Chemical Corporal – Charles Harold Honess

Thirty six year old science schoolmaster Charles Harold Honess volunteered at Whitehall around the same time as Percey Axten.  Judging by their service numbers, both Percey Axten and Charles could well have arrived at the Royal Engineers Depot at Chatham on the same day in late August 1915.  Charles Honess was married with four children, his decision to volunteer cannot have been taken lightly.  He was now 113222 Cpl. C.H. Honess, Corps of Royal Engineers.

Charles Harold Honess was born in 1879 and spent his formative years in Fulham where his family lived for some thirty years.  One of six siblings, Charles Honess was fortunate to attend the Westminster City Day School at the age of ten.

The school’s Headmaster, Mr R.E.H Goffin (1874-1906), had studied under eminent Victorian scientists – Hofmann the celebrated chemist, Tyndall, famous for his researches in Physics, and Huxley, the eminent biologist.  Goffin had established a strong science curriculum which included Mechanics, Physics and Chemistry, and his school was one of the first in the country where science was taught in the laboratory.  It was here that Charles Honess’ love of science had first been nurtured.


How long he was at the school, or what his occupation was on leaving, is unknown. Charles Honess married Annie May Stewart in 1899 and by 1905 was the father of four children, all born in Palmers Green.  Charles Honess does not resurface again until the 1911 census.  Now aged 31, he is a schoolmaster at the “East Anglian School, Norfolk Road, Bury St.Edmunds”, run by the Wesleyan Board for Secondary schools.  He described himself as single, possibly to obtain and keep his post.  Photographs of the period show a well equipped school chemistry laboratory.

Charles Honess also appears on the local Electoral roll in Bury St.Edmunds between 1912 and 1914.


All the time he was working in Bury, his wife and four children remained in Raynes Park, living initially at 434 Kingston Road before later moving to Prince George’s Avenue.  If he had returned to Raynes Park in the summer holidays of 1915, his family would have been shocked by his decision to volunteer and the speed at which he departed.

In those first few days of being kitted out and receiving some rudimentary induction into the Army at Chatham, if Percey Axten and Charles Honess had met they would have soon found the student and teacher had much in common.  Axten and Honess were among a draft of twenty or so men dispatched to France on 7th September 1915.  In the group were students, teachers, men with university degrees, an industrial chemist and the son of a Naval reserve officer. Men from East London, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Newcastle-on-tyne, Southampton, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Hull, County Waterford, Durham and Glasgow. Their immediate destination was the newly organised base at Helfaut, near St. Omer, to be allocated to one of the four special companies that had been formed for “gas operations” – the 186th to 189th.  Each of the four companies had been organised into ten sections, each of about 30 men.


Bases used by the Special Brigade

In the absence of any records, it’s impossible to say if Axten and Honess found themselves in the same section, let alone company, or if Charles Honess remained with any of the men he had been drafted with.  For the Army, the pressing matter was the proposed use of gas at the planned Loos offensive where the B.E.F would make its first mass use of chlorine on 25th September 1915.

113222 Cpl. Charles Honess may not have been involved on that day, but there is a distinct possibility he was in action when the Loos offensive was renewed on 13th October 1915, where troops had been issued with “Hypo Helmets” as a primitive protection against chlorine gas.  At 1.00pm: Gas and smoke was discharged on three fronts: South-West of Hulluch by the 1st Division; between the Hohenzollern Redoubt and the Vermelles-Auchy road by the 46th Division, and between the road and the canal by the 2nd Division.  As described here.


113220 Cpl. Rhodes Lister of the 189th Coy was awarded a DCM that day, and the draft of men which included Charles Honess suffered its first casualty: 113252 Harold Austin Millard, 186th Special Coy R.E.

In the months after Loos, a number of smaller scale night gas attacks were undertaken, in the days before Christmas 1915 on the 20th, 21st and 22nd December and in the new year on the 9th and 19th of January. (106106 Cpl. EW T Freund, 186th Coy R.E. died of wounds on 22/12/1915. Eric Wolf Theodore Freund was from Wallington, one of four siblings and the first child and only son of Emil and Annie Freund. He was educated a Wallington Grammar School, Sherborne School and attended London University before volunteering in Jul 1915.) The special companies were now withdrawn from the line for its expansion and reorganisation.

