126 Sapper Ernest Cotterell
Ernest Cotterell was 26 years old when he enlisted with the 1st FCE.
Ernest was born in 1887 in Birmingham England. Like his father James, he was a carpenter and had served seven years in the army reserves as a sapper with the Royal Engineers.
In January 1914 Ernest made the journey from London on board the “Norseman” as an unassisted immigrant bound for Sydney. He left behind a family, his parents James and Jane and sister Alice Maud.
Ernest may have been contracted for work prior to embarking for Australia, or perhaps he was joining his younger brother Frederick who was also in Australia. Five months after he arrived he made his way to Victoria Barracks Sydney and enlisted in the 1st FCE on 19th August. Very little is known about Ernest, and what brought him half way around the world and then so quickly enlist in order to return to the fight in Europe.
As a member of the newly formed 1st FCE and being only a small company of men, Ernest would have started to make new friends quickly and related to many of his fellow Englishman who had also enlisted. In the first 4 weeks the men had been training closely together and the men were starting to feel a little more comfortable about the new discipline and the routine training.
In September there was already talk around the camp that they were preparing to embark, however bureaucratic delays kept putting the date back, so the men were already getting the jitters. , With the expectations of embarking for war building, Ernest was quietly suffering and it all became too much for Ernest.
Six weeks after enlisting on the 5th October he committed suicide with a single gunshot to the head.
This was a desperate choice for a man who decided to take his own life rather than take his chances at war in Europe. The poor fellow must have had some serious demons challenging his prospects for the future.
Major McCall the commander of the company, after hearing the gunshot was one of the first on the scene. He prepared a graphic and concise report on the events of the evening of the 5th October at Moore Park. The suicide report from Major McCall the O.C and “father” of the company is very frank and descriptive, but he could not hide his shock and dismay at the doctors excitement at seeing startling wounds and his obvious findings that “the man was dead”.
The Major was a decorated Boer War veteran, and no doubt had been witness to casualties of war, but this was one of his men , under his watch, and still on home soil. Major McCall was determined to see that Ernest was treated with respect, no matter what the circumstances of his death.
He would personally see to the funeral arrangements. The Dean, initially, was not prepared to conduct a service under the circumstances of suicide, however Major McCall pointed out that the cause of death was not yet official and the Dean then agreed that it would be suitable to have the service.
The following is from Major McCalls report…………“We gave the unfortunate fellow a soldiers funeral, coffin on a gun carriage, our own drivers, a six horse team, firing party from No.4 section (his late unit) under Sgt Wilson. Every officer attended …. 182 sappers, Rank & file officers sent a wreath, NCO one ,Coy one and his late section one. Trumpeters after the three volley were fired, sounded last post. Every possible honour that could be paid was paid.”
Major McCall’s report reveals how proud he was of his men and praised the arrangements and conduct of all concerned stating it “was of the highest standard” and he extended his thanks to certain individuals.
The men of the 1st FCE were shaken by the circumstances of a fellow sappers death, however under the experienced command of Major McCall, they rallied and showed the first clear sign that they had formed a close bond as a regimental company and whatever the circumstances of Ernest’s death, they felt as strongly as their commander and their new mate Ernest Cotterell was going to have a burial with full military honours.
Following the circumstances of his death and the fact that he had not actually seen any military service, the war records of Ernest Cotterell show that a burial with full military honours under these military conditions, had never been done before, and the 1st Field Company Engineers had set a precedent which was too baffle the military bureaucracy for years.
The unfortunate back story to this sad event is it took thirteen years of indecision by the bureaucrats to decide if a war grave/memorial was appropriate for Ernest. The correspondence from war secretaries and officials and his poor family continued back and forth for years.
I visited Waverley cemetery to find Ernest Cotterell’s final resting place and was pleased to find his war grave. It was being cared for by the war graves commission and it was in fine condition. I couldn’t help notice the magnificent position of his plot overlooking the ocean, and imagined for a moment the unique ceremony that took place on that day in 1914.
Ernest’s younger brother was 45 Frederick James Cotterell of the 6th Light Horse. Frederick had enlisted shortly after Ernest and was notified of his death and made a statement as to his brothers death. Frederick would later serve at Gallipol, and the western front and would be awarded the Military Cross. Unfortunately he was later Killed in Action and is buried in France.
Parents James and Jane Cotterell lost both of their sons in the Great War , both were buried in foreign lands, and both died in tragic circumstances.
Story Copyright© VanceKelly2015
Ernest Cotterell also has a place on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.
Location on the Roll of Honour
Ernest Cotterell’s name is located at panel 23 in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial (as indicated by the poppy on the plan).
Roll of Honour – Ernest Cotterell
Service Number: 126
Unit: 1st Field Company Australian Engineers
Service: Australian Army
Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
Date of death: 05 October 1914
Place of death: Moore Park, Sydney, Australia
Cause of death: Suicide
Cemetery or memorial details: Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Source: AWM145 Roll of Honour cards, 1914-1918 War, Army
Acknowledgements and Contributions:
Thank you to Christopher Sykes the great nephew of Ernest and Frederick Cotterell for his kind contributions and permission to use the family photos for this project.
1. Noted . His name has been misspelt on his plaque.
2. Ernest Cotterell’s war file has a complete record of the correspondence between families and the War office, also is the hand written suicide report from Major McCall.
Sources: AWM, NLA, NAA, State Archives NSW
Source Citation: State Archives NSW; Series: 2765; Item: X2090; Roll: 343.