Private Arthur Charker of the 4th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders
by Linda Ayres
Private Arthur Charker of the 4th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders was the son of Isabella and the late Henry Charker. His widowed mother lived at 120 Academy Street, Inverness, Scotland.
Highland Troops arrive in Bedford
On 4th August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. It became known as the Great War because it affected people all over the world. Within days of the outbreak of the war, Private Arthur Charker was one of the 17,000 Highlanders who arrived in Bedford to undergo training before their embarkation to the front. They had a long and trying journey and when they arrived in Bedford, the people of the Town welcomed them, providing them with hot chocolate.
At the time of their arrival, the population of Bedford stood at 39,000. Such large numbers of soldiers had a huge impact in the town. On the instructions of the War Office, the Chief Constable commandeered every empty house in the town of Bedford. The Borough Police Force carried out the task of billeting the Highlanders. Some were billeted with families who treated them as part of the family. There were a few romances, and some went on to marry local girls.
Arthur shared a billet with five other Privates of the 4th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at 6 Albert Terrace, Union Street, Bedford. They were John Fraser, F. Macdonald, A. Mackenzie, Mason and MacVinish. They were all on friendly terms. Two sergeants were also billeted at Albert Terrace, Sergeant Kenneth Mackenzie and Sergeant Poulson.
A fight breaks out at the billet
When Arthur collected his pay at 5p.m on October 8th he was cheerful and in good health. At 9.25 p.m. Sergeant Kenneth Mackenzie saw Arthur in nearby Tavistock Street. He appeared to have had too much to drink. At 9.40 p.m. Arthur returned to his billet in time for roll call.
Arthur, John Fraser, and MacVinish had had too much to drink. A quarrel started and MacVinish wanted to fight anyone in the room. On hearing the commotion Sergeant Mackenzie went to their room to stop the fight. Things calmed down and Sergeant Mackenzie left. Ten minutes later, the commotion started up again and on returning to the room, Sergeant Mackenzie found Fraser fighting with Macdonald. With the help of Sergeant Poulson, Sergeant Mackenzie separated them, and Fraser went and sat down on his bed.
Bayonet attack on Private Arthur Charker
While Sergeant Mackenzie was trying to calm down Macdonald – who wanted to carry on the fight – Sergeant Poulson came across the room to him and said that Fraser had a bayonet. The bayonets were always in the men’s possession. Sergeant Mackenzie request that Fraser handed over his bayonet at which point Fraser had both his hands behind his back, and he said “No”. Fraser also said “And I’ll stick it into the first man that comes near me.” (As far as Sergeant Mackenzie could remember but he would not swear to the exact words.)
Sergeant Mackenzie left the room to fetch some men to place Fraser under arrest. He had no sooner left the room than he heard a scuffle. On his return to the room he saw Arthur, Fraser and Macdonald in grips on the floor. Sergeant Mackenzie left the room again to get as many men as he could in order that they could separate the three. Up to about 15 men went into the room and broke up the fight. Some of the men shouted that Arthur was bleeding from a wound to his stomach and Sergeant Mackenzie sent for a doctor.
Medical help arrives
When Captain Lindesay of the Royal Army Medical Corps arrived, he found Arthur in the Colour Sergeant’s room, lying on a mattress covered with a blanket. He had a puncture wound in the abdomen and was in a state of collapse. Lindesay advised that Arthur should be taken to the Bedford County Hospital. Arthur arrived at the County Hospital, unconscious, at 11.10 p.m. He was operated on at 11.30 p.m. Surgeons found that his small intestine was punctured in five places.
