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Kent soldier's heroism in Mesopotamia saved several soldiers from injury or death

Lieutenant Bernard Ellis, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment), c1918
Lieutenant Bernard Ellis, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment), c1918

One hundred years ago, in July 1918, Lieutenant Bernard Ellis was serving in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) when he took up a new post as a bombing instructor. Within weeks, he was badly injured while saving his comrades after a training accident. For his heroism, Ellis received the Albert Medal, Britain's highest award for bravery not in the presence of the enemy. 

Throughout most of 1918, the British consolidated their positions in Mesopotamia while troops were diverted from there to operations in Palestine. In the meantime, they kept their forces trained and ready for action until the fighting against the Turks could be renewed. 

In July 1918, Ellis was appointed as a bombing instruction officer with 35th Indian Brigade, part of 14th Indian Division. He provided on-the-job training in throwing grenades and using rifle grenades. These courses formed a major part of a soldier's life, both for recent recruits and more experienced men. Whenever units came back from the front line to rest, often to a quiet sector of the front, they trained to improve their fighting skills. 

Throughout July and August, Ellis instructed soldiers at Shahraban, about 50 miles (80km) north of Baghdad. On 21 August 1918, he was helping to train a group of soldiers in firing rifle grenades. 'The London Gazette' on 18 July 1919 explained what happened during the training:

'A volley was fired, but one of the grenades, owing to a defective cartridge, did not leave the rifle, but fell back into the barrel with the fuse burning... Lieutenant Ellis, who was separated from the man by four other men in a narrow trench, at once forced his way past them and seized the rifle. Failing to extract the grenade, he dropped the rifle and placed his steel helmet over the grenade, which at once exploded, severely injuring him. There can be no doubt that his prompt and courageous action greatly minimised the force of the explosion and saved several men from death or injury.'

Ellis was invalided downriver to Basra and later sent to India to recover. He underwent several operations to remove hundreds of grenade and helmet fragments from his body. While surgeons were able to remove many of the fragments, many remained, including over 70 pieces that were lodged in his right arm. For his bravery at Shahraban, Lieutenant Bernard Ellis was awarded the Albert Medal.

Notes to editors

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About Major John Carter

Bernard George Ellis (1890-1979) was born on 21 November 1890 in Surbiton, Surrey. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Home Cottage in Bearsted, a village near Maidstone, Kent. Following the outbreak of the war, Ellis enlisted with the 8th (Service) Battalion (1st Public Schools) of The Royal Fusiliers (City of London) Regiment in September 1914. After training with them, he headed to France in November 1915 and served in the trenches for six months near the Hohenzollern Redoubt at Loos.

Following the disbandment of the public schools' battalions in April 1916, Ellis returned to England and, after training at Oxford, was commissioned into 1/5th Battalion The Buffs. Ellis joined his new unit in Mesopotamia in November 1916, just in time for the renewed British advance on Baghdad, launched on 13 December under Lieutenant-General Frederick Stanley Maude. Ellis subsequently took part in the capture of Kut in Febraury 1917 and the occupation of Baghdad the following month.

Ellis received the Albert Medal, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Allied Victory Medal for his wartime service. He remained in India after the war and later served as Captain of the Guard to Lord Willingdon, the Viceroy of India, in the early 1930s. On returning to England, he settled at 'Croftside' in Bath, Somerset, with his wife Winifred and worked as an accountant. He later moved to Letchworth in Hertfordshire where he died on 1 July 1979. 

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