I Have Seen Sights Which No Man Should See.....

The account of Private 41946 Charles Victor Holman, with the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment (1916-1919)
Interviewed in June 2000, by Gary Butler of East Cowes, Isle of Wight.

Since this article first appeared on this website, quite a few things have happened to Charles Holman, including the award of another medal to add to the Military Medal he won at Cambrai in 1917 and the Legion d'Honneur awarded to him by the French government in the last couple of years. Gary Butler has decided to update his original article to bring the story up-to-date and also to include more of Charles's reminiscences about his time in the Army during the Great War.  The updated (2001) article appears below, at the end of the original one - Tom Morgan

I first met Charles after reading an article in the "Isle of Wight County Press" Newspaper, about his 102nd birthday. Charles lives in a retirement home in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. I wrote to him to ask to meet him and he replied  that it would be an honour to meet me. Charles was born on the 26th February 1898 in Kings Lynn, Norfolk.  He worked with his father in his fruit and vegetable business. 

After the war broke out he joined the 5th Norfolk Regiment in 1915 at the age of 18.

"When I joined the Norfolks in 1915 I was told by an Officer that this would "Turn Mice into Men." Within weeks I was transferred to the 1st Battalion Essex regiment with "Z" company where I was sent to Ypres. I saw my first bout of action in the trenches , then due to my size and stature I was soon made into a Runner for my battalion.  Quick on my feet and a hard target for the enemy.  I would run across the French countryside from one battalion to another, warning of enemy advancement or bringing news that reinforcements were on their way."

"I remember particularly one event prior to the Battle of Cambrai, when we were told to rest down for the night in a small village after a day of horrendous fighting. Early that next morning we awoke to a German attack which desecrated everything around us."

"I was wounded in the stomach and the top of my right thigh, from shell fire and others were wounded - it was amazing we didn't all die. My injuries saw me in the St Valery Hospital in France for a few months, where I was sent home on leave for a week before I returned to the front."

For his efforts in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 Charles was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery which he received in the field from a General, but it is not the honour but the horror he remembers most vividly.

"I have seen sights which no man should ever see, sights which stay firmly in your mind for the rest of your life.  Vivid images of my mates and comrades-in-arms, lying face down in the trenches with scores of rats scavenging their exposed flesh. I can see it as if it were yesterday, men clambering over the bodies to get out of the line of fire, limbs and torso entwined.   Shell-shocked men wallowing in the blood-soaked mire they called home."

The medals which Charles has are the Military medal, War Medal, Victory Medal, and he was the first Veteran to receive the Prestigous french Legion d' Honneur in October, 1999.

"I went to a small village near Ypres and hordes of Tommies were there stunned, tired yet some what overjoyed.  It was here I learned that the war was over.  No more fighting, no more wasted lives.  We were going home at last to our families and none of us could truly belive it was all over."

 After the war Charles returned to Kings Lynn and stayed there in the town for 52 years, he built himself a house which he named St Valery after the hospital he was in when wounded.

 In 1950 he moved to the Isle of Wight and moved to Gurnard near Cowes, Nearly 50 years on he discovered the cause of an itching leg was the presence of some pieces of shrapnel.

 I contacted the Essex regimental Museum on his behalf to find out about a captain - the one who recommended him for the MM - as Charles could not remember the officer's name.  I was told by the Curator that Charles's details were on computer, but that they were shocked to hear that he was still "alive " as the only other Essex Veteran that was known lives in Australia.

 I also contacted a researcher who went to the Public Records Office in London and he found Charles's record for me I showed this to him and he was completely surprised and said,  "I never thought I would live to see my service record after all this time."

 The details I received were a copy of the "London Gazette" dated Tuesday 24th January 1919, about the award of his Military Medal.  It says:

"From the War Office. His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Military Medal for bravery to the undermentioned,

41946 Pte. Holman C.V 1st Bn. Essex Regiment."

 The citation for the Military Medal reads,

"With his regiment pinned down by enemy Machine Gunners Private Holman courageously crawled across a field on his stomach to get a message to HQ."

Charles said ,"that saved our regiment because HQ brought the tanks into action and wiped out several Machine Gun Posts, The regiment was able to proceed and capture the village of Fontaine."

 When I visit Charles we always play a few hands of Gin Rummy as he says it keeps his mind active doing this.  In November we will have a toast to the 83rd anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, and to remember his fallen friends and comrades.

UPDATE - September, 2001

Charles Holman on the occasion of the presentation of the Legion d'Honneur
(newspaper photo)

Since my last article about Charles, things are beginning to come back in his memory of the Great War.  Charles and I both drank a toast to the fallen friends he lost at Cambrai.  He stood up from his chair and said, "This toast is to the fallen officers and men of the 1st Essex who lost their lives at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917."
"When I was 18 I volunteered like everyone else.  I had two brothers who also joined with me.  One was older, Herbert, but he didn't go to France.  He stayed on as an instructor and my younger brother, he fought with the Royal Field Artillery and he survived as well.

Thinking back to Cambrai I remember that on 22nd November 1917 the 1st Essex were relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers and we were billeted in a village called Marcoing. Then on 30th November we lost our Company Captain of our platoon, who was Captain Grant.  That was a very sad day for me as we got on very well.  He was the one I found out later had put me forward for an award but he was never to live to see it done as he gave me a message to take to the Battalion Headquarters and as I looked back I saw him fall back after being hit in the head".

(Captain Grant is remembered with Honour at the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing at Louveral, France).

