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Charlie and Ida Payne, September 1918
Charlie and Ida Payne, September 1918

My grandfather, Private Charlie Payne was a Lewis gunner in B Company, Number 7 Platoon, of the 2/5th battalion, Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment.  In November 1917 the battalion was involved as part of 62nd Division in the Third Army operations in the Battle of Cambrai.  The following account is based on my research on the battalion's specific involvement in the Battle, and contains a couple of extracts from letters that Charlie wrote home to his wife Ida at that time.

The Battle of Cambrai has been described as the beginning of the ‘Modern Style of Warfare’.  Its essential elements were a surprise attack that, unlike the Battles of the Somme and Third Ypres  (Passchendaele), included no preliminary artillery barrage, but involved the sophisticated targeting of enemy artillery positions by reconnaissance, sound-ranging and flash-spotting technology. The attack demanded close co-operation between artillery, tanks, and infantry with a lifting artillery barrage followed closely by tanks.  The tanks were deployed to flatten and create gaps in the extensive wire defences of the German defensive position, the Hindenburg line, allowing the infantry to follow through. The attack was also supported by considerable numbers of aircraft to provide intelligence, air-cover, and to attack enemy infantry and artillery positions.  In its ‘All-Arms’ approach, it became the form of warfare that conscripts such as Charlie encountered for much of the rest of the war.

On 8th November, Charlie and his battalion trained alongside tanks at the training ground at Wailly, just west of Arras. Further training took place over the next two days involving tanks, aeroplanes, and practice attacks through gas.  On 13 November the 2/5th Dukes started their march towards the battle zone, arriving three days later after marching only at night to avoid detection by enemy aircraft. On the night of the 19th November they moved into position in Havrincourt Wood, together with tanks and artillery, ready for the attack the following day.

Havrincourt village was just North of the wood in which Charlie’s Division was waiting. It was one of the most-strongly defended sections of the Hindenburg line (which ran through the village and slightly to the west) with the trenches well-protected by very substantial barbed wire defences. About 800-1500 yards behind the German front line was a second series of trenches, the Support Line. In addition to the trench systems, the German defences included a number of well-defended strong-points.

At 6.20 a.m. on 20 November the British attack started with an intensive artillery barrage, lifting at a pre-determined rate, so that the tanks and the following infantry could quickly start moving forward.  Havrincourt village, was the first objective for 62nd Division. The initial attack was led by other Brigades, with Charlie’s Brigade, the 186th, being held in reserve. With the tanks successfully flattening the barbed wire defences, the infantry were able to follow through quickly. The Germans seemed largely unprepared for what was happening and substantial numbers of Germans and weapons were quickly captured. The progress made was so positive that Charlie’s battalion was ordered to advance much earlier than planned. The men advanced west of Havrincourt, supported by surviving tanks from the earlier attack.  Their final objective was North of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. As they approached Havrincourt they immediately encountered heavy machine gun and sniper fire from a German strong-point that had not been adequately dealt with earlier. The Battalion’s Commanding Officer, and several other men were killed. Belatedly, the strong-point was successfully dealt with, and 59 Germans and 2 machine guns were captured. Despite these early problems, the Battalion’s objective for the day was nonetheless achieved when Charlie’s Company moved through to capture a German trench north of the Bapaume-Cambrai road, an advance of four and a half miles from the British Front Line; and at that time a record advance in a single day.

The following day was less successful, without the element of surprise and with many tanks out of action. The original plan was for tanks to lead a further thrust through the German defences towards Bourlon Wood. However, no tanks arrived to assist Charlie’s battalion, and that attack was cancelled. New orders were issued for the battalion to use grenades to clear Germans from the Hindenburg support line trenches.  B Company was charged with mopping up the rear support trenches. Problems were soon encountered, including an enemy strong-point, and strong German reinforcements that were moving down the trenches from the North West. However, one tank eventually arrived and helped to halt a German counter-attack. At midnight the Battalion was relieved. Charlie reported back to Ida two days later:

November 24 1917: Well, my darling, you will see from the papers we have been in some heavy fighting and some good pals of mine have made the great sacrifice.  I thank God I am safe and sound.  Our C.O. was killed.  I must not say more, but I know the Germans have gone back a long way.  At the moment we are out of the line, but for how long I don’t know. Glad to learn the boys are well. Please excuse this short letter, dear, but I am very tired and we have to get to “kip”. God bless you, dear and keep you in good health, is my constant prayer as I know what a fight you are making for me and the boys.

By now the Battle of Cambrai had lost its momentum, with German reinforcements arriving and the fighting changing from rapidly-moving open warfare to a more familiar attritional confrontation. But Haig was determined not to lose the strategic opportunity to gain high ground overlooking Cambrai.

