Private Ernest BIRCHENALL
 

Regiment/Service:
Leicestershire Regiment
Unit:
1st Battalion ("The Tigers")
Service Number:
41477
Date of Death:
22 March 1918 - Killed in Action
Age:
19
Cemetery / Memorial:
Memorial Reference:
Bay 5



Personal History:


Ernest was born in January 1899, the son of George (Coachman) and Emily Birchenall, of Foxlow Cottage, Buxton. He had five older brothers and sisters, Sarah A.E., Arthur, Fred, Mabel and Edith Jessie. (1901 Census RG 13/3271).

By 1911 (Census RG 14/21238) a younger brother, Sidney had been added to the family. At the time of his enlistment Ernest gave his occupation as 'Butcher's Apprentice'. He was 5 ft. 8½ ins. (1.74 m) tall. 'The Buxton Advertiser' of 17th August 1908 reported that he ".. has been missing for some weeks. His many friends hope that news of him will soon be forthcoming.".

Military History:
Ernest enlisted in the Leicestershire Regiment at Buxton on 27th February 1917.  His Service papers have survived in that two very burnt pages exist, but add very little other than these bare facts, and without them it is not possible to say what his War service postings were. However, the soldier with the next Service Number, 41478 Private George Edwin Craddock was also with the 1st Battalion and he was called up to the 15th Training Reserve Battalion 8th March1917, and his date of entry to France was 12th March1918.

Bearing in mind his age when he died - just 19 - Ernest could not have been in France more than a few months. The 1st Battalion had originally entered France in the early days of the War and on 17th November 1915 had transferred to the 71st Brigade in the 6th Division. During The Battle of St Quentin (a phase of the First Battles of the Somme 1918) - 21st - 23rd March 1918 - the 71st Brigade was ordered to support 51st (Highland) Division on the Bapaume-Cambrai road in response to 'Kaiserschlacht' -  the German Spring Offensive which commence on the 21st March.

On the morning of the 22nd March the Third Army continued to hold off ferocious German assaults until mid-afternoon when its centre was forced back producing scenes of disarray on the Bapaume-Cambrai road. More seriously the Fifth Army, under incessant pressure began to show signs of collapse. No longer holding a continuous front, extensive enemy infiltration between its units destroyed any semblance of co-ordinated defence, resulting in a series of never-ending small retirements. British casualties were heavy and the Germans were through the Reserve Line by evening.

The Regimental History has this to say about the events of the day Ernest died:

" In the last desperate attacks by the German armies launched in the spring of 1918, the “Tigers” fought with unsurpassed heroism.  The sterling courage of the 110th Brigade in the defence of Épehy in March 1918 was a fine example of British grit.  Exposed to the full blast of constant attacks delivered by three fresh German divisions, the stubborn soldiers of Leicestershire refused to budge, but met each attack with such devastating rifle and machine gun fire that, when night fell, the front of their position was marked by heaps of German dead.  Only at one point did the enemy succeed in piercing the line at Vancellette Farm, defended to the last man by the party of Leicester men who held it."

At some time during the fighting Ernest was killed in action. There were 95 Officers and men of the 1st Battalion killed during the three day Battle, 71 on the 22nd March 1918. All but 9 of the Battalion's casualties have, like Ernest, no known grave and are commemorated alongside him on the Arras Memorial.
                                   

Sources:
· The Buxton Advertsier, 17 August 1918
· I am grateful to Adam Llewellyn and Martin McNeela for the War Diary and History extracts
· "Epehy: Hindenburg Line (Battleground Europe)" - Bill Mitchinson (1998) [ISBN-10: 0850526272] p. 26-29 (available online)

Link to CWGC Record
The Arras Memorial
Pt Birchenall's name on the Memorial
Pt Ernest Birchenall
poppy