John Fraser’s Arrest
The police arrested Fraser and charged him with wounding and intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
Arthur Charker’s Statement
On the 11th October, while Arthur lay critically ill in hospital, a statement was taken from him. It had to be done in a hurry. The statement was in Fraser’s favour, which may have saved him from the death penalty. It read as follows:-
“I am a private in the Cameron Highlanders, 4th Battalion, and stationed at Bedford. My Billet is at 6 Albert Terrace, Union Street, Bedford. I was there on Friday night. I could not say who was there. I have a faint remembrance of a disturbance. I do not remember anything about it. The only thing I remember was getting a stab in the abdomen. I think it was dark at the time. I do not know who did it. I just remember getting it that is all. John Fraser was in the same billet. I had not any quarrel with him. I do not remember what began the row; that is all I know about it. I had been with him all the evening; drinking with him, I left him to hear the retreat. I have no idea what time it was when I went into the billet. I was quite friendly with him when I parted from him”.
Sadly, Arthur died at 8.45 a.m. the next morning.. The cause of death was peritonitis. He was 24 years old.
Bedford Borough Magistrates Court
A few hours after Arthur died Private John Fraser appeared in court. The charges against him had changed to wilful murder. He was committed to trial at the Assizes on the 17th October 1914.
Arthur Charker’s Funeral
Arthur’s funeral took place on the 14th October. The gun carriage of the Fife Battery, Royal Field Artillery Territorial Force, drawn by six black horses, carried his coffin. Eight bearers from the Camerons walked beside the gun carriage. The Union Jack covered the coffin. Placed upon his coffin were his bayonet and belt and wreaths.
The column started out from the County Hospital mortuary and made its way along Cauldwell Street. When it reached the foot of Cauldwell Bridge, the pipes played “The Flowers of the Forest” the pipers’ “Dead March.” The procession proceeded along the High Street and De Parys Avenue. Hundreds of people lined the route to the cemetery.
The firing party of twelve from the Camerons led the procession with measured step. Near the cemetery gate the Battalion Band of Pipers and drums followed the firing party.
The mourners walked behind the gun carriage.
The service was brief and poignant. At the grave, just over the park boundary, crowds gathered round, and spread far away up the hill. A prayer was said by the Rev. John Dow in which he mentioned Arthur’s widowed mother and the family in Inverness. The committal and the Lord’s Prayer followed, between three volleys over the open grave. Drum Major Matheson played a few bars of the Lament “Loch Aber no more.” concluding after the third volley. While the lament played again, the firing party presented arms with fixed bayonets, left turned and marched away.
His grave is close to the graves of William and James Geddes. Private William Geddes was the first of the Highlanders buried at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. William had died at the Fever Hospital on the 10th October 1914 from an infectious disease. A few weeks later William’s younger brother James also died at the Fever Hospital on 12th December 1924.William and James Geddes Brothers in Arms
Bedford Assizes 17th October 1914
At the Borough Assizes John Fraser, aged 19 years, stood in the dock. His Lawyer, Mr Bernard Champion, said that his defence was that Fraser had foolishly and stupidly picked up the bayonet and said he would not be responsible who came near him.
There were two versions as to how Private Charker sustained the fatal wound to his abdomen. One was that Charker and Macdonald tried to take the bayonet from Fraser and during the scuffle Charker fell on the blade. The other was that Fraser drew the bayonet and said, “The first man that comes near I will put it in him”. Charker then rushed to get the bayonet, and Fraser drew back his hand holding the bayonet and thrust it into Charker’s stomach
The judge said that if Mr Campion was going to ask the jury to say that Charker did in fact throw himself on the bayonet, then Charker was lawfully engaged in trying to disarm Fraser. If the stabbing happened as Charker tried to disarm Fraser, he would direct the jury to find that Fraser was guilty of an unlawful act whether the stabbing was deliberate or not. In view of this Fraser withdrew his plea of not guilty on Mr Campion’s advice and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Fraser was sentenced to prison for fifteen months with hard labour for manslaughter.
Photography Linda S. Ayres
Biggleswade Chronicle & North Bedfordshire Gazette, Friday 21st August 1914
Bedfordshire Times & Independent Friday 16th October 1914
Luton Times & Advertiser 23rd October 1914
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