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


  1. You print this every year and every year I read it. It never fails to bring me to tears. Thank you.

  2. Today is one of the days (Pearl Harbor Day & his birthday are the others) I fire up some incense for my great-uncle Satoru. After his older brother (my grandfather) was rounded up & “relocated” under the provisions of Executive Order 9066, Uncle Sat ducked the feds & joined the 442nd RCT. He was 17. I’ve seen pics of him at that age. He looked like he was 14 or 15, I know he didn’t fool anybody.

    He returned from France minus his left leg. I was tight with him as a kid, and he never talked about the war. After he died, we mobilized a caravan of pickups to move Aunty Shizu into a condo. I grabbed a cardboard box from the master bedroom and it broke open. Out spilled Uncle Sat’s war memorabilia, including his Purple Heart & Silver Star. Aunty Shizu walked in on me & said “You’ve found the lucky charms!” She explained Uncle Sat thought displaying them would have been “vulgar.” He saw them as tokens of his stupendous luck, and reminders of his brothers who never came home. Aunty Shizu called them lucky charms; a private endearment between the two of them. Except for Aunty Shizu & their daughter, I am the first member of the family to have ever seen them after the war.

    お大事に to those who’ve volunteered to be the pointy end of the spear. You’re better than me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

  3. Mr. DuToit:

    I hope you don’t mind me posting something this long, but I just wanted to put this out there somewhere in remembrance of my grandfather.

    My grandfather (“Gramps” to me) first served in the US Army under “Black Jack” Pershing in the Mexico expedition to find Pancho Villa. He was a private at that time, and served in the infantry. When the World War broke out (they hadn’t started to number them yet) he went with the Army to France. He was promoted to corporal, and made a dispatch (“despatch”) rider. He delivered urgent messages back and forth from the front on his Indian motorcycle.

    When you could get him talking about it his memories of the War were quite vivid. He and his buddies used to refer to the enemy as “the Huns”, and he used to get a ration of good-natured teasing because of his last name (“Deusterhoft”) even though he didn’t speak any German. He’d tell some stories about riding his motorcycle during shelling and bombardments, and had several near-misses. He got to personally meet Pershing in the delivery of one of the dispatches and was thanked by him for riding through a gas attack to deliver the message.

    Gramps was wounded near the end of the war when he was chased by a German in a biplane while riding his motorcycle. He figured that the German had either run out of ammuntion or his guns had jammed because the pilot never tried to strafe him, but kept throwing hand grenades down at him. He used to say, “I’d speed up, and a grenade would go off behind me. Then he come around again, and I’d slow down and one would go off in front of me. Finally I zigged when I shoulda zagged, and he got me.” The blast from the grenade blew him off the bike, and shrapnel peppered his left leg. He was left laying in a ditch bleeding when he recovered consciousness, and crawled along the road until somebody came along with a mule and got him to an aid station in the rear.

    They got most of the shrapnel out of his leg but couldn’t get to the stuff in his knee, and left it there. What’s interesting is that it wasn’t the wound or infection that nearly killed him, but the flu that he caught on the transport ship back to the States. That darned near got him with a fever that lasted for days and “…left me weak as a kitten”.

    I’ll skip over the miscellaneous stuff he did post-war, and the trained bear he kept when he owned and was running a gas station. He married and had three daughters that they raised to be my mom and aunts. When I was growing up, he was the one who taught me to shoot, first with a pellet rifle, then a .22 single-shot rifle, and then (when I could securely hold it) his brought-back .45. He taught me how to fish, both bobber fishing and with lures for largemouth bass, and taught me how to clean panfish without wasting any of the meat. The list of stuff I learned from Gramps is almost endless.

    As he got older his wound started to bother him a little more, but he NEVER complained about anything. We’d be sitting around a fire for an evening, and he would pick something out from under the skin of his knee, and say something like, “Another piece of the Kaiser’s steel” and flick the piece of shrapnel into the fire. His last car was a new Chevy with a three-in-the-tree manual transmission (he never trusted those infernal automatics) with the clutch from hell. As a youngster moving cars around in the yard it took every ounce of my 12-year-old left leg to push that clutch in to get it out of gear. How Gramps did it with a wounded and weak left leg I’ll never know, but he drove that car until he couldn’t drive any more.

    He lived a long, full life after being widowed and retired, going fishing and hanging out with the families of his daughters. He was at my folk’s house for Christmas eve, enjoying the food (and a small tipple) and using his cane to poke at the wrapping paper to fold it flat to be re-used. He was going over to my aunt’s house for the night, and I had the honor of driving him there through a snowstorm with my mom, talking about random things, and how we’d come get him to drive him back home in another day. We dropped him and his small travel case at my aunt and uncle’s house, him giving my mom a hug and a kiss, and me a handshake and telling me to drive safely home ’cause I had a valuable cargo (my mom) in the car with me.

    He died in his sleep that night, peacefully and quietly, having had a joyful evening with one of the families that he and my Nannie had made, surrounded by yet another happy family of his kin, in a country he had helped defend.

    I don’t hunt, fish, or shoot without thinking of what Gramps would be saying. He is well remembered.

    1. I just wish your Gramps could have met my Oupa Charles… while fishing.

  4. I DITTO “Steve in CA” – this story never gets old, and always brings a tear – as did BlackWing’s .
    May they never be forgotten!

  5. Gut check time. That is a good story. There are pockets of the USA were things like that are still strong.

  6. Never a good idea to slice onions while reading on the internet. Your story and those of the other commenters always bring a tear to my eye. You honor your grandfather well.

Comments are closed.