A Dagenham soldier: one man’s story on the front line

At just 18 years old, Private Charles Henry Thomas saw action on the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele during World War I.

Born in Chelsea in 1898 as the second youngest of eight children, Charles enlisted in the army on the 10th April 1915 and it is possible that he lied about his age as all of his official army documents have him two years older than he actually was.  He joined the 1st Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and after just two weeks training, he was sent to the front lines on the Western Front, the main theatre of war during WWI.

The Western Front was a 400-plus mile stretch of land weaving through France and Belgium from the Swiss border to the North Sea.  It was characterised by the long, meandering lines of fortified trenches that stretched its length.

Between 1915 and 1917 there were several offensives along this Front. The attacks employed massive artillery bombardments and massed infantry advances. Entrenchments, machine gun emplacements, barbed wire and artillery repeatedly inflicted severe casualties.  Amongst the most costly of these were the Battle of Verdun (1916) with 700,000 casualties, the Battle of the Somme (1916) with more than a million casualties, and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917) with 487,000 casualties.

The first major offensive that Charles took part in was the Battle of the Somme.  Taking place over four months, between July and November, this battle turned into one of the most bitter and costly battles of WWI. On the first day of battle alone 19,000 British soldiers were killed – the single most disastrous day in British military history.  By October, bad weather had turned ‘no man’s land’ between enemy trenches into a muddy bog, making it impossible for British soldiers to cross the terrain under fierce fire from German artillery and fighter planes.

It was here, on the 16th October 1916 that Charles took a bullet wound to his right knee.  He was admitted to the 14th Field Ambulance Hospital and transferred the following day to the West Riding Casualty Clearing Station.  From there he was admitted to the no.3 Canadian General Hospital, Boulogne.  This hospital was part of an evacuation chain, situated further back from the front line than the Casualty Clearing Stations. Base hospitals were ideally situated close to ports and with a railway line so that injured men could be evacuated for longer-term treatment in Britain. Between 1915 and 1918, the no.3 Canadian General Hospital admitted 143,762 sick and wounded patients and performed 11,395 operations with a death rate of 1 in 135.

As soon as Charles was recovered from his injury he was sent back to the front line, this time at Ypres.  On 31st July 1917, the British and French launched a massive offensive in the area around Ypres in the Belgian province of Flanders. The Third Battle of Ypres, known later as Passchendaele, was not as bloody as the Somme the year before, but would achieve its own notoriety.  Ypres was probably the most dangerous area for British soldiers on the whole Western Front. Surrounded by the Germans on three sides and overlooked by high ground, it was very vulnerable to German fire.

From the first day of the battle, it had rained heavily.  The continuous deluge quickly turned a landscape already destroyed by three years of fighting into a swampy quagmire. It affected the British and French, as they tried to advance across heavily contested ground, more than the German defenders. In particular, the rain made supplying the guns, and moving them forward, virtually impossible.  The mud eventually became so deep that men and horses drowned in it.

The eventual capture of Passchendaele village by British and Canadian forces on 6th November brought an end to the fighting and the retreat of the British. However, it had taken over three months, 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties to advance the allied lines a mere five miles to Passchendaele village. Today, Passchendaele remains a vivid symbol of the hardship of fighting on the Western Front.

It was during the last days of the battle for Passchendaele that Charles was wounded for the second time.  He was shot again, this time in the stomach and was left to die.  A passing comrade who saw him declared “He’s finished” and kicked him in to a shell crater.  Charles spent the night in the crater, seeing stretcher bearers passing by, until one noticed that he was still conscious and rescued him.  Seriously wounded, he was transferred to the 14th Stationary Hospital in Wimereux, where he remained in a critical condition until the new year of 1918.

Charles was invalided to England to recover and then joined the 18th Battalion Welsh Guard, which at that time was a reserve unit based in England.  He was finally discharged from the army on medical grounds on 9th September 1918, aged just 20.

Following the war Charles married Elsie Dora Dent of Lavenham, Suffolk in 1925 and they had four children.  Sometime between 1928 and 1932 they moved to the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, living first on the Heathway and later moving to 109 Hunters Hall Road. At this time the estate was still under construction and Charles became a plasterer for Dagenham Urban District Council, working on the new estate buildings.  He remained in service with the council until his retirement.

During World War Two Charles filled bomb craters at Hornchurch Aerodrome and undertook fire watch duties at Valence House.

The mental and physical wounds suffered by Charles as a result of his service during WWI stayed with him for the rest of his life.  He would bandage his leg daily to get relief from the pain caused by the bullet he took at the Somme and after many years of stomach trouble it was discovered that the field surgeons at Passchendaele had sewn part of his intestines to his stomach wall.  The only time he would recount his experiences of the war was to tell funny stories, such as how during quiet periods he and the other soldiers would sit in the trenches at night around a candle, picking the fleas off themselves and dropping them on to the flame.

Charles died aged 87 in 1985.

More than 300 men from Barking and Dagenham were killed during WWI.  With this story of one man’s experience we remember all those who fought and give thanks to those who gave their lives for freedom.