Book Review: To Fight Alongside Friends, The First World War Diary of Charlie May, edited by Gerry Harrison - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Book Review: To Fight Alongside Friends, The First World War Diary of Charlie May, edited by Gerry Harrison

To Fight Alongside Friends Paperback  by Harper Collins, 2014. £9.99 (harpercollins.co.uk)

It feels somewhat insensitive to simply review the diary of a First World War soldier, even one that has been compiled into a modern publication. Gerry Harrison may have done the editing, but these are still the words of Charlie May, captain with the 22nd Manchester Regiment, who fought and fell on the Somme.

This diary is a quick and easy read, but it carries a far greater power that lingers in the mind of the reader. Through the eyes of May one gains an insight into life at the front and the anticipation which preceded the great Somme Offensive of 1916. From the arduous training ('we are to practice attacks, bayonet work, consolidation of trenches etc. and all the hundred and one little things') to the tense periods of waiting ('there is nothing but anxiety and fruitless speculation') of  the months leading up to Zero Hour, May gives wonderful descriptions of not only what the Manchesters were doing but also how he felt.

It is impossible to read May's diary without a forboding sense of what was to come. Even the blurb states that May died on the 1st July. The now-infamous First Day of the Somme was not to be the 'heavy blow delivered to Prussian prestige' that May had hoped it would be. In many ways, this made the diary more poignant: it is a build up to the breakthrough that never came. The entries contain the hopes and aspirations of a man who would not live to fulfill them.

Captain Charlie May (source)
We are in an era of histories "in the words of those who were there". There are more books in publication quoting the words of soldiers than one could ever want to read. Some are anthologies, curated to tell the overarching story of war through the diaries and letters of soldiers, others - like this diary - follow one man from training to the trenches. The Diary of Charlie May is not alone, but I believe it is a very valuable read, perhaps moreso than several other primary histories I have read.

First hand accounts such as this are seen to have a truth and authenticity to them, almost an authority. Yet Captain May, like all others at the front, was severely limited in his knowledge of the overall situation of war. Unlike histories written since, he had no awareness of the plans of High Command, or even any idea what was going on at the other end of the front.

Image result for manchester cap badgeWhile this may negate an authoritative account of war, it is nonetheless a valuable source for a modern reader. May tells us what he knew; the perspective of a captain, charged with the command of a company. The scope of his understanding is narrow, without the bird's eye view or hindsight of the reader. It is therefore an important reminder of what a captain's life was like. May knew that the "Big Push" was awaiting them, but could never have imagined the scale of what was to come, and sadly never lived to see its outcome.

For a short read, I highly recommend 'To Fight Alongside Friends', particularly if you are about to visit the Somme. It transports the reader directly into the perspective of Capt. May and thereby into the eyes of captains up and down the Somme front, making it a great companion to a battlefields trip by bringing to life the men now remembered in stone memorials and graves across the now-peaceful fields of the Western Front.

Kathryn

My review is not associated with HarperCollins or the editors of this book in any way. I came across this book in a local charity shop.

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