Norfolk’s Unlikely War Hero, whose courage ‘bordered on the suicidal’
PUBLISHED: 13:22 22 September 2018
On the face of it, Ernest Seaman was an unlikely war hero. Quiet, mild-mannered and a little on the plump side, he was the very antithesis of the popular image of the rough, tough fighting man.
Unremarkable as a scholar and sportsman, he was, by all accounts, a modest lad with much to be modest about. Since leaving home in Norfolk, he had worked variously as a hotel page boy, a ship’s steward and a waiter-cum-billiard marker in a posh gentleman’s club.
Old school friends remembered him as a gentle, kindly soul who was as unimpressive physically as he was undistinguished in the classroom.
So much so, in fact, that an army desperate for recruits initially rejected him as being unfit for frontline service and even when he was eventually accepted it was not so much as a soldier as a glorified kitchen worker.
But when his chance came he seized it, confounding everybody, from former school mates to grizzled recruiting officers, with a rare prowess for soldiering which culminated in an almost superhuman feat of individual gallantry that all but beggared belief.
And now, a century on, his descendents are preparing to join with civic dignitaries and local people in saluting Norfolk’s last and most improbable First World War recipients of the nation’s highest award for battlefield valour.
The commemorations begin next Saturday, on the 100th anniversary of his exploits, with parallel events in Belgium and Norwich, the city where he was born, and culminate on October 9 with a ceremony in the village of Scole where Ernest grew up and came to call home.
There, beside the war memorial on which he is remembered, the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, Richard Jewson, will unveil a paving stone bearing the distinctive outline of the Victoria Cross as a lasting tribute to the south Norfolk community’s most celebrated adopted son.
It promises to be an emotional affair, rich in pride and sentiment, that is testament of his hallowed place among the ranks of the nation’s bravest fighting men but evidence also, in the eyes of VC historian Paul Oldfield, of the incredibly diverse range of the medal’s recipients.
A retired army officer, Oldfield has been studying the men who earned the Victoria Cross on the Western Front for the past 30 years as part of a monumental project which has already spawned six books, with more on the way, in a series that represents a magnificent record of gallant endeavour.
Ernest’s story, which he has researched but has yet to tell, is not an uncommon one in a cast of heroes ranging from “peers of the realm to the most lowly worker whose VC exploit represented one moment of madness in an otherwise obscure life”.
Oldfield has traced his progress from 9, Derby Street in Norwich’s North Heigham district, where he was born in 1893, the youngest of seven sons and two daughters to Henry and Sarah Seaman (nee March), through to his move as a young boy to Scole after his mother married Edward Palmer, the landlord of the King’s Head pub and beyond to Flanders fields via a circuitous career involving spells as a pageboy at the Grand Hotel in Felixstowe, a steward on P & O liners plying between Britain and India and as a ‘billiard-marker’ at the exotically styled Cocoa Tree Club in St James’ Street, Piccadilly.
Much about Ernest’s life remains sketchy. “There was a suggestion he may have gone to Canada in 1912 but I have no details,” says Oldfield. “But whatever the truth of that, we do know that when war broke out he was not originally accepted for military service owing to his poor physical condition.”
Determined to do ‘his bit’, Ernest enlisted in the Army Service Corps, travelling to France just in time to qualify for the 1914-15 Star, to join the Expeditionary Force Canteens. For more than a year, he toiled behind the lines, working mostly as a baker, before being transferred to a combat unit.
“Like many other soldiers who were raked out from less demanding roles, he found his way into an infantry battalion out of necessity. By 1917, the high casualty rate meant there were serious manpower shortages.”
The army’s urgent requirements in the aftermath of the Somme offensive and the hard fighting that followed in the spring and summer around Arras and Ypres help explain how a once rejected recruit from Norfolk ended up wearing the cap badge of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as part of the so-called Ulster Division, a formation born out of a pre-war loyalist volunteer force raised to resist Irish nationalism.
Yet what must have seemed an unlikely ‘partnership’ proved a wholly successful one. Contrary to medical opinion, Ernest quickly showed his worth as well as his strength of character, leading his company commander, Captain V E S Mattocks, to call him “one of the best soldiers… I had ever met”.
Mattocks went further, describing him as “an excellent soldier in every sense of the word”. Not only was he “very keen in his duties,” but “he always volunteered to help in any extra work that had to be done, no matter how dangerous and difficult…”
Perhaps Ernest was trying to make up for lost time. Or perhaps he simply had a point to prove. Whatever his motivation, there was no denying his outstanding qualities.
