Family Lessons 105: Uncle Charlie's Last Day

‘Uncle Charlie’, as even I knew him, was otherwise known as Sergeant C. T. Airey, S/1583, 7th Bn., Seaforth Highlanders, and died aged 24 on 12 October, 1917. One of my great-grandfather’s elder brothers, he died during the terrible battle of Passchendaele in West Flanders.

The weather was appalling; the land which the Allied generals had sought to capture from the Germans had turned to a thick quagmire. Most of the ground captured on that first day was recaptured by the Germans the day following, yet it had cost 13,000 Allied casualties. On the 13th October, Field Marshall Haig stopped further attacks until the weather improved. That was too late for Sergeant Airey of the Seaforths who was ‘hit by a piece of shell and killed instantly’; his body was not recovered until January 1920, suggesting a deep, dark, muddy grave. The Passchendaele Archives report:

After the 8th Black Watch and the 10th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders had captured the first objective, the 7th Seaforths, on the left, and the 5th Cameron Highlanders, on the right, pushed on. When the 5th Cameron Highlanders moved up, they were immediately held up near Burns House. The Battalion got pinned down by machine-gun fire coming from a pill-box in a small copse at V.26.b.7.1. Several attempts to capture the pill-box failed. The concrete position subsequently held up the whole advance on the right and troops of the 27th Brigade had to come up to support the attack. The German position at V.26.b.7.1. was eventually silenced after the German defenders had ran out of ammunition. After the pill-box was captured, the 5th Cameron Highlanders advanced till contact was made with both flanks. The Battalion eventually consolidated a line of shell holes.

The attack had been an utter disaster. The advance had come to a halt roughly 100 yards from the start line. Most of the officers had become casualties, due to machine-gun fire, at the very beginning of the attack. Arrangements for removing the wounded were very bad. Stretcher bearers were scarce and many wounded kept lying in the field.

In an earlier life, Uncle Charlie had been employed at the Lune Works in Lancaster, and played for Lancaster Town, ‘being very capable in the half back and full back positions’ as well as being ‘well known to athletic circles’ (Lancaster Guardian, 27 Oct 1917). If he was killed instantly (or whether this was a stock phrase employed to reassure grieving families on the home front), he would have had little time to reflect. Yet as he squelched through that abysmal mud, cutting through the barbed wire and avoiding the craters, did he have time to think of eternity? I like to imagine that he did, but I am always perplexed by how little thought unregenerated people invest in the big questions. Perhaps childhood memories of the Wesleyan Sunday School at Sulyard Street, or St Mary’s parish church, for whose football team he also played, would have given him enough knowledge to call out to the God with whom he had an appointment, that fateful day in October, 1917.

'I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele' -Siegfried Sassoon

' an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you'  -Peter, 1:1:4
'...and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.' -Paul, 1 Thessalonians 1:10