62nd Division were thrown once more into battle to complete the capture of Bourlon Wood and Bourlon. By this stage, the situation was very confused. Bourlon Wood had been partly captured by 40th Division. It had been heavily shelled by the Germans, and gas had been used which was lingering in the woodland. It was also snowing, and the conditions were awful. At 6.20 am on 27th November, in pitch dark, Charlie’s battalion was ordered to attack, aided by a small number of tanks, in an attempt to force the Germans out of the Wood, and move the British front line to the railway at the northern edge of the wood, overlooking Cambrai.  Almost immediately, the entire wood came under a heavy enemy artillery barrage. In addition, B and A Companies had only advanced 50 yards when they came under heavy machine gun fire from an enemy strong-point, and further advance proved impossible.  C and D Companies were also unable to reach their objectives. The battalion was relieved at 11pm by the 47th (London) Division, which unbeknown to Charlie contained his brother-in law, Bill Payne (23rd Battalion, London Regiment) who apparently spotted Charlie in the distance during the Relief. Overall, Charlie's battalion had not given ground to the Germans, but neither had it been able to achieve a significant advance.

Ultimately, the Battle of Cambrai failed to deliver its objectives for a number of reasons, including inadequate reserves of infantry Divisions and tanks. However, having learnt the lessons of Cambrai, adequate momentum in attack was delivered in the allied advances that ended the war.  In the meantime, Charlie and his Division moved into reserve, west of Arras, and were transferred to First Army. Over Christmas, Charlie and others were deployed on working parties.  In Charlie’s case he was briefly moved to the 63rd Sanitary Section where he spent a happy few days as a carpenter, producing ablution benches!

He also had a good feed, as evidenced by his letter to Ida written on Christmas Day 1917:

"My dear “little woman”

Now for a long letter to you, dear.  I duly recvd. yrs. of the 17th on the 22nd so that the boys Xmas cards came in good time & tell the little chaps I was very pleased with them.  You will be pleased to hear, dear, that I have been very lucky and for a time at least am in comparative comfort with plenty of good rations.  I had retired to “kip” as usual on the 23rd when about 10 oc, I was warned to be ready in full marching order the next morning at 5oc.  That meant rising at 4-30 on a raw frosty morning & I wondered where we were off to.  Well I got up all right, got a drink of tea at the cooks & then with 3 others set out on a 6 mile march to a village.  There we were fortunate enough to get some porridge & a limber took our packs & rifles – then off again to another village 8 miles away.  This was our destination & for the time being I am attached to the 63rd Sanitary Section.  I am a Carpenter’s mate & have to make myself generally useful making tables, benches etc. It is a big village & 9 of us sleep in a nice warm outhouse & have a brazier going night & day with plenty of coke to burn. Last night we were treated like heroes – given a good cigar to smoke, plenty of bread, ham, & even custard & fruit.  Then we had “a sail round the bay” & tried some French wine & altogether spent a most enjoyable Xmas Eve.  After sleeping in broken down barns with no fires & poor rations you will understand, dearest, what it means to be warm & well fed again & I thank God for it. I went to bed happy thinking of you & the little chaps hanging up their stockings. Now I will tell you, dear, how we have spent today.

Bacon for breakfast 8oc.

9 to 10-30 Sawing some wood etc.

11oc Church Parade.

12 – Dinner Stewed Beef with plenty of “spuds” & bread.  Raisin Duff. Tea

4oc Tea, Toast, Cheese, Jam & Jam Tart

Of course we had the afternoon off & I don’t suppose we shall be overworked while we are here.  I shall be glad if we can stop here for duration – anyway it is fine to be able to spend a nice peaceful Xmas."

I am in the process of writing a book based on Charlie's letters, which has the working title 'Charlie Payne's Hatbox'.  For more information on Charlie Payne's experiences in the First World War (and beforehand) please see my website. 

Of the published books that provide a detailed analysis of aspects of the Battle of Cambrai, I would thoroughly recommend Bryn Hammond's (2008) "Cambrai 1917; The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle" (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and John A Taylor's (2016) "Deborah and the War of the Tanks, 1917" (Pen and Sword).



My Blog post today covers another aspect of my grandfather's military service during the First World War.  Approximately 100  years ago, Private Charlie Payne's Battalion, the 5th Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment was sent into action during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. Together with other British and Commonwealth units, the Battalion helped to halt a major German attack, during five days of intensive fighting that, in the annals of the First World War, has become known as the Defence of Bucquoy. It provides another illustration of why it is so important to remember and commemorate those who participated in this dreadful conflict.

For several months, a German attack on the Western Front in 1918 had been expected after Russia had surrendered, as Germany was now  able to release troops from the Eastern Front to expand their forces in France and Belgium.   The Allies anticipated a German  attack in Spring, and Charlie and others in his Battalion had been busy during the winter months helping to strengthen the defences in the southern sector of the British First Army Front Line positions (between Gavrelle and Acheville, north-east of Arras). On 21st March 1918, the  German Spring Offensive  started.  Coincidentally on the same day, Charlie's Battalion was relieved after their usual period in the Front Line. Charlie just had time on 23rd March to write a short letter home to his wife Ida and their fours sons before he was involved in some of the most desperate defensive fighting during the War:

