Battle of the Somme centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore shares heartbreaking tale of captain who never returned home
- Credit: Archant
“My darling Charlie... For some time past, I have been dreading such news as you have given me. I think of all the danger you are encountering, my heart beats with fear.
“My dearest, I am trusting in God, and praying, Baby with me, that you will be spared to come through these terrible days of fighting, safe and well, and return to us...”
Wracked with fear and heartache, Maude May wrote from her Wanstead home to her soldier husband, pouring out her love in the hope it would shield him from any horrors to come.
And as Charlie gazed upon his wife’s words on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, he did so unaware of his own fate – which was to be a tragic one.
The 27-year-old was one of 19,240 British men to perish on the first day of the campaign, but his extraordinary diaries afford us a glimpse into war life as he knew it.
Historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore shares the captain’s story in his book Somme: Into the Breach, marking the centenary of the First World War’s bloodiest battle.
“It’s one of the best diaries of the Somme, as it’s so full of personal emotions,” he said.
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“You get a lot of diaries which are not that vivid, but his is unbelievably frank and not just about what it was like to be in the trenches, but also about his feelings.”
Charlie, who is commemorated on Wanstead War Memorial, spent much of his childhood in New Zealand, but his family eventually returned to London, where he met and married Bessie Maude Holl.
The pair settled in Manchester, welcoming daughter Maude Pauline in 1914, but the Great War came calling and freelance newspaper writer Charlie – who had served with the Territorial Army – enlisted with Pals battalion the 22nd Manchesters.
The battalion left for France in autumn 1915 and in one of many diary entries addressed to Maude – who moved to Grove Mansions, Wanstead, the following year – Charlie wrote: “When will the time come when we can recommence our life of utter happiness?
“Ah Maudie, how little I realised where happiness lay until this old war came along and it was denied me.”
Soon entrenched in the front lines, Charlie’s diaries reveal his frustration at his surroundings and his longing for a reunion with his wife.
But romantic sentiments are notably absent from the matter-of-fact letters he sent to Maude – in a diary entry of January 13, 1916, he addressed his seeming lack of affection, after Maude asked if he still loved her.
“To me, it seems impossible you could ever think otherwise,” wrote Charlie.
“I can understand... You hunger for letters more full of unadulterated love, less everyday and plain.
“Here one is liable to forget that personal outlook.”
The 22nd Manchesters were involved in much action leading up to summer 1916, some of which Charlie discussed in detail, and at 7.30am on July 1, zero hour for the Somme Offensive, they attacked the Fricourt area, as part of the 7th Division.
“Charlie was more or less optimistic,” said Hugh. “But there were quite a few soldiers who were terrified that the Germans hadn’t been killed.
“They knew the trenches were really deep and the wire wasn’t cut in some places – they realised it wasn’t going to be a walkover.”
The division achieved a number of objectives on that first day, including capturing Mametz village, but at a heavy price to the 22nd Manchesters – close to 350 men were either killed or went missing.
Charlie was among the fallen and his last moments were recorded by Arthur Bunting, who wrote of how he nursed his comrade after he was wounded by a shell explosion.
Maude wrote to Arthur over the subsequent weeks and in one heartbreaking note, said: “I don’t know how I’ll get through life without him... Can there be anything in life for me again?”
The wider picture
Early schools of thought argued the Somme was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army, but many modern historians have noted the lessons the generals and soldiers learned, as well as the successful attacks which should have made the difference.
Somme: Into the Breach uses archive material – including Australian Red Cross files not published before in Britain – to argue that although the offensive was an overall failure, it weakened the German Army and led to the development of tactics such as the effective creeping barrage.
Hugh also makes the case that the British could have achieved a different result if they had exploited their successes properly.
The tactics of the Army and overambitious objectives of Field Marshal Douglas Haig come under scrutiny, with Hugh exploring the argument that Fourth Army commander General Henry Rawlinson – who had early reservations about the plan of attack – acquiesced to Haig out of a sense of duty, due to Haig keeping him in his position after he made a serious mistake.
The book also includes much testimony from soldiers and families, with Hugh telling the Recorder it was important the book be enjoyable to all, not just those with an interest in military history.
Somme: Into the Breach is published by Penguin, at the price of £25.