When my auntie died I came into possession of my uncle’s medals. One of these was the General Service Medal from the First World War. On the outside rim was a number, and that was the army number of Ernest George Davies. I decided to find out more about him.

I got in touch with the War Office Record. They came back and gave me the information on Ernest George Davies: that he was private 203676 of the 5th battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and that he was killed on 17 March 1917.

No known grave was recorded, but his name was recorded on the Thiepval Memorial, pier 5, faces A & B. He was killed in a trench raid at Maisonette Farm on the approach to Peronne, south of the Somme. He was based at that time at Cappy.

That was the basic information I was given about how he died. It wasn’t really enough for me so I went to the Gloucestershire Regimental Museum to read the actual war diary which they kept right through the First World War (and all wars). This told me that there was no major battle under way on 17 March 1917. However, B & C Companies of the 5th battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment mounted a raid on the German trenches at 3 o’clock in the morning. It was snowing, sleet, very very cold. And at that time two companies would have been approximately 40 men.

A trench raid was basically to achieve two things. The one: it was simply to kill the Germans – not very nice but that’s the reality of it. The other thing was to get information about the enemy trenches, the enemy barbed wire, who was in the trenches on the other side. The 40 men taking part in that raid would not have been armed with rifles and bayonets and machine guns. A trench raid in the First World War was a brawl; they would have been armed with pickaxe handles, cudgels, knives, knuckle dusters. They would have sneaked across No Man’s Land, hoping to get into the German trenches and find some information or kill Germans.

The report in the war diary says that the raid was successful. But Private Davies never came back. Somewhere in that night he was killed; he probably wasn’t shot, he probably wasn’t blown up. Whether he was killed outright we don’t know. He could have been just badly hurt and lying in a trench and probably, on 17 March, would have died of exposure. We don’t know; the body was never found and he’s still there to this day. And he was 17 years old – not a lot older than you are. That’s a sad reflection on what was happening in the First World War.

Ernest George Davies was awarded two medals. There were three medals awarded in the First World War. If you served in 1914 or 1915 you had the 1914/15 Star. If you served in the rest of the war you had the General Service Medal (obviously Ernest didn’t have the 1914 one because he wasn’t there then). And at the end of the war everyone was given the Victory Medal. And these three medals were known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.

A plaque was awarded to everyone that was killed in the First World War. They probably made a million of these. On it is the name Ernest George Davies. Interestingly, on these death plaques all that was inscribed was the name – they never put the rank, they ever put the number, because they assumed, rightly so I think, that in death everyone was the same.

Find out more:

Geoff Davies – Gallery