A review of Fire-Eater: Captain A O Pollard VC, DCM, MC and Bar
I first read Captain Pollard’s book “Fire-Eater” while on a visit to Lashkar Gah in Helmand during the summer of 2007. While there I shared a room with a veteran Infantry Major, he spotted the book I was reading and laughed, “Pollard was a bloody nutter,” he said, “anybody who enjoyed the war that much must have had a screw loose.”
There’s no doubt that Pollard was a special man. His combination of medals was very rare and his memoir, with its exciting and triumphant description of World War one trench fighting, is almost unique. In the Forward to Fire-Eater Pollard writes: “I enjoyed the war, both in and out of the line…I found pleasure in wandering around no-mans land at night.” Later in the book he quotes a letter that he sent from the front to his girlfriend, he signs it off with the line: “I have killed another Hun. Hurrah!” It’s this perspective of the First World war that makes “Fire-Eater” such an excellent read. It offers a different narrative to many books of the period and dwells more on the comradeship, bravery and excitement of war rather than the horrors.
Captain Pollard was born on 4th May 1893 in Wallington, Surrey and was educated at St Olave’s Grammar school in Orpington and at Merchant Taylor’s school in the city of London. After school he worked as a Clerk at an insurance Company (Alliance Assurance Company), a job he didn’t enjoy. When war broke out in 1914 he was quick to enlist, as he says: “The opportunity of freedom from the slavery of desk routine was probably almost as big a contributory factor as patriotism in the shaping of my destiny.” He joined the same Regiment as his elder brother Frank, The Honourable Artillery Company, which was formed in 1537 making it the second oldest military unit in the world behind the Vatican’s Swiss guard. He quickly moved through the ranks serving as a Corporal and a Sergeant before gaining his commission.
On 30th September 1915 during fighting at Sanctuary Wood near Ypres Pollard (then a Sergeant in the HAC’s 1st Battalion) lead a bombing fight against the Germans and continued to throw bombs at the enemy despite being severely wounded himself. In his own words: “A Hun bomb exploded right in front of me hurling me back…I sat up and shook myself like a dog. All over my body were little prickles where splinters of the bomb had pierced my flesh.” For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Fighting with bombs was something of a specialty for Pollard. After he recovered from his injuries he was commissioned and returned to France where he began training a platoon of bombers. In the book he gives a good description of bombing tactics: “(A bombing party) consisted of eight men. Two ordinary Riflemen with bayonets fixed lead the way – their job was to protect the bomb throwers from surprise and tackle any of the enemy they come across. Behind them came the first bomb thrower followed by a man carrying a supply of bombs for him to throw. Then came another bomb thrower and another carrier. Then the leader of the party and lastly a spare man who acted as an extra carrier.”
In 1916 the HAC joined the 63rd Royal Naval Division and in bitter winter fighting around Grandcourt. Pollard was awarded his first MC for his successful command of dangerous reconnaissance patrols. Two months later in April 1917 he won the bar to his MC at Arras. Despite an impressive set of ribbons Pollard still wasn’t finished. On 29th April 1917 he and his close friend and fellow HAC Officer 2/Lt Bill Haine both won the Victoria cross for their actions at Gavrelle. The fight was a bitter, confusing struggle in a maze of trenches against tough German troops of the Prussian Guard. Pollard, with just three other men, was tasked with forming a defensive flank against a German counter-attack. They moved cautiously along the trench for about 100 yards until they encountered the Germans. A vicious grenade battle then followed with Pollard and his men putting captured German bombs to good use. His citation reads: “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 had already won the DCM and MC, infused courage into every man who saw him.”
Reading “Fire-Eater” it is hard to tell whether Pollard ever experienced fear. He relished the fight and welcomed any opportunity to kill Germans. Part of this may have been due to the death of his brother in September 1916. In his own words: “I felt that never again would I pity the enemy. Rather I would do my utmost to kill as many as possible.” Later when his friend Percy Lewis was killed he admitted: “I did not feel as much as I expected. I think my brothers death had hardened me…My nature was becoming callous.”
On 21st July Pollard and Haine attended their investiture at Buckingham palace alongside sixteen other VC’s. It was a grand affair and Pollard was thrilled to receive the medal from the King himself. As the war drew to a close Pollard found himself training American troops who he found to be inept and arrogant, unwilling to listen to those who’d learnt trench warfare the hard way. Like many brave warriors Pollard struggled to come to terms with his return to civilian life after the war. He married twice and drifted between a number of jobs, including a short service commission in the RAF. Eventually he fell into writing. As well as his memoirs he wrote over fifty other books including many thrillers and detective novels. But life was still tough, in the Dundee Evening Telegraph he wrote an article called “VC’s don’t help to get jobs, ” The subtitle read: “War heroes are distrusted now: Even the pawnbrokers set a low value on decorations.”
Pollard eventually died in Bournemouth on Monday 5th December 1960, aged 67. His medals are kept with the HAC. I highly recommend Fire-Eater to anybody interested either in World War one or the psychology of warriors. Was he a “nutter”? Well in my opinion he was a certainly a man who hid any fear that he felt and he thought of the war as a grand adventure. Perhaps his drive and bloodlust were simply his way of dealing with the bitter reality of violence and death that dominated every second of life in the trenches.