At zero hour the main thrust towards Pilckem Ridge was made by the Fifth Army in the centre and north of the Ypres Salient. At the southern extreme of the Salient the 41st Division of the Second Army attacked near the Ypres-Comines Canal where the 190th (Wimbledon’s Own) Brigade RFA and men of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion were in action.
By July 1917, 2782 Pte. Charles Henry Coles of the 23rd Middlesex Battalion, nicknamed the 2nd Football Battalion, had been a soldier for a year and three months.
When war came, his older brother Lewis Coles had rushed to volunteer in Lambeth, joining the Coldstream Guards on 9th September 1914 and was in France by March 1915. Not to be outdone, Charlie’s younger brother Leonard Coles joined at Battersea in February 1915, claiming to be just over eighteen years old, when really he was still sixteen. Leonard had worked as a barman, like his brother Lewis, and was no flower. He easily passed the medical and his age was not challenged. Whether it was due to Leonard’s parents, or a change of heart, he was discharged under age after 71 days service in the 3rd (reserve) Bn. East Surrey Regiment who were based at Dover.
Charlie Coles had held back, not volunteering until 14th February 1916 at Wandsworth Town Hall under the Derby Scheme, shortly before conscription was introduced. Another two months would pass before Charlie, the eighteen year old tobacconist’s assistant, would swap his civilian clothes for a rough khaki uniform and join the 27th Bn Middlesex Regt..
He gave his address as 302 Franciscan Road, Tooting and named his father Oswald Lewis Coles of 24 Heaton Road, Tooting Junction, as his next of kin when he volunteered. Heaton Road was the same place Robert Handley had lived. Charlie Coles had been born in Norwood in 1897 and his family had lived in both Lambeth and Lewisham, only moving to Mitcham around the time of the Great War. Charlie was one of six siblings – Lewis James, Charles Henry, Leonard Ralph. Elsie Helen, Doris Hilda and Douglas Maurice. Doris had been born in Liverpool in 1905, and Douglas in 1907 on the Isle of Man, reflecting the travelling nature of Oswald Coles’ work. It was only later when Charlie’s father was in the Tobacco trade that the family settled near Tooting Junction.
Charlie Coles was mobilised in April 1916 and on completion of his basic training was sent to France in late August as 2782 Pte. C.H Coles of the 23rd Bn . Middlesex Regiment, nicknamed the 2nd Football. 1916 had ended badly for Charlie Coles, he had gone down with a bad case of trench fever that would keep him on the sick list for three months as he was moved back to no. 32 Stationary Hospital at Wimereux. Released to duty, he spent three weeks on the Etaples training grounds before the was fit enough to rejoin the 23rd Middlesex at the end of March 1917, no doubt still thinking of those Australian nurses.
The big test for Charlie Coles came first at Messines and now at zero hour 31 July. The sights and sounds, the confusion and din of the action on the 7th June must have remained indelibly etched on his memory for weeks. Survival instincts and training had got him through, or was it just pure luck?
The limited objective of taking the “Damm Strasse”, a sunken and fortified road, as part of the 123 Brigade had been a costly assault for the 23rd Middlesex. Starting with 16 officers and 550 other ranks, ten officers were either killed or wounded and fifty percent of other ranks had become casualties by the end of that day. It is hard to know if Charles Coles was optimistic that luck would be on his side again, or if he was less assured about his chances now.
What news did Charlie Coles have of his brothers? Lewis, the lucky blighter, had got leave! He was going to miss all this. What’s more. he was getting married! For a brief period the gloom of the war was lifted at the Coles family home at Heaton Road, Mitcham, when their son Lewis was married to Clara Law at the local St.Barnabas Church on 9th July 1917. He would not rejoin his battalion until August. Leonard Coles had been conscripted and joined the 13th (Battersea) Bn East Surrey Regiment. By 1st June 1917 he had been transferred to the 1st battalion as Corporal 242556 L.R. Coles. It seems Leonard was made for the Army, two stripes already! Leonard remained in the Arras sector throughout June, July and August 1917. Charlie wasn’t to know that both his brothers would be part of the Passchendaele offensive during October and November 1917.