"When I was wounded at Cambrai I never thought that 83 years later I would still be here. As I was lying on the stretcher, waiting to be taken away, I heard somebody say, "Don't worry about him.  He's too bad.  Won't be here much longer." I thought, "That's what you think."  I can't believe I'm still here now at 103 years old".

Charles was present on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

"To us, it was just another one to get along with. We were waiting in the lines for what felt like ages before we went forward.  After that, I'm afraid to say it's just a blur. You don't really remember much as soon as you come up the ladder and over the top - as the firing starts you just move as fast as your can".

Charles's memories of waiting around are accurate - the battalion didn't attack until 11.a.m., three and a half hours after the original attack on Beaumont Hamel had gone in and failed.  And his less clear remembrance of the confusion of the actual attack can be forgiven when one realises that the battalion didn't get much further than their own barbed wire.  Machine-guns caused over 200 casualties in a very short time. The 1st Essex were "on the Somme" from beginning to end.

"As you know, I joined the Norfolk Regiment first, then I was transferred to the 1st Essex Regiment because they wanted more troops at the front. I wasn't the only one, there were about a hundred of us altogether.  I suppose transfers were being made all the time, it depending on how many casualties there were at one time".

"You know about the Battalion that came from Sandringham, the ones that went missing?  Captain Beck's men?  Well, if I  had stayed with the Norfolks I would have have been with them and I would have gone to Gallipoli.  I saw the King twice at Sandringham and the queen once, at the church near the house".

"I was the Company Captain's runner, taking messages to other companies and messages to other battalions.  I remember getting to an officer and handing over the message and being told to rest and await further orders, which I did, and the next day I was told to return to my company. There I was informed that I had been put forward for an award which was the military medal.  I was treated like a hero but I didn't think like that, I was just doing my job.  What followed then was good treatment from all the officers and men. Can't be many of of them left alive today to give information about what happened.  The battalion was all lined up in a field - what was left of us - with those of us who were receiving medals.  I think there were six of us. The names were read out and I think I remember hearing Hubert Gooding's name read out - I remember because Chris Shepherd wrote about him, like me.  We were presented with the medal by a general who arrived in a big, black car. I can see the presentation now.  He hurt my hand when he shook it"!

"I can't believe there are only two of us veterans left now that have the Military Medal - myself and Bill Cockgrove, who's 101.  He was with the Royal Artillery at Ypres, or Wipers as we knew it".

"I also saw the Essex Cavalry coming along the road.  They looked very smart with their horses. I wished I had one as I could get the messages back quicker from the front line to the HQ".

"I didn't take any messages about the ceasefire on November 11th, 1918, but I remember at 11 a.m. (I think we were in the front line) the message coming in by field telephone and of course we were all stunned, but glad it was over. I remember the words in my head, "Don't worry lads, it will all be over by Christmas". That was in August, 1914. Four terrible years later and it is over.  I felt so relieved but angry that I had lost so many dear and close friends, but I was one of the lucky few and I was going home".

"When I got home to King's Lynn I had come straight from the front line and was all dirty and covered in lice. The first thing my father did was wash me down in the back yard, and sat me on a chair and shaved me, as I was so overcome with being home".

Since I met Charles and began talking to him about his experiences of the war I have been to Cambrai (in February, 2001) and followed in his footsteps. It was a strange feeling to think that 83 years ago he had been there and not much has changed in the town since then. The old headquarters are still there on the road to Flesquieres.

While I was there I met Philippe Gorczynzki - the man who discovered the female tank at Flesquieres in 1988 and I spoke to him about Charles as he had contacted me after reading the first article. We went to see where Charles had been in 1917 and I told Philippe all I could about Charles.  

On my return home, Philippe contacted me again, to tell me that he had been in touch with the Mayor of Cambrai, who wanted to arrange for Charles to receive a special medallion out of respect for what he had done near Cambrai during the war.

On Saturday, 7th April, 2001, Charles was presented with the medallion from the Mayor and people of Cambrai. The presentation was made on their behalf by Rear Admiral Ken Snow of the British Legion in Newport, here on the Isle of Wight. Also attending was was Fred Bundy, another veteran who lives in Sidcup, Kent, and is 100 years old.

Engraved on the medallion is,

"To Private C V Holman, 1st. Essex MM 1917, from the people of Cambrai".

In a letter the Mayor of Cambrai, Francois-Xavier Villain, wrote:

Charles Holman receives the Medal of Honour of the town of Cambrai (newspaper photo)

"The reports of the celebration of your 103rd birthday have reached us and also the account of your feat of arms.  The 1st Essex Regiment of the 29th Division to which you were attached is particularly famous for its sacrifice and acts of bravery during the First World War in the Cambrai region. Those of you who have received the Medaille Militaire for services you performed at Cambrai are the bravest of the brave.  

The town of Cambrai has never forgotten those who fought on its soil for freedom.

As holder of the highest office in the town of Cambrai I am very honoured to award you the Medal of Honour of the town of Cambrai".

At the presentation I was honoured to read what I had written about Charles in my first article about him, to everyone there, including his relatives and friends. I have been overwhelmed by the interest which has been shown following that first article, with people contacting me from as far away as the USA, Canada and Australia, which was quite a shock.

A last comment from Charles is to thank everyone for reading this, as he wants to pass on his experiences to the next generations.  What he and others went through for their country should not be forgotten.

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Gary Butler


Copyright © Gary Butler, 2000, 2001

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