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H.M.T. Dongola
H.M.T. Dongola
S.S. Kingstonian
S.S. Kingstonian
After the Battle of Passchendaele, Flanders, November 1917, Canadian soldier.
After the Battle of Passchendaele, November 1917
Tyne Cot - the largest British war cemetery in the world
Tyne Cot
image: © Yvonne Heslinga
Tyne Cot - the largest British war cemetery in the world
Tyne Cot
image: © Yvonne Heslinga
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May, Charles

1914 Star
1914 Star
Victory Medal
Victory Medal
British War Medal
British War Medal
Private Charles May (6444)
Killed in Action on Friday 12th October 1917
Battle of Poelcapelle, aged 33
Son of Henry & Emily May
Father's occupation: Railway Platelayer
Born 29th November 1883 at Hurst
2 brothers, position in family: 3
Relatives: Grandparents - Charles & Hannah May, Brother of 6424 Pte George May
Infant School:Hurst Infants
Senior School:Hurst Boys
Admitted:23rd May 1891
Age on admission:7
Left school:2nd April 1897
Age at leaving:13
Local address: Murrell Green, Winnersh
Pre-war occupation: Railway Platelayer, Soldier
Enlisted:Reading, Friday 27th December 1901
Regiment:Royal Berkshire
Battalion:6th Bn.
Division:18th (Eastern)
Previous unit:2nd Bn Berkshires
Went overseas:Friday 6th November 1914
Died:Friday 12th October 1917
Cause:Killed in Action
Action:Battle of Poelcapelle
Battalion at:Steenbeek
Commemorated:Memorial at Tyne Cot Memorial, Ypres

Charles May was born in Hurst on 29th November 1883 to Henry and Emily May and on 9th March 1884 he was christened in St. Nicholas Church, Hurst. He was the youngest of three boys and his father was a Railway Platelayer. The family lived at Merry Hill Green (Murrell Green), Winnersh and Charles attended Hurst Infants School. In May 1891, at the age of seven, Charles moved to Hurst Boys School and continued his education until thirteen.

By 1901 he had joined his father as a Railway Platelayer and was still living in the family home at Winnersh. Later that year, just before his eighteenth birthday, Charles enlisted into the army at Reading and was recorded as living in Wokingham. A soldier normally signed up for twelve years and could then apply to extend that period. He was obliged to complete five or seven years in the colours after which he could choose to join the Reserve.

Soldiers in the Reserve returned to civilian life but were paid a retainer and undertook to attend training annually and return to the army in the event of war. With the outbreak of the First World War a general mobilization was signalled and all of the reserves reported back to their units. It is not known whether Charles was a regular soldier at this time or in the Reserve, but he was certainly in 2nd Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment from the time of mobilization.

2nd Battalion had been stationed at Jhansi, India when war broke out and moved to Deolali on 4th September. Five days later they were on the move again, this time to Bombay, arriving on the 14th September. They then embarked on the troopship S.S. Dongola, sailing for England on 20th September.

The Battalion arrived at Liverpool on 22nd October 1914 and entrained for Winchester, destined for Hursley Park Camp where they joined 25th Brigade, 8th Division. They marched to Southampton on 4th November and Charles embarked for France on S.S. Kingstonian along with Caleb Winsor, Alfred Maslin and Isaac Lamb, arriving at Le Havre the following day. After a short march the Battalion reached base camp outside Le Havre with an establishment of 30 officers and 978 other ranks. They entrained for Strazeele on 9th November and moved from there to billets at Merville, eventually arriving at Estaires on the 14th November.

From Estaires they relieved the 1st East Surreys on the front line trenches, working in rotation with 2nd Rifle Brigade. The Battalion suffered terribly from trenchfoot and illness caused by the damp conditions and abrupt change of climate. Rest periods were taken two miles behind the lines at billets in Laventie. 2nd Battalion was in the front line during the truce of Christmas 1914 and fraternised with Bavarian soldiers in No Man's Land. The first three months of 1915 were spent on rotation in the trenches before the Battalion took part in their first major engagement at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. They suffered heavy casualties with 75 men killed, 223 men wounded and seventeen missing.

After a summer of front line duty the Battalion again went on the attack in September. Their unsuccessful advance at the Battle of Loos cost 131 men killed, 206 wounded and 60 missing. The Battalion had been decimated and fell back into Divisional reserve to replenish its complement and train the fresh drafts of men. In early 1916 they were based south west of Armentieres and again spent some time in the trenches. On 27th March the Battalion was withdrawn to Divisional reserve at Sailly-sur-la-Lys and next day travelled by train to Longeau Station, Amiens.