For Charlie Coles and the men of the 23rd Middlesex, the first weeks of July were spent in intensive training, honing those skills needed to survive and work as a fighting unit – bayonet, musketry and squad drill, slow advance behind a barrage, assembling on tapes and gas drill. The mounting tension was only broken when the 23rd Middlesex played the sport the knew best – football! They were easy winners of the first two rounds of the Brigade competition, beating the 11th Queens and 20 DLI in succession to progress to the Divisional Finals. It ended in anticlimax when the 23rd Middlesex were beaten in the semi-final, a close low scoring game by a RAMC team, losing 0-1.
They had moved up to Ridge Wood, about a mile and half east of St.Eloi on the 25th of July and after a well timed inspection of gas masks and box respirators, the Wood was duly shelled with gas in the early hours of 29th July, timed to cause the greatest confusion and effect. The final move took place at night when the 23rd Middlesex left Ridge Wood at 8.30pm on 30th July making for the Yser Canal crossing at Spoil Bank by 10.30pm, a distance of about 2 miles as the crow flies.
Their route took them via “Bus House” skirting to the north of the batteries of 190th (Wimbledon’s Own) Brigade near Shelly Farm. They actually crossed at the “pontoon bridge” and “iron bridge” close to the oak dump [square O 4a on large map]. There would be no unbearable hours of waiting in front line trenches before going over the top. The companies of 23rd Middlesex pressed on through the communication trenches only just reaching their assembly area in front of Battle Wood by zero hour – 3.50 am, 31 July 1917.
The creeping barrage they were meant to follow was laid down by the gun’s of the “Wimbledon’s Own”, part of the 41 Division’s “OOSTHOEK” artillery group. It was hardly light as the men stumbled forward over the churned up and boggy ground only to be met by a flooded impassable area which stretched from the Ypres-Canal on their left to the railway embankment on their right. The embankment itself was their only route forward, unable to keep up with the creeping barrage, they were exposed to machine-gun fire from dog-outs on the embankment and from higher ground some 500 yards to their left toward Hollebeke. The “Wimbledon’s Own” 4.5 Howitzers were used to suppress the enemy’s machine-gun fire, but not before the 23rd Middlesex had suffered many casualties. It was no more than 45 minutes into the attack …
The progress of the 23rd Middlesex that day can be followed in the war diaries and maps, like pieces moving on some giant chessboard. The various landmarks and names can all be identified – the canal, railway embankment and the lines drawn which marked their objectives that day. But it is eye-witness testimony that brings the soldier’s experience into sharp focus. Victor Edgar Fagence, 11th Bn Royal West Surrey Regt. was interviewed nearly sixty years after the event by the Imperial War Museum in 1976. The memories of zero hour, and that day, had never left him. The 11th Queens had advanced in the same area as Charles Coles. In reel six he recounts what happened – the shelling of back and approach areas left nowhere really safe, the boggy terrain pitted with shell-holes was far worse than any sodden ploughed field, restricted movement meant rushing pill-boxes was impossible and then Victor Edgar Fagence was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire while carrying his lewis gun. He was lucky not to have been killed.
The 23rd Middlesex were effectively pinned down by 9am and overflown by enemy aircraft. Heavy rain that afternoon flooded newly dug positions as all movement was halted. Their positions were heavily shelled, but they hung on until relieved overnight, reaching the tunnels at the Spoil bank at 3 am on 4th July. The war diary states 14 other ranks were killed that day, with many more were wounded. In fact the CWGC register lists the names of twenty nine men who died that day. Only one, Charles Biles from Beddington Terrace, has a known grave.
Like the others who fell that day, the name of Charles Henry Coles was added to the Menin Gate Memorial, unveiled by Lord Plumer on 24 July 1927.
Both of Charles’ brothers would take part in Passchendaele. Lewis Coles was in the thick of Passchendaele through to October 1917 when he was wounded. At the end of the year, after long exposure in miserable conditions, Lewis Coles was invalided back to the UK suffering badly from trench foot. After 89 days in hospital he was transferred to the Guard’s London Command Depot, and never returned to the front. Leonard Coles was at Polygon Wood in October and Veldhoek in November 1917. His battalion was often at rest at Ridge Wood, the place Charles Coles had started from on the night of 30th July.
When the time came, it was Charles’ father Oswald Lewis Coles who took Army Form W. 5080 to the St.Barnabas Lodge to be countersigned on 9th June 1919.
The family had moved a short distance to Inglemere Road by 1919. The name of Charles Henry Coles appears on both the Mitcham Civic Memorial at Lower Green, and on the wooden memorial panel at St.Barnabas Church.
Members of the “Coles” family remained in Gorringe Park for many years after the Great War.