The life and death of Gunner Cyril Coles

Cyril Coles was born near Poole on March 9th 1892 to William and Sarah Coles. He was active in the Skinner Street United Reformed Church and worked at his father’s mill in Creekmoor. He did not join up at the start of the war presumably because he was needed in the mill. In February 1916, with conscription in force, he was called up and joined the Machine Gun Corps in early April 1916 and then became part of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps. When soldiers joined this Corps they had no idea what they would be involved in. The reason? It was because of the secrecy surrounding the British invention – the tank.

The tank was just an idea on a drawing board in 1915 and the first prototype had only appeared in January 1916 but General Haig was eager to use the tank to support the Somme offensive that had begun so disastrously on July 1st 1916 with British casualties of 57,000 on the first day.

Coles was a member of ‘D’ Company which was one of the first tank units to be created. The rush to get them into action meant that crewmen received only around 10 weeks training. Lieutenant B. Henriques of ‘C’ Company remarked ‘it was obvious… we had not had sufficient training’.

 Coles was a gunner on tank D15 which was also known as ‘Duchess’; the number and name followed on from the tank being in ‘D’ Company. D15 was a Mark I female tank – a female tank was armed with machine guns while a male was armed with machine guns and two 6-pounder cannons. The tank weighed nearly 30 tons and had a crew of eight consisting of an officer, a driver, four gunners and two gearsmen. It was difficult work in unpleasant conditions. The armour was only 10mm thick and while it could stop a rifle or a machine gun bullet, it stood no chance against a hit from an artillery shell. The petrol tank was at the front of the tank and a direct hit resulted in a catastrophic fire. Armouring piercing bullets could go straight through the tank.

The first time a tank was used in conflict was the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which began on September 15th 1916. Forty-nine tanks were to support the infantry by crushing the enemy barbed wire and destroying machine gun emplacements. Unfortunately, only eighteen were able to take part because of mechanical problems or they became stuck in a landscape of trenches and shell holes. One tank took nearly nine hours to get to the British front line from the Starting Point because the crew had to guide it through a maze that could collapse at any minute – a speed of around 0.4mph compared to the maximum of 4mph for a Mark I.

A damaged female Mark I tank. The wheels were supposed to help with steering but were a hindrance. The dark area on the ‘sponson’ near the machine gun was the escape hatch – there was another on the other side and one on top of the tank. By Kind Permission of the Tank Museum [Photograph 10572-113]

A damaged female Mark I tank. The wheels were supposed to help with steering but were a hindrance. The dark area on the ‘sponson’ near the machine gun was the escape hatch – there was another on the other side and one on top of the tank. By Kind Permission of the Tank Museum [Photograph 10572-113]

The infantry of the 41st Division was to be supported on September 15th by 10 tanks, including ‘E’ Group which was formed of D15, D2 and D19. The latter two became stuck in shell holes having not even reached the British front line and only D15 was able to take part in the fighting. D15 was travelling along Tea Lane when the tank suddenly started to erupt ‘clouds of smoke’. Artillery fire had hit the tank and damaged the steering which made movement impossible so that the crew had no choice but to abandon it. Coles and another crewman were killed by the enemy machine gun fire that enveloped the stranded tank; a third later died from his wounds. Cyril Coles is buried in Bulls Road Cemetery, east of Flers in France.

What would it have been like for Coles inside a Mark I tank in battle? He would have felt he was in a nightmare that affected all the senses.

  • Deafened by the noise of the engine (which was in the crew compartment), from the machine guns being fired and from the enemy bullets hitting the tank.
  • Suffered heat exhaustion through the heat from the engine and guns.
  • Found breathing difficult in an atmosphere of oil, petrol and cordite fumes.
  • Felt isolated. Visibility was through narrow slits which were targeted by rifle fire and sometimes 2-3mm holes were drilled through the armour so they could see out.
  • Showered by metal splinters that would fly about the inside of the tank when enemy fire hit the outside. The crewmen could protect themselves by wearing face masks made from leather and metal with chain mail that hung down over the lower part of their face. Although the masks offered some protection the eyepieces often had metal slits which further reduced the visibility.
  • Worked in semi-darkness. There was virtually no lighting inside a Mark 1.
  • Nausea because the movement of a tank over the battlefield was like being on a ship on a stormy sea.
  • Communication inside the tank was by hitting a hammer on metal work to attract attention and then using hand signals because of the noise. Often the tank commanders would struggle to know where they were in a featureless landscape that was ever-changing during an artillery bombardment.

