Charles Howe was born in 1887, the fourth of eight children of music teacher John Edward Howe and Maria, nee Pitts.In 1901 the family were living at 2 Norman Lane, Eccleshill and 14-year-old Charles was a worsted spinner.By 1911 the family have moved to 20 Institute Road, Eccleshill and John was now a piano tuner. Charles was working as a plasterer and whitewasher on his own account. He was a member of the Eccleshill Congregational Chapel and enjoyed football, hockey and cricket being a member of Eccleshill Cricket Club.Charles enlisted on the 14th of
November 1914 at Woolwich in Kent and gave the address of Stonehouse, Dartford. He became Private 16530 in the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. His unit was embroiled in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and were later transferred to France. From the end of the Battle of Ypres until September there was no general change in the situation on the Western Front. It was a period of static warfare where the army suffered average losses of 300 men a day from sniping and shellfire, while they continued to gradually
improve and consolidate the trenches and his letters home give some idea of what life was like for Charles. Fourteen Divisions began the attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st of July 1916 of which the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry took part. 478 men of this Battalion were killed in action, declared missing or were wounded on this day and Charles was one of those declared missing. He was 28 years of age.The Serre Road Cemeteries were started in May 1917 when the
British V Corps cleared the battlefield of soldiers’ remains when the territory came into British Hands. Many of the soldiers killed in the British offensive of the 1st of July had been irretrievable for many months and could not be identified and were buried in Serre Road Cemeteries. Charles is buried in No.2.He left his effects to his father John who received £3.6.11d on the 5th July 1917 and a War Gratuity of £7.0.0d on the 23rd of October 1919.
. Researched and written by Jean Britteon, to whom many thanks
We are fortunate to have a vivid picture of Charles’s War experiences from the letters his friends passed on to the Shipley Times & Express.The first appeared on 15 July 1915 and started by pointing out the change in Charles’s life as against previous summers:Instead of helping the local cricket team at the week-end, Pte Charles Howe, a former member of the Eccleshill cricket team, is now engaged in assisting the Somerset Light Infantry in the struggle against the Germans.Writing to a friend he says:- ‘Our battalion is somewhere in Flanders at present and though as I write we are under shell fire, we feel pretty safe.Hot corners‘We have been in some exceptionally hot corners and just recently left some trenches which in places are only 20 or 30 yards away from the German lines. In this lively place a lot of bomb or hand grenade throwing is on the go while trench mortars and rifle grenades are very frequently used.‘We have been in several heavy artillery bombardments and one morning one of these attacks was followed by an infantry attack. The shelling lasted ten hours and when the Germans started advancing towards us they did so in extended order. ‘Our gunners opened a violent artillery fire on them and bowled them over like ninepins. As many as were able to do so rushed back to the trenches and the attack failed. ‘It is a pathetic sight to see the once
beautiful village churches all shattered. The Germans had been shelling one of these places one evening and having occasion to pass close by after the cannonading had ceased we noticed that many of the dead had been blown clean out of their graves.‘Sniping goes on night and day in the firing line but it is seldom the
Germans score a hit during the day. The Germans have just been trying to silence one of our batteries which is situated not far away from our present quarters. Their projectiles are screaming over but they are off the mark and our gunners are cracking them over in fine style.‘I shall be pleased when this terrible war is finished but we have got to
give them a thorough beating first. ‘I am delighted to hear that so many of our Congregational scholars are playing the “great game” and I’m pleased to be reckoned as one of them. When I return to England, if it be God’s gracious will for me to do so, I shall have exciting experiences to unfold.’
On 20 August 1915 the newspaper published a long letter Charles had written to a firend about his experiences under fire and going ‘over the top’.‘We spent 25 days in our last position and it will never be forgotten by those who went through it. The trenches in places were only from 20 to 30 yards apart and shells, bullets and bombs were in constant use.In the very early hours of August 5th we were withdrawn from the trenches and marched four miles behind the firing line and rested for a few hours in a wood. Held at all costsIn the afternoon we paraded before the Brigadier General and he told us what we were about to do and expressed his confidence in us to carry it out. It amounted to this – that an important position had to be captured from the Germans and held at all costs.That same night we went back into the trenches and at five next morning an artillery bombardment commenced from guns of all calibres, including two 15 inch howitzers. The Germans were not long before they had their Krupp’s replying with great fury and the noise was simply deafening.At exactly 6p.m. our bombardment ceased and at the word “Forward” half of our regiment and the whole of another scaled the parapet, rushed across the open and made straight for the German trenches being, of course, preceded by our bomb throwers. Except for dead and wounded there were not many Germans left and these were quickly accounted for. This splendid result was due to the excellent firing of our artillery.
Both the first and second lines were carried and it was left to our lot to make a new trench in front of the two we had captured. One of my pals met his death within a few seconds after getting out to do this work. They simply rained shells on to us. Parapets were blown in, dug-outs blown to bits, communication wires cut, while equipment, rifles and wire entanglements were mixed up with the dead and wounded and were strewn about in every direction. The Germans caught it far worse than we did that day and scores of them were buried alive. It was discovered that the attack was made at the right time as the Germans had almost completed the work of undermining our trench and any moment would have fired the fuse. If the Germans had persisted in a 200 yards frontal advance at this point it would probably have developed into one of the greatest contests of the war.The pontoon bridges constructed by the Royal Engineers were continually being hit by shells and if the Germans could have managed to have smashed the lot our retreat would have been cut off and we should have either been captured or have had to fight to the death.Mutilated bodiesScores of mutilated bodies were lying about and some of the wounded had received several injuries while at least two men had their heads blown off.The Germans who were taken prisoners seemed glad but they had to stand under their own shell fire for some time till they could be handed over to the escort. Our opponents have won several times but on each occasion they have been repulsed.
