To Fight Alongside Friends: The Great War Diaries of Charlie May
Gerry Harrison

To Fight Alongside Friends: The Great War Diaries of Charlie May

The writer and journalist, Charlie May, was killed on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.   His diaries, which were written in pencil in seven wallet-sized pocket books, sometimes in damp, muddy trenches while under attack, were discovered in an attic in the 1980s.   They were regarded with such interest, because of their heart-felt dedication to his wife and baby daughter, the honesty of his personal thoughts and the power of his writing, that short extracts were featured in an exhibition, ''In Memoriam'', at the Imperial War Museum in 2008, to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.   Next year will be the centenary of the outbreak of this War.

Originally from New Zealand, Captain Charlie May obtained his commission in the 22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, also known as the 7th Manchester 'Pals'.  He sailed to France with a sense of optimism, but was one of 19,240 British  soldiers who never survived that day.   Two hours before he was killed, he wrote, ''I trust they will not claim too many of our lads before the day is over.''

Often using the spontaneous vernacular of the time and allowing his sense of humour to intrude, he was also aware that his diaries may one day be published, so his words sometimes assume a more literary  tone.    He avoids many of the clichés of war diaries, and includes descriptions of battalion football matches, horse-rides along the Somme valley, afternoons with a fishing-rod, lunch in Amiens, a gastronomic celebration of Christmas and a concert in Whiz Bang Hall.   

Without restraint, he gives revealing pen portraits of colleagues and voices his disdain of certain senior officers.   Although he despises the Bosche and their commanders, he writes of his respect for the German dead: ''I have a little bay too”.   Threading through his narrative are his detailed battles with rats and mud, but he includes the incompetences and the heroics that lead up to this vital battle.

On June 18, two weeks before he dies, Charlie May writes, ''But it is the thought that we may be cut off from each other which is so terrible and that our babe may grow up without my knowing her and without her knowing me.    It is difficult to face.    And I know your life without me would be a dull blank.    Yet you must never let it become wholly so. For to you will be left the greatest charge in all the world; the upbringing of our baby.   God bless that child, she is the hope of life to me.   My darling, au revoir.''   

Book Details:

  • Author: Gerry Harrison
  • Published Year: 2014
  • Rights Sold
    • UK: Harper Collins

Gerry Harrison

I was born in India, and grew up in England and Ireland.  In the 1990's I inherited the war diaries of Captain Charlie May, who was my great-uncle.   While the original diaries were deposited in the archives of the Manchester Regiment, the transcripts of these diaries are now in the Imperial War Museum.  They are not simply accounts of mud and blood on the Western Front, but were an uncensored opportunity for Charlie to express his view of the world and the people around him.  I am very fortunate that Andrew was able to place his diaries with Harper Collins.  ...
More about Gerry Harrison

Book Reviews

  • "Every so often one comes across a diary where it is the sense of personality behind it that lift it out of the ordinary: such a diary is that of Captain Charlie May"
    David Crane Author of 'Empires of the Dead'
  • "The diary of Captain Charlie May provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a young British officer. It is peppered with intriguing insights, acute observations and the hectic, heart-stopping flurries of nocturnal trench raids"
    Robin Cross
  • "All the familiar tropes of the First World War make appearance on these pages: mud, boredom, slackers at home, and rats (that said, those uninitiated in trench life may be surprised by the soldier’s revenge on the plaguing rattus: to bait a rifle bayonet with cheese and, when the rat nibbled, to pull the trigger). But what shines through like sunshine is Charlie May’s default belief in service to country, his quiet commitment to others over self, and his sheer decency. You could bet your life on Charlie. And, in a way, we did. With all the centenary hooha, the Great War has never seemed so close. Read Captain May’s diary and the Great War has never been so far away. The men in it are from another world."
    The Times
  • "...disarmingly jaunty....beautifully edited and minutely annotated."
    Sunday Times
  • "Soldiers were forbidden from keeping diaries during World War I, but thankfully Charlie May, a captain in the 22nd Manchester ‘Pals’ Battalion, was one of the many who disobeyed orders. When he was killed, aged 27, on the first day of the Somme, May left seven pocketbooks behind him — the final volume was found on his body. A journalist before the war, he proved to be a natural diarist, as wry as he was sharp-eyed."
    Daily Mail
  • "  May is a gifted storyteller and his uncensored diary makes for fine reading. "
    Daily Mail