Ernie Ludwig’s extraordinary life and mysterious death

It was local knowledge – young Ernest “Ernie” Ludwig had signed up to go to war and had fallen ill while fighting the enemy in France.

He was shipped home to our shores, but he never recovered from the multitude of illnesses that had crippled his body on the battlefield. He succumbed to various internal infections at the small Victorian town of Nhill.

But for many years, Ernie Ludwig’s grave was a modest affair, with little adornment. It was his great grand-nephew, Dean Ludwig, who himself served in the Army Reserves and describes himself as “a bit of a military history nut”, who discovered that formally, Ernie Ludwig was never acknowledged by the government as dying at war.

“I didn’t really know that any of my relatives had really served in the army until 30-odd years ago, when somebody mentioned that I had several great-uncles that were in the first World War," Dean said. “So that really set me off to find their history.

“I discovered that older family members knew a little bit about what became of two of them. But the story about Ernie, who came back from France having served with the artillery, and fell ill and died was intriguing, as my family he was believed he was buried at Nhill.”

Dean drove to Nhill to find some more answers. After a fruitless search for his ancestor’s grave, he found on Ernie’s death certificate that he died at Nhill, but had been buried at Naracoorte.

They found that Ernie’s plot was quite modest, with no monument. The Ludwig family decided that their great-uncle deserved a more respectable grave, so they pooled their resources and decided to put a basic border and monument on the site.

Dean also decided to enquire as to whether the Commonwealth War Graves could contribute some funding, or even a plaque to acknowledge Ernie’s military service.

When Dean approached them, he mentioned that Ernie arrived in Australia still stricken with illness from the war. He had been ill for 12 months prior to returning home.

When the Commonwealth Graves organisation heard of Dean’s research, they decided to do their own investigation. They found that Ernie should have been classified as dying at war, as his diseases had not resolved themselves and he had died soon after he was discharged.

Dean started the process in 2014, and only a month ago, the grave of Ernest Ludwig was given a monument which properly acknowledged the circumstances of his death, and his grave will be cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Dean Ludwig said of his relative’s recognition. “We’ve had nothing but thanks from the rest of the family.

“I suppose he was almost forgotten...people had forgotten that he existed. We [the Ludwigs] knew his name, some of the my uncles and aunties, but they didn’t know where he was, what he’d done. So it’s amazing to give him that kind of recognition.”

Ernest Albert Ludwig (18/09/1896 – 15/12/1919) was the son of Edward and Sarah Ludwig of Naracoorte. He was a “bakers improver” – which in those days indicated that he worked with yeast and breads. 

Before signing up to “The Great War”, he spent 12 months as a member of the local Naracoorte Troop of the 22nd Light Horse, South Australian Mounted Rifles. 

In 1915 he was shipped to Egypt to be the 12th reinforcement for the 9th Light Horse Brigade. Ernie arrived in the Middle East at the tail-end of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, to an Australian Army which was thinking strategically about how to best engage the enemy. 

Recognising Ernie’s affinity for working with horses, he was transferred to the Artillery and trained as a gunner in Ismailia, before being reclassified as a driver. 

The driver’s role was to lead the team of six horses that dragged the gun and its ammunition limber, and during battle carted ammunition from supply dumps back to the gun. It was a very dangerous job, travelling across muddy ground under fire from the enemy.  

Before leaving for the trenches, Ernie spent some time training in England. It was at the Australian Army Training Depot in Salisbury Plain where he wrote a postcard back to his mum, to tell her that he was learning signalling.

In 1917, Ernie was sent to the Somme valley, as part of the 13th Field Artillery Brigade. 

“Most of the guns were firing a couple hundred rounds every day, minimum,” Dean said. 

“So there’s just a continuous noise. They reckon that some of the guys were so used to the gunfire that they couldn’t handle the fact that after the noise had stopped, the silence became too much.”

Things only became more hellish from there. Ernie was next sent to the French town of Ginchy, and then to Villers au Flos. As well as the ceaseless gunfire and miserable mud of the trenches, Ernest worked day and night in the slush of a very cold winter, with snow falling regularly.

In April 2017 the Australian forces repulsed a major Germans attack, and in one day, the 13th Field Artillery fired 4500 rounds of ammunition in support of the infantry. In May, gas shelling was used by both sides, inflicting more horrors.

But the battle that began Ernie’s descent to the grave was the Third Battle of Ypres, later to be known as the Passchendaele campaign. The soft grounds meant that the guns would get stuck in the mud, and at the beginning of this campaign, Ernie’s brigade fired almost non-stop for three days and nights.

Soon after this brutal attack Ernie was admitted as “sick” to the 2nd Casualty Clearing Station, but it was soon discovered he was suffering from severe pleurisy. Pleurisy is a condition wherein an infection attacks the lining of the lungs and chest cavity.

“These days they would have just given you a shot of antibiotics, but they didn’t have that then. They had to do some godawful things to him, like draining his lungs every few days,” Dean said. 

Ernie did not improve and he was returned to England, where he was additionally diagnosed with pericarditis, an infection of the heart which results in sharp, stabbing chest pains.

Ernie’s mother had ceased receiving postcards – now all she received were telegrams of her son’s condition. 

The decision was made to send Ernie home on a hospital ship, and after a short stop in Cape Town, Ernie arrived in Adelaide in 1918. By now he also had polyserositis, a respiratory infection which is directly linked to broken skin being exposed to contaminated soil (such as war trenches).

Soon after arriving home Naracoorte he was sent to Nhill, where there was a doctor who was held in high regard. But the doctor couldn’t save the young man, and Ernie died at the age of 22. He’d signed up to go to war just before his 19th birthday.

The Ludwigs had two other great uncles that went to the World War One trenches. William “Bill” Ludwig was captured by the Germans and was kept as P.O.W. in the town of Hamelin, where he was forced to work in a factory. He returned from the war but was never quite the same, and died in the 1950s.

The third, Robert James Ludwig, was the luckiest. He arrived in Europe after much of the fighting had already been done, and came home safe and sound. 

Robert and William Ludwig are buried in the military section of West Terrace Cemetery. Ernest Ludwig is buried next to his parents’ plot in Naracoorte, and now has a grave which properly reflects his sacrifice.