16616, Private, “C” Company, 7th Battalion. Bedfordshire Regiment.
Missing In Action on the 22nd March 1918 aged 17.
Ernest was born in Baldock, the son of Ernest & Emily Poulter. He enlisted in Ware, Hertfordshire, and was posted to France on the 30th August 1915. He was reported as missing in action whilst the Battalion was involved in fighting at Crozat Canal on the 22nd March 1918 and was not seen again.
British units conducted an aggressive, sometimes vicious, fighting withdrawal along the 50 mile front and carefully chose their positions at which to stop, turn towards their pursuing enemy and fight. The British 'Rear guard' units made the advancing German battalions pay dearly, but also suffered in return. The 8th Durhams are recorded as saying they killed more Germans that day than during the entire war to that point. However, the 2 companies of the 7th Leicesters (450 men) fighting one of the scores of rear guard actions, only 1 officer and 14 other ranks fell into enemy hands and none got back to their own lines. Indeed the 11th Royal Fusiliers of the 54th Brigade mustered a pitiful 2 Officers and 26 other ranks from a starting strength of over 650 by end of 23rd March. Badly outgunned British artillery fired over open sights for the first time since 1914 before being overrun by bayonets themselves, causing horrific casualties amongst their enemy yet still the juggernaut rolled towards the thing British lines. Several British and German Battalions were wiped completely from the Army Sheets in the bitter fighting over these two days.
The day's events were broken into dozens of separate, often isolated engagements as the Germans pressed forward and the British held their posts, often not knowing who was to either side of them due to the thick fog that did not burn off until early afternoon. Brigades and Battalions did not count for much that day. It was a day of stubborn and often heroic actions by platoons, sections and even individuals isolated from their comrades by the fragmented nature of the battle and lack of visibility.
A mile east of the Bedfords, as dawn broke, a cook in the 53rd Brigade was busy preparing breakfast for his platoon. He could see no-one through the thick fog and hear nothing above the roar of the guns yet he carried on, knowing the smell would bring them running. Unexpectedly a group of Germans appeared from the fog but by the time he realised they were not his pals, it was too late to react. Thinking fast, he bartered with them; his bacon in exchange for his freedom. Warily, the Germans insisted on him eating some first, presumably to check it was not a trap. Having seen he was genuine, the starving German soldiers hungrily devoured the rare treat and the cook slipped away into the fog, eventually finding his unit and, after complaining that the Germans had eaten his breakfast, he joined the firing line to help beat the next attack off!
The 7th Bedfords started the second day moving into a defensive position between Mennessis on their southern flank, and the intact La Montagne Bridge on their northern flank. Despite the urgent necessity to destroy the bridge, "it couldn't be blown as we'd got no explosives" according to one bemused Private. Exploding trench mortar shells and various other ingenious methods were tried to bring the bridge down, all without success, leaving the Bedfords no option than to set their defences carefully and wait. By 7am they were in position, having spent the night marching, then digging in. They waited, peering through the thick fog which reduced visibility to between twenty and fifty yards at best, unsure what was about to be thrown at them. Visibility beyond the opposite canal bank was impossible so they lined the western bank and waited for whatever was to come at them out of the fog.
The 11th Royal Fusiliers took up position between Jussy and north of La Montagne Bridge with the 7th Bedfords holding from the bridge to the northern fringes of Mennessis, within sight of the village cemetery. The Northampton's were kept in Brigade reserve and sheltered in the woods and copses to the west as well as the cover would allow.
Attempts to force the bridge that day were repulsed with heavy losses inflicted on the attacking German battalions but at 5.45pm, C Company were finally pushed from Montagne Bridge by a heavy German attack. However the Brigade regained the bridge again by a counter attack 2 hours later. Several medals were won around this position, including a Victoria Cross by Second Lieutenant A.C. Herring of the Northampton's, several D.S.O.'s and Military Crosses, numerous Military Medals, and Distinguished Conduct Medals. The 54th Brigade History records:
"Captain Browning [2nd in command] of the Bedfordshire Regiment won his MC that day. The enemy attacked with large forces, crossed a bridge that had not been demolished [La Montagne Bridge], and succeeded in pushing back the left flank of the Battalion [C Company]. He was immediately counter attacked and thrown back across the canal [by C Co. and 3 Companies of Northamptons]. This was largely due to Captain Browning, who displayed magnificent leadership in collecting and organising the men and launching a counter attack at a critical moment under intense artillery and machine gun fire".
"Things had looked so bad for the Bedfordshire Regiment at one time on the afternoon of the 22nd that, with the enemy within 200 yards of Battalion HQ, Colonel Percival, Commanding Officer, and Captain Browning, 2nd in command, destroyed all maps and secret documents to prevent their falling into enemy hands".
Mennessis became the Strategic Anchor of that sector of the battle, as the determined German onslaught started taking its toll on the exhausted, badly battle worn British defenders. The remnants of British units south of that point were forced from the canal and conducted spirited fighting withdrawals, suffering further heavy losses in the process. All available units not already engaged were thrown into the gap that developed south of Mennessis, including cooks and transport drivers as the ever shrinking 54th Brigade stubbornly held the banks of the Crozat Canal.
The 54th Brigade History records: "On March 23rd the Germans crossed the Montagne Bridge, after severe fighting, and gained a position on the south bank of the canal. 2nd Lieutenant Herring's post was cut off from the troops on both flanks and surrounded. He at once counter attacked with his post and recaptured the position, taking over 20 prisoners and 6 machine guns. The post was attacked continuously throughout the night for 11 hours, and all attacks were beaten off. This was entirely due to the splendid heroism displayed by 2nd Lieutenant Herring, who continuously visited the men personally throughout the night and cheered them up. The initiative and individual bravery of this officer were entirely responsible for holding up the German advance for 11 hours at an exceedingly critical period. The magnificent heroism and personal bravery of this officer, coupled with his initiative and skill in handling the troops, were most important factors in holding up the German advance over the Crozat Canal"
It is worthy of note that 2nd Lieutenant Herring had never been in combat before, as was the case with the entire section of men he was leading. Their counter attack and subsequent refusal to surrender was worthy of his V.C. but Herring and what was left of his post was captured on the morning of the 23rd, having held out for eleven hours without relief.
Darkness came and brought a day of hard and bitter fighting to an end yet still the canal had been held. During the night the Germans kept their attentions to sniping and bursts of machine gun fire but did not attack again, leaving the battered, surviving Bedfords to grab any rest they could in their improvised trenches and gun pits.
Ernest has no known grave and his name is recorded on the Pozieres Memorial, France. (Panel 29)
Medal Entitlement: 1914/15 Star, British War Medal & Victory Medal.