"My dear Wife, I have your letters of the 10th & 15th, but  regret to say, dear, the parcel never reached my hands – it must have gone astray owing to being along with the R. E’s [Royal Engineers]– hard luck – Was there a letter in it? ...  Did you receive that 5 franc note I enclosed in one of mine & which I got an artilleryman to post for me? Should like to know in your next. Well, little woman, I was very pleased to learn that son John got over the measles so well & that Dick & Rupert did not take them. Also it cheers me up immensely to learn that in spite of high prices, shortages etc. you manage so well.  – Expect to be on the move a good deal now, but will endeavour to write as often as possible, dear, but must ask you to excuse brevity.  At the moment we are out of the line.  We are still enjoying very fine warm weather here & I trust you are too, dear, as I know you like to get the boys out a bit. So the little chaps are waiting for me to take them out in their new suits – God grant they will not have to wait long.  I likewise am longing for that happy time.  Now that Spring is here, of course, dear, there must be some fighting – in fact, you will see by today’s paper “Johnny” is making an attack – he will catch a cold though, I have no doubt. Give my love to all upstairs, dear, & tell the boys I will try & write to them again soon. It is good to learn that your health stands this extra strain so well, dear, & I believe it will not be much longer necessary for you to work so hard.  God bless you, dear, & keep you all safe. Ever yours, Charlie"

The main attack by the Germans (or "Johnny" as Charlie had referred to them in his letter) was unleashed on the Third and Fifth British armies that were holding the Line further to the south of Arras.  In these sectors, the German forces soon made considerable advances on a wide front, driving back the British forces several miles (particularly in the Fifth Army area) and, by 23rd March, considerable gaps appeared in the retreating British front line.  On the same day, the 62nd (West Riding) Division (which included Charlie's Battalion), was transferred to the orders of Third Army and, on 24th March, received instructions that within the next 24 hours they would have to move to help fill a substantial gap that had developed in the British front line in the Third Army sector, near Bucquoy.

The March of the 2/5 Battalion Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment on 25th-26th March 1918, to defend the Line at Bucquoy
The March of the 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment on 25th-26th March 1918, to defend the Line at Bucquoy (Click on map to enlarge)

At 3.05am on 25th March, the Battalion marched from the Etrun area to Ayette, via Warlus, Beaumetz and Ransart. The roads were all very congested with moving troops and guns and the march was a lengthy, slow and tedious one. After arriving at Ayette at 7.50am the Battalion received orders to go on to Bucquoy. The area by now was one mass of artillery, and exhausted men  moving in the direction of the British retreat.  Marching in the opposite direction, the men of the 5th Duke of Wellington's were instructed to dump their packs  at this stage, leaving them with just their fighting equipment and emergency rations. At 4.30 pm, Charlie’s Battalion  received orders to advance in front of Achiet le Petit to help guard the railway, south-east of the village. Before dusk, parties of the advancing enemy were clearly observed on the skyline in front  of Irles. There were some encounters with the enemy overnight and, just before dawn on 26th March, the Battalion received orders to retreat to high ground between Bucquoy and Puisieux. The Battalion was very closely followed by the enemy in large numbers, especially on the Miraumont-Puisieux Road, where B Company encountered an enemy cyclist patrol 40-strong with light machine guns, but which was dispersed by B Company's Lewis gun fire (Charlie was a Lewis gunner in B Company). At this juncture, one Lewis gun team in B Company ‘disappeared’ and was probably taken prisoner by the Germans. The Battalion then formed a defensive line 330 yards east of the Bucquoy-Puisieux road, with Lewis guns pushed forward. Despite strong attacks by the Germans, the enemy was held back, and an attempt to outflank the Battalion was frustrated. A further orderly withdrawal of the Battalion was undertaken, establishing a Line running from the south-east corner of Rossignol Wood towards the south-east corner of Bucquoy, using derelict German trenches to obtain some cover .  After the withdrawal, the Battalion’s right flank was completely exposed, with Charlie's Company being some three miles distant  from other Allied troops.

Approximate location of the 2/5th Battalion DoWs north of Rossignol Wood 26th-30th March 1918
Approximate  positions of the companies of the 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington's and a company of the 9th Durham Light Infantry, in a disused enemy trench system north of Rossignol Wood. These trenches had been vacated by the German forces during February-March 1917 during their strategic  withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. (Click on image to enlarge)

During the afternoon of 26th March, Germans were observed to be occupying Rossignol Wood, directly in front of B Company. The enemy attempted to advance towards the Battalion's positions in small bodies but were driven off by Lewis gun and rifle fire; considerable casualties being inflicted.  Due to a misunderstanding  created by the difficult communications  between the Battalion and  Divisional Headquarters, during the heat of battle, Charlie's Battalion (and  others in the same Brigade) withdrew further but, when the error was realized, Tanks were sent forward and the men rallied and advanced to their original positions and the enemy fled. Enemy night patrols were observed and taken prisoner.

On 27th March, the Germans again attacked in the open and by bombing up the trenches.  The bombing strategy again exposed the right flank of the Battalion. B Company and a platoon of the 9th Durham Light Infantry were then turned into a defensive flank and the Battalion’s position made secure. Night patrols were sent out; enemy patrols were encountered and driven off or taken prisoner. By the end of the day, troops from Australian and New Zealand forces had managed to  move into position to the right of Charlie's battalion, and the gap in the Allied front line had been plugged. On 27th March, Field Marshall Douglas Haig recorded in his diary that  British troops had been attacked at Bucquoy but had vigorously counter-attacked and held the line in spite of enemy attacks repeated 10-11 times. 