The outcome of the battle was considered a failure by the British while the Germans considered it a British success. Enemy soldiers became panic-stricken when faced with a tank; ‘a crocodile is crawling about in our trenches’ said one. In contrast, the attitude of Allied infantry changed from cheering enthusiasm prior to the battle to one of cynicism and disillusionment.

While there were failures at Flers-Courcelette, the battle showed the potential value of a tank. The conditions were not ideal and those in charge of the tanks in one sector had advised against their use because the terrain was totally unsuitable but were overruled. The British continued to develop the tank and on November 20th 1917 the Battle of Cambrai rewarded this persistence when over 400 tanks went into action. A crewman was now trained over 16 weeks on the heathland around Bovington, Lulworth and Worgret in Dorset followed by more training in France. Also the Mark IV of Cambrai was a superior tank to the Mark I of Flers-Courcelette.

Read Cyril Coles’ profile on the First World War website

‘It’s not at all safe’ – experiences of the war

Passchendaele was described as ‘the battlefield [that] is nothing more than a cemetery’. Mud was everywhere and wounded men simply disappeared as the shell-holes in which they sought shelter filled with water from the incessant rain.  This is a typical impression of the First World War but what did the men who were fighting feel about their experiences?

The Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper occasionally contained extracts from letters that were either sent directly to the newspaper or came via relatives of servicemen. Many men sent letters that were collated in local Parish Magazines, such as for St Michael’s Church, Hamworthy. The Rev. E. Hounslow, Rector of Hamworthy, would sometimes send extracts to the Herald for publication. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project has explored the local newspaper and from these personal letters we can learn a lot about life at the front as experienced by men from Poole and the Dorset Regiment. Virtually all the writers of the letters survived the war.

Soldiers marching along Poole Quay

Soldiers marching along Poole Quay. From the collection of Poole Museum Service

Sergeant C.T. Southwick, of Parkstone, wrote to his father in late 1914 that he had had a good voyage across the Channel. This was followed by a nights rest and then a long, but ‘interesting’, journey by train. They rested for three days and then had to march for three days. Rain and mud was everywhere but ‘everything is too interesting to be dull’. They had plenty to eat but the food was too salty which made them thirsty and water was scarce and often unfit to drink.

Private G. Allen, 1st Dorsets, was a reservist from Poole and worked at Doulton’s Clay Works, Hamworthy. He was called up on August 5th 1914 and by the 14th he was at Mons on the Western Front. A bullet penetrated his thigh but it was only a couple of days later that he became aware of the injury when he was wounded by shrapnel in one of his lungs. He was transferred to a hospital in Brighton by the beginning of September 1914. When interviewed at his home in Poole in October he was disinclined to talk about his experiences. He mentioned that it had been ‘very trying’, that he didn’t think much of the German soldier’s ability to shoot, and British soldiers were made very welcome in France and Belgium.

In contrast is the experience of Captain Viney of the Dorsets who wrote, in December 1914, that the trenches which his unit occupied were ‘wonderful’. They were 400yds from the German lines and were a myriad of passageways in which it was easy to get lost. He described going to see the Colonel’s dugout which was about 8ft square and carpeted with straw, sacks and carpet. It was heated by a charcoal stove and a sack was used to ensure no light was seen. There was a kitchen and his orderlies had a separate dugout. Interestingly, officer’s dugouts were on the opposite side of the trench to the men’s. One officer had hewn two beds out of the clay and added a large mirror and shelving to his dugout – the officer was reading the newspapers from Britain when Viney visited him. ‘It was really a most extraordinary show’ said Viney.

