Private Ernest Oliver Chapman

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Private Ernest Oliver Chapman

 3/8674, 2nd Bn., Northamptonshire Regiment who was killed in action between 10th -14th March 1915, aged 22

Remembered with Honour
Barrow Hill Memorial
Kettering Memorial
Le Touret Memorial Panel 28 to 30

ERNEST OLIVER CHAPMAN was born in Irchester, Northamptonshire in 1892, the son of Alfred Chapman and his wife Rose Ann (Cheney).  Alfred was originally from Leicester and worked from home making parts for shoes. Rose Ann had been born in Kettering and was just 15 years old when they married in 1889, and 17 when she had the first of their seven children. Rebecca Amy was born in Kettering (1891) and Ernest in Irchester (1892). Younger sister Annie (1895) was also born whilst the family lived in Irchester.  The family had moved to Finedon by the time that Lily (1898) and Rose Ann (1899) arrived and the family was completed when Albert (1904) was born in Kettering and Ivy (1906) and Riley (1910) were born in Broughton.

Ernest joined the Northamptonshire Regiment Special Reserve on 5th February 1909, aged 17 years and 2 months.  The Special Reserve was a form of part-time military service that had been introduced in 1908 as a means of building up a pool of trained reservists in addition to those of the regular Army Reserve. Special Reservists enlisted for 6 years and had to accept the possibility of being called up in the event of a general mobilisation and to undergo all the same conditions as men of the Army Reserve. This meant that it differed from the Territorial Force in that the men could be sent overseas. Their period as a Special Reservist started with six months full-time preliminary training (paid the same as a regular) and then 3-4 weeks training per year.

At the time of his enlistment, Ernest was just 5’2 ¼ tall and weighed 119lbs.

By 1911, father Alfred was no longer making parts for shoes and both he and Ernest were employed as labourers at a Blast Furnace. Sister Lily, aged 14, was still working in the shoe trade for which the area was renowned.

Ernest married shoe-maker May Elizabeth Ann Robins on 2nd September 1912 at Kettering Register Office. They were both just 19 years old and May was 4 months pregnant at the time. Their daughter, Winifred Mary Rose was born on 5th Feb 1913 in Northamptonshire shortly before the young family moved to live at the newly built 43, Devonshire Cottages at Barrow Hill where Ernest had found work with the Staveley Coal and Iron Company.

Devonshire Cottages WM

When war was declared, and Ernest was mobilised early in August 1914, May was expecting their second child. He remained in England until 4th November 1914 when the 2nd Battalion left for France under command of 24th Brigade in 8th Division as badly needed re-inforcements for the British Expeditionary Force. Ernest landed in Le Havre on 5th November, exactly one week before his wife gave birth to their son, Ernest Herbert.

Once the fighting of the First Battle of Ypres had died down in November 1914, British units that had been holding the Ypres Salient were relieved by the French. By December, the BEF had moved and was holding trenches in a continuous sector of the Western Front from a little south of St Eloi, round past Armentières to Neuve Chapelle, past Festubert and to the La Bassée Canal at Givenchy.

The static and dull nature of trench warfare and the close proximity of the enemy (which meant that they could be heard, and their breakfast cooking smelled, although rarely seen) caused many men to be curious about the men they were facing. They were certainly facing the same conditions of wet and cold, and in a strange way a mutual respect developed.

During the afternoon and early evening of 24th December 1914, British infantry were astonished to see many Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns, on enemy parapets. There was much singing of carols, hymns and popular songs, and a gradual exchange of communication and even meetings in some areas. Many of these meetings were to arrange the collection of bodies.

Bury dead Xmas 1914

British soldiers bury their dead alongside German soldiers engaged in the same activity.  Christmas Day, 1914

On Christmas Day, in the front lines, the fraternisation of Christmas Eve continued throughout the day. Many bodies that had been lying out in no man’s land were buried, some in joint burials. Many men exchanged tokens or addresses with German soldiers, many of whom spoke English. As night fell, things grew quiet as men fell back to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal had been provided for them. Ernest Chapman’s Battalion was in 8th Division at Picantin, Fauquissart and Neuve Chapelle and took part in the 1914 Christmas Truce.

This account of the action in which Ernest Chapman was killed is taken from here

Neuve Chapelle was the first large scale organised attack undertaken by the British army during the war and followed the miserable winter operations of 1914-15. By 4.30 a.m. on the 10th of March, 1915, all the troops were in their positions.  At 7.30am, the artillery began their barrage and then shelled the village of Neuve Chapelle. For the infantry waiting in the trenches, the attack would now commence.  The first phase of the infantry attack went well, with the troops rapidly gaining the enemies front-line trenches, and the village itself within 45 minutes.

However, as the day progressed, the attack was held up; partly by problems with communications and partly because of mistaken intelligence. The Germans, who had been taken by surprise, were able to bring up reinforcements and mount counter attacks over the next two days. The casualty figures for the British were around 3,500 killed and 8,500 wounded.

Trenches Neuve Chapelle

Trenches in the village of Neuve Chapelle 1915

Le Touret MemorialErnest Chapman was killed in action during the Battle of Neuve Chappelle. Although official records give his date of death as 14th March, a letter from his wife refers to him as being killed at some time “between 10th and 14th March 1915.”  He is remembered on the Le Touret Memorial (Panel 28 to 30) which commemorates those with no known grave.

Kettering MemorialAll of the names on the Barrow Hill Memorial Plaque are also on the Staveley Memorial – except for Ernest Chapman. His widow and children had moved back to Kettering after his death and his name was not put forward for inclusion.  Ernest’s name does, however, appear on the Kettering War Memorial where he originally enlisted.

An obituary printed in the Kettering Leader reports that “Many readers will regret to learn that Pte. Ernest Chapman of the 2nd Northants Regt. was killed on March 10th in the battle at Neuve Chapelle. Private Chapman was the eldest son of Mr and Mrs A Chapman of 18 Hill Street, Kettering and was very much liked by all who knew him and deep regret will be felt for his wife and two children. He was in the Militia and had served seven years as a Reserve. Before enlisting he worked for the Cransley Iron Co., and was in his 23rd year. His father is now serving with the Territorials at Peterborough.”

 Ernest Chapman was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star and Clasp and the British War Medal and Victory Medals

1914 Mons trio

© Ann Lucas