A 2011 photograph of the site occcupied by the 2/5th DoWs
A 2011 photograph of the site occupied by the 5th Duke of Wellington's near Bucquoy. Rossignol Wood is to the right. The village of Puisieux is on the horizon, just right of centre. (Click on image to enlarge)

There was no let-up on 28th March.  The enemy put down a heavy artillery barrage on the Battalion’s front line and to the rear, and attacked at 10.30am along the front. British artillery put down a counter barrage…and a stiff fight ensued but in no case did the enemy succeed in getting to the Battalion's line.  Time after time the enemy massed to make fresh attacks but was decimated by accurate rifle and Lewis gun fire at each attempt. However, a platoon of D Company was isolated by a German trench- bombing attack, and despite strong resistance, was wiped out. Bomb fighting continued during the afternoon on the right of B Company and the riflemen were concentrated against enemy snipers in Rossignol Wood with satisfactory results. 

On 29th March, the enemy opened up with artillery and trench mortars, and the Battalion sustained some further casualties as a result.  During the day, enemy rifle and machine gun fire were particularly active.  This was replied to by field artillery and Lewis gun fire, and Stokes' mortars. On 30th March, though somewhat quieter, the Battalion suffered increased shelling and sniping and enemy field guns enfiladed their positions from west of Rossignol Wood, causing serious casualties.

The German army also suffered heavy casualties during the Allied forces Defence of Bucquoy. German gravestone in teh Rossignol Wood Cemetery, October 2011.
The German army also suffered heavy casualties during the  Defence of Bucquoy. German gravestone in the Rossignol Wood Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, (Photo October 2011).

By now, the German advance in this sector had been halted and the German forces themselves were spent from days of fighting and  the difficulty of maintaining supply lines in an area totally devastated by warfare. It was no doubt with some considerable relief to Charlie and his colleagues that the Battalion was finally relieved during the night of 30th March/1st April , and went into support. During the period 25-30th March 1918, 34 men in the Battalion were killed, 57 missing and 130 wounded. On 1 April the Battalion marched to billets at Henu.

It is difficult today, to imagine the conditions that the men of Charlie's Battalion must have faced during six days of desperate defence, which was nonetheless successful in stopping the German advance in the Bucquoy area.  The events had started with a  lengthy and exhausting march, followed by intensive engagement with an enemy which had achieved considerable early success in pushing back the Allied forces  between 21st and 25th March. For all concerned, the conditions must have been appalling. Charlie's Battalion suffered considerable  casualties (about 25% of the men), and had to cope with disrupted supply lines that would have made it extremely difficult to provide sufficient munitions, food and water during the period. Charlie's message home on 3rd April 1918 gives little of this away, partly because of the extensive use of the censor's blue pencil.

"3rd April 1918. Since writing the foregoing I have received your further letters & was indeed sorry to learn that Dick & little Rupert took the measles after all, but perhaps it is as well & I know that in your capable hands they will soon get over them. Well little woman, ….[ at this point the censor’s blue pencil intervenes and strikes out 6 ½  lines]… you will see by the papers that the Germans have started their great offensive – but do not be downhearted, dear, - I cannot believe they will meet with success in the end – their losses must be terrible.  We are now out of the line, but of course not for long these days. I note all your other news, dear, but have a lot of cleaning up etc. to do, so please excuse brevity.  How pleased I feel that you keep so well, & I pray God that you may not have a recurrence of your old complaint.  Keep up a good heart, dear.  We cannot do more than that & just leave the rest to God. Ever yours, Charlie."

It is  somewhat ironic that, while Charlie was helping to fight off the German Army, his sons back in the UK were apparently fighting another German 'export': German Measles!

Further accounts of events during 'The Defence of Bucquoy' can be found in the War Diary of the 5th Battalion, Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment (available to be purchased and downloaded from The National Archives, Kew, London, UK; Document WO 95/3086), and in Wyrall, E. ; The Story of the 62nd (West Riding) Division 1914-1919 Volume 1 pages 143-164.

Charlie Payne (right) with two of his work colleagues in Genoa, 1907
Charlie Payne (right) with two of his work colleagues in Genoa, 1907

The book that I am currently writing deals with the life and times of my grandfather, Charlie Payne, covering both his civilian life, and his military service during The Great War (1914-1919). In early March 1907 Charlie travelled to Italy to take up a position as a stenographer (shorthand clerk) with the American Express Company's office in Genoa. Towards the end of the month, he was already struggling with aspects of life in Italy, as he recorded in his diary, but little did he know then that the Royal Navy would soon come to his rescue:

Tuesday 26th March: ...My tobacco is nearly all gone and I cannot smoke the native stuff.  I must make inquiries and see if it will pay me to have some sent out from England.  Cigarettes here are dear and not very good and the cigars are absolutely rotten.  The sooner I learn how to smuggle the better.

Saturday 6th April:....My tobacco gave out today, so I had a "lash out" and treated myself to a 2oz. tin of "Wills Capstan Navy Cut Tobacco", it costs here almost double the ordinary price, but never mind - it's good, so here goes for a pipe and d--n the expense....