Over the next few days the Battalion marched east to Millencourt on the Somme where they relieved 2nd Middlesex Regiment in the trenches. Then followed the by now familiar rotation between front line trenches and reserve billets until the Battalion was withdrawn on 22nd June 1916 in readiness for the forthcoming major offensive. The next week was spent in Long Valley near Albert preparing for action. During this time the British bombardment of the German lines continued unabated and the expectation was that the wire would be cut and the defences destroyed.

The 2nd Battalion attacked Ovillers at 7.30 a.m. on the First Day of the Somme and was cut down in waves by rifle and machine gun fire. Only a small group actually entered the German trenches and were soon bombed out. The attack was over in a short time and the survivors returned to their trenches, which were being shelled and swept by gunfire. By mid afternoon, when the Battalion was relieved, the casualty count was 39 men killed, 268 wounded and 127 missing.

The remnant of the battalion had to withdraw to reform and recuperate and the rest of the summer and early autumn was spent near Vermelles, with only a few periods of trench duty. They came back to the Somme area on 10th October and were in and out of trenches with a few raids to break the monotony until the following June.

On 12th May 1917 Charles May was reported as wounded in the Reading Mercury. It may have been when returning from convalescence that Charles was assigned to 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. In early July the 6th Battalion moved to billets at Steenvoorde after a period of rest and training at St. Amand. They spent the rest of the month practising for the forthcoming offensive on a replica of their section of the battlefield at nearby Poperinge.

6th Battalion then moved up to the frontline at Zillebeke on the Ypres salient for the start of the Third Battle of Ypres. Their role in the attack was to follow up the initial assault and seize Polygon Wood once the first two objectives had been secured. In the early hours of 31st July the Battalion moved forward to their assembly positions and the attack commenced at 3.50 a.m. By 5 a.m. reports indicated that the first objective had been taken and then at 6.50 a.m. word was received unofficially that the second objective was secure.

No more information was received in the confusion of the battle and so at 7.15 a.m. 6th Battalion began their advance. Unfortunately the initial assault had ended in disarray and 6th Battalion immediately met a hail of machine gun fire and shelling. They fought their way forward, sustaining heavy losses and eventually secured a line well short of Polygon Wood. The cost of the day's efforts was 44 men killed, 182 wounded and 28 missing.

August and September were relatively quiet months for 6th Battalion, spent mainly out of the front line. New drafts of men were brought in to replace those lost and the main activities were rest, reorganisation and training. Towards the end of September the Battalion moved back to familiar terrain close to the front line. They spent two weeks training near Poperinge at Road Camp, Van Ter Biezen before being called forward to take part in an attack on the village of Poelcapelle.

On 9th October 1917 the Battalion moved up to the front in buses and then spent 10th and 11th October in the support trenches. They were finally ordered to form up for the attack at 1.00 a.m. next day. It had been raining for two days and the ground, churned up by shellfire, had become a morass that made movement difficult. The Battalion War Diary tells the story:

6th Royal Berkshire
Friday 12th October 1917
Belgium, Cane Trench
1a.m. - Leading Platoon left CANE TRENCH for final forming up position. Considerably shelled with gas and High Explosives from STEENBEEK Valley forward.
4.45a.m. - Leading Platoon reached first forming up position (V25a40.95)
5.30a.m. - Whole battalion formed up on line V25b0.3 - V19c5.0 with HQ V25a40.95.
5.25a.m. - Zero Hour.
6.10a.m. - No news received from troops in front - Battalion moved forward to second forming up position. Heavily engaged by enemy Machine Guns and snipers from BREWERY MEUNIER HOUSE & BEEK HOUSES.
6.30a.m. - Lt COL LONGHURST killed. CAPTAIN ROCHFORT MC assumes command.
6.35a.m. - CAPT ROCHFORT went forward to reconnoitre and is wounded. LIEUT WERNHAM assumes command.
6.50a.m. - Battalion unable to make further progress but no definite news could be obtained. Considerable officer casualties.
12.30p.m. - A, B & C Companies rather disorganised on a line V26a9.6 - V20a0.1. D Company V26a5.8. HQ V25a40.95. In touch on right with 9th Division & on left with the Buffs.
1p.m. - Verbal warning of counter attack on left front but this never materialised.
7p.m. - OC 7th Royal West Surreys arrived at Battalion HQ with orders for withdrawal. Runners sent to Companies but unable to find them.

It was not until 5.30 a.m. next morning that the message did get through to the forward units to retire gradually back to Cane Trench; their starting point on the previous morning. No ground was gained but the Battalion casualty list was 40 men killed, 160 wounded and 10 missing. One of the men killed in action was Charles May; he was 33 years old and had been in the army for sixteen years. Charles has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, about four miles from where he fell.


Charles May on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Ypres
Tyne Cot Memorial, Ypres

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in morning
We will remember them.
Lawrence Binyon