The First World War took the lives of an estimated 16 million soldiers and civilians and the Second World War took a staggering 60 million lives, and left countless others physically and psychologically wounded. The vast human cost of both wars can be quite overwhelming and difficult to comprehend.
However, individual stories from the battlefield resonate and help us to understand the realities of war. It is always touching to discover diaries and letters written by soldiers on the front line, and particularly poignant to read those written by the fallen. These personal accounts illustrate the suffering caused by war, as well as keeping individual memories alive and ensuring that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Old Bedfordian Major Charles Pulley was fatally wounded just 11 months into the Great War. Thanks to the generosity of Major Pulley’s family, we are humbled to learn of his story through his wartime unit diary, which provides a first-hand account of his extraordinary story.
Do have a read of our portrayal of the diary below, which demonstrates Major Pulley’s valour and courage, and please do share his story with others so that the memory of this courageous soldier can live on.
You can also read the diary in full here.
With special thanks to Upper Sixth Former and local history writer, Harry McPhail, for sharing his insights and contributing to the portrayal of the diary.
Portrayal of the war diary of Old Bedfordian Major Charles Pulley
Born: 14th September 1881
Regiment: 68th Battery Royal Field Artillery
Bedford School years: 1897-1898
Wounded: Near Ypres, Belgium
Died: 26th July 1915, aged 33, at Lady Mountgarret’s Hospital, London
Buried: St. Mary’s Churchyard, Speldhurst, Kent
Born into a military family, Charles Pulley was the eldest son of Colonel Charles Pulley. He had two younger brothers both of whom also joined the army. Charles went directly from Bedford School to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and joined the army on 2nd May 1900.
Major Pulley’s first diary entry was written on 30th July 1914 when, during a short spell of army leave, he had been asked to “Rejoin at once”. After hurrying back to Woolwich, where he was stationed, he soon discovered that all officers and men on leave had received the same message. This day marked the start of Major Pulley’s incredible journey, which tragically led to the ultimate sacrifice…
In the summer of 1914, Major Charles Pulley, like many others in Britain at the time, was optimistic, even enthusiastic for war. Men across the country were preparing to be called up, not knowing exactly what lay ahead. Pulley’s diary takes us on a journey through a soldier’s day-to-day life during wartime, often while facing unimaginable danger.
From Woolwich, Major Pulley and his battery travelled to Boulogne, France, the first of many stops in a number of very beautiful French villages, which provided make-shift camps for soldiers known as billets. As an experienced officer, Major Pulley’s diary entries were factual and informative, and you might say that he deliberately refrained from including too much emotion – perhaps this was due to his rigorous army training. The diary, therefore, is a fairly matter-of-fact portrayal of a soldier’s time at war, and especially at the beginning of his time in France, it seems to be somewhat upbeat. A real sense of camaraderie shines through, especially when he writes about his fellow soldiers who he refers to by surname. One of the more light-hearted moments in this compelling diary is the story of when he received a haircut from one of his comrades. Referred to as Q.M.S., Pulley claims his friend “had made quite a good shot of it”! Whether it be holding a football game versus officers of the Cavalry, singing Tipperary or giving wine to the horses, Pulley, amidst the terror and danger of his surroundings, was able to describe a number of uplifting stories.
It was clear that Major Pulley was extremely professional and highly competent in his job of looking after the men in his battery. He requisitioned straw for the horses and food for the men, as well as securing luxury items such as rum and beer as special treats. He also saw to it that billets were found and would go to great lengths to ensure these were as clean and sanitary as possible – even with such limited means.
What is remarkable is that he never once complained or questioned his role. As far as he was concerned, he was there to do a job, and to do it in the most efficient way he could.
Much of his diary focuses on the routine that many of the soldiers experienced during WWI. Strict, regular and precise, Pulley nearly always writes ‘reveille’ followed by the early time of 3am. Through the process of billeting*, Pulley was taken into homes in small French and Belgian villages. He made connections with these families, including one where he was looked after by a landlady by the name of Madame Foret in Belgium. Pulley speaks highly of Madame Foret throughout the diary. In his entry on 1st April 1915 he suggests that he is “getting very fat and so is everyone else,” going on to say, “Madame Foret is very good to us.”
Major Charles Pulley’s writing offers a degree of clarity in a time when the atmosphere must often have been chaotic and terrifying. Frequently describing the shelling of buildings, the passing away of men he knew or the harsh conditions he was experiencing, Major Pulley’s diary entries hold nothing back. Indeed, there were not many days when Pulley did not describe a German aeroplane flying over the villages, his battalion marching to a new location or preparing to go to the front line. Right from the start, Pulley spoke about a chronic lack of communication and it seemed that critical decisions were made based on rumours only – shocking and in stark comparison to the overload of communication we are bombarded with today.
His entry on Christmas Day 1914 is particularly poignant. Christmas cards were given out and, “All the men were cheery. They ate an excellent lunch”, and in fact, “ate too much!” Perhaps the most heart-warming entry of the dairy, he describes how the Germans and the British soldiers put down their weapons, met half-way, and talked.
As the diary progresses, he begins to share small insights into his feelings, and over time the tone of his writing changes. Perhaps his diary became an outlet for him as the revulsion of war took hold? On New Year’s Eve, Pulley says,
However, the following months saw the severity of battle step up; evidenced by Pulley telling more and more stories of being near the front-line in the trenches, closer to the danger.
As Pulley and his men pushed closer to Germany, enemy attacks became more frequent and Pulley describes Ypres in Belgium as particularly ghastly. Upon arrival at Ypres – a central point in the war zone, he wrote,
This is particularly haunting given what we know about this building today and how the battles unfolded around it.
It is distressing that he develops an uncomfortable normality towards many of the horrific acts going on around him and his fellow soldiers. The diary is testament to Pulley’s character and bravery; to write in such an informative way in the grip of the war is extraordinary.
Just one month later Pulley passed away as a result of injuries, including what is believed to be shrapnel wounds to the head. Evacuated to London, he was able to propose marriage to the woman he loved, and their engagement was announced just a couple of days before he died on 26th July 1915.
His body was taken by train to Speldhurst, near Tunbridge Wells, where he was buried with full military honours following procession by a horse-led gun carriage, his riding boots with the spurs pointing forward and a volley of shots over his grave.
Major Charles Pulley’s name is displayed in commemoration on the First World War memorial boards in the Memorial Hall here at Bedford School and in St Andrew’s Church, Bedford.
The War Diary of Major Charles Pulley can be found on the school’s website, should you wish to read it in full.
*Billeting is a process which also occurred in Bedford when the Highland Division came down from Scotland in August 1914 prior to WWI. In similar fashion to Pulley, the soldiers were allocated to homes throughout the town where they forged special relationships.