The Stretcher Bearer - Ernie Corey MM and three Bars
Contributed by Michael Hall, April 2015
Not all men roaming the battlefields of World War 1 carried weapons. A special group of men carried stretchers instead and amongst them none were more honoured than Ernest Albert Corey.
Ernie Corey was born at Numeralla on the Monaro in 1891. When the Men from Snowy River route march passed through Nimmitabel in January 1916, Ernie joined them. Like other ‘Snowies’, Corey was allocated to the 55th Battalion and joined its C Company on the frontline near Guedecourt in the Somme region of France in February 1917. His first experience of battle was at Doignies on 2 April 1917 but it was the following month when the Corey legend really began.
In early May 1917 Australian troops attacked the German held Hindenburg Line for the second time at Bullecourt. The 5th Division (which included the 55th Battalion) were thrown into the battle a few days later. In the early hours of 15 May the Germans launched a massive counter attack to try and drive out the Australians. As the casualties mounted the Commanding Officer of the 55th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Woods, called for volunteers with first aid experience to act as stretcher bearers. One of the volunteers was Ernie Corey.
For the next seventeen hours the stretcher bearers worked, often under fire, in No Man’s Land before evacuating the wounded to dressing stations about three kilometres behind the line. During one of his forays onto the battlefield Corey encountered two Germans treating an Australian casualty. He casually walked up to them, picked up the wounded Australian and returned to his lines while the Germans looked on in amazement. For his work that day Corey was awarded the Military Medal.
After Bullecourt Corey became a regular stretcher bearer in C Company. On 26th September 1917at Polygon Wood near Ypres in Belgium, the 5th Division, despite careful planning and the apparent ease with which they advanced over the devastated landscape, still suffered significant casualties. Corey, though recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal, received a bar to his Military Medal for his “untiring energy” in tending to the wounded and carrying them to safety under constant artillery and machine gun fire.
At the beginning of September 1918 the 55th Battalion were part of the battle to capture the ancient walled town of Péronne on the Somme River. They were ordered to advance on St. Denis, a small village on the northern outskirts of Péronne. To their left the Germans still held the heights of Mont St. Quentin. To their right the Germans held the eastern end of Péronne where their machine gunners, protected by the earthen ramparts and walls, had an unobstructed field of fire. The Germans also held St. Denis and on a ridge beyond the village enemy artillery had an unimpeded view of the pending attack.
The casualties were heavy and the stretcher bearers’ work seemed endless. Bert Bishop was also a C Company soldier who helped Corey treat a wounded man during the fighting at Péronne. “Ernie quickly inspected the damage”, he later wrote. One of the wounded man’s arms was attached to his body by a single sinew of muscle. “He was bleeding badly. Ernie took a blade razor from his breast pocket, opened it. ‘Here’, he told me, ‘hold the arm straight from the shoulder.’ He cut through the sinew and got busy trying to stop the bleeding” by bandaging the stump and soaking it in iodine. Uncertain what to do next, Bishop dropped the arm and returned to the battle.
Then the wounded soldier asked Ernie a favour. “Go back and get my arm,” he pleaded. “On the third finger there is a ring my wife gave to me. Save it for me.” Corey retrieved the arm but had trouble getting the ring off the finger. He brought it along to a support platoon, carrying “it like a leg of mutton under arm, blood still oozing out.” Unsurprisingly he had trouble getting anyone to help him pull the ring off so Ernie, renowned in the battalion as a bit of a joker, “took out the razor and really severed the finger at the appropriate point and jubilantly slipped the finger off, exclaiming, ‘I learned the trade killing ration sheep on a station.’”
The battalion medical officer commended Corey for his careful handling of the wounded and his first aid skills which he believed saved the lives of many men. But he couldn’t save them all. As the fighting died down Bishop saw Ernie carrying a man and place it in a line with other bodies. Corey returned to the field and picked up another body and dragged it in. “Can’t find any more wounded,” he said despondently. “Look at it, Bert, a whole field of dead men.” Once again, for his characteristic determination, skill and courage, Corey was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal but received a second bar to his Military Medal instead.
As the war reached its climax the 5th Division was again involved in an attack on the Hindenburg Line, this time near Bellicourt on the St. Quentin Canal in late September 1918. Casualties had taken a heavy toll on the strength of the 55th Battalion and Corey now had responsibility for directing the work of the stretcher bearers, among them Billy Muir. Although the battlefield was swept by German machine gun fire, the stretcher bearers went out into No Man’s Land to rescue wounded soldiers including several Americans. At Bellicourt Muir would be awarded the Military Medal and Corey a third bar to the Military Medal.
At one time during the fighting Ernie noticed two German stretcher bearers beckoning to him. They had a wounded soldier of the 55th Battalion in a wheeled stretcher but he was too heavy for them to move. The soldier had lain out on the battlefield all night with a wound to his back and had been bandaged by the Germans. Ernie picked him up in his arms and carried him fifty yards to a shell hole, telling him that he would return later. The Germans took their stretcher and waved goodbye to Corey.
However, Ernie’s luck ran out that day. Around 11am he was attempting to bring in a wounded officer when he was hit by shrapnel from a shell burst. Bleeding from the femoral artery, Corey managed to crawl to his first aid kit and apply a tourniquet to the wound. He then crawled another three hundred metres before being picked up and rescued by Arthur Clark and another soldier who carried him a mile to the nearest dressing station. He underwent a successful operation and returned to Australia in April 1919.
After rabbiting around Cooma for a couple of years, Corey moved to Canberra in 1922, living at Westlake and later at Downer. He married twice and worked as a camp caretaker and cleaner before serving with the medical section of the 13th Garrison Battalion at Port Kembla during World War 2. After the war he was the caretaker at the Canberra Services Hut in Manuka and then worked at the incinerator at Westbourne Woods. He died in August 1972 and was buried, with full military honours, in the ex-service’s portion of Woden Cemetery.
Lieutenant Colonel Woods described Corey as a “splendid soldier whose temper remained unruffled even in most adverse circumstances.” While out on the battlefield he invariably wore a pair of white shorts and “carried his stretcher perpendicularly, but seldom made use of it, preferring to pick up his patients under one of his strong arms, and walk back with him. He had an undaunted spirit, and worked almost up to the enemy wire, rescuing wounded – foe as well as friend.”
Corey is believed to be the only soldier to have been awarded the Military Medal and three bars in World War 1.
Arthur W. Bazley, ‘Military Medal and Three Bars’, Stand-to (Journal of ACT Branch, RSS&AILA), Jan-Mar 1951 (pp.1-3)
Bert Bishop, ‘The Hell, the Humour and the Heartbreak – A Private’s View of World War 1’, 1991 (p.225, 230)
Timothy J. Cook, ‘Snowy to the Somme – A Muddy and Bloody Campaign, 1916-1918’, 2014 (pp. 130, 299, 384 (note 42))
Percy Woods, ‘Corporal Corey: Won MM (3 Bars)’, Reveille (Journal of NSW Branch RSS&AILA), 31 March 1931
AWM honours web site – www.awm.gov.au/people/roll-search/honours_and_awards