Ernest Ellacott was born in April 1886, the son of Thomas Ellacott, a butcher in Winkleigh and his wife Elizabeth, who in the early years of the century is described as a laundress. The 1901 census records the family as living at Denis’ Cottage, with four children - Emily aged 17 (helping her mother in the laundry business), Ernest aged 15 and working as a labourer, Edith aged 7 and Winifred aged 3. Ten years later the family had moved into the Exeter Road. Elizabeth was now assisting in the butcher’s shop, and other children listed in the 1911 census were William aged 39 who with his daughter Elsie aged 6, had returned to live with his parents, and was a cattleman, Florence aged 17, assisting at home, and Winifred now aged 13 and still at school. Ernest himself, aged only 18, had married on 29th October 1904 at the Register Office in Torrington and was living in Vine Street, with his wife Emily Ford and their two children, Ernest aged 6 and Ruby aged 3. In 1914 he was working as a general labourer for Mr. E.J. Isaac, on the farm at Loosedon Barton.
We are extremely fortunate to have a complete history of Ernest’s long army career from the time when aged 20 he first joined the 4th Volunteer Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment on 1st March 1906 with the army number 363, up to the time when he was finally demobbed in 1919. These documents have survived the London blitz which destroyed so many of the soldiers’ records because after the war he applied for a pension and the documents were transferred from Somerset House to the Ministry of Pension records where they survived the bombing. Ernerst’s story is particularly interesting because it is an excellent example of how older soldiers, too elderly to the sent to the front line, nevertheless were given useful work in the army support services. Willingness to enlist, or re-enlist, in 1914 was no less patriotic and valuable as it was for the thousands of younger men who rushed to enlist in the Territorials or Kitchener’s New Army at the start of the war.
The story goes back to May 1881 when the Childers Reforms, undertaken by Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers, had restructured the infantry regiments of the British army. A continuation of the earlier Cardwell reforms, Childers created a network of multi-battalion regiments. In England, Wales and Scotland, each regiment was to have two regular or “line” battalions and two or three militia battalions, numbered the 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions. This was done by renaming the numbered regiments of foot and county militia regiments. In addition the various corps of county rifle volunteers were designated as volunteer battalions. Each of these regiments was linked by headquarters location and territorial name to its local “Regimental District”. In this way Ernest joined the Devon Militia, enlisting in the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. Two years later the volunteer battalions were converted into units of the new Territorial Army. The Territorial Army, created as a result of the Haldane reforms in 1906, had envisaged a force of 300,000 men in fourteen large infantry divisions including field artillery and ancillary services with the Yeomanry regiments providing the matching 14 cavalry brigades. The Territorials were designed to be the main force in home defence - to repel enemy coastal raids and deter the threat of a possible invasion. Service overseas was to be strictly on a voluntary basis. The Territorial Force came into existence on 1st April 1908, and was initially very successful in attracting recruits, responding both to the national mood regarding German expansion of their fleet following the launching of British super-battleships, the ‘Dreadnoughts’ and the fact that the annual camp provided young men with 15 days paid holiday which their employers were constrained to permit, though there were many complaints about this in many areas of employment. Thus for Ernest it was a smooth transition from the ‘Volunteers’ to the ‘Territorials’ needing only a new army number and new Attestation documents which were signed on 19th April 1908. He obviously thoroughly enjoyed the 6th Devons and consistently re-engaged over the next five years for a year’s service each March or April between 1909 and 1913. The annual camps under canvas with much emphasis on sport were as always great attractions for the young men. Encompassing week-ends a week could be stretched to 10 days of glorious fun and companionship in the best days of July or early August before the harvest began. The camps are recorded: 1908 East Anstey, 1909 Whitchurch Down, 1911 Minehead, 1912 Willsworthy, 1913 Bulford. There is no record of why 1910 was missed. In 1914 we know that the 6th Devons were already in camp at Woodbury Down when war broke out. Four days later, on August 8th 1914, Ernest was embodied for war service, which to start with meant Home Defence for all Territorial forces.
