Saturday, November 7, 2009

My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes

My hero Ernest Shephard 

by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes
Saturday 7 November 2009

am not sure what he would make of it: disbelief, amusement, or irritation that I should single him out. But my hero is Ernest Shephard, who spent much of his time on the Western Front as a company sergeant major.

He was born in Lyme Regis in 1892, the son of a photographer who was to lose two of his three boys in the war. He enlisted in the part-time Special Reserve in 1909, and transferred to the regular 1st Battalion, the Dorset Regiment, later that year, becoming a lance-corporal in 1910, a corporal in 1913 and a sergeant in 1914. The fact that he was at home on recruiting duties probably saved his life, for 1st Dorsets suffered cruelly: in October the battalion lost 399 men, 148 killed, in a single action.
Sergeant Shephard joined 1st Dorsets in January 1915, and began to keep a diary. There is horror, such as his first experience of gas: "Men were caught by fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting, rolling on the ground . . ." There is a serious interest in food: "We made a grand stew in a washing bucket . . ." And there is an abundance of that comradeship that made war tolerable. When Company Sergeant Major Shapton was killed, Shephard wrote: "In Sam I have lost my dearest chum. We were always together whenever possible. He was an Army Reserve man when war broke out, and came from Canada to rejoin. I shall never forget the afternoon C Company was cut up . . . When I got to his trench I found him crying. He had been working like a demon, digging his men out and attending to the wounded . . ."
Commissioned in November 1916, Shephard died in January 1917, commanding a company of 5th Dorsets. His last recorded act was characteristically professional. When he knew his position was hopeless, he warned the supporting company to fall back, so as not to be overwhelmed too. Ernest Shephard is buried on the Somme, in the AIF Burial Ground at Grass Lane, Flers, and I go to see him as often as I can.


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