The Commonwealth War Graves at Divion. Fr Podmore is buried on the far right. Credit: http://www.peterswar.net/PasdeCalais/DivionCC.htm
Reginald Thompson Podmore, priest, SSJE
REGINALD THOMPSON PODMORE has the sad distinction of being the first military padre to have been killed on active service in the Second World War. His appointment as a Chaplain appeared in the London Gazette on 9 January 1940, and by 3 February he was “somewhere in England” preaching, teaching, and getting to know his men.
By May 1940 he was with the B.E.F. in France. He wrote to the community at Cowley that casualties were building up, and that “the sadder side of my ministry to the men is likely to be in demand soon”. He was working alongside the medics, and had acquired the necessary material to construct a portable altar that would fit in the back of his car – and the lady with whom he was billeted had made him a dossal and frontal for it. He had also persuaded a local café owner to let him hold services at her establishment, having overcome her qualms about his not being a Roman Catholic.
Poignantly, Fr Podmore also remarked that “we have one of the smaller English cemeteries outside this village. It is a beautifully peaceful spot, though unspeakably sad with its long straight rows of head-stones”. His letter was dated 14 May 1940: by the time the community received his letter he was already dead; but it would be several weeks before they would know for certain, and six years before they learned anything of the circumstances of his death.
The Superior-General, Fr O’Brien, asked for prayers for him in July 1940, noting that “we have no news of Father Podmore and are of course extremely anxious about him, but it may still be a considerable time before we can expect to hear whether he is a prisoner in the hands of the Germans or whether he has fallen with the troops he was serving”. By the end of August the community was still desperate for news; but Fr O’Brien had heard from Fr Podmore’s colonel:
We still have no news about Father Podmore, except that on May 20 he was sent into Belgium with the troops to which he was attached. On that day or some subsequent day he was driving back to a village he had just left to fetch some stores from the canteen. It was learned subsequently that the Germans had reached the village. His Colonel thinks that he is a prisoner. Enquiries are being made from various quarters, but it is a slow work.
Fr Podmore’s batman had certainly been taken prisoner, for he managed to make contact in September 1940. The Church Times, which had been following the Cowley Evangelist, announced that “News that the Rev. Reginald Thompson Podmore was killed in action has been received from his batman, who is a prisoner of war. Fr. Podmore, of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Cowley, has been reported missing since the withdrawal from Dunkirk.”
His brethren were deeply affected. In the Cowley Evangelist of October 1940 Fr O’Brien announced his death in the customary formal way on the first page, before noting that he had “died in Belgium [as the community then still thought] probably in May, 1940, while acting as a Chaplain to His Majesty’s forces, in the thirty ninth year of his age and the seventh year of his profession”. He went on:
We have no details of Father Podmore’s death. His batman writing to his own mother said ‘The padre is dead, I must tell you more when I get home.’ We do not know the date, place, or any of the circumstances of his passing. He went to his new and unfamiliar work as an army Chaplain like many other Chaplains with not a little trepidation, but with a clear sense of duty. I think he was happy in the work. His Colonel wrote of the appreciation he gained from those amongst whom he worked…
There remains confusion about the exact date of Fr Podmore’s death. The army casualty lists have him as “Killed in Action 21/23.5.1940”. The memorial boards in the chapel at Cowley have his date of death as 23 May; while his memorial at Haileybury, his old school, has 21 May. Further complications arise from the account written by the late Bill Priest and deposited at the Museum of Army Chaplaincy, which claims 22 May.
Priest served with III Corps – to which Fr Podmore was attached – in 1939 and 1940. His account is harrowing.
Reg Podmore joined the RAChD in January 1940, his hair already gone grey, his cheeks bright and his eyes gleaming with purpose. At the age of 40 he had left a rather remote sect [sic!] of the Church of England – the Cowley Fathers – for the rougher world of soldiering, a young’s man’s profession in any age.
