838370 Pte. John Pridmore witnessed the valour and the carnage of the victorious advance on Vimy Ridge on 9th-10th April 1917 before being killed in action the following day.

Over 70 men of his Battalion lost their lives, with more than 80 wounded, during the assault on the heavily defended German position in one of the Great War's most historic battles.

The 4th CMR's War Diary records an action on the 11th to 'dislodge the enemy from a trench system on the reverse side of the Vimy Ridge slope' which resulted in 'one officer and 7 men killed, and 20 men wounded.' It is believed that 19-year-old John Pridmore was one of the seven who died that day.

Though he was fighting under the banner of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, John wasn't Canadian. He was born in England - one of the 1,100 British Home Children who died fighting for the 'Mother Country' during the First World War.

Between 1869 and 1939, 120,000 British Home Children were transported to Canada on a one-way ticket. Abandoned by their families these 'child migrants' were sent by emigration agencies in England to farming families in rural Canada, many of whom later saw the chance of signing up into he CEF as a way of getting home. John was one of them. His two sisters, also Home Children, never got the opportunity to return. 1 in 10 Canadians are said to be descendants of Home Children.

An internet discovery

John's story came to light during research for my biographical novel, Cyprus on Thames, which relates the struggle of the Pridmore family from near destitution in London's East End at the turn of the 20th Century, to my grandfather Ernest receiving George Medal for conspicuous bravery during the Blitz of 1940.

Kathy Mazzeo, of Missouri, had included John's name in her Bateman family tree which was posted on the Ancestry site. I contacted her and between us we unravelled the mystery of what had happened to John and how our families came to be connected.

A far cry from Paradise

My grandfather's family, the Pridmores, lived in Cyprus - not the sun-drenched Mediterranean island then flying the Union Jack - but a run-down housing development on the edge of London's Royal Albert Dock, overlooked by towering gasometers and mountains of scrap iron, with black dust from the coal sidings and the gas works clogging the air. It was a far cry from paradise for those who lived there. John's mother, Eliza Pridmore, was 17 when she found herself pregnant and alone. On 13th July 1897 she gave birth to John in Leytonstone Workhouse in London's East End. Unable to look after him, her father arranged for the child to be taken in by the Bateman family who lived nearby, though they never formally adopted him.

John knew he was related to the other Pridmore children in the area, but no one explained how. When John was seven years old, Mr Bateman died and, facing a crisis, Mrs Bateman made the decision to emigrate with her children to Bowsman in Manitoba. For whatever reason, John was left behind and in 1906 found himself back in the workhouse where he was to remain for the next three years.

A 'Home Child' to Canada

In 1909 John was identified by the authorities as being suitable for emigration to Canada under the Annie MacPherson Home Children scheme. Having grown up in the workhouse he knew how to give the right impression to adults and was soon picked out of a line by Andrew Holland, a farmer from Shallow Lake, Grey County, Ontario, for work on the land. They treated him well and Shallow Lake was to be his home until November 1915, when he presented himself at the Army recruitment office in Owen Sound for service overseas.

The calm before the storm

Private John Pridmore, Regimental Number 838370, initially enlisted with Grey County's 147th battalion and began training for action in the 'European War'. It was while he was marching round the streets of Owen Sound that he first met Stella Moore. He knew right away that she was the girl for him, and they promised to tie the knot on his return from the Western Front. As a measure of his sincerity, he made Stella's mother his next of kin 'so they'll know straight away if I get injured or anything.'

On November 14th, 1916, the 147th Battalion embarked from Halifax on the Titanic's sister ship, the SS Olympic, bound for England. While on leave from training he determined to locate his family and turned up unexpectedly at the door of his cousin, Ernie Pridmore, a tug crewman with the Port of London Authority. It was there that he learned the truth about his mother Eliza and discovered he had two half-sisters, both of whom had been left in the workhouse before being sent to Canada like him.

Off to the Front

On 17th February 1917 John transferred to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles (2nd Central Ontario Regiment) and arrived in northern France on the 26th. His first taste of real action came on 18th March when his unit relieved the 60th Canadian Infantry Battalion at the front. By April 1st he and his fellow soldiers were at Villers-au-Bois resting in preparation for the "big push" that everyone knew was coming.

At 5.30 am on Easter Monday, April 9th, whistles blew and the British Third and Fifth armies attacked along a 15 mile front near the town of Arras. The four Canadian divisions advanced together against Vimy Ridge under constant bombardment and machine gun fire. After two hours of heavy fighting, the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles had occupied the enemy front line and support trenches.

Having secured their positions, a patrol was sent out to Petit Vimy on the 10th, where a force of Germans with a machine gun was discovered in the sunken road to La Folie Wood. This was bombarded clearing a way for the forward troops. On the 11th, John's unit was ordered to dislodge the enemy from a trench system on the reverse side of the Vimy Ridge slope during which time the Canadians were heavily shelled.

By the night of the 11th the Battalion had held the line for 65 hours without blankets, great coats or much in the way of sleep, when they were finally relieved by fellow Canadians amid a snowstorm.

The decisive battle for Vimy Ridge helped to turn the tide of the War.

Letter from Canada

It was the words Canada Postage that made Ernie look at the stamp more closely. The handwriting on the envelope was unfamiliar too. He hadn't heard from John for three weeks and was beginning to worry.

He opened the letter in trepidation:

Newlands Farm,
Park Head, Ontario
April 18th, 1917

Dear Ernest,

It is with very great sorrow that I have to inform you that your cousin John was killed in action at Vimy Ridge, in France, on 11 April. I felt duty bound to write and tell you of this tragic news as John made me his next of kin prior to setting off for England.

We first heard that he had been wounded and hoped for the best, but you can imagine how distraught my daughter Stella became once the information was corrected and confirmed that he had in fact been killed.

I wanted you to know that John was extremely well liked by everyone in our family, and we had become very fond of him. He was kind and thoughtful to Stella and they were a devoted couple. I was only too happy to give them my blessing when I heard they were planning to get married.

John never spoke a great deal about his childhood, but I know that he didn't have much stability and being dispatched off to a foreign country must have been distressing. It all makes his courage and fortitude seem even more remarkable to me. The poor boy wrote a will before going to the front, leaving everything he had to Stella. This, it turns out, is just his uncollected pay, bless him.

Stella told me that he wrote enthusiastically about meeting you and your wife recently. I think making a connection with his English family was important to him and I am truly grateful that you made him feel welcome.

He will be missed, but rest assured not forgotten,

Yours sincerely,

Jeanette Moore

[Pte. John Pridmore lies at rest in the La Chaudiere Military Cemetery, Vimy, France.]

Thanks go to author Angela Young (née Pridmore) for the extensive and detailed biography.

The headstone image is used with permission from Library and Archives Canada, under their non-commercial reproduction policy.