ON AUGUST 6,1914, one day after war had been declared on Germany , Charles Adams kissed his wife and three young daughters goodbye, left his Lancaster home and marched off into oblivion, writes Nigel Capstick.
Charles Adams was my grandfather and one of his young daughters, Sarah Ellen, my mother.
Charles had been a professional soldier, serving with distinction during the whole of the Boar War, experiencing the horrors of the battle of Spion Kop, one of the bloodiest of the campaign. His regiment, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment was in the thick of the fighting but it was later said in war diaries that this had been 'a walk in the park' compared to the vicious fighting of the First World War.
After the Boar War, Charles left the army and joined civilian life, got a job, got married and had a family. However, the clouds of war in July of 1914 must have been all pervasive. Charles was a reservist and it must have come as no surprise when the telegram arrived, ordering him to report for duty. It is a mystery as to why he ended up, on the 6th.of August, at Brecon as part of the 1st.battalion South Wales Borderers. My mum always said it was because his friend was with that regiment and that this friend survived the war to return to Lancaster and was able to tell Charles's wife exactly how he had died - due to the fact that they had been side by side when he was killed.
On August 12, the battalion sailed to France aboard the Gloucester Castle, arriving the next day at Havre. Confidence must have been high. The South Wales Borderers had a tremendous fighting spirit, one of their most famous exploits being the defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879 , made famous by the film ' Zulu '. Now they were part of the First Army under General Douglas Haig, the so called 'striking force' of the British Expeditionary Force. This confidence and belief in their own ability was well founded as the BEF was a professional army, amongst the best in the world, and that would be proved ten days later when the BEF smashed headfirst into Von Kluck's 1st German Army, at Mons, on the Belgium border.
The BEF, around 70,000 strong was attacked by a German force of 160,000 men and 600 guns. The resulting battle was arguably the saviour of Paris, the British holding up the Germans long enough for the French army to be able to retreat intact to the outskirts of Paris. However, eventually the pressure on the BEF was too strong, and with both flanks exposed, was forced to retreat. What followed was one of the most remarkable feats in the history of the British Army - 'The retreat from Mons'. Charles and the South Wales Borderers were right there in this test of human endurance.
Over the next ten days the South Wales Borderers marched almost 200 miles, in baking hot sun, with 60lbs of equipment on their backs, with very little sleep and meagre rations . Rations such as rock hard bread covered in blue mould.. It was said that many men 'slept whilst they marched'. Not only did they have to march but at each short rest stop they would have to dig in, only to abandon the trench a couple of hours later to resume the retreat. Eventually, on the 6th. of September, the battalion reached Rozay, just 20 miles from the outskirts of Paris. Here the battalion heard the news that the great retreat was over and that the BEF was about to go back on the offensive. Charles had just 20 days to live.
The 6th to the 14th of September saw the BEF advance over 50 miles, pushing back Von Kluck's rearguard. By the time the British had reached the Marne, Von Kluck was heavily engaged with the French 6th. Army. This allowed the BEF to cross the Marne, which had a decisive effect on the Germans in that it was forced to retreat to the heights above the River Aisne. This was a move that would seal the fate of my grandfather, as this was the last significant movement of troops in this area until 1918.
So began the battle of the Aisne, with the Germans dug in along the high ground marked by the road known as the Chemin des Dames. What is significant about this battle is that it saw the introduction of 'trench warfare' a terrible struggle of attrition were each side would decimate the other by savage infantry attacks and bombardment by heavy guns. So on September 14, Charles and the SWB found themselves in a valley near the village of Vendresse, advancing in the dark and in pouring rain in an attempt to take the high ground from the Germans. The Guards Division had already attacked this front and suffered many casualties, the dead and wounded highlanders lying in front of the German trenches. Under immense artillery fire the battalion managed to reach the ridge and dug in. For six days they held on in this exposed position, repulsing numerous attacks by the Germans and under a constant hail of shrapnel. No further forward movement could be achieved as Von Kluck's army had already set up the defences that would stay in place for years, with lines of trenches, machine gun posts and barbed wire. A decision was made to move the South Wales Borderers back to their own defensive line, trenches close to the village of Chivy.
Early in the morning of September 26 a massive German attack began with thousands of Von Kluck's troops falling on the forward trenches of the SWB. This force 4,000 strong had been brought up specially by the Germans to capture this important strategic area. Outnumbered five to one, D company was almost wiped out and their trenches lost. The Germans had also managed to get into a quarry behind the British lines. The situation was critical and the whole of the 1st. Corp's front in danger of collapse. A company of the South Wales Borderers went forward and attacked the Germans in the Quarry at the point of the bayonet. Charles was with this attacking force. Vicious hand to hand fighting went on for what seemed to be an age. Eventually the Germans were driven out and the line held. However, these trenches now became no-man's land and it was strewn with German and British dead. One of which was my grandfather who had been run through by a German bayonet. Three days later a detachment of the Camerons managed to bury the British dead in a communication trench. The only thing remaining of Charles Adams was his dog tag, taken off his body and returned to my grandmother in England. ( I was given this by my mother, many years later).
This story of Charles Adams would be replicated thousands of times during the Great War. All tales of extreme bravery and sacrifice of a generation of young men in their prime. The real tragedy of the death of my grandfather is I believe in the wife and three young girls left without a husband and father. I don't think my mother ever really got over the loss. What I never knew until very recently was that Charles was one of three sons to die in the First World War. Curiously the three brothers were not bracketed together on the cenotaph at Lancaster as is common throughout the rest of the country. The reason? - because the builders of the cenotaph wanted ten guineas to put them together. Charles's mother, having lost her three precious sons for the country must have been much saddened and I am sure, like millions of other mothers, must have wondered if the sacrifice was worth it.