On the canal bank great trees predominate but hundreds of them have been shot down by shells. It was a sight to see large trees like these flattened to the ground as if they were merely match stems.You may guess we were glad to be relieved that evening for we hardly knew where to put ourselves after the fierce work and horrible sights we had seen. I don’t think there was a man who didn’t feel nervy or shaky. As we left the trenches shells were coming over thick and fast and one wonders how we came out of it alive. Stuck to their homesWe marched about five mile and bivouacked in a wood for two days and are now in the firing line again on a new front which runs along the ridge of a hill the Germans first line occupying the side of the hill beyond. The valley between is thickly strewn with wire entanglements. Just behind us is a small village with its streets barricaded in several places and the houses find shelter for many deadly weapons. This village has been taken and retaken by the French and Germans several times and strange to say a number of civilians have stuck to their homes in spite of the danger. You will hardly wonder when I tell you that the like we have passed through has put years on to some of our chaps, so they are nothing like the men I knew while at Plymouth.On Bank Holiday Monday we occupied the third line of defence and were in some comfortable bungalows made by the French. We managed a concert in the evening (or we had a comb and paper band and used tin biscuit boxes for drums). We try to forget this wicked war when we get the chance. Personally I am in the best of health and am quite ready to exchange compliments with the Germans again.
We noticed that many of the dead had been blown clean out of their graves
At the word “Forward” half of our regiment and the whole of another scaled the parapet
The novelty soon wears off
‘One night we crossed a famous canal by means of a pontoon bridge and during those dark hours we were heavily shelled. The first time under shell fire is a very trying experience but the novelty soon wears off. ‘In one of our engagements the Germans began a terrific bombardment very early one morning and our gunners were not slow in taking up the song. We were ordered to “stand to” at 3.30 a.m. but it was not till well-nigh ten o’clock when the German infantry ventured to make an attack. We opened fire on them from our trenches and our gunners got the range splendidly and put shells right amongst them. These efforts, backed up by Maxim fire, made it impossible for the enemy to advance and they began to run about in a panic, with their hands above their heads and many made a headlong flight back to the cover of their trenches. They failed to appear again that day.Bon Anglais‘The Germans who made this attack were dressed in all kinds of garments for some wore khaki, others their service dress, while another lot had a mixture of soldier and civilian attire. ‘One day we saw a German aeroplane come a terrible cropper. It was brought down from a great height and both occupants were killed and the machine wrecked. Our gunners hit it fair amidships with the fifth shot and it fell like a stone. The French troops who were with us, as well as ourselves, cheered like made and they kept shouting “Bons, Anglais” which means “Good Englishmen”.‘A little after this the Germans tried to break through our line. We were rushed up to the attack and on coming to the fighting area we noticed scores of Dublin Fusiliers and Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders on the grass for they had been caught by the gas. It was an awful sight to see those sons of Britain in such a plight. But though this was a surprise attack, it proved another German failure.’Shipley Times & Express 24 September 1915
On 3 December 1915, the newspaper published two pieces about Charles who was getting a taste of the Flying CorpsWriting to a friend under the date Nov 28th, Pte Charles Howe says: “I have now left the Somerset Light Infantry for a time and am now at an aviation base. I have been here for three weeks and expect staying for months.“Being here is like coming to a new world after fighting for months in France and Flanders where everything is in a ruined state. Here things are more normal.Wet and muddy“My last spell in the ‘rabbit warren ‘ was a very wet and muddy affair as it had been raining for several days and nights. Those at home can hardly realise what it means ploughing up to the knees in mud and water but if the Germans can stick it, the British will not take second place for endurance.“If you could come out here and see for yourself you would no doubt be impressed by the inferiority of the Huns in the air. Our position is not many miles behind YPres and our big guns give the Germans no rest when the weather is favourable.”* * * * * * *Pte Charles Howe of Eccleshill described an aerial assault.‘The other day, seven German biplanes flew over our position and dropped eight bombs. I was in a village farmhouse when the first crash came. It blew all the windows to smithereens, caused the furniture to rock and the ornaments to dance jigs.‘Two Belgian women who were in the room were terrified and no wonder, for the explosion had occurred only 25 yards away.‘All the eight bombs accounted for three calves and a cow. A Belgian soldier was so badly wounded that he died the next day.‘The hostile airmen had a warm reception but I could not say for certain if any of the shots took effect.‘If you could only come out here and have a peep, the one thing that would soon strike you would be the surprising inferiority of the Air Huns.’
Air base is a new world after trenches
After all that coverage, the final entry, amid a long toll of casualties, seems rather perfunctory:Pte Charles Howe, who has been through many engagements with the Somerset Light Infantry in France is reported missing since July 1stSome year ago he was a member of the Eccleshill Cricket Club and was an effective fast bowler.Shipley Times & Express 13 October 1916