Ernest had as usual re-engaged for service in April 1913, but the terms of this period of engagement allowed for his discharge 3 years later on 13th April 1916. He had had to travel a lengthy journey to Herne Bay (via Paddington) for the papers to be signed, but by that time Ernest was no longer in the 6th Devons. He had been transferred to the 86th Provisional Battalion of the Devons’ Territorial Forces, a unit of reserve troops and those ‘Home Service’ personnel unfit or over-aged who could not be sent overseas. (In August 1915 the 86th were renamed the 15th Battalion, under the command of the 227th Brigade). Although only 28 years old in 1914 it is clear that Ernest had not joined the bulk of the 6th Devons men who eagerly opted for overseas service when it became clear very early on in the war that Britain’s tiny professional army needed to be quickly reinforced. The Devon Territorials (4th, 5th and 6th Battalions), part of the Devon and Cornwall Infantry Brigade, were well under strength (only 22 Officers and about 700 men in the 6th) for the July/August camp when they assembled for the annual fun and games on Woodbury Common near Exmouth. However, the rush to join began at once and consequently for each Battalion a second was immediately formed (for 2nd/6th at Barnstaple). Meanwhile, those already serving in the battalion immediately left Woodbury and proceeded not to Barnstaple but to Plymouth where they shared a congested night with the 1/5th Battalion in their Drill Hall, without any facilities for bedding, feeding, cooking or washing. On August 5th the 1/6th moved on to Fort Renny, near Plymouth, mounting guard at various points in case of an immediate German invasion - much feared at the time. On 9th August the 4th, 5th and 6th Battalions all entrained to move to Salisbury Plain. The 6th had an unfortunate journey, which started with a 10 mile march to Plymouth station. The train then took them to Salisbury station where, in order to provide some sort of breakfast, the CO had commandeered the entire supplies of the refreshment room. The march to camp was a further 17 miles, with each man carrying rifle, pack and 100 rounds of ammunition. Only half the men completed the journey, and the C.O. was reduced to commandeering, and having to pay for local motor transport to pick up all the stragglers.
The 6th Battalion was attached as ‘Army Troops’ to the Wessex Division when very soon the Division as a whole received orders to proceed direct to India to set free for field service in France some of the regular battalions serving there before the war. The 6th Battalion received a special message from the King which included the encouragement that the Battalion was ‘helping him and the kingdom as much as if they had gone straight to the front’. Although the Territorials had repeatedly been told before the war that they were merely being asked to form a force for Home Defence it was quickly recognized by Lord Kitchener that they would be needed for much wider service, partially trained though they were. However, overseas service remained voluntary and in order to preserve the Territorial forces (rather than decimate them by transferring the volunteers to New Army battalions) the conditions of service were quickly altered - much to the hostility of many parents who were violently opposed to the idea of their sons serving overseas in a war area. The young men themselves, however, were mostly keen to join the great adventure, and in the three Territorial Battalions of the Devons most men immediately volunteered. By August 31st those in the 6th Devons who had failed their stricter overseas medical examination, together with those who wished to remain as Home Service men, were returned to Barnstaple to serve as a nucleus for a second-line Territorial battalion that was being raised. For those who had volunteered and who remained in camp, hopes of going to France were dashed on 16th September when the 6th received its orders to proceed to India. The Battalion sailed on 9th October landing at Karachi on 11th November.