His first and only charge was a large transport unit – attached to III Corps – HQs – of some 1200 souls, under the command of Col. Mike Cahill, a veteran of the Great War. The unit’s job was ‘ammunition’. . .
The Spring of 1940 saw the unit scattered in and around a delightful Artois village on the edge of the Béthune coalfield complex. Chaplain Podmore established a small church in one of the rooms off the main hall in the village. Salle de Fêtes, opened a canteen for many of his ‘parishioners’ and ran occasional boxing matches.
The interminable phoney war ended abruptly on May 10th and the unit began to make some preparations for the move into Belgium; known euphemistically as Plan ‘D’. For some reason this move was to be halted on the Belgium border for several days at a place called Montecouvre. It was during the stay at Montecouvre that Padre Podmore asked to be permitted to return to his old HQs in Artois for some supplies he had left there. It was the last time that any of us saw this remarkable man; who had the knack of being both chaplain and friend to all alike.
Whilst he was being driven through the mining village of Divion-en-Artois, his car was machine-gunned by an advance company of an SS Division . . . Chaplain Podmore’s legs were shattered and when the SS realised they had shot a Padre they refused medical assistance and left him to die on the pave[ment]. The sight was more than a Frenchman in a nearby house could stand. He carried the Chaplain into his front room where he made him as comfortable as possible. R. T. Podmore died at about 4.30 on May 22nd, the first Padre to die during the 1939-45 War on Active Service.
His vestments and organ were buried in the Frenchman’s garden where they remained until the Liberation of the Pas-de-Calais, when they were dug up and returned to the Podmore Family in Eastbourne. For giving aid and comfort to the enemy to the SS arrested the Frenchman and his family and they would have been imprisoned but for the fact the person concerned was the chief of the local coalmine whose miners went on strike until their boss was released.
The community at Cowley knew none of this, of course. They had to wait until 1946, when, out of the blue, a letter written in French arrived at St Edward’s House in London addressed to “Monsieur Le Directeur”. The letter was from a Monsieur Mathon. He was the Chief Engineer of Mines at Divion, near Calais, and the “Frenchman in a nearby house” of Priest’s account, which it contradicts in a number of details. The letter was dated 8 July 1946, and Fr O’Brien caused a portion – and ‘portion’ is noteworty – of it to be published in translation in the Cowley Evangelist of the following month, noting that it was “of special interest and value”. It began “Dear Sir”.
I have in my possession some priestly vestments of embroidered silk, which belonged to Captain Reginald Thomson Podmore, Chaplain, who was killed at my house on May 23, 1940. Perhaps you have already received details concerning his death from his batman, George Randell, who succeeded in escaping while the Germans were occupied in burying the Captain in our garden. He had been attacked on the road and morally wounded. On the morrow, when the German force which occupied my house had left, I had a grave made for the Captain with a plaque, and contrived to give him a worthy burial. Some months later, when permission could be obtained, I had the body moved to the little English cemetery near at hand, and had a cross of cement placed upon his tomb, on which I fashioned his helmet and a plaque of copper upon which I had his name engraved, together with a religious form of expression (pensée) found in this prayer-book, written upon the photography of a grave which I presumed to be that of his mother. Knowing that his family and friends were still ignorant of his death, I had Masses said and prayers offered for him in our own church.
As soon as it was possible, I wrote by means of the Red Cross to his brother’s address which was found in his notebook; but I do not know whether the message ever reached its destination. In the same way, since our liberation, I invited an English officer, Captain William Lloyd, to come to my house in order to show him the place of the grave. He promised me that he would write, on reaching England, and try to discover the family; but perhaps he did not do so, for I never heard of him again. He left by air for the front in Holland, and it is possible that he also met with a mishap.
