“Oh, What a Lovely War” – Arras Memorials – Page 76

Being a Grammar School lad myself I was drawn to the two part series, “Grammar Schools – A Secret History”, which was broadcast in July this year on BBC4. One of those talking about his experiences was Charles Chilton, broadcaster, writer and producer, who worked for the BBC for 46 years and who in due course was awarded the MBE for his services to broadcasting. He was born in Bloomsbury, an area of London very much at the heart of where and how “Visiting the Fallen” came to be conceived.

Charles was born on the 15th June 1917, but never knew his father, Private Charles F. Henry CHILTON. He was killed in action, aged 19, on the opening day of the German March Offensive serving with the 2/6th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 59th (2nd North Midland) Division, which was horribly mauled just south of Arras. The division’s casualties were the highest for any British division that day.

Charles’s mother also died in tragic circumstances while he was young and he was brought up by his grandmother. During the interview Charles told how his entrance examination paper had been rejected by the examiner on account of his handwriting, a decision that resulted in his being denied a place at Grammar School. He went on to recount how one day as a teenager he had walked into the foyer of the BBC enquiring whether there were any jobs going. He was immediately shown the door, but a friendly commissionaire approached him and advised him to apply in writing. He went home, wrote the letter, was interviewed, and was subsequently offered a job as a messenger boy.

From messenger boy he progressed to working in the recordings library before going on to enjoy a long and fruitful career in broadcasting. His career was interrupted by service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, after which he went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he ran the Forces radio service with fellow broadcaster, David Jacobs, who also went on to have a successful career.

Later on, Charles became interested in the popular soldiers’ songs of the Great War, and in the very early 60’s he wrote and presented a series of radio programmes entitled, “The Long, Long Trail” , which told the story of the war through the music hall hits and trench ballads of the day. The programmes were a tribute to his father, but they also led to his collaboration with others on a project that eventually became the well known stage show, “Oh, What a Lovely War”, which Charles produced for the theatre in 1963.

Until “Grammar Schools – A Secret History” was broadcast I had no idea who Charles Chilton was, or that his father’s name was included on the Arras Memorial. Armed only with the revelation that Chilton’s father had been killed during the Great War, curiosity got the better of me, and, as I say in the introduction to all three books, very often such curiosity pays off. Fortunately, there was just enough time to include him as a late addition to ‘Arras Memorials’ and it was a great pleasure to be able to do so. It has also become something of a tradition with one of the groups I tour with to play “Oh, What a Lovely War” as we drive down the ramp at Calais, at which point we all know that it’s the start of another great trip.