Ernest therefore soon found himself back at Barnstaple, and from there posted to the 86th Provisional Battalion, in which he served until his discharge from the Territorial Army in April 1916, the documents describing Ernest as ‘a trustworthy soldier’. It was inevitable that he would now be called for re-enlistment. The Derby Scheme, devised to encourage voluntary enlistment, was a partial failure. First announced to the country on 15th October 1915, the scheme comprised a personal canvass of every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one on the basis of the National Register. Each man was asked either to join at once or attest, and committees were set up in every locality. In Winkleigh, Col. Alexander was in the forefront. Single men and married men formed two groups: each were sub-divided into a further twenty-three groups according to age, to be called up in strict order, starting with the single men aged 19, and the married men to be called only after the single me had all been enlisted. Tribunals were set up for those seeking exemption from attestation or postponement on grounds of special hardship or essential war-work. Those who attested could still, in theory, choose their branch of the army in which to serve although pressure was brought on as many as possible to serve in the infantry. The scheme was no more than a partial success, as many argued that since three million men had already come forward, 75% over and above the numbers Kitchener had called for, there was no need for further recruitment. Fewer than half those available had attested, the Tribunals had been too liberal in granting exemptions, and more men were indeed needed when the Derby scheme was finally closed on 15th December. As a result, the conscription bill affecting single men was introduced into the House of Commons on 5th January 1916, becoming law on 27th and in March 1916 the youngest group of married men who had attested were of necessity also called up. A second military service bill, introduced on 3rd May 1916, became law on 25th May, and extended the liability for military service to all men between eighteen and forty-one. If Ernest, now aged 30, had not already re-joined, he would soon be called upon to do so, but meanwhile he resumed his work in Winkleigh as a hay-cutter.
He was indeed recalled under the Military Service Act on 8th August 1916, requesting at the time to re-join the 6th Devons. Instead, he was given a new number, 41076, and posted to the 14th Labour Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, which had been formed in Plymouth that August. The descriptive report on his enrolment lists his address in Winkleigh as ‘Inches Tenements’ The 14th landed in France in October 1916, and it ultimately transferred to the Labour Corps in April 1917 to become the 154th and 155th Labour Companies. Although Ernest’s medal card does not confirm the date of his arrival in France, his military history sheet clearly dates this as October 3rd 1916.
Although the army in France and Flanders was able to use some railways, steam engines and tracked vehicles for haulage, the immense effort of building and maintaining the huge network of roads, railways, canals, buildings, camps, stores, dumps, telegraph and telephone systems, etc, and also for moving stores, depended on the Labour Corps. This took time to become properly organised. In August 1914 there was no formed body of troops specifically designed for these tasks, so that in the early days the manual work near the front lines was carried out by the Pioneer Battalions which were added to each Division - men who would normally be employed on labouring work but could be used as fighting troops in an emergency. Among several other infantry regiments, the Devons formed two Labour Battalions the (12th and 14th Battalions) and one Works Battalion (the 13th) for work on the lines of communication abroad and at home, but the organisation of manpower generally was haphazard until the formation of the Labour Corps which expanded hugely as the war progressed and became increasingly well-organised. However, despite adding large numbers of men from India, Egypt, China and elsewhere, there was never enough manpower to do all the labouring work a Division required. The total number of men engaged on work in France and Flanders alone approximated 700,000 at the end of the war, and this was in the labour units alone. In many cases the men of the infantry, artillery and other arms were forced to give up time to hard effort when perhaps training or rest might have been a more effective option.
The military history of Ernest Ellacott is an excellent example of how the system expanded. Too unfit for front line service with the 6th Devons in 1916, the August formation of 14th Labour Battalion provided an excellent opportunity for the use of his services. Very few of the Labour Battalions’ War Diaries have survived, so we are immensely fortunate that the records of the 14th from 1916 – 1917 are available, though in fact very little of interest was recorded. In April 1917 the Battalion was merged into the Labour Corps.
We have a summary of Ernest’s career. He enlisted on 7th August 1916, but was a member of 6th Devons for no more than 13 days. On 19th he was posted to the 14th Labour Battalion, 43rd (Wessex) Division. The Division had been mobilized in September 1914, but was in no condition to serve in France: instead it was sent to India in exchange for 32 regular army and 20 Indian Battalions brought back to serve in France and Belgium. However, the Labour Battalions were to be attached only at Army Corps level. An Army Corps was an intermediate level in the command chain. It reported up to an Army, and commanded Divisions. The VIth Corps HQ (to which the 14th Labour Battalion was attached) had a number of units directly under its command (Corps Troops), including in this case the 14th Labour Battalion.
