began a diary. As he states in the first entry, on the 7th November 1915, it was written to Bessie, as he would 'be unable to make personal confession to you again for some time to come'. Throughout his time in France Charles kept this diary, writing almost every day about his experiences and feelings in great detail. He had filled 5 notebooks and begun a 6th when he went into action on the 1st July.

As well as his diary, Charles and Bessie exchanged letters. In one of them Bessie sent 2 Alexandra Roses. Charles wrote back on the 26th June telling her that he would be wearing one 'into action. Worthy is wearing the other. I gave it to him because he liked the idea'. Worthy was Thomas Worthington, whose medals are also in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection.

Charles' diaries are held in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre, under reference MR4/17/295/1.

The last entry in Charles' diary was written at 5:45am on the 1st July:

We marched up last night, the most exciting march imaginable. Guns all round us crashed and roared till sometimes it was quite impossible to hear oneself speak. It was, however, a fine sight and one realised from it what gun power really means. Fritz, of course, strafed back in reply causing us some uneasiness and a few casualties before we reached the line. The night passed easily and with a few more casualties. The Hun puts a barrage on us every now and then and generally claims one or two victims.

It is 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 dump. Unless one could see it one cannot imagine what a terrible state of disorder it is in. Our gunnery has worked that and his front line trenches all night. But we do not yet seem to have stopped his machine guns. These are popping off all along our parapet as I write. I trust they will not claim too many of our lads before the day is over.

Two hours later the battalion attacked towards the village of Mametz. The attack was successful, and the battalion reached the German trenches. The cost, however, was high. By the end of the day around 470 out of almost 800 members of the battalion were killed, wounded or missing. Almost all the battalion's officers were killed or wounded. Charles was one of the unfortunate men who died. He was killed by shellfire in the German trenches, aged 27.

An article in the Manchester Guardian newspaper on the 13th July reported that: 'Though mortally wounded...he gallantly continued to give orders and encourage his men to the last. Had he lived [the Commanding Officer] would have recommended him for the Distinguished Service Order'.

Charles' final story; 'Beyond the Line: A Tale of 'No Man's Land' was published on the day he was killed.

Charles was Mentioned in Despatches written by Field Marshal Douglas Haig on the 13th November 1916 and published in the London Gazette on the 4th January 1917. This was to recognise his 'distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty'.

Thomas Worthington was badly injured on the 1st July, but Francis Earles seems to have come through the day unharmed. He was, however, seriously wounded during October 1916 and never returned to France. He served as an instructor in training units until the end of the war. He kept his promise to Charles. We don't know when he first met Bessie, but they clearly became very close and the two married at St Mary's Church in Woodford, Essex on the 19th May 1919.

The family lived in Paris for a time, then at 7 York Mansions in Earls Court, London. Bessie died in Folkestone, Kent between April and June 1966 aged 78. Francis died between October and December 1972. He was 85 years old.

Maude married Harris Woolf Karet in Kensington, London between January and March 1950. They had no children. She was 56 when she died in nearby Marylebone between April and June 1971. Harris died in December 1999 aged 93.

Charles senior, whose middle name was Edward, served in the New Zealand Army Service Corps during the war, and reached the rank of Major. He was made an Officer of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in December 1919.

Charles is buried in Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, Mametz alongside many of his comrades from the 22nd Battalion who died on the 1st July. There are a total of 1535 men buried there. His grave reference is II. B. 3

Charles' medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in March 2004, at the same time as Francis Earles'. As well as the 1914-15 Star and British War Medal, Charles was also awarded the Allied Victory Medal for his Army service.

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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council