Today marks the centenary of the action for which Second Lieutenant Alfred Oliver Pollard was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. During this centenary of the First World War a commemorative paving slab is being laid in the recipients’ home towns. Pollard was born in Melbourne Road, Wallington, and also lived at ‘Tidbury’, 2 Belmont Road, but the slab is being installed outside Wallington library.
Before the war Pollard worked as a clerk, however as soon as war broke out he joined the 1st Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company as a Private, disembarking in France just one month later.
Pollard was not one to shy away from danger; not only was he awarded the Victoria Cross, but also the Military Cross and bar, and the Distinguished Conduct Medal – a rare combination. The citations give an insight into his courage under fire. He was awarded the DCM for an action that occurred in September 1915:
‘For conspicuous gallantry on the 30th September, 1915, at Sanctuary Wood, during the bombing fight. Although severely wounded, Serjeant Pollard continued to throw bombs, at the same time issuing orders to and encouraging his men. By his example and gallant conduct he renewed confidence among the bombers at a time when they were shaken, owing, to the enemy being in superior numbers and throwing many more bombs than were available on our side. He did not give up until he fell, severely wounded for the second time.’
On recovering from his wounds Pollard returned to France in May 1916 with a commission. Finding that the wound he had received to his arm impacted his shooting and bomb throwing (for which he had a penchant), he trained himself to use his left hand. In September 1916 his elder brother James was killed at Ginchy whilst serving with the 1st Grenadier Guards; an event that had a big impact on Alfred and made him even more determined to kill more Germans.
Alfred’s Military Cross was awarded for his actions at Grandcourt, on the Somme, on 7th-8th February 1917:
‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led a patrol and carried out a dangerous reconnaissance. Later, he assumed command of a company and repulsed two strong enemy counter-attacks.’
The bar to his MC quickly followed during the Battle of Arras for what The Times called ‘…an audacious reconnaissance of the Oppy-Gavrelle line.’ Pollard’s battalion was part of 63rd Division, which was in reserve at the start of the Battle of Arras. However on 17th April the division was sent forward to relieve the 34th Division, and the 1st HAC advanced to occupy positions close to the German line between Gavrelle and Oppy. Pollard led a patrol towards Gavrelle to reconnoitre the German line. On finding a dugout occupied by Germans the patrol retired, but on regrouping Pollard discovered one man was missing. He and another man went back to try and find him, but were discovered by German sentries and had to quickly withdraw through the German trenches.
The citation for the bar to his Military Cross reads:
‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line under very heavy fire, and obtained most valuable information. He set a splendid example of courage and determination.’
The German line was successfully taken and held in the face of a fierce counter attack on 24th April. On 29th April the battalion was ordered to attack a strongpoint in the German lines. The position was taken and Pollard advanced further along the trench with a handful of men. The Germans started bombing down the trench but Pollard met them head on and then defended against a counter attack.
‘For most conspicuous bravery and determination. The troops of various units on the left of this Officer’s battalion had become disorganised owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire; and a subsequent determined enemy attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement, closely pressed by hostile forces.
2nd Lt. Pollard at once realised the seriousness of the situation, and dashed up to stop the retirement. With only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, and pressed it home till he had broken the enemy attack, regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition.
The enemy retired in disorder, sustaining many casualties. By his force of will, dash and splendid example, coupled with an utter contempt of danger, this Officer, who has already won the D.C.M. and M.C., infused courage into every man who saw him.’
Pollard was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 21st July 1917. It is currently held by the Honourable Artillery Company in London.
After the war Pollard published his memoir ‘Fire Eater: The Memoirs of a VC.’ (for a great review see Christian Parkinson‘s blog here). This autobiography is particularly frank about how he enjoyed the war and wanted to kill as many Germans as possible. Pollard went on to write over 50 fiction books and died in 1960.
Buy ‘Fire Eater’ from Amazon here:
Fire-Eater The Memoirs of a V. C.