Honouring our heroes: ‘For saving life not taking it’

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Trudging across a Western Front battlefield under enemy gunfire, Private Ernest Corey struggled forward. Supporting a wounded soldier with one hand and carrying a medical bag with the other, he concentrated on just one thing: to avoid being wounded so he could get this man to safety.  

Ernest Albert Corey, known as Ernie, had not planned to go to war. Born on 20 December 1892 in Numeralla, near Cooma, New South Wales, Ernie left school early to work as a labourer. Hard at work when the First World War broke out in August 1914, he did not immediately enlist. For the next year, however, like many other Australians, Ernie was engrossed by news from the front.

Tales of heroic Australians serving on Gallipoli were fresh in Ernie’s mind when the “Men from Snowy River” recruitment march passed through his local district in January 1916. Ernie enlisted at Nimmitabel on 13 January, and joined the march for the final leg of their journey to Goulburn. He was assigned to the 55th Battalion and left Australia with the 4th Reinforcements on board Port Sydney. As Ernie bid farewell to his parents, Thomas and Ellen, and his brothers and sisters, he must have wondered what lay ahead.

'The men from Snowy River' recruiting march banner (AWM REL/15959)

'The men from Snowy River' recruiting march banner (AWM REL/15959)

Ernie joined his battalion on the Western Front in April 1917.  France was just then recovering from the coldest winter it had seen in more than 30 years, and Ernie was grateful for the spring sunshine. 

The next month, during an enemy attack near the French village of Queant, the 55th and 56th battalions suffered heavy casualties. A call went out for volunteers to help collect wounded soldiers. Ernie raised his hand. For 17 hours straight he worked, bringing in soldiers from no-man’s-land to receive medical treatment. Ernie’s courage and devotion to duty were rewarded with a Military Medal.

Ernie became a regular stretcher bearer for his battalion, and it was not long before he was again in the thick of it: this time at Polygon Wood in Belgium. Ernie worked tirelessly, risking his own life to ensure the safety of others. For this, he was awarded a second Military Medal. Part of the citation for his award reads:

The greatest danger did not deter this man from doing his duty when his services were required … he tended the wounded and carried them to places of safety continuously … often under very heavy artillery and machine gun fire … he set a fine example of bravery and coolness to all ranks.

But Ernie was not done yet. During heavy fighting at the village of Péronne, in September 1918, Ernie was commended for “saving the lives of many”² soldiers and was yet again awarded a Military Medal. 

Ernie was promoted to corporal and placed in command of his battalion’s stretcher bearers. During a battle north of Bellicourt, two German stretcher bearers approached him carrying a wounded Australian soldier, Corporal Ron Randall. Ernie lifted Ron into a shell hole for protection while he finished dressing other wounded soldiers. Two hours later, as he was preparing to bring in an officer he had bandaged earlier, a burst of machine-gun fire rang out, and Ernie was hit in the thigh. Applying a bandage to his own wound, Ernie crawled 300 metres before he was picked up and evacuated. After two operations, Ernie was discharged from the army in 1919. For his courage under fire, he was awarded a fourth Military Medal.

Veteran Mr Ernest Corey in a Queanbeyan Nursing Home, with Sister Mary Hawkins in May 1971 (AWM SHO/71/0167/HQ)

Ernest Corey in a Queanbeyan Nursing Home, with Sister Mary Hawkins in May 1971 (AWM SHO/71/0167/HQ)

After a celebrated military career, and further service in the Second World War, Ernie returned to a normal life back in Australia. In an interview he gave in 1971, a year before his death, Ernie said that he was most proud of his Military Medals because he had been awarded “every one of them for saving life, not taking it”.

Corporal Ernie Corey is the only British Commonwealth soldier to have been awarded the Military Medal four times.

In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014-2018) we are sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts through the Honouring our Heroes series. Visit the Anzac Centenary website news page to read more from this series.