That tobacco did not last long, but in early May, the arrival in Genoa harbour of a Royal Navy ship put him in much better spirits, and delivered an unexpected windfall for Charlie and his colleagues:

HMS Venerable, a pre-dreadnought battleship
HMS Venerable, a pre-Dreadnought battleship (Wikipedia)

Sunday 5th May:  I have not written my diary up for the last two days because I have had very little to report, but have had a very busy and interesting time to-day.  Hearing that the English cruiser Venerable was in the port, it being a fine morning, after breakfast we hired a boat and rowed out to it and went on board.  We made friends with two of the young officers who showed us into every nook and cranny of the boat.  It is the first battleship I have been over, so I was in my glory, but I have never done so much climbing and jumping about before.  Then they loaded us up with English tobacco and some cigarettes and finally came ashore with us and we showed them the sights of Genoa.  It did seem funny to see English Jack Tars and Marines strolling about the streets.  They had to be on board again by 11 p.m., so we went to the boats and saw them off.  However, we are going to meet them again Tuesday evening.  Their names were Hidman and Craven, the first from Woolwich and the latter from Liverpool. Hurrah! I now have enough English tobacco to last me a fortnight with care.  I would like an English cruiser to come in every week.  Home about 12-30 and thoroughly tired.  I forgot to mention the reason why the cruiser called here is to meet the Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet - Prince Louis of Battenberg, who will arrive on Wednesday when of course she will be off again.

At this point in history, Britain did indeed 'rule the waves' and maintained a substantial and strategic naval presence around the world to protect its Empire.  The Mediterranean Fleet helped secure Britain's access to the Suez Canal which provided the shortest routes from Britain to some of its principal colonial possessions, including India, Australia and New Zealand. Charlie had correctly identified the name of the Admiral of the Fleet in 1907.

Prince Louis of Battenburg (Wikipedia)
Prince Louis of Battenburg (Wikipedia)

Prince Louis of Battenberg (the maternal grandfather of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) was born in Austria and had become a naturalised British subject after joining the Royal Navy in 1868.  In 1912 he was appointed First Sea Lord but, after the declaration of War in August 1914 he became one of the first 'war casualties' when he was forced to resign on 29 October 1914, as a result of a surge of British anti-German sentiment. As a consequence, Britain lost one of the most effective officers in the Royal Navy at a critical moment.  Prince Louis later relinquished his German titles in 1917 and took the surname Mountbatten.

Meanwhile, in Genoa in 1907, further bounty was forthcoming from HMS Venerable for Charlie and his friends when, as his diary records:

Tuesday 7th May: ...Met the middies [midshipmen] again and took them to the Music Hall and escorted them back to their ship at 11 p.m. They loaded us up with [more] English cigarettes and tobacco.

If anyone reading this blog post has any information on the young HMS Venerable 'middies', Hidman and Craven, I would love to hear about them, and I feel sure that the Royal Navy would not wish to press any charges of tobacco smuggling!




I think about my grandfather, Charlie Payne, every day.  Not surprising as I'm currently writing a book about him.  

During the Great War, Charlie was 'called up' in October 1916, aged 33 (having previously attested a year earlier under the Derby Scheme). He was sent for military training to a battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment (the 'Green Howards') which was located at that time in Clacton, Essex. Based on his initial medical classification (B1) it was most likely that he would serve in a UK-based Battalion in a support role. However, after basic training and further medical examination,  in May 1917 his medical category was upgraded and  he was transferred to West Hartlepool and to the 3rd Battalion of the same regiment.  This battalion trained men for service on the fighting fronts overseas.  On 31st July 1917, he was sent to France and decided that, as a father of four young sons (aged between 1 and 9 years old),  he wanted to write them a letter, to be opened in case of his death. He sent the letter in a sealed envelope  to his wife Ida, asking her only to open it in the event of his death.  The letter was one of the many documents that survived in Charlie's Hatbox and the text (with some added relevant photographs) is transcribed below.

Charlie Payne and his family. (click on photo to enlarge)
Charlie Payne and his family. (click on photo to enlarge)

France 23 August 1917

My darling Boys

As the time is now drawing nigh, for me to be sent up to the trenches, where of course I shall be in hourly danger of death (not that I have any presentiment of my death; far from it I go with a good heart and in the firm belief that God will restore me to you, my boys, & your dear mother), but if God wills that I should fall, I should like to leave behind me this little letter which as you grow older I know you will always remember & act up to.

I have not very much to ask of you, my dear boys, and if it is God’s will that I should not return to you, it will afford me great comfort at the last to know that I have left this letter behind as I know it will help you through life & in some degree serve to take my place.

Firstly it will be your sacred duty, my boys, to take my place towards your mother. Be to her all that you can; love her always as she will love you. She has worked & suffered much for you my boys, & should I fall will work for several years in bringing you up without a father’s aid, until such time as you can support yourselves & her.

"In due time perhaps you will marry" (click on picture to enlarge)
"In due time perhaps you will marry" (click on picture to enlarge)

In due time perhaps you will marry & it is only right and proper that you should, but I know, my dear boys, you will always love & help your Mother.

Then again, boys, never never quarrel amongst yourselves. You will find life hard enough, but remember that “Unity is Strength” and if 4 boys such as you will pull together you will overcome all obstacles & get on in the world well; therefore, never quarrel, my boys; but should any differences take place between you, always make them up, shake hands & be “pals” for my sake & your Mother’s.

