A small family group stand in a field commemorating the death of a soldier in the Battle of the Somme. The man being honoured is Corporal Ernest Goodridge of the 18th King’s Royal Rifles. He was killed in October, 1916. He was 24 years old. Acts like this are not uncommon. It’s what draws thousands of people to the battlefields, year after year.
Corporal Goodridge was officially listed as ‘missing’ but a field chaplain gave the family a grid reference of his original burial, near ‘Gird Trench’ and ‘Goose Alley’ just north of Flers, not far from what was then called ‘Factory Corner’. It was here that today’s family gathered, placing a small plaque and conducting their own short remembrance service. Many families also spend hours researching their ancestors’ histories, building a picture of promise unfulfilled, loves lost, unparalleled courage and lives cut short.
The Goodridge family have produced a classic family archive about Corporal Goodridge, using contemporary pictures, an extraordinary collection of letters and a diary he kept during the war. Called ‘The Same Stars Shine’, it was first published in 2000, edited by the late Reverend Ernest Goodridge, Ernest’s nephew, and Professor John Goodridge, his great nephew. It was republished last year as a centenary edition.
‘Star shells glare in the sky. It is a consolation to me that we have the same verities as at home, the same stars shine upon us the same moon the same sky smiles upon us’. ERNEST GOODRIDGE, 1892 – 1916
DIARY ENTRY, AUGUST, 1916. Ernest is born in an end house of a row of cottages next to the Bentley mill stream at Cooke Street, in the village of Bentley, south Yorkshire. The old Wesleyan Chapel, in which the children were baptised, was also on the mill stream bank, opposite their home. He’s the youngest of four, with two sisters, Ruth and Annie, and a brother, John. It’s a happy childhood, recorded in young Ernest’s diary. An entry in 1911 reads: “Turned out a beautiful day. All met at 1 o’clock at Chapel as arranged. Full muster. Lot of straggling on way. Exciting fun helping girls over styles about a dozen. Had warm work running from one to another.
Walk throughout was delightful interspersed with rantying over stream. Plenty of coats to carry for valiant and chivalrous men. Tea at Askern at 4.30. No bad considering. Then hied to field and had the time of our lives. ‘Then give me your hand’ etc. etc… Ho-Ho-o-o-o. Clary and Ted went by 6.37. Ride home in tram & Walk to Doncaster and back.”
It’s a life rooted at home and in regular worship, with adventures in the country. In August, 1914, a fortnight after war was declared, Ernest writes:
“Picnic of the year to Campsall. Flo, Hilda, Irene, Nellie, Cyril, John and Self. Train to Adwick & back. Visited two churches. Cyril took 3 photos. Happy time”. He’s now 22.
Ernest boxes and wrestles, plays football and hockey, and sketches and paints. He’s Secretary at the Sunday School and active in the Bentley Institute. He spends most Saturdays camping with the Scouts. In a letter dated September 26th, 1914, he writes:
“I have had ten minutes of wild enjoyment tonight. There is a cob in the field which is quite tame and with the new moon just appearing I have had a good round canter up and down the field – my word it was exhilarating! I have made up my mind it shall not be my last ride, if possible, during the period of the moon. Mind you, the household do not know.”
He’s at Grammar School for three years, but leaves when he’s fourteen to forge a career in a solicitor’s office. He’s required to sign on at the Technical College, without great enthusiasm; in his diary, he writes: “In morning went to see Mr. Eagles at Tech. School and signed my death warrant for 3 nights a week”. He enlists at Leeds in November, 1915, training with the 18th Battalion, the Kings Royal Rifles, beginning at Gidea Park in Essex. In April, 1916, Ernest’s still in the UK, at Wimbledon. It’s a time of drill, route marches and football and leave. But he knows the Battalion will soon be drafted to France, and what might happen: “I stand my chance with all the rest of coming out alright & as I have said before if I come out with a peg-leg I won’t grumble—it wouldn’t hinder my usefulness much & after all that is the chief thing in this world.”
Ernest sets off for Europe in May. He tells his family: “I must tell you of our march through Wimbledon this morning—although so early many folks were up to see us off & the others came to their bedroom windows in night-attire throwing us kisses & many showering packets of cigarettes upon us. One realised that we have something to fight for to keep such hearths whole”. And then: the SS Golden Eagle to France…the Bull Ring training camp at Etaples… firing courses… lectures… practice with gas helmets and bayonets… squad drills… night operations…and washing. He writes: “We had washing day on Friday. It would have tickled you to have seen 100 of us, washing for all we were worth, 25 down both sides of two long washing troughs fitted with scrubbing boards at the sides. We quite enjoyed the fun & it was exciting to be splashing, brushing, scrubbing together in nice hot soapy water—it was quite a recreation for us all. I bought a small scrubbing-brush in Wimbledon so I got on famously. The system is wonderful. They can put 2,400 men through the Wash-House every day 100 men every half hour. It doesn’t give one much time but with a rush we can manage it.”
