Town’s hero of Battle of Passchendaele not forgotten

By Farnham Herald in Community News

AUGUST 10 was the centenary of the death of a Haslemere hero, who gave his life for his country at the Battle of Passchendaele.

Ernest Edward Bridger, whose father William founded Haslemere Town Band, was 37 and a sergeant with Royal West Surrey Regiment 7th Battalion when he was killed in action during the famous WWI battle being commemorated this month.

Tragically for his family, his body was never recovered and he has no known grave. But he is remembered both on Haslemere War Memorial and at the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, Belgium.

The regiment paid a high price for its commitment in the First World War, with 8,000 men killed out of the 25 battalions and 31 units formed.

The heroism of those who fought was recognised in the regiment’s award of five Victoria Crosses.

Each battalion was about 1,000-strong and in the 1st Battalion alone, five commanding officers, two majors, 61 company officers and 1,133 NCOs and men gave their lives for their country.

“I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele”, the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote of the carnage that raged between July 31 and November 10 in 1917, at the third Battle of Ypres.

The 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th Service Battalions were made up of mainly Kitchener volunteers, some of the 300,000 men of all ranks who responded to the field marshal’s request for recruits to sign up for a new “general service” term of three years or the duration of the war, whichever was longer.

All the service volunteers fought on the Western Front with distinction.

The 7th went to France in 1915 and suffered appalling casualties on the Somme, at Ypres and at Amiens.

An extract from the 7th Battalion war diary for August 10, 1917 (pictured), records that the enemy was “very numerous” and a 4.35am assault, obstructed by “loose wire and tree trunks” came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire.

Only two of the battalion’s 10 officers were uninjured and 272 “other ranks” were listed as casualties.

The diary does not record how many died that day, but the remains of around 30 soldiers are still being found every year in the area.

They are identified initially by the boots they were wearing when they died.

It is thanks to a family descendant, ex-Grayswood resident Rhona Handcock, that more is now known about the life of Ernest Edward Bridger.

Mrs Handcock, who has written a family history, contacted The Herald to pass on what she knew about her great uncle,

He was unmarried and had three brothers and eight sisters. His death at Passchendaele had a devastating effect on those left behind.

His father died a year later on Ernest’s birthday, and the family believed he died of a broken heart.

Mrs Handcock said:“My great grandfather William Bridger founded the first Haslemere Town Band and at that time there were so many members of the family in the band it was often called ‘Bridger’s Band.’

“William’s son Yorke, who lived at Sandrock Villas, was a builder in Haslemere and his two eldest sons Percival and Ernest Edward, worked with him. My grandfather Albert Herbert Penycate, always called Herbie, worked with the Bridgers as a carpenter.

“Yorke had a large family, predominantly female, and Herbie fell in love with his beautiful daughter Edith Emily. They were married in August 1901.

“In my childhood, I knew and loved most of Yorke’s children but sadly not my grandmother. She died before I was born. Neither did I know Ernest Edward.

“One hundred years ago on August 10 at the Battle of Passchendaele, Ernest Edward Bridger, a sergeant in the Royal West Surrey Regiment, was killed by a sniper’s bullet while doing his duty for King and country. His comrades endeavoured to retrieve his body but were unsuccessful, so he has no known grave.

“Several years ago, when visiting friends in France we spent some time in Ypres.

“The museum was a poignant reminder of the futility and horrors of war, particularly of Passchenhendaele. Later among the awesome roll of young men who died, I found the name Ernest Edward Bridger on the Menin Gate.

“It was a sad but proud moment to see that a son of Haslemere, who gave his life for his country, was remembered in a foreign land.

“In sorting through my mother’s box of family memorabilia, I found a card announcing the death of Yorke Bridger. He died on his dead son’s birthday in February 1918.

“I recall my mother telling me he died of a broken heart. She also said Yorke’s youngest son, William – my godfather – never fully recovered from his brother’s death.

“William himself served in the Seaforth Highlanders.

“He was an accomplished musician and played in the regimental band.

“Yorke’s youngest child was just six years old when her father died. Her sister Mary devoted her life to caring for her mother and the younger members of the family. Mary had been waiting for her beau to come back from the war.

“He did come home in body but not in mind, being utterly traumatised with shell-shock, and spent the rest of his life in a mental home.

“This is just one family’s story of the effects of war.

“It is painful to know they were one of many thousands of families, some even more devastated. My parents had a friend whose six brothers died in that terrible war.

“Having lived through the Second World War in my birthplace, Grayswood, where we had evacuees from both London and Portsmouth, I recall the deprivation and destruction caused by war, and we were on the periphery.

“There are better ways to settle disagreements.

“War hurts not heals.”

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