When David Charlton was growing up on the family farm in Pine Lake, Alta., in the 1960s, his grandfather, Humphrey Charlton, would receive an annual phone call from a man in the United States, thanking him for saving his life during the First World War. “Grandpa never talked about the war,” says David, who wonders to this day how, exactly, his grandfather had saved the man’s life. But he knows it wasn’t Humphrey Charlton’s only heroic wartime act.
The son of an Anglican rector from the West Midlands village of Tatenhill, Humphrey Charlton studied agriculture before emigrating to Canada in 1910 in order to homestead in Alberta. When the war broke out, he sailed back to England to enlist as a private in the Army Veterinary Corps.
Later, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was subsequently promoted to captain with the North Staffordshire Regiment, with whom he fought in key engagements in the final months of the war. Among them was an assault against the Hindenburg Line, a German fortified position on the Western Front that would be breached, through a series of attacks, by Canadian and other Allied divisions. One of those involved the Battle of the Saint-Quentin Canal.
At dawn, on Sept. 29, 1918, despite a heavy fog that made it hard to locate enemy machine guns, the North Staffordshire troops were able to capture German positions and then cross the canal equipped with lifebelts, ladders, collapsible boats and rafts. At the same time, Captain Charlton, using a compass to find his way through the fog, led a group of nine men onward to the Riqueval Bridge, a crucial span for moving troops and supplies forward.
Despite coming under machine-gun fire from a German trench, they charged forward, and killed the German crew with bayonets. Reaching the bridge at 6:20 a.m., they shot the German sentries, and Capt. Charlton and a sapper cut the cords to explosives that had been set up to destroy the bridge. They then crossed – and rooted out the remaining Germans.
“His prompt action in cutting the leads and disconnecting the charges saved the bridge, upon which depended the whole success of the operations, not only of the whole division, but of the division which was leap-frogging us to a distant objective,” read the recommendation letter by Brigadier-General John V. Campbell.
Capt. Charlton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and in Britain his name is familiar to history buffs and military authors, who praise him for his role in a decisive moment leading to the end of the war. But because he served in the military of his native Britain rather than with a Canadian unit, Humphrey Charlton is virtually unknown in his adopted country. “There are still so many things we are learning about him,” his grandson David says.