“I did kiss the boy first for his Mother & then for myself”
Charles enlisted on 2nd or 3rd September 1914. Towards the end of serving his second month in the Somme trenches in the Maricourt Defences, Charles seems to have suffered the effect of gas shells. See The Cost of Trench Life This is likely to have been on 29th February, when the Battalion were in billets in Suzanne and sustained losses from German artillery – although the records don’t show gas shells.
Charles was evacuated to Hospital in Etretat where he was treated for pneumonia, bronchitis and possible gas poisoning. The story is taken up by Staff Nurse Edith Appleton, whose remarkable diary shows the atmosphere of care, support and love for the men under the care of the medical services. See Private Charles KERR Extracts (Courtesy Dick Robinson) show Charlie didn’t die alone.
“My pneumonia boy benefited from the quiet & perhaps… the creature has a chance, & feel he must get better – for his Mother, poor thing, she wrote to me – & said she was heartbroken – however, it was no good for me to pretend he was not dangerously ill. He was – & is.“
A few days later
“My poor little boy Kerr died yesterday, he had been in 15 days suffering from gas – pneumonia, bronchitis & has been extremely & dangerously ill all the time, but only the day before yesterday he realized that he was not going to get well. I am glad to say we never left him night or day & he was fond of us all.
Yesterday was a difficult day to be “Sister” – He kept whispering all sorts of messages for home & his fiancée – then he would call “Sister” & when I bent down to hear – “I do love you” “when I’m gone, will you kiss me?” – & all the time heads would be popping in “Sister – 20 No – so & so – to – – – -.” “The S. Sgt wants to know if you can lend him a couple of men to…” This & that – but in spite of all – I did kiss the boy first for his Mother & then for myself – which pleased him – then he whispered “but you still will when I’m gone.” The night before he asked me what dying would be like – & said it seemed so unsatisfactory – he felt too young to die – & not even wounded – only of bronchitis. Then another time he said, “They wouldn’t let me go sick every time they said it was rheumatism & would wear off – & marching with full pack & dodging the shells was dreadful. Thank Goodness – what I told him dying would be like happened – exactly – a clear gift of Providence. I told him it would be – that little by little his breatheing would get easier – & he would feel tired & like going to sleep – & then he would just sleep – & with no morphia – that is exactly what did happen – without a struggle. He was quite conscious up to 20 minutes before he died. I just asked him now & then if he knew I was still with him. “Yes” – & you’re quite happy – aren’t you? & he distinctly said “Yes, quite”.
Then the last & very trying part for the Sister was to walk along to the other end of the village – beside the poor dead thing – to see him decently put – in the mortuary. With hundreds of French eyes turned “full on”. Our own people always clear out of the way when they see it coming.”