Dunedin man's sobering diary from the trenches

TO FIGHT ALONGSIDE FRIENDS<br><b>Gerry Harrison (ed)</b><br><i> William Collins</i>
TO FIGHT ALONGSIDE FRIENDS<br><b>Gerry Harrison (ed)</b><br><i> William Collins</i>
Nearly 100 years ago on July 1, 1916, Captain Charlie May, 22nd Manchester (Pals) Regiment, was killed by shellfire as he led B Company into battle. Also killed in action on that same fateful day in World War 1 were 19,240 British and Commonwealth troops.

Captain Charlie May kept a record of his and his men's activities in the trenches. This story is related in To Fight Alongside Friends, edited by Gerry Harrison, Charlie's great-nephew.

Charlie's ''friends'' of the title are the ''Pals'' of the Manchester Regiment, all volunteers from the Manchester district, an area where Charlie was well known in business circles.

Charlie was born in Dunedin on July 27, 1888, the son of electrical engineer Charles Edward May, who, in February 1900, successfully patented a fire-alarm device later adopted worldwide.

On the family's return to England in 1903, Charlie entered the family firm of May-Oatway Fire Appliances as company secretary. In 1912, Charlie married, and he and his wife Maude moved to Manchester and a house they named ''Purakanui'' after the Dunedin settlement.

Their daughter, Pauline, was born two weeks before the outbreak of war in 1914. In the same year he married, Charlie became a journalist and writer of short stories and was published in newspapers and supplements in England and New Zealand. He was a freelance journalist for the Manchester Evening News and continued to send in articles from the trenches.

In 1914, Charlie's father, then still living in London, was among the first to volunteer for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Charlie volunteered for the Manchester Regiment in 1915.

Charlie's war diaries begin in November of that year and continue until the morning of his death in action, July 1, 1916. Charlie's narrative is very Edwardian and a mix of jingoism, xenophobia and class, as he reflects on a generation that was to all but disappear into the mud of the Somme.

Charlie writes: ''This war, I am sure, is one of the most peculiar the world has ever known if, indeed, it is not the most peculiar''.

He writes of leisurely off-duty rides (he had his horse with him) through the French countryside, of fishing close to the action, of playing football, and of his servant (batman) who looked after him. He complains lightly that appointments were made on the strength of a public school education and an ingratiating manner. He writes of the Cameron's (Highlanders) New Year's Eve greeting in Gaelic and of the officer who thought it was a cypher and spent hours trying to decipher it.

It is clear from his writing that he dearly loved his wife and daughter and desperately wanted nothing more than to be with them rather than spending days and nights struggling in the thigh-deep mud and constantly assailed by the sights and sounds of battle.

Charlie's writing is remarkable for not only its candid nature, but also for the fact his seven small pocket books escaped the censor's eye, for had they not, he would surely have been court-martialled. Oddly, Charlie censored other soldiers' letters home. The pocket books were returned to Charlie's wife, finally ending up in the possession of editor Gerry Harrison's cousin, Pauline Karet (nee May). They lay forgotten in a case until Pauline died many years later. When the case was opened it revealed, not only the seven pocket books, but also drafts of stories and poems, as well as scrapbooks.

The book is extremely well researched and the narrative is expanded upon throughout with copious explanatory footnotes. A bio of Charlie's family would have been helpful, especially as regards their stay in New Zealand. It is a challenging and sobering read revealing a man who, like so many, had so much to offer, but was cut down in his prime at 28.

In his own words, two hours before his death: ''Now I close this old diary down for the next few days, since I may not take it into the line. I will, however, keep a record of how things go and enter it up later. The diary of the Battle of Mametz should be interesting reading.''

- Ted Fox is an online marketing and social media consultant

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