"Unity is Strength" (click on picture to enlarge)
"Unity is Strength" (click on picture to enlarge)

You, my dear little Ted, will remember me quite well I trust and also my little John, and my dear old “Bighead” too; and I know you will oftentimes talk of me amongst yourselves so that little Rupert may grow up and I shall not exactly be a stranger to him.

Remember always that wherever duty takes me in this terrible War & no matter what dangers I may be called upon to face, you and your dear Mother will be always in my thoughts.

Should any one of you have to go abroad, always keep in touch with & correspond regularly with your brothers & Mother.

Always obey your Mother as you grow up for she will teach you to lead clean & manly lives & in due time to become fine young Englishmen.

I would ask of you, dear boys, always to believe in God & to pray for help & strength to fight the evils of life & to avoid all profanity.

"You will find several people ready to help you" (click on picture to enlarge)
"You will find several people willing to help you" (click on picture to enlarge)

Now my boys, I think this is all I have to say to you & I have little doubt but what you will find some very good friends in the world (your “Nannie” and Grandfather have always been good to me & will continue to be so to you – also my own dear Mother). It is not possible for me now to give you much advice with regard to your future careers but I trust you will find several people willing to help you to get on (your uncles Harry, George & Norman & Bill may be of some assistance to you in this direction). Should you have to be either soldiers or sailors for any length of time – be sailors.

"Be Sailors"; dueing conscription in WW2 there was little or no choice about which service you joined. (Click on picture to enlarge)
"Be Sailors"; during conscription in WW2 there was little or no choice about which service you joined. (click on picture to enlarge)

Finally, boys, always remember that “a boy’s best friend is his Mother”. Therefore be good to her, love her & consult with her upon everything & you will not be wrong.

I would like you to understand, my dear boys, that I have written this not because I have any presentiment of being killed at the front, but because I think it my duty as your Dad & knowing all the dangers ahead of me, to write such a letter which I know will help you in your lives, even although I may be taken from you & I also know that you would like a letter from your Dad.

At the time of writing this (under difficulties in a tent & no pen or ink handy) I am in good health & quite ready to face the dangers that lie before me with a good heart & firm belief that I may be spared to return to my boys and their dear Mother whom I love so well.

May God bless you all.

Your loving Dad

(Pte Chas F. Payne No 25318 2/5th West Riding Regt. (Duke of Wellingtons) B Company)

"Ever in our Thoughts" (Click on slide to enlarge)
"Ever in our Thoughts"
(Click on slide to enlarge)

Charlie survived the hostilities but died on February 11th 1919 from pneumonia (probably initiated by Spanish Flu), contracted while he was serving in the British Army of Occupation of the Rhineland. He remains "Ever in Our Thoughts".

My grateful thanks to Neville Sisson for restoring most of the individual photographs presented in this article.

My biography of Charlie Payne is currently being written under the working title of ‘Charlie Payne’s Hatbox‘.

Those of you who have visited the pages on this blog will know that I have been researching the background to the First World War military service of my grandfather, Charlie Payne.  Following the well-worn trail of a number of similar authors I started off by concentrating on the Battalion war diaries available at our National Archives at Kew (and now available online for a small fee).  As expected, they are full of useful information, and are an invaluable starting point for any researcher.  However, I soon found, from some of the letters that Charlie had sent home, that he mentioned that he had been sent off from time to time to carry out tasks for other units (e.g. units of the Royal Engineers).  In addition, I was also interested in getting information on the 'bigger picture' that he was involved with. After all, even at full strength a Battalion only contained about a 1000 men and there were hundreds of thousands of men on the Western Front.

Of course there are many excellent books that describe individual battles (e.g Bryn Hammond's book on the Battle of Cambrai, that Charlie fought in, is outstanding), and others provide an excellent overview of a particular year of the conflict (e.g. John Terraine's superb evaluation of the events of 1918, "To Win a War") but these rarely provide  the detail of  the planning and activities that influenced the day-to-day world of the poor bloody infantryman.  At the time, Charlie himself would probably have  been largely unaware of them.

However, in the last few years  I have come to realise that almost all the 'bigger picture' information' can be located in the files containing the war diaries of the larger organisational units, i.e Brigade, Division etc.  Not least, this is often where you will find copies of the maps you will need to get details of  the original targets for an attack, the rate at which the artillery barrage would lift etc etc.  In addition, these records will also provide details about engineering works taking place at specific points on the front, 'intelligence reports' on what the enemy was up to, artillery unit reports, medical reports on the state of health of the men (e.g. reports on the emergence of Spanish Flu) etc. etc.  Only by reading the 62nd Division war diary was I able to understand what Charlie was up to when he had written home that he had been transferred to a 'Water Job' in April-May 1918.

Having read the diaries for Battalion, Brigade and Division, my next task was to cover the Corps and Army versions.  So far I am hugely impressed by the logistical skill and attention to detail displayed by the British Expeditionary Force in France (albeit that I'm concentrating on 1917-1919).  For the experts amongst you, I am probably 'teaching grandmother to suck eggs'.  However, for those of you who are just starting out to follow the trail of an ancestor who served in the Army during 1914-1919, my advice would definitely be, start with the Battalion war diaries, but don't just stop with them.  It involves more work, but if you have ever been to the National Archives, you will know what 'fun' that can be!!

