Part 3

Photo:George Harper - the author

George Harper - the author

Farndon in the Great War

By George Harper

Able Seaman Ernest Hall DSM

No doubt you have to be careful when using the term ‘heroes’, particularly during the Great War when so many men went ‘over the top’ in the sure and certain belief that they would die within minutes, or even worse die a drawn out lingering death in No Man’s Land. And it was the case that only a minority of men who no doubt deserved the title of hero were rewarded with decorations for bravery.  However, with that proviso, there were probably three Farndon men who served in the Great War who deserved that description.

Let’s start with Able Seaman Ernest Hall. He was the son of a local coal merchant who lived on North End Farndon. Before joining the navy he worked for a time at a local firm, J. Howitt and sons He then enlisted in the Royal Navy before the outbreak of war and served with a Royal Navy gunnery unit., and odd though it may sound, these units often served in land actions on the Western Front. In action against the Germans he was twice recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal. On the first occasion in April 1915 it was for his actions in saving wounded comrades. He carried a wounded gunner to a place of safety, but when he returned to his gun he discovered that two more men had been wounded. With an officer he went in search of a stretcher only to return to find an exploding shell had wounded another group in a dug out. Ernest carried on with the rescue operations despite the obvious dangers to his own personal safety, and helped transfer the casualties to safety in a nearby house until an ambulance came to take them to hospital.

Then in June the same year there was a fierce German attack on the part of the front line he was defending. From 5.00 am to 11.30 pm he and his comrades stuck to their posts without food or water until the attack was beaten off. For his role in this action Able Seaman Hall was awarded his DSM.

The following year he was the victim of a German gas attack and spent some time in recovery before being returned to more conventional naval duties In 1918 he was involved in the most outstanding naval action since the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The campaign by the Germans to cripple the British war effort by the use of submarine warfare was having a devastating effect and one of the key bases from which the German U boat fleet was operating was the port of Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast.

A plan was devised by the Admiralty to block the port of Zeebrugge by sinking three aging warships in the entrance. Whilst this operation was in progress a combined force  of troops, marines and seamen would be landed from  the cruiser HMS ‘Vindictive’ onto a nearby causeway where they would keep the enemy occupied and beat off any attempts to bring up reinforcements to the scene. Able Seaman Hall had volunteered to be a member of the landing party. As the group of ships approached they were spotted by the Germans and so lost the element of surprise. The raiding party were then subjected to a fierce bombardment resulting in many casualties even before they had even set foot on enemy soil. Ernest Hall’s role in this action was described in detail in the columns of the ‘Newark Advertiser’. He managed to get ashore with only a minor injury to his arm. Together with his comrades they charged the gun batteries with fixed bayonets and managed to silence a number of them. The, whilst setting off a flare, he was hit in the back by a piece of shrapnel. However he carried on and with his mates destroyed a German torpedo boat by dropping grenades into its magazine and blowing up its munitions. He must have been one of the last to leave because he described how he was again wounded in the back, and then as the stepped onto the gang plank it was being raised and he fell and fractured his shoulder. What a night! During the whole of the action 170 men were killed or died of wounds and 400 others were wounded. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded for gallantry during the action, though Ernest did not receive any further decoration for his part.

Ernest survived the war and later became a postman in Newark, but that wasn’t quite the last of his connection with Zeebrugge. Pre-war he regularly attended reunions of the survivors In 1942 in an effort to raise money for the war effort Newark ran a ‘Warship Week’ and the distinguished visitor to generate enthusiasm was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes. Now Roger Keyes had led the raid on Zeebrugge in 1918. ‘Nobby’ Hall was now living on Boundary Road and had spent the night on fire watching duties so was catching up on lost sleep in bed. Nevertheless he was summoned to the Town Hall to meet his old commander and shake hands. “Sir Roger was pleased to see me”, he told a reporter, “and of course I was more than delighted to have an opportunity of meeting him again. We talked of old comrades and old times. Sir Roger never forgets.”

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This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of 'Farndon Focus', and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and the magazine's editor.

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