Cedric Popkin enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in March, 1916. Like many young men and women in the British Empire, he felt a call to defend her against what most considered to be German aggression. By April, 1918, Cedric had achieved the rank of sergeant in a gunnery regiment and found himself stationed in the Somme area of France. That area saw intense fighting over the course of several years. Even today, French farmers still unearth live shells, including poison gas shells, from the French soil where they were left over a century ago.
Sadly, in June, 1918, Cedric received a shell fragment in his right leg and had to have it amputated. When he finally reached his Australian homeland in early 1919, Cedric decided to pick up the career he had before the war–that of a carpenter. He also came home to his wife, Ellie, and his two boys, Roland and Michael. When asked about his time in the Great War, Cedric would usually talk about it, but he rarely brought up the subject himself.
Most real heroes are like that, aren’t they? Most of them don’t brag about their exploits no matter how big or small. Men and women who were actually in combat usually keep their thoughts to themselves. Cedric was like that. And he surely had plenty he could say about his time in France.
In particular, Cedric could have bragged about one day in April, 1918, when he was manning the company’s Vickers machine gun in the front lines. The whole area buzzed with activity–snipers, shelling, and, as always, the annoying buzz of aircraft, both allied and German, as they danced around each other in the sky above.
Occasionally, the pilots of those planes would swoop low over the trench lines and strafe into the soldiers who never expected an attack from above. The German flyers were especially good at this, and knowing that, even in the protection of the trench, that death could come at you sideways made even strong, brave men be on edge.
Cedric and his fellows saw a low flying one-on-one dogfight that came back and forth in the land immediately in front of them. The German pilot seemed to have the advantage, and the poor allied pilot swooped back and forth in a desperate attempt to lose the enemy on his tail. Cedric and his company started shooting at the German plane, trying to help their allied comrade. The Vickers gun poured its lead into the enemy. I’ll let Cedric tell you what happened:
“(I) waited for our own plane to pass me, as the planes were close together, and there was a risk of hitting both. As soon as this risk was over, I opened fire a second time and observed at once that my fire took effect. The machine swerved attempted to bank and make for the ground and immediately crashed. The distance from the spot where the Plane crashed and my gun was about 600 yards. I handed my gun over to the No. 1 gunner and proceeded to where the plane fell.”
What Cedric found when he reached the German plane was a man who was mortally wounded. He and his buddies watched the man die. His last words, according to others present, was “Kaput.” The German pilot was found to have a wound that entered his right side just under his armpit, and the bullet had exited his chest.
The Australians treated the dead pilot, as they did all their enemies, with great respect and buried him the next day. Even though others claimed credit for the kill, the bullet was definitely the type used by Cedric’s Vickers gun. Yet, even as an old man, Cedric never bragged about the incident.
You’d think he might. After all, it’s not every day you might have been the man who shot down Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.