Charlie Payne in his first uniform, including the cap badge of the Yorkshire Regiment. Charlie is the subject of my next book, which has the working title 'Charlie Payne's Hatbox'

In today's blog post I am continuing my theme of writing about the experiences of my grandfather Charlie Payne who, like many thousands of British men, was conscripted into the Army and was sent on active service to the Western Front in France during the First World War.

After being called-up in November 1916 at the age of 33, Charlie was sent to Clacton, Essex for basic training with the 24th Provisional Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment ("The Green Howards").  In mid-May 1917, having been declared medically 'A1' he was selected for further training with the Regiment at West Hartlepool before being sent out to France to serve on the Western Front. He arrived in France at the beginning of August 1917 and was transferred to the 2/5th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment.  After a brief spell at a Base Camp (probably Etaples) during August, and then in a military hospital  (cause unknown), Charlie was sent 'up the line' to join his new battalion. The 2/5th Battalion Duke of Wellingtons  were then, as throughout the war, part of 186th Brigade, itself part of 62nd (West Riding) Division. (At that time a Battalion at full strength contained approximately 1000 men, a Brigade about 4000  and a Division about 12,000-14,000).  The 62nd Division was then located in the Noreuil and Lagnicourt sectors of the line, north-east of Bapaume, and had been involved in bloody fighting during April and May 1917 at Bullecourt, part of the  seemingly impregnable defences of the 'Hindenberg Line' .

The Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt (Wikipedia). (Click on this photo to enlarge)

By the time that Charlie arrived in the area, the Noreuil sector of the Western Front was regarded as a 'quieter sector' than some, though it probably didn't seem that way to a newly-arrived infantryman.  The trench system there was not well-established and when battalions went into the line the men were expected to carry out further work to improve the trenches and the wire defences in front of them. However, before Charlie had his first baptism of fire in the front line trenches he was sent on a training course for Lewis gunners.

Lewis gun in action (Wikipedia). (Click on this photo to enlarge)

The Lewis Gun, an American-designed air-cooled light machine gun, was being increasingly used by infantry battalions as a weapon for both defence and attack, and there was an urgent need to train men in its use. While on the course, Charlie celebrated his 34th birthday and reported back, on 26 September 1917, to his wife Ida:

"I spent a   very enjoyable birthday, and the Huns honoured me with a 'salute' sending   over about 50 big shells which burst very near our 'barn', but beyond causing  us some legitimate anxiety did us no other damage. On the Sunday I must tell  you I had quite a picnic with two “pals” of mine – I had some tea & sugar & one had a real “Blighty” cake – so after dinner we made tea & as  you may guess, dear, we soon finished the cake.  The weather has been delightful this month   & I hope it has been the same with you. Well, dear, my Lewis Gun course finishes about the end of this week & I shall be real sorry as we really have had a nice comfortable & interesting fortnight. Have had the pleasure of firing a captured German Machine gun & today had some revolver practice."

Charlie's wife Ida, with their four sons (from left) John, Rupert, Dick ('Bighead') and Ted, 1918.  (Click on this photo to enlarge)
Front Page of Charlie's letter to Ida, 14 October 1917.  (Click on this photo to enlarge)

Once his Lewis gun course was finished, Charlie finally went into the front-line trenches for the first time between 7-10 October 1917 in the Noreuil sector.  On 14 October 1917, from D Camp at Beaulencourt, he wrote to tell Ida about his experiences, at least as far as the censorship rules allowed:


"Your letters   of the 2nd & 7th duly to hand & I sent you a  field card ('whiz bang') to say I was well to relieve your loving heart.  Now we are out for a rest, dearest & I  will write you a long love letter for this is practically the only pleasure I  have now & I get little enough time for it too. Thank God  that you & our boys are 'safe & sound from the Hun raids [German air raids over London] & I  pray there may be no more of them.   Like you, my darling, I pray that this terrible conflict may soon be ended.  I have had my baptism of fire (both shell and bullets).  I went 'up   the line' as a Lewis gunner.  The Germans 'strafed' [shelled] us dreadfully & my first impression was how poor a  chance Man has against such infernal weapons as modern artillery, but I kept  calm & cool & at times you, my darling, seemed to be very near me  & as we crouched down in the trench the picture of you & the boys at  Hampton Court came vividly before my eyes & dear old 'Bighead' gathering  flowers there.  Fortunately, our Regiment  suffered few casualties. Bear up, dear  heart, we must not give in & pray that we may soon be reunited.  I do hope your work [Ida was a postwoman] is not proving too much  for you & I hope you will have a nice restful holiday.  If you can really afford it, dear, I should greatly appreciate one of your cakes, but do not go   short yourselves.  Rations vary greatly   – sometimes we do well & at others bad.   The weather has been bad lately so have had several issues of rum as of course we have no fires.  I trust  prices are still going down in 'Blighty' & that your coal & wood  supply will last you well. I am always  thinking of our boys & just long to see them all again I shall see a  wonderful difference in all of them when I do come home.  I expect you were taking  tea upstairs [where Ida's parents and sisters lived].  Give my love to them all  & tell Dolce & Marg [Ida's younger sisters] I have had one or two 'come round the corners   after me' & also heard them ringing thro’ the air – all kinds of songs in   all keys. [Charlie is referring here to the sounds made by the different types of  German artillery shells]. We have had a Church parade today & just where we are resting is  out of reach of the guns & also out of hearing so you may guess, dear, it   is a real rest for all our nerves.  I  am very fit just now.  I am putting  this in a green envelope [only checked by one, rather than the usual two censors], dear, so must not say anything much about things out here as you know.  We are still in  wooden huts & now have a blanket to sleep on which, with our great coats & ground sheet makes a fairly warm bed, where I lay o’nights & think  of you, dear heart, & our merry boys (God bless you all) & I delight  in picturing in my mind the many happy times we have spent together in our  humble but loving way & also of the future which, please God, we will  endeavour to make even happier than the past.    With heaps of love & kisses to my dear little woman & our  boys. Ever yours Charlie"