Even as the 2nd Inniskillings made their way forward in late September 1918 for what many hoped would be the last great push to victory, there was talk, unofficially, of him being awarded a Military Medal for bravery, having been recommended by his company commander for his “constant devotion to duty and his gallantry in voluntarily attending his wounded comrades under heavy fire”.
Selflessly heroic as such actions were, they were soon to be surpassed by a superlative display of single-handed daring that thoroughly confounded those misguided judgments about his fitness to make the grade as a frontline infantryman.
Ernest was part of a large British force assigned the formidable task of battling over a desolate terrain laid waste during the previous year’s Passchendaele fighting and freeing a war-torn corner of Flanders that had been occupied for the best part of four years.
As well as maintaining the pressure on an increasingly beleaguered German army, this largely forgotten operation was, according to its latest chronicler, hugely symbolic. “For so long,” says historian Dennis Williams, “the British army had been cooped up in the so-called Ypres Salient and lost many thousands of men trying to hold on to this little piece of Belgium and now, at last, they were on the advance, in support of the country they had gone to war for.”
Dubbed the ‘Liberation Offensive’, it was launched on September 28 to great success with some units making gains of more than 6,000 yards, an almost unimaginable distance in such a shell-pocked wilderness.
The following day it was the turn of Ernest’s unit to join the van of the assault. Their mission, as part of an Inniskilling brigade, was to capture the village of Terhand. It promised and proved to be the sternest of tests.
“Despite the previous day’s advance the Germans were still fighting hard,” says Williams. “And the quality of their troops, particularly their machine-gun units which represented a large part of the defence, was very good.” Furthermore, as Williams points out, the ground “leant itself to defence” and the British units, some for the first time, were fighting in open country beyond the limits of their experience which had largely been confined to trench warfare.
“No longer”, in the words of the Ulster division’s historian, were they faced by “the sea of mud and shell-holes of the old Salient battle-ground”, but by a landscape laced with hedgerows and dotted with farm-buildings that were bristling with machine-guns, “singly or in nests of from two to five” that were “cleverly disposed in depth”.
And of all the defences, none, according to the Inniskillings’ own account, were stronger nor more cunningly concealed than those facing Ernest’s battalion on the right. Indeed, they might have proved insurmountable but for his remarkable intervention.
After their initial rapid progress which began around 9.30am, just as days of cold, drenching rain gave way to a fitful autumn sun, their attack slowed and threatened to stall in the face of stiffening opposition.
Ernest’s company on the extreme right flank was hardest hit. Flailed by a withering fire, they were forced to take cover. All except Ernest. For reasons which only he could explain, he was seen to suddenly leap to his feet and rush straight for the “nest” of enemy machine-guns that was the source of the lethal hold-up.
More by luck than judgment, he miraculously escaped the hail of bullets directed at him and single-handedly silenced the position, killing one officer and two men with well-directed fire from his Lewis gun and capturing the remainder of the 15-strong garrison together with two machine-guns.
What senior officers called an act of “great courage and initiative” bordered on the suicidal, but Ernest was not quite done yet. Later in the day, when another enemy post brought the advance to another grinding halt, he repeated his earlier success, braving “heavy fire” to charge alone a third machine-gun.
Again, he emerged triumphant, but the fortune that had favoured his brave, some might say recklessly brave, assaults had been all used up. Barely had the enemy gun fallen silent than Ernest’s luck ran out. In the prosaic language of the official account of his action, “he was killed immediately after”.
Although he never knew it, his company’s ultimate victory, in pushing forward “to its objective” and capturing “many prisoners” was “entirely due” to what his company commander called his “extraordinary acts of gallantry”.
Six weeks later, with the iconic Ypres Salient thoroughly eliminated and the Belgian Channel coast liberated, the Germans finally agreed to an Armistice that signalled the end of the First World War. Three days later, Ernest Seaman’s grieving mother learned that her son’s last and greatest action in an otherwise largely undistinguished life had been crowned by the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross “for most conspicuous bravery… near Terhand”.
Victoria Crosses on the Western Front: Cambrai to the Battle of St Quentin, by Paul Oldfield, is published by Pen & Sword, priced £30, and is the latest in an ongoing series which is expected to be completed in 2020.
Pouring with Rain - Troops Fed Up: British Second Army and the Liberation Offensive in Flanders 1918, by Dennis Williams, is published by Helion & Company, priced £35.