In June, he writes a letter, a last will and testament, to the family ‘only to be opened if called to the higher service’. All his short life, he has been deeply religious, and he tells them: “It is impossible for me to tell you all the love that is in my heart towards you all as I write this & the silent tears must come as I think of all we mean to each other in the light of today & the experiences which we know await us. It is almost impossible to conceive a brighter heaven than we knew in our happy home but our sight is dim, because eye hath not seen nor ear heard the glories that are laid up for us.” Ernest’s first taste of action is at Ploegsteert (or ‘Plugstreet’) in Belgium. There is shelling and gas alerts. In a letter dated mid-June, he says: “I suppose you are eager to know how I went through my first baptism of fire–well much better than I anticipated–On the Whole things were pretty quiet during my first short stay but the last night it was pretty lively with shell-fire but chiefly from our side. We were told to lie low in our dug-outs (with the exception of sentries) with our gas helmets on partly, in readiness.The three chaps who shared a dug-out with me were out on digging so I was by myself trying to sleep but blest if I could get a wink for the whiz-bangs & machine-bullets bursting & rattling all around. When the bombardment got hotter, we were ordered to turn out & ‘stand to’ in readiness for a possible German attack. The moon was at full, a glorious night & apart from the danger & its true meaning – it was a fine sight to see the flashes in the sky miles away caused by the heavy artillery & nearer to the bright flashes & the bursting shells & the angry spitting of the machine guns. It was awfully grand in its way although awfully nasty. Every now & again the blue-light rockets are sent up from both lines lighting up everything like daylight. Naturally I felt a bit windy at first but one gets over this in the company of comrades. Nevertheless we were glad when our rest out of the trenches came next morning. Mind you this is nothing to what does go off & what is likely to ensue but it wasn’t a bad breaking-in..” On July 5th, he tells his family: “The last time we were in the trenches we had an extremely rough handling & all came out thankful to have escaped whole. In telling you this I know you will not get your wind up, because you know well enough that we are not out here for holiday & I know that you have that sure confidence that whatever we have to pass through—it cannot harm us, unless it be our Heavenly Father’s Will & such experiences after all are mere tests of faith & calibre”. July 14th: “Coming along to this town [Steenweerck], imagine my surprise & pleasure upon seeing a school-treat of some sort–with the kiddies trotting along gaily–gathering flowers etc.–in charge of Nuns–quite a pleasant sight. We get a lot of pleasant reminders of Blighty. It is surprizing how civil life continues complacently quite close to the trenches …” July 18th: “Difficult to sleep with Rats & Mice playing polo with tins…” July 27th: “I am afraid I have been writing under difficulties having to stop every now & again to kill mosquitoes…” At the end of August, the Battalion moves to the Somme, which Ernest describes as “delightful Country like Yorkshire Wolds but wretched people.” September 11th: “The test of our metal which we have been expecting for the last week or so has not come off yet but we are all ready when the call comes. It is likely to prove a harder test than we have ever known previously but we shall not be the first or only pebbles on the beach & where others have forged so bravely it would be cowardice to fear to follow & after all the shelling the Germans are still defiant in their dug-outs usually about 30 feet deep so there is nothing for it but poking them out with the bayonet.”
The test comes on September 15th, when the Battalion takes part in the Battle of Flers, fighting alongside the first tanks. Ernest is promoted to Corporal. He’s saved from going ‘over the top’, being kept in reserve. After the attack: rest and training at Dernancourt. Then a march, from Dernancourt to Meaulte, Fricourt and Mametz. It rains heavily. The final diary entry.
“On Trek through Mud & Slush. Broke the pledge at night Rum & Coffee.”
This is a good indication of how bad conditions are, because Ernest was a life-long teetoaller. The final letter. October 3rd:
“Not to be opened unless I go west. “Dearest All,
“I am writing this squat in a little bivouac wet & muddy. Yesterday we were on trek through slosh & wet & tonight we expect to go up the line for the 2nd great test of the Batt so far as we know. If the business is as we anticipate there are sure to be some of us go west & not being as sure as dear Pa as to what may be God’s Will concerning me I thought I would take this opportunity to open my heart to you all somewhat as best I may with a row going on by the other fellows in the bivouac… “You will hardly believe me but I haven’t been in the trenches or in any danger zone of worth for 8 whole weeks & I have only been in the trenches for 6 spells altogether so I can’t grumble at going up tonight & my one great hope is that I may prove brave in the midst of all the horror…”
Ernest was killed in action near Flers, early the next morning, Wednesday October 4th, 1916. He was probably one of the ‘100 Casualties’ reported in the Battalion diary for that day in a small bombing raid, in response to a German raid down Gird Trench. A chaplains’s report quoted in an obituary in the Doncaster Chronicle said:
“He was in charge of his men, and led them to the charge… He only got to the top of the parapet when he was shot and instantly killed”.
His body was not retrieved for nine days, and his grave was lost, although the chaplain gave a battlefield reference (M24 c7.3), which suggests a point on the north side of the D11 road, two thirds of a mile from Flers, and about 600 yards behind the line of Gird Trench.
Ernest’s name is on the Thiepval Memorial, and his details are recorded in the ‘Missing of the Somme Room’ created by Pam and Ken Linge.
Ernest’s story is currently included in a display at the Thiepval Memorial Museum. This article is based on extracts from the family’s scholarly, comprehensive and evocative account of Ernest’s life, based on his diary and letters, and illustrated with photographs and maps.