Memorial Day

Charles Loxton was a small man, no taller than 5’6”, and was born in 1899.  This means that when he fought in the muddy trenches of France during the First World War, he was no older than 17 years old — Delville Wood, where he was wounded, took place in July 1916.

Seventeen years old.  That means he would have been a little over sixteen when he enlisted. In other words, Charles must have lied about his age to join the army — many did, in those days, and recruiting officers winked at the lies.  After all, the meat grinder of the Western Front needed constant replenishment, and whether you died at 17, 18 or 19 made little difference.

Why did he do it?  At the time, propaganda told of how the evil Kaiser Wilhelm was trying to conquer the world, and how evil Huns had raped Belgian nurses after executing whole villages.  Where Charles lived as a young boy, however, the Kaiser was no danger to him, and no German Uhlans were going to set fire to his house, ever.

But Charles lied about his age and joined up because he felt that he was doing the right thing.  That if good men did nothing, evil would most certainly win.

It’s not as though he didn’t know what was coming:  every day, the newspapers would print whole pages of casualty lists, the black borders telling the world that France meant almost certain death.  The verification could be found in all the houses’ windows which had black-crepe-lined photos of young men, killed on the Somme, in Flanders, in Ypres, and at Mons.

He would have seen with his own eyes the men who returned from France, with their missing limbs, shattered faces and shaky voices.  He would have heard stories from other boys about their relatives coming back from France to other towns — either in spirit having died, or else with wounds so terrible that the imagination quailed at their description.

He would have seen the mothers of his friends weeping at the loss of a beloved husband.  Perhaps it had been this man and not his father who had taught him how to fish, or how to shoot, or how to cut (from the branches of a peach tree) a “mik” (the “Y”) for his catapult.

But Charles, a 16-year-old boy, walked out of his home one day and went down to the recruiting center of the small mining town, and joined the Army.

When years later I asked him why he’d done it, he would just shrug, get a faraway look in his blue eyes, and change the subject.  Words like duty, honor, country, I suspect, just embarrassed him. But that didn’t mean he was unaware of them.

So Charles joined the Army, was trained to fight, and went off to France.  He was there for only four months before he was wounded.  During the attack on the German trenches at Delville Wood, he was shot in the shoulder, and as he lay there in the mud, a German soldier speared him in the knee with his bayonet, before himself being shot and killed by another man in Charles’ squad.  At least, I think that’s what happened — I only managed to get the story in bits and pieces over several years.  But the scars on his body were eloquent witnesses to the horror: the ugly cicatrix on his leg, two actually (where the bayonet went in above the knee and out below it), and the star-shaped indentation in his shoulder.

The wounds were serious enough to require over a year’s worth of extensive rehabilitation, and they never really healed properly.  But Charles was eventually passed as fit enough to fight, and back to the trenches he went.  By now it was early 1918 — the Americans were in the war, and tiny, limping Private Charles Loxton was given the job as an officer’s batman: the man who polished the captain’s boots, cleaned his uniform, and heated up the water for his morning shave every day.  It was a menial, and in today’s terms, demeaning job, and Charles fought against it with all his might.  Eventually, the officer relented and released him for further line service, and back to the line he went.

Two months later came the Armistice, and Charles left France for home, by now a grizzled veteran of 19.  Because he had been cleared for trench duty, he was no longer considered to be disabled, and so he did not qualify for a disabled veteran’s pension.

When he got back home, there were no jobs except for one, so he took it.  Charles became, unbelievably, a miner.  His crippled knee still troubled him, but he went to work every day, because he had to earn money to support his mother, by now widowed, and his younger brother John.  The work was dangerous, and every month there’d be some disaster, some catastrophe which would claim the lives of miners.  But Charles and his friends shrugged off the danger, because after the slaughter of the trenches, where life expectancy was measured in days or even hours, a whole month between deaths was a relief.

But he had done his duty, for God, King and country, and he never regretted it.  Not once did he ever say things like “If I’d known what I was getting into, I’d never have done it.”  As far as he was concerned, he’d had no choice — and that instinct to do good, to do the right thing, governed his entire life.

At age 32, Charles married a local beauty half his age.  Elizabeth, or “Betty” as everyone called her, was his pride and joy, and he worshipped her his whole life.  They had five children.

Every morning before going to work, Charles would get up before dawn and make a cup of coffee for Betty and each of the children, putting the coffee on the tables next to their beds.  Then he’d kiss them, and leave for the rock face.  Betty would die from multiple sclerosis, at age 43.

As a young boy, I first remembered Charles as an elderly man, although he was then in his late fifties, by today’s standards only middle-aged.  His war wounds had made him old, and he had difficulty climbing stairs his whole life.  But he was always immaculately dressed, always wore a tie and a hat, and his shoes were polished with such a gloss that you could tell the time in them if you held your watch close.

