2nd Devons: Charles Hulbert Yates, my great-uncle
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Can you help?
Martin is working on his next book:
THE 2ND ROYAL FUSILIERS WAR DIARY AND ITS LOST MEN 1915-1919
(coming next Spring 2014)
Do you have any information about the individuals from that Battalion or their families?
Do you have any personal memories of the Battalion or its men?
If so please contact Martin Body by email.
Discovering Uncle Charlie
How, as a child, I discovered the existence of ‘Uncle Charlie’
Amy Body’s recollections of her brother, Charlie
Shortly before she died in 1985, Amy Body broke her silence regarding her beloved brother, Charlie, and wrote a family memoir for my sister, Janice. The section concerning Charlie is reproduced here.
Tracing Uncle Charlie’s records
The tracing of Charlie’s scant records, during which his middle name, Hulbert, was discovered. All documents found referred to Charles H. Yates, and I assumed the ‘H’ was for ‘Henry’, which was also his father’s middle name. In fact Hulbert was his mother’s maiden name.
Discovering Uncle Charlie
My first home, where we went to live in March 1948 when I was three months old, was in the rural village of Harefield, Middlesex, in the green-belt on the extreme outskirts of north-west London. It was an early Victorian, yellow-brick, two-up two-down, farm worker’s cottage, which backed on to the village pond and green, known to the villagers as ‘the Common’.
The cottage was very basic; the front door opened directly into the living room, in which sat a small coal fire; the other downstairs room being a tiny kitchen with a primitive gas stove, sink and mangle. Upstairs at the front was a dingy master bedroom with a second tiny coal fire and at the back there was an even smaller bedroom.
There was no electricity in the place and no way of heating water except in pans on the gas stove, with water supplied from a single cold tap in the kitchen. There were gas lights downstairs, but no lighting upstairs other than candles or a paraffin lamp. There was no bathroom, bathing facilities consisting of a tin bath in front of the living room fire and a prayer that nobody knocked on the front door! The only lavatory lurked in a rickety old wooden shed at the bottom of the long back garden. There was no light there either, and it was home to a lot of big black spiders of the hairy garden variety. I was frightened of the lavvy and, at night, used a chamber pot instead, or ‘ping’ as we called it, that being the noise made when your toe connected with it in the dark. Entertainment, other than Dad playing the accordion, was provided by an ancient battery radio.
But whatever drawbacks the primitive cottage held for a small boy, were more than made up for by the close proximity of the Common where, from the age of five, I could play with my friends or amuse myself on the swings and roundabouts, in perfect safety. My other favourite pastimes were to catch sticklebacks and newts, or feed the ducks and moorhens on the pond, on one side of which stood a feature which gradually drew my interest – a war memorial in the form of a stone obelisk, upon three faces of which were carved lists of names, but, in the way that children do, I accepted the war memorial and it’s inscriptions unquestioningly, as something that just happened to be there.
To teach me my letters, Mum used to get me to read all sorts of things, including the names on the war memorial, and I gradually noticed that many of them; Ive, French, King, Lofty, Montague, Painter, Peverill, Swan, Thrift, Tucker, Turvey, Wiggins and so on, were the names of boys and girls at my school.
“They’re men from Harefield who joined the Army and died in the First World War,” Mum explained.
“Are they buried under it?” I asked in alarm, hurriedly stepping back.
“No, they’re buried where they died. Their names are carved here so people won’t forget that they died fighting for their country. Your friends have got the same names because they come from the same families. Some would have been their uncles or grandfathers.”
When I was six we moved to another part of Harefield but, as the years passed, I thought more often about the war memorial on the Common, with its lists of dead men, whose names were also my friend’s names.
My interest increased when Dad told me that my grandfather, George Body, had fought as a Lewis Gunner on the Western Front. Obviously I pestered ‘Gramps’ mercilessly after that, blissfully unaware that he, like many other ex-soldiers, had had enough of the war and didn’t want to talk about it. At the time I ignored muttered comments such as, “I thought there was going to be a revolution after the war, like had happened in Russia and Germany, and if someone had put a rifle in my hands, I’d have used it”, and, “I sent my medals back to the War Office, with a letter telling them what they could do with them”. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he wasn’t.