Many men describe their experiences of being under fire. In a letter from Private A Hynard, of Parkstone, to his cousin he talks about the noise and that ‘it is not at all safe’. He said that the German shells sound as if they are singing when they go through the air. Enemy shells nicknamed ‘coal-boxes’ make ‘a hole big enough to sleep in. If they hit you you don’t need sleep’. He is also remarkably open about the losses they had suffered. Lance-Corporal P.G. Pilbrow, Dorset Regt., felt that being at the front ‘was like being in a glass bottle in a rifle range’. He said that the Dorset Regiment had lost a lot of men and that it was now ‘a mere company’.

Bandsman A.J. Gambier wrote to his brother, Poole Councillor E.E. Gambier, to say that shells were flying everywhere whilst he was writing the letter. Shrapnel ‘fell like rain….only a bit harder and bigger’. Sergeant C.J. Hodge wrote that the mud was very bad, but that the shooting ‘is fine practice for Poole Fair’ and he expected to do very well at the shooting gallery in November. ‘It is quite exciting at times’ and when a shell lands in an enemy trench the ‘fireworks’ are ‘picturesque’ at night.

A frequent theme of the letters is the desire for food and tobacco to be sent to the writers as well as, surprisingly, the local newspaper. Private H.F. Sartin’s letter in October 1914 was the first indication that he was safe after being listed as missing. After commenting how he thought the war could last for years, and about the incessant marching, he ended by saying he would be ‘everlastingly grateful’ if he could be sent some cigarettes.

P Brown, from Poole on HMS Sirius, thanked the Poole and East Dorset Herald in May 1917 for sending him the ‘Herald’. He was full of praise for the munitions workers at Messrs Knight & Co of Hill Street, Poole but not so for conscientious objectors. Rifleman W.H. Mitchener, of Hamworthy, also said he welcomed receiving the newspaper whilst he was on the Western Front. He carried several old issues in his pack which other Poole men were glad to read when he met them. In his letter he said he hadn’t received a newspaper for three weeks which he greatly missed although he did realise that fighting the enemy was probably more important!

In early December 1914, Private P.E. Dyer, Scots Guards, sent a letter to his mother telling her that he was still alive, that it was very cold, and there was plenty of food but it was ‘plain’ and he wanted her to send him ‘something tasty’ such as cake. In another letter, he thanked his mother for the welcome food she had sent him. He said it was cold and rained every day. He then told her he had a bit of luck in that a bullet went through his helmet – a bit lower and he would have been ‘out’. He was killed not long afterwards on December 18th 1914.

In startling contrast is the experience of Private W.J. Franklin from Poole and serving in India with the 2/4th Dorsets. His description of his Christmas Dinner of 1915 – the menu was soup, fish, turkey, potatoes, cabbage, Christmas pudding, mince pies, beer, lemonade, oranges, and nuts – must have left many feeling very envious.

Nurses and convalescent servicemen

Nurses and convalescent servicemen. From the collection of Poole Museum Service

Many men sent letters from hospital to let everyone know how they were. Private Percy W. Buckmaster, 1st Dorset Regt., wrote to the Secretary of Poole Football Club to say he had been wounded five times in the leg but that he was ‘going on famously’ and was in a hospital in Chelsea. He said that the closest he had come to death was when piece of shrapnel went through the top of his helmet but missed his head.

Private W.L.K. Penny wrote to his mother who lived on Old Roman Road, Broadstone. He had been wounded on October 13th 1914 at Le Bassee and was now in a hospital in Brighton. He had to have a leg amputated but was grateful to be alive. He wrote that most of the men in his section had been killed in the action. He had to crawl for around 150 yards and then realised he had to run if he was to survive. He and another man got to a barricade where they thought they would be safe but there was only space for one person to get through. Penny got through first but the man behind him was killed halfway through the gap.

Private J. Baker, of Waterloo, Poole, fought with the 1st Dorsets at Le Bassee and Lille. He was wounded 13 times on the same day as Private Penny. He pretended to be dead when German soldiers moved forward and at night he crept towards what he hoped were the British lines. An officer in the Devon Regiment found him and he was taken to hospital and eventually returned home as an out-patient at Cornelia Hospital, Poole.

A few men described the exhaustion they experienced. E.W. Keech was a Driver in the Army Service Corps and his unit consisted of 75 London buses to carry troops, 3 cars for officers and 6 motor cycles for despatch riders. He commented that the roads were in a bad state and that trying to stay alert after driving 14 hours or more was difficult.  Private H.F. Sartin of the Royal Army Medical Corps said he was very busy and sometimes had to get by on as little as 10 hours sleep in a week.

Not surprisingly, a common topic was about life in the trenches. F.C. Barnes, of Hamworthy, wrote to the Parish Magazine and was one among many that said it always raining. He also reported back on meeting fellow Hamworthy men. Rifleman W. Mitchener described his experiences of rats. He said the best way to get rid of them was to put some cheese on the end of the bayonet and when the rat started eating – pull the trigger. The mud was awful and up to his knees so it was very difficult trying to lie low when the shells started flying.

Trench foot was a common problem. Sergeant C.T. Southwick described his experiences of Neuve Chappelle in May 1915. He said he had not taken his boots off for 11 days so his feet were ‘rather sore’; also he had had only two proper baths in four and a half months. Hamworthy resident, Harold Chaffey was reported in the Parish Magazine as being treated for ‘foot trouble’ after a time in the trenches. A man suffering from trench foot would lose sensation in his foot; it would then swell, feel ‘dead’ and then start to ‘burn’. Men either had to crawl or be carried to the medical facilities. A major problem early on in the war, it became less serious when oil was applied two or three times a day – assuming that was possible.

For many men, unless they had been in the Regular Army serving in the Empire, this was their first experience of being abroad. As well as describing their own experiences they would often comment on the local life of the countries they were either travelling through or were based in. Rifleman William Mitchener wrote in 1916 to say that he had enjoyed travelling through France and ‘would advise’ anybody who enjoyed scenery ‘to join the Army’.

Early in 1915, Private F.A. Sherwood wrote to his parents about the sea voyage to India. He said that it was very hot on the journey. He thought that the Suez Canal was not as wide as between Poole and Hamworthy and that Port Suez had a seafront ‘much prettier than the one at Bournemouth’. After they passed through the Canal a rumour went round the ship that peace had been declared. He ended his letter saying he was looking forward to walking on land.

George Mitchener (brother of William) of Hamworthy sent a photograph to the Parish Magazine of himself on a camel which he found riding ‘bumpy’. He also wrote that he was looking forward to receiving the Hamworthy Parish Magazine for news of his mates. Sidney Short, also from Hamworthy, was in Mesopotamia and said it was very hot during the day and very cold at night. When the ground got wet it became like the Lake clay pits of Hamworthy. He was part of the Royal Flying Corps and died on November 4th 1918. Sidney White, another Hamworthy man, got sunstroke and enteric while in Mesopotamia and was transferred to a convalescent hospital in India. Part of the journey involved a 75 hour train ride.

Private L. Cartwright, Wiltshire Regiment, was based in India. He also comments in his letter on the heat and how it got very cold at nights. Cartwright was part of the guard duty at Kirkee Arsenal, which was one of the largest in India, and its associated ammunition factory. After 2 hours of patrolling around the outside he was glad to get in a bit of shade. They also had to be careful of jackals and cobras. He commented that the grounds of the Arsenal had so many trees and flowers that it was like being in a ‘park’.

In 1915, Private S Perry, from Poole, described, in some detail, a football match played in Ahmednagar by D Company 4th Dorsets against a team of German POWs. The British side was made up of former players from the Poole teams of Longfleet St Mary’s, St Aldhelms, Carters’, Adult School, Tramways, Gasworks, Poole Swifts and Upton. The Dorset team beat the Germans 3-1 after an entertaining match ‘of a most exciting character’. Private E. Rigler also wrote to the newspaper about a series of football matches played by a team from D Company of the 4th Dorsets. Their victories were over the local Kirkee Arsenal teams of Ammunition Factory Rovers (3-1) and Kirkee Rangers (4-0). When the Dorsets transferred to Ahmednagar they beat the Oxford Light Infantry 4-1.

What was unexpected in researching this post was the extent to which soldiers received, and looked forward to receiving, the local newspaper  and the part that, for example, the Hamworthy Parish Magazine played in keeping men in touch with families and other serving men.



Dramatic Rescue of Japanese Crew by Poole Lifeboat

The Treaty of Versailles ordered the surrender of the German U-boat fleet and, in several instances, the submarines were given to the Allies as part of compensation for the war. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project describes the dramatic rescue off Poole of one such U-boat.

The ex-German U-boat U 143 was on its way from Portland to Japan when it became stuck on Hook Sands, which are near the entrance to Poole Harbour, in the early hours of January 8th 1919. It had a Japanese crew and was being accompanied by the Japanese destroyers ‘Kashiwa’ and ‘Kanran’. The submarine had approached the coast because it was having problems with its engines and found itself driven onto the sandbank during a gale. The destroyers were unable to get to the submarine because of their draught. For the same reason, the ‘White Oak’, a Portland naval drifter, was not able to help and assistance from the Poole lifeboat was requested by the Portland naval authorities.

Around 11 am on the 8th, the ‘White Oak’ went into Poole to tow the RNLI lifeboat ‘Harmar’, to Hook Sands. The ‘Harmar’ was 37 ½ feet long, was a self-righting lifeboat with twelve oars, and was the last sailing lifeboat stationed at Poole. It cost just over £1,000 – a legacy from the late George J. Harmar of Kensington, London.

The 'Harmar' in the Lifeboat slipway, Fishermans Dock. Notice the lack of protection from the weather.

The ‘Harmar’ in the Lifeboat slipway, Fishermans Dock. Notice the lack of protection from the weather.

A high tide was beginning to raise the submarine off the sands but the sea was still running very heavily. In difficult conditions, the lifeboatmen were able to get towing wires onto the submarine and then pass them back to the ‘Commerce’, a tug which was helping in the rescue. However, the high tide passed with the submarine still stuck. The Japanese crew could not leave without orders and so the ‘Harmar’ had to remain on-station using the ‘Kanran’ to provide some protection from the rolling waves. Meanwhile the other destroyer had gone into Poole Harbour to have the hawser, which had been used to tow the U boat, removed from a propeller. The Mayor of Poole and Commander Ward of the Naval Base made an official visit to the destroyer a few days later.

The crew of the lifeboat had been on-station for around twelve hours when distress rockets were seen in the distance. The crew of the ‘Harmar’ raised its anchor and set sail to rescue the crew of the Antwerp schooner ‘Zwaluw’ which was perilously close to the shore. The crew of nine was taken off the schooner in a heavy sea.

The ‘Harmar’ arrived back in Poole at 3.30am on January 9th and the crew had a few hours rest before venturing out again. U 143 was found to be in a stable condition and so the lifeboat returned to base. Later in the day, the Japanese crew were given permission to leave the submarine so the ‘Harmar’ and its crew went out again at 1730. The navy drifter assisted by taking the ‘Harmar’ up to, and then from, the harbour. Twenty-eight crewmen of U 143 were taken off in two journeys to the Japanese destroyer which was in the harbour. It took several days before the submarine was eventually recovered and brought into Poole where it was found to have suffered little damage.

It is estimated that RNLI lifeboats rescued nearly 5,000 people during the First World War of which 1,600 are known to be directly as a result of the conflict. The rescues invariably took place in difficult circumstances and it should be remembered that lifeboats only had radio equipment installed after 1928. Up until then, contact with the shore was made by the firing of rockets which could be easily missed. The crew were, literally, on their own when a lifeboat was launched.