Charles Austin Pittar, MC

Charles Austin Pittar was the brother of Dorothy Mabel Austin Clarke, one of the ‘Civilian Dead’ whose names are recorded on the War Memorial in the parish of Ham, Surrey.  Dorothy and her husband, Sydney, were killed in an air raid over Ham in 1940, and their post is on my blog for Ham’s War memorial.  Charles was Dorothy’s only sibling.  It seems churlish to overlook Charles Pittar, and so I’m posting about him here, just to rescue something of his story, for his sister’s sake.

Lieutenant Charles Austin Pittar, M.C., (1898–1921)
The Coldstream Guards,
Died 1921, buried at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.

Charles and Dorothy were the children of Charles William Erskine Pittar (1863–1931), and Mabel Frances Austin (1876–1955), who were married in Dresden on 20 August 1897.  (I am intrigued by that marriage in Germany, and hope one day to discover a little about the background to this.)

Charles (known also as Charlie or as Austin) was born in Calcutta, Bengal on 17 August 1898 and baptised there three weeks later.  His father was born in Kidderpore in 1863, where his paternal grandfather, Charles Frederick Pittar was a solicitor. His maternal grandfather, Ware Plumptre Austin, was also a Civil Servant, in Madras so the marriage of Charles and Mabel was in one sense another example of the prevailing dictum, ‘like marries like’.

Educated at Eton, like his father before him, Charles proved to be, according to a short biography included in the catalogue when his sword was auctioned in 1998, someone who ‘excelled at athletics, and was an accomplished scholar.’

Alexandra Churchill, in Blood and Thunder: the boys of Eton College and the First World War echoes this, describing him as ‘a phenomenally talented athlete and a bright boy’.  She also notes that he ‘had trouble with his eyesight and so operated with divisional troops rather than a fighting unit’. In connection with the events in which this was alluded to, she notes that ‘one of his main responsibilities in the hot weather’ prevailing on that day, was to get sufficient water up to the men on the fighting on frontline.

In an attempt to find out the cause of Charles’s death, and its connection to his military service, his service record was viewed at The National Archives. His medical declaration, made when he applied for a commission in 1916, does not record any eye problems. In the first category, for ‘serious illness or injury’ he does declare a kidney problem which occurred in 1911 and “was cured by the end of 1912”.

For the second and third categories, Charles strikes out the words “except as stated below”.  For the fourth category, ‘good vision for near and distant object… without the aid of glasses’, he does not strike out those four words, but nor he does he insert any information in the space below.

Many of the officers’ service records have been extensively weeded out, so one cannot say whether there were further investigations and there seem to be no papers indicating eye problems in what survives in Charles’s file.   Without a budget for any of my war memorial projects, I could not justify applying for his civilian death certificate and there was at that point simply no further clue to the cause of his death, in what survives in his service record.

In November 1918, Charles was awarded the Military Cross, the citation reading:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and initiative while on daylight patrol. He left his lines in broad daylight, accompanied only by his orderly, and scouted right up through the enemy outpost line, a distance of some 700 yards. He showed great daring and enterprise and the information he brought back was of the utmost importance.”

Soon after the award of the Military Cross was gazetted, Charles Pittar was affected “moderately seriously” by the influenza epidemic.  He recovered, but was regarded as still unfit for duty, so the Board recommended two weeks’ sick leave in the U.K.  His return to the field was delayed until late January 1919, by his spraining his ankle in Oxford.  Within a few months, Charles Pittar had relinquished his commission, but was allowed to retain the rank of Lieutenant.  He was demobilised on 14 May 1919.  His service record, which was weeded as early as 1933, mentions the report of his death in The Times of 2 September 1921, but gives no details.

The evidence his father gave at the inquest into Charles’s death, shows a modern reader that it was a result of his military experiences in France. His father said that his son suffered from severe depression after leaving the army and returning to Oxford, where he was a member of Queen’s College. The intention was to follow his father and both his grandfathers into the Indian Civil Service.  Another report, in The People includes the information that Charles was 2a fine scholar who had passed his examination and was to have entered the Indian Civil Service shortly.”

Charles appeared ‘quite normal’ on the evening of Sunday 28 August, and after dinner, retired to a room he used as a study, in an annexe to the family home, Elmdene, 374 Banbury Road.  The following morning, his father found a note from Charles, warning people that there was gas in the room, and that they should avoid an explosion.  There his father found Charles, dead, with a tube nearby, attached to the tap of the room’s gas heater, which was turned on full.

And always this cloud…

These words, taken from his farewell letter, were read in the Oxford Court by the Coroner:

I cannot ask you to forgive me for what I am going to do and I don’t think you will ever realise my general state of mind. There seems to be a sort of cloudbank that oppresses me.  Today, I have been in a most extraordinary state—a mixture between deep depression and wild excitement, and always this cloud. 

The findings of the inquest were that his death was caused by “temporary insanity”  and that verdict appeared in papers across the country.  The headline (‘A War Suicide’) in a report of the inquest in the Portsmouth Evening News, lays bare the cumulative pressure of the war, on a fine officer, and a brave soldier.  People knew what was unsaid.

Charles is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, where there are a number of CWGC graves, many of them of airmen, based at Wolvercote Aerodrome.  He is survived, and remembered, by his two great nieces.

I am grateful to Elliot Metcalfe of the project Dorset in the Great War whose comment, six years ago, to an earlier version of this post, helpfully confirmed my suspicions about the likely cause of Charles Pittar’s death.

Further Reading

Churchill, A.J., Blood and Thunder: the boys of Eton College and the First World War, The History Press, 2014.

DNW Auction Catalogue, , accessed 29/3/2016.  This link is not currently arriving at the correct page.

Eton Roll of Honour,, accessed 22/5/2016.

North Star, Student’s Suicide—Oppressed “By Sort Of Cloudbank”, p.1, col.4, 31/8/1921.

The People, ‘Always The Cloud’  4 September 1921, p.7, col.4

The London Gazette, Supplement 29903, 12 January 1917, p.578,.

The London Gazette, Supplement 30997, p. 13165, ‘2. Lieut. Charles Austin Pittar, C. Gds, Spec. Res.’, 5 November 1918.

The National Archives, WO 339/82737, ‘Lieutenant Charles Austin Pittar, Coldstream Guards’, 1916–1922.

Portsmouth Evening News, ‘A War Suicide’, 31 August 1921, p.6.