The War Diary of the 14th Labour Battalion records that the battalion left Renny Huts, Plymouth on 4th/5th October 1916 immediately after it had been formed and mobilized to be sent to France. Clearly men from various units had been drafted in to create the battalion, including Ernest Ellacott in the August. The battalion embarked on ‘La Marguerite’ and ‘Courtfield’ at Southampton on 4th, and disembarked at Le Havre at 8.30 am on 5th October. From there the men marched to the Docks Rest Camp at Le Havre. On 7th they entrained to join 6th Army Corps, which operated in the Loos/Arras area.
On 8th October 1916 the battalion arrived at Savy station at 8.00 am and marched to Beaufort, where it was split up, with Headquarters at Beaufort, ‘D’ Company to Manin, ‘A’ Company to Rebreune Magnicourt, ‘B’ Company to Liencourt, Etree Wamin and Duissans, and ‘C’ Company to Wanquentin, Berneville and Gouy. In all these locations the battalion was employed in repairing roads and cutting wood behind the front line. From time to time small detachments would be sent to other locations, for example on 15th October to Oppy Wood and Ayesnes-le-Compte. The units were under the immediate control of the Royal Engineers, for whom they provided a self-contained labour force. The battalion was in very little danger: casualties resulted from sickness. In December 1916 24 ORs were invalided directly back to the UK while a further 52 were in hospital and 9 were posted back to base. A further 12 men were invalided home in January 1917, while the very severe weather in February took a further toll of the already weakened men. In that month 3 men died, 9 were invalided home and 53 went to hospital. The numbers of men used in labour work grew substantially: the strength of the battalion in February was 12 officers and 1103 other ranks. 2 men died of pneumonia in March, a further 62 went to hospital. The Headquarters remained at Honval throughout the winter, though the various companies were rotated around the original locations as some camps were more comfortable than others. However, in May 1917 the Labour Companies were reorganised. The 14th Labour Battalion together with several others from other regiments was now transferred on 14th May 1917 to become the 155 Labour Company. Leaving the Territorials for the Regular Army, Ernest was paid a bounty of £15 and he took it at once rather than seeing it credited to his army pay account.
Sadly, the War Diary of the 155 Labour Company has been lost, so we have no record of where Ernest Ellacott was posted. Then, on 26th April 1918 he was posted again, to 148 Labour Company, and three months later to 167 Company on 30th August 1918. (Again no records exist). Here, and after the war was already over and those with priority already leaving, he was promoted to the rank of unpaid Lance-Corporal on 2nd February 1919, and further promoted to paid rank on 27th February 1919 when he was posted for the last time to 261 labour company guarding German prisoners of war who were waiting repatriation. Ernest was demobilized on 12th March 1919, at No1 Dispersal Unit, Fovant. He returned home to Winkleigh to live in Court Walk, leading from Queen Street to the main Exeter/Torrington Road.
Ernest’s documents have survived because a full two years after demobilisation he had applied for a pension, on the grounds of suffering from sciatica, presumably blaming the onset as a result of his war-work. No record was made of the cause, but the disability was regarded as 100%. An assessment was made and Ernest was awarded 40/- a week in abeyance and thereafter for 18 months. A further assessment was made on 13th December 1922 and the allowance was renewed for a further 13 months. On 13th December 1922 the sciatica was finally marked off as ‘non-attributed’ and ‘non-aggravated’, signaling no further grounds for any renewal of the award. Armed with the 1919 Protection Certificate issued to all troops proving that they were properly demobbed and not deserters, Ernest could finally retire from army life. His record was blameless, he had served his country for 11 years, both in the Territorial and the Regular Army, and Winkleigh could be justifiably proud of the example he had set to his family and to the village.
16 July 2011