On leaving my house for the Dunkirk front on the 24th of May, 1940, the Germans took away Captain Podmore’s motor, after emptying it and throwing into the garden all that at that moment was no use to them. After their departure I collected all these objects, so that the family might eventually recover them. Unfortunately in 1942 the Germans came to arrest me, and before taking me away they ransacked the whole house. In this way they discovered all the Captain’s belongings and those of his batman, and carried them off. If I have been able to keep in safety the sacred vestments to which I referred, it is only because my wife, finding them to be too fragile to be left with the objects of a military nature, had wrapped them up and placed them in a special cupboard.
Believe me, dear Sir, Yours sincerely,
E. MATHON, Chief Engineer of Mines,
Route Nationale, Divion, Pas-de-Calais
Fr O’Brien had forwarded the letter to Fr Podmore’s father: the Revd Claude Podmore, Rector of Broughton, Northants, from 1900 until 1936. Claude Podmore wrote in the same issue of the Cowley Evangelist that he had met Randall, Fr Podmore’s batman.
[I] had a long talk with him, about 3 hours. He gave me full details of the attack. He and my son left the car and took shelter in a ditch before Reg. was hit. There is one discrepancy between his account and M. Mathon’s. He (Randall) with the help of two Frenchmen buried Reg. He did not escape, but was made prisoner. I am very glad to know that the grave is so well marked. I hope you will eventually receive the vestments safely.
There are, of course, a number of questions left unanswered. Priest must have relied on hearsay for his account, which was written decades after the events. But if its goriest details are true, then either Mathon did not disclose them, to spare Fr O’Brien the full horror; or Fr O’Brien received the full details and in the “portion” of the letter that he published spared the readers the same horror, and did the same for Fr Podmore’s father; or Randell, the batman, deliberately withheld the distressing truth from Claude Podmore for the same reasons.
That explanation seems rather too complicated to be plausible, and there are too many inaccuracies for us to be able to take Priest’s account as seriously as we might like. There would be no reason, for example, for the vestments to be returned to Eastbourne; but Claude Podmore’s father, the Revd Thompson Podmore, had been Headmaster of Eastbourne College. Crockford’s notes that Claude Podmore retired to Oxford in 1936, and so it is almost inconceivable that the Superior would not have taken such an important letter about his son to his home on the Woodstock Road.
Meanwhile, Mathon is clear that it was the Germans themselves who buried Fr Podmore in his garden: and so Priest’s tale of Mathon carrying him into his parlour and nursing him until he died must be discounted as a legend – although a kind and merciful one. For the same reason we must also discount his version of the time and date of Fr Podmore’s death.
Perhaps it is more reasonable to assume that the most reliable sources are Mathon and what we hear of Randell; and that Fr Podmore was indeed killed instantly, or almost instantly, after being hit by gunfire. Certainly that was what the family and the community believed, and they must have been glad of Mathon’s corporal work of mercy. They must also have been touched at the warm ecumenical gesture of requiem masses offered in the local church for the repose of his soul – and appropriately enough the church at Divion is dedicated to St Martin, the patron of soldiers. But it is strange that Mathon thought that Randell had escaped; and it is clear that Claude Podmore wished to defend his honour.
And so Fr Podmore awaits the resurrection in the little British section of the town cemetery at Divion, where his remains rest alongside those of seven soldiers of the same conflict that had claimed Br Walter Frederick SSJE on 23 April 1917. His grave is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is also uncertain about the date of his death – but there seems little reason for doubting Mathon’s memory of 23 May 1940. The letter in French that arrived at St Edward’s House in 1946 does not, at first glance, appear to be among the SSJE papers at the Church of England Record Centre at Bermondsey; but it is almost certain that Fr O’Brien would have left the original with Claude Podmore. What became of the vestments is a mystery, for now.
Dark powers may gather around the Cross, but the angels of God shall be found giving glory to the Tomb. Here we may taste the bitterness of death beforehand, dying daily under the oppression of the enemy, but when the shaft of death strikes us, the evil form will disappear. Then we shall see it laying low the ungodly, and we ourselves in Christ shall be set free for ever. Richard Meux Benson