Birmingham businessman Charles Horton helped to save many lives as a stretcher bearer in the First World War. Zoe Chamberlain talks to his granddaughter about a new book on his memoirs.
CHARLES Horton endured the horrors of the Battle of the Somme and helped to bring back British prisoners of war from Austria but, like many First World War soldiers, he never talked about it with his family.
So they were stunned when going through his belongings after his death to discover he had written memoirs of his time at war.
A devout Christian, Charles joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as a 19-year-old graduate because he “wanted to save lives, not take them”.
“He’d typed up his memoirs and never told anyone,” says his granddaughter Angela Gowan, 60, a sales rep from Bidford on Avon, Warwickshire.
“He went through what thousands of men endured in service but he never talked about it, which I think was common amongst First World War soldiers.
“There’s not much written by ordinary men in the First World War. My grandpa was educated and I think he found it quite cathartic to write it down.
“He wrote it as a record of what happened, rather than an emotional account.
“He also felt strongly about the RAMC. He felt they were forgotten really in many ways and had not been given the accreditation they deserved.”
Indeed, Charles wrote: “There is an almost complete absence of any personal history of the many thousands who exchanged civvies for khaki to serve in the ranks, to do as authority told them and to accept the ordeal of deadly danger, rough conditions and some ineffable boredom for month after month and year after year, and who were still lucky enough to survive to the end.”
Charles came from a middle-class family living in Handsworth.
After completing his degree in commerce at Birmingham University in 1915, Charles volunteered to join the RAMC.
His account on preparing for the Battle of the Somme reads: “Marching orders finally set the seal of truth on rumour. We set forth with ambulances and everyone in train, perhaps a little awed by the proximity of the great event before us, but with greater and more solid enthusiasm than ever.”
Later, he writes: “All around us we are aware of the presence of batteries of our own guns and we hear the onslaught of the ear-splitting discharge of shells and, from the gunners, the nerve-shattering voices at close quarters as they load them.”
The first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916, became notoriously the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. There were 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 were killed or died from their wounds.
Charles writes of that fateful day: “Sunday 1 July is a beautiful summer’s day, but the sun is still low in the sky when many thousands of young men feel its rays for the last time.” He talks of a trench called Knightsbridge, probably named by the London troops who inhabited it: “It is now a collecting place for stretcher cases, line upon line of them on the ground in the hot sun with flies settling on bloodstained bandages, some quite still, others able to raise a head for a cigarette or a drink of water or tea.”
Later, he writes: “A man who has come from England with me falls forward on his face and moans quietly once. He is a good friend. He is dead when he is picked up.”
He later continues: “In the hope more stretcher bearers will soon appear, we lower our patients as carefully as we can and lay them at the bottom of the trench and wait. Nobody comes. We do what we can for the poor chaps though we have no dressings, no food and no water, except the little in our own bottles and one we find.
“Two are in agony from wounds in leg joints and none can bear for us to move them. We can see no alternative to staying put. It is after a very long night has given way to day that our solitude ends. We are able to hand over our charges and learn we have been posted as ‘missing.’”
After six long and difficult months, Charles and his fellow soldiers enjoy a break to celebrate Christmas.
He writes: “We are lucky enough to spend the festivities out of the line and celebrate with a dinner of roast pork, plum pudding and drinks served on a table with plates and civilized cutlery.”
Suffering from impetigo, caused by contact with infected blankets, Charles survived the Somme, went to the Battle of Ypres and served on the Italian Front where he enjoyed seeing the riviera and trying polenta and tomato puree for the first time.
Here he continues to have many near misses: “I am inside a little sandbagged house at San Sisto when it receives a direct hit, but fate decrees the shell is a small and sensitive one, which bursts on impact without penetrating the roof.
“We follow the infantry down onto the plateau which, during and after our assault, is raked with machine-gun fire and anti-personnel shells. One of the latter misses me by little more than a yard but by luck bursts the other way harmlessly.”
Angela, who has two grown up children, says: “Grandpa had quite a few lucky escapes, and he watched a lot of people die. My mother Mary was surprised to find out quite how many near misses he had.”
Charles was sent on a mission to Vienna to help prisoners-of-war (something he writes very little about) before finally coming home and beginning work for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.
In 1922, he married Lilian Hooper and they had a daughter called Mary, and another daughter who sadly died from meningitis at just four-months-old.
He went onto work for the National Union of Mineral Water Manufacturers before taking over his father-in-law’s hairdressing shop in Birmingham.
“He was a very capable man who looked after himself for 20 years after nanny died,” says Angela, one of three grandchildren.
“He smoked a pipe and was a bit eccentric. He was part of the Ashbury Dramatic Association and we loved going to watch him perform.
“Every Sunday, he would come round for dinner after church. We led quite a traditional life.” Charles died in his Sutton Coldfield home in 1976, two days before his 81st birthday.
“When we found his memoirs, I didn’t think they were that interesting at the time. It’s only as I’ve got older and realised they are quite significant and should be published.”
* Stretcher Bearer by Charles H. Horton, edited by Dale Le Vack is available from Amazon. The family would love to hear from anyone who knew Charles Horton or had family who served in the First World War. They can email firstname.lastname@example.org.