Ernie May was born on 18 October 1890, the son of Henry Edward May and Emma Shirley May. Although it cannot be said for certain that it is him, the 1901 Census only appears to list one child of the right age and with the right parents' names. This family was then living at Blackwell Farm, Arlington, Surrey, where Henry May was working as a carter.
Locally, the family lived at 50 Crescent Road, Stockport and worshipped at St Paul's Church, Portwood. Ernie was also a teacher at the Church's Sunday School. He worked as the chief clerk for Kent & Swarbrick, a large form of tripe dressers with several shops around town and was a member of the Stockport Shorthand Writers Association. In his spare time, he was a good all-round athlete and played football for the Mile End Club.
In the November 1914, Ernie travelled into Manchester and enlisted into the fifth of the "Pals Battalions" being formed by the Manchester Regiment. He was assigned to No. 12 Platoon in "C" Company and given the service number of 17423. His service file still exists at the National Archives and this shows him to have been just 5' 5" tall and weighing 126 lbs. By the spring of 1915, he had been promoted to be the Platoon's Corporal. After training, Ernie went overseas with the Battalion in November 1915.
In the coming weeks, he regularly wrote home and a number of letters were published in the Stockport Advertiser. His first, within a few days of arriving in France, was dated 14 November "We arrived "somewhere" about midnight and then we certainly did have it rough. We heard we had something like a nine miles march to do and, by Jove, I believe we had. Of course, it was quite dark and the rain did not improve matters. However, we stuck it out, passing through a number of small villages, with white-washed buildings which appeared typically Irish. Eventually we arrived at our destination, after about four and a half hours marching, where a welcome drink of tea was served round. Then we were escorted off to our various billets. These for the most part were farm outbuildings which were easily rendered comfortable and we quickly settled down in ours. An investigation on Thursday morning of our quarters revealed us stationed in a small village in a farming area. Our own billet adjoins a farm and we were soon on good terms with "Madame". Our conversational efforts and "dumb" show would send you into hysterics. From her we augmented our army rations with a few small purchases of what few luxuries were available. Since arriving here we have had a few short parades and one or to route marches through neighbouring villages. The buildings, customs, etc are not a great deal different than obtain in England but the general condition of these places shows a deplorable lack of manual labour. Of course, many inhabitants fled before the threat of a German invasion and have not all returned and , again, almost all the male members are taking part in the War. We have just dined at the farm by special request with the following on the menu - soup roti poulet des pommes de terre, frites, salade, vine rouge (sic), pudding macaroni. Who wouldn't be in the Army!"
By the time he wrote again, on 3 December, the Battalion had undertaken its first tour of duty in the trenches. "It has not been a pleasant experience, as it has poured with rain almost the whole week, and we have been wading knee deep in water most of the time. We have progressed jolly well and have manned the firing trench by ourselves several times. Nothing very exciting has occurred, however, although, of course, we get some shells coming over and a good deal of rifle fire."
Two days later, the tour was finished and Ernie could reflect on the past few days: "We have done nothing else but clean ourselves and our tackle up and now we are nearly shipshape again and at least dry for the first time in a week. The boys have stood the test splendidly.......The shelling of our billets and the firing in the trenches from trench mortars, bombs, machine guns and shrapnel never upset us one little bit, in fact, the fellows' indifference to fire was likely to get some into trouble...."
In his final letter published in the newspapers, Ernie wrote on 7 December that they were now in reserve and hoping to spend Christmas there. "we are well out of artillery range here and it is somewhat of a relief to wake up and find the same amount of roof above you as was there when you went to sleep." The period in the flooded trenches had taken its toll on Ernie and, in fact, he spent Christmas in a military hospital recovering from trench fever.
In April 1916, he was promoted to Sergeant and, round about the same time, he undertook a daring mission into No Man's Land for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The official citation in the London Gazette reads "For conspicuous gallantry and resource. He carried out a daring reconnaissance within five yards of the enemy's lines and, though snipers were active and there was brilliant moon light, he completed his work and rendered a valuable report." Ernie was rightly pleased with the recognition "Everybody there is highly delighted; all the officers have been round to shake hands and I am quite the man of the moment."
News of the award quickly reached Stockport and the Vicar of St Paul's and the officials and teachers of the Chruch Sunday School wrote to him ".....Whilst recognising the great bravery you have shown, we are proud to know that up to the present you have come out unscathed and we sincerely trust that the Great God of all nations will guard you with His tender care and spare you to the end to come back and serve once again amongst your old friends and teachers."
On 26 August, Ernie led his men back towards the trenches for what would prove to be his last tour of duty. They left their billets at Dernancourt and relieved the 12th Battalion, Kings Liverpool Regiment, in the trenches opposite Ginchy, ready to take part in an attack the following day. The unpublished history of the Battalion, held by the Regimental Archives, takes up the story:-
"During the move up in the dark, "B" Company and the Headquarters Company had thirty men killed owing to an enemy 5.9 shell dropping on a stack of Mills bombs, stored in a dump by the roadside. The place became a shambles as, owing to the Hun fire, lights could not be used and searchers had to grope in the dark and this was not the end of their troubles owing to counter orders from a higher authority, only one company got into the line, the remainder being scattered and the Battalion was not really collected together again until the following day. And then, owing to bad weather, the attack on Ginchy had to be postponed. During the night of 26/27th and all day on the 27th the enemy heavily bombarded the line and the trenches which were poor to begin with were soon almost unrecognisable. New trenches were dug during the nights 27 - 29th but the enemy bombardment was almost continuous and the Battalion suffered many casualties....."
Ernie would become one of these many casualties. Colonel Smalley wrote to Mr & Mrs May explaining what had happened. "He was killed just before dawn on August 29th by shrapnel shells bursting just in front of him, while out on the dangerous work of withdrawing some advanced posts we had put out in front of our lines close up to the Germans. We buried him that morning close to our front trenches. Your son was killed instantly. I want to tell you how much we miss him. He was loved by the whole battalion and we all felt very proud of the splendid work he has done for this Battalion since we came out to France and am sorry he has not lived linger to enjoy the honours he has so well won. May was a fine soldier, always cheerful and willing and no trace of fear when doing his duties as a scout officer and I shall miss him personally very much. He was a general favourite with the other officers and we were delighted when he got his commission".
Ernie's service file notes that, like most soldiers, he had few personal items with him in France. But, what he did have, were soon returned to his family. They included a dagger and scabbard, diary, hymn book, several photographs and a protractor.
As mentioned by the Colonel, Ernie had been buried just behind the front line. After the War, many of these small burial areas were closed as the land was returned to civilian use. In March 1920, the War Office wrote to Mrs May "I beg to inform you that in the process of exhumation for the purpose of concentration of isolated graves into cemeteries, the grave of 2nd Lieutenant E E May, 20th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, was located at a point just west of Ginchy. I am to inform you that in accordance with the agreements with the French and Belgian Governments to remove all scattered graves and small cemeteries... it has been necessary to exhume the bodies buried in certain areas. The body of 2nd Lt. May has therefore been removed and reburied at Delville Wood Cemetery, Longueval. I am to add that the necessity for the removal is much regretted but was unavoidable for the reasons given above. You may rest assured that the work of re-burial has been carried out carefully and reverently; special arrangements having been made for the appropriate religious service to be held."