This article is based on a study that I carried out in 2017 on the life and military service of Pte 380800 John William Ponsford. He was officially accepted as having lost his life on 3 November 1917. Aged 20 when he died and a native of Portsmouth, he has no known grave and is commemorated at the Tyne Cot Memorial.
John had trained with the 84th Provisional Battalion and then the 17th (Reserve) Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He landed in France with a draft on 25 June 1917, proceeded to 39 Infantry Base Depot and then joined the 14th (Service) Battalion on 7 August 1917.
The battalion was under command of 116th Infantry Brigade of 39th Division. All of John’s service in Flanders fell within the period when the Third Battle of Ypres was in progress.
Circumstances of John’s death
The battalion’s war diary tells us that on 3 November 1917, the men marched from Chippewa Camp to relieve another unit in the support position at Canada and Hedge Street Tunnels. Next day, they provided working parties for the Royal Engineers. No casualties are mentioned and according to records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission John was the only man of the battalion to lose his life.
John was at first only confirmed as missing in action. Only one such case was declared by the entire 39th Division (under whose command the battalion came) in the period 1-8 November 1917, making the exact circumstances of John’s death very difficult to determine.
Locations of John’s service and death
When John’s draft arrived in early August 1917, 39th Division had been withdrawn for rest and re-organisation, and the 14th Hampshires were billeted at Méteren.
On 13 August 1917 the battalion moved to Ridge Wood near Vierstraat before proceeding to take over a sector of front line trenches near Hollebeke, south east of Ypres. The realities of war on the Western Front came quickly to the newly-arrived men, for on the “fairly quiet” day of 14 August 1917 as reported in the battalion’s war diary, the 14th (Service) Battalion came under shell fire and sustained 70 casualties. After four days in the front line, the battalion moved rearward to a nearby support position known as the Spoil Bank. It then returned to the Hollebeke trenches before coming out to Ridge Wood on 24 August.
On 28 August 1917 the battalion returned to the reserve position near the Spoil Bank and after three days went into the front-line sector of Klein-Zillebeke.
On 3 September 1917 the battalion came out to Ridge Wood once more, before proceeding for training, rest and re-organisation well in the rear at Chippewa Camp.
On 8 September 1917 the battalion returned to the forward area and went into bivouac in Shrewsbury Forest, where for several days it provided carrying parties. It then returned to Chippewa Camp before going back to Ridge Wood on 14 September. This pattern essentially continued until 28 September, when the whole 39th Division was relieved and moved to a rear area. The 14th Hampshires moved by bus to Mont Kokereele near Boeschèpe.
The battalion remained in training at Mont Kokereele until 15 October when it was returned by bus to the forward area, this time going to the Tower Hamlets sector of the front line. After two days, the battalion was relieved in the front line and moved to a nearby reserve position. It came under heavy shell fire at times during this tour of duty.
On 23 October the battalion came out for rest and re-organisation, initially at Caernarvon Camp before returning to Chippewa Camp. As things turned out, this was John’s final location before his battalion moved off on 3 November 1917. 116th Infantry Brigade now received orders to relieve 118th Infantry Brigade in the support position known as Canada Tunnels and Hedge Street Tunnels. As the name suggests, this was a complex of underground dugouts, shelters and tunnels where a unit could remain in comparative safety yet still be not far behind the front line