The men of the original four special companies were scattered among the newly expanded “Special Brigade”.  It was perhaps then that Charles Honess was promoted to Sergeant and found himself in the new “G” company of the 2nd Battalion.  Not everyone was impressed by the changes, Cpl R. Ginns, later commissioned to serve in India and Afghanistan, was acerbic in his criticism:

The new drafts came as pioneers, the second draft was a different sort of man – throw outs from the reserve line in England, but some good steady old workers.  We were still not up to strength and the third draft consisted of men from the divisional artillery transport, now largely replaced by motor transport.  The artillery apparently thought it a good opportunity to get rid of their riff-raff. A worst set of scallywags I have seldom met…

The training and preparation through February to May was for the use of gas attacks at the opening of the battle of the Somme.  Charles Honess moved from Heuringhem, near St.Omer, to the Somme by 9th June 1916. “G” company were billeted in Albert, already battered by shelling and famous for its “Leaning Virgin on top of the Basilica”.


In the next two weeks section officers reconnoitred the infantry divisional fronts, while thousands of cylinders were moved from the railhead to dumps and finally to their front line emplacements.  By 22nd June 1916, over a thousand gas cylinders and been installed by “G” company in both 34th and 8th Division fronts facing Orvillers and La Boisselle. Charles Honess was bivouacked south of the Albert-Amiens by the 23rd.  Unfavourable weather postponed planned discharges fixed for 10pm on the first day of the Somme bombardment.  Only partial release of gas was achieved two days later on the III Corps front after 6pm on 26th June – three R.E. men had been killed and 14 wounded.  In the next four days leading up to “Z” day the companies of the 2nd Bn. Special Brigade suffered nearly 70 more casualties, either wounded gassed or killed.  The work to retrieve gas cylinders could not begin until 6th July.  Salvage worked continued, until “G” Coy returned to routine work by 18th July.  In August they were given the task of preparing newly supplied 2 inch trench mortar munitions to be filled with “white star” gas when munitions ordered for the Special Brigade’s 4 inch mortars never materialised.  At the end of August, in what must have seemed a rather bizarre episode, the men of both “F” and “G” coy were interviewed by a visiting officer about working for the Ministry of Munitions.  A few days before, Charles Honess may have witnessed a demonstration of flame projectors and so-called oil mortar which was in fact an early appearance of the “Livens Projector”.


Loading a battery of Livens gas projectors. Taken at Royal Engineers Experimental Station, Porton, UK.

After the Somme offensive had finally ground to a halt in mid-November and Charles Honess had endured another winter on the Western Front his company would be trained to use the “Livens Projector” – a cheap and simple electrically fired one use mortar like device, capable of firing canisters of poison gas with a range of 1,300 yards.  Accuracy was limited, but when used in large numbers it could deliver a saturating gas attack on the enemy.

The first major offensive of 1917 was at Arras on 9th April.  On 15th April Charles Honess was with sections of “G” Coy supporting the assault on Bullencourt at the southern extreme of the Arras Offensive in the area of the 7th and 62nd Division.  An operation took place a 03:10 am with 135 bombs fired from Liven’s projectors into the German defences at Bullencourt.

Surviving documents show the planned casualty evacuation routes to be used by our infantry leading back to Mory.  But the records show Charles Honess was killed in action that day and Mory became his final resting place.  He was buried at MORY ABBEY MILITARY CEMETERY, MORY.



Charles Harold Honess is commemorated on the war memorial in the grounds of St. Saviour’s Church , Grand Drive, close to the home of his widow, Annie May, and their four children: Violet May, Cyril Stewart, Harold and Leslie Percy.


His name also appears in the official roll of sacrifice for Wimbledon, Merton and Morden and the 1921 publication:  A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author) Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)


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