Lance Corporal, G/3753, 9th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment
Killed in Action, 18 August 1916, age 26
Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial: Pier and Face 7 C

The Thiepval Memorial

Lance Corporal Ernest May, G/3753, 9th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, was born in Catsfield, near Battle, Sussex, in 1889. His pre-war occupation was as a gardener, and at the outbreak of war he was living on Ashdown Forest at The Farm, Old Lodge, Nutley, where his father was a farm bailiff to Muriel, Countess De La Warr.

Muriel Brassey, granddaughter of the great Victorian railway builder Thomas Brassey, married Gilbert Sackville, 8th Earl De La Warr (1869-1915), on 4 August 1891. Muriel gave birth to Idina (1893), Avice (1897) and Herbrand (1900). According to the East Grinstead Observer: "Lord De La Warr left England for South Africa in October, 1899, returning in the following July. Since his return the relations between him and his wife had entirely changed owing to the conduct of the husband, and the family circle became very unhappy. In June 1901, the Earl withdrew from the family home and has never been back since." The marriage was dissolved in 1902 on the grounds of Gilbert's adultery with an actress. The Countess De La Warr and her daughter Idina Sackville were both founder members of the East Grinstead Suffrage Union. Muriel Sackville, Countess De La Warr, died on 8 August 1930.

Ernest was the son of Harry (Henry) May (b. 1855) and Maria Markis May (b. 1856). His father was an agricultural labourer in 1881, but in the 1911 census he was listed as a farm bailiff to the Countess de la Warr. He died in March 1945 in Eastbourne, Sussex. Ernest's mother, Maria, was listed as a dairy worker in 1901; she died in 1943, also in Eastbourne. His grandfather, according to the 1861 census, was a grocer in Catsfield.

Ernest's brother Harry was listed as a farm carpenter in the 1901 census, and in the 1911 census he is listed as a domestic chauffeur at The Bakery, Brokenhurst Road, South Ascot, Berkshire. Harry married Rose Olive Turner, aged 27, in April 1913. They had four children. There is no record of Harry serving in the Great War. He died in 1959 in Windsor, Berkshire.

Ernest and Harry also had a sister Lilian. In 1911 Lilian was listed as a cook, single, aged 26, at the residence of Howard Case, who was the managing director of an oil company at Coombe Grange, Coombe Lane, Ascot, Sunninghill, Berkshire. Both Harry and Lilian lived and worked close to each other in Ascot.

Ernest's parents later moved to Bracknell, Berkshire and were living at 1 Rupert Villas, Bracknell when his death was recorded in 1916.

Ernest enlisted at Eastbourne. He was killed in action during the first Battle of Delville Wood near Thiepval during the Battle of the Somme on 18 August 1916, aged 26.

In August 1916 Ernest's battalion, the 9th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, took part in an attack on the fortified village of Guillemont in support of the 7th Northamptonshire Regiment. The plan was for the latter to launch an attack on the German front line at 2.45pm on 18 August, with the 9th Battalion attacking at 5am on the 19th, and advancing halfway through Guillemont. The 7th Northants launched their attack successfully but then lost heavily in hand-to-hand fighting. As a result men from the 9th Battalion were engaged earlier than anticipated. Some of the losses were incurred trying to navigate a way through No Man's Land. The total losses in this battle for the 9th Battalion were 3 officers killed and 4 wounded, and 23 other ranks killed, 133 wounded and 23 missing.

Ernest has no known grave and is listed on the Thiepval Memorial. He left £17 19s. 3d. to his mother, Maria.

The Sussex Express newspaper of 6 October 1916 contained an impressive report on the death of Lance Corporal Ernest May:

Death of a very brave soldier

Lance Corporal Ernest May joined the colours at the beginning of the war and went to Chichester and Shoreham for training. He was home on June 2nd 1916 for seven days leave. Back in the trenches, with a comrade he was taking a message to his colonel. In order to pass a wounded soldier he moved out of the trench and was shot in the chest. He told his comrade that he had been hit and died immediately.

Copies of four letters sent to his parents were printed in the newspaper. These were from a lance corporal comrade, his sergeant, lieutenant and captain. All stated that he had been a very courageous soldier and was a great loss to the regiment.

Ernest May is listed on the war memorials at Coleman's Hatch and Hartfield.

Carol O'Driscoll