Lance Sergeant Ernest Joyner DCM almost survived the Great War. Having served in France for two years, he was killed in action less than a month before the Armistice. Yet, he left his mark both with his courage on the battlefield and back home in Surrey where he railed against men whom he thought were avoiding their responsibilities to the war effort.
Ernest Edward Edwin Joyner was born in 1895 to Albert and Kate Joyner. He had two older siblings John and Ethel, and three who were younger, Frank, Jessie, and Phyllis. In 1911 the family lived in an end-of-terrace house at 38 Laburnum Road on the southern edge of Chertsey. All the Joyner men worked outdoors, his father as a labourer, his older brother as a gardener, and Ernest and Frank were farm boys. Jessie died in 1913 aged 14.
After the outbreak of war, Ernest took a job with the Army contractors Dickinsons, then in November 1915 he and his brother Frank enlisted in the Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry. It is unclear why they joined a Scottish regiment as there were no obvious family connections. Their older brother John enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Many in the Yeomanry were transferred to an infantry unit and Ernest joined the 6th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He served in France between 1916 and 1918.
It was on 9 November 1917 that Ernest first came to the attention of the people of Chertsey when the Surrey Herald reported that he had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bombing a pillbox and ‘the killing of many Germans’. Although full details were not yet available, the newspaper published a lengthy and speculative story which suggested that ‘between 50 and 60 Germans were killed in a brilliant feat…’. The column was illustrated with a portrait of Ernest in civilian clothing. On 13 November, the Daily Mirror printed the same photograph of Ernest.
The official version of Ernest Joyner’s actions was published in the Edinburgh Gazette three months later on 7 February 1918. His citation was:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He attacked an enemy pill-box by climbing on the roof and dropping bombs through the ventilator, and captured the garrison, having killed an enemy officer who attempted to resist. He showed the greatest courage and initiative.
Perhaps as a reward for receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal, then the second highest medal for gallantry after the Victoria Cross, Ernest Joyner was granted leave and came home for Christmas. What Ernest witnessed while he was on leave rankled him and, after his return to the front, he wrote a letter which was printed in the Surrey Herald on 1 February 1918. Under the headline ‘A Protest from France’, the letter said:
While I was at home at Christmas I was more than surprised to see so many young fellows walking about Chertsey, Addlestone, Weybridge, Woking and Virginia Water – young men who are fit for the British Army. Why should they be walking about in civilian clothes, considering the state the country is in at the present time? Let every man come out here and fight for 1s. 6d. a day. There are plenty of women in England who are willing to do the men’s work, and at a cheaper rate. I was in several factories whilst at home, and on asking what the pay was, I was told £6 or £7 per week. Don’t you think they should be out here, with all the other fellows who have kept their wives and mothers safe? There are enough men in those places mentioned to make the Army up again. They have a good bed to go to at night, whilst we are out here in the snow, and up to our waists in mud, but we all have good hearts.
We can only speculate on what Ernest Joyner saw and heard during his Christmas leave. Undoubtedly, he would have been feted as a hero and received many invitations. The factories he visited could have been those of his former employer. Being the recipient of such a significant gallantry medal might have boosted his confidence but it also gave him influence. In a situation arguably similar to that of footballer Marcus Rashford today, Ernest Joyner was a young man from an ordinary background who used his public profile to speak out about something he thought was wrong.
Two weeks later, the Surrey Herald printed a response in support from an unnamed woman who said:
I have read Lce-Cpl Joyner’s letter in your recent issue, and like many others, agree with him – there are plenty of men yet in factories who can join up and women to take their place.
Four strong young women tried last week to enter munitions factories, but each time were greeted with ‘Full up’. They would presumably pay shirkers £6 to £7 a week than start the women. If these young men in factories consider they are doing their ‘bit’, why not give them a Tommy’s pay and a suit of khaki? They would have their comforts, while our brave boys at the Front have given their all. How can they call themselves men? I call them ‘Funkers’.
From one of the four willing.
The issue that Ernest Joyner raised in early 1918 was not a new one, but cases of men seeking to avoid military service were becoming more frequent. Fifteen months earlier at a meeting of the Chertsey War Tribunal, local councillor Mr Wells had asked why a Mr Cook continued to evade military service. Cook had been before the Tribunal four times, twice citing domestic reasons and twice business reasons, and then took up a clerical position at a local munitions factory.
Between June 1916 and October 1918, the Surrey Herald published over 560 reports about local war tribunals. With the Military Service Act 1916 imposing conscription in Britain, and the harsh reality of the war impacting so many local families, enthusiasm for entering the fray had waned. The tribunals heard appeals where a wide range of reasons were given for combat exemption and decisions were not always permanent. Often, tribunals granted a deferment of a few months, after which men either had to enlist or appeal again. These could have been some of the men in civilian clothes that Ernest Joyner observed. By the latter part of the war, local firms were appealing to the tribunals so they could retain key employees. Although work in the munitions factories was a convenient cover for funkers (a word which implies cowardice) and others seeking to avoid military service, many other occupations including a tailor, upholsterer, baker, plumber, and school caretaker came before the tribunals.
Life as a munitions worker, male or female, was not without its hazards, especially in factories using toxic chemicals to produce shells. The risks of accident, explosion and poisoning were ever-present. Yet, for women like ‘the four willing’ in the letter above, factory work offered an opportunity to move beyond traditional domestic roles, earn their own money, and at least until the men returned at the end of the war, participate more equally in society. It was not until the General Election in December 1918 that some women over the age of 30 could vote for the first time.
Lance Serjeant Ernest Joyner was killed in action on 16 October 1918, aged 23. In a letter to Ernest’s parents, his platoon sergeant said:
I have known him for nearly two years, and always respected him, as he was ever-ready to do any duty that came his way. He was a very good soldier, and is missed very much. All the officers, NCOs and men send their deepest sympathy.
Ernest Joyner is buried at the Harlebeke New British Cemetery near Courtrai (Kortrijk) in West Flanders. The Surrey Herald reported on 8 April 1919 that Ernest’s mother had received his Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Acknowledgements and call for further information
Thank you to Elaine Swanson at Chertsey Museum who compiled the museum’s war tribunal research, and to Jim Knight who photographed the Surrey Herald clippings for the Runnymede Remembered Archive.
Gaps in the Ernest Joyner story still need to be filled so please contact us with any information or images relating to the family.
There are two men with the surname Joyner named on the Chertsey Town War Memorial. The other is Corporal Louis Joyner of the 7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment who was killed in action in France on 13 October 1915. He was 32 and left a widow Florence. Louis Joyner is named on the Loos Memorial, Pas de Calais Panel 65-67, which is the same panel as fellow Chertsey soldier Ernest Dyos. It is unlikely that Louis Joyner and Ernest Joyner were related.