This story is the result of an investigation of documents held by Surrey History Centre. The file (SHC ref. CC7/4/4, nos. 1-50) contains correspondence and insurance claims on behalf of Surrey County Council Education Department employees who had been killed in action during the Great War. The cases date from 1915 to 1918.
Name: Ernest John Harland
Occupation: Teacher, East Molesey Church of England School
Birth Place: East Molesey, Surrey
Residence: 33, Chatham Road, Kingston-on-Thames
Date of Death: Killed-in-Action 9th October 1917
Age: 31 years
Location: Reutel, near Ypres (Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele))
Regiment: 2/1st Battalion, Honourable Artillery Company
Regimental Number: 3317
Ernest was the son of Frederick, a warder with H.M. Office Works, and Elizabeth who, by the 1891 census, had had ten children. In March 1905, Ernest obtained a first-class entrance scholarship to Winchester Training College, which he attended from 1905 to 1907. By 1911, he was living with his sisters in Park Road, East Molesey. One sister was also a teacher.
On 2nd August 1913, he married Elsie Gertrude Wheatly in the Parish Church in East Molesey and, together they had a daughter, Audrey, who was born on 21st June 1914. Upon Ernest’s enlistment, Elsie was living in Ambleside, Beauchamp Camp, East Molesey.
His army service record sates that he had pre-war army experience having been a member of the 1st Hampshire Volunteers. According to the Winchester College website, it was expected that students would join the volunteer company, and it appears Ernest was no different.
Ernest enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) on 31st March 1915, and proceed to rise quickly through the ranks, becoming a Corporal in September 1916.
The Honourable Artillery Company is the oldest regiment in the British Army, dating back to 1537 when Henry VIII granted a charter to the Fraternity or Guild of Artillery of Longbows, Crossbows and Handguns for ‘the better increase of the defence of this our realm’ and ‘the maintenance of the science of artillery’. It fought in the English Civil War and sent members to the Boer War. In 1908, following army reforms, it become a Territorial Force (T.F.) – part-time soldiers. It was to send seven units to France, and some 13,000 men. The 2nd Battalion HAC fought as infantry throughout the First World War.
As the HAC was a T.F. unit, which like the rest of the T.F. had been established for ‘Home Service’ only, T.F. soldiers had to volunteer for overseas service. Ernest did so on the 31st May 1915 at the Tower of London.
The 2nd Battalion HAC was raised in August 1914, with recruitment beginning the following month. When Ernest joined it was at Orpington, then it moved to Tadworth, and then finally to the Tower of London in August 1915 to prepare for war. He sailed with the 2/1st Battalion HAC from Southampton on board the paddle steamer La Marguerite, arriving in Le Havre on the 3rd October 1916. His service record states that he proceeded to the front, near Steenwerck, on 4th October 1916. Bouts of illness, dysentery and colitis in November and December interrupted his time with his unit, but he eventually re-joined ‘C’ Company, 2/1st Battalion, HAC on 20th December 1916 around Beaumont Hamel on the Somme.
On 25th May 1917 he was promoted to Sergeant.
For the first quarter of 1917, the battalion had a comparatively quiet time – training and in trenches. They were involved in moving forward as the Germans retreated in February, and in March took part in fighting around Bucquoy before moving forward again after the retreating Germans. In May they attacked the village of Bullecourt, south of Arras – which the 62nd Division had only just failed to capture. Despite heavy fire they managed to gain their objectives, but were forced to withdraw by German counter attacks. One group of HAC men did not receive the order and continued to hold the village until they were relieved on 7th May. They were involved in further fighting in the area, and when they were finally withdrawn, they had suffered over 250 casualties; only 4 officers and 94 men remained.
They remained in the Bullecourt area in June and July. At the end of August 1917, the battalion moved from the Arras region to Eecke, to the west of Ypres, and the Battle of Passchendaele which had been raging since July. For much of September they were involved in training and, towards the end of the month, even a bowling competition! In October they moved to the area of Polygon Wood.
In early October the battalion took part in an attack to straighten a salient that had formed on the Divisional front. For the battalion, this meant capturing the enemy-held village of Reutel to the west of Polygon Wood. Capturing the village would also allow observation of the surrounding area.
On the 8th of October, the day before the attack, officers reconnoitred the area and the route towards the village. In forming up for the attack, the battalion lost some 40 casualties. On the 9th of October at 5.20 a.m. a barrage was laid down on the enemy, and the battalion advanced only 50 yards behind it. Battalion Headquarters then appeared to lose touch with the advancing troops, and it was not until midday that it was confirmed that elements of the battalion had captured the village. Officer casualties had been so severe that no officers were present in Reutel. Interestingly, the War Diary records that ‘A’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies had suffered such heavy casualties that they were relieved. Records show that Ernest was a member of ‘C’ company, which had had a ‘stiff fight’ for a pill-box costing the lives of most of a platoon.
The 2/1st HAC held the village and were relieved on the 10th. During the attack, the battalion suffered 296 casualties, including fifty-six dead, one of whom was Ernest. No officer that took part in the attack was not a casualty.
While the exact circumstances of his death are unknown, Lieutenant Reginald Mytton, C Company,2nd Battalion, wrote to his wife on 17th October 1917:
‘His loss will be felt very much by his Company and may I be allowed to tender you my sincere sympathy in your bereavement.’
While Ernest’s body was never recovered, his wife did receive his personal possessions – a pocket wallet, letters, photos and a lock of hair.
After his death, Ernest’s family pursued an insurance claim with Surrey County Council, who had taken out an insurance policy on behalf of Ernest. As part of this process, local enquiries were made into the circumstances of the family.
Ernest’s wife was now living in Walton Villa, Pemberton Road, East Molesey, and she is described by the local vicar, Revd. Ireland, as being ‘left in poor circumstances… she has a child… and is a woman of excellent character’. At the time of Ernest’s death, she was only received separation allowance of 22 shillings a week. His wife eventually received £90 18 shillings and 11 pence.
Ernest’s body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium
He is entitled to the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Surrey History Centre CC7/4/4, file 34
Winchester Training College, Roll Call of the Fallen, 1914-1918 – Ernest John Harland – https://wtcfallen.com/harland/
National Archives WO363, Soldiers Service Record – 3317 Sgt. Ernest John Harland
Major G. Goold Walker, The Honourable Artillery Company 1914-1919, (London, Seeley, Service and Co. Ltd. 1930).
Honourable Artillery Company website – https://www.hac.org.uk/home/about-the-hac/history/
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – https://www.cwgc.org/
Ancestry website – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/