I couldn’t do much about the lack of interest from ‘Gramps’ for although to me and my sister he was a kindly and loveable old man, after I pressed him a little too hard an air of steely authority entered his voice as he said, “Martin, for heaven’s sake listen, I don’t want to talk about it!” I knew better than to push my luck any further but, if anything, his disinterest spurred me on and I read all I could about it.
By the time I was about thirteen Dad let it slip that his uncle, Charlie Yates, had fought on the Somme and, of course, my ears pricked up. Uncle Charlie, Dad told me, was my gran’s eldest brother and I wondered why I had never heard of him. Full of enthusiasm I rushed round to her house and asked her about him, upon which she burst into tears and rushed from the room. That got me into trouble with Gramps again, but how was I to know that Uncle Charlie, her much loved elder brother, had been killed on the first day of the Somme if nobody ever mentioned him! I felt slighted but was told in no uncertain terms that I must never speak of him again in gran’s presence because she got so upset. Unfortunately, even Gramps and my dad couldn’t tell me much about the mysterious Uncle Charlie, apart from the date he was killed and that it happened on the Somme, because gran was the only one who knew any details. He was a taboo subject, which I thought was wrong because, I thought ‘Uncle Charlie’ should be a family hero.
While on a Norfolk Broads holiday about fourteen years later, having traipsed unwillingly around the department stores in Norwich with my new wife and her mother, I found myself outside Gerald Gliddon’s bookshop. Strolling into the shop while they continued window shopping, I found and bought a gem of a book entitled, ’Soldiers Killed on the First Day of the Somme’, by Ernest W. Bell. Of course I desperately wanted to find Uncle Charlie among the lists of names in it and, leaving the family to do another lap or two of the Norwich city centre shops, I sat in the sun on a bench in Market Square and opened my new book.
First I scoured the names of dead men in the Middlesex Regiment, where I assumed I would find him for he was born and bred in Paddington, but without success. I moved on to the pages of Royal Fusiliers and again drew a blank. Surprised, I started to wonder if the story of him dying on 1st July 1916 was actually true, but I widened the search to other units listed in the book and, suddenly, there he was. Hands trembling slightly I re-read the entry: Yates, Charles, 11187, The Devonshire Regiment, 2nd battalion. What on earth was he doing in the Devonshire Regiment, I wondered? However, I avidly scanned the rest of the Regiments in the book in case there were any more Charles Yates’, but he was the only one. It looked like I had probably found him, but I wasn’t absolutely certain. It was an exciting find all right, but I needed more.
An old photograph album unearthed by my sister a short time later contained a couple of pictures of him, one at the age of about four, the other a studio picture in Army uniform, wearing the Devonshire Regiment’s badge on his soft cap, wire removed Western Front style, of course.
Uncle Charlie’s drumsticks from his time in the Church Lad’s Brigade band, which used to adorn the wall above gran’s mantelpiece, were given to me after she died and my sister, Janice, was given Charlie’s football shorts, which she later passed on to me.
Amy Body’s recollections of her brother, Charlie
Shortly before she died in 1985, Amy wrote a short family memoir for Janice, which gives us the only personal recollections of Charlie that are known to exist:
“Mum had a sister Emily, who married Alec Smith. He was related to a West End firm of plumbers and used to go all over the country on jobs. My brother Charlie went to work there when he was 16 and one day, after coming back from a job where he had been for about a fortnight, he wouldn’t open his mouth or laugh. We couldn’t understand it as he was always laughing till at last he couldn’t keep it up and when he did laugh his teeth were gleaming white (teeth weren’t bothered about much in those days). However, he got them like that by getting a match stick and cleaning each tooth separately with acid that is used by plumbers; very dodgy.
One day Charlie was doing up his shoe laces with his foot on a chair, when one of his mates slapped him on the back saying, “Wotcha Charlie!” Unfortunately Charlie had his wages between his teeth, it was a sovereign, and it went down his throat. It was two days before he got it back!!!
Charlie was one of a team of footballers called the Ranelagh Rovers, and every Friday evening they had their meeting in our sitting room. After the meeting, us girls and Mum were allowed in and we used to play the piano and Charlie played the ‘drum’, which was a tin tray with buttons strewn on it. He was the drummer in the Church Lads Brigade, but the drum had to stay in the hall where they drilled.
