Highnam, Gloucestershire, England: Telegram from the dead

The King and Queen deeply regret the loss you and the Army have sustained in the death of your son in the service of his country. Their majesties truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.

Imagine if this was sent to you. The last word you ever receive about one of your children was this. This telegram was sent out across the country. Remember that knock at the door, the unwanted telegram arrival; it was the moment that the waiting population feared – bad news.

This telegram was sent to Harry and Caroline Ellis of Highnam just outside of Gloucester about their son Herbert Pearce Ellis. They were tenant farmers on the Highnam Court estate. Herbert was killed in action serving as a Lieutenant with the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Yeomanry on 1st December 1917 in Palestine in the Middle East. The following month, the London Gazette published a citation awarding Herbert Pearce Ellis the Military Cross for his actions in the field of battle one month before his death. He had remained at his post after being wounded directing his battalion. He suffered gun shot wounds to the right arm.

The action for which he was commended read:

“When heavily pressed by three enemy troops on his front and enfiladed by a machine gun he held to his post in a most determined manner after being wounded. He showed great gallantry, coolness and devotion to duty and set out an example to his troop until reinforced and enemy were driven back. This occurred on 23rd October 1917 when Regiment was holding an outpost line Buqqar Ridge to 630. Lieutenant Ellis had his troop on the right of his squadron sector at Imleih Hill with his right flank exposed to 720 then held by the enemy.”

But an interesting thing about Herbert was that although he died a decorated Lieutenant in the British army, be began the war as a Private in the Australian Imperial Force. For when he first enlisted to fight in World War one, Herbert Ellis was in Australia. More precisely working as a orchardist in Bridgetown, Western Australia.

Herbert enlisted in Australia in January 1915 and embarked from Melbourne in April 1915 on HMAT Star of England with the 12th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, Australian Imperial Force headed for Egypt and Gallipoli. He was admitted to hospital in Malta with pneumonia and transferred to hospital back in England where he ended up by September 1915 in No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Harefield, Middlesex.

His father had even written to the Australian High Commission asking for permission to get his son home from hospital; to ‘nurse him up’ in the fresh air with fresh milk and vegetables available on the farm that he was a tenant on at Sir Charles Hubert Parry, 1st Baronet at Highnam Court, Gloucestershire.

But it seems that Herbert had a change of circumstance, for whilst recuperating in part back at home, Herbert applied for a commission in the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Yeomanry. On the 27th January 1916, Herbert was discharged as a Private with the AIF and was given a temporary commission with the 3/1st Royal Gloucestershire Hussars as a 2nd Lieutenant.

So whilst the 12th Battalion AIF went on to the Western Front, the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars went back to Egypt. Herbert, now 2nd Lieutenant Ellis would become part of the Sinai and Palestine campaign with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. It was here that he would receive his Military Cross for bravery and here where he would die, killed in action. A man of Gloucester, who enlisted as a Private with the Australians, who died as an officer with his home regiment in Palestine.

When news came through to his family that Herbert had died, it was news that a second son had died in defence of King and Country. His elder brother John Butt Ellis had died the previous February.

Trooper John Butt Ellis was the second eldest of the Ellis children. It appears that John had been in South Africa working for Stewarts and Lloyds of Johannesburg when he enlisted for the South African forces. He became part of the South African Horse, 2nd Mounted Brigade, 2nd HQ. He served under General Botha and General Smuts and may have been one of General Van Deventer’s bodyguards. He died on the 6th February 1917 aged 37 years of malaria or enteric fever and is buried in what is now Tanzania, but what was then part of German East Africa.

Five of Henry and Caroline Ellis’ sons went to war – two died. Two of them Herbert and Thomas Hugh served at Gallipoli with the Australian Imperial Force. Thomas Hugh, the fourth of the children, and the third son was also in Australia when war broke out and would return there to live out his days in Western Australia.

In a letter written to the Australian High Commission, Caroline Ellis wrote to ask that Thomas not be returned to Australia in 1919, but be discharged in Britain. She cited her need for her third son to stay and help with the family farm due to Henry’s paralysis and heart problems. She said that she had lost two sons in the terrible war and she dreaded the effect that his parting would have on her husband. Thankfully it was granted.


Henry Arthur Ellis, father of the Ellis children died in 1921; he was buried in Highnam Church, a gem of a church on the corner of the estate. Several of the other children would be buried here as the years went by. Herbert Ellis’ grave was lost and his named is marked on the Jerusalem Memorial within the Jerusalem War Cemetery. John Ellis was buried in Tanzania. Far, far from Gloucestershire and Highnam. But as Henry and then Caroline died in 1940, they never forgot their two sons who died at war. Their sons’ names were inscribed on their own gravestone. Two telegrams that changed the life of this family. Messages from the dead.





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