When armistice was declared on 11th November 1918, the country erupted in a sea of celebration. Across the land communities united in their euphoria that the end of the war had finally arrived. Everyone emptied into the streets to share in their collective relief that the Great War was finally over. Well, not quite everyone.
It wasn’t yet over for Eliza Hine. Behind the doors of Kelly Cottage, shut away from the joy & revelry, surrounded by three of her four children, she yearned for news of her eldest son, Ernest, who had been taken prisoner earlier in the year. Although he had written “a good account of himself from his captivity”, she was desperate to hear that he was still safe, well and soon returning home. It was news that she was never to receive.
Eliza had given birth to James Ernest Hine, to give him his full name, in Torbryan on 28th March 1899 where his identically-named father worked as a farm labourer. They already had a daughter, born 15 months previously in Ilsington, and the family was further expanded a few years later, while living in Broadhempston, with the addition of another boy and girl.
Towards the end of that decade, around 1909, work took the family to one of the cottages at Moorhouse Farm, Hennock where Mr Hine was in the employ of a Mr John Isaac of Hawkmoor. It was not to be a happy move, though, as tragedy struck two years later during a violent thunderstorm. According to a newspaper report, “the thunder was the heaviest and most continuous remembered in the district for many years, and houses were shaken as if by an earthquake”.
The report recounts that James Hine had been toiling in the fields and was leading his pair of horses to the stable, when “just as he reached the door, he and the horses were killed, the lightening being attracted, it is thought, by the steel harness on the horses”. Although the cottage in which the family were living was not affected, it went with the work: so, as well as losing a husband and father, they were also about to lose their home.
Through connections, perhaps, Eliza found a new roof at Kelly Cross, possibly the same connections that found her work in the laundry at Hawkmoor Sanatorium. Now the man about the house, Ernest had to support his mother and after leaving school, he found work at Kelly Mine. Much as he appreciated his family role, when he reached the requisite age in 1917, he could not resist the call to duty and journeyed to Newton Abbot to enlist in the army; his place, both in the home and at the mine, being taken up by his younger brother, William.
Ernest spent ten months in one of the battalions of the 22nd Training Reserve Brigade at Chiseldon Camp in Wiltshire, said to have been an ideal training ground for trench warfare by virtue of the surrounding downland “providing some imitation of the battlegrounds of Belgium and France”. Following his preparations, he was drafted into the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry (DCLI) as a Lewis machine-gunner and he crossed with his regiment to France on 2nd April 1918, a very significant time in the course of the war.
Just the previous month, prime minister, Lloyd George, had decided that more men would be needed if disaster was to be averted and took charge of the War Office to rush all available troops to the front line. As a consequence, shipping capacity was dramatically increased from 8,000 to 20,000 men per day. During that first week of April, when Ernest went to war, a total of 73,618 men were sent to France.
The timing was crucial as the German Army had just begun its Spring Offensive, a concerted push to win the war by cutting off the British supply lines from the Channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne. The second major operation of this campaign, known as The Battle of The Lys – also as the “Fourth Ypres” – began on 7th April, with Ernest and his comrades of the DCLI, arriving four days later to reinforce the front-line south of Merville. It was a desperate time with the allies on the back foot: indeed, the picture looked so bleak that Field Marshall Haig issued his “Backs to the Wall” address in which he declared that “There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man… believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”
Despite the rapid deployment of troops to the area, the German Army continued its push with the British Army constantly having to fall back. On 12th April, our forces were so surprised by the speed of the German advance, that the gunners became the front line and in the scramble to escape some guns were lost. By that evening, the 51st Division (of which the DCLI was a part) ceased to exist as a fighting force. More significantly, in our story, Ernest had been captured, just ten days after landing in France.
News slowly filtered through and the June issue of the parish magazine announced “the sad news that Private Ernest Hine is reported missing. The best that can be hoped for is that he may yet be heard of as a prisoner of war”. An update, that he was indeed a POW, appeared the following month and, in September, our village journal was pleased to tell its readers that Ernest Hine “writes a good account of himself from his captivity at Sprottau. His wounds were not serious and have healed.” A silence then fell, and it was not until after the war had ended that news finally reached Lustleigh that Ernest had sadly died in captivity on 24th September, the cause being inflammation of the lungs.
“There is much that is especially lamentable about this”, recorded Lustleigh parish magazine. “But his short life was a blameless one. And now there is peace.” His body was laid to rest in a churchyard at Ebersdorf, close to the POW camp at Chemnitz in which he died, with some of his comrades taking part in the funeral. Today, his remains lie in Berlin South-Western Cemetery where graves from 146 burial grounds across eastern Germany were brought together during 1924-5.
Of course, his loss was lamented by his mother, and also by his siblings, his younger brother honouring his hero by giving his son, born in 1932, the middle names, James Ernest.
For his part in the Great War, James Ernest Hine was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal. As well as being listed on the Lustleigh War Memorial, he is also commemorated on the memorial in Bovey Tracey; and by virtue of his previous residence (and school attendance) in Hennock, he is also listed in that parish’s Book of Remembrance.
James Ernest Hine will be remembered on Monday 24th September when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
Sources used include:
- Lustleigh Parish Magazine
- Western Morning News
- “The British Army on the Defensive” by Geoffrey David Blades (accessed on nickpowley.com)
- “Smitten Down yet Not Destroyed”, Bovey’s WW1 book
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Ancestry & FindMyPast