Charlie was working at the White City while it was being built, and he saw a man named Dorando come in first in a strenuous marathon race. Poor Dorando was absolutely exhausted and someone gave him a helping hand, through this Dorando lost the race, but Queen Alexandra gave him the money which he would have won, because she said he came in first.
War broke out in 1914 (August) and all the team joined up in the Devonshire Regiment, in Nov. 1914. Mum said, “Why didn’t you wait?” and Charlie said, ”We felt everyone was looking black at us.”
He went to France and came on leave in March 1916; he went back and was killed on July 1st 1916. I was very fond of my brother and I have a letter from him written from France on Nov. 9th 1915.”
Tragically, I have to assume that my parents, unaware of the letter’s importance, threw it away when they cleared Amy’s house. I dearly wish I had it, or knew what it had said.
11187 Pte. Charles Hulbert Yates, ‘Uncle Charlie’, was killed in action on the First Day of the Somme, 1st July 1916, during the attack made by the 2nd battalion, Devonshire Regiment, at Ovillers. What actually happened to him is, of course, unconfirmed, but when his next door neighbour, Arthur Holliday came home on leave he told her that he died just after 7.30am, right at the start of the attack, when he went ‘over the top’ carrying a bag or two of hand grenades. He suffered a direct hit from a shell, which detonated the grenades, killing him instantly. Whether the story is true or not is open to conjecture, for if the truth was that he was terribly wounded and died in agony, his pal Arthur was not so heartless as to tell his mother that. I sincerely hope the story is true and he didn’t know anything about it, but even so, it was a brutal enough tale to traumatise his mother and sisters.
Tracing Uncle Charlie’s records
Tracing Charlie’s Army career led me to visit the National Archives at Kew, where I looked for his Army Service Records but, frustratingly, they are among those destroyed during the London Blitz in 1941. That path proving to lead nowhere, I turned instead to the 2nd Devons War Diary, also held at Kew, which, although it didn’t mention Charlie by name, gave me an idea of the fortunes of the battalion and what both he and they endured. Eventually the study became an overwhelming subject in itself and this book is the result of that.
Finding any more out about Uncle Charlie as an individual was problematic, because everybody who might have known him is long dead, and I can find no record of his football team, the Ranelagh Rovers, either in Parish magazines, local newspapers, or anywhere else. An article and appeal for information in the Westminster Chronicle, the local newspaper which covers the Paddington area, also drew a blank.
One fact I unearthed from the 1911 Census was his middle name: Hulbert. Most documents seem to have recorded him as Charles H. Yates, and I had assumed the H stood for Henry, which was also his father’s middle name, but this was not so. Hulbert was his mother’s maiden name.
Armed with this information I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and asked if they would amend their records to include his middle name. Before they would do this I had to prove that my Charles Hulbert Yates was the same person as Charles H. Yates the soldier. This could not be confirmed using his Army Service Records, because they no longer existed so, more in hope than anticipation, I contacted the National Army Museum in case they held duplicates. They don’t, of course, but they offered to make a search to see if there was a Soldiers Effects Register Entry which, hopefully, would have been sent to his family. This turned out to be the key, as such a document had indeed been sent to his mother, proving that Charles H. Yates the soldier and Charles Hulbert Yates, my gran’s brother, were one and the same. I presented a copy of the Soldiers Effects Register Entry to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, who agreed to amend their records. This is only a small achievement, and some might say an inconsequential one at that, but to me it means that his full name, Charles Hulbert Yates, is now recorded for all time. In future, nobody perusing the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s records will have to wonder what the H stands for and wrongly assume, as I did, that it was Henry, after his father.
As a matter of interest, the Soldiers Effects Register Entry also shows that Uncle Charlie was owed 13/3d in back pay (about 67p), which wasn’t authorised to be paid to his mother until 5th June 1917. On 11th August 1919, a War Gratuity of £8 was also authorised. I wonder what my great-grandmother’s reaction was when she learned that, over three years after his death, the price put on her son’s life by the grateful government of her country was just £8.