Thursday, 3 May 2012

Book - Family makes sure Ernest's story is told more than 90 years after his tragic death (Bentley/Somme)

BY the light of a flickering candle Corporal Ernest Goodridge made another brief entry in his pocket diary.

The date was October 2, 1916, when the confirmed teetotaller wrote: "On trek through mud and sludge. Broke the pledge at night, rum and coffee," and then he clipped his tiny pencil back into the diary.

Two days after making that final, short and poignant comment Ernest Goodridge was killed. He was 24-years-old.

The Battle of the Somme had been raging for more than three months when he got the order to attack.

Leading his men of the King's Royal Rifles, Corporal Goodridge climbed over the parapet of Gird Trench near the village of Flers, into a hailstorm of enemy fire, he was instantly shot dead.

No one knows for sure if it was a machine gunner, a sniper, perhaps even a shard of shrapnel from an exploding shell, that finally claimed his life. It doesn't really matter.

On that day, Ernest Goodridge became one of the 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers to die on the Somme during the First World War.

And although his body was recovered and buried a few days later, all trace of his last resting place was soon engulfed by the cataclysmic battle. His name is officially recorded on the monolithic Thiepval Memorial as one of the Missing, one of 84,000 Somme casualties with no known grave.

Of even more significance now, he is one of 141 men featured in a major new exhibition in the Somme town of Peronne, honouring all those lost souls. One man for every day of the battle.

Corporal Goodridge's inclusion in that exhibition is a direct result of research into his life, and death, by two relatives, one of them Nottingham Trent University professor of English John Goodridge, the fallen soldier's great nephew.

That research culminated in a book called The Same Stars Shine which tells the moving story through a remarkable legacy provided by the diary and the many letters Ernest sent from the front.

On an emotional pilgrimage to the Somme for the opening of the exhibition last week, Professor Goodridge revealed the extraordinary story.

The key to the tale is that "shabby little soft leather-bound diary" that is now part of the exhibition's Goodridge display.

It would shape the life of Professor Goodridge's father Frank and his brother Ernest junior, the man mainly responsible for piecing together the detail of Ernest Goodridge's story.

It continues to have a profound influence on family members more than 90 years later. "To this day the little diary has its miniature pencil clipped into the page – opening on its final entry, recording this Methodist soldier's understandable lapse in his teetotal pledge on the last night of his life."

Although born into the humble, devoutly Methodist, home of a railway worker in Bentley, near Doncaster, Ernest and his brother Jonathan – Professor Goodridge's grandfather – were bright enough to reach grammar school and leave "with prospects".

Ernest became a lawyer's clerk, Jonathan a church minister.

The brothers – there were also two sisters – were very close and shared the agonising dilemma posed by the outbreak of war. Jonathan, exempted on religious grounds, stayed at home but, after much soul-searching, Ernest marched off, his eyes wide open to the dangers.

"He was a modest man with high moral values and disapproved of conscription. He saw it as his duty to volunteer.

"I am convinced he knew he would not come back," says Professor Goodridge.

"That much is clear, reading between the lines of his letters home from France."

Ernest was thrust into a surreal existence, at one point recalling the chance to "take a dip" in a water-filled trench ... the shells whistling high overhead, the aeroplanes buzzing and the cuckoo piping in a the wood close by".

He wrote about "the absence of cheery faces" following an attack, and his diary, a revealing commentary of life behind the front line, is dominated by "rain, rain, rain".

Just a few days before he was killed, Ernest received a parcel from home, filled with fruit from his parents' garden.

"He opened it up and told his mates, 'there chaps, help yourselves'," said Professor Goodridge, "which the family saw as 'an echo of Christ's last supper, the loving gesture of dividing food among comrades by one who knows he must go to his death'."

Professor Goodridge added: "And he had a premonition that he might lose his life 'in some indifferent scrap or everyday trench duty instead of such a fine advance as our fellows made on the 15th'."

So it proved. Ernest, and his best friend Will Long, died together in a sodden, war-ravaged corner of France, in a brief but costly struggle for a few yards of ground. Another pal survived. Keith Walker, from Ripley, would return home and later supply the Goodridge family with vital evidence for their research.

With such a treasure trove of documents, and memories, there was no way that Ernest Goodridge's sacrifice would be forgotten.

His brother Jonathan named one of his two sons Ernest. The other, Frank, was Professor Goodridge's father. And here the story takes on a deeper significance.

Both sons were raised with the same religious and high moral beliefs and, in 1939, faced the same traumatic decision – to fight or not to fight.

"My father obeyed the call-up...but Frank's brother, the younger Ernest, dug his heels in, registered as a conscientious objector, and spent the war quietly working on a farm."

That bridging of the generations inspired Professor Goodridge to turn the research initially compiled by his uncle, the young Ernest, into a book which he published in 2000 entitled The Same Stars Shine.

And it was reading that book which prompted Ken and Pam Linge, creators of The Missing exhibition, to choose Ernest Goodridge's story to be included.

The Linges, from the north east of England, have spent the past nine years researching names on the Thiepval Memorial for a touch screen database located in memorial's visitor centre. So far, they have uncovered the personal details of 9,000 men with no known grave. "Only another 63,000 to go!" commented Ken. The Missing exhibition is a result of that research.

It was an emotional moment for Professor Goodridge, and his brother Peter who lives in Wales, when they saw their great uncle's place in the exhibition.

"I confess, I shed a tear or two," said Professor Good- ridge.

Missing of the Somme is on display at the Historial of the Great War, in Peronne, France, until November 25.

The Same Stars Shine is available from Professor Goodridge at Nottingham Trent University, e-mail john.


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