The family tree for Ernest Gay is recorded on this site. Ernest was the youngest child of Henry George Gay, a coachman and gardener, and his wife Ada Frederica Dunstan. Ernest was born at Nymet Rowland, but the family were living in 1911 in Rose Cottage, High Street, Winkleigh. Henry was employed by Mrs. Johnson at the Old Vicarage, first as a coachman, but later as a gardener. He died quite young, aged 66 and his funeral was reported in the North Devon Journal on 12th October 1916.
Ernest must have become interested in gardening and horticulture as he grew up: Born in 1897 he was 16 when he entered for the Eggesford flower and produce show, held together with athletic sports, in the grounds of Portsmouth House. The event was reported by the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on 5th August 1913. Ernest won awards for his beans, rhubarb, parsley and cut blooms exhibits.
Ernest's elder brother, Henry was already serving as a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and his war record is recorded on the Roll of Honour site. He was present at his father's funeral and had obviously obtained leave for the occasion. Neither John nor Frederick served, and both were present as mourners, but Ernest was then already at the front.
Sadly, Ernest's records of service were lost, along with some 70% of others, in the London blitz when Somerset House was greatly damaged by fire. Ernest's medal card tells us little, but it does reveal that he was not awarded the Mons Star, which means that he was not in France before the end of 1915. He must have enlisted that year, however, and was probably able to choose the Royal Garrison Artillery, one of the safer options of service.
There were three phases in which men were enlisted into the army generally throughout the country during the war:
Phase 1: The voluntary phase, August 1914 to the opening of the Derby scheme in October 1915, and indeed during the period of the Derby Scheme itself which closed on 15th December 1915.
Phase 2: The Derby Scheme, first announced to the country on 15th October 1915, 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 organising the enlistment. 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, and here again Col. Alexander, a J.P. was much involved. 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 originally called for, there was no need for further recruitment. Fewer than half those available had attested, throughout the country 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 1915.
Phase 3: Conscription. 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, both married and single.
His father's funeral report gives us important information about Ernest, who was not present. 'The youngest son, Ernest William Gay, is in the Royal Garrison Artillery at the front, where he is doing his bit in the great advance'. This refers, rather optimistically, to the battle of the Somme, which by October 1916 was struggling to make any progress at all.
We can also deduce that Ernest was already in France much earlier than this. One of Ernerst's sisters, Elizabeth known as Bessie, married into the Saunders family. The Western Times reported this wedding in Winkleigh on Easter Monday April 1, 1916. This report is important for the knowledge it gives of the family: Frederick, who gave his sister away, clearly deputising for his father, presumably too ill or infirm to be present. This report, revealing that Ernest was unable to be present, gives added support to the medal card, but we do not know when he enlisted. It is possible that, choosing the Royal Garrison Artillery as a reasonably 'safe' option he might have enlisted either before or during the Derby Scheme, where he could be sure of choosing the unit in which to serve. He obviously did well. The North Devon Journal for 26th July 1917 reported:
'Gunner E.W. Gay RGA has been promoted to Bombardier and detailed for an N.C.O. Signalling course at 1st Army Signalling school. Bombardier Gay before enlisting was residing at Morte-Hoe. His home is at Winkleigh.'
The Royal Garrison Artillery Heavy Batteries RGA were equipped with heavy guns, sending large calibre high explosive shells in fairly flat trajectory fire.The usual armaments were 60 pounder (5 inch) guns, although some had obsolescent 5 inch howitzers. As British artillery tactics developed, the Heavy Batteries were most often employed in destroying or neutralising the enemy artillery, as well as putting destructive fire down on strongpoints, dumps, store, roads and railways behind enemy lines. As such they were positioned in much safer areas well behind the front lines, but were of course quite vulnerable to enemy counter-battery fire as well as hostile aircraft bombs. The R.F.A. Siege Batteries were positioned even further back. Siege Batteries RGA were equipped with heavy howitzers, sending large calibre high explosive shells in high trajectory, plunging fire. The usual armaments were 6 inch, 8 inch and 9.2 inch howitzers, although some had huge railway or road mounted 12 inch howitzers. As British artillery tactics developed, the Siege Batteries were most often employed in destroying or neutralising the enemy artillery, as well as putting destructive fire down on strongpoints, dumps, store, roads and railways behind enemy lines.
Decorated with the Victory and British War medals, Ernest returned to Winkleigh. His death is recorded in December 1974, at Barnstaple aged 78.
13th May 2018