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The real-life wars of Dad's Army actor Arnold Ridley

Arnold Ridley as a soldier and as an actor
Image caption Arnold Ridley joined the Army in 1915 and went on to experience the horrors of trench warfare

As the film version of Dad's Army is released at cinemas across the country, BBC News looks at the life of Arnold Ridley, the only actor in the original television series to serve in both World War One and Two.

Unlike the character he played, the gentle medic Private Charles Godfrey, who was a conscientious objector in World War One, Ridley experienced hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches and was seriously injured by a German wielding a bayonet.

On Desert Island Discs in 1973, the playwright and actor described his first stint in the Army as "those dismal days" but added: "You know, memory is a strange thing. After a lapse of time, even the most miserable set of circumstances, roses seem to grow round them a little bit."

Roses, though, did not grow around his memories of World War Two, and while he could talk about his service in the first war, the "mental suffering" he experienced meant he would not speak of his time in the second.

He said: "To recount events, I would have to relive them. I am too afraid."

Image caption Michael Gambon plays Private Godfrey in the film version of Dad's Army, the role originally portrayed by Arnold Ridley

Born in Bath in 1896 and educated at Bristol University, Ridley made his acting debut in a production of Prunella at Bristol's Theatre Royal in 1913. But his stage career was put on hold with the advent of the Great War.

He had originally volunteered in 1914 at the age of 18, but was turned down as he had a broken toe sustained while playing rugby.

But the following year he was accepted by the Somerset Light Infantry and was stationed in Plymouth.

Image copyright BBC/Reuters
Image caption Arnold Ridley is the great-uncle of Star Wars actor Daisy Ridley, although he died eight years before she was born

Years later, in an interview with the BBC, he admitted to being horribly homesick, having to cope with a "sadistic" regimental sergeant major and facing the prospect he might never survive the horrors of trench warfare.

He said: "I thought I was doing my duty for my country. I didn't know I was going to be treated like a convict. Did it make better soldiers of the callow youths we were then? I doubt it."

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Media captionThe cast of Dad's Army talk to Tim Masters

Private Ridley arrived in Arras in March 1916. He had removed his marksman's badge because he did not want to be made a sniper. He later commented: "I didn't go to France to murder people."

Within days of arriving he was hit in the back by shrapnel and shot through the thigh.

He had recovered by July 1916, and returned to the Western Front in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme.

Image caption Godfrey had been a conscientious objector in World War One, unlike the actor who played the character

The 20-year-old Ridley went into no man's land on 18 August. Fifteen of the men in his group were killed or seriously injured soon after leaving the trenches, when a preliminary barrage was dropped on them instead of the German machine-gun posts.

During the attempt to reach Delville Wood, Ridley's battalion suffered nearly 50% casualties. He later pointed out: "It wasn't a question of 'if I get killed', it was merely a question of 'when I get killed'.

"The trenches were full of water and I can remember getting out of the trench and lying on the parapet with the bullets flying around, because sleep was such a necessity and death only meant sleep."

Image caption Private Godfrey was a gentle retired shop assistant who was the medic for Walmington-on-Sea's Home Front platoon
Image caption Arnold Ridley's portrayal of Pte Godfrey was a far cry from his own wartime experiences

Although a German bayonet was thrust into his left hand, cutting the tendons to his fingers, he survived. Ridley said "It's not altogether a right thought for a young man to hope he's been maimed for life - but I did. I thought 'well, if I've lost my hand I shall live. They can't send me out there again'."

After recovering in England, he faced the British Army Travelling Medical Board. A doctor suggested his hand injury was self-inflicted.

Ridley said he replied: "Yes, sir. My battalion is famous for self-inflicted wounds and just to make sure I cracked my skull with a rifle butt as well and ran a bayonet into my groin."

He was discharged from the British army on 27 August 1917.

Later that year he was given a white feather (a symbol of cowardice) by a woman in the street. He took it without comment.

When he was asked why a returning soldier would be treated in such a way, he answered: "I wasn't wearing my soldier's discharge badge. I didn't want to advertise the fact that I was a wounded soldier and I used to carry it in my pocket."

Image caption Ridley would speak of his time in the trenches of World War One, but not of his experiences of World War Two

It can be seen as a foreshadow of the episode Dad's Army in which Godfrey is revealed to have been a conscientious objector in World War One.

The gentle medic has to face the wrath of the blustering and unsympathetic Captain Mainwaring - who derided him as a "conchie" - but it is later revealed that Godfrey had been a stretcher-bearer in the trenches, saved lives in the Somme and been awarded the Military Medal for exceptional bravery.

The time between the wars was an opportunity for Ridley to resume his career. In 1919 he joined the Repertory Theatre in Birmingham, appearing in more than 40 productions, and in 1923 he wrote the mystery thriller The Ghost Train, the most successful of his plays.

But they were not always good times - his wartime experiences led him to have nightmares. He said: "I would wake up drenched in sweat, sometimes I was afraid I would black out when I was on stage."

The outbreak of World War Two saw him join the British Expeditionary Force as an intelligence officer.

Image caption Ridley joined the Home Guard in real life after being invalided out of World War Two

Ridley, now a major, was sent to France in 1939. He later admitted: "Within hours of setting foot on the quay at Cherbourg in September 1939, I was suffering from acute shell shock again. It is quite possible that outwardly I showed little, if any, of it.

"It took the form of mental suffering that at best could be described as an inverted nightmare."

Ridley was evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940 and, aged 44, was demobilised from the Army. He joined the Local Defence Volunteers - the organisation that later became the Home Guard - before touring bases entertaining the troops.

He appeared in numerous shows through the 1950s and 60s, including The Archers and Crossroads, until he was cast, aged 72, in Dad's Army in 1968. He played the role of Godfrey until the series finished in 1977.

Ridley married three times and had one child, Nicolas. He is also the great-uncle of Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley, although he died aged 88 in 1984 - eight years before she was born.

He was awarded the OBE in 1982 - but for services to drama, not his heroic exploits in two world wars.

Sources: Desert Island Discs, IMDB, Bristol University Archives, This is Your Life

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