Author Topic: Charles Henry (Lee) a Deserters Story  (Read 3980 times)


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Charles Henry (Lee) a Deserters Story
« on: November 20, 2007, 05:05:17 PM »
Charles Henry was my grandfather.
He joined the army about November 1911, Kings Manchester Regiment. When World War I started he deserted in October 1914 because his regiment was not going to France. When he deserted he made his own way to France, at this time a lot of army deserters where making their own way to France to fight as their regiments were being held back, it was estimated their were more deserters making their own way to France than soldiers being deployed over there. Un-Officially there were boats put on for these deserters to get to France, these were generally under the cover of night.
At this time the 'official' soldiers on the front line were being lost at an incredible rate, and the deserters basically took these casualties identities. There were officers on the front, Charles stated they were nicknames 'Harry's' who would inform the deserters when the families of the fallen had been informed, it was only then that there identity’s were assumed. This wasn't generally known by the Army hierarchy, but was basically kept at the lower levels Captains etc. Charles assumed the identity of  Andrew Matthew Wilson, a fallen soldier. The deserters took on these identity’s purely because if caught using their own names they would be sent back to face court martial, many of these deserter who were caught were shot for desertion. Back home Charles future wife Ada used to get daily visits from the police, until one day an astute officer, just asked her 'Is he in France' when she told them Charles was, she received no more visits. But Charles desertion did cause her a lot of grief back home, as obviously with neighbours etc (not knowing Charles had actually deserted to get to France and fight), they just tarred him as being a cowardly deserter and Ada took the brunt of the anger at home. Charles says he deserted after hearing the news of the enormous causalities, and felt he couldn't sit back in England and do nothing.
After about 6 months, the Manchester Regiment finally went to France, Charles and the other deserters from the regiment finally went back to the regiment. At this time there were more deserters on the front-line than were posted over. The deserters were welcomed back with open arms, and many were used to teach the raw recruits how to stay alive, Charles was one of these. However when the regiment, made it to France; the deserters had to rejoin using assumed names (obviously had they used their real names, they would have been arrested and court martial  for desertion) But it was widely known at the lower officer ranks who these men were, they were just relieved to have combat hardened soldiers join them. Charles assumed the name Charles Henry Lee, which he stuck with right through the WWI and almost to WWII.
Charles recalled many soldier who had deserted to get into the thick of the fighting, never got the medals they deserved, because they had to keep a low profile for fear of being found out as a deserter. At the time these men were classed as outcasts of society, even though most had deserted for the same reasons as Charles, not being able to sit back at home whilst other soldiers were losing their lives.

Charles was in the 5th Battalion, Manchester Regiment. He was at the battle of the Somme, his unit was thrown into the fight on the second day. His unit also was sent to Gallipoli. Charles was wounded on the Somme, bullet in the leg, the bullet was removed in the field hospital, and he was eventually sent back to UK to recover, he was sent to Blackpool for about 4 months, during his time there he un-officially councilled lost soldiers families. During WWI Charles sustained 6 injuries; most were patched up behind the front line and sent back into the line. This was basically for necessity, due to the amount of fatalities; men were needed back on the line as soon as possible.
Charles remembers a few times, when he though he was facing sudden death, but due to the shear number of bodies in the field was able to hid amongst these bodies and evade being found. But Charles also remembers over running German positions, and seeing Germans, like he had hiding amongst the bodies, but couldn't bring himself to kill them, he just walked on by. He recalled many years later, that felt ashamed that on a couple of occasions he'd come face to face with the enemy and just couldn't pull the trigger.
Charles recalls that his regiment had four germans and a frenchman join, assuming the names of soldiers lost like he had. The germans had basically switched sides.

An incredible story, one my grandfather became ashamed of, because of his initial desertion. But those were strange and hoffific times, and I am so proud of him for fighting for what he believed. He again did his bit in WWII, though this time serving his time at home in UK, in a home guard unit, due to his injuries fron WWI. After WWII he carried on and did nearly 5 years with the Lancashire Fusiliers (T.A.) at Bury Drill Hall, attaining rank of Sergeant Major. All in all serving nearly 40 years for his country.

Has anyone else heard these stories of the deserters who made their own way to France? From what my grandfather says there were thousands of these deserters from all across the country, who couldn't just sit back whilst fellow soldiers were dying.

John A

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Re: Charles Henry (Lee) a Deserters Story
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2007, 05:33:10 PM »
I,ve typed a family name into the CWGC website and amongst the list of names is one with the fact that his name is an alias .As he was not a teenager I wondered .This could explain why


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Re: Charles Henry (Lee) a Deserters Story
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2007, 11:52:22 PM »
John A, 'I,ve typed a family name into the CWGC website and amongst the list of names is one with the fact that his name is an alias .As he was not a teenager I wondered .This could explain why'. Sorry I don't understand what you are saying.

Offline harribobs

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Re: Charles Henry (Lee) a Deserters Story
« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2007, 09:51:20 AM »

what John is saying that someone either used his family name as an alias in the great war or a family member used another name as an alias!  ;)

very entertaining story by the way

charles's medal card can be found here,

he finished a sergeant
“It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply
  to serve as a warning to others."

The Colonel

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Re: Charles Henry (Lee) a Deserters Story
« Reply #4 on: November 22, 2007, 04:37:29 PM »
I personally knew a deserter who made his way back from France to England, not once, but twice!  He escaped being shot by both the Germans and the British, and survived the war, lived a full life, and died aged 83. He was very much loved, and was a very respected man  ;D

The Colonel