Charles taught me how to fish, how to cut a good “mik” for my catapult, and watched approvingly as I showed him what a good shot I was with my pellet gun.  No matter how busy he was, he would drop whatever he was doing to help me — he was, without question, the kindest man I’ve ever known.

In 1964, Charles Loxton, my grandfather, died of phthisis, the “miner’s disease” caused by years of accumulated dust in the lungs.  Even on his deathbed in the hospital, I never heard him complain — in fact, I never once heard him complain about anything, ever.  From his hospital bed, all he wanted to hear about was what I had done that day, or how I was doing at school.

When he died, late one night, there was no fuss, no emergency, no noise; he just took one breath, and then no more.  He died as he had lived, quietly and without complaint.

From him, I developed the saying, “The mark of a decent man is not how much he thinks about himself, but how much time he spends thinking about others.”

Charles Loxton thought only about other people his entire life.

In Memoriam

11 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing, Kim. In memory of two men I never met, but wish I had:

    Bugler Howard I. Carroll, my grandfather
    117th Trench Mortar Battery, 42nd (Rainbow) Division, WW1, 1917 – 1919

    The 117th fired more rounds than any other AEF trench mortar battery, supporting every infantry regiment in the Rainbow and for other divisions, earning 9 battle streamers for their flag.
    The French High Command credited the battery, at a strength of about 150 men working in gas masks in No-Man’s Land on 15-17 Jul 1918, with killing 2,400 German infantry and knocking out 25% of their tanks in their part of the 4th French Army’s breaking of the Fifth German Offensive.
    They fired at:
    (1) Luneville sector, Lorraine, February 21 to March 23, 1918;
    (2) Baccarat sector, Lorraine, March 31 to June 21, 1918;
    (3) Esperance-Souain sector, Champagne, July 4 to July 15, 1918;
    (4) Champagne-Marne defensive, July 15 to 17, 1918;
    (5) Aisne-Marne offensive July 25 to August 11, 1918;
    (6) St. Mihiel offensive, September 12 to 16, 1918;
    (7) Essey and Pannes sector, Woevre, September 17 to 30, 1918;
    (8) Meuse-Argonne offensive, October 12 to November 1, 1918;
    (9) Meuse-Argonne offensive, November 5 to 10, 1918;
    They stood before Sedan with the most advanced units of the AEF, and participated in the Rhine Occupation
    Awards: Victory Medal with 5 bars, Occupation Medal, Croix de Guerre
    Granddaddy Irvine died after the war from effects of being gassed, at age 36.

    Capt. Donald L. Gambrill, my father’s best friend, best man and my Godfather,
    485th Bomb Group (Heavy), WW2
    55 missions as B-24 lead pilot over Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia & Italy
    Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross (2), Air Medal (3), Purple Heart
    KIA 10-Apr-45, at age 20.

    They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

    1. Look at that.
      Age 20, bomber pilot WWII.
      Sort of unbelievable when you contrast it against the average whiny male crybaby today isn’t it?
      I hate what much of this country has become.

  2. Perhaps a small point of order:

    “Charles must have lied about his age to join the army — many did, in those days, and recruiting officers winked at the lies. “
    —————————————————————————

    No, not all of them did. My grandfather got caught and busted twice before “successfully” getting sent to the front. There was no punishment, the boys just got sternly admonished and sent home.

    On the third attempt he made it to the front and stayed for two months. One day they went over the top and got shot up pretty badly. He was sent back home after getting out of the hospital, and the train he came home on also carried the bodies two other men from the village… one of them another kid.

    It left scars on Gramps. He got really pissy and sullen on Remembrance Day and nearly lost his mind when it went from a grim reminder to Never Forget… to being a stat holiday to party and go shopping.

  3. Your grandfather’s story that you have shared in the past is an excellent tribute and a way to remember men who answered the call, both to war and then living a decent life. Thank You for sharing on this special day.

  4. Kim, I remember your piece from years before, and it’s still a lovely, fitting tribute to a good man.
    I’m happy for you that you knew such a man.

  5. Thank You, Kim, for this once again. It never fails to bring a tear, or a grateful appreciation for what others have sacrificed in our name, no matter the place or time.

  6. My Grand Dad was born Jan 1 1899. Story goes he and some buddies got drunk and decided to enlist. next day went they went down to do it my grand dad was the only one that could pass the physical.

    He got stuck on a ship headed to Russia via Hong Kong. He helped build the Siberian rail way. On the way back he was in the Philippines with a machine gun squad. Never did talk about his time in the army.

    Lived to be 95 or so and then passed on.

  7. Kim,
    Thanks for posting this again. Reading it was like getting a visit from an old friend.

    I had great Uncles who served in WW1 – under the Kaiser’s flag, brothers of my paternal grandmother. That part of the family emigrated to the US during the inter-war years to escape the coming horror of The Shoah … so far as I know, they all managed to get out, alive. The last great Aunt arrived on US soil in 1940.

    – Brad

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