Charles Bertram Wood
Charles came from a middle class family from Harrogate. The whole family was talented in the area of music and the arts; his older brother Arthur Wood was the composer of the theme music for The Archers. Charles was also a very keen motorcyclist, and had an interest in the cinema.
1913 was the era of the silent movie, and when Charles heard that the lease of a cinema in Bathgate in Scotland was coming up, he decided to take it on despite the fact that the cinema had been losing money. Charles hoped to turn the cinema’s fortunes around. On the first night queues formed outside, but to his surprise everyone seemed to expect to get in for free, being related to the cinema staff, having shares in the company etc. Charles insisted on making everyone pay for their ticket!
One of his ploys to get the cinema making money again was to invite his brother to support the venture. Arthur mixed in fashionable circles in the London theatre and music scene, and was able to persuade many of the top Broadway stars to come for a holiday in picturesque Scotland, including an appearance in the interval at Charles’ cinema. The crowds flooded in, and the cinema began to be a real success, so much so that Charles planned a chain of cinemas in Scotland.
His plans were dashed by the start of the war. Although conscription was not in place for some time, Charles’s mother called him back to Harrogate and insisted that he enlist to represent the family as the only unmarried son. Charles was forced to hand over the lease of the cinema, and took a commission in the Black Watch. He only stayed with the regiment for four days however, because he discovered that if he became a dispatch rider he would be able to earn 7 shillings a day, whereas a junior officer only earned 4 shillings (a private earned 1 shilling a day). He resigned his commission and signed up with the Royal Service Corps, attached to the 51st Highland Division.
Charles was trained, then sent to France driving a 3 ton lorry. He soon started as a dispatch rider (at that time the war was still fluid and trench warfare was still to come), and was tasked with taking orders from the Generals from a to b.
On one occasion, driving his 3 and ¾ horsepower belt driven motorbike, he was spotted by a Ulan (a German Cavalry Officer with a very long lance) who wheeled his horse around and tried to catch Charles with his lance. Charles tried to slip the clutch in, but just skidded in the mud, and only just escaped being speared by the lance when he managed to get the bike onto harder ground.
Trench warfare eventually settled in, and the government and officers began to get very worried about the high losses. Haig’s staff officers queried the loss of a quarter of a million men over the previous 2 weeks. His reply, overheard by Charles, was ‘Yes, but we are wearing out the German machine guns’.
The famous fraternisation during Christmas 1914, to the horrified response of the officers, was more common than often reported. The Bavarian division in the opposite trench to the 51st Highlanders invited the Jocks over for an evening drink of beer. This became a nightly occurrence, with the Jocks ensuring they were back in their own trench before the 5am barrage started. This escalated until the whole section of the front were spending their evenings together. The junior officers knew about this, but were afraid to report to their seniors, because the privates were rough Glaswegian men. In fact, the German officers found out first, and secretly removed the Bavarians and replaced them with a Prussian division, and that night when the Highlanders went over as usual, all hell broke loose. This incident illustrates just how remote the High Command were from the reality of life at the front.
Charles claimed to have put on the first show for the troops in France, although there is no concrete evidence for this claim.
During the 2nd battle of Ypres the Germans first used gas. Just after the main assault was over, Charles had to ride through the battlefield, strewn with 100,000 bodies.
Before the battle the First Canadians (former Mounties) and the Second Canadians (mainly rookies) were being marched to the front. Marching was for 50 minutes at a stretch, followed by a 10 minute smoking break. The Canadians were 8 miles from the front line within hearing of the guns. Charles stopped to fix his bike just as the Canadians stopped for their ‘fag break’. They were full of bombast and arrogance, saying ‘When is this so-called war starting’ and suchlike. Charles said ‘the war is just up there – you’ll soon find it’. Shortly afterwards the Canadians were put into the front line to replace a shattered battalion, just 2 hours before the Germans started the second battle and launched the gas attack.
After the battle Charles had to ride through the battlefield, where there were still many pockets of gas. He was stopped by a medical officer who held the rank of Captain. He insisted on Charles stopping and obeying his instructions. He told him to wait until one of a group of mules by the road urinated, then soak his balaclava in the urine, and wrap it closely over his face leaving just tiny slits for his eyes. As he rode through the devastated battle field, he saw columns of blinded men coughing and spluttering, holding on to the shoulder of the one in front, led by the only man who could still see. Some of the men were the Second Canadians who had been so confident earlier that morning.
During the last year of the war the Italian front collapsed and the 51st Highland Division marched right down to Italy to stop Cordoba’s retreat over the passes in the Alps. The Austrians had put trip wires across the narrow mountain passages to decapitate dispatch riders, so the bikes had a 1 inch wide steel plate welded to the front with a sharpened front edge to cut the wire. At one point Charles’ bike ran over a land mine and was blown off the edge of the pass, but luckily Charles was caught in a tree and survived.
A few months before the end of the war Charles was invalided out with dysentery. His brother also had a lucky escape when he was invalided out due to a mate’s bayonet accidentally stabbing him in the rear as they went over the top.
At the end of the war Charles was travelling back home by train, sitting in a carriage with two ladies and a man in civilian clothing who lit a cigarette. The two ladies pointed out that there was no smoking on the train and asked the man to put out his cigarette, but then turned to Charles and said ‘but you may smoke Sir’.