Approximate location within the Noreuil sector of Charlie's first experience in the trenches. This photo was taken in October 2011, looking towards the German front line trenches of 1917.  The occasional ploughed-up unexploded shell now provides the only obvious evidence in this pastoral French landscape of the war that was fought here nearly 100 years ago. (Click on this photo to enlarge)
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Private Charles Frederick Payne, 235435, 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment. Photo taken in London in September 1918 when he was on home leave.

It seems appropriate that my blog post today should contribute to the  messages and thoughts of remembrance for those who fought in the Great War...."the war to end all wars" which, despite the efforts of the politicians, servicemen and the peacemakers, was  principally one more episode of Man's inhumanity to Man.

My grandfather, Charlie Payne, was amongst those who survived the hostilities and, at the time of the Armistice on the 11 November 1918, was a  Private in the British Expeditionary Force. On 16 November 1918, he wrote home to his wife Ida to convey something of his feelings about the armistice.  His few days delay in writing are probably attributable to an increase in drill and discipline prompted by a message that had been issued on Armistice day itself by the Divisional Commander:

“Hostilities are suspended, and in the glorious part which the British Army has played in bringing this to pass the 62nd (West Riding) Division has borne its full share.  In the changed conditions that await us there is no less need for the soldierly qualities which have brought us this success than in the past.  These qualities will now be apparent by the smartness in dress and appearance of every individual officer and man, in precision in drill and the handling of arms, in perfect march discipline, particularly on the part of working parties and transport, in order and cleanliness in billets, wagon and transport lines, and above all in the strictest observance of the principles of security on the part of all troops on guard or outpost duty.  Let us prove that in these all-important matters we are still second to none”
First page of Charlie's letter of 16 November 1918

So it was probably a smarter and tidier Charlie Payne who finally found time to write home:
"France 16/11/18

My darling Wife

What a glorious thing is Peace.  Out here we cannot yet realise it.  I cannot now express in words the glorious feeling we have on rising and going to “kip” and not to hear the awful roar of big guns – to know that we can sleep in security without fear of bombs and shells and above all to know that we shall not again have to go “over the top”.  Let us be thankful, dear heart, that soon we shall again be reunited in happiness with our own boys once more.  I was not in the last fighting my Battalion was in, but I have now rejoined and we are billeted in a town [Maubeuge] near the Belgian frontier and  I fancy our Division [62nd Division] will have to go to Germany – but I do not know definitely.  I am quite well, dear, and supremely happy and thankful – longing for the day when I land in dear old England.  How are you my darling, I do hope fit and well and happy now; also the dear boys.  Tell them I shall soon come home to stay.

Charlie's wife Ida, with their four sons (from left) John, Rupert, Dick and Ted, 1918

So rapid has been our advance that letters etc. have not reached us yet, but I expect they will eventually reach us. The poor French people whom we have released in the towns and villages are mad with joy and make a great fuss of us.  At this place flags are flying and they are mad with joy.  How I should have liked to have been in London the night you received news of the armistice – I guess people almost cried with joy.  Peace must surely follow as the German soldiers are utterly demoralised and beaten. I hope to learn that Bill and Leo [two of Charlie's brothers-in-law; both in the armed forces in France] are both safe and well and that all upstairs [Ida's parents] are likewise.  We have still a lot of work before us, darling, so we must be patient.  It will be a long march through Belgium to Germany.  Still continue to read the papers dear, and write to me as often as you can – it will make the time pass quicker.  Let them know at Forest Hill [home to Charlie's Mother and two sisters] that I am safe and well.  Give my love to all upstairs. Think of me now, little woman, as being happy and comfortable.  It is beyond belief almost that we shall spend no more awful days and nights in trenches and God be thanked for it.  Love and kisses to you and the boys and God bless and keep you all safe until we meet again. Ever yours. Charlie."

In remembrance: Sergeant Charles Frederick Payne 1883-1919

Charlie's Battalion did indeed become part of the British Army of Occupation in the Rhineland, arriving on Christmas Day 1918 at their final destination, Mechernich (near Cologne), after a long and wintry march across Belgium.