“He Proved Himself A Man”

Private Ernest Podmore was killed in action at Beaucourt En Santerre, near Amiens, France, on August 8th 1918, serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force – 54th Infantry Battalion.  He is buried in Beaucourt British Cemetery. This is his story.

Ernest was born and brought up in The Potteries, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, in a working class neighbourhood close to the old Stoke City football ground.  Ernest’s sister Edith ran a grocery. Ernie was very close to Edith’s daughter Jessie, even though this niece was twelve years younger.

In 1913 Ernie made a difficult decision.  Two older brothers had already emigrated from Stoke to Canada.  No doubt they wrote letters home about the opportunities there.  Ernie left Stoke to follow them.  It must have been a painful time for Jessie.

In Canada Ernie travelled to meet his brothers at Collingwood on Georgian Bay, Ontario.  He got work  with the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company.  After just three years in Ontario he volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, an army being assembled to come to Europe and fight in the Great War.  Was he fired by love of his native country? Did he find life in Canada more difficult than he expected? Was he missing home or family and eager for a passage back to Stoke on Trent?  We don’t know. In October 1916 Ernest sailed from Canada back to Britain.

Now Private Ernest Podmore embarked on a long period of training, of waiting, and of a few disciplinary issues, as evidenced by the deductions and ‘field punishments’ recorded in his military wage records.

Eighteen days ‘Absent Without Leave’, ending with an overnight stay in Stoke police station during the autumn 1917 was of particular interest to our family.  Ernie was home from training but his beloved niece Jessie lay seriously ill in an isolation hospital.  According to Jessie, Ernie refused to leave her side and go back to the army until she recovered.  In the event a policeman came and arrested him.

Jessie never saw him again.  She was traumatised by news of his death in France the following year.  Throughout her life Jessie blamed herself, believing that Ernie had been sent into greater hazard by his decision to remain with her beyond the permitted leave.

At the end of February 1918 Private Podmore was sent to France and ‘taken on strength’ by the 54th Infantry Battalion – Canadian Expeditionary Force. The 54th was a fighting battalion that had gained battle honours since 1916 – the Somme, Passenchendale, Ypres, Vimy Ridge and other engagements.  After life in the training battalions the progress to France and service with combat exposed men must have been a huge change for Ernest and many like him.

During the summer of 1918 it is likely that Private Podmore had spells at the front line in the Arras area with the 54th.  It was a interlude of relatively low intensity warfare, dangerous stalemate, compared with the great battle to come.  Ernie’s service accounts shows uninterrupted earning, his wages steadily accumulating.

On a misty morning, 8th August 1918, the 54th Infantry Battalion crossed the River Luce, south-east of Amiens.  It was the first day of a massive attack, intended to break through German defences on a wide front, make decisive advances and bring the Great War to an end. To begin the 54th followed behind the  front line of Canadian attackers, away from Amiens and into newly captured territory.   This was dynamic conflict, with ghastly mass casualties to shell, bomb, bullet and bayonet, on both sides, everywhere around Ernest Podmore as he moved up.  We can only imagine the feelings Ernie, and his comrades, were dealing with at this time.  They came up from the river to the edge of a plateau where a road marked the objective of the first Canadian wave.  This was the  point where the second line, including Ernest and the 54th,  would pass through and take up the fighting.  The battle plan that day required speed and success going forward.  In this sector cavalry units of horse and small Whippet tanks made good ground across flat country.  Infantry soldiers rode in tanks as long as they could endure the fumes and stifling heat they found inside.

The route that Private Ernest Podmore of the 54th Battalion took from Gentelles Wood to Beaucourt en Santerre 8 August 1918

By early afternoon men of the 54th Battalion reached the protection of the village of Beaucourt en Santerre.  So far enemy resistance and casualties had been limited but their designated objective lay still further ahead across more clear, flat ground to the south east.  Unfortunately now they faced the threat from German machine gunners in a wood on the left flank of their continued advance.

A small hollow called Vallee Floquet beyond the village gave cover from the menacing machine guns.   A number of cavalry hid there, their officer no doubt fearing carnage if his men and animals moved out into the range of those weapons.  Now Lt Colonel AB Carey DSO,  the brave, aggressive commander of the 54th Battalion, arrived.  He demanded that the cavalry take the wood, eliminate the machine guns and maintain the momentum of the advance.  The cavalry officer wanted this order in writing but as Carey was putting pen to paper he changed his mind.  Carey told the cavalry he would do “the job” himself, leading men from the 54th Battalion reserve company that had just arrived in the village.

Modern Map with WW1 locations as mentioned in the 54th Battalion War Diary

WW1 Map with WW1 locations as mentioned in the 54th Battalion War Diary

They ran across open fields devoid of cover and without any type of covering fire except the smoke from a burning tank. “At least” 18 men of the 54th were killed. Nevertheless they took the wood.  By late afternoon the German machine guns were silent and the general Canadian advance in this sector continued forward to reach their planned objective.  We now know that the ‘Battle of Amiens’ from August 8th onward was indeed the beginning of the end of the Great War. Lt Colonel Carey gained a Bar on his Distinguished Service Order for his leadership and courage in the attack this day.

If you visit Beaucourt now the landscape is in many respects exactly as it was on August 8th 1918.  You can find Vallee Floquet below the village, and a remnant of the wood held by German machine gunners across fields to the East. By the hollow, is the British military cemetery. Eighty seven graves.

We cannot say that specific action they represent half the men of the 54th who lie in Beaucourt cemetery.  There were other mach Private Ernest Podmore was killed in the assault to take Beaucourt Wood.  If “at least” 18 men of the 54th died in thine guns in front of them in that sector, other dangerous efforts were required that day.

What we can say is that Jessie Gray was very much mistaken in her belief that her illness resulted in Ernie’s death.  Private Ernest Podmore’s military misdemeanours were relatively trivial.  He was not dragged from the police cell in Stoke directly to the most exposed position on the front line in France as Jessie somehow feared.  He went back to his training battalion, faced some limited sanctions and was transferred to a fighting unit in France to serve in the same way as hundreds of thousands of other young soldiers. Jessie died in 1979, long before we got chance to research this story and tell her the truth.

Also we would like to tell Jessie that Ernest Podmore was killed in action on a day when, arguably, his sacrifice resulted in something achieved, on a day when the horror endured by all brought peace tangibly closer.  We are not sure how she would have received this idea. She hated war.

Very few of us can imagine or understand what the experience of that battle was really like.  Ernest stood with his comrades, obeyed orders and moved forward into obvious, immediate peril.  On Ernie’s grave the inscription, paid for and dictated by the family who loved him, says  “he proved himself a man”.

David Turner (Great great newphew of Private Ernest Podmore & Grandson of Jessie Gray)

Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK

Additional Background

How the CO of 54th Battalion and his troops attacked the enemy (Unit War Diary)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temporary grave after the battle

Memorial engraving courtesy of Norm Christie / David Turner arrangements

The price of freedom