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

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