Captain Charles Campbell May

Through the years, I have read many personal stories about soldiers that touched me. One that touched me the most was that of Captain Charles May, especially because of an emotional letter he wrote. Here's his story.

Charles was born in Dunedin City in New Zealand on July 27, 1889. He was the son of Major Charles Edward and Mrs. Susan Laura May. They were born respectively in Greenwich and Woolwich in Kent in Great Britain. It's not sure when they moved to New Zealand, but they moved back to the United Kingdom in 1902. Charles had one sister, Matilda, and another sibling no information was found of, but most likely the 2nd sibling was already deceased by 1911.

The family lived in Leytonstone, Essex when they returned from New Zealand. As well Charles as his father worked for a fire alarm engineering company. Charles C. was a secretary and his father was a general manager.

Charles married his girlfriend Bessie Maude Holl in Leytonstone on February 17, 1912. Not long after their marriage, they moved to Manchester where Charles took up a job as a journalist for the Manchester Evening News. Charles loved to be a reporter and was very fond of poetry too. On the 20th of July in 1914 they had a daughter, Pauline May.

Charles also started a military career. By 1911 he was a member of King Edward's Horse, a Cavalry unit manned by citizens of Britain's colonies who were living in London. Here it gets a little confused. One source says he stayed in this regiment for 6 years.

When war broke out, Charles continued to write and publish stories. He didn't immediatly join the army to fight in the war, possibly because he had a commitment to his employer. On 12 January 1915, he joined in the British Army and was a commissioned officer in the 7th City Battalion, a 'Pals' battalion raised by the men of Manchester so they could fight together, this later became the 22nd Battlalion in the Manchester Regiment. Here Charles was a Lieutenant in A Company from January 12, 1915 until February 6, 1915 and was promoted to Captain on the 7th of February 1915. They sailed to France in November that year.

22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment
Captain Charles May is sitting in the front row, 2nd from the left

At the beginning of 1916 they were stationed around Mametz near Fricourt in France. The Battalion manned also manned the front line from time to time and took part in raids on the German trenches. Somewhere down the line Charles left A Company and took command of B Company. In June they started training to take part in the Battle of the Somme. During this period Charles asked a fellow officer named Francis Earles, to look after his Bessie and little Pauline if anything should happen to him during the offensive.

Besides exchanging letters with Bessie, Charles also started keeping a diary from just before they left for France. He wrote almost every day about his experiences and feelings in great detail. He was writing in his 6th notebook when he went into action on the July 1, 1916. The last entry in his diary was written at 5:45am in the 1st of 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 began their attack towards the village of Mametz. The attack was succesful and they reached the German trenches, but almost all the battalion's officers were either killed or wounded. In total around 470 out of almost 800 members of the Battalion were killed, wounded or missing. Captain Charles May, leading his men into action, was killed by shellfire just when they reached the German lines.

There was an article in the Manchester Guardian about two weeks later that reported about Captain May: '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 May wrote this letter to his Bessie on June 17, 1916, a few weeks before his death:
"I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralising. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water. …My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. Also my conscience is clear that I have always tried to make life a joy for you. I know that if I go you will not want. That is something. But it is the thought that we may be cut off from each other which is so terrible and that our baby 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 you will be left with the greatest challenge 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. It may well be that you will only have to read these lines as ones of passing interest. On the other hand, they may well be my last message to you. If they are, know through all your life that I loved you and baby with all my heart and soul, that you two sweet things were just all the world to me. I pray God I may do my duty, for I know, whatever that may entail, you would not have it otherwise.”

After the war, Francis Earles kept his promise to Charles May, and he married Bessie in May of 1919. He took care of Bessie and his stepdaughter very well. Bessie died in Folkestone in 1966 when she was 78. Daughter Pauline died in 1971 when she was 56. Though she was married, she never had any children.

Charles May was buried at Dantzig Alley British Cemetery just outside the village of Mametz. He rests here alongside 2.052 comrades. His grave reference is II. B. 3

Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, Mametz, France

The grave marker of Captain